Notion meets Manchester alt-pop band Larkins to talk all things tour, crazy music teachers, crafting their own artistic identity, and much more.
From the very first moment we talk over Zoom, it’s clear that the boys from Larkins mean business. The band has just started doing live gigs again, and they’re scattered across various locations. Dominic is by himself, Henry and Joe are staying together, and Josh is holed up with their tour manager. “We’re just bubbling a bit while we’re on tour, being super safe – can’t be too careful,” Dominic tells me. It means their social circle has been cut down quite a bit, but they don’t seem to mind. Aside from the fact that they’re co-workers, they’re first and foremost a group of friends who just love making music.
Funnily enough, the group probably wouldn’t have existed if it weren’t for three main things – a music teacher that fueled their love for music, a family history of collecting vinyl, and a unique sound. “Me and Dom actually went to school together,” Josh starts. “We had this crazy music teacher. All we ever wanted to do was go to that lesson, we never wanted to do anything else. And when we went to study music in college, we used to skip all the other lessons so we could go to music technology. There was a little studio there where we’d hang out and make music. Both of our parents had a great record collection, for Dom it would be Bob Dylan and the Beatles. And for me, it’d be Led Zeppelin and Duran Duran. We’d try to teach each other guitar, and we’d listen to bands like Foals and Bombay Bicycle Club together. We were trying to be hipster and cool, and just wanted to be in a little band.”
They weren’t yet, but it’s where the idea of Larkins first fully formed. In fact, their band name is a result of all the classes they skipped. “When we did finally make it to English class, they asked us where we’d been, and we’d say that we’d been making music. They went – why, are you in a band? And there was this poster on the wall, a picture of the poet Philip Larkin. He’s kind of crazy, with this comb-over and crazy glasses, and so we said “yeah our band’s called Larkins”, just so it would get us out of English class. It’s got nothing to do with his poetry, it’s just that he’s mad weird. And then it just kind of stuck.”
Of course, their band would need more than two guitar players. “We went back to our original school and told our crazy music teacher that we were looking for a bass player. They recommended Henry, said that he was a bit younger than us but fucking amazing on bass. And then Henry met Joe in college and said he knew a great drummer who had to join. It was only at that point, we were 17/18, that we actually made a band,” Josh explains with a smile.
There is of course quite some history in Manchester when it comes to bands – as well as a lot of competition. But it’s exactly that environment in which Larkins thrived and found themselves. “It allowed us to play all these little venues. The transition into going full-time was when we were doing these shows and realized we weren’t like any other Manchester band. We weren’t particularly loud or guitar-heavy. We just wanted to write really beautiful songs with cool lyrics. When we started to notice we were a bit different and a lot of people started coming to our shows, that’s when things became a bit more real.” A record deal soon followed, and now the band’s not only touring much bigger venues, but they’re also preparing to release their debut album.
And while their Mancunian background certainly doesn’t define their musical tapestry, it has played a huge role in how they developed. “I think the important thing about Manchester is that it has so many venues and gives bands the opportunity to go out and play. I think what people don’t know about Manchester, is that it’s really brutal. If you’re a bad band, people won’t stand for it. I think that’s what’s really important, and why we loved it. People would come see us and they’d tell us if we were shit. The one thing we’ve never cared about is what Manchester sounds like, or how we’re supposed to sound. When I think of bands like Oasis, or the Stone Roses, or stuff like that – I just don’t give a fuck about that at all. I don’t care where you come from,” Josh pauses. “I do think cities have sounds. Like, HAIM sounds like they’re from LA, which is cool. If you listen to old-school rap and hip-hop it sounds like it’s from New York. I think London has a sound, and Manchester maybe has this little guitar sound that influenced us. But at the end of the day, it didn’t matter – I think to us a lot of it was actively trying not to sound like Manchester. We never wanted to be the loudest band, we wanted to be the best.”
Being able to perform live now has obviously gotten even more meaningful, especially for a band that already valued it very highly, to begin with. “I think it’s those early years, gigging in Manchester. We always say that we’re in a band that – even though the production’s grown, we view ourselves as a live band. I remember us putting on our very first headline show, scrambling to sell the tickets – it’s that love for the live element that we always carry with us. And it started there, in Manchester,” Henry adds.
What’s interesting about the way in which they’ve crafted their own artistic identity, is their drive to always be better and improve. It’s not so much about proving people wrong, as it is about proving themselves right – reaching their own standards. Josh mentions the showcases that they used to go to. “I’d always go and take notes on what each band was doing – what I liked and I didn’t like. We took the showcase as one big opportunity. Some bands would only come in, do their bit, and then get pissed and fucked up. Whereas that just wasn’t our vibe, we took it seriously from the moment we arrived to the moment we loaded in, we wanted to be the best. We wanted the way in which we set up on stage to be the best, we wanted our merch to be the best, the way we interacted with the audience – those showcases allowed us that. We have to be the best, otherwise, we’re not bothering. Those were the moments that defined us.”
Dominic nods in agreement and adds that “there were quite a few pivotal bands that weren’t much bigger than us at the time, playing to twenty people at most and we’d think – oh my god, they’re the best ever. Like, Hidden Charms, Marsicans in the early days. It was just like, how do we get up to that next level and keep getting better than these people? We wanted to just be as good and better than these bands that we’d look up to.”
The fact those bands gave their all, whether there were twenty or two hundred people, is something they had to learn to embrace and appreciate. “We used to find it a bit cringe, but it doesn’t matter where you are performing, or to who. Cause even within those twenty people, you could be changing their life for a night. I remember there was this band called “Habitat”- they’re not around anymore – and I remember them jumping on a drum riser, and there were like ten people in the venue. That’s when I thought, d’you know what, that’s so fucking cool! They just don’t give a fuck, they’ll give the best show they’re capable of giving, always.”
During lockdown, there obviously weren’t many avenues for the band to have that same level of interaction with a live crowd. Luckily though, the band’s been able to foster a passionate fanbase online. “Even before lockdown, the way we interacted with fans was a huge thing. Everyone that follows us on Instagram, we message them and reach out. Everyone who comes to the show, we always say our DMs are open. We’ve always wanted to have that really close relationship,” Henry tells me. Whereas Josh takes the lead in interviews and vocals, it’s Henry who acts as the band’s voice online. “When COVID hit, when it became the only way, it was almost like with everything – how do we take what we’ve got to the next level? It’s how we settled on Discord and Twitch to find new ways to reach out. To get that same community feeling that you’d normally get at live shows. It kind of kept that alive, whilst gigs weren’t an option.”
Josh jumps in to emphasise that it’s actually also kept them alive as a band. “It kept us sane, too. We definitely had some tough moments during lockdown, where we also had to wonder – is this it for the band? We’ve never been ashamed of saying that we’ve grown this band through Instagram, Discord, Twitch and social media – and I’m proud of that. I had a period through lockdown where I wanted to shy away from socials. But I actually felt it was the only way to communicate and have a relationship with the people who loved my band, so it was important to step up to the plate there. Especially with a band of our size, we needed to be on it.”
As always, this intrinsic need to be the best is what drives them, even when it comes to their social media strategy. “If we’re going to do DMs, if we’re going to run Discord servers and Twitch streams, then they have to be the best. Otherwise, we’re not doing it – that’s always been our mantra.”
It begs the question of how they then measure success? With such a mean streak of perfectionism, it can be hard to determine when your best is actually good enough. What’s the benchmark – or better yet, who is setting the benchmark for them? “In our world, in the alt-pop world we’ve always seen bands like HAIM and The 1975 as sort of at the peak of where they’re at. So in our world, they’re the benchmark to beat. And we’re no way near as big as them, but at the same time that’s who we want to compete with. And whether that’s the live show, the lighting, the way we dress on stage, or the way a guitar sounds in a song – we have to try. Otherwise, what’s the point of doing it? They’re the bands to beat. Not because it’s a competition, but those bands have touched so many people. I feel so passionately about these bands as a fan, and I want people to feel so passionately about our band, and our music as well,” Josh answers.
What’s interesting about Larkins is that they’re keenly aware of not just how competition can fuel their own greatness. They also understand how a band is a brand – a cultural phenomenon that stretches beyond just their music. The point in case is the meticulously designed merch, which is meant to represent not just love for the band, but a shared love for shared values. “A few years ago, we realized two things. One, that we didn’t like wearing our own merch, which was not cool, and two, we had no idea where the merch was even coming from,” Josh starts. “As we’ve gotten more into style and fashion, we thought – we should just start our own clothing brand that is organic and sustainable. I put out a Notes post on Instagram, saying that this is what we wanted to do, but it would cost a little more. We have to change the way in which we think about merchandising, it has to be more sustainable and I don’t want to rip fans off. They should go home with something I’d wear myself.”
The clothing brand “Animals in Costume” has taken on a life of its own, and the band laughingly admits that it feels as if they’re setting up pop-up shops rather than merch stores at their gigs now. They’ve hired two people to further develop the brand with them, who are just as equally passionate about the clothing line that’s “sustainable and cool as fuck”. It’s become a parallel project to their music, and one they’re keen to invest in more as they grow. In fact, Josh admits that at the moment they “view it as Animals collabing with Larkins. It’s always going to be an underlying collab, but some of the items don’t say Larkins on it. We’ll see how it goes. It’s a living thing, and people will decide for us if they love it enough to take it further.”
It’s also raised the bar for others in the industry, showing that it’s feasible and viable to run a sustainable merchandise business. “If other bands come tour with us, they shouldn’t be putting shitty merch next to ours – that’s not how it works. We have to start changing the way we think about clothing, sustainability and fashion. And if we can change that for a few people, then that’s great.”
Aside from sustainability, Larkins also makes an effort to be as inclusive as they can – paving the way for equal opportunity and diversity wherever they can. For example, they work hard to make their concerts accessible to people with anxiety. The band provides tours of the venues before the show, and has people meet crew members so they’ll feel more comfortable and at ease. Moreover, they try to employ as many female engineers as they can on their tour. “We’ve realized that for women in music it’s really hard to get into the industry, for a reason that shouldn’t be there. At the end of the day we’re in the industry, we’re a part of it as a touring band – it’s something we can change. We’re not trying to change the whole industry, but when people come to a Larkins show, they’ll know this is what they’re going to get. I think that idea that you just rock up and do the show without getting involved and then go home, without caring about all the other facets – that’s dead. You just have to do better than that.”
When they put it like that, it sounds so very easy. And yet, it’s commendable that the band continuously holds itself accountable, when many others don’t go this extra mile. Social justice issues such as these have become part and parcel of our generation’s lived experience, more prominent perhaps now than ever. Unsurprisingly, it’s also become embedded in their creative process. “It’s always really important when you finish a song to ask yourself what it really means,” Josh starts, using the band’s track “tv dream” as an example. “I finished it initially with Dom in my flat, and then we added the bit that was on rape culture. It made the song go from a great track to one that’s so much better, because it’s actually saying something.”
At the core of it all, though, the band agrees that the most important thing is quality music that resonates with others. If the music wasn’t any good, they wouldn’t be able to tour or make a difference whatsoever. “You have to write about the environment that you’re in. We write about our experiences, our friends, the people around us and the stuff they’re going through. Whether that’s love, sex, drugs, being in a band, being boys. We’re a product of our environment.”
Take, for example, their new song “This is Gonna Hurt” – which is an amalgamation of both societal and personal frustrations. “It started out as a song about one-night stands and sex, and this symbiotic relationship between sex and the idea that it’s not always a good thing. Dom had the riff for a while, and I’d been writing over the top of it. I spoke to my friend Dan Nigro [Olivia Rodrigo], who helped produce the album. He loved the idea of “we’ve been here before, since I’m alone, I got to go in the morning. I know you turn me on, but it’s going to fucking hurt – I’m going to get hurt.” And we’ve all been in that situation, I think,” Josh explains. “And then there’s the line about snowflakes that I kept coming back to. I wanted to shift the blame of that label, which has been used for people like us, and it just makes me feel weird. It’s been used as a derogatory term, which I really don’t like. It’s as if they’re saying: “Oh you care about stuff, you’re a dickhead”. I can’t understand that logic. The reason we are a woke society, is because this older generation didn’t care about stuff when they should have.”
In a way, the album’s title is a massive UNO reverse card – turning the narrative and taking ownership of these things. “I was saying this one day, just cause of you, just cause of you. Whether it’s about being called low-life or snowflakes, it’s about shifting the blame to these other people. And so that’s also where the album title came from. The abbreviation allowed me to make it more conceptual and involve it across the album.”
It’s something they’re quite excited about – working with these major concepts that hopefully stretch beyond the boundaries of the album itself. “When we did our first EP, we had a palette of four colours and wanted everything to be in those colours. This time we’ve got everything JCOY. The colours are JCOY-green, and there’s symbols for each song. Everything surrounds JCOY. I want people to start using JCOY as a thing. Like, why have you done that – oh, JCOY. Just cause of you.”
But before that can happen, the album will have to be released first. It’s the biggest thing they’ve ever done, according to the band members themselves. “Your debut record is your greatest hits – it’s our best songs up until this point. It’s scary, but we’ve also worked on our craft for a very long time. This album’s about our life up until now, about being four very insecure boys living in Manchester. It’s about sex, touring, and being within that snowflake generation. It’s made on a laptop in my bedroom and I wanted it to sound like that – authentic. I wanted it to sound like alternative pop and heavy. I wanted to bring on our massive inspirations, like Bon Iver’s vocal production, but LA’s guitar sounds.”
So how do they decide that a song is good enough for their own standards? It’s a collaborative effort, with each member adding their own touch. Josh usually starts the idea on his laptop, “I’ll have a lyric or a title for the song. Dom will come in from a production standpoint and give me ideas and sounds. I’ll produce it up on my laptop, after which Henry will come in and play bass so much better than I ever could,” Josh laughs. “Joe will come in next, which is really helpful because he’ll listen to the beat I came up with and tell me exactly what needs to be fixed.” For their debut album JCOY, Josh has also taken up a more active role as producer of their music. He’s also mainly in charge of the lyricism, though he credits the boys with constantly challenging him to be better. “It might not sound like a big job, but it is. It really puts a strain on our relationship in a good way, I don’t think a lot of bands can say that, but it’s actually really healthy. They’ll tell me – you can write a better line than that.”
When asked, Henry, Dominic, and Joe all nod in agreement. “There’s songs in the past that we’ve sacked off because they’re not good enough – not just from the lyrical point of view, but on the whole. We’re always discussing the setlist, and now that we have a lot of material it’s different, but especially in the earlier days, we’d go – yeah that one’s not good. We’d trial it out, play it live, and only then we’d find out whether we actually liked the song or not.”
That doesn’t mean that they’re always on the same page, but if a song is meant to be a Larkins track – it’s got to have the best of all of them baked into its foundations. “We all have different influences, different standards, which is really healthy. We’re all looking for different things in the song anyways, whether it’s the sound, production or a particular lyric. It allows us to then at the end go – is this us? Does it have enough bass? Does it have a beautiful moment? Does it mean something? And if it does, then that’s a Larkins song.”
What’s especially nice about performing live, is getting the confirmation that their approach to songs works. That Larkins makes sense not just to them, but also to outsiders. The band recently performed the entirety of their forthcoming debut album during a livestream. Only then did their crew and fanbase get to see how the music the band had been working on for so long truly came together. And despite the band having accrued quite the catalog already, the debut album is filled with new songs following the release of “if +when” and “Are We Having Any Fun Yet?”. “I do feel like tv dream was like opening the door to Larkins, but then again we’ve matured from then. Hopefully this hits a bit harder. It’s a little bit louder, but means a bit more as well.”
While JCOY’s release date is still quite a while away (October 8th), lead single “This Is Gonna Hurt” is out now.