Words by Sophie Walker.
Image courtesy of King Nun Twitter.
We’re in a strange room in Sheffield’s Café Totem. It has dark red walls, plastered white in small patches as if someone had shot holes in it. It’s sparsely furnished: two old sofas sit among open guitar cases and equipment; I am sat on one of them, King Nun’s Polyzoides is sat on the other. The band have had a meteoric rise to success in the last year, joining Dirty Hit’s coterie alongside The 1975, Wolf Alice and Japanese House. Since their emergence in 2016, the London four-piece have whipped up a following that is growing like an epidemic. Their debut EP ‘I Have Love’, a collection of violent and vulnerable songs, have been drip-fed to us, each one a slightly different shade. King Nun have never been so versatile and never made it look quite so easy.
“One thing that we’re trying to do is absolutely be a punk band with a violent direction, but see if we can take away the clichés that are often associated with it,” Theo said. “That’s what we tried to achieve with ‘I Have Love’: I went through a beautiful, magnificent breakup – it really was fantastic – and because of that, when we went into band practice, I was like ‘Guys, I think we should do an EP just full of love songs’ – but love songs with a violent intent in sound. I was exploring this whole idea of how you can have catharsis from a punk song, and how you can learn to help your situation through being completely down and out.”
Love songs, for a band with a reputation for lo-fi songs that spit and snarl, would seem like a contradiction. “We said we’d make the EP into a much cleaner thing” he began to explain. “We’d take down the distortion a bit and all the effects, so the aim was that you could play any of these songs acoustically and it would still come across like a punk song. We wanted it to be punk and rock’n’roll, but the messages behind it and the way they would be conveyed would be like an old-fashioned love song. Over the way that it was produced and recorded, these things kind of blended together.” The contradiction in style what made ‘I Have Love’ come together: Theo’s vocals cut sharply through a runaway instrumental on ‘Chinese Medicine’, whereas ‘Heavenly She Comes’ sees King Nun throw caution to the wind, drowning in a morass of sound.
Something you’d never have supposed is that Theo was deeply influenced by folk songs during the EP’s production. Though you’d think folk music was the furthest thing from King Nun’s punk identity, Theo explains how the two aren’t as many worlds apart as you might think: “’Revelator’ by Gillian Welch cuts to the bone so hard it may as well be a punk song. It has this initial machine gun reaction, yet it’s completely clean, single-stringed acoustic. Her voice is very, very delicate. The bridge between these two things, between a really toned-down folk song and a really in-your-face punk song, is almost the same effect – it’s just a different message. Bob Dylan’s more down to earth songs like ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ has the same effect as something that just explodes in your face. In some ways, it’s far more cutting than that. The marriage of these two things is not entirely ridiculous.”
Despite a smattering of singles which laid the foundations for their success, ‘I Have Love’ was King Nun’s first, official body of work. The pressure was, at times, taxing on Theo’s creativity: it was the first time he stumbled into a writer’s block. “We were working on a new project that we’re actually still working on now, and we’d just finished the EP. I was still thinking about it, because we had to keep going in and re-recording little bits and still deciding if we were going to have a particular song on the EP or not. The time came to do the lyrics for this massive project which has got loads of songs in it, and I just couldn’t come up with anything good at all. The way that I ended up getting through it was just writing absolute gibberish and trying to decode what the hell I was talking about. I just started setting up scenarios almost like scriptwriter, writing out narratives and scenes. Narrative is something that I’m really trying to work on and progress on, so I think focusing on that particular thing I knew I wasn’t so good at was really what got me through. Starting from then, it began to make sense. Repeatedly hitting my head against a wall is how I got past it.” he joked.
It’s a question all bands grapple with, right from the start all the way up to the highest rung of the ladder. At what point can Theo sit back and think, ‘Yeah, we’ve made it’? “That’s an incredibly difficult question to answer,” he admits. “The mantra of how we do things is to inspire as we have been inspired on as large a scale as possible. We’ve seen it before when someone would put our band name next to a band that inspired us initially, or comparing our sound to theirs, and us thinking ‘Maybe they felt the same listening to us as they did listening to them?’, and maybe in turn what we felt listening to that particular band. We want to reach a level where we’re playing the venues that we’ve always freaked out over when we were growing up.”
The elephant in the room was the fact that King Nun had the golden ticket: they are one of the Dirty Hit elite. For a band as humble as they are to be part of a label where the likes of Matty Healy and Ellie Rowsell trample their way to the top of the album charts in their jadons for the fun of it, what was it like getting signed? “We went there thinking we were going to get a specific deal. Then we spoke to Jamie O’Borne, the man in charge, and he had so much more passion for our music than we’d ever seen in any label before. It would often happen when we’d have to say ‘Have you heard our band? Do you even like the music?’, because they’d have this whole façade where they’d sign you and then you’d go off and do some shit. But Jamie was so invested and so excited, it was really exciting for us – we got excited about our own band. The deal that we got offered showed he had considerably more faith than we’d ever dreamed of.”
Apart from when his superstitions get the better of him, saluting magpies and clicking his fingers to have all the luck he can get for a gig – a surprisingly exhausting thing to do – what challenges does Theo and King Nun face at this point in their careers? “I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and it’s super awkward and weird, but our biggest challenge is dealing with an audience that’s a bit out of control, or certain characters who are just up to no good, whether that be being violent, or whatever. The thing is, from there, you’ve got to address that. We came up with ‘Greasy Hotel’ so we could come up with an opening so that I wouldn’t have to dive into it out of nowhere, and know that’s what we’re about straight from the off. Especially for new bands, it’s a really daunting feeling to realise that something might go down and you’re responsible to fix that. Aside from that,” he shrugs, “I’m fucking chill.”
You can’t really ask questions about the release of an EP without the inevitable “album question”. Though bands, as a general rule, never want to reveal their secrets (a bit like magicians), this is what Theo could tell: “‘The album is going to get super dark, super fucked up. By playing punk music, suddenly I developed an appetite for ‘I want to write some shit. I want to see blood and gore and veins and the teeth.’ I want to create something that’s haunting in places and just really disturbed in others. Then, narratively, I want to tie it all in a lift at the end, which is my favourite kind of ending. It’s not going to be as happy as ‘I Have Love’: it’s going to be dystopian.”