Recording’s Great Escapes: Photos of Thailand’s Karma Sound Studios
Only one of the recording sessions for British hard-rock band Enter Shikari’s eight albums was interrupted by a monsoon. “The rain was falling the size of shotgun shells,” singer Rou Reynolds recalls of recording 2012’s A Flash Flood of Colour. “After that, all the bugs come out. One of us made the mistake of leaving the doors open to the kitchen area, and it was full of dragonflies.”
That’s just another day at Karma Studios. In the 12 years since former Abbey Road Studios producer and Sony executive Chris Craker opened Karma on a two-acre plot in the Thai fishing village of Bang Saray, acts including Enter Shikari, Jessie J, Bullet for My Valentine and The Libertines have recorded there. It’s a place where someone can schedule an ice bath at the break of dawn and meditate for two or three freezing minutes at a time, surrounded by tropical gardens filled with tweeting birds and clicking cicadas. An outdoor pool is 30 feet from the studio; the gardens contain an abandoned building that Enter Shikari used to record drums. The nearest city, beachside, bar-filled tourist favorite Pattaya, is half an hour away.
“I wanted something by the sea, where we would have peace and tranquility and just [be] away from the real world,” Craker says. “That was my desire — to give people a chance to be working in a space where they felt like they were on vacation.”
The story of why Craker, a 63-year-old Brit, moved to Thailand begins with a fax he received in 1996 while recording the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road. It was from a collaborator of Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX, the king of Thailand since 1946. The monarch was a classical composer and jazz buff who had recorded many albums, and after the collaborator heard Craker’s work, he wondered if he was available to make a record.
“Yes,” Craker quickly faxed back, then flew to Bangkok the next week. Thus began a string of 11 albums with the king (who died in 2016) and a fondness for Thailand that led Craker to buy his Bang Saray plot in 2008. Roughly two years later, he built Karma, then spent so much time creating what he envisioned as a “cross between a resort and the most amazing studio” that he didn’t put much thought into drawing customers. He had to give the studio’s inaugural client, London rock band Placebo, 10 days of recording for free to lure it to Karma. Jay Kay of Jamiroquai, a friend of Craker’s, became customer No. 2, and that led to a rush of British bands.
“I’ve never paid one dollar in Facebook advertising or social media marketing,” Craker says. “The whole thing has run, the last 12 or 13 years, completely on word-of-mouth.”
In Karma’s early years, he continued to work in American studios and was constantly flying between his London home and New York and Thailand. (“I’ve got enough air miles to keep me going for the rest of my life,” he says.) But the stress hit him hard, as did a prostate cancer diagnosis six years ago. He has fully recovered but now spends most of his time in Thailand.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Craker’s son, Richard, a U.K. songwriter-producer, relocated to Karma and helped set up an independent label, Karma Sounds, which the elder Craker calls a “health and wellness label.” They pivoted to making their own ambient music to soundtrack yoga and meditation sessions, as well as general chilling out; within 15 months, the label’s music surged to 15 million monthly streams. “The side hustle has grown into a business,” Chris Craker says. “We can just be a little bit more choosy [about bookings] now.”
All told, Karma Sounds has spewed 1,800 tracks, working on social media marketing with yoga and meditation influencers. But the studio still brings in artists for sessions, including comedian-singer Oliver Tree late last year. “Everything’s mic’d up to be creative from the minute you arrive,” Craker says. And Reynolds has never made music anywhere like it. “I was at a loss for words,” he says. “It was recording in a microcosm of paradise.”