The last of the sand just slipped through to the bottom of the hourglass, hence my hour with Sundara Karma was up and in the past tense. 'Everything comes to an end', we say - time requires a beginning and an end to make sense so we rely on the past, present, and future to guide our perception of reality. In the past, I look forward to meeting the band, in the present, I connect with them, but here I am, in retrospect, reflecting on my time spent with Oscar, Dom, Haydn, and Ally.
Time is relative because we measure time in relation to a time that was or is to be. Sundara Karma's debut album Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect and this year's follow-up Ulfilas' Alphabet both tackle the notion of time. With their debut, they surveyed youth from the present, but with Ulfilas' Alphabet, they sailed the borders of life, contemplating the span of a lifetime through the specs of time's finality: what would you have done differently?
As Wanda Martin captures the British band in frames to be remembered, the day we spent with Sundara Karma lives on in our vivid minds and in these words and images - it's the evidence of who we were back then. We asked many questions but as is, the universe has yet to return with any coherent answers. So, is time an illusion, and the safeguard of control? The band and I attempt to clear up some things in regards to the abstract nature of time whilst exploring the West's inherent fear of all things final. With additional knowledge tucked into our back pockets, we realise how little we actually know about the complexity of all this; everything.
Tick tock announces the clock with every second passing. Time creeps up on us as we close in on Sundara Karma's next performance 23rd August at Richfield Avenue in Reading, UK.
I would say this is sort of like the first day of school type question - but just a bit more advanced. Who are you?
Ally: My name is Ally and I'm no one. And there we go. Neeeext. Nobody and everybody.
Ally: I'm still trying to figure out who I am, so I can't tell you. Come back in a couple of years maybe, and I might be able to tell you.
Dom: My name is Dom and I'm an alcoholic. No - my name is Dom and I like to see myself as a happy, positive person. I love painting and anything creative - any output that might have a positive effect on myself or other individuals. I love giving and helping others; I think I get a massive kick out of that. Being a good person is the aim, as good as I can.
Haydn: I'm Haydn and I'm a person. Most of the time I'm pretty miserable - except for when I'm around these people and my friends. I don't like most people in the world. Pretty grumpy.
You're making me nervous.
Oscar: He is a sweetheart.
Haydn: Yes, I am a sweetheart. I like long walks on the beach. I don't like the underground.
Ally: Tell me something about yourself: "I like long walks on the beach. And I don't like the underground". Haha.
Haydn: Hmm, I don't know what more to say about me. There is not a lot.
Ally: You're good at making doughnut mixes.
Haydn: I like cooking.
Dom: He is a great chef.
Haydn: I'm a great cook. I like food - that's one of my big things.
Oscar: This is such a first day of school question!
Ally: Imagine asking primary school students this - so mean haha!
Everyone: *fake crying*
Oscar: I'm Oscar and I suppose I'm a bit of a quiet person. I'm quite sensitive at times. Fuck it - that's probably it. I really like peanut butter.
Maybe this is an easier question. What do you like about each other?
Oscar: I'm not sure, thinking about it now.
Ally: Be careful mate. This is how friendships die haha.
Dom: This is like dangerous!
Oscar: I don't know what the word for this is but something like happy-go-lucky, easy-going for Ally; well-tempered and a real anchor. He is my rock. Dom I would say is sensitive, caring, and incredibly generous. Haydn is an absolute sweetheart, as I said before, and one of the funniest people I know. Probably the biggest heart here.
You're going to make me cry!
Oscar: Alright, now you do me.
Everyone: *dying of laughter*
Ally: I like that Haydn is always the life and soul of the party.
Oscar: Yeah, so true!
Ally: If you're lucky, you’ll be able to witness that. I like how Dom goes out of his way to do shit for myself and others - stuff that I wouldn't do because I'm lazy. Oscar, I like that if have something like a dream or anything - could be something quite practical - but you'll get it. Do you know what I mean? You'll try your very best. You decide that you've got something before you've even got it. I think that makes sense. Does that make sense?
Oscar: I think so.
Dom: Ally has always been a very good listener. He is always there if you find yourself in a bit of a pickle; he'll always be there to give his advice and opinion. Sometimes that's all you need. It's never as in "You should do it"; it's just sharing his side of it. It's always caring. Haydn has cooked me some of the best noodles of my life. Hands down. Great back rubs when we're sharing hotel rooms. When you feel like something is impossible and you don't know how to go about it, Oscar is always able to break it down and remind you that nothing is impossible - the only restrictions that you have are your own.
Ally: We should do this more often.
Dom: These guys are literally like family. I see Oscar as my mum, Haydn as my dad, and Ally as my sister.
Haydn: We've known each other longer than we've known our real families now. I'll start with you, Oscar. I like how wise you are; I've learnt a lot from you and will continue to learn a lot from you. You are a wiser, older brother in a sense for my juvenile mentality. I'm not that juvenile... I like Ally's juvenileness. I don't know, juvenility? Creating words here...
Love it! Boys by Girls is all about inventing new words.
Haydn: We become immature when we’re together. We bring out that side of each other, I think - we go back to our 13-year old selves.
Haydn: And then we can turn it on and be serious sometimes. Rarely but sometimes.
I find that when I'm really good friends with people, it's kind of hard to concentrate. How do you get over that and get to work?
Haydn: We haven't yet...
Well, listening to your new album, it seems like you've got your shit together.
Oscar: We were able to record some shit, but yeah, that's not something I've thought about, to be honest. I just think it happens naturally when you're required to do something, so we haven't found that to be a problem.
Haydn: I like your strength as a person. You are a strong person who gets things done when you need them done. And physically strong as well. Strong like wood. And I'm also liking your new haircut.
Oscar: Aww, thank you.
I love listening to you complimenting each other.
Dom: We've never done that!
Haydn: Now you have to do the one where you ask what we want to change about each other...
Everyone: *dying of laughter*
Ally: That would be such a good interview prank!
Haydn: Like marriage counselling.
Ally: You could literally break up bands just by interviewing them.
Nooo, this is all lovely and everyone loves each other. Positive vibes. Like your album - there were some really positive vibes going on. Probably because of the pop-y sound to it, which I really enjoyed. Why did you choose to take that direction with it?
Oscar: I think it's the headspace thing. Where we were at in the lead up to recording the songs. Compared to the first one, I think there was a little bit more clarity, and with clarity, can come joy, sometimes. Not always. We wanted to explore the joy. We're quite playful as people, so I think we wanted to be a bit more truthful to that.
Definitely, I think that came across. I could feel that my whole body sort of wanted to engage while listening. How did you end up naming an album after a Greek bishop? I'm going to try to pronounce it haha: Ulfilas’ Alphabet.
Oscar: I think there is no particularly correct way to say it, we're kind of just winging it. I'm sure there are scholars out there that will know the exact pronunciation. We're not intellectuals... Haha. I think in terms of why we chose that name for the album was because of the two words aesthetically. They are very pleasing.
I think you're sort of like word geniuses. I love how you name things - just considering the name of your band, Sundara Karma. Original. What comes first when you approach a song, do you name it first or do you come up with the lyrics first?
Oscar: It really depends. Sometimes a song comes about from a name that I've written down because I really love it, and for others, I have to really dig deep to find a title. Sometimes it's easier, sometimes it's not.
Looking back at your debut album Youth is Only Fun in Retrospect, to compare the new one and this one. The new one felt more mature in terms of sound, you took it to a new level, there was a retro feel to it but also new and refreshing. What did you want to say with the album?
Oscar: I think it was just to appreciate life if there was any kind of message. It's not as if we had a slogan or something to measure this. It's a collection of lots of different sentiments concerning life and death. I was talking to a friend about it and he made an interesting observation about our first album. He said the old one had scenes of retrospect in the title or nostalgia or looking back at things but more so looking back on youth, but it feels like the new one is looking back but from being at the end of your life. With a lot of these songs, I was in the headspace of thinking about the supposed finality of life and how transient it can be. Not in a depressive way but more in terms of how much more you can do with your life, in an everyday sense - how precious it is. That lives through all of the songs in some sort of way.
I think it's quite interesting to tackle the theme of death; it's quite a scary topic to approach.
Oscar: Especially for the West it is. We haven't done very well in educating ourselves on death.
I think most people find it very uncomfortable to talk about.
Oscar: Yeah, but it is guaranteed. It's one of the only things that is guaranteed.
What do you feel about death?
Oscar: It's very scary - but I don't think it has to be. It's scary because people don't talk about it enough. It's such a taboo thing.
Dom: It's the fear of the unknown, I guess.
Oscar: It ultimately doesn't matter as well. What matters the most is what you contribute whilst you're alive, not what happens after death.
It's a brave topic to approach, and I think you did it in a way which opens the conversation.
Oscar: I'm glad you picked up on that. I wish more people actually asked about it, to be honest with you. We've done a few interviews and no one has really brought it up.
It reminds me of Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and how he tackled the topic of death.
Oscar: That's amazing - very flattering.
I was looking at the pictures of you from BBG print issue 10 (which was back in 2016) and comparing that to now, and it’s clear that you’ve changed a lot. I feel like you’ve really come into yourselves. With your song The Changeover in mind, which discusses change and development. Looking at yourself in retrospect, how do you think you've changed over the last couple of years?
Oscar: My view, of let's say reality, is that it's an illusion to think about anything as permanent. Everything is changing from second to second. The person I was when I walked through the door - this is a little bit metaphysical - but I don't necessarily believe that is who I am right now. Also, in terms of mood - I go through about 12 different personality changes throughout the day, you know. It's a very hard thing for me to gauge - like how much has changed. But that's on a surface level. Maybe it's also kind of searching: I think we're all still figuring out who we are, and I don't know if that ever stops?
Ally: You're constantly learning. Every day you learn something new. It changes how you think about a certain thing. If someone thinks everything is right and perfect, they're not looking deep enough or opening their eyes wide enough to see what's around them.
Oscar: Or, they're 'woke' as fuck.
Ally: They're just so far ahead of us...
Haha. That's true. What are your thoughts on, say, time?
Ally: We were talking about this literally last night, didn't we? You're already dead if you think about it. Am I correct in thinking that no scientist knows why time moves forward? There is nothing in science that means it should move forward.
Dom: Time is just a measurement.
Oscar: Yeah, it's a man-made concept.
Dom: It's the measurement of everything of which we know. I had an interesting conversation with my friends the other day: what if in our wallets, rather than having money, you have time?
Ally: It's a film!
Dom: Yeah, I know it's a film.
Ally: It's Tim Burton right? I love that film.
Dom: Or, what if you wore a watch on your wrist that would tell you the amount of time you were given at birth. You look down and you see how much time you've got left. Would these people do certain things? Would you go to that meeting? Would you go to the beach? I think it's an interesting mindset to have. The time I'm using here, at the end of the day, I can't get it back.
Ally: Would you say yes if someone asked you: "Do you want to know the day you die?". It won't change if you know or you don't know. I would. Then you could start planning out your time.
Dom: I wouldn't. Hang on. What if you got told the day, but not the year?
Ally: Fuck, no! Every time it comes around... But I would honestly want to know - I think. I think...
Haydn: And if you could be made to forget it after? You could take it back.
Ally: There is no point then.
Oscar: I would have to disagree with you there. Let's agree to disagree.
Dom: Sorry, what was the question again?
Oscar: What do you think about time?
I think we use time because we need a sense of control. It's not something physical so it feels very abstract, sort of like: a minute has now gone by. When you've had a really good time with someone, but then time just flies by - it feels a bit sad somehow.
Oscar: I suppose so. You could say time is one of the worst measurements we could give to the passing of moments. Imagine if there was no idea of time, or if we measured it differently? Life would be very different. Your general outlook, your world view would change. All of it is governed by a sense of time.
Time can be a bit stressful.
Oscar: Time can be so stressful. It’s because there’s an end. The reason time is stressful is because we're told that at some point, it will end.
Haydn: It would be the worst time every being immortal. Never be allowed to die.
Dom: If you had the choice of when you leave, I guess.
Haydn: I would rather be able to die than live forever and ever and ever.
Dom: But then again... I guess it's because our lives are literally just a spec within what we know. What we see as the greatest thing - knowledge - we try to gather all this information to learn as much as possible: about the planet, about where we come from, about why we're here. I'm going way down a road here...
Such great answers. I think my favourite song from the album is Symbols of Joy & Eternity - because the rhythm, melody, and the lyrics are quite quirky and different. What is your personal favourite and why?
Dom: It changes. Sometimes I'll be playing a song live, and at that moment, that will be my favourite.
Oscar: A Song For My Future Self - I think that's my favourite. I don't know why. As I said earlier, there are some songs that you really need to fight through while others are just given to you, and that one was... I remember the exact place that I was when I wrote that song - and with the others, I can't remember. I was in Idyllwild, California. There are a lot of sentimental memories. I think that's the one I'm proudest about lyrically.
Cool. What's the writing process like?
Oscar: There are some songs that can take so long. Explore is a song I started writing long ago - this is going to sound like bullshit - but the early stage riffs I wrote when I was 15. I just had it saved for years, and I didn't take it anywhere - but then I looked at it again when I was 20, I think. There are some backs of tracks that I chip away at, that's how I prefer to do it rather than finish one then go on to the next one. I like to build on 20 songs at a time. Some leap forward and others are slow. It tends to be the music that leads the way first and then maybe if I'm writing some silly poems or an entry to a journal, they can fit in - but sometimes they overlap as well.
In the album reviews I’ve read, people are drawing comparisons to Bowie due to your voice Oscar. How does that feel?
Oscar: It's very flattering. I haven't got much to say on this, honestly. I think people are unaware of how conscious the decision to sound like Bowie was on this record. I think people may get confused... I think a lot of people think they are really clever making that observation.
Yeah, I feel people love to compare.
Oscar: Yes - but art is derivative of art at the end of the day.
When I went to see you play at Brixton Academy in April, I was amazed by the stage design and outfits. What was the idea behind this?
Oscar: Well, after making the record, we put ourselves in the position where we obviously had to perform it live - and we thought hard about how we could best present these songs in that kind of environment. We did a little warm-up show but we didn't really think it through too much. I think we played some of the new songs there, but we felt they weren't packaged in a cohesive enough way. I was introduced to Rob Sinclair who collaborated with David Byrne for his latest show, and he does the Kylie Minogue show. Rob introduced us to Jeffrey Bryant, a costume designer who has worked with Lady Gaga and Duran Duran. We didn't have that much money for the live show - a lot less than we were hoping for. We thought the best way we could make this visually stimulating and different from all the other shows was to use a little more fabric than light. A lot of references came from Tibetan theatre and kind of Tibetan architecture as well. And monochromatic lighting. There had to be a theatrical element to it - that's the short answer.
It was very cool! At BBG, we think it’s important to have active discussions around masculinity and gender identity - what are your thoughts on society's labels?
Oscar: Again, it's a control thing. You can understand things easier if you categorise them; label them. You feel a bit safer; calmer. It's pretty unnecessary. We've all been conditioned to do it, so it's a tough thing to get away from. I think we would probably be happier if we didn't feel the need to label things - and if there were fewer borders and boundaries, in terms of self-expression. That would be a good thing.
Do you think society is changing?
Oscar: I do and I don't. I think there are some pockets of society that are determined to not change, and the more different parts of society change, the more freaked out some people can get; the more aggressive they might get or dogmatic. It's easy for me to say. I live in a sort of bubble where it seems like it's changing. I think there has definitely been a lot of positive change, in terms of the mainstream picking up on acceptance of people's wants and needs; individuality; what's deemed okay and what's not deemed okay. The majority of that has come so far. It seems to be heading in a positive direction so I don't think it's going back on itself.
I feel like we always end up on the theme of control somehow. What kind of feelings or thoughts do you want people to leave with when listening to your music or going to a show?
Oscar: Lightheartedness. Not to take things so seriously. And to love yourself a little bit more. Love your friends and family. To appreciate all the good stuff - which is hard to do. It's hard to really have gratitude to all the amazing things that you have.
Where would you like to take your music next? Or, would say you're sort of comfortable with where you're at now?
Oscar: In all honesty, I've moved on from these songs already. It's weird. Once you record them, you just leave them. You have to live with them for a long time. But that's me personally...
Ally: They haven't gotten old for me yet!
Dom: I brush my teeth to it, to be honest.
Ally: I think I could finish 2019 still liking playing these songs live.
Dom: We as artists have had the songs for a longer amount of time than everybody else. We held the tracks for a bit longer. I'm still at the beginning of it. I never got bored of them while recording them, and now that we've come to touring and actually playing them to people, it gives a whole new life to them and I'm absolutely loving it. For me, I don't think it's going to get boring yet. And also this album is just a lot more honest in terms of us. That's why I think we enjoy it.
Haydn: Agreed. I could easily play new ones now, but it's not that I'm not enjoying this right now. We are very comfortable in where we are right now but the vision is always to move forward.
Ally and Dom: ... in time.
Ally: Forward to death.
Dom: We've done death, we're on the next one now.
Ally: We're all going to die. That's it.