Oscar Pollock is feverishly working away in the corner of a South London pub. Headphones on, laptop out, he’s firmly locked in on the next Sundara Karma music video. It’s just another element of their next chapter, answering that question facing every band following a debut album full of immediacy - after the years working up to it, what comes next?
For Sundara Karma, it’s ‘Ulfilas’ Alphabet’, the sort of album that doesn’t so much follow up on the glorious steps made before but throws it all into a blender with a stick of dynamite and flourishes in the scenes it creates. For a band that have always hinted at something more, that have always been a step ahead, this is the album that proves their standing in glorious technicolour splendour. A conversation with co-producer Stuart Price sums it up for Oscar.
“He told me that the record always ends up sounding - and he was telling me this while he was quoting someone else - the record always sounds like the time we had making it, and I think that’s pretty true.”
A bold combination of different genres, eras and sounds, it's the sound of a band having the time of their lives creating vibrant music that is primed to open up a whole new universe for Sundara Karma. What’s even better, is that it comes from a place of simply wanting to discover and create free of any restrictions.
“I’m going to be asked so much about why you think it sounds this way or that way and I can’t give a good enough answer to that, other than it’s just the sound of what was appealing to us at the time.”
This is Sundara Karma following their gut, and the results are spectacular.
Sundara Karma are built on connection. Since the early days playing in venues up and down the land, supporting every band under the sun and thriving with every early release, they've always been more than just another four-piece singing their songs. A pull that has seen thousands delve into their world, it’s why you can find Sundara Karma fan pages online that span across Korea, France, Brazil, Argentina, Italy and the Philippines amongst others.
With an unstoppable drive, they’ve taken themselves across the globe and back again, and that connection has remained at the core of everything. There’s a bond deep down that ties Sundara Karma to their fans, the sort of importance that can change lives and provide a light to so many - it’s why their return is as anticipated as it is.
Time changes things, nobody is in the same place for too long, and Sundara Karma find themselves now ready for more. This is a band who’ve gone through it all once, and now they’re enjoying the freedom of the future.
“I feel different to how I felt two years ago,” reflects Oscar. “I think this album is a reflection of that. You naturally change and mature, the things you like and the things you don’t like change. It’s just a nice feeling when you feel like you’ve been able to express yourself to the fullest of your ability and then being able to put that out for people to hear.”
Moments in time can feel like snapshots; in six months that person can seem a distant memory. It’s an inevitable reality of life, and in the past two years, Sundara Karma have evolved in front of our eyes. The frenzied devotion that saw crowds erupt - even when they were second on the bill for the likes of Circa Waves and Swim Deep - surged with the release of debut album ‘Youth Is Only Ever Fun In Retrospect’. It's a chronicle of life’s ups and downs as a young person growing up to face what the world has to offer, and it took them to levels that seemed unimaginable only a few years prior.
A layered collection of tracks which pull at heartstrings with the immediately identifiable realities of being born in a new generation and peeking at the horizon of young adulthood is the sort of record that it's easy to hold close.
“I noticed recently that I go through phases,” Oscar explains, “like really, really go through phases. When I was younger, I went through an emo phase and then I went through a hippy Woodstock phase where I was wearing sandals and tie-dye shirts and loads of beaded jewellery. I suppose our last album is a phase of going through something or another and this is the next one and what comes next.”
As the celebratory scenes reigned through London’s Brixton Academy in October 2017, Sundara Karma already had the vision for their next step.
“It was clear by then,” remembers Oscar, “a lot of the songs had been written, and we’d already felt a new release of energy and passion that helped drive us.”
The waiting around and the quiet after 18 months of unstoppable momentum proved to be something the band weren’t prepared for.
“The hanging around,” Oscar pauses. “That was something we had to deal with, and it’s not something you’re ever told. ‘Oh you’re going to be touring for a long time, and then you’re going to be doing nothing’. For like six months. It’s bizarre, but I’m not complaining. We were very eager; we wanted to put the record out last year - we wanted to do it as quickly as possible.”
It’s an eagerness and vigour that comes across in bright font with ‘Ulfilas’ Alphabet’, a record packed with a myriad of styles and flairs that squarely places ambition at the forefront of Sundara Karma. The playful ‘One Last Night On This Earth’ for example, fizzes with the sort of stadium-taking power that never pauses for breath as a bonafide single no matter the decade, and that sort of fever carries throughout - always daring to do more.
“We’ve definitely noticed that it is bolder,” states Oscar. “I don’t know if we’ve been using the word fearless, but we didn't want to hold too much back with this.”
That sense of adventure, of discovering the new and being open to exploring every facet and path before them, it’s the making of Sundara Karma - not being confined to boxes of preconceptions but bringing something altogether more vital to play. If ‘Youth Is Only Ever Fun…’ symbolised a band mastering the soaring indie anthem, then ‘Ulfilas’ Alphabet’ symbolises that they can truly do anything, a moment of glorious self-discovery.
“I don’t know,” ponders Oscar. “I feel happier. I haven’t felt depressed or anxious in a while; all that stuff seems in a good place. I’m 23 now, when you’re 21 going into 22 it’s a tricky age, like a really tricky age. Nobody knows who they are or what they want to stand for or what their voice is, let alone what they want their music to sound like and what they think will resemble them forever. Those are things I don’t even think I know now, but I feel closer to that.
“I don’t know if there is an end to your search for that. I don’t know. [Singer-songwriter] Scott Walker, for example - I think he’s so admired by artists and music fans because he’s never really stopped searching. He’s curious artist. That process of self-discovery is endless.”
It’s something Oscar has been interested in from a young age, that inquisitive nature of a creative force. Across ‘Ulfilas’ Alphabet’, there’s a tackling of modern-day issues, of coming to terms with maturing in the 21st century and all the challenges it throws at you while exploring the coming-to-terms of emotion and what each means. Not just artistically, but personally, it’s Oscar opening himself up.
“Anything that makes you feel good and makes you feel better, I think it’s worth pursuing,” he notes, “but I don’t want to sound preachy. What I would say is the best thing you can do for yourself is to get to know yourself more, to give yourself some quiet time and see what makes you feel happy, what makes you feel sad. Ultimately, do the stuff that makes you feel happy more often and do the stuff that makes you feel sad less.”
With a vision in their minds of where they wanted to go next, Sundara Karma set about creating the environment that would allow them to explore these new terrains, to grab their vast palette of influences and create their defining next statement. Enter Kaines (aka Alex Robertshaw from Everything Everything) and hitmaker Stuart Price (who's worked with The Killers, Pet Shop Boys and Madonna). It’s a combination that allowed Sundara Karma to reach the heights they’d been playing in their heads for a while.
“We’re huge fans of a lot of records that they’ve done individually and together,” explains Oscar, with one in particular truly standing out from Alex’s band. “They did [Everything Everything’s] ’Get To Heaven’ together, which is such a wicked sounding record, so complex and layered. I dunno, we saw that record as maybe coming from the same world that we wanted this record to come from. It felt like a perfect it.”
What followed was a time that Oscar describes as ‘wholesome’, spent in the studio brimming with ideas and the freedom to jump down any avenue they wished. The sound of joy and fun you hear bouncing across ‘Ulfilas’ Alphabet’ captures a band ripping apart any boundaries, where every idea could be poured into and morphed as they wished.
“I didn’t feel the pressure of a second record at all, to be honest with you, which is good,” admits Oscar. “We knew more about the process, and we knew more about how to make the sounds the way we wanted them to sound. It was such a pleasant experience.”
A cocktail mixed with a range of styles and flourishes, it sees Sundara Karma extending their wings and flying high - pulling in genres and eras into a modern masterpiece that needed the time and experience of being in a band from a young age to produce the bright lights that ring from it.
“Where we felt freer was being able to embrace those variations in genre and not feeling like because we have guitars, it’s got to sound like a band. That idea of, if it’s got guitars, it’s got to sound like The Strokes.”
It’s an album Oscar openly admits simply wouldn’t have been possible, or even attempted a few years ago.
Take ‘Higher States’ - a propulsive electroclash ripper that sounds closer to Enter Shikari than it does any band stringing along with ripped jeans and Fred Perrys. Or the hypnotic title-track itself, taking a menacing 90s chime before unravelling into an open kaleidoscope of euphoria. Or the shape-shifting ‘A Song For My Future Self’ which shimmies and struts like a long-lost David Bowie anthem that practically demands you stop what you’re doing and plug firmly in. Or the glorious ‘Symbols Of Joy And Eternity’ feeling like a track beamed from space.
The sheer breadth of styles that burst across ‘Ulfilas’ Alphabet’ is staggering, the coronation of a band not prepared to settle for average but instead primed with a modern classic in their back-pocket that nobody could have predicted.
“People will react how they’re going to react,” proclaims Oscar. “I’m not scared of any kind of reaction because if you’re making music and you’re worried about the way people are going to react to it, then it’s going to suffer in some way. You’re going to change things, and you’re going to compromise, and you’re not going to feel like you're honest with yourself. I have faith in our fans; I do hope they’ll like it.”
For a lot of bands, the second chapter is tougher than the first. For Sundara Karma, it’s more of a nod that they can do anything they like and that nobody is doing what they do right now.
“I tend, on a day to day basis, to bring conversations to places you probably shouldn’t go with your average chat,” smiles Oscar. “Just talking about life and death from a chat about the weather.”
It’s that which makes him a unique and needed voice right now. A band emboldened by the journey that led them to this point, but revelling in the freedom of adventure and genre-bending power - Sundara Karma 2.0 are redefining what a band can be in 2019.
Is Oscar ready for what comes next as he leads them across the globe?
“I don’t know, but I’m willing to have fun with it.”
And with that, he’s away.
Taken from the March issue of Dork. Sundara Karma's album ‘Ulfilas’ Alphabet’ is out 1st March.
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