An Interview with Laarks Lead Singer and Keyboardist Ian Jacoby

Ian Jacoby of Laarks.

Laarks is a four-piece indie rock band from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, most musically famous for Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. They’re influenced by The Walkmen, Ben Folds, and Broken Social Scene, amongst many others bands.

They released An Exaltation of Laarks in 2009 with Absolutely Kosher, and Fiat Lux independently in 2013. Ian Jacoby is the songwriter, lead vocalist and keyboardist.

Here’s the first track off of Exaltation of Laarks, What God Hath Wrought.

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Godfrey Chan: “I saw your dad up in heaven”. It’s been a while since my dad died, and I had a very emotional reaction listening to this. Can you explain the lyrics?

Ian Jacoby: So part of it is that I sometimes have a problem explaining lyrics. My mom’s always like, “Explain what that song is,” and I’m like, “Well that isn’t even a song. Because sometimes those lyrics are unexplainable.

I think that a lot of that song has to do with hope. I think everyone has hope. It’s not just a thing relegated to faith or religion or anything like that. And that indescribable feeling is what that song is about. I think that’s where that came from.

I come from a religious background, but I try not to be exclusive to any other viewpoints either. In general, that’s the theme of that song.

Were you really on the radio as a boy, or is that a metaphor?

That part is a story that I made up in my head about these guys hearing each other on the radio as kids, kind of like ham radio, and later hearing it as bombers in World War II. Although I don’t think they had ham radios back then but whatever the equivalent was, but that was the thread of that song.

For me, a lot of times lyrics for me are all about getting the feeling or empathy of whatever your subject is. A lot of my lyrics are partially pulled from autobiographical stuff but also when something inspires me from literature, movies, or a sporting event.

I look for something that transcends the everyday experience.

Can you tell me about how the band got together, and how the Laarks name originated?

So Laarks started with me and our drummer Brian Moen, who drums in a lot of great bands. He drums in a band with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver called The Shouting Matches. He’s been involved in a lot of really cool indie rock Eau Claire groups over the years.

His big one Amateur Love had just broken up. That was one of my favorite bands of all time—not just local bands, but one of my favorite bands.

He wanted to start a group and thought I had done some really cool songwriting, so we started that way. And then we picked up Kyle Flater and then later, and the guy I still call Young Zach, even though he’s like 25 now.  He was a lot younger than us—Zach Hanson is his name.

But we just coalesced, and we all really enjoyed each other’s playing, and I think that Kyle and Brian come up with interesting ideas on their instruments—all three of them are great instrumentalists. I was just lucky enough to write songs.

As far as the name goes, it’s a mixture of—I really like birds, I’m really inspired by them. Brian had the name The Larks for a long time, but we changed it to make it aesthetically more pleasing—we don’t care about it, we added an extra ‘a’ and now everyone calls us Laarks. [Jacoby pronounced this while sounding out the two ‘a’s” longer—emphasizing the second ‘a’.]

I just deal with it.

You live in San Francisco now?

I do, I’m in San Francisco now. I’m in a writing program at The University of San Francisco.

Are the other bandmates out there as well?

Our drummer lives in Oakland, one lives in Eau Claire and the other lives in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.

So there are a lot of miles between two of you. How does that work with rehearsals? Digitally?

Yeah, it all has to be digital now. I think that’s gotten to be more standard especially as people move around and keep doing musical stuff. The reality of 21st century bands.

Here’s the fifth track, Where Do You Want to Live?

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Can you give me an explanation of those lyrics?

It was about a lot of my friends moving from Eau Claire. It’s like a small small college town. It’s like 60,000 people.

It used to sort of have an industrial center, where they make tires, it’s called Uniroyal, but that since long has gone away. So now, after kids get past college age, they kind of just leave and go elsewhere.

It’s sad, because a lot of people I think really like their home town. No matter where you’re from, I think everybody wants to be proud of where they’re from, and hope good things for it, but I think there’s a pretty significant brain drain happening.

That was more of a personalized view of that, because it was just seeing a lot of my friends leave, have to say goodbye to them, and go to bigger cities.

Can you tell me your first childhood memory with music?

I’ve actually gotten back from seeing Huey Lewis and the News recently at the Marin County Fair. As far as I can remember, that’s the first musical moment that I ever had. It was dancing with my mom in the kitchen at my grandparent’s house to Hip to be Square.

That’s not a really cool first music memory—I’ll always remember that [laughs]. It’s a really fun song—I don’t know. It’s not really artistic where you’re like, “Wow, this is life-changing”, but it’s definitely made my life better, and I was really happy.

That’s a moment that I’ll cherish with my mom forever.

And how old you were you at the time?

I had to be like four maybe — four or five. I don’t know. I’ve always really loved music. That’s why it’s hard when people say, “Well, these are your influences, like Ben Folds.”

A lot of times we used to get The Killers or Radiohead—stuff like that—I do love those bands—but I also love Sam Cooke and Etta James and Wu-Tang Clan. People try to find that line to easily classify you. I had a lot of really good musical experiences.

Yeah, my kids are four and six, and they’re listening to the Frozen soundtrack over and over. Parents are really sick of it, which I understand, but I really like it. Because as much as them singing the songs over and over—especially my daughter, she’s four—she’s really expressive as she sings with the songs—and it’s just what she’s into right now.

And it’s kind of cool to see kids express themselves through art for the first time. For them, just recognizing emotion in a song—that’s really cool.

And when you play the album, after those Broadway sounding songs are done, there’s this Aaron Copland-esque score that comes at the end of it—it’s really good. I’m always like, “Let’s play the rest of it,” and they’re like “No, let’s go back to the beginning.” It’s cool hearing you tell me that memory of Huey Lewis with your mom at that age. This is where my kids are now.

Absolutely. I’m sorry, I’ve done myself a disservice by not getting familIar with the deep cuts in the Frozen soundtrack.

If you have time, I’d recommend it.

Here’s the eighth track off of An Exaltation Of Laarks. This is called Electioneer Year.

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I love the part where you sing, “The angels say”, and the background singers are going “Aaah.” It’s a really triumphant song. I can picture this song at the end of a movie during the climax.

“You took off the silvers, your body laid bare, the angels sang, ‘I’m building an ark”. So what’s this about?

Sometimes it’s kind of painful to go through these. For me, I wrote these songs six or seven years ago—eight years ago? So it’s just a snapshot of yourself—a young idealist.

So this was a while ago—still during the Bush presidency I guess. I get worked up about politics sometimes, I think we all do. It’s something that everybody feels strongly about.

But I also think it’s important to remember that at some level, we’re all people that are relatable with similar life experiences and sometimes it’s easy to dehumanize people who don’t believe the same thing that you do, and I think that happens on both sides of the aisle.

So that song was an idealist, saying, “Hey, when everything’s laid out, and we’re dead, we’re all the same.”

I don’t know what the resolution is for that kind of stuff—but just to remember the human element in politics—that was the motivation for that song.

Yeah, I’m with you there. I get what you say when you go back to a younger version of yourself you’re like [somewhat embarrassed], but it’s what you thought six-eight years ago.

And I still feel that way, but I don’t think I necessarily have the answers the way that I did when I was 21 or 22.

That’s the thing about that age—you may think you know more than you do..

Until you die, you probably think you know more than you do, but you keep realizing how little you know.

When did you sign with Absolutely Kosher?

They put out our first album. We released our first album in 2008 on our own. We sent it to a bunch of record labels, which seems like a really funny dated thing to do now, because everyone sends links to their Bandcamp—so it’s already a very quaint story.

But I emailed CDs to a bunch of different record labels, and we got responses from a couple different ones, and Absolutely Kosher was the coolest one, and they had a lot of stuff that we liked, like The Wrens and The Mountain Goats. They put out our first album in 2009.

Then the recession and whole music industry collapsing was very hard on them especially. So they stopped putting out new material right before—they signed us to a two album deal, but right before we finished our second album, the bottom fell out, and they don’t put out new albums anymore.

They still exist in an online format. I think you can buy their back catalogue, but as a new distributor of music, they don’t really do that anymore. So then we self-released our second album, which was the winter of 2012-2013.

Can you tell me a little about the whole theme of the album. It’s called Fiat Lux, which means..

Let there be light. It’s Latin. So I guess I stayed really full of myself in naming things Latin [laughs], after Latin stuff. That is a theme throughout my work, which is being self-important [laughs].

No, but it’s based on this book called A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller Jr. which was a post-apocalyptic book written in the 60s which was really good, and has a lot of spiritual themes in it.

Also, the poetry of the British Romantics like William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge—their ideas about the supernatural, and mixing that with what’s natural. That fits in with the lyrics of this album.

Here’s the sixth track off of Fiat Lux, Sins of Division.

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“I’m never never never going to die.” What’s going on there?

A lot of the ideas of the Romantics was the idea of the soul, and how everybody has one. That was a good way to get people to think about things like race, and sex in a different way because if we all have this thing then we all have to be equal on some level and they knew that in their liberal thought experiment. That was the thing I thought was really interesting and something that I identified with.

We like to think about absolutes—like good and evil, or things lasting for eternity in a world that doesn’t ever have absolutes—I mean very rarely does it have things that are really in black and white.

Whatever it is that yearns for those things and the feeling was something I was really interested in. So that’s where the “never going to die” and the idea of what that means beyond the obvious religious connotations.

On your influences, I hear more Walkmen on this album than the previous one—accurate or no?

Yeah —Kyle Flater our guitar player is really good at creating noises and sounds. He’s got a really creative mind for sonic textures. He has really cool ideas. In this album, he was allowed to do his own thing and not be limited to a pop/rock template for the sounds that he made. Maybe that’s partially where that comes from.

Not only does he do that washed out distorted sound really well, but in general I also think he creates some really interesting noises on the record.

What’s your day job, and how do you balance that with rehearsing with the rest of the band?

While we were touring and recording music, I was also a library assistant for a long time—I worked in circulation, then later in the kid’s section, so I read a lot of cool kid’s books.

I was doing that, and it was good because they’d allow me to miss tons of time to tour and it is really hard to balance those two things.

And I think it’s harder as you get older. Real life catches up with you. But I also think that’s when the most interesting songwriting happens because you’ve dealt with adversity and grit with your life.

I’m happier with the voice now—my physical voice, and the voice in which my songs are written—now more than I was young and easier to do.

I actually did notice that. I’d say on the first album, you have more of a Ben Folds thing going on, while on the second one, it’s more of a Hamilton Leithauser (Walkmen frontman) thing. Would you say that’s accurate?

Yeah, well as you sing more you get more comfortable with your voice and also (I just learned this from my friend) evidently, the male voice doesn’t fully mature until age 32-33. So it’s getting that timbre—I’m 29 right now so maybe I’m having a vocal change right now, I don’t know.

I even feel it when I sing—there’s more power there. Part of it you learn, and part of it is muscles you develop.

Here’s Fiat Lux off of the album Fiat Lux.

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“And I hold out my hand as your body turns to dust.” What’s going on there?

It’s biblical imagery from the book A Canticle for Leibowitz and there’s this scene where there’s this guy walking through these ruins of buildings and he’s seeing the reality that used to be there when there were people living, and he’s also at the same time walking through his reality—these burned out dusty ruins—talking about what’s real.

Because in his mind, those people are still alive and still doing what they’ve always done but in this quote unquote reality, they weren’t there, so he’s just trying to figure out which reality is more real: the one in his head, or the one in “reality”.

Is there a band out there that represents what you’d consider successful?

I think anytime you’re able to independently make art and do that for a living, that’s success on a professional level you can point to—as far as accolades and stuff, I don’t really care.

Music affects different people in different ways. I don’t think there’s a universality in art.

I don’t think we would have to have a career like The Killers or Coldplay. I think the thing that people like about our music—it would be a band like Broken Social Scene. They have enough clout where they’re allowed to do whatever they’d like to artistically, but not so big in that they feel pressure to perform in a way commercially that would hinder their artistic base.

Sorry these are like really wordy answers. Long songs and wordy answers.

That’s what makes Laarks more interesting than your average band.

Yeah, right. [laughs]

When can we all hear you live, and will you be coming out east anytime soon?

I hope so. Sooner rather than later.

I’m writing songs right now and hopefully we’ll be recording some demos with Brian in the near future—Brian’s the drummer and he lives in Oakland—hopefully do a third album.

We would like to ideally do some tours off that and east coast tours are always really fun especially compared to west coast tours. For people who drive their own vans, it’s way shorter drive times. Way better.

I love the east coast. I always thought I was an east coast guy until I moved to San Francisco. I don’t know what happened.

Sorry I don’t have a better answer. Hopefully in the next couple years.

You can buy An Exaltation of Laarks here and Fiat Lux here.


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