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Modern Life Is Rubbish
Modern Life Is Rubbish

Modern Life Is Rubbish

London rockers Sulk are bringing back the ’90s—and they feel pretty good about it. By Nick Duerden. Photographed by Jon Stanley Austin

It’s a Sunday evening in East London, the rain pouring outside, and the three original members of Sulk are holed up in guitarist/songwriter Tomas Kubowicz’s small apartment. “Sorry about the smell,” Kubowicz says. “It’s the cats.” He has three: young, black, nervy but beautiful, they join us in the upstairs living room, where singer Jon Sutcliffe and rhythm guitarist Andrew Needle sit, methodically making their way through a carrier bag of canned lager. On the wall above their heads are three mounted Stone Roses singles featuring guitarist John Squire’s Pollock-esque artwork. Were you looking for clues about Sulk, these would tell you pretty much everything you need to know.

“If I had to sum us up,” Sutcliffe says, “I’d say our sound is somewhere between shoegaze and Britpop. But the good Britpop, not the crap Britpop. And, no, I won’t name names.” Sutcliffe has disconcertingly pale blue eyes, like a husky’s, that peer out from beneath his hair with a thousand-yard-stare intensity to them. Even when he’s smiling, the rest of his face seems incredibly intense.

Listening to Sulk is like being in the grip of déjà vu. Their sound is indeed formed, if not downright haunted, by the music of 20 years ago, when the U.K. rock scene was dominated by pale young men with wan complexions, long fringes, and amps with an awful lot of wattage. Their singles to date are reminiscent of Blur’s debut album Leisure, and late-period Stone Roses. If it’s successful, their imminent debut album Graceless might just usher in a proper early-’90s baggy revival. “It’s music we grew up listening to,” Sutcliffe says with a shrug, citing that his first gig, at 14, was Curve and Swervedriver, both bands indebted to the likes of My Bloody Valentine and the purported mystical powers of a dry ice machine.

The trio are all in their late twenties. Kubowicz hails from Sweden but relocated to London six years ago, while Sutcliffe and Needle are from Harrogate in the North of England; both gravitated to the capital in 2004. Before Sulk, they had another incarnation: The Ruling Class. “This was probably 2007,” Kubowicz explains. “We were a five piece back then.”

“Same music style,” Needle adds, “but the dynamic wasn’t right. So we lost two members, and started over.” Now into their third year as Sulk—so named because the producer of their album, Ed Buller (Suede), thought them miserable on first meeting—they have a very DIY ethic, releasing music on their own label, Perfect Sound Forever, and essentially managing themselves. (They're also now joined by bassist Jakub Starzynski and drummer Lewis Jones.) “We’ve had hard times, harder than others, perhaps,” Sutcliffe suggests, “but it’s all for the greater good.” To keep themselves financially afloat, each has had to hold down a day job: Sutcliffe buying and selling 19th-century art (“It’s the family business”), Needle as part of surrealist comedy duo Dick Biscuit, and Kubowicz working for an online bingo company. It’s not ideal, says the singer, but they do what has to be done. Musicians two decades ago, he argues, had it easier.

“Radiohead were on the brink of getting dropped before [second album] The Bends. They had to re-record it three times. In this day and age, that album probably wouldn’t have come out, and they wouldn’t have gone on to have the career they’ve had. And so in many ways, bands these days should think themselves lucky. It’s all different now,” Sutcliffe says. “If you do sign to a major label, then once the spotlight is on you, you’ve only got a couple of months to make it. And if you don’t, that’s it. You’re gone.”

Which is why Sulk are doing it all independently. “That way, no one can rub us out,” says Sutcliffe. “We’re responsible for everything: our sound, our direction, our publicity. We’re getting an audience, not just in the U.K., but internationally—Europe, America—and, dare I say it, the feedback we’re getting couldn’t be any more positive.” He smiles; his eyes stare blankly. “Our self belief is pretty high,” he says. “Can’t you tell?”