The Absurdity of transcendence: An interview with Crown Larks

Crown Larks interview

For some reason, I seem to associate any music that’s in some way “challenging” with drugs, psychedelics in particular. In Crown Larks, I hear uncharted potential, immense creative energy, and a general feeling of wonder. (There’s no monopoly on that vibe, either. In any case, it seems like it would be difficult to extrapolate a band’s sound from that vague descriptor, but hopefully the following interview will elaborate on such questions.) These can be heard in the various jams on which the band embarks, long sections with no vocals at all—yet there’s still an underlying structure and ear for melody here, a confidence. It’s clear that these four love the process of playing music more than anything else. Yet, talking to the band, it’s clear that these four are listeners first and musicians second. Maybe that’s not quite accurate. Maybe they’re equal. But that’s more than you can say about other acts. Their sincere love and dedication to those who have come before them, or even their contemporaries, clearly shows in their words, and naturally, music. And yet, while it seems inevitable that their sound can only be described in terms of other groups, I somehow get the feeling that nobody else out there quite sounds like Crown Larks. Obviously, I haven’t heard every band out there, so I could be wrong (and probably am, statistically speaking); it’s just an intuition I get.

Encapsulating an album as ambitious as Population proves to be a trial when you’re not the most detail-oriented person out there. Crown Larks’ Bandcamp page alone lists the following instruments: alto sax, baritone sax, synth, synth bass, flute, organ, trumpet, and tabla in addition to the more conventional guitar, bass, and drums. It also lists the following tags: experimental, art rock, drone, krautrock, minimal, no wave, post-punk, psych, and space. Simply put, there’s a lot going on here, and while the band undoubtedly has a great vibe, it feels like a shame to not be able to absorb all the individual components and nuances. If anything, it was headphones that helped the most in this process. Still, Population will equally appeal to those listeners—or rather, blow them away, as I scribbled during one listening session. It feels like a true musicians’ album.

Lorraine and Jack, who make up the founding core of Crown Larks, were kind enough to answer my questions while on the road. Crown Larks released their second full-length Population on May 5 via Satellite and Already Dead Tapes. Check them out if they’re playing live in a city or town near you; their live show is quite the majestic experience. Dates can be found here.

Treble: How did you get together for this project? Have you played in bands before?

Jack Bouboushian: I played music before, but I was a latecomer to band life.  Lorraine and I moved to Chicago because our friends were running a warehouse venue called the Mopery, [but] got here after it fell apart, and just started jamming in the basement a lot with each other and whoever we could find—people we met through shows, Craigslist… the Craigslist thing felt kind of silly, initially, but in the end was cool because you meet the most random freaks on craigslist, true outsiders who would [even] be outsiders in the pseudo-outsider world known as The Music/Art Scene, where we’re all playing up our outsider cred all the time, haha.

Lorraine Bailey: Yeah, Bill [Miller, drums] and Matt [Puhr, bass] were both craigslist finds! It was good for us to go outside of our normal scene to find people in a more random way like that. They’ve both been in a lot of bands, but I’m not one of those folks who’s been in bands all their life. Growing up, I never even considered that being in a band was something I could do. I only got involved in my mid-20s.

Treble: In your original email, you mentioned that you’re “in the vein of stuff like Boredoms, Broadcast, Soft Machine, Can, Pere Ubu, Deerhunter, CAVE, etc.” (as well as tons of other groups you’ve name-dropped in other interviews) This struck me because I’ve found that most musicians, when asked about influences, etc., will generally resort to something like “I don’t know, man, we’re just doing our own thing.” I’m wondering if those names came to you after the fact—either “reviewers have been name-dropping these artists a lot; I guess I can see where they’re coming from” or “damn, this song we wrote is totally Can-esque”—or if you started off with those artists in mind. Though I’m not a musician myself, I imagine that many, if not most, things you listen to work their way into your music in some way; has this been your experience?

JB: I usually mention influences that I feel are more audible, but yeah, sometimes the vocal melody is basically a Supremes song or a Townes Van Zandt song, sometimes the lyrics are half cribbed from Mobb Deep, the rhythm is from Tito Puente—even though when we started this band, the icons were Fun House, Ascension, Tago Mago.

On the other hand, rock bands tend to take themselves too seriously and be full of shit with their “we transcend genres and influences” deal. Rappers, jazz players, etc. pay respect to their influences all the time.  As far as journalists labeling us, it can be frustrating when they overstate the “jazz” thing because even though the influence is huge, this is clearly not a jazz group, and I think it’d be almost disrespectful to that tradition for us to portray ourselves that way. I wonder if Fun House came out today, with all the saxophone, how it’d be labeled… but yeah, most rock bands, you’re basically covering Spacemen 3, get over it. And they don’t wanna name drop contemporaries out of fear of being considered derivative. Who cares? Horse Lords has inspired me to rethink my rhythm writing for this set of instruments. Exploded View is a huge influence on what we’re writing now—not because I never heard Portishead or King Tubby before (more or less their sound), but because they brought those things into a “rock” context in a way that feels fresh. So it’s about being in unspoken dialogue with musicians you love, not ripping them off (hopefully).

Treble: Additionally, from what I’ve read, you’re just as influenced as bands in the present as you are by bands in the past. I’ve also read that you try to personally pick the locals that will play with you in each city. That’s awesome—I feel like so many people, even those who claim to be particularly dedicated, passionate music fans, eventually get to a point where they just stop seeking out new bands… and, to be honest, that really scares me! What are your thoughts on this?

LB: I want to be influenced by sounds from any time to the extent they feel alive and current. Suicide or Nina Simone or Soft Machine or Albert Ayler feels way less dated to me than some nostalgia trip like 90 percent of the psych bands out there with the same fuzz-and-reverb formula. Rock music is on this terrible, perpetual nostalgia trip  It’s been a long time since guitar-based music has been pushing creativity forward as opposed to romanticizing the’60s or punk—or just slapping on newer influences instead of really engaging with them.

Trying to find music we like in each city is also a good way to mix things up as far as putting together a diverse bill, both as far as the music and people involved. I don’t want to play on an all-psych bill, an all-male bill, or all-white bill, but that’s all too often the default for rock shows.

JB: I think most of today’s best music is being made by electronic producers, rappers, etc. I’m trying to get better at setting up bills that cross those genre divides. You’re right, it’s a bummer how most people stop exploring new music at a point, [and] tell you about the good old days, a big way [of how] “aging” comes to mean decay instead of growth… as the great Jonathan Richman said, “I wanna keep my place in the old world / Keep my place in the arcane / But now we say bye bye old world /  Gotta help the new world now.” You just have to keep seeking out new collaborators and influences. Look at the last David Bowie record, who expected that from an old timer? Meredith Monk’s still out there, ONO’s still out there… you can stay with it if you want to.

Treble: How do lyrics come into play for you as songwriters? Do you tend to put just as much thought into them as you do the instrumental side, and if so, can you tell me a little bit more about your lyrics?

JB: Lyrics are a big part. They often come later in the writing process because I like to generate basic ideas as a group, then Lorraine and I structure stuff into songs, and the lyrics grow up with that process. Population’s themes are darker than the last, but there’s usually a sense of absurdity or humor there. So if I’m exploring [a] dissociated, schizophrenic sense of self brought on by consumer culture, I’m also laughing thinking of having Keith Urban try to sell me a truck while I’m taking a shit at a mall on tour. Definitely a lot of the false sense of individuality or “rebellion” that people get from like-ing the right posts, buying the right things… Some of the songs are just personal narratives about the good old stuff like death (“we need a good overdose tune on this one to make ‘er sell Johnny”), relationships falling apart, how weird and fucked up the gas station is. Modernity is this pretty harsh squall, it’s hard to feel at home anywhere if you’re paying attention. Does that mean you shouldn’t? It should be funnier though: “Modern Love” or “Cherie Cherie,” those are great “dark” lyrics.

LB: Some of the lyrics I wrote deal with solitude or the commercialization of everyday life. Lyrics are definitely not an afterthought. I often struggle over them and make last minute changes before recording or before shows. Finding words that bear repetition and still feel meaningful is hard.

Treble: Tell me about performing live and what it means to you guys. I know many bands say that they merely record music so they can play live, and then many bands will say the opposite. Where does Crown Larks fit into this picture? What do you try to bring to a live show, and are there any bands you look to for influence in terms of their live show (if any)? (I’m really impressed by Guerilla Toss’ show, for example, and pretty much all psych rock bands.) Does a good show mostly come down to the energy of the audience, the acoustics, or what?

LB: Recording is rewarding on its own but we always try to play our stuff on tour a lot before recording it. It’s a way of opening up the creative process to the audience too. You see that people really love something and that makes you decide to roll with it—or never play it again, because you were going for something else; maybe you wanted to disturb or freak them out! Guerilla Toss is amazing live. If we could [only] get to that level of execution… because that’s the thing about playing live, there’s no rolling the tape back or changing the EQ, it just happens.  A live show should be soaked in sweat; visceral, raw, jarring, fun. Some contemporaries who always do it right: Yonatan Gat, Health&Beauty, Toupee, Wei Zhongle, Circuit des Yeux, ONO.

JB: Playing a good show is 100 percent on the musicians because it’s their job to conjure up the energy and ignore the headaches. You look at an audience and expect them to be over the moon to see you, but they’re dealing with the same world of shit, depression, boredom, [and] confusion that you are. Why should they care about your music? Then you realize they don’t owe you shit—it’s your job to conjure up something overwhelming for them to get lost in, have fun, come out better, hopefully. With this record, I got super into the sculptural process of recording, and enjoyed it a lot too… it’s just different, a more controlled and neurotic process that’s instantly a past/future object. But playing live is what sets music apart for me. I think there are other creative forms I’d be more natural and better at, but challenging yourself to be in the moment and flow with a group of people is the best antidote to the fucked-upness of things.

Treble: Any insight you can offer on the title of the new LP, Population?

Jack: I read an interview with WAND where they talked about choosing the name because it was ambiguously evocative, didn’t have a clear meaning but wasn’t just the “pick a random household object” formula. Population is kind of like that. It also has to do with this idea that creativity, as it exists now, is less and less of a large-scale building project, or a tree branching out but centrally rooted. It’s groups of nomads and hermits populating deserts, this uncertain and fragmented growth. That’s what makes something like American Idol so funny, the idea that we can have a Top of the Pops (which was goofy and dated in its own time) now, when Li’l B is someone who reflects how culture actually expands now.  So it’s probably always been this way.

Crown Larks interview population

Treble: How do you see Population as a progression of your sound to date? Are there any new influences—again, conscious or not—that you’ve brought to the table here?

LB: Now we’ll fall into the band interview stereotype… each of these songs is its own sonic planet. Population‘s a much more rhythms-and-vocals focused record next to the textural psychy stuff of yesteryear, though there’s some of that too. We got more into exploring polyrhythms, post-punk influences, tighter structures, no wavey harshness on stuff like “Swoon” and “Watchful.” But then you have weird synthy jams with pop-ish vocals (“TFZ,” “Circus Luvv”). Talk Talk, This Heat, Liars, Parlor Walls are some more noticeable influences this time around.

JB: And I tried to push myself as a vocalist and learn to actually sing. Lorraine sings a lot more, too. Vocally, Alan Vega is always a big influence for me, [as well as] downtempo Iggy Pop stuff, and also just some of that conventionally-voiced-guy-learns-to-sing-better thing you get going from Cryptograms to Halcyon Digest with Bradford Cox (who I think translated pushing himself as a performer into pushing himself as a singer, which I’d like to do), Whitney Allen from Toupee or Brian Sulpizio from Health&Beauty, Travis from ONO—also big vocal influences. 

Treble: Which drug best embodies your music? Which philosophy?

LB: Last time we played Atlanta we got “Stereolab wrecked on ketamine” which was pretty good even though we don’t actually sound like that. (That was me, haha—I was listening to a lot of Stereolab at the time -BB)

JB: A strong dissociative that somehow gives you laser focus and tweaked out energy too – yeah, let’s call it keta-meth with a side of shroom.

As for philosophy, it’s a kind of collaborative anarchy. I try to “lead” this band with the AACM approach—there’s a convergence point, a common purpose, but everyone’s just throwing shit out there and we look for the confluence, leaving a lot of room for chaos. And musically, making stuff that’s energetic and raw and emotionally immediate, but also surprising and complex in a way that rewards closer listening. If you like the music, that’ll resonate, if not, I sound like a self-righteous dick… like, I read an interview with John Coltrane where he said that his goal was “just to bring some people happiness.” And I broke into tears because coming from him, with all his exploration and work and pain and ecstatic energy, it meant a lot. He’s talking about real, undefinable happiness, something you only strive for… so his music spoke for itself on that level. Everyone’s trying to get there.

Treble: What are your thoughts on inspiration? Is it something that you tend to wait around to strike, or do you find it necessary to fight through the creative slumps?

LB: That’s what I love about the collaborative angle—if I’m feeling bored and uninspired at practice, there are three other people who can take a more lead role sonically. It’s tough when you don’t have anything to work on, though. When you don’t feel inspired, you can always just polish some rough edges on an idea that’s already there and that can lead to new stuff.

JB: It’s nice when it strikes, but to make that happen, you just tend the soil sometimes, listen to others, get out of your own head.  After finishing a record, I have to try to learn to enjoy listening to music again, which is hard because everything I hear makes me question my own adequacy at that point. And then I’m emailing people to check out this amazing new music that’s neither amazing nor new to me anymore (then two years pass and you’re like “fuck, this is actually really good! I wish I could do this again”). But when I finally hear something I like, [I’ll] rip it off and see if it becomes a new thing. Pray that your bandmates show up with good starting points because you’re mostly a hack with a free copy of Reaper!  Until rays of inspiration wash over you like the golden god of 7.5 reviews on Pitchfork you really are.

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