Indie sensations Sky Larkin discuss their early days, their new record and about ‘transatlantic’ perceptions.
In 2009, I went to see The Cribs play at the Birmingham Academy, and in retrospect, it was an impressive line-up: The Cribs were playing alongside Johnny Marr, supported by Los Campesinos! and Sky Larkin. Sky Larkin’s memorable sound roused me to buy their first album, The Golden Spike, released earlier in 2009. Given the chance to meet the band at the Y Not festival in Derbyshire this month, I queued behind several other journalists for an audience with Katie Harkin and Nestor Matthews, the founding members, who were in high demand after a great performance on the main stage.
Though Sky Larkin are past the ‘debut’ and ‘sophomore’ releases that launch artists’ careers, Katie and Nestor seem to be approaching third album Motto as a new start. Since 2010, the band have been on hiatus – in the interim, Katie spent some time touring with the Wild Beasts and Nestor began an English degree. Nestor said that studying helped him to focus, and that the writing arrangements reminded him of when they first set up the band, while Katie was studying History of Art at UCL. “When Katie was living down in London, she’d come up to Leeds or I’d go down to London, and we’d have a set period of time before one of us had to leave, a couple of hours to concentrate on writing or playing songs. And it was like that again really, because Katie would be back in Leeds for a few days and then go off again. Because we had a focus, there was a sense of urgency. You can feel that urgency, that spark and tension in the music this time round.”
On the new singles, ‘Motto’ and ‘Loom’, Sky Larkin demonstrate this sense of urgency: driving guitars add a new level of intensity to the band’s distinctive sound. Contributing to this sonic development are two new members, Nile Marr and Sam Pryor, replacing former bassist Doug Adams. According to Katie, the new line-up has helped them personally as well as musically. “It’s been interesting because Nestor and I have been playing together since we were 13 and 15, and people coming in has shown us more who we are as a duo. I think that’s the best part of collaboration – you can play with someone and it tells you something about yourself that you didn’t realise. And that’s kind of the point of it: it’s not just that you’re collecting other people’s skills and hoarding them, it’s that everyone is learning something from the experience.”
No matter what I ask in the interview, ‘learning’ returns as a persistent motif. Sky Larkin are still learning who they are, and their wider artistic development has shown through in their album artwork. The Golden Spike is adorned with Lowrie-esque drawn characters, stylish and minimalistic, where 2010’s Kaleide bears a bolder, more colourful geometric print. I ask them how Motto’s album artwork, a photograph of a cactus blooming, represents its musical content. Katie replies: “It was a photo that I took. I was looking for something to call the record, and that really suggested it for me – something that’s beautiful but strong. Not violent… something strong that wasn’t aggressive.” Nestor added that the photo was a kind of visual motto.
Despite their evident intention to treat Motto as a fresh start, there are notable continuities between the band’s new material and their earlier output. For one thing, they decided to record in Seattle again for this album. Katie sings the praises of well kitted-out American studios, and says she enjoys the ritual of the travelling: “There’s something of the ceremony of the trip that I find really focusing. If I made a record when I could just pop out to the shops or go home and watch the telly, I couldn’t do it.” Nestor agrees, but feels that Seattle is becoming eerily familiar. “I’ve always said I like going to America because it’s not home. But this time round, because we’ve been there twice, I got there and I was like, “I know my way round!” So there was that comfort, which was a great feeling. There were no nerves.”
Seattle was the homeland of the genre that came to be known as ‘grunge’, and that sound definitely comes across as an influence on Sky Larkin’s music. But Katie is resistant to the term ‘transatlantic’, an adjective associated with the band in the past. “It’s about what is perceived as Britishness and what is perceived as Americanness. It’s totally the legacy of Britpop, because there are post-punk bands from Glasgow and post-punk bands from Leeds, not just New York.” She concedes that the Britpop sound that dominated her youth did not really appeal to her. “It wasn’t the kind of Britishness or Northernness that I could relate to… it was a real proscribed version of Britishness.” The home-counties self-assurance of Blur springs to mind, with the sour aftertaste of the Gallagher brothers’ swagger, and I can see why she would have been drawn across the Atlantic. Yet, unlike some artists influenced by American culture, Katie sings with a clear English accent, and her lyrics are steeped in English idiom. Nestor is keen to reinforce the complexity of influence: the band may have been influenced by Britpop, having grown up with it, but they had the freedom to use or discard those influences. “It’s the distance from where it’s happening that allows you to play with it and fire it back. If you tried to mess with Britpop here, at the time you’d be crucified… Because you’re over there, you can take it in and spit it back out again, and make something completely new.”
With that, we’re back in the territory of newness and change, but I’m drawn to an old topic – I decide to ask my ‘women in music’ question, because even standing in the press area at Y Not festival, the relative scarcity of women amongst the bands, sound crews, management teams and journalists is conspicuous. I ask if Katie has ever felt any pressure to live up to the stereotypes of femininity or sexuality seemingly expected of women in the music business. It’s clearly something Katie’s thought about, as she astutely points out that attitudes towards female guitarists aren’t actually about the musicians – they’re about the fans, and who the fans count as their heroes. “The onus is on people to realise that there is a rich history of female performers that don’t oversexualise themselves. There has to be a point where it’s not my responsibility. There are plenty of amazing female drummers and incredible female songwriters, and men that are incredibly sexual onstage as well. There’s a point where you just have to realise that it’s the cracks in the whitewash that are showing – it’s just about who other people’s heroes are.” Though she is receptive to the question, there’s a touch of irritation in Katie’s voice – perhaps at the fact that, as a good (and rare) example of an artist who breaks with onstage gender norms, she gets the brunt of the questioning.
It’s the end of the interview – the band are summoned away by their manager, who needs them for yet another round of questions. Nestor’s comment on the record label comes to mind: “When we first met them, we got to know them before there was any real talk of pen to paper… it was a contract between friends.” With the comfort of the Wichita team and their home-from-home recording studio in Seattle, alongside the excitement of new members and fresh material, I sense that things are going right for Sky Larkin at the moment. When I asked Nestor if he liked combining studying with touring, he replied, “I’m really excited, I really like it.” The response is indicative of a new lease of life in Sky Larkin, a fresh sense of positivity which shines through in their vibrant, mature indie rock.
Sky Larkin’s new album Motto will be released on 16th September. More information, including pre-orders, can be found at: http://skylarkinskylarkin.tumblr.com/