John Larkin per­forms in the city, writes in the woods

Wisconsin Gazette - - Opinion - By Quinn Cory Con­tribut­ing writer

Both play­ing gigs and go­ing to other shows are im­por­tant as­pects of main­tain­ing a pres­ence in the tight-knit Mil­wau­kee mu­sic com­mu­nity.

But con­stant so­cial­iz­ing and par­ty­ing can re­duce creative out­put, as well as hin­der per­sonal sat­is­fac­tion.

Ear­lier this year, mu­si­cian John Larkin re­al­ized he could make the trip to Mil­wau­kee a few times a week while achiev­ing a deeper sense of peace by spend­ing most of his time in the woods of Oost­burg.

He found bal­ance.

He per­forms on Mil­wau­kee’s stages, but writes and records in soli­tude.

Larkin moved to the woods dur­ing the sum­mer with his part­ner Ca­ley Con­way, also a prom­i­nent Mil­wau­kee mu­si­cian.

“It’s go­ing all right,” he said. “Ca­ley and I are go­ing to stay for the win­ter. At first, we in­tended to stay only for the sum­mer. We didn’t think we’d be able to stay through the win­ter, but we’re do­ing it now. We will cool off with play­ing shows and fo­cus on writ­ing and record­ing and other mu­si­cal stuff. It’s been re­ally busy for us this sum­mer and fall.”

Larkin re­cently started record­ing songs for his new al­bum, as well as for Con­way’s up­com­ing EP.


Also this fall, Larkin toured with his project Cairns, a lo-fi in­die rock band that per­forms his com­po­si­tions and songs. The lineup in­cludes Ca­ley Con­way, Eli Smith, Ed­die Chapman and Sam Per­arske. The out­fit puts on a cap­ti­vat­ing live show.

Cairns rep­re­sents the live in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the mu­sic Larkin writes and records.

He ex­plained, “It’s cool be­cause the songs get two per­son­al­i­ties. The group comes up with a dif­fer­ent vi­sion for the song and that’s what gets played live. Every­body writes their own parts and we col­lab­o­rate and make some­thing that’s based on the orig­i­nal in­tent.”

Larkin started the group in 2013. Then, it sounded qui­eter and more acous­tic than the cur­rent it­er­a­tion. The group has ebbed and flowed, veer­ing into the op­pos­ing cor­ners of both bed­room pop and high-in­ten­sity al­ter­na­tive rock.

To date, the group has re­leased two al­bums — Cairns and Cur­rent — and one sin­gle, “Fall Leaves.”

Ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a Cairns live set is an emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence. Each mu­si­cian makes a pow­er­ful con­tri­bu­tion.

What I like most about the group is its abil­ity to con­trol the dy­nam­ics, know­ing when to get louder at the right mo­ments, while also hav­ing a keen sense of strength in the softer, nu­anced notes. It is chaotic and buzzing at times, yet wrought and pre­cise.


As a vet­eran of the lo­cal Mil­wau­kee mu­sic scene, Larkin has played in a va­ri­ety of groups and done many shows.

When he started per­form­ing in Mil­wau­kee, he played in a pop­u­lar un­der­ground group called Tem­ple. This ex­pe­ri­ence in­tro­duced him to a new mu­sic-and-art com­mu­nity, which used a do-it-your­self ap­proach.

“It was sup­port­ive and pos­i­tive. It’s cool to have creative spa­ces that aren’t cen­tered around al­co­hol or mak­ing prof­its.”

Cur­rently also play­ing in Gauss — D’Amato’s band — and in Con­way’s group, Larkin draws from a range of in­flu­ences and styles to hone his sound. With in­tri­cate in­stru­men­tal ar­range­ments, up­lift­ing horns, dy­namic per­cus­sion and ex­pres­sive lyrics, Cairns packs a punch in both its record­ings and live sets.

Larkin’s lyrics re­veal a level of so­phis­ti­ca­tion and stylis­tic un­der­stand­ing that el­e­vates the songs and makes a real im­pres­sion on au­di­ences.

He men­tions Bill Cal­la­han and Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie and The Mi­cro­phones as key in­flu­ences on his mu­si­cal sound.

“I started lis­ten­ing to a lot of Bill Cal­la­han pretty re­cently. His vo­cal style changed the way I think about lyrics and ca­dence. Phil Elverum — the way he sings and the themes he de­vel­oped are re­ally in­flu­en­tial to me. He isn’t afraid to get re­ally in­tense on one track and del­i­cate on oth­ers. The way he cre­ates these amaz­ing records with sonic va­ri­ety while keep­ing ev­ery­thing in place is a huge in­spi­ra­tion.”

Af­ter a busy sum­mer play­ing with Cairns and gig­ging out in other groups, Larkin seems ex­cited for the win­ter. It will give him a chance to set­tle in and fin­ish his most re­cent record.


I asked Larkin if there was sig­nif­i­cance to the project’s name. He replied by cit­ing its an­thro­po­log­i­cal ori­gin: “Cairns are stacks of rocks that hu­mans make to mark trails or graves or other things.”

Larkin has a healthy re­la­tion­ship with na­ture and seeks to de­velop that re­la­tion­ship while liv­ing out of the city. He toils with the idea of mov­ing even fur­ther away, pos­si­bly to the Drift­less area in western Wis­con­sin to work as a farmer.

“Ca­ley and I wanted to get a taste of what the ru­ral life­style would be like. I feel more com­fort­able away from the so­cial pres­sures of drink­ing and par­ty­ing and en­joy be­ing sur­rounded by na­ture in gen­eral.”

While on tour through­out the fall, Con­way and Larkin take days off go on hik­ing and camp­ing trips, most re­cently vis­it­ing the Por­cu­pine Moun­tains in north­ern Wis­con­sin.

Make sure to catch Cairns be­fore Larkin set­tles into his win­ter hi­ber­na­tion. The group will play at Cac­tus Club Nov. 29, and also plans to play a re­lease show for a tape re­cently recorded with Kevin Dixon — date TBD.


John Larkin.

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