For a band barely out their teens, it may seem a trifle hasty to christen your debut offering ‘Youth Is Only Fun In Retrospect’, but, in Sundara Karma’s full-length introduction, their encapsulation of a heady and impetuous adolescence spent looking inwards but dreaming big is so palpably authentic that it could only have been made by those whose memories of such times are still so fresh and hangover-inducing.
Emboldened by a sparkling brand of intelligent glam rock, the Reading quartet are touching hearts and minds with songs that are seriously introverted yet naturally anthemic, ably dealing with sensitive subjects such as depression, loneliness and religion.
For singer and chief songwriter Oscar Pollock, his words, he says, are the instinctive deliberations of a natural outsider, for whom music has always proven his true sanctuary. “I think I was eight when I wrote my first song,” he reveals, “and I quickly found that there was this instant catharsis to it. Like, some kids would paint if they wanted to get stuff out, or write poetry, and music was always that for me.”
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Initially inspired by the rock-star theatrics of Jack Black in School Of Rock, Oscar’s tentative forays into songwriting proved an open door to self-exploration. “I think that’s where really it is for me now: an introspective process more than anything, and, for me, that’s where the passion is. I really do try and hold the whole creative process in high regard, and I try to stay as detached as I possibly can from it, because I think if I think too much about it, I’d fuck it up.”
“I know it might sound trite to say I live and breathe music, but I guess it’s more like I only live to create,” he adds. “That might be a bit of a glam statement, but it’s so true.”
Suggesting that he was actively looking for an escape from the traumas of real life, Oscar describes his parents’ tricky divorce as the impetus to find a creative outlet for his own ordeals. “[Music] and other things that teenagers get into were very useful,” he admits. Retreating to solitude and the consolation of his guitar enabled his “quieting of the mind” that allowed self-expression to freely flow. “It’s kind of like the same thing when you watch a good film,” he says of his writing process, “you just get engrossed in it and your mind starts chattering and thinking about things for a little bit. That’s really important for me.”
Any intensity on Oscar’s part is matched in an incendiary fashion by his bandmates; Ally Baty (lead guitars), Dom Cordell (bass) and Haydn Evans (drums) bring to life his penetrating wordplay with audacious backing, creating resounding and resolute statements of intent that sound much too vast for Reading’s confines.
Take ‘Flame’, for example: a single so inherently bold and expansive with its measured verses and soaring choruses, it’s easy to miss the lyrical inspiration drawn from Plato’s famed allegory of the cave (y’know, the one about prisoners assuming their reality is the only life there is, and are unable to comprehend otherwise) or decipher Oscar’s observations on post-modern living. Then there’s the brutal punch of ‘Loveblood’, wherein the perilous risks of fate and its “razor’s edge” of fortunes are told over a similarly unrelenting backdrop.
It’s the work of a band with arena ambitions, and the songs are poised and ready to fill them, which is a great testament to the connections being made between Oscar’s innermost feelings and the world at large. “There’s no reason why people shouldn’t be dreadfully honest and open with each other,” he answers, when asked about the unifying nature of what began as his personal thoughts. “I think it’s only society’s standards that keeps us so uptight with one another. I think it’s unhealthy not to be honest.”
His lyrics, poetic and dramatic, are infused with a literary streak - he name checks Oscar Wilde, Keats and Yates as influences, while the metaphysical contemplations of Jim Morrison have also proved inspirational as an example of translating into song the spiritual texts he most enjoys reading. A long association with Buddhism and the restorative power of meditation feeds into Oscar’s private philosophies, too: “Lose yourself in something / Just escape your body’s flaws,” he sings in ‘Be Nobody’, “Baby, you don’t have to be you anymore.” This is deep subject matter, Oscar recognises, and he’s just as surprised as anyone that it’s being embraced so readily.
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“Different people will take different things,” he says of the songs. “It’s basically pop music; some people listen to it and just listen to it for the melody because they think it sounds nice or it’s catchy to them, and then other people might dig a little bit deeper and hear the lyrical content or look it up or try to understand the song in some kind of way, and then they will have that emotional connection to it. But, you know, I don’t know how a song hits someone. We get people who come up to us after shows and say how our band has really helped them and how emotional they are from meeting us. I think that is maybe an indication to a connection there, and that’s really lovely, and that’s becoming more and more people coming to the show, which is really fucking crazy to see.”
He’s right, of course. The enviable ascent of Sundara Karma has been a massive ‘fuck you’ to all those who claim guitar music is declining in popularity today, and has seen them outgrow local club shows to play more prestigious venues. On the day of our photo shoot, Sundara Karma supported Two Door Cinema Club at London’s cavernous Alexandra Palace, while our interview takes place the day after they headlined Manchester’s esteemed Albert Hall - a far cry from their first visit to the city and a set at the intimate Soup Kitchen.
“It doesn’t feel as big as it does looking at the pictures or hearing people talk about it,” Oscar says of their success, “it still feels like we’re the same band as when we started. It’s just that all you notice is that the rooms are getting bigger and there’s more people talking about you.”
Considering this progression, it’s little wonder that the frenetic schedule of these rock-stars-in-waiting has made them all too aware of the differences between their current situation and that of their younger selves. ‘Youth Is Only Fun In Retrospect’ is such an astute chronicle of Sundara Karma as teenagers that, with every day that passes, the band naturally become more removed from it. “Which I actually really like,” Oscar enthuses. “Yeah, I do like that, because it documents everything. You put it behind us and just leave it, and one day our kids can listen to it and maybe relate to it in some kind of way. It’s kind of like a photo album. I like it.”
So, which particular memories do those snapshots contain?
“There was a period of time where Reading was really exciting for a little bit,” Oscar recalls, “when we were all kinda making friends with a band called The Amazons and Palm Honey, and it felt really exciting and we put on a club show called Thirsty and put all our mates on. We’d put on a show and get absolutely wasted and have some really memorable nights out. That, to me, is the period of the album, and now there’s definitely some nostalgia in that, for sure.”
While tentative material for the band’s second album is already displaying creative growth, it’s clear that one constant remains in Sundara Karma’s evolution, which stretches from those hometown club nights to the bright lights of Berlin, where the recording of their debut was lubricated by the fruits of the city’s notorious nightlife. Yes, partying hard comes easy to Sundara Karma, but balancing their ever-increasing work commitments with the temptations of the road is proving a steep learning curve that they’re attempting to conquer.
“It’s something we’re still trying to figure out, to be honest with you,” Oscar confesses, before returning to his Glasgow dressing room and the prospect of another post-sold-out-headline-set celebration. “This has been quite a tame tour and has felt quite professional, I guess, and I think we might have to follow that line if we want to have a future in this game.”
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Words: Simon Harper
Photography: Rob Meyers
For tickets to the latest Sundara Karma shows click HERE.