Ambition. It's been a word synonymous with Circa Waves. In every interview they've done with this here magazine, it's been a defining point that they're keen to underline. The continuous touring, writing and recording is all powered by that desire to reach bigger and bigger heights. Most importantly, they've not been afraid to admit it.
As Kieran Shudall takes in an afternoon in Brussels amid yet another European tour, it's something he recognises. "I think we're more ambitious than ever," he mulls. "We're playing bigger and bigger venues in Europe and America, we're doing all these things. We still want to play higher up on festivals, want to headline festivals one day too, and I think…"
He pauses. "I think my ambition is probably more secure in what we're doing now. We have the potential to do the things we really want to do, and I'm quietly confident in how much we're building and building."
It's easy to see why. After emerging as a pillar of the indie world over the past decade and a go-to number if you want memories captured for summer freedom, the past 12 months have seen quite a bit going on. The release of 'What's It Like Over There?' signalled a bold new step for the band, welcoming in a range of new influences and an unfiltered desire to experiment and evolve. Pianos? Yeah, why not. Big pop songs? Yeah, go on then. It was the signal to the next chapter in the lives of Circa Waves, and now, instead of waiting around, that journey continues with 'Sad Happy'.
"I feel like we just sort of carried on from the last record. We've not really paused for a minute. We just wanted to carry on riding this wave," cracks Kieran "… to put it in an awful pun." He's not wrong, though. Less than a year on from releasing 'What's It Like Over There?', 'Sad Happy' welcome in the next stage of a band thriving in making the sort of mass singalong anthems that dominate big festival stages. It's an album born out of immediacy, a natural continuation of the momentum they'd opened in their third album and searing with hunger. Recorded in-between festivals over the summer, it comes during a huge year for the band, and Kieran himself.
"Well, I was due to have a baby in September, and I knew I basically had the summer up until then to write as much stuff as possible before things really changed in my life. It sort of spurred me on to get everything done," he elaborates. "I was writing two or three songs every day, and before I knew it we had a load of tunes to make a new record - we weren't even aiming to make a new record, but we had so much that we just thought, fuck it, shall we just do another record?
"I'm always writing, anyway! We don't have normal jobs, so if you're not writing, then all you're doing is drinking coffee and procrastinating. I need to write music to give myself some sort of purpose, something to achieve really."
Darting between London recording sessions in the week before heading off for festivals at weekends, 'Sad Happy' is a dual side fizz of a meal. Banish any idea that because of its quick turnaround that it may not sound as full as Circa Waves records of years gone by. If anything, it stands as their most accomplished album to date - jumping between ideas and outfits at the drop of a dime. A fully realised snapshot of where Circa Waves are right now, it feels like everything has been building to this record.
"Without that third record, I don't think we'd have made anything like we did with this album," admits Kieran. "We're not afraid to use any instruments now, on the last record it was like 'can we do a song with a piano on it?' or 'can we do a song with violins on it?' Now I don't even question it. We can do what we want."
Entirely self-producing for the first time, that spirit of bouncing off each other and clicking both quickly and sharply sticks out across 'Sad Happy'. "I put a lot of pressure on myself there," admits Kieran, recalling tales of times dashing back to the studio and looking to nail each element of the new tracks they were creating. "I was definitely pulling my hair out at times and going a bit mental with the whole process. We made the decision to do it all ourselves, because even in the early stages I record things to a certain level. I still enjoy working with other producers, and I always want to go back to that at some point, but with this record, it felt like we could take the reigns. We're our harshest critics after all."
Bristling with a warm gloss of classic pop melodies while ripping with a here-and-now power, 'Sad Happy' stretches its arms wide across the record's two distinct sides. The bouncing bop of 'Jacqueline' and sizzling kicks of 'Be Your Drug' and 'Call Your Name' are mixed with a real taster of styles. 'Wake Up Call' breathes with the Parisian-synth undertones of Phoenix, the grandstand orchestral pulls of 'Love You More' are a sweeping whirl of emotions while the boyish crumples of the album's title track are a panoramic delight and cuts like 'Hope There's A Heaven' and 'Birthday Cake' layer into new territories for indie's finest party-starters. That duality, from the good and optimistic to the sad and broken are a combination that capture the essence of the album it bears witness to - two sides of the same coin. Being sad and being happy aren't always too far apart, after all.
"Ultimately, with any happiness or joy or contentment, there's always the fear that something bad will be round the corner. I think that's a very human thing to feel," lays out Kieran. "I would say the album as a whole is really positive. I've had one of the happiest years of my life! We've made a record, I've had a child, we've played loads of gigs - it was full of so much joy. I'm probably the happiest I've ever been, but with happiness comes worry. I worry about the future, the future for myself and my son and everyone and that anxiety has formed itself on the 'Sad' side of the record.
"That was the message from the off. These two things, happiness and sadness, they sit so closely next to each other and you see it in society now more than ever," Kieran continues. "Look at social media - what's trending could be a video of some guys scoring a hat-trick and then just below that is wildfires. On an hourly basis, we're confronted by extreme joy and extreme sadness and the album highlights that I suppose."
With 'Happy' already out in the world online in January, the completion of the album in full brings things full circle. "We wanted to release music in a new way" details Kieran, "like when you're on your fourth record, you don't want to be going through the motions. We wanted to do something that was interesting. It has been funny seeing people going 'so what is this - two albums or one of two sides?!' I like that, though. I like confusing people a bit and pushing the boundaries.
"But at the end of the day, it's music - so let's not take it too fucking seriously," he laughs. "It's just two sides of the same album!"
In a current musical climate where new music, tracks and artists stream through at rapid pace, Circa Waves' continued creativity feels like a glimpse into what comes next for bands. A rich spark of inspiration and a band firmly in tune with the path they're heading down.
"As Circa Waves we're not trying to reinvent the wheel; we're trying to perfect what it is that we do, which is essentially being an entertaining indie/guitar… whatever the fuck you want to call it!" bursts Kieran. "I just want to make music that helps people escape and hits them in all the right places. This fourth record, almost the sole purpose of it was escapism for people. I wanted to refine what Circa Waves was, and as a result, I think this is the most Circa Waves-sounding album we've done."
Refreshed. Energised. In the form of their career. Circa Waves are focused on a simple mission - and that ticket to escape is a vital comfort right about now.
"I just want to make great songs," says Kieran defiantly. "There will always be people who simply want to hear 'Young Chasers' over and over again, and there are always going to be people who want to hear something new and fresh moving forward, so we always just try to do what feels right. We try to make songs that we think are going to last a long time and if you can bend the idea of genres slightly, then that's even better."
As new challenges present themselves and new experiences come to the fore, Kieran Shudall is taking it firmly in his stride. 'Sad Happy' sees Circa Waves bloom into a band with the abilities to cross into any field they wish and more importantly, shines with a happiness that comes from truly nailing it. Circa Waves seem never better than they are right now.
Kieran cracks a smile in the bitter cold of Brussels in January.
"I think back to when we were on the first or second record, and I was like 'oh yeah, I want to play to this many people and be a millionaire' and all this," he laughs. "The last time we spoke, I think I was trying to 'peacock' it a little bit. Now, we understand the game a bit more, and we make the best music we've ever done, and we play the best shows we can. That's pretty cool."
Ambition. Struggling to keep up with Circa Waves since 2013.
Taken from the March issue of Dork. Circa Waves' album 'Happy/Sad' is out now.
Featuring Sports Team, Circa Waves, Conan Gray and more.