It’s early August and I’m sipping a beer at Schubas in Chicago, waiting for Jack Larsen to meet me for this interview. I had been excited at the prospect of interviewing Chicago-based Jack Larsen ever since I first heard “Bubba,” a beautiful, psychedelic song off his 2019 debut LP Mildew. I actually had hoped to catch one of Larsen’s performances in November 2021 when he was opening for Kacy Hill, but I ended up catching covid and had to sell my ticket. So it goes.
In case you’re not familiar, Jack Larsen‘s sound is innately original, blending a complex mix of synths, guitar, high-pitched vocals and drums to create a sort of atmospheric indie pop. An independent, self-taught artist, Larsen has been creating songs for the better part of ten years but is currently working on his second full-length LP, What If Birds Were Angels. I was intrigued by the fact that his entire album-creation process has been livestreamed on Twitch, and I managed to catch a few live sessions a few weeks before. Though the album doesn’t have a firm release date yet, I caught up with Larsen to hear how the raw, unfiltered creative process has been.
Read on for Staged Haze’s edited interview with Jack Larsen, where we discuss Larsen’s favorite music venue, how the city of Chicago has inspired him, and the one artist that he’s been listening to nonstop.
Staged Haze: Before we begin discussing the new album, I do want to ask about Mildew. Prior to that album, you had been making music for several years. What did it feel like to finally release your first actual album?
Jack: It was something that I just had been so afraid to commit to. Because making a project it takes so much more than the music; you need a concept, you need to put together a body of work. And before that I was mostly just doing singles. So, there were a few factors. I was getting some record label attention from singles I dropped at that point, even though I was with Closed Sessions [a Chicago-based label]. And we were getting hit by some really major labels, and they wanted to hear more music and they wanted to hear an album, and I’m like, “Alright, I gotta do this – it’s time to lock in and prove that I’m an artist that can create a body of work.” So that’s where I started to get the motivation to make it.
But the reason it’s called Mildew, is because at the time of writing it, I was living in a really shitty studio apartment. And it was poorly maintained, so there was mold growing on the windowsills. I got a lot of sinus infections, I was sick a lot, and so I started because I was homebound and feeling sick all the time. That’s when I really started the writing process, the lyrics and all that for the album. And that’s why it’s called Mildew – because mold literally began the whole process for me. So that summer, I locked in at Soundscape Studios and the whole summer of 2019 I went there every night, recorded all night, came home in the morning, fell asleep, woke up back at night and went back at it. It was a lot of all-nighters that whole summer. So yeah, that’s where the album came from.
Staged Haze: Interesting, so you were with Closed Sessions, but that’s no longer the case. You’re independent now?
Jack: Yeah, and I’m still on good terms with them, I talk to them every month. But it was mostly that I wanted to do my own thing now. I studied music business in college, so I felt like maybe I can handle the business side of things. I made a record label called Enjoyable Listening and now I’m just doing it through that. [As of now, the sole artist on Larsen’s label is himself.]
Staged Haze: What are you most proud of when it comes to Mildew as a body of work?
Jack: I’m proud of how it performed on Spotify. It got a lot of attention from editors and got playlisted on multiple different playlists. I don’t like to look at streams as a factor of good work, but I don’t know, I had never been playlisted before. And keep in mind I got playlisted a week or two before COVID shutdowns. I was riding high and then “bam,” it all came down. I had to readjust and scramble, which is what led me to this new album’s concept.
Staged Haze: I actually discovered “Bubba” [a song off Mildew] from a Spotify playlist.
Jack: Yeah, exactly. And I’m proud of that. Because it’s been three years now, and it’s still riding high. Multiple songs from that project have done pretty well, and it’s cool to see that – my music can hold up while I’m working on this next thing.
Staged Haze: What’s your favorite venue that you’ve played, in Chicago or elsewhere?
Jack: Probably Schubas. I played in LA at the Moroccan lounge, and the sound was crazy there. That’s probably the best sounding place I’ve ever performed, but environment-wise, Schubas. But I haven’t played very many shows: just Chicago, LA, and New York. I was talking to booking agents in California, then COVID hit and I lost contact with everybody. And everyone in the industry was affected, so because of that I haven’t really been on any tours.
Staged Haze: You’re preparing your second album now, called What If Birds Were Angels. What’s the thinking behind the name there?
Jack: I just wrote it down. I tried to journal every day, and I forgot what it was exactly, but I had written down that phrase. And there’s really no meaning behind it. I think it will find its meaning as the album progresses, if that makes sense. Just like “mildew,” it was a word that I had written down, though the album was untitled at the time. I don’t think there’s really any deep meaning behind it, I just thought it was a phrase that sounded cool.
Staged Haze: What’s fascinating about the new album is that you’ve been livestreaming the entire creation process on Twitch and Discord. Can you talk about how that experience has been?
Jack: Yeah, I’ve been streaming everything – the recording, me setting up the computer, making music, everything. I stream that on Twitch, and everything else is on a Discord server. There’s a Discord channel for every lyric, word, poem, or bar that I write. Every session that I export, every MP3 audio, every demo is in a channel called Exports. Every thought that I have, like “hey, maybe I’ll raise the harmonies here, or lower the snare drum there” is in a Note channel. Everyone is seeing every move that I’m making – there’s nothing left out. Right from the start. And actually, yesterday was a year since I had started the channel.
Staged Haze: I’m on the Discord, and I actually saw that last month you had close to 300 streaming hours. How has that process been? Because you’re experimenting in real time and getting to see what the reaction is.
Jack: Well, I’m no longer alone in studio. I’m literally on live for anyone to see, so it has changed my process completely. People can now comment on the stream in the moment, like “hey, maybe you should leave a snare here,” or “take out the kick.” And I don’t know, I just kind of feed off the people. They’ll be like, “I really liked the keys in this song.” It’s very democratic. And to answer your question, some songs will make it, but in the export channel I have over 100 demos, and I’m trying to condense this album into 10 to 15 really good songs. So people are hearing stuff that won’t make the cut, or some songs might sound completely different when I take a synth out. And on Discord, if I see a demo has ten likes, compared to one that has one like, I’ll be like, “oh okay, they fuck with this one?” You know? So, like I said, it’s democratic in a way because people can voice their opinion.
Staged Haze: It’s like vulnerability in a way, but I also don’t know if that’s the right word. It feels more just you’re having fun with it and seeing where it goes.
Jack: Yeah. I mean, I still have this pressure I put on myself to come up with something. I want to be able to do shows again, we’re talking about doing shows next year, so I want to finish this album very soon. By the end of the year, I hope to have a rough cut to send out, so I still put a deadline on stuff which can make things stressful. But even having people to talk to and say in the Discord, “guys, I’m feeling stressed as fuck right now. I want to do shows.” And they’ll be like, “it’s okay, man.” I have people to talk to this time around whereas before it was just me. Now I’m actually collaborating with more people. And that’s also outside of the chats and all that.
Staged Haze: Are you bringing in producers or anything like that?
Jack: No, I’m producing everything. But my friend Jake has just been coming over and playing guitar a lot recently. And I do want to bring it to a point where I develop into a band, a three-piece band and rehearse the songs together and stuff. Like bringing it to a live setting before the album’s even done, just to see how it could work live. And I want to bring that sound to an album because I’m hoping to bring it to more people as time goes on, get more vocalists, get a drummer, get a keyboard player, and see what they can add. But right now, it’s just Jake adding guitar for the most part.
Staged Haze: Being from Chicago, how has the city inspired you musically, if at all? And artistically?
Jack: I’ve been here for seven years now, and I’ve lived in different neighborhoods. I’m not as in tune with the modern Chicago music scene right now, but I still feel equally inspired by the city socially. I have a lot of great friends here that inspire me. But I have been really into the house scene lately. Every weekend I’m heading up to some house show, and I’ve been meeting a lot of DJs and stuff. I don’t DJ but I really, really love it. I just feel like musically Chicago’s got a lot of grit to it. And there’s a lot of underground music that’s happening all around us. So that has been so inspiring. Just Chicago summers in general – it energizes me and that rubs off on the music for sure. I used to work for those riverboat companies, so I was downtown every day for a few summers just going through the river. It’s the most beautiful city ever man. I’m just happy to be here.
Staged Haze: One thing that I noticed – and I don’t know if there’s any intention here – but on songs like “Break” and “Spirit” you mentioned America by name, which I’ve always found curious. In “Spirit” you say you’re “drugging out all your dreams and living so quietly in America,” and then in “Break” you say America’s dead. I guess my question is: have you come to any conclusions personally and artistically about America?
Jack: Yeah, I mean, I feel like “Break” was very coming of age, I was just 19 years old. I think Trump had just been elected. That’s why I said that, just straight up probably. That’s what inspired “Spirit,” which is a really interesting song for me because it was the first song on Mildew. And it hit me, like “this is what the album’s gonna sound like.” Not a lot of drums, just a lot of space. And that’s America. I literally went to South Dakota to shoot the video. To me, it’s just America itself. I don’t know how to word this, but with “Break,” politically I’m thinking America’s dead. But with “Spirit,” there’s this very beautiful thing about it, the landscapes of our country to me. And journeying through that different kind of geography and all the different people across this country. I think that’s what I was trying to say with that.
Staged Haze: In terms of your musical process, do you make beats and the production first and then layer on lyrics after the fact, or is it in parallel?
Jack: I’m a lyrics last kind of guy. I get melodies and progressions going, so I’ll make a beat. Let’s say I come up with a synth line and right away I’m triggered with a melody. I’ll start singing, but I’ll mostly just mumble it. And then I’ll produce around those melodies more, but the lyrics always come last for me. I don’t really know what to say until the very end.
Staged Haze: I feel like lyrically, Mildew sounds like self-exploration to me. What will this new album reflect?
Jack: A breakup. It’s a breakup album, man. It happened earlier, just around late spring. It’s been tough, but you have to look at the bright side. It will be a different album for sure.
Staged Haze: How did you first get started producing music?
Jack: Well, I actually, I started doing vocals only about 10 years ago, just recording raps over tight beats or downloading instrumentals off of YouTube and singing over them. And then I was like, “man, if I really want the song to be what I want, I need to do the production.” The first time I produced was the song “I Became My Brother.” But I didn’t start producing until 2018. But since I had known how to work programs and plugins through vocals, it wasn’t that hard to pick up. I had made songs before, you know, I’ve known how to structure songs and record and mix them. It was just about snapping production onto it.
Staged Haze: My last question for you: who has been an inspiration to you musically as of late?
Jack: J Dilla. I fell in love with him and all the other producers that come from that umbrella. There’s a lot of that vibe in the album too, mixed with pop stuff. I guess on that note, Frank Ocean is an all-time inspiration. If I have to name all of them, I can name you 50 other people, but they haven’t had as big of an impact on me lately. But J Dilla, he’s someone I can’t stop listening to.
Stay tuned for more from Jack Larsen soon.