- TextPaul Moody
Ahead of their gig in Brixton tomorrow night, Sundara Karma talk acid, Buddhism and gender fluidity, and how they’re bringing the glamour back into rock and roll
“The original idea was ‘Marilyn Manson meets Alice In Wonderland’,” says Oscar Pollock of the grandiose plans for Sundara Karma’s current tour, overseen by legendary stylist Jeffrey Bryant (Pet Shop Boys, Duran Duran) and lighting designer Rob Sinclair (responsible for David Byrne’s American Utopia extravaganza). “Unfortunately, we didn’t quite have the budget for it. But we still aim to be as theatrical as possible.”
With his bleach-blonde hair, electric blue eyes and pallid complexion, the androgynous Pollock, 23, isn’t so much a star-in-waiting as a man destined to stare enigmatically down from bedroom walls worldwide. In days when most indie artists have disappeared down a reductive rabbit hole (mentioning no names, Sam Fender), this Reading four-piece (Pollock, vocals, guitar; Haydn Evans, drums; Dom Cordell, bass; Ally Baty, lead guitar) dare to go through the looking glass, not so much tearing up the rule book as translating it into hieroglyphics and then covering it with glitter.
An artful collage of laser-beam melodies and philosophical angst, their 2017 debut Youth Is Only Ever Fun In Retrospect combined lyrics inspired by – among other things – Oscar Wilde’s Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime (Loveblood), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (The Night) and Plato’s Allegory Of the Cave (Flame) with themes ranging from capitalist consumerism to identity politics – Pollock himself is gender-fluid.
“Personally, I like the idea of seeing people just as human, and looking at it from a more metaphysical kind of way,” he says, sitting in a Glasgow hotel room. “I think there’s a quote from Gandhi which says: ‘We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience’. I think that’s a better way of looking at.”
Their new album, Ulfilas’ Alphabet, meanwhile – as you might expect from an album named after a fourth-century Greek bishop who created his own alphabet to translate the Bible – turns indie orthodoxy completely on its head.
A shamelessly intellectual tour-de-force boasting an encyclopaedic array of influences (ABC, The Associates, Bowie, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, MGMT, The Teardrop Explodes, Visage), it comes with a joie de vivre summed up in Wizzard-style glam-them One Last Night On This Earth where Pollock croons: “I’ve seen the bluest skies / And highest mountain tops / I’ve seen it all / But this is nothing short of fucking wonderful.”
“Sometimes it can be really hard to pull yourself out of the murky waters of life,” he says of the album’s central message. “But ultimately it’s all about perspective. A big quote that inspired the themes of the album is one I found on a t-shirt in the gift shop of a Buddhist monastery, which read: ‘A celebration of life through reflections on death’. Life can be taken away from you at any moment. When you think like that you suddenly you feel a lot more compassion towards everyone. You should tell the people around you that you love them, before it’s too late.”
In days gone past, Pollock’s furrowed-brow earnestness and obvious star quality would have already earned Sundara Karma a tsunami of ‘next big thing’ hype and Melody Maker front covers (music press bores will recognise them as very much an MM band).
However, in these more fractured times, they have had to settle for a more organic build, their ever-growing following boosted by an eclectic array of cultural outriders ranging from Yoko Ono and Ai Weiwei to guitar band connoisseur Peter Crouch.
“I have no idea how you gage these things, but it definitely feels like we’re not a very big band yet,” he says of their (comparative) slow-burn success. “I’m not even sure what it means to be an indie band anymore. When we were recording the new album I wasn’t limiting myself sonically to the instruments we were supposed to use. It was all about what felt good and following where that took us.”
For Pollock, an interest in beauty and natural symmetry is innate. Born in Singapore, his formative experiences came as a child, absorbing fabric and texture ideas from his mum, Lucy (a fashion designer who worked for Christian Lacroix in Paris and now lectures at the London College of Fashion). Following his parents’ divorce, and inspired by his mother’s immersion in Buddhism while living in Thailand, he formed Sundara Karma (Sanskrit for ‘beautiful karma’) at 14, while studying at the prestigious Oratory school in Berkshire.
Following the inevitable apprenticeship of poorly attended pub gigs, an online demo of a song called Freshbloom in 2013 sparked an A&R feeding frenzy, with the release of debut EP 1 in 2015 (on Chess Club/Sony) a stepping stone towards tours with Two Door Cinema Club and Wolf Alice and age-old rock and roll behaviour. At the end of an American tour in support of their debut album, Pollock and his bandmates found themselves tripping in a hot tub after taking acid in the Californian desert.
“The great thing about drugs is that they open your mind to the possibility that there are levels of feeling that exist beyond anything you can imagine in the mindset this so-called reality offers,” he says. “The unfortunate thing is that when you get high, you have to come down, and I don’t really ever want to have to come down.”
Now sober for two years, the deep-thinking Pollock is just as wary of the instant gratification offered by technology. “I’m very interested to see where these insane advances will take us, and how we handle it,” he says in conclusion. “I don’t want to be a luddite about it. Aspects of it (the internet) are really great. I just hope that there comes a point where they can merge with more awareness of the environment and the sacredness of nature. Personally, I don’t think a change will come until people are really fed up with the quality of life they’re being offered.”
Until then, a short term solution to the twenty first century blues comes in the form of Sundara Karma’s current tour. Catch them now before they go stratospheric.
Sundara Karma are playing Brixton Academy on Saturday, 13 April, and their new album Ulfilas’ Alphabet is out now.