Katie Harkin is the enigmatic heart of Wichita's wonderful Sky Larkin. As a highly original and fluent guitarist she was the obvious choice of multi-instrumentalists Wild Beasts to do a major tour with them as an additional keyboard player. Obvious to Wild beasts, anyway. It was a fascinating choice and (it seemed to me) an obvious target for an interviewer to get a fresh set of insights into the much-reported oddness of being on the road.
I live almost next door to The University of Bristol's Student Union, so as soon as Wild Beasts were advertised as an Autumn Highlight, I made some arrangements to see what could be done. I think the transcript that follows supports my hypothesis. The gig that night was joyously good. Wild Beasts have become a magnificently assured bunch of showmen, with one great song after another. Katie gives that "way beyond the guitar band" depth that I noted on their third album "Smother".
I tried not to ask too many questions. I came with a couple of ideas as starters, but Katie comes with a mind full of interesting stories and thoughts. English rock and roll needs more Katies.
KH: I'm a bit … I feel a bit brain dead … I think this is the 85th gig I've done with Wild Beasts since the end of April. It'll probably be about a hundred by the end of the year. I might be zombified on those I don't know. I managed to get the last train home after our Manchester Cathedral show and have a day off yesterday and get the train down today instead of another day on the bus. I think that people in bands that live on tour buses would make good submariners because we're used to lack of sunlight, lack of vitamin C and living in little bunks. But it's great, I'm used to my old post van. Who I do miss.
SS: Did you fancy that Mars experiment that the Russians did?
KH: Well it did remind me a little bit of being on a sleeper bus. But a lot less fun. It depends if there's a Play Station or not. Yes. How bored would you be? Did they have a TV and did they watch series box sets and so on? But yes, it's been really great. We did, in terms of touring … the second Sky Larkin record came out 18 months to the day after the first and then toured it and then after finishing that touring I had about two months off before Wild Beasts approached me about this and then went into pretty much a month solid of rehearsals to learn an entire album and then some old songs as well on an instrument that isn't my main instrument on songs that I didn't write. Beautiful songs, but very complicated ones.
And so here I am in November and having been all over with them. It has been musical finishing school. Really. My first gig with them was in Rough Trade on Record Store Day this year and it was packed. The stage was so small I didn't even fit on it. I had to sit on a flight case with my keyboard on the stage and the song that we were playing has my part in a different time signature to the rest of the band. I haven't felt as stretched and have to do so much cramming since my last year of Uni really. But … I've loved it!
I haven't ever really felt like I've had anything in the real world that would be described as transferable skills before doing this. Each little band is such a microclimate, such a microcosm and you make your own rules and you kind of assume there's one way of doing everything. Cos you set up your own systems from the smallest logistic point to overarching ideals. It's just interesting to be a fly on the wall in another little universe.
SS: I was going to ask you about memory … generally or specifically
KH: hmm …memory. I guess it comes to … for approaching the songs, I wasn't used at all playing parts that I hadn't written. And part of the challenge in the rehearsals was, because they are such multi-instrumentalists, I would be listening to the songs and working out the parts that I was going to play. The keyboard that I play is my own. With keyboards you have to navigate it in terms of making sounds. Sometimes I was trying to replicate something that was on the record and then sometimes I was trying to build the sound that would do the same thing from three or four different things because it's so layered. I just had to put it on in the background for about two weeks solid and tried to listen to it with a distracted ear. Because I realised it was the only way I was ever going to get anything near.
SS: A distracted ear?
KH: Instead of sitting down and listening to it and thinking "This is the first song, OK. This part of this song, this happens …" I just tried to absorb it rather than sitting down and staring at it square in the eyes. Tom posted me the record after they had asked me. I had a coup[le of weeks before full rehearsals started to absorb it and I just realised that was the only way I was going to be able to attempt to pull apart an entire album that I didn't make. And try and understand it and gel with the players.
I mean I have been playing with Nestor from Sky Larkin since he was 13 and I was 15, in all sorts of bands and these guys went to school together so the potential for disaster was quite high. But It never happened. Disaster never happened. I think they just needed another Northerner. So they asked me.
SS: Is the "Northerner" a joke, or is there a story there?
KH: Kinda. But we've spoken about it, we're convinced there's something in it.
SS: Are you still a Northerner?
KH: Oh yes, I still live in Leeds. We were both bands in Leeds that people didn't really know what to do with and so they would stick us on the same bill all the time so that's how I became friends with them and obviously we've been, this year, all over the place. And we're about half way through with this tour. Before this we had about five weeks in America, including 25 hours in Mexico which was astonishing and bewildering.
SS: Did you play there?
KH: Yeh, we played a festival and yeh, just 25 hours of trying to take it all in. So, in fact, five weeks in the US and six days at home and then this tour has just started. And that's already nearly a month
SS: Good memories?
KH: Absolutely good memories. The easiest way for me to start pulling it together is food. I can remember having things like having squash-blossom tacos In Mexico City which was incredible.
KH: Yes I think they were what we would call courgette flowers. I think I'm too entrenched in it to give any kind of overarching reflections. I'm still in the "where-am-I-going-to-eat?" mode of touring. It was strange going home for a day. In a way it sets you back. You get in a rhythm of it on tour, it's absolutely necessary. When I'm at home I don't want to get out of my pyjamas … but you have to readjust again even if it's just one day coming "out of tour".
SS: Very earliest memories?
KH: Of my life? Of music? The day that I was born my Dad sang the line from "Mr Blue Sky": "Hey you with the pretty face, welcome to the human race" I don't really remember that! He told me that later. It's the kind of thing that other people ask me about - like, favourite songs. Well, I almost don't have a choice it just has to be that. I'm loving Braids. Braids and Bobby who supported Wild Beasts in America, really great – another free-form band that somehow it all ends up in the right place. Really smart stuff.
KH: Uh huh.
SS: Another theme to have a go at.
KH: It's the kind of thing, in terms of touring … touring is such a herd mentality that you don't realise you're different until someone points it out to you, you know. I remember the first … initially in Sky Larkin it was two girls and a boy. It was me and Lindsay and Nestor. And it's such a herd mentality being in a band. We got the train down to London together for our first ever London show just with guitars on our backs and when we finally got to the venue after having carried gear on trains and tubes and stuff we were all bursting for the loo and we all just filed in to the Ladies like ducklings one after the other and once we were in there we just had to turn round to Nestor and he was like "oh, yeh, I can't be in here"
SS: One reason I had that question in was that I had the song "Angelica Houston" in my brain and it just sticks, and I have this image of a woman. And it's very strong.
KH: "Angelica Houston " is a funny song, it's the kind of thing people either completely dismiss or they see exactly see what I was I was getting at.
SS: Well, I don't … I Love it, it haunts me really, so … I was asking out of curiosity.
KH: Yes, I'm kind of glad you felt haunted by it. … with Kaleide we were thinking of different ways to approach songs and "Angelica Houston" was part of thinking that a song could just be a vignette, a repeated image or centring down onto one specific moment rather than trying to fit a novel's-worth of story. Because I think that if I wanted to tell a really intricate narrative then I would write a book. But if I wanted to communicate a feeling or an emotion then a song is my most immediate instinct to do that.
SS: Making things?
KH: Making things?
SS: Yes, I have a number of things at home which are handmade …
KH: Yeh? From Sky Larkin?
SS: Yes, going back quite a long way as well.
KH: Yes, I was thinking about it recently, about being northern and having always rehearsed in old industrial spaces and never really paying it any thought until now … the fact that we have built our industry in places that were industrial buildings that no longer manufacture stuff. The attraction of living in the north rather than somewhere like London is because of these spaces that you can be in a room and generate something - even if it's not a thousand yards of cloth a minute. Any band that isn't a manufactured band starts as a kind of cottage industry, DIY, whether it's stamping your own CDs like we did, releasing your first EPs without a label like we did.
SS: That's a strange movement of the word "manufacture"
KH: Yeh That's what … that just dawned on me. For I think that any band that isn't a "manufactured" band you have to be a cottage industry. It's kind of thing I was saying before, before working with Wild Beasts I thought I didn't have anything that in the real world would be called transferable skills because you don't think about yourself as a business until someone reminds you either do or don't make sense as a business.
SS: Is the "manufactured" thing a genuine evil or is it a neutral process … or a good thing?
KH: You mean a manufactured band?
KH: It just seems really impotent to me. It seems like, really going through the motions I just think there's even, probably more interesting ways to make money. I think if you wanted to make money you could be smarter than making some people travel around playing music they didn't write or quite possibly don't even like until they get addicted to something and then mess up their lives or die. You know, it's not a healthy … it's a demanding lifestyle and I think that the passion for creativity has to be there otherwise that's when the dark side of things start to rear their heads. I wouldn't be able to tour as much as I have done if I didn't feel a continuing genuine passion for it that lay far away from those kinds of places. 'm 25 and I've been on tour on and off since I was 20 and solidly for about three years and the longer that you do it you get more and more glimpses of the things that do happen and ways that people can … just be vulnerable but …
SS: Are you surviving?
KH: I am surviving
SS: You seem to be thriving.
KH: I am thriving … thank you. I feel like I'm thriving. Coming out of the Sky Larkin bubble, that still exists … it's a happy little biodome that still lives and grows. And will be tended … soon. And coming out of it I didn't realise … I didn't really think I was a tough guy. This has definitely made me feel tougher just because I realised I can handle doing a five week tour and then having six days off and then doing another.. however long even is this tour? 24th October to the 12th of December so that's like … a month and three weeks is it?
SS: Six or seven weeks? It's a half term at school.
KH: There you go. Where's my half term, eh? It's a good time to go on tour, leaving it till Christmas.
SS: When's the last date?
KH: Copenhagen actually. Which will be lovely that time of year. Yeh It's strange how things line up, like my life was strangely mirrored. We stayed in the same hotel in Los Angeles that Sky Larkin stayed in, nearly a year minus five days. We played the same venue in Cologne that I played with Sky Larkin with Les Savy Fav a year minus another five days. These things sync up …
SS: Are you keeping a diary?
KH: I take a lot of photos. I take a lot of photos. I've got about ten rolls of film I've got the same camera that I've had since I was 16. I've kept trying to buy digital cameras and … It's either because I've had this camera so long and I know how to use it instinctively in the moment or just because film is better I haven't been able to replace it … so I do take pictures and put them online so I might so something more substantial one day.
KH: Writing music? Yes. Always. I think it's a habit that I just won't be able to break ever. It's just a kind of mechanism and a way of filtering things that is ingrained. With Wild Beasts I've been able to be to be a tourist about touring, which has been a real treat. The things that we have done have been on a scale I've never known. Like doing Jools Holland was my 13th gig with Wild Beasts, it was one of the last rehearsals they said "Oh yeh, can you play a drum?" - I'm not even a keyboardist, never mind a drummer … but "Yeh! Play a drum! Why not? On National television for the first time!" And things like headlining a stage at Glastonbury. It's been wonderful. I mean I wouldn’t have been able to do it I think, physically, if I had had the same level of responsibility that I'd had in Sky Larkin. We are kind of DIY to a fault almost because we insist on doing a lot of things for ourselves and it ends up tiring us out. I wasn't very well by the end of the last Sky Larkin tour. We had to cancel one show because I collapsed, in Leeds of all places.
From exhaustion. The kind of thing you think is an excuse for other things. It was really strange. I fainted. I came off stage … it was the night of the big storms in Leeds last winter … the massive snow drop. We were playing with Frightened Rabbit and, you know how the door of the Cockpit opens into the street? The room was really really hot and then just opening that back stage door into the cold and the snow I just opened the door, retched and blacked out. I was just too tired, And all I had to do was just go home and sleep for 48 hours. Because I had been on tour for two months … but once you're in the routine on a tour you forget that people are allowed to have weekends and weekends probably exist socially because it's been worked out that people will not cope if they don't have one.
SS: So there are songs for a new Sky Larkin album?
SS: And a choice of songs to go on the album?
KH: Well … it's more like … Nestor and I have always been the core of arranging things. He was in High School when the band started and he never went to Uni. So he's gone to Uni this year in Liverpool. So we've been separated by distance - more than just tour distance. We don't live in the same city any more so finding time has been more difficult. But it's meant that for me, ideas have been able to brew, I've been able to consider things. We did two albums in 18 months … they were about as fresh off the pad as they could be, which is an exhilarating way to work. But it's not the only way to work, so, it's interesting, we'll see.
SS: What else? Where are you off tomorrow?
KH: I'm going Nottingham tomorrow I believe. We're going to Nottingham. Things around the UK. Two shows at Shepherds Bush which is very exciting, a day in Istanbul, where I've never been. Have you?
SS No? I've never been.
KH: And it's winding down. Winding up? Yeh.
SS: Great stuff.