On a rainy autumn afternoon, King Nun leader Theo Polyzoides is sat outside the quartet’s London HQ, just days ahead of the release of their debut album ‘Mass’. It’s been a long time coming. Fans of Dirty Hit – that is, the boys’ record label that also hosts The 1975 and Pale Waves among plenty others – will by now be well-acquainted with the scrappy young foursome whose early singles thrashed like feral animals.
“I think they’re frozen points in time which are beautiful things,” Theo muses, casting his mind back to 2016 and tracks like ‘Tulip’ and ‘Speakerface’. Three years and an at times unnerving amount of radio silence later, ‘Mass’ finds the band stepping forward from just being cool by association: this is their moment in the limelight.
“We were pretty content to just see where our own creativity took us, and then the question came up, ‘do you want to make an album?'” explains Theo, of the record’s conception. “We were like, yeah. Seems like a laugh! Our back catalogue of songs is just absolutely huge, and so little of it has been released. It’s ‘cuz we write like absolute maniacs, but we destroy quicker than we create. So we had a lot [of material] to choose from.”
The finished product is an ambitious, eclectic assembly of songs which is difficult to describe in a word. Sure, it’s rock music, but across its eleven tracks’ Mass’ fluctuates from radio-friendly indie-pop to gloomy gothic realms, roping in punk and Britpop elements here and there and even hints of blues and beat poetry. To Theo, that sonic diversity is integral to what ‘Mass’ means.
“I think ‘Mass’ describes what music is. It’s a gathering of people to come together and worship this thing that they all feel. I think music is ceremony and I think music is weight without fall. It’s just emotion in the air, isn’t it? Anything that has no definitive shape can be described as mass.”
Once the title was chosen, more meaning began to evolve. “Because of that name we framed the whole album conceptually like a sermon. So all of our shows are beginning to turn that way. In the religious sense, mass has more sacrificial undertones. Maybe that applies because singing about personal things is like an exorcism.”
That’s something that sets the album apart from everything King Nun have done so far. It’s astonishingly personal and sees Theo baring his soul for all to see. His enigmatic lyrics are layered heavily with metaphor but the key themes shine through: faith and religion, mental health, relationships; the general trappings of teenagers entering their early 20s broken down and reassembled with a blistering symphony of drums and guitar filling the cracks.
Released back in summer, ‘Black Tree’ was the first single to drop. On it, the band channel serious goth-rock vibes with a sound akin to Nick Cave reworked by My Chemical Romance. Or, as Theo puts it with a laugh, “get ready to get fucking depressed!” Next came ‘Low Flying Dandelion’, the most lyrically dense song the band have ever made, with a meaty riff as its driving force, courtesy of bassist Nathan Gane.
“He smashed it out the park with that. It blew our minds,” says Theo. Lyrics came later. “He wrote it [as a] kind of dance track, and when it turned into a rock song, I was left with all this space to work on. I had a poem called ‘Low Reaching Dandelion’ or something which I’d written after waking up on a park bench years ago.” He realised, “if you say this poem quite fast, it almost turns into a rap. It was very in-the-moment, and I think that’s what gives it its weird energy.” One line stands out above the rest: “I like playing with words, I like how you can twist and mangle expressions. ‘Texas Chainsaw Mascara’. What does that mean? I don’t know!”
Before an album was even being discussed, King Nun were making a name for themselves as a formidable new live act, tearing up small, sweaty rooms across the country on early tours with the likes of InHeaven and Superfood. Spurred by their rip-roaring performances their name spread like wildfire and soon bigger opportunities arose; this year has seen them share stages with Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes in Europe, Foo Fighters in Northern Ireland and heritage punk-rock icons Black Flag in the States.
“Early on, I loved touring with pop bands, and I kind of wanted to always do that just because of the dynamic of the show. Especially with Pale Waves, we’d kind of take it on ourselves to freak people the fuck out! That was really fun. We had to play within our genre at a point, so it’s actually been an honour playing rockier shows. At one point I had to say to the audience, ‘Are you ready for Black Flag?’ and there was this moment in my head where I was like ‘Fuck! What did I just say?!’ I’m glad to be accepted there, and on pop line-ups as well. It’s been a good thing.”
To date, the band have only done one headline tour of their own, off the back of last year’s ‘I Have Love’ EP, but there are plans in the works for the forthcoming album gigs. “With the idea of ‘Mass’, our stage show is gonna look very interesting. We’re thinking of putting on this show in a warehouse that’s controlled by us that’s gonna be very visually-minded. I’m excited to see people’s faces,” Theo says, audibly enthusiastic. By his own admission, though, there are nerves too. Taking the leap from support to headline act brings new levels of pressure, and he knows it.
“Ever since you start music, [headlining] is what you want to do. But at the same time, I’ve found that opening is very freeing because you can just be this absolute maniac for half an hour and the crowd, for the most part, haven’t come to see you. I’m quite trained in hyping up an audience now but when you headline you need to go and be like ‘this is the show’. You guys have warmed up hopefully, now this is all on us. I’m very excited to have that pressure, but at the same time, I suppose at least until the end of the year, I’m having a lot of fun with being very capable as an opening act.”
Visual art is a big passion of Theo’s. A quick glance at his Instagram profile reveals lo-fi photocopy scans of his own blurred hands, surrealist collages and ghoulish illustrations. Some are band-related, most aren’t. It’s a pastime that both coexists alongside and informs his methods of making music.
He recalls a childhood game played with his dad, who works as a cameraman. “The game would be, he would say a scenario and then say ‘describe this in as much detail as possible’, and either me or my sister would win. We got very good at intricately explaining these scenarios and building these stories. She’s heavily into journalism, and she has a very poetic way of writing. I bring it to the music.”
Curiously, photography doesn’t pique his interest. “I love painting and creating ridiculous scenes that I could never find on a camera. I’m way more interested in escapism than I am in reality. I was an escapism junkie as a kid, I just lived in an insane imaginary world for years and years. Reality just sort of falls off my shoulders.
“I feel like I can be ten times more revealing and visceral when all this stuff that’s happening in a song is taking place in a fictional landscape like a hotel or a Chinese medicine place than if I’m just saying it how it is. You can summon a lot of really fierce metaphors that touch on something kind of scary. It dramatises emotion. I could be like ‘I broke up with this girl’… ‘I fucking fell off a fucking dimension!’ is more cutting.”
A recurring motif in the ‘Mass’ campaign is a drawing of Theo’s. Look closely, and it can be spotted flashing up in music videos, in posts on social media and even on the album cover itself. The eerie-looking stick figure resembles an arrow pointing up towards a circle. Its name is Nico.
“As we were making the album, I was constantly drawing in my journal, and I kept drawing this arrow to the sun. I was quite obsessed with it for some reason. After a while, the arrow got closer and closer, and it started looking like this cultish, Blair Witch stick figure. It ended up meaning a lot to me about music in the same way as ‘Mass’ does. It started looking like a tear from an eye. It started meaning hope for me like it was working like a priest. I showed it to the guys, and I was like ‘let’s spam this on everything all the time!’ It means a lot to me.”
Guitarist James Upton came up with the name. “It’s an anagram of the word ‘icon’. We thought we ought to give it a name, so we weren’t always calling it ‘stick’. I think that’s brilliant.”
“I’d be a liar if I said t-shirts didn’t come to mind!” Theo laughs. “But it would be nice to have an insignia that represented us, and I think merchandising is a part of that. It would be lovely to see the people that support us sporting this thing that represents us so well.”
In taking their time and honing their craft, King Nun have produced a stunning collection of songs that live up to every promise they made since bursting out of the ether back in 2016. After all, you only ever get one debut album. And while Theo heads inside to get out of the rain, James, Nathan and drummer Caius are already busy working on something new. “It might be a rather direct follow-up, actually. I like concepts and that, it might reference the album quite considerably, but we’ll see how it turns out,” Theo alludes, purposefully vague. Fingers crossed for sooner rather than later, but then again, ‘Mass’ was worth waiting for.
Taken from the November issue of Dork. King Nun’s debut album ‘Mass’ is out now.
Words: Alex Cabré