Band of Skulls
The Song Remains the Same:
But for Band of Skulls, It’s One Worth Repeating
Band of Skulls, a beardy but well-groomed power trio from Southampton, kick out the sort of bluesy, ballsy rock ‘n’ roll that defined American and British legends such as Zeppelin, Cream and Hendrix. Yet, like those acts, they transcend that one-dimensional assessment by successfully incorporating other styles and elements into their sound and making it their own. Now all hovering around their late twenties, guitarist/vocalist Russell Marden, bassist/vocalist Emma Richardson and drummer Matt Hayward grew up on a diet of the post-Nirvana alternative rock of the 1990s, so whether consciously or not, that element seeps into their music, as well as softer, more folk-influenced and pensive approaches. Russell and Emma sing both apart and in harmony, lending that ever-powerful dynamic to their work. But, being a compact three-piece, it’s all pretty basic when it comes right down to it.
Russell (favorite guitarist: Jimi Hendrix) and Matt (favorite drummer: John Bonham) have been friends since grade school, and have been playing together for nearly as long. They met Emma while studying art at college (art school being an essential prerequisite to classic British rock bands, of course), and while she’d never really played music, they bonded and got the band going in earnest in 2008, first as Fleeing New York and then, during a residency at a local club, Band of Skulls (in a roundabout way, it’s a Hamlet reference, but we’ll let you ask them about that). Their debut album, 2009’s Baby Darling Doll Face Honey, first earned them notice in the States (an outtake from that album, “Friends,” appeared on the soundtrack to The Twilight Saga: New Moon, which didn’t hurt), but they’ve since cooked up a bulky crowd back home, where their new album, Sweet Sour, debuted at number 14 on the British charts amid all the big pop heavyweights. Not too shabby.
Sweet Sour is, as they say, a solid album – in many ways, it’s heavier than their debut, yet in other places its subtler and more diverse. The title track opens the gates, but it’s probably the dullest, dumbest track on the album. Luckily, it’s quickly followed by “Bruises,” easily the album’s strongest moment, a sort of Zeppelin-meets-Pixies-meets-Smashing Pumpkins hybrid that’s far better than that unfortunate description makes it seem. From there, it’s a rock ‘n’ roll rollercoaster ride whose best moments may very well be Richardson’s lighter touches – they’re a wonderful counterweight to the beef stew the boys crank out.
I caught up with Russell by phone somewhere in the middle of England, where the Skulls were in the midst of a well-received tour of their motherland.
Was it always a dream and goal of yours to play in a rock band, or did you plan on doing something else?
“Well, I sort of have been in a rock ‘n’ roll band since I was a kid. The only thing that’s different is the amount of people that pay attention to it. I think as a younger kid, you think, ‘I want to be the biggest band on the block,’ or the biggest band in the suburbs where you grew up. And then hopefully the biggest band in the town you come from, and then it sort of escalates from there, really. I guess you sort of lose track of it by then, but for us, we’re the same people, and we go about this music exactly the same. It was our ambition, but it’s not like we’ve changed, really, in many ways.”
You’re talking about you and Matt, whom you’ve known since you were kids?
“Yeah, he was a little younger than I was, and we sort of didn’t know what the hell we were doing. We got put together [by our parents] just because we were interested in music. We started together, and we’re the sort of people who can’t play with other musicians because we’re so locked in to each other’s sort of weird things that we do musically.”
Did you start out having this kind of sound, or did you have other musical interests when you were younger?
“In many ways, when we first had any headway with a band, and found a way into having an audience, was when we actually revisited what we started with – we sort of simplified it and went back to what we really did care about. When we first met each other, we were listening to more American, heavier bands of the time – Rage Against the Machine, Smashing Pumpkins and [also] Radiohead. I think that’s where our sort of common musical ground was. And then of course, we started discovering a lot of older rock music. But we grew up in that sort of era when guitar music was a lot more prolific. Nowadays, it’s often said that it’s not, but in our world it’s just the same. We don’t really adhere to that whole [point of view] that rock music is a fading thing. I think people need it. There’s something about it – there’s something about a band striking a chord, and the bass drum and bass, and the distortion of the guitar… I just know it’s something that you can’t really synthesize.”
I’ve been hearing that rock music is dying since the ‘70s.
“Yeah, like every year, right? In England right now I’m hearing it every day. So my fight is up about it.”
They certainly seem to make grand proclamations to that effect much more often in England.
“I don’t know why, really. We’re a small country. I think there’s lots of self-doubt and angst. But I think that’s probably why so many good bands come from here, because there’s all that. Yeah, everyone’s always searching for the new thing, and it’s very fast moving. But for us, this has always been our thing. We’ve never been the coolest band from where we’re from, but we just carry on with what we’re doing. I think sticking to our guns, in the end, has proved its worth. You can’t do that if you join the latest trend and put together a band of people that fit the model.”
As far as your interest in older music, did a lot of that come from your parents?
“My dad had a good vinyl collection, a very healthy one. And when he was younger, he would go to every show. He was living down in the southwest of England, but as we are doing now, bands would tour around the whole country. In this tiny venue, he saw everyone – Fleetwood Mac, the Police, Pink Floyd. So I think that had a strange sort of effect on me. I thought of the Sex Pistols and Pink Floyd as being all from the same thing, really. I didn’t really buy into the bullshit. I just liked the music. And then when I started buying my own stuff, I think I went a bit further back, and any kind of British music that had an American appeal, and any American artists that did well over here, that sort of connection…is really exciting [to me]. Any band that can transcend where they’re from and make it in a different place, that’s the key to something that’s really exciting. That’s what we strive towards.”
What is that thing on the cover of Sweet Sour? I know it’s taken from one of Emma’s paintings, but it looks like the alien from the Predator movies.
“It’s always very interesting to hear what individual people think it looks like. How it got made, Emma did some paintings like on the [cover of our] first record. [And] we went out to this place where they had some glass blowers – these guys made glass artwork. So basically, they took this painting and made it out of glass, and that was photographed and manipulated and all sorts of things, and that’s what’s on the cover – it’s Emma’s art sort of 3-D realized. And yeah, it is a terrifying image! But Emma’s so talented, and it fits with the music. She did these paintings as we were writing the songs, so it feels like it represents us.”
And she had a big art show recently, right?
“Yeah, we had all the painting that we used to make up the artwork for the first record in one big group – this was over in East London, in Shoreditch – and in another room we had all the paintings that were used for this record, and we had a giant version of the album cover, and then we had this little glass thing going, it’s about the size of a four-armed rat in a little glass box… It looked like a porcelain lung with all these little tentacles, so that was weird, too. I was like, ‘This is a very strange place for a rock band to be,’ but it was good. Keeps it interesting! That’s what we always try and do. I’m very happy she lets us use her work, because who better to do it? We’re very lucky.”
You went to art school as well – do you continue to do any visual art?
“I take a bit of photography, but…I always say if I had started to become a photographer, you really have to be amazing, because anyone can make a great looking image now on their iPhone or Instagram or whatever it is. God forbid if you can ever have an app on your phone which just makes a great garage rock album! Technology is great, but it’s putting genius at your fingertips, you know? I found the guitar and the guitar is very difficult to learn and master, so there’s a lot of blood and sore fingers and social awkwardness involved with it. Which is good. It’s probably not worth it, but I like it!”