Interview: Down With the Larks, Sky Larkin.

Interview: Down With the Larks, Sky Larkin.

“I’ll apologise, as this is the first time we’ve had to kind of articulate the album. Although then again, you’re not getting the stock answers as yet! ‘The funny thing is, that we’ll give you the same answer you got in a magazine last week.’ I mean they’re never exclusive or anything – it’s not like a press conference, or anything. That’s the only way it wouldn’t be! Maybe we should just do press conferences from now on… Wouldn’t it be great if it were just you? ‘Erm, yes! Josh!'”

There’s not even a faint whiff of the outwardly conventional when it comes to the responses to the inquisitions here posed, although we’re skipping ahead of ourselves – Katie Harkin of Sky Larkin, and she who indeed articulated the above, is yet to arrive as I earlier encounter drummer Nestor Matthews in a nearby McDonald’s. I’m offered a chip or two, and awarded a Ghold tape before we relocate to a nearby knoll around the reverse of The Garage. In Matthews’ case, it’s a quite literal returning to the roots of the band as we perch upon unprecedentedly verdant blades last graced ahead of Wichita’s aptly designated 10th anniversary celebrations. It was then Wichiten; it’s tonight their final night supporting slacker doyen Marnie Stern, of whom they’re apparently supremely fond. Nestor twiddles daisies nonchalantly, and is initially accompanied by spangly, newfangled guitarist and self-professed “starfish boy” Nile Marr, who was incidentally incorporated into the band at this very venue that same day.

He’s in turn been newly reincorporated into the fold, having hacked off the tip of an index finger on the rotary blade of a rampant blender a month or so ago. “It’s grown back!” he quips with only a slight sense of surprise at what has been, to all intents and purposes, a visibly miraculous recovery. He later proves himself to be overtly capable of working his away around the affliction with a Reinhardt-esque dexterity, and so too the band did a supremely proficient job of returning to work with only the one guitarist when last seen at the Scala some weeks ago – not least once taken into account their newly assumed aural divergences in an altogether more intricate direction. “It did feel a bit weird” Matthews pacifically proffers, “although Nile was very stoic throughout, and never wanted to make it out to be a bigger deal than it really was. So cancelling those shows would’ve almost spun it out into even more of a drama! I mean we missed the hell out of him, but still…”

It’s a perceptible truth, but that’s not to say that it showed up in support of Dutch Uncles that day. Indeed, you could make an incisive case for Nile to have been the one to have felt that most acute of creative pains, having been a self-professed über fan of the band long before his integration a couple years back. “I’d seen these guys as a three-piece so many times that I knew it’d work without me, but it was weird going down to practice and having to leave them to get on with things. It was only three weeks, and in three weeks my finger grew back so I’m now basically just jazzed to be able to play again!”

It thus becomes strangely suitable that Sky Larkin have, as a band, undergone some fairly major cosmetic reconstruction since last seen and so too heard from, in that they’ve since assumed not only the similarly appositely named guitarist Marr, but so too their this afternoon absent bassist, Sam Pryor. All of which prompts the question: beyond the now prerequisite necessity for new press shots, how has this fleshing out of the band affected things beyond the purely aesthetic? “I guess there’s less pressure on myself and Katie these days” Nestor reckons, “in that there are now eight hands! Eight hands, and however many fingers so it’s meant that we’ve had to do less individually to complete each song. That in turn allows us to actually do more, and gives us a greater sense of freedom I feel. Inevitably the other two bring new ideas too, ’cause everybody hears things differently and of course having two guitars is great, as you’ve then got that parallel of ideas. And obviously you can create a lot more noise onstage, in the sense that you’re then capable of a far greater volume!”

The boys’ every response punctuated by the multilayered tweeting of sparrows and larks swooping overhead, it for more or less a first time this year verisimilitudinously feels like the onset of summer, and that unshakable sense of new beginning is thus all but all-pervasive. It’s a sensation which was transparently reflected in the bristling complexities intrinsic to Motto – the solitary new piece of recording we’ve been treated to thus far – and congratulations are unquestionably in order here not only in terms of the recording itself, but so too the hugely positive reaction which was so instantly accredited to it. “It happened naturally, rather than us wanting to necessarily wig out for the sake of it. But we were really blown away [by the reaction]! ‘Cause obviously we’d been gone for nearly two years, and so we sort of sheepishly put a track out but the way in which people warmed to it we found really endearing!”

And it was the evening of its understated unveiling that I first saw Sky Larkin live. As a three-piece of course, and they’ve since developed (or maybe even redeveloped) in that by tonight, they’ve evolved into a full-on four-piece once more. One might wonder as to how you make an already flawless live band better yet, and the answer is apparently to swill in a measuredly reckless Manc-via-Portland guitarist (à la Marr) and only hope to be able to harness the sheer uproar incurred. Yet with regard to his and Pryor’s comparatively recent incorporation, there’s not even a shadow of pretence nor preciousness over previous material receiving a through twice-over.

Nonetheless, it’s that which kickstarted their imminently beginning next campaign trail, Motto, which this evening brings a raucous halt to proceedings and continues to stick long after they’ve gone: rendered a multi-layered leviathan barely contained by the immoderately branded four walls of the venue, lacerating salvos of snare tear through its protuberant chorus and yet in spite of such pomp and show, it’s that striking dual guitar onslaught aforesaid which so sharply pricks the ear. The song is one of the standouts of this year thus far, and a firm 2013 highlight of a variety musical or indeed otherwise, as it above all picks out Harkin’s keen ear for a devastatingly sardonic rhyming couplet. Amongst it all she is, needless to say, considerably more present although in the same way that she hides inscrutably behind oversized Wayfarers once arrived this afternoon, she similarly conceals herself this evening as she cowers behind all manner of massive matter. From the foamy coating encasing her microphone to her immense Hagström guitar, little of her is really all that readily visible. She’s slight, and subdued but never without a clandestine self-confidence. And within the context of the live show, only she is able to articulate the band’s collected thoughts, feelings, recollections and so forth.

Although to again return to the moment, extraterrestrial vibrations then emanate quite eerily from Matthews’ pocket, prior to her imminent arrival then ensuing. Present and at last correct, we revert to the Motto that matters: there’s a truly refreshing timbre to it, which ipso facto insinuates sensations of rejuvenation. Harkin responds: “It was actually one of the last songs that we wrote, and the pushes and pulls within it are really evocative of the four of us as players. We really developed as we wrote that song, and really grew into each other. For want of a better word..!” But to redirect to the point in question, as they got back into the supposed swing o’ things, acquiring new members and assuming new material all the while, the fluttering of butterflies and with them apprehension may be anticipated alongside the pure agitation to get back into the lead-in groove. Not so though, with Sky Larkin: “Given that we’d had that time off, it felt really liberating to return to one another because there really was no real expectation. We had the time to craft something that we really wanted to put out at that particular time, so I don’t think there was really any agitation whatsoever” Nestor affirms. “And it’s funny, ’cause Sky Larkin was obviously our first band but then by taking a break and working with other bands [Harkin notoriously toured with Wild Beasts during said interim period] meant that when we came back together, we realised that we had what people in the ‘real world’ would call transferable skills! So the thing which really brings us all together is the fact that we’re all chronic collaborators” Harkin later corroborates. Mischievous smirks abound, as well they might as a somewhat chasmic gap appears to be opening up: the dearth of old material showcased on recent tours, with a hulking reliance thus thrust on more recent material, signals a divergence to insinuate a disconnect between Sky Larkin past, and Sky Larkin present.

It therefore makes for a seemingly concerted distancing from their previous histories – the band allowing for bygones to be bygones, as it were. Though do they perceive themselves to be a totally different beast these days? “Well, I guess now that we’ve got a new line up, it all kinda feels like a rebirth, really” Harkin testifies. “It’s more a feeling of us being the band that’s about to put out this new record, and we’ll then bring in some older stuff as and when it feels like it best fits. We’d never want to try to crowbar it all in, or anything! And obviously Nestor was still in high school when we first started the band; I was barely out of it. We’re… getting older…” Her words slow to a senile lull, before Nestor resuscitates that same thought process: “Essentially, it’s just fun to play old songs with new people – Summit, for instance – but even then, you’re sort of shoehorning those same people into a band that they don’t necessarily belong to…”

So it can be supposedly deduced that the Sky Larkin of The Golden Spike can be considered different to that of Kaleide, and then again in terms of the as yet untitled third around which Harkin confesses to there already being “a strong excitement. There was a kind of sense that I hadn’t necessarily felt before, in that when we initially came together as a band, we really had no idea as to what we were doing. Whereas now, we’ve really got more of a focus which made it all feel new and invigorating again.” And to run back to Motto as I’ve done so recurrently over the past month or so, it’s apparently apt that a track so immediate should’ve materialised in an unanticipated instant of an otherwise unremarkable afternoon in early May.

There was no foofaraw preceding its arrival, allowing instead for one of the year’s most consummately crafted compositions to woo us with its irrefutable artistic merit alone. “We never wanted to return to some ‘Sky Larkin, presented by Enron’ shtick” Harkin satirically claims. “And the way that I’ve loved albums, and the way I feel good albums fit together is for them to be really catchy when at their most immediate, and yet completely inhabitable at their more expansive.” As her words gather gusto, so too does the chirping of the larks overhead. The air palpably alive with positive enthusiasm, it’s impossible not to glean an impression of Sky Larkin growing itchy to get back to full-time business. “I’ve always wanted for people to be able to listen to our records and feel ensnared by them instantly, but then to also be able to live within them if they feel they need to. I want people to be able to listen to our records for a whole summer, or a whole winter; a whole breakup, or a whole romance – whatever it may be.” A band for all emotions and so too seasons therefore, they do without doubt intimately befit the inherently sweaty gigs summer brings with it.

Although a concern all year round is that of the actual age of immediacy we all now inhabit: like it or loathe it, we belong to an epoch in which everything is critiqued, and in most cases condemned in certain corners within moments of emerging. Indeed in this instance, Motto is something of an anomaly given the universal acclaim attributed to it, but have they been able to sense a change in musical culture since they were last active?

“I mean I would be sickened if it hadn’t changed!” Harkin pragmatically chirps. “I would be really upset if we’d come back and nothing had happened.” But with regard to the widespread consumption and general digestion of music, even at a first glance technology has since overwhelmed us: SoundCloud was then only a greyish shadow of the lurid orange force it is today, and we’ve reached a stage (of saturation, perhaps) whereby we’d doubtless struggle to trudge on without its now fundamental existence. “But none of that changes the way you should release and write music! I can’t say I’ve written any of the new stuff with a view to it being an instant hit on SoundCloud, and is SoundCloud really all that different to MySpace anyway? It’s accessible, which is great, but…”

But whatever its impact and our impressions thereof, it can’t help but have an effect on release scheduling and the formats they subsequently take. The significance of the physical form, for instance, continues to contort itself on a more or less annual basis: “I mean all that ties into whether you agree with music being a commodity or not” declares Harkin deadpan. “We all need to eat! And we all know that some people still really value those more physical formats, but the songs are in our heads, and then they’re on tape, and then they end up elsewhere. If you like the songs, you’ll do whatever you can to get ahold of them. If you like them enough, then you’ll still hopefully buy the record.” True enough, it’s a fact well reflected in that the two most prominent independent record stores in their native Leeds – Crash and Jumbo Records – remain northern realities, and you therefore can still pitch up and purchase recordings of Motto’s calibre. “But it’s not the people who will hopefully like our band that’ll be put off by these sorts of changes – we’re not exactly aiming for the 17,000 people who would buy the CD single from their local Woolworths on a Saturday morning. They were never gonna like us in the first place, so we don’t really need to worry about them!”

And into these notions of presentation and shape play some rather more moralistic concerns – the perception of music as a general commodity, etcetera. Harkin et al. would needless to say never consider it such, although we’re constantly shifting – quite worryingly – toward an eternal intangible, so to speak: we download weightily anticipated releases the moment they leak, in some instances extolling and in others executing via any available social media stream, while we increasingly choose to access the live experience via media visual mediated by those same computer screens through which we ostensibly see everything, although more feasibly see almost nothing of even the most minute importance. “But how intangible is music to begin with?” Harkin counters. “I mean you hear it floating down from an open window, or pumping out of a car. I think that people are very aware of music being treated as a product, and I think it can be really patronising to try and browbeat them because we all know that music costs money to make. We’re past that stage now, or at least you would hope we are! But it’s all to do with the transparency of the industry: in theory, the popstar was always intended to sell a million copies, and the hope was that some of that [financial clout] would trickle down to the independent subsidiaries. But the question now concerns whether that’s still happening, or whether it’s all coming from the ground up – from the Kickstarter’s, and whatever else.”

Hers is the kind of necessarily progressive mind the industry so drastically lacks although to go with a more elementary outlook on that same typically problematic topic, and from the external perspective of that onetime fan-cum-fundamental member, “You heard it here first, but MP3s suck! You never get to hold the artwork; you never see how things were originally intended; you miss the point.” And Nile himself has a point, even if it may well be one which is albeit mildly contradicted by his chief employer in kind: “When I hear a song in my head, it’s still just as intangible as an MP3 so I think that provokes a kind of weird romance when it comes to vinyl. I’ve never sat down and thought about the crafting of a product. If I were to make a chair, I would definitely be thinking about that aspect but no matter how much I enjoy artwork and physical releases, there’s an attractive translation of thought to digital data there.”

It’s yet another pertinent point, in that without the inherently intangible, there can be no release – physical, or in the case of this confab so too mental – whatsoever. “That’s why we’ve put out singles as watches and things, because the idea is far more important than the actual physical object. [Beeline was of course released as a transparent Swatch-like analogue watch back in 2009.] That’s the bottom line and no matter how cool that physical object might well be, the idea and the songs are essential. So there’s a paradoxical element to it all, because equally I mean I love vinyl, but I really hate object fetishism. It’s so grim!” A double-edged sword, or perhaps rather a record with two sides in that everybody these days wants vinyl, but at that same time wants to be seen listening to it in the same way that we so often strive to be seen at certain shows, as opposed to being there to hear, immerse ourselves and indeed fully experience them.

Their ultimate goal, though, is considerably more simplistic and to a degree one-dimensional: “Essentially, I don’t think you’ve made it ’til you’ve been played out of a phone on a bus” Katie admits. “That’s as big as you can be now. I mean I wish we’d been played out of a phone on a bus! If someone wants to annoy other people with your music on a bus, and they love you so much that they don’t care, then that’s the ultimate compliment. Totally, right? It’s like when you see teenagers on school buses who play stuff off their phones – they’re considered the coolest people in the world, and that’s the market that everybody wants to tap into! But then I’d like to think that we can have both – your 180g heavyweight vinyl, and your cellular phone replay…”

A far cry from the passing number 19, however, snarls Seattle stateside where they again relocated for the recording of their latest. It’s a place they affirm now has “a really nice familiarity to it” which is perhaps less than surprising, for not only has the city been astoundingly accommodative toward the band – both The Golden Spike and Kaleide were also recorded there – but so too can it be considered the birthplace of their unerringly alluring sound. “It’s a nice flight, but there’s now a kind of ritual element to us making a trip of it which means that we’re just so focussed” Harkin contemplates. “We were out there for three weeks, and we only went out on Election Night ’cause you know, we couldn’t not witness it! We were on the celebratory red, white and blue Jell-O shots that night, but with the record we wanted to trap the same sort of energy we project during our live shows. I didn’t want for it to sound like we were 9–5ing it and then just fitting it in around whatever, ’cause you can really hear if you’re having to squeeze it in around afterwork drinks here, and a birthday party there. The prerequisite trip to Tesco’s…”

The multinational may be mercifully yet to infiltrate the Washington seaport city, and personally speaking they to this day feel devoutly Loiner. It’s described as something which “never leaves you” but collectively, their identity is stranded somewhere a little more transatlantic betwixt the two, with their lightly grungy fare a considered amalgam as far as style, substance and sonic belonging may be concerned: “Pretty much the only stuff that I was really listening to in the buildup to this record was American post-hardcore born of peripheral cities – Austin; DC; Portland; Seattle. They’ve always been the sorts of bands I’ve been attracted to by default, and the same can be said of the British bands I’ve been drawn to. They were always post-punk, female-fronted outfits: Delta 5, and Life Without Buildings. So that’s Leeds and Glasgow, and I was only really able to diagnose that being the stuff I was listening to while we were writing once the record was all done.

“And I’ve waxed lyrical about this before, but I feel there’s a really potent exchange between the north of England and the Pacific Northwest, in that people are tough yet friendly; laid-back, but still have a strong work ethic about them. And we’re outdoorsy, without ever being really beachy! So yeah, it’s a kind of laid-back/ tough, friendly/ get-the-job-done-yness that assimilates the two.” And the sound of things to come is itself in no way dissimilar to that of previous endeavours, as there has been a remarkable consistency thus far not only in terms of standard, but so too stylistic mode. Though simultaneously, we’ve been able to gauge a very distinct sound of progress across the discography and were each album to be mapped out on graphic axes, the trajectory would doubtless be of a positively linear persuasion. “The word I always think of [when describing the evolution of our sound] is ‘saltier'” Harkin ponders, again realigning Sky Larkin a little more intimately with Seattle. “And it feels like it’s all fun now! It’s not a confidence, but more a sense of us having eased into things again. We’ve taken our time to work out our sound, and we’re all set!”

With a Big Mac cooling and potentially maturing, we part. Doubtless to reconvene soon enough, however, when I’ll gladly be “the guy in the white t-shirt. Again…”

Sky Larkin’s as yet untitled third full-length is anticipated this autumn, while they return to London on June 22nd to play The Old Blue Last.

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