By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Eau Claire is the gestational hub for high-profile folk-leaning acts like Bon Iver, Field Report, and Megafaun, but not all bands birthed in the Chippewa Valley turn out so earthy. Formed in 2005, indie-pop quartet Laarks grew out of the same tight and talented scene of musician friends, but opted to tilt their sound toward the extraterrestrial.
Driven by the dual engine of frontman/keyboardist Ian Jacoby's plaintive wail and the densely layered production sensibility of drummer/ sonic architect Brian Moen, the band's long-awaited sophomore album, Fiat Lux, feels like an awesome sci-fi film transposed into epic indie-rock. Laarks make their grand ambitions known right out of the gate with the seven-minute album opener, "Lost," a propulsive combination of ear-strafing laser-beam synths and razor-sharp electric guitar riffs.
The decision to go big or go home wasn't made lightly, since all the production and mixing, aided by the band's guitarist Kyle Flater, was handled within the band over a two-year period.
Laarks play a CD-release show with Emot and BB Gun on Sunday, July 28, at Icehouse; 612.276.6523
"Brian and Kyle really like to explore all the options," explains Jacoby from his Eau Claire home. He's on a conference call with Moen, who relocated to Oakland last fall. "That's both really great and really horrible at the same time, because you can be paralyzed by all the options. They'll tinker for months and end up finding these unique sounds that really define the songs. I don't have the patience or technical knowledge to do that, but I'm glad those guys are perfectionists."
"It is frustrating to think that hundreds of hours and two years of your life are basically distilled down to 40 minutes," admits Moen, who is still heavily connected to the Twin Cities scene due to his drumming (Peter Wolf Crier, Shouting Matches) and production (the Small Cities, Emot) work. "It's like, 'How in the world did it take that long?' It's kind of a running joke amongst us about how many other musical projects I get involved with, but Laarks is really my number-one band."
As a result, Moen applies a ton of self-pressure when mixing the band's material, and his lofty goals often butt up against the equipment and knowledge constraints he's working with. "I'm always comparing the production work against classic records that were done by people with 25 years of experience and a lot more money," he says. "So inevitably that means a lot of mixes that just end up getting trashed for not being good enough in my eyes."
Taking their time to achieve excellence is nothing new for Laarks. The group spent four years on their first album, having already established themselves as one of Eau Claire's best bands by the time An Exaltation of Laarks finally dropped in November of 2009. That more intimate album's mixture of Jacoby's imagistic yearning lyricism and hypnotic vintage keyboard figures alongside Flater's barbed-wire riffs and Moen's hyperactive drum presence established the blueprint that would later be blown out to epic proportions on Fiat Lux.
Based on the strength of that earlier material, Laarks signed with prestigious national indie imprint Absolutely Kosher, and launched a successful live run of both coasts in support of An Exaltation of Laarks. However, their commercial momentum stalled when Absolutely Kosher folded. Then, other musical projects took off, and touring obligations expanded for Moen with Peter Wolf Crier and bassist Zach Hanson, who became Bon Iver's drum tech.
Though Fiat Lux was recorded when Moen and Hanson lived in the Twin Cities and Flater and Jacoby were in Eau Claire, Laarks' respective members now are thousands of miles apart. (Jacoby is slated to join Moen in the Bay Area this fall when he begins an MFA fiction-writing program at the University of San Francisco.)
"Laarks just fits really well into our lives," reflects Jacoby. "We've put in the hours at this point where it always feels really natural even those years when we only play a couple of shows and don't necessarily practice much beforehand. It's always a genuinely rejuvenating thing for me to get up on stage and make music with these guys. It's like playing pickup basketball with guys you've hooped with a million times before."
While real life may have made regular Laarks jam sessions a thing of the past, it's clear distance hasn't diminished Moen and Jacoby's mutual love for the band in the slightest. Eight years on from their first forays out of the nest, Laarks still figures prominently in the pair's visions of the future.
"I definitely have daydreams where it's seven years from now and we're all living together in Eau Claire again and Laarks is working on our fifth album," admits Moen wistfully as our conversation winds down. "Maybe we all have day jobs at that point and it's just part of what we do; that doesn't really matter. Making music is just our version of hanging out together, and there's nothing we'd rather do with our time when we can."