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Feature Thu Nov 12 2015

The Transmutative Experimentation of Crown Larks

2015-4-6 Empty Bottle 13.JPG

A month ago, I wrote about The Empty Bottle's Free Mondays as a paragon of everything that rocks about rock music: the rabid energy, the underground feel, the democratic vibe that comes with a free show. The Ukrainian Village bar combines aspects of the DIY aesthetic with the trappings of a professional venue, a line that most of its acts ride sonically. Crown Larks looks at that line, considers how to make it bend, squiggle, and eventually shatter entirely, then goes out on stage and accomplishes that with a jolt of experimental energy that commandeers listeners' wildest trains of thought.

The quartet just wrapped up a quick tour out east in support of its most recent album, Blood Dancer, and now looks to draw a big hometown crowd this Monday at the Bottle. I've had the chance to see Crown Larks live twice at Schubas--once with Buke + Gase and Landlady, and again with Yonatan Gat and The Avantist. Their vicious, spontaneous, almost improvisational style, plus a conversation with frontman Jack Bouboushian about Friedrich Nietzsche, interested me in telling their story. It involves, among other things, a frigid first jam experience, an exploration of Chicago's post-industrial bleakness, and a dead man's baseball references.


~*~

I arrive at the Logan Square apartment of Jack Bouboushian and Lorraine Bailey on a bright Sunday morning in October, and right away it's evident that this is a musicians' abode. Instruments litter the furniture in the cramped living room. An album by jazz polymath Yusef Lateef spins on the turntable in the short hallway to the kitchen, where the couple is cooking breakfast potatoes and eggs. "We used to have chickens here...they laid eggs every day," Bouboushian tells me. "When we had to replace the porch the landlord decided against it."

Bouboushian and Bailey met at the University of Chicago in the mid-2000s and traveled for several years before moving into this house in April 2011 to join some friends who were running an underground venue called The Mopery. It shut down right before they arrived, but the couple keeps the DIY ethos alive and well. There's a letter by legendary music photographer Ray Ellingsen on the fridge extolling Chicago's DIY scene, which lives in ever-present danger of noise complaints and liquor sales violations. "I think the difference between Chicago and New York is that in New York a lot of the venues that are DIY are able to advertise openly and put their address out there," says Bouboushian. "Whereas in Chicago, the best [DIY] venues, you just can't...you can't put it in the Reader, or it's over."

After several months of getting their feet wet in the city's music community, Bouboushian and Bailey formed the noisy, psychedelic chaos of Crown Larks in 2012. "It was kind of fun, just being in the old house and having that practice space in the basement," recalls Bouboushian. "It was just more conducive to playing louder, people-jam-together-and-come-up-with-shit music. Whereas I had been doing a lot of acoustic, stuff-you-could-play-in-your-apartment music before that, you know, stuff you can play without getting yelled at."

To get to the basement, where the band has a practice scheduled for later in the day, you need to walk outside, down the balcony stairs and through a door that looks like it was built for either a tornado or a Paranormal Activity spinoff. In the winter, it must become downright terrifying. Bill Miller had to deal with that situation after responding to Crown Larks' Craigslist ad in January 2013, when he and Bouboushian spent their very first day together locked out of the basement as Bailey, oblivious to their knocking, jammed underground. "It was snowing, super deep snow," chuckles Bouboushian, "and Bill was wearing pretty much what he's wearing now." (He's wearing a light hoodie and some sweatpants.)

On top of that, Miller remembers that once they all got to jamming, it didn't go too well. "They showed me a very simple song and I couldn't pick up the beat," he says. But despite that, something clicked on a philosophical level; Miller's musical journey has seen him experiment with so many different genres that experimentation itself has become his chief value, one he shares with Bouboushian and Bailey. On top of that, there's something about freezing your butt off next to a near-total stranger that creates an indelible bond, I suppose, and Miller's stuck with the band ever since.

With Miller behind the kit, Bouboushian on guitar and vocals, Bailey on keys and a variety of wind instruments, and a revolving cast of other musicians filling out the sound--bassist Matt Puhr only became a permanent member this summer--Crown Larks released their debut EP Catalytic Conversion in July 2013. The freeform aesthetic that has defined the band's sound was already in full force, vigorous grooves emerging from the chaos before sinking back into the churning sea of noise. Tracks of particular note include "Satrap," which features Bouboushian's manic guitar and even more manic vocals over a driving rhythm section, and "Blue Lobster," which explores Floydian psychedelic cosmos, albeit in a more minimalist, non-Alan Parsons-produced context. In all, Catalytic Conversion marries the ideals of improvisation with the necessity of structure, even in the loosest sense of the word--and in doing so, it's perfectly indicative of the way it was written.

Crown Larks' typical songwriting process goes something like this: the four bandmates descend into the basement and start jamming. Someone comes up with a groove or a riff, oftentimes in an unusual time signature, and everyone else builds off of it. Some indeterminate amount of time later ("a lot of times it'll go for thirty minutes to an hour or more of just jamming it," says Miller), the band stops playing and listens back through a recording of what they've just created. Then, it's a meticulous process of sorting through the ideas presented, picking out the best moments, trimming them down to a quasi-normal song length, then recreating them in the studio. "Sometimes you listen back to these jams and you're like 'Fuck, I always try to do that and I've never managed to do it,'" Bouboushian tells me. "And that's where the discipline comes in, to be like, 'Let me actually listen through this thing and work on my ear a bit.'"

Most importantly, though, everyone in the band takes equal ownership in the writing process. "I think what I like about this band, just as a project, is how everybody's able to put their personal stamp on the song," says Bouboushian. Together, they craft a sound that has one foot in a musician's most self-indulgent fantasy and the other in some modicum of accessibility, mostly on an emotional level rather than a melodic or structural one. When we get to talking about the way that Crown Larks' music communicates that emotion, Bouboushian turns to Nietzsche for his answer: "Music speaks directly from the abyss." That is to say, any message the maker attempts to transmit is lost in translation, because music is not language--it's purely abstract.

~*~

That isn't to say that Crown Larks' music doesn't stand for anything. Living in Logan Square, a poster child for Chicago's gentrification, gives Bouboushian and Bailey a front row seat from which to view the city's problems. There's literally a new luxury apartment complex being built in plain view of their balcony; it's one of the first things I've noticed upon joining them for brunch. "I don't mind density," Bouboushian tells me, staring daggers at the half-constructed high-rise, "but when it's the kind of density that's $1200 for a six hundred square foot studio, you can't even spin that as affordable."

Get Bouboushian going on the topic of political and socioeconomic issues in Chicago and you're in for a long and interesting conversation. He's originally from a small town in Texas, which makes it all the more powerful when he says that Chicago is the most segregated place he's ever seen. Over the course of our meal and stretching long after the detritus of eggs has gone cold on our plates, he's incredulously discussing the privatization of parking meters and red light cameras, the lack of diversity at his band's gigs ("how come this show is 90% fratty white guys," he sometimes finds himself asking), and the hunger strikes in response to the school closures over the summer. "This is a fucking American city in 2015, there's a hunger strike!" he almost yells. At the time, Jonathan Butler has not yet begun his campaign at Mizzou, so I instead compare the absurdity to South Park and we laugh a little bitterly.

Bailey chips in with a lament over the state of arts education in public schools. "I learned my first instrument in public school band," she remarks. "And now that isn't even usually available even if you are in a more affluent area. Everything that surrounds it, people stop learning instruments, they don't learn to listen to instruments, they don't support music that's made with instruments."

"So in some kind of weird way, that energy feeds into the music," says Bouboushian, bringing us back to the ostensible purpose of our conversation. "You're processing it, I mean, there are a lot of quiet meditative introspective moments, but there is a lot of that visceral energy. It's fueled by a combination of positive and negative impressions. 'Cause in the actual making of a piece of music or art or whatever, you're trying to transfigure those things into something that is a positive expression.

"I mean, someone could be like 'I made this record because my best friend died or my lover betrayed me or my house burned down,' but you listen to the record and it's beautiful. And you think, 'How can that be, isn't this a contradiction of terms?' But no, because they took these experiences and transmuted them into something else. I can never remember where it's from--it was some Camus essay or something--but it was something like good art is never really resigned. Because even if it's got the bleakest subject matter, just the whole idea of making something to share with people is a way of transcending, no matter how awful it can be."

Part of the experience that Crown Larks transmutes into music is drawn from their characterization of Chicago as a corrupt, bleak, post-industrial wasteland. That's made explicit in the music video for "Chapels," the lead single of sorts off of Blood Dancer. Directed by Emily Esperanza, it garnered a premiere on Stereogum, which aptly summed up its level of weirdness: "I have no idea what any of it means," wrote Peter Helman, who was rendered unable to do his job as a critic by the horrifying masks the band wears and the half-naked women who look like insane asylum escapees roaming through the rushes in Humboldt Park.

"It's supposed to be kind of jarring," says Bouboushian in the understatement of the decade.
He's featured in the video wearing lipstick under his mask, which was made by Esperanza from cutouts of magazine centerfolds. "The performers in that besides us are these practitioners of this Japanese performance art called butoh, it's really visceral and jarring, but it's highly stylized, the motions are very unusual."

The band first met up with Esperanza at a thrift store, where Miller chose the lady's purple leopard blazer he wears for the performance. "My brother, when he first saw it, sent me a text message saying that's fucking sweet," he recalls, "but he said it's like if the Texas Chainsaw family had a band." That's a reasonable comparison to make, both visually and musically--"Chapels," one of the more structured songs on Blood Dancer, relies on Bouboushian's droning vocals and a hypnotic groove that eventually devolves into a King Crimson-esque flurry of Bailey's keyboard before returning to the safety of a final verse. As far as first statements go, it's a powerful lens into what Crown Larks hopes to achieve: a measure of primal terror to go with the sanity of recognizable song parts.

~*~

On top of the band's experiences in Chicago, though, their time on the road has had an immeasurable impact on the music they've made and continue to make. "When you're on tour you're living with your bandmates in the closest possible proximity and you get to know each other so well," says Bailey. "And you end up with years of memories, some of the most vivid things you're gonna do. So you're also bringing that whenever you're playing together."

Among the most special and most important of Crown Larks' touring moments have been the times the band has played on a bill with Israeli-American guitarist Yonatan Gat, most recently at Schubas in September. They've taken inspiration from his completely mesmerizing live show--though they don't play in the middle of the crowd as he does, they look to his total absorption in the music and utter confidence on stage as a way to transfigure both positive and negative feelings into an unforgettable performance. "If you tabbed out everything he does, there's all kinds of flubs," says Bouboushian, but to him that only adds to the aura. "They're going at it full blast, not just tempo but feel. For me it's all about taking the positive experiences and some of the negative experiences of being on the road, the positive ones being like I wanna give this my best and live up to that thing."

2015-4-6 Empty Bottle 4.jpg

The band, which was approaching a total of two hundred out-of-town shows before their most recent mini-tour, acknowledges that sometimes it's hard to muster up that energy on a nightly basis. "It's not just losing confidence but getting frustrated," Bouboushian admits. "Like, why am I here playing for eight people? [You're] taking that and trying really hard to overcome yourself." Bailey, though, points to the source of salvation: "If you're not playing for the audience or you're not playing for yourself, at least you're playing for your bandmates. You're here together, putting on the best thing you can do 'cause you're not gonna let everyone else down, however it is you feel, wherever you're at."

And there have been some real downer moments. The band laughs about it now, but during one stop in New Orleans, they were forced to sleep in a tent in their host's backyard because his roommate was "kind of weird" about the situation. Miller wasn't even allowed inside to use the bathroom. To cap it off, the above-ground pool broke during the night, flooding the tent and drawing the crazy roommate's ire. "I don't know if it was like the Hitchcock movie Psycho, with this mysterious figure who's behind everything," says Bouboushian. "We never saw the roommate. But if you can't laugh at stuff like that, you just can't survive out there. For an interview, it's like, here's a little funny tidbit. But nobody goes on stage and is like, 'I know that set totally sucked, but I actually didn't get much sleep last night.' [The crowd's] like, 'Yeah, motherfucker, neither did we!'"

Fortunately for Crown Larks, there have been plenty of incredible experiences on the road to make up for the bad ones. Miller, for example, had never seen the Grand Canyon before the band's spring tour, but he got to spend six hours there on a beautiful day. Another time, the band played a show on the beach in Arcata, California, on the far northern reaches of the state's coast. "With the mist, the sky and the sand and the ocean looked identical, so you're just in this weird mystical twilight thing," remembers Bouboushian. "If you walked, the fog was so thick that I couldn't find my way back."

Maybe their most memorable moment, though, came after the band played its first show with Puhr on bass, at a gallery at Illinois State University in July. They delayed their load-out because of rain, staying in the room as it was reconfigured for another event and taking advantage of the free food that had been brought in. The next thing they knew, a wine glass was being dinged and the formally-clad crowd took their seats. As it turned out, Crown Larks had unwittingly crashed a memorial service for the deceased head of the university's theatre department, Cal Pritner. Bouboushian, Miller and Puhr, caught in the front row and faced with the unenviable choice of sticking it out or getting up to leave in full view of the assembled crowd, sat through the entire ninety-minute event and tried not to bust out laughing at the absurdity of the situation.

"I managed to escape, I was in the back of the room," says Bailey. "Halfway through, the gallery manager comes up to me and says, 'Why don't they just get up and leave?' And I said it would be kind of awkward." But staying through the service for Cal had its perks: the band headed back to Chicago that evening with all the leftover food, the most money they'd ever made from a show, and a host of Cal's old baseball metaphors that the teary-eyed eulogists kept mentioning. To this day, they use his favored figurative speech whenever they can get away with it.

"You guys are keeping him alive," I quip.

"The funny thing is, we are keeping him alive," he replies. "There's no fucking doubt we're keeping him alive."

~*~

When Crown Larks take the stage at The Empty Bottle on Monday evening, they'll bring their traveler's wisdom and their views on Chicago's depravity to the performance--but they'll also be bringing new music. The band is already working on their follow-up to Blood Dancer, and it's going to be just as experimental. "On Blood Dancer, the themes and the moods and the genres are all over the place," says Miller. "And even the new stuff we're working on now, I feel like we're just grabbing around at anything you can find and just smashing it into some kind of coherent songs." Though it's going to be more structured song-wise than their debut LP (Bouboushian anticipates fewer jazz comparisons, though he's afraid people will confuse the proliferation of Bailey's horns for jazz influence), it will still be driven by the ideal of experimenting with new sounds, interesting rhythms, and eclectic tastes. "This record will have a couple songs on it with beats, which is totally different from the more kind of free stuff," says Bouboushian. "But that's fine, because emotionally it could end up being the same kind of feel created in a different way."

The most important thing about the new album, which the band will pitch to labels for a late 2016 release, is that the recording process will be an attempt to recreate the magic of Crown Larks' bread and butter: the live performance. Though they'll of course need to cut down the lengths of the musical zones that produce their material, they liken themselves to the Grateful Dead, whose songs fell into a simple, short folk-pop structure on the record but expanded into world-famous extended jams before an audience. And the live atmosphere gives Crown Larks the room they need to breathe musically, to fully engage the crowd in their measured insanity.

The Empty Bottle and its freewheeling attitude should provide the perfect testing ground for Crown Larks' new material and, likewise, for the fans there to hear it. As Cal would say, they're poised to hit this one out of the park.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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