SUNDARA KARMA IN NEW YORK, APRIL 2017. PHOTOS: JAMES RYANG. STYLING: LILLI MILLHISER. HAIR AND MAKEUP: ALICIA MARIE CAMPBELL FOR SEE MANAGEMENT USING MAC COSMETICS AND TRIUMPH & DISASTER. PHOTO ASSISTANT: DAVID MACEDO.
In January, the four English rockers that form Sundara Karma released Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect (Bee & El/Sony RAL), a lively debut LP about aging through adolescence that’s as brooding as it is celebratory. Oscar Pollock (vocals/guitar), Ally Baty (guitar), Dom Cordell (bass), and Haydn Evans (drums), who met one another starting at age eight through their early teens, had already released two EPs in 2015—simply titled EP I and EP II—and entered their early 20s in service of an album years in the making, performing at home and abroad. They emerge from that hormone-fueled period of self-discovery ready what’s next: more shows and music-making.
Youth had its physical release earlier this month, and Sundara Karma is currently on the road in the U.K., with festival appearances and gigs scheduled through October. Earlier this year, when the band was stateside, Interview spoke to Pollock about the album, growing up, their hometown pub, and more.
HALEY WEISS: There’s some crossover of songs from your two EPs onto the album, and there are also some new songs. Why did you keep certain songs and what gaps did you think you needed to fill with new tracks?
OSCAR POLLOCK: The goal was to make the album as cohesive as possible, and the tracks that ended up being on the album were just the songs that worked the best together. That was really it; it wasn’t a very thought-through process.
WEISS: So when you were putting it together, did you have the concept in mind? Or are you talking about how sonically they work well together?
POLLOCK: Probably sonically and lyrically, perhaps more lyrically. There’s a tie there, and very early on I realized that the theme of the album was loneliness. All the tracks in their own individual way tie into that theme, some more ambiguously than others.
WEISS: That leads into something I wanted to ask you a bit about, the title—Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect—which I really enjoy because there is this cliché that when you’re young, it’s the best time in your life, which I suppose can be chalked up to people remembering the freedom they enjoyed at that time in their lives. You said these songs are about loneliness, so do you think your youth is living up to expectations, what everyone told you it would be?
POLLOCK: You’re so right in what you just said, because it wouldn’t have been honest for us to put songs out talking about how we do shots and go skinny dipping at midnight, things like that. Even though all of that’s a lot of fun, it is and it does happen, and for sure there are moments in youth where you get blackout drunk and you feel like you’re in a Katy Perry music video, there’s also an underbelly or an undercurrent to it which doesn’t get talked about so much. I think it’s because of this weird, taboo approach to depression in the culture; if people are feeling shit or not enjoying themselves, they’re not encouraged to share with other people and that creates this cycle that adds to the problem. It’s important for us to raise that aspect of youth which I’m sure many people feel.
It’s also important to be honest, not just in music but in your everyday speech and talking to people. I think you need to share what you’ve been through and what you’ve found that’s helped, because otherwise it gets too fucking weird and strange and it’s very easy not to feel normal. The weirdest thing is, what is normal? It’s important to share the stuff that you really don’t want to share—that’s the most important. You never know how much it will help someone.
WEISS: I’m curious, what do you think you’ve learned about yourself in this past year? Do things seem really weird to you, like the fact that you’re touring this album with friends from since you were teens?
POLLOCK: One thing that we’ve all learned is how fucking close we are as friends, and I think that’s because we’ve known each other for so long. On a more individual level, I’ve definitely found out that touring is tough and I prefer the writing, so it’s the actual creation of the songs and ideas more than going out and showing it to people. Although one of the most beautiful things about this is seeing people’s physical reactions to the songs and to the album, and you’re meeting the people who are ultimately your fans—that’s one of the biggest highlights. On a more individual level, I think we’ve all taken to it pretty well. It’s been really slow and we’re not massive so there’s nothing to get our heads around.
WEISS: What has the reaction been like at live shows? I haven’t been able to get to one yet, but I’ve heard it’s really visceral, that it’s this outpouring of emotion.
POLLOCK: Yes. So in England, the crowds are unreal—the most energetic. I think it’s a real relief for the kids who come to the shows. It’s been a snowball effect; people find out about us through word of mouth. Coming to America, it’s been slightly more tame, but I think that’s because we’re fresher here and it will take time for it to get like that. We’re just trying to make the most comfortable atmosphere for people who want to come and hear our songs.
WEISS: Do you remember your first gig as a band?
POLLOCK: Yeah, it was in Reading at a place called Plug N Play. There were about 10 people there, and I was wearing a cravat. [laughs] I remember wearing a blue cravat.
WEISS: And did it go well?
POLLOCK: Yeah, I think so. It went all right. There were a few people who were like, “Yeah!” It didn’t go poorly. I don’t think we would’ve carried on if it went really shit.
WEISS: I’m curious about the performance aspect, because in one interview you described performing as “fraudulent” but said that you still enjoyed it. Is that because you see it as a character?
POLLOCK: It’s definitely not pulling the sheet over anyone’s eyes. It’s more if you look at it from a strictly primitive level of a single person getting up on stage in front of tons of other people, there’s this biological reaction that you get where you’re like, “Don’t do this,” because on a primitive level you’re going to get kicked out of the fucking tribe and you’re not going to be able to survive more than three days. So on that level, it’s the most unnatural thing for anyone to do. That’s why people get these nerves, because they really feel that they could be losing their lives on that level. In order to highlight how ridiculous it is for one person to be on a slightly higher, raised part of the ground performing for other people… I think it would be a little bit egotistical or vain to not be aware of the fortune of it. Because it’s not a natural thing for a human being to get up on stage and pretend they’re this fucking rock god or this charismatic singer. For some people I’m sure it comes naturally, but even in that I’m sure there’s still some early, pushy childhood stuff. [laughs]
WEISS: You’ve talked about how your writing process involves a lot of isolation. How do you get into that headspace of solitary concentration? Is that difficult?
POLLOCK: Currently it’s balancing writing and touring. I’m actually able, for the first time in the past two months, to write on the road, which is very helpful; I’m able to tap into that headspace. I think being able to collect thoughts for half an hour and then meditate definitely helps. But when I get home, I go into a reclusive mode and will just write and write and write and not really see too many people. It’s pretty grim stuff, but I like it. It’s a nice balance between being so exposed on the road and then going back into a hibernation cave.
WEISS: Since you released the album in January, do you have a different perspective on it? Are there certain songs that have become more important to you since its release or that you see differently?
POLLOCK: Yeah, it has certainly changed. We’ve grown up. I look at it as a kind of photo album. And I say we’ve grown up, [laughs] we’re 21 now, but I think we’ve moved on from it a little bit more and we’re already thinking about a second album. It’s one of those things where one day, if we ever have children, we’ll show our kids that.
WEISS: I watched this video that you released which has your family and friends in it. I thought it was a really sweet, sincere introduction to all of you as a band. At one point you talk about a bar called The Purple Turtle. You said there were many drinks bought at The Purple Turtle. Is that your hometown bar?
POLLOCK: Yeah, that’s our hometown pub. It’s probably the pub of shame, to be honest with you, like a Shangri-La for people in Reading. The thing is it’s open until very late, a lot later than other places, so at a certain time everyone in Reading who’s out will congregate in the smoking area. You get all sorts of people there. It’s really beautiful. It’s like a drinking hole for the animals. [laughs]
WEISS: Do you still go back there?
POLLOCK: Yeah, we do, whenever we’re home we go back. I was last there watching our friends play the day before we left for tour, because they have bands there as well.
WEISS: Is it that sort of romantic idea of returning home and having this place that you can go to?
POLLOCK: Yes, for sure. But you know, the crazy thing is that it has changed. There’s a golden era of The Purple Turtle when we were 18, 19 when we would get fucking shit-faced, like every night. There’s a drink called a snakebite. Have you heard of a snakebite?
WEISS: I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never experienced one, which I think I should be thankful for.
POLLOCK: Oh my god, it gets you, like, blackout drunk. Its beer, cider, and some blackcurrant cordial in it. You have, like, eight of those.
WEISS: That sounds disgusting. [both laugh]
POLLOCK: It is, but it’s worth it. So that was the golden era. Everyone was in Reading, no one had left for uni, we were all kind of in-between lives. We had part-time jobs and everyone didn’t really know what was going on, but we had each other. It was wicked. Now people are moving out, or moving away from Reading, or on the road, but there are certain times we can time it and we’re all back home, and it’s like the good ol’ days.
WEISS: You’ve been together as a band for seven years; you’ve known each other for a long time. What goals do you guys have for yourselves looking forward? What do you hope to do in the next seven years, say?
POLLOCK: Goals-wise, I think, if we can carry on making music that we’re proud of and we don’t have to answer to too many people or have to compromise, that’s really it. Headlining festivals, as much as that would be lovely and cool and flattering, I don’t think it would ultimately make us that happy or fulfilled. It would be nice to put out music that we’re really behind.
YOUTH IS ONLY EVER FUN IN RETROSPECT (BEE & EL/SONY RAL) IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON SUNDARA KARMA, VISIT THE BAND’S WEBSITE.