Photo: Greg Reigh

Now Hear This!: Crown Larks

The saxophone-laden, post-punk squall of Crown Larks carves out a unique space in the Midwest psych scene -- and now the world is finally taking notice.

Crown Larks
Already Dead Tapes + Satellite Records

Crown Larks walk a thin line between intellectual veracity and primal instinct. Hailing from Chicago and its burgeoning psych-noise scene, this four-piece’s sophomore LP Population is a dizzying, dazzling display of twisted textures and snarling riffs. Somewhere between post-punk and kitchen-sink indie pop speaker-rattling is where Crown Larks’ sound lies, and some people are finally taking notice of the unique spot they occupy in the Midwest psych scene.

Where their debut release Blood Dancer once took a moment to gaze into a dream, Population carries enough punch to rip a hole straight out of the dream and into another dimension. The four-piece return with a purposeful record laced with swirling, jazzy saxophone riffs, polyrhythmic drumming, punchy bass, and feedback laden licks.

PopMatters sat down for a chat with guitarist/vocalist Jack Bouboushian, saxophone & keyboardist Lorraine Bailey, and bassist Matt Puhr about the band’s evolution, what makes a good Crown Larks song, SXSW Festival, and playing the DIY circuit.

For the new record, Population, how do you think you have evolved as a band? In any sense really.

Jack: I think is a balance between writing with a clear intentionality, versus something more free, intuitive, and undefined. I think that Population is probably bias more towards the former. I think it’s much more focused on rhythm, which has a lot to do with Matt [Bass] coming in with an instrument that lends itself to rhythmic playing. He uses a lot textural and melodic playing too, but having that in there it just kind of allowed us to write these new songs. “React” is a good example where you have all four instruments doing these different cycling rhythms. Then a vocal is doing rhythms. A lot of that kind of thing. Compared to the last one, rhythmic stuff and odd time signatures that are meant to still feel groovy, still feel like you can nod your head or dance to them.

Lorraine: More Vocals in general. I sing more, more backup and lead. A lot of it was just trying to do something different from the last record. Thinking about structures and how have something that still had improvised parts, while still being more structured than the last one.

There’s a more orchestrated quality.

Jack: There are different ways you can divide emotional experiences we all encounter. It’s interesting how music cuts through those things and has its own way of structuring them. So maybe a switch from some really dark discussion of death and fate, and then someone cracks a funny joke, that can happen in music too. But it’s along different lines. Some of the songs have a more defined atmosphere than others for sure, something like “Swoon (for Fred Hampton)” is pretty consistently dark and heavy. “Circus Luvv” is a little bit more light and whimsical. Generally, I’m into music that explores lots of different moods in kinds of terms that can.

Lorraine: You mention different moods. Each song is its own world, there’s not very many you can say let’s put one-five-six together and that’s the Crown Larks sound. They really have to be heard as a whole to really get a sense of what the band is trying to do and create a cohesive picture. Like trying to create a planet for all these different moods.

What kind of qualities do you think makes for a good and effective Crown Larks song?

Jack: For me, the most impactful song would be one that maintains that raw visceral energy, but at the same time is still musically interesting, and surprising, and impacts on a personal level in both of those ways, which I think is pretty tough to do. I never wanna write something purely clinical so-to-speak, but on the other hand, if you’re just kinda putting your jams out there, a lot of that is more rewarding to play than to listen to.

Loraine: Though there have been somethings that have started from an idea that was fine-tuned, like a riff, or something in a form a math rock idea in the chrysalis form.

Jack: Like a riff or something, jamming.

Loraine: Yeah, like the bass stuff it has been an idea that was like, “Okay, maybe let’s do something in ten, just to see how it feels.” But intuition plays a really big part in how we can come together, and how we can talk about music together. Especially since we come from very different backgrounds. So you can talk about them in words, or you can present them musically when we’re playing together. But then, just working with these tensions together. I come from a more classical background, so a lot of times I can write something out, but I can’t explain it to other people in the band that way. So I have to try and think of other ways of working.

I first met you guys at The Hideout’s SXSW sendoff; how beneficial are those kinds of events for a band like Crown Larks?

Lorraine: Oh yeah they’re super generous. You know they have the sponsorships so they can pay you well, and they also send you off with food, like box 50 Acai bars and beer. Not that we needed more beer at SXSW.

You guys weren’t sponsored by SXSW, so what sort of benefits do you get out of doing the off-hand shows? Still getting good exposure our of that?

Jack: Depends on the shows you know? It’s kind of a microcosm of a tour. Instead of playing 12 shows in 12 days, you’re now playing 12 shows in five days. The thing I got most out of it is honestly, and sorry to use the nasty word about it, but networking. Playing with so many bands that I’ve either tried playing with on tour or wanted to and then you end up playing with eight of those bands in like a three-day span. So you meet a lot of people that way, that just helps with booking going forward. Some of the shows are better attended than others. With SXSW there are 30 different shows going on at any time.

Lorraine: There are so many different shows happening, and even going to shows as a band, just hanging around the venue and seeing everything at work is really fun.

Jack: Honestly, a lot of my friends who have gone down there and played their one big sponsored show, which then forces you to turn down a ton of unofficial shows, rarely does that add up to the unofficial shows. Because often what happens, is here’s $400 for playing the Bud Light side stage at 1PM, now you can’t play anywhere else for the rest of the week. “But hey: you’re at South-By.”

This year seemed particularly bad about that. I’m not gonna pretend to be a legal scholar, but I don’t think it was intended to be a threat, but the language used to inform you of the law seemed rather unnecessary.

Lorraine: Totally unthoughtful at the very prospect of all the bands, most of whom I heard were from Europe, coming over, It’s hugely expensive. We saw this German band Oracles down at SXSW, and just to get a visa to perform in the US they had to get a government grant to even do it. So for all these people coming over, it’s potentially a huge gamble or risk.

Jack: And it was weird man, it cost them $4,500 to come, and SXSW had underwritten some of it, but then there were all these conditions that make you — anyway long story short, I grew up in Texas, and when I was a kid it was just a little festival, a two day thing. And now it’s this hydra-headed, crazy corporate entity.

I know that just about every festival is declared to be “dead” or “defunct” after a certain run of time by people. But I think what did it in for me was having FBI Director James Comey as a special guest speaker. Then CMJ didn’t come back. With all these hallmarks sort of dissolving, are there any events that you think compare to those? Or are these events just not as necessary as they once were?

Jack: Really the only other thing like SXSW and CMJ was NXNE in Toronto, where there just these like, take over the city for ten days, with dozens of shows happening at different venues everyday kinda thing. That for me is way different then destination festivals like Coachella, or even smaller things like Tomorrow Never Knows, which Lincoln Hall and Schubas do. I like those types of events where it was just a festival in the sense that there will be tons of these little shows across the city. Because if you know how to navigate SXSW you can see all the bands you wanna see for free, except for maybe acts like Erykah Badu, and also end up with a lot of free alcohol and food. And not even just as a musician. Anyone can figure out how to navigate because the unofficial scene is huge. We got asked to play lots of other different shows, it was just hard to keep up with it. We played around 13.

Lorraine: Also the DIY fests cropped out, but they’re on such a different scale.

Jack: I guess I would just say again, it’s like a microcosm of a tour, you know how to get on bills with bands you wanna play shows with, with show throwers you wanna work with. Then it’s worth it because you’re getting to play music with those people. But if you’re going down to SXSW, no one walks up to anyone at the end of a show and is like, “We’re gonna sign you.” In fact, you’re more likely for that to happen playing the shittiest dive bar, in the shittiest town, just because at least there, maybe it’s at least a tiny chance someone swings by.

Whereas [with] SXSW no one goes there for that, the smaller labels are there to talk to bigger distributors, the bigger distributors are there to talk to James Comey. It’s just a huge orgy, the official stuff it’s like half the sets end with, “And we just wanna shout out Pepsi, and Twix for putting us on!” Then you know bands that have three songs and four publicists. I don’t know if that really answers any of the questions or not at all, but there ya go.