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Conversations: Larsen

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Conversations: Larsen

Conducted and written by Madelynne Jones. More of Madelynne’s writing can be found on her blog, and in her weekly newsletters, we highly recommend checking both out!

A Conversation with Larsen on finding their sound, raw collaboration, and bromance.

For fans of Thrice, Young the Giant, George Ezra, Lord Huron, The National, Kings of Leon, Eddie Vedder 😉

Larsen’s EP drops TODAY, April 19th. Stream it on Spotify and Apple Music. Catch them May 16th at the Rino in Kansas City. You can also follow their shows on Facebook and their Instagram.

A couple of weeks ago I met half of the band Larsen for an early morning coffee. We covered a lot of ground. Larsen is a rock band of six members. Three of which I met with, and two of which are brothers who were recovering from food poisoning that morning. (Don’t trust Tequila Harry’s, y’all.) We had a great conversation about how the band found their sound, struggled with honesty, and built a culture of collaboration.

The band is brothers Sam Kinne (guitar) and Jon Kinne (vocals), with friends Carson Alexander-Muck (keys), Luc Heidenreich (guitar), Matt Chipman (drums) and Tyler Beyer (bass). Sam, Jon, and Tyler joined me for coffee.

If you can, set yourself in the scene of the top floor study room of Messenger Coffee in Kansas City, just starting to stir as espresso sizzles. Most of us were still waking up, as hazy in the morning as the rainy spring day outside.

Sam was gracious enough to let me binge-listen to the entire EP, which is available TODAY on Spotify and iTunes. It’s just five songs, so it’s a quick listen, but there’s a lot to unpack. I recommend listening first, or at least alongside this read.  

After talking to Sam, Jon, and Tyler, it’s pretty incredible that the band collectively has built such a camaraderie of music. Though half the band wasn’t there to contradict this statement, it seems like a literal band of brothers. There is so much trust and friendship surrounding these guys that I would not be surprised if they also were in a competitive sports league together. I guess that’s what happens when you spend a ton of time bringing all your fears and feelings to friends and accepting honest criticism.

Sam and Jon are brothers that not only play music together but also work together. “It’s unhealthy a bit,” Sam, the older brother, teased.

“We shared dinner on Saturday night, then got food poisoning together, so we go through everything together,” Jon said with a laugh.

“I started playing music because Sam played music,” Jon said. “I’ve been given a clear path to success, and it’s just following Sam’s path.”

Sam always wanted to play music with his brother. As for playing in a band with brothers, Tyler said that he could feel the tension when the brothers are frustrated, but teased that it’s fun to watch. “For brothers who do everything together, they’re very different. They play to each other’s strengths well.”

That seems to be the theme of the whole band. Music for these guys isn’t the brainchild of just one or a couple of them, but the product of the entire group coming together to create something that sounds uniquely them. And it does. I can name influences or people that sound similar to Larsen, but they dance to the beat of their own layered rock melodies, and they own it.

Here’s our abridged conversation.

MJ: Your sound seems to have influences or blues or rock? It’s unique. How do you describe it?

Jon: We thought it was going to sound like Thrice initially. Straight rock.
Sam: We found that as we were writing initially, the songs didn’t sound like us. We let that idea go and started to do our own thing. Matt (drums) was coming into the realm of the style we are now, so he pushed us. When we added Tyler, that’s when our style started and became consistent. The style of writing, the attention to rhythm first, those things shaped it.
Tyler: It started with a bunch of ideas. We listened to lots of Kings of Leon and Young the Giant. Soon the creative rhythm hit, and we don’t know what it sounds like, but it sounds like us.
Sam: We know we’re on the right track now.
Jon: We used to practice in my garage, which is too small for one car and we fit five people plus instruments in it. It’s all cinderblock. Trying to find our sound was frustrating.
Sam: At first, it didn’t sound or feel right. The first song we wrote that we actually liked didn’t even make it on to this EP, and now isn’t even one we play. We eventually approached writing differently. Now, we bring concepts, what the song is about, or some tonal ideas, and then we write together. We don’t come with parts. We often begin with bass and drum grooves. It’s so much more collaborative. I think it’s the only way we can work now since we have six musicians. Everyone has their own voice, so when they speak, everyone listens. We’re respect-driven. We try every idea even if we think it won’t work.
Tyler: The collaboration really added the meat to our sound.
Sam: Initially, it was awkward. How do I tell someone that the song I wrote and the way they played it sounds wrong? You know?
Jon: It’s just being open to your initial ideas getting wrecked. I brought “Saving Face” to the table, and Luc made it sound like it does now. At first, I did not like the new direction but I have really grown to love it – it’s much better than it was originally in my head.

On Collaboration

With a group of six and a very dynamic sound, some order has to be involved. Everyone in the band has some technical day-job like engineering or programming. These guys are meticulous and collaborative. They build songs and sounds together in a uniquely safe space. But that kind of meshing doesn’t just happen. There’s a lot of relational work required to get to that level.

Jon: It’s really just stepping on each other’s toes until it works.
Sam: Tyler and I became friends fast, and there was a time when we were talking about the kind of band we wanted to be, and he said we need to have time to build that friendship and collaboration. Before we earn that time, there will be tension just from not knowing each other. Now, we know each other’s intentions. We’ve had the time to learn and get out of our heads and know that a fellow band member isn’t trying to usurp another’s ideas. We can have spats and arguments, but it’s also about realizing that you can’t be “right” in something as subjective as songwriting and making music. Like any relationship, it’s about sticking around when there’s tension. If you’re in a place of healthy tension, it builds trust and makes the next time more comfortable to process. If we do something wrong, we apologize as fast as possible.
Tyler: As creatives in general, an artistic process with other people is challenging. When we’re collaborating, you have to be open to change. We’re all in the same mindset of trying to make this awesome song. It doesn’t matter whose ideas it is.
Sam: Yeah, it’s ours, not mine. I stopped bringing songs I thought were finished to the band. When you bring something finished to a group of creatives, it’s never finished. We need to share. I’m not doing this by myself, so why would I write this by myself?
Jon: We’ve all learned to bring things to Larsen that are concepts or just a budding idea, but at most, it’s structure, chords, or lyrics. You have to be willing for the first two to change a lot and the lyrics to change a little.
Sam: It is a vulnerable thing to bring something to a group of people that is in a stage of intimacy. You get used to the expectation that everything you bring to the table is not going to be perfect. We trust each other, and I know that they’re not going to mock what I bring, but take it further.
Tyler: The most challenging and rewarding part of Larsen is that its one of the only bands I’ve been a part of that is genuinely equal parts collaboration. It means that your voice matters as much as mine. So we all have to come to the table.
Sam: It’s like the LA Clippers because they don’t have a star player. Larsen is the first group where I don’t care what I’m playing.
Jon: Like I’m playing the right part for the song. I don’t think there’s any song for us where we are just “doing our job.”

What one word or theme best describes the album?

This EP is full of some pretty emotional themes from relationships crumbling to friends struggling through dark times. It’s a full EP that chronicles more than just relationships, but the hardships and camaraderie of life and the resolution that comes through conflict. The lyrics and the music build on the tension. At least, that’s what I got out of it. But I wanted to know where these guys were when writing these songs.

Sam: Some of these songs came out of times in life where things feel complicated or overwhelming. And what happens in those times is the answer to resolution or transparency. And that’s so difficult to do. To get to those spots where you can do that takes so much time and processing.
Tyler: Sam always wanted to take people back and go forward in healing. I would say healing is the word. Honesty might be an avenue of healing.
Sam: The album is not meant to leave you in places. Some of the songs I love put you in a place and leave you there, but this album is about reflecting and remembering and moving forward. I think that happens when you share things.
Jon: I would say this album is about transparency, progression, or healing. I try to write from a series of places. Conflict resolution is a theme in most of the songs we write. I think the album centers around the focal point of transparency and honesty and using that as a tool to get yourself from one place to another.
Tyler: We all have different backgrounds. It means that we’re all bringing so much to the table.

A Track-by-Track Breakdown

This album is an emotional roller coaster. When I told the guys that, they laughed triumphantly. In “Say What You Mean,” it seems like they’re asking someone to be honest, but “Good Looking Out” plays like an angry anthem about being fed up. Their debut EP is five songs packed with layers of meticulous melodies, power ballads, and feeling. We took a deep dive into some of my favorites on the EP:

“Say What You Mean”

Sam: “Say What You Mean” starts in medias res (in the middle of a situation). It’s just like what our minds do in relationships. They live nostalgically in this imaginative future, and we’re not always present. The main cry in this song is for honesty and transparency.

“Good Looking Out”

Sam: “Good Looking Out” is about not hopeful pleading. It’s about frustration, even if it’s back at yourself. Like “this is what happens when you’re not honest.”
Jon: In “Good Looking Out,” each verse has its own issue. The first line “Your expectations rise and fall” is about frustrations with loved ones, peers, and how they expect you to act and react in real time. The chorus is about when you take all these things that bother and frustrate you and take them to someone who hasn’t been through this season with you. It becomes this cautionary tale of emotional infidelity. It’s about taking frustrations to a place where you shouldn’t be taking them when the person who’s been there all along is right there the whole time.
Tyler: My interpretation of “Good Looking Out” is that it’s about being irritated and fed up and also being done being angry. At the end of the day, what matters is truthful resolutions.

“Love Go”

Sam: For “Love Go,” we have to shout out Beau-Gabriel Smith. I wrote that with my friend Beau. He helped me write it a few years ago when I didn’t know I’d be playing music out again. There was a time when I felt like I was sacrificing a lot without knowing where it will go. It’s about allowing convenience to put this gray lens over how we see the world. I think it’s good to be inconvenienced. This song isn’t about just one relationship, but about all relationships that matter. Just the question of “where did my love go?” You know where it went.

Justin Huey produced our record, and it sounds like it does because of who he is. He’s such a gifted and kind person. He challenged us to write a second verse about the idea of what happens when we break. We do it to ourselves a lot. When our expectations crack, and there are people still here at the end of it all, that’s what matters. I get how that song can feel droning until the end, but there are musical crescendos and undertones. There’s this crazy build toward the end that sounds chaotic but is hopeful.
Tyler: I like that rhetorical idea of the argument that isn’t going anywhere. We’re confusing ourselves. The whole journey of writing the EP is that we’re all so confused, but we’re the only ones confusing ourselves. “Love Go” is an awesome song.

“Saving Face”

Jon: “Saving Face” is a song about letting go of your vanity. It’s not about how people often forget about saving grace and only focus on saving face. It’s about saying “I don’t care how this is going to look for me.” It’s about saying to someone “If you’re stuck in a place of darkness, I want to be there with you.” It’s a conversation between the person in darkness and a friend reaching out.

“Homegrown Stories”

Jon: “Homegrown Stories” was a song that sounded more complete as we worked with it. It now leans more toward Southern Rock. The song is about all the stuff we’ve let go of in this album. We outline a lot of frustrations in the previous songs that lay out a path to reconciliation. “Homegrown Stories” grew into that resolution.
Tyler: Which is funny because it’s one of the first songs, but it completes the record.
Sam: That was Justin’s suggestion to make “Homegrown Stories” the last song. He said that by doing that, we now have a conceptual EP that shares stories and frames a narrative. He challenged us.
Jon: All music to some extent is processing emotions.

What are you working on now?

Tyler: We’re gearing toward more unique soundscapes than before.
Jon: Flutes, man.
Tyler: We were finding this songwriting process and then right when we got the album, we hit the final nail. Now, we have several big soundscapes and are more open to opportunities.
Sam: Jon has been doing an excellent job of showing us what things can sound like. He’s been pushing us with an anthemic song. It sounds totally different from what we expected, and it was one of the most complicated songs we’ve written recently.
Jon: It sounds more like the artist Bahamas, but the instrumentation is like Larsen. It always sounds like us at the end of the day.
Sam: With six honest people, it’s easy for that to happen.
Tyler: There’s a newer more modern energy to these new songs. There’s more pop influence but in the dark world that is Larsen.
Jon: Pop is one of those weird things because any singular element does not define it. For Matt, a lot of his influence is hip-hop. We all have different influences, but it’s developed into a super rhythmic thing.

Behind the Album Artwork

Jon Kinne elaborates on the meaning behind the album artwork that they commissioned artist Tara Schoenthaler to do.

Lighthouse: for “Good Looking Out” I had this idea for a lighthouse searching and seeking for something, but with a chunk removed, exposing its staircase. The metaphor for me is tied to the song, saying that we as people can often be looking around and seeking out advice/emotional connection from people while we’re already exposed to those closest to us; they can see what’s really going on below our exterior. From far away, you’d only see the light and basic shape from the lighthouse, but the people close to it can see the ribs or stairs underneath.

Porch Swing: For “Say What You Mean” I asked Sam what he pictured when he wrote the song, how it made him feel, and he described this specific scene of a porch swing, in a still, foggy morning. Tara captured this scene so well in my opinion. It’s like there’s a rhythm to the piece, a perpetual motion that’s so subtle but so present. For me, it connects to “Say What You Mean” in feeling. Just putting myself in the mental scene of that foggy early morning, a cup of coffee, a porch swing, and it just feels like the exact same as getting something off your chest. It’s hard to describe but Sam and Tara both nailed it.

House/Whole Picture: If you look closely at the house on the EP cover, you’ll see the “Say What You Mean” swing. The lighthouse is back there too, still looking for something, still exposed to the world. But you see this home now. And again, have to say that Tara illustrated the house so perfectly to capture how listening through the EP feels at the end. There’s so much aggressive color in the “Good Looking Out” piece, and so much washed out foggy vibes in the “Say What You Mean” piece. In the final piece you see the two pallets marry into a bright, hopeful, lively, and comfortable co-existence.

Larsen is named for the street Sam and I grew up on. Our parents don’t live there anymore, but the only time I ever truly feel like I’m going home is when I drive through that old neighborhood. That’s how the EP cover makes me feel. Like I’m going home. Like all the tension and aggression and all the stillness and newness, all the trepidation and change in my life falls away and I’m just here. And I’m in control. And I can invite the people I love over to share in it.

About Madelynne: Madelynne Jones is a writer and artist living in Kansas City. She spends most of her money on coffee and concert tickets. She does a weekly music newsletter where she covers niche music genres and music discovery. You can check out her artwork and previous newsletters at madelynnejones.com and sign up for her newsletter here. Follow her on Instagram @madelynnerae