NEW YORK — It's closing in on 1997, but you'd never know it from the scene unfolding in a Manhattan hotel room where two members of the British band Kula Shaker are ensconced.
Singer-guitarist-songwriter Crispian Mills and organist Jay Darlington, who are in their early 20s, are sporting mop-top hairdos and clothes that could have been lifted from a late-'60s film clip.
Mills, dressed in a tight-fitting sweater and striped, flared pants, could pass for a blond version of the young Mick Jagger, right down to his sly, insinuating wit.
Combine that charisma with the driving, flavorful music that's found on the band's debut album, "K," and you have the latest sensation from the rebounding British rock scene. Having made a splash at home, Kula Shaker is now trying to bring the buzz to the U.S. with a tour that includes a show at the Whisky on Friday.
Even when Mills turns serious and earnest, he does so in a way that invites comparisons to his flower power-espousing forebears.
"The reason that the world is so [expletive] is that people aren't feeding their inner selves," Mills opines, leaning forward on a couch. "We don't really know what we are, why we're here, what we're supposed to do with our lives."
Mills' quest for answers to such questions led him, like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones before him, to delve into Eastern philosophies and mysticism. A trip to India in 1993 had a profound effect on the singer: The name Kula Shaker is borrowed from an ancient Indian emperor, and two of the songs on "K," which was released in the United States last month, are sung partially in Sanskrit.
The music on "K" is also awash in exotic flourishes. Funky beats and neo-psychedelic guitar and organ textures are spiced with healthy doses of tabla and sitar.
The album hit the top of the British charts shortly after its release there in September and remains in the Top 10. Perhaps even more impressive, the group has won the endorsement of Noel Gallagher, the outspoken guitarist and songwriter for Oasis, England's most successful group in years. After catching Kula perform in London last summer, Gallagher contacted Kula Shaker--whose lineup also includes bassist Alonza Bevan and drummer Paul Winter-Hart--and asked them to support Oasis at the massive Knebworth Festival in August.
"Then Noel started saying lots of nice things about us--which is strange, really," Mills muses, his wry smile returning. "Because we're from different universes, us and Oasis. They're really more about nihilism, everything not meaning anything--kind of an arrogant-lad culture. We're a little more into spiritual things, romantic ideas, you know?
"We don't like to criticize other bands in the press, though," Mills adds quickly. "Thanks, Noel!"
The seeds of Kula Shaker were planted at London's Richmond College, where Mills, the son of actress Hayley Mills (of Walt Disney's "The Parent Trap" fame), met Bevan in 1988. By the early '90s, they had recruited Darlington and Winter-Hart, who had played in other bands while socializing in the same circles.
Aside from an interest in spirituality, which Mills and Darlington take pains to distinguish from organized religion--"I like Krishna and Buddha and Jesus, but I don't like Christianity or Buddhism or Hare Krishna," Mills states--the young men were united by a fascination with the sounds and styles of the '60s.
"We grew up in the '80s," Darlington explains. "And if you were a kid who wanted to play in a band then, it wasn't really happening."
"You'd turn on the TV or read a magazine and see Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Boy George . . . and as a young kid, you swallow all that stuff," Mills sniffs, apparently forgetting his rule about not insulting other artists for a moment. "Then somebody plays you the Kinks for the first time, and it's like, yesss! That raw energy, idealism, youth--being in a band, that's what it was all about."
By 1995, record companies in England were courting Kula Shaker, and Columbia U.K. signed the act in September 1995. A deal with the American branch of Columbia followed soon after.
"I thought, 'Big label, lots of power,' " Mills says. "We got laughed at right at the beginning: 'You signed with Columbia? How uncool!' But if you want to go global with your music, [it's] a good [company]. We've got a huge company behind us, and we call the
shots. I don't care if it's a cliche. It's working."
John Leshey, senior vice president of artist development at Columbia, is particularly optimistic about Kula Shaker's U.S. prospects. "There's a pop sensibility and a true American feel to the music that Crispian writes," Leshey says. "And their Eastern influence sets them apart from other bands that fall under the 'Brit-pop' label."
But don't expect a hard sell from a band that on its hit single promotes mellow introspection through such lyrics as, "The truth may come in strange disguises/send the message to your mind."
"We're just putting our message out there," Mills says, shrugging. "Just playing music and sending out positive vibes to people."
* Kula Shaker plays on Friday at the Whisky, 8901 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 8 p.m. Sold out. (310) 535-0579.