Katie Harkin had a secret. Her coat zipped up tight to the top of the neck, the school shirt and tie disappeared, and the schoolgirl with it, and the school: they all disappeared as that bit of YKK metal clenched concealing teeth together.
School was the edge. The edge of growing up, the edge of university, the edge of Hyde Park corner, the edge of the Royal Park Cellars, the edge of the the Brudenell Social Club, the edge of town. With her coat zipped up and a free lunch hour, or an hour after school, Katie could move from the edge to the centre, from schoolgirl to student, from common room to student union, from maths homework to math rock.
In Jumbo Records on a Monday, listening seriously to Matt behind the counter as he recommended a new CD by a band called the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and as he recommended the LP too, because he told Katie she would like the band so much she would want the record too. “My first vinyl purchase,” she says. “And he was right.”
To own your first record is to own a secret; to own a record from the USA is to own a key to the world, and to find out eventually that the world starts with you, and your secret, in Leeds. Your favourite bands are on Kill Rock Stars records, from Olympia WA, and their new release is a compilation by Delta 5, from Leeds. “I think that’s very indicative of the fact that Leeds doesn’t wear its cultural heritage on its sleeve,” says Katie.
“I remember finding out Gang of Four were from Leeds, and being outraged that there weren’t cardboard cutouts of them in the front of every record shop, to inform teenagers like me. If you go to cities like Manchester there are, but that would never happen here, it would never happen for a band like Gang of Four.
“And that is what makes it more electric when you do find out history that feels a bit hidden or private. It makes it more intimate somehow.”
More secret; and more secrets. Like worrying about proving her name at the Brudenell Social Club, because at this gig you got in free if your name began with K; her coat zipped up and “Katie” rehearsed, and entry from the edge to the centre of Leeds Six music and society. “The social aspects,” says Katie; “The place for people to meet. And the freedom of the lineups, that it can be any kind of music there.”
Eventually, Katie would live down the road, making music of her own, with people who are in on the secret. “There’s a lot of collaboration in LS6 because people really do live near each other, and people have practice rooms in their basements. So it’s not the hardest thing in the world to ask someone to come and play a song, because it’s probably two streets down from them.”
But for now the secret is Katie’s, at the Cockpit, unshared. “I mean this with love,” says Katie. “Every city needs a drip tray. The Cockpit was a really filthy venue where lots of filthy things happened, but I think you need somewhere that you feel like you can get lost in, that you wouldn’t bring your mum and dad to, that you wouldn’t dream of consuming food in. You need somewhere like that in order to be transported.”
It was at the Cockpit that Katie saw Sleater-Kinney for the first time. “I was listening to their records in my bedroom, and I went to see them play at the Cockpit on my own, because no one would come with me.
“They were incendiary. Raw. Melodic. Masterful. Life changing.”
“I had to keep my mouth shut for a long time,” says Katie Harkin, singer and songwriter in Sky Larkin; drummer, keyboard player and vocalist in Wild Beasts. Last year, she fell asleep on the edge of a secret, woke up in the centre of it, and for the best part of a year, had to keep her mouth shut.
We didn’t ask Katie about destiny, and she hasn’t had time to reflect anyway: “It’s really wild,” she says, present tense. But looking back you can trace lines; the right secrets, in the right order, starting with those records bought from Jumbo, stuffed into a school bag, taken home and treasured.
Sky Larkin was formed by Katie and school friend Nestor Matthews, only after Katie had gone to university in London and Nestor came to visit and then Katie came north to visit him. “I would get the train back to Leeds to work on the band, and I found it really focusing because in the time I had at home that was all I did: play music and go to gigs.”
The chronology is fuzzy; “I remember being at the Brudenell to see my friend Hayley’s band, and the support was a band called The Cribs. It turned out to be the night Wichita Records had come up to Leeds and signed them.”
Later Wichita signed Sky Larkin, and later they sent Katie and Nestor to the Pacific Northwest to record. “When I had the opportunity to make music for the first time, Wichita asked us to take our favourite records, turn them over, and look on the back to see who made them. John Goodmanson’s name is the one that kept cropping up”; up on the back of Sleater-Kinney albums, of Kill Rock Stars records, and eventually on the back of all three Sky Larkin LPs.
Last year Katie went to visit John and his wife and his family, and to glean whatever recording secrets could be had from hanging out. “John said he was sorry, because the first couple of days I’d be there he was going to be away recording a band in Portland, and because I’m such a studio nerd I asked if I could come down and sit in and make coffee because I love doing that stuff. So I managed to go and drop in on the last few days of recording for the new Sleater-Kinney album.”
‘New Sleater-Kinney album’ doesn’t quite describe what was happening in that studio in Portland in March 2014. The gangs of incendiaries in the guises of rock bands that had characterised riot grrrl in the mid-nineties had necessarily flashed and burned quickly and brightly, scattering records and shows and fanzines across labels and towns and bedrooms with a mighty incoherence that made the far corners of the scene a secret; could you find your only one of the 500 seven inch singles pressed, and have your life changed, or would just knowing it was out there have to be enough? There at the start and still there on the other side of it all were Sleater-Kinney, ten years, seven albums, a body of work and a singular presence: “We did not have clear predecessors or successors,” Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein told the New York Times this year. “There was really no one like this band.”
Then, in 2006, they stopped doing Sleater-Kinney, and did other things for years, and carried on doing other things even after the end of 2012, when in secret they started doing Sleater-Kinney again. Telling no one, they wrote songs for a year in a basement in Portland; still telling no one, they recorded them for three months in San Francisco, Seattle and Portland. With the recording done, they still told no one, for another six months. “For the life of me, I don’t know how they kept it so quiet,” said John Goodmanson to the NYT, in December 2014, and when he said it, in Leeds, Katie Harkin must have read it, and gulped, and fiddled with the zip on her coat.
“I went to Portland with John; I had met Janet and Carrie when I was on tour with Wild Beasts, but I had never met Corin. Within fifteen minutes she had bought me lunch and offered me a place to sleep. I thought, this is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
“I was so thrilled to be in the studio, but I was so jetlagged. It’s day two when it really hits. I was sat in the control room at the studio, listening to the new Sleater-Kinney record that nobody had heard, that was being made in front of me, and I felt the curtain fall. I just knew: I was going to be asleep in the next ten minutes.
“I was so angry at my body. It was that chemical switch, and it just goes. I was incredibly embarrassed. I thought, this is the rudest thing possible, to fall asleep in the control room while someone is making a record. But I think it’s been part of my evolution through touring with bands that I’m now able to fall asleep with very loud music playing, which is probably not the best thing for my future in terms of sleeping through fire alarms.
“I went out to the studio lounge and found this empty booth with a really hard wooden bench, and went to sleep. And that’s what I think happened. Sleater-Kinney saw me fall asleep on a cold, hard bench, with loud music blaring, and they thought: she has the skills and the endurance necessary for touring.
“I offered to be their guitar tech. I remember that. And a couple of months later I got a text and an email and I just fell off my sofa.”
The offer wasn’t to be Sleater-Kinney’s guitar tech, but to be Sleater-Kinney’s guitarist, keyboardist, percussionist; an on-tour fourth member of a band that had never been more than Carrie, Corin and Janet before.
“And I had to keep my mouth shut for a long time. The best part of a year. First of all there was the fact the record existed, and then the tour, and my involvement in it. I didn’t want to be the leaky tap. The reaction when I could finally tell a few of my friends was, ‘Great!’ and ‘That’s why you’ve been acting so weird!’ Because I’d been unable to commit to things; I’d had to say, I’m going to be doing something, but I can’t tell you what it is.”
The announcement, to the wider world, was handled by David Letterman. On his TV show. To millions watching live. To thousands more watching later on YouTube. “Do me a favour, welcome back to the programme Sleater-Kinney,” he said; “Kids! Take it away!”
And the camera took to them, and in the second shot, at Carrie Brownstein’s elbow, was a figure with a guitar and a tambourine and a new honorific title; not Miss or Ms. but ‘Is That’, as in, ‘Is That Katie Harkin?’
“That was my first gig,” says Katie laughing, still disbelieving. “My first gig! There was no warmup show. That was it. Their first show in nine years. And my first gig with them.
“Carrie had been promoting [tv show] Portlandia at the time, so I thought that Letterman was going to be just her. But we were on the train and she told me and she said I just went white. After the show my phone burst into flames; I’ve never seen it light up like it did.”
The disbelief is still real, even now, after playing 44 shows as the fourth member of Sleater-Kinney; it’ll be 55 by the end of the year, and the disbelief will still be real.
“It’s just so unlikely,” she says. Katie isn’t involved in every song, so takes a place off-stage for parts of every Sleater- Kinney show, and at the first full gig, Katie says, “When I finished and went into the backstage area, between the end of the show and the encore, I just couldn’t speak. I was genuinely speechless maybe for the first time in my life.
“It was so jarring. To go from being onstage with my mates, to being stood at the side watching them and thinking: that’s Sleater-Kinney. That’s Sleater-Kinney and they’re back. That’s Sleater-Kinney. And then I’d go back on stage with them. To get used to that, to that feeling like the bends, has taken a while. I don’t think it will ever go away.
“It’s very moving to watch the crowd as well, to be able to observe them. It’s been like taking the fandom I already had and putting 3D glasses on it. My appreciation for Sleater-Kinney hasn’t lessened because I now know how they take their day to day lives. It’s just like seeing them in glorious technicolour. It’s a really special place to be, and it’s saved me a lot of money in gig tickets. That’s one of the other things I’ve thought about, because I am the person that would have gone to every show in the UK; it’s not like I’m about to play it cool about saying that. To be stood where I am, I’ve got the best seat in the house, and I’m so thankful to them, because I really do feel like I’ve been strapped to the outside of this rocketship.”
Not only the trail of secrets learned, but the lineage of experience has at least given Katie the context for the special kind of outer space she’s visited with Sleater-Kinney, after tours with Sky Larkin and Wild Beasts across the same territories, if not with the same style.
“First of all to be in America in a tourbus, that’s a completely new experience for me. I’ve done sitting in a van or a car for days on end, and Sky Larkin got into some scrapes on tour because we were just hapless Brits who didn’t know better.
“We got stranded in hostels in New York for a while, we ran out of gas in the desert in Utah – those sorts of things. Snakes, mountain lions, piles of bones. Our tour manager decided to find a short cut off the freeway and found a pile of bones by a railway line that had been picked clean by a mountain lion. That’s when you realise you really are in the middle of nowhere in America.
“I was actually in New York two weeks ago, and turned a corner in Chelsea and came upon one of the hostels Sky Larkin were stranded in. I was pitstopping on my way to playing the Pitchfork Festival with Sleater-Kinney, and that was a salient moment.
“Headlining festivals and big stages has definitely satisfied one part of my musical curiosity. It satisfies the megalomaniacal part of my ambition! And it’s a part of the musical tourism of working with other bands: it’s really fascinating to see what that’s like, what it’s like to be on those stages. And it kind of gives me more confidence and freedom to let my own ambitions be small and weird, if that’s how they feel at that time.”
The collaborative element instilled by formative years in Leeds, the band-hopping that develops when bands are basement-to-basement along back-to-back terraced streets, the roles that have to be performed to survive and act as a musician in an era that is shutting down creativity as a paying concern, all turn out to be preparation when a call comes to become part of something you couldn’t ever imagine.
“I think that kind of agility is something that musicians have to have by default these days,” says Katie. “Sometimes you’re a front person, sometimes you’re playing in the background, sometimes you’re a mum, sometimes you’re a business lady, sometimes you’re just grocery shopping, as they say in the States.
“The thing about music is that it’s porous, and that’s why people want to be involved in it and want to be near it, because you feel like you can become part of it. And that’s something that I have carried with me for a long time, thinking that these experiences, these things really are porous, and if you start to think of it in any other way it’s just going to be cold and lonely.
“The experience of working with Wild Beasts was really formative, and I’m so thankful for those boys. There are more similarities between them and Sleater-Kinney than people might think; there are two songwriters in each band, two frontpeople, they’re both bands that definitely haven’t always sat with the perceptions of gender roles in the music industry, and both write songs about the expectations of femininity and masculinity. So it has been interesting to see the two.”
What Sleater-Kinney have, that’s unique to them, is the fact of being Sleater-Kinney, the band and its people and its secrets.
“It’s interesting to navigate chemistry that has existed for twenty years,” says Katie. “There are really deeply rooted friendships there, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold people that can collaborate and work together for twenty years. It’s a real lesson.
“It’s cemented my commitment to what I want to do as well. Meeting them, you see people that are so committed to what drives them, and that is an infinite source of inspiration.
“I’ve learned from them that you can get a lot done in a day. You can get a lot done. A lot! They’ve all got incredibly rich and varied lives, and it’s just inspiring on a day to day basis. And really fun. They were a part of music at a time that I find really inspirational, and then have continued to be completely involved.”
Preparing to walk the lines of every day with a band who were, once, a teenage secret, and with people who, always, are an inspiration, wasn’t something Katie found easy. She never considered turning down Sleater-Kinney’s offer – “not for a second” – but didn’t underrate the task.
“Having that year from when I found out, to when it happened, definitely gave me time to get my head around it, because it is all so different. I did need a run up.
“There was definitely the matter of how it would work, and there was also a matter of wanting to do a good job. And it made me think really deeply about creativity and identity, because Sleater-Kinney are a band that meant so much to me when I was young; and especially when you’re younger, if you don’t see yourself reflected in the world around you then you use popular culture as a kind of scaffold, and that’s how I came to think of it. Sleater-Kinney were part of the scaffold that I built for myself when I was a teenager, and now ten years later, if I pulled part of that scaffold out so I could look at it objectively from all sides, would the house stay standing?
“It seems to be. But in terms of satisfying the responsibility that I felt to my teenage self to do a good job, I had to try and think about fandom and objectivity, and whether it’s possible, in order to do a good job, to be objective about something that you’re so tied to.”
And the conclusion of that thinking is? “Er – I’ll have to – we’ll have to meet again.
“I haven’t really spoken about it before now, because I’m not part of the press that Sleater-Kinney have been working on, and I kind of hoped that by now I’d have a cool soundbite, some pithy thing to say, to sum up what this experience means to me and what it has been like. But I just don’t. I don’t know if it’s because I haven’t reached the eye of the storm yet, or I haven’t achieved some kind of perspective, or if I never will, because it’s too massive and has been too important to me.
“But for this to be the end of that journey that started with me listening to records in my bedroom when I was a teenager, and going to see Sleater-Kinney on my own because no one would come with me, is marvellous.”
First published in TCT