Kasabian: We were ‘a band with our backs against the wall’

Kasabian were written off when singer Tom Meighan was sacked, but they’re not done yet

For 48 hours, Kasabian’s Serge Pizzorno thought it was all over. “It was heartbreaking. I had no idea what was going on,” says Pizzorno over video link from his spare room. “I likened it to seeing your house burning down and going back and kicking around the fragments of your life.”

In July 2020 the one-time Glastonbury headliners and Mercury nominees sacked their singer Tom Meighan after learning he was about to be charged with assaulting his then-fiancee (now wife). Their charismatic leader gone, the assumption was that the curtains had come down on one of the biggest British rock bands since Oasis. That’s how it looked to Pizzorno, the group’s guitarist and songwriter.

“It was unsteady ground,” he says. “We felt like we were sifting through ashes.”

But as he rummaged through the burnt-out ruins of Kasabian — the outfit he had started in Leicester as a scrappy 17-year-old — he had second thoughts. So did bassist Chris Edwards, whom he met for an emergency powwow the day after Meighan’s exit.

Pizzorno has said that the group had no choice but to show Meighan the door and that Kasabian have zero tolerance for domestic violence. Today he would rather draw a veil over the affair

“We sat down and decided there was no way the story could end like that.” Two years later, they are about to share with the world the physical manifestation of their refusal to fade away: their juddering monster truck of a new album, the Alchemist’s Euphoria.

Kasabian had considered recruiting a new frontman. In the end, they decided Pizzorno should step up. He was the songwriter. It was not as if he was unfamiliar with material such as Club Foot and LSF — hits that existed equidistantly from Oasis, a backwoods rave and a fancy dress party where everyone is done up like the Mad Monk Rasputin (Pizzorno’s go-to look even on days off).

Despite looking the part, Pizzorno was not a natural-born showman. That was what the over-the-top Meighan had brought. The idea was that he would learn as he went. If he didn’t, it truly would be all over for Kasabian.

“It’s hard to describe,” he says, contemplating his new job as face and voice of Kasabian. “It’s a shift. It’s consuming. And a weight. When I was growing up, there was no way I thought I’d up where I’ve ended up.”

Where he’s ended up is with The Alchemist’s Euphoria. A volatile cocktail of electronica, rap, krautrock and stadium indie, it’s the sound of musicians with batteries recharged and cylinders firing. It is also Kasabian’s strongest record since 2009′s West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum, the Mercury-shortlisted million-seller that forced even their detractors to admit there was something to these scuffed-up townies from the English East Midlands.

“Seven albums in, a band with their backs against the wall,” is how he characterises their situation. He reveals that he took inspiration from the Last Dance, the Michael Jordan documentary in which the basketball icon keeps going when everyone is telling him he’s too old, too tired, too irrelevant.

Not that it needed conforming but the Alchemist’s Euphoria proves all over again that Kasabian are no Shakermaker wannabes. And that, with the mercurial Pizzorno on vocals, there is life after Tom Meighan

“Jordan would create tension,” says Pizzorno. “He would make up stuff in his head about people saying stuff about him, as motivation. There’s definitely an energy in proving to yourself and to everyone that there is still something to be said.”

Kasabian have been reluctant to delve into the ins and outs of Meighan’s departure. In a statement the day before he was up in court — he pleaded guilty to the assault — they said he had stepped down “by mutual consent” after struggling with “personal issues that have affected his behaviour”. In fact, they had asked Meighan to leave upon hearing of the charges against him.

Internal band strife of course pales compared to the gravity of domestic assault (for which Meighan was sentenced to 200 hours of community service). But the singer had been cause of concern to the rest of Kasabian for some time.

There had been several stand-offs down the years and earlier in 2020 he had let it be known he was considering a solo career. On the several occasions on which I spoke to Meighan, I found him affable yet hyperactive. He seemed to struggle with his focus and with maintaining a single line of thought. It came as no surprise to discover that he had later been diagnosed with ADHD.

Pizzorno has said that the group had no choice but to show Meighan the door and that Kasabian have zero tolerance for domestic violence. Today he would rather draw a veil over the affair. Kasabian’s business starts and ends with Kasabian.

“What happens in our band stays in our band,” he says. “That is respect for everyone. And there’s been a lot. And when you take that line [of not airing dirty laundry] people are going to come to conclusions. There’s a lot of history in this. A lot has gone on. You know what, this is where we’re at now. We’re super positive and happy. We’re happy because we thought we’d never see days like this. We thought that would be over. It’s heartbreaking.”

Kasabian’s debut album was released in 2004, when the British music press still could make or break new acts. The band were named after Linda Kasabian, a member of the Manson family present at the murder of Sharon Tate in 1969 (she is played by Maya Hawke in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s fantastical chronicling of the Manson killings). And yet despite that streak of darkness, journalists were quick to pigeonhole Kasabian as Noel and Liam wannabes — and characterise their fans as football hooligans.

“I saw an Orson Welles interview [where he said], ‘Never pull a critic on something. Keep your mouth shut’. That resonated with me,” says Pizzorno. “If you complain you can end up sounding ... eventually the work will do what it’s done. I also think that sometimes, you can say the ‘lads’ or whatever. Don’t underestimate the lads.”

How foolish, he says, to write off an entire demographic as knuckleheads and lager louts.

While Pizzorno is no stranger to the spotlight — at live shows he and Meighan often seemed like joint frontmen — the step up to the official lead singer was tough

“That’s a dangerous thing to say: ‘lads are just into this’. Well, hold on a minute. We weren’t making lad music. But the lads were into it. Throughout history, for want of better words, they’ve chosen some f**king amazing music. They’ve got behind the best bands. Be careful when you think that is something that is not to be proud of. We were proud of anyone coming to see us. And we were like, ‘you’ve made the right choice. You’ve made the left-field choice’.”

Not that it needed conforming but the Alchemist’s Euphoria proves all over again that Kasabian are no Shakermaker wannabes. And that, with the mercurial Pizzorno on vocals, there is life after Tom Meighan.

The spirit of Prodigy is conjured on single Scriptvre while songs such as Stargazr. and Alygatyr (apparently Meighan took all the vowels with him when he left) suggest Pink Floyd gone rave. The music is cathartic and ecstatic — lifetimes removed from Noel Gallagher rhyming “doctor” and “helicopter” against a backdrop of recycled Beatles riffs.

“Alchemy is prevalent in our band, especially with this album,” says Pizzorno, explaining the title. “A bit of trap, ... hip hop, a bit of psych rock. Bit of 1960s pop. Using these different ingredients to then trying to create something new. I’ve loved that. This Alchemist’s journey — I thought it was a nice place to set the story of the record.”

The Alchemist’s Euphoria indeed tracks a pop pilgrimage, from a place of deep despair to joy and relief. It begins with the narrator on a beach staring out over the waves. That is a reflection of Pizzorno’s experiences as Kasabian were on the brink. The day after the Meighan firing, he visited his sister and they took a walk along the coast. He gazed at the sea, trying to catch sight of his future on the horizon.

“It’s a great way to turn a s**t situation into something beautiful,” he says. “It was like, ‘let’s set these songs in an order, where you start by the sea and hear the waves crashing in’. And you hear this guy or this woman — about to make this decision. ‘What am I going to do?’ It is about the band in some respects. But it’s way broader than that. It’s relatable to anyone who has that moment in their life, where things are completely obliterated. And you’re like, ‘where am I going?’ We’re all searching for meaning or happiness. It’s about that: the search.”

He is open about the shift to lead singer not being effortless. While Pizzorno is no stranger to the spotlight — at live shows he and Meighan often seemed like joint frontmen — the step up to the official lead singer was tough. He was “bricking it” when Kasabian played their first post-Meighan concerts last year.

Those butterflies were still there as they opened for Liam Gallagher at Knebworth recently. Yet as the performance went on Pizzorno started to relax into the job. And when he looked out at the thousands singing his lyrics back to him, his nerves melted away. For the first time in forever, he felt as if he had come home.

“Knebworth was our second outdoor gig. Obviously, I’ve done it before. But it’s not until you’re standing in the middle with the microphone ... it’s a whole other thing. When it’s like, ‘right, I’m going go and do this ...’ the only way I could do it would be to do it my way. It sounds silly, I know. I was not going to play a guitar and hope for the best. If you’re going to do it, then I’m going to dedicate everything I’ve got to becoming a frontman. Every single song — because they’re my words, my tunes, I can deliver them in a way that’s from the heart.”

The Alchemist’s Euphoria is released on August 12

Ed Power

Ed Power

Ed Power, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about television and other cultural topics