Labor of Love: Interview with Tony Skalicky and Mike Ingenthron of Get Help
The songwriters from Get Help talk about how a casual collaboration between two “restraining order level” Guided by Voices fans turned into an email dialogue, blog, a set of songs and, finally, two excellent albums.
Sometimes a band is a band from the beginning. Sometimes it starts as the tiniest spark of an idea, a good feeling, or even the warmth and understanding between two old friends.
Get Help is more the latter kind of band, a joint project between Tony Skalicky, who is better known for his work with the Beatings, and Mike Ingenthron, who has done time in Strikes Again. Now, with their second album The Good Green Earth out, the two have an actual band – drummer Gene D’Avolio and bassist John Vann Atta. Still, when they began a few years ago, they mostly just had each other, some shared ideas about R.E.M. and Guided by Voices, and an extended, musical email conversation.
Skalicky and Ingenthron have been friends for a long time, bonding a decade or more ago over their love for Guided by Voices. “Tony and I actually started out in a Guided by Voices cover band with a bunch of our friends,” Ingenthron remembered. “This was in 1997 or 1998 when we could still be sure that we were the only GBV cover band in New York. I think we played three shows total. One was during an ice storm in Staten Island.”
The covers band dissolved, but Skalicky and Ingenthron kept running into each other while on tour with other bands and in the breaks between. “We were both in these very loud, very aggressive bands, and we sort of always hung out,” said Skalicky. “And so we started trading ideas back and forth.”
The ideas, at least at first, were far quieter than either the Beatings or Strikes Again, as well as mostly instrumental. “We joked around that we could probably sell these to car commercials,” said Skalicky. “It was not very punk rock.”
The process was freeform, with sometimes Skalicky sending a melody, other times Ingenthron initiating a track. The one on the receiving end would add a bit to it, then send it back. “At the beginning, that was just what we needed,” said Ingenthron. “We’d get together a few times to get some ideas down, but we built a momentum by sending each other ideas and planting seeds. Then we could both be working when we found our respective free times. We’d get to walk around with the track for a while and listen to it before adding something and sending it back.”
“It just was a very good kind of a collaboration - and it was very unexpected. It was really just a lark,” said Skalicky.
The two principals took different parts depending on the song – and they made beats out of drums programmed with GarageBand. “Most bands, they start out and say, okay, this is the singer, this is the guitarist, this is the bassist,” said Skalicky. “We were the exact opposite of that. We weren’t a band at all. We had no idea who was doing what. We really no plan to make it a band at all. It was just like, let’s do this for fun.”
Get Help made their first album just like this, trading ideas and cobbling together demos. They released The End of the New Country on MidRiff Records, the label that Skalicky and his Beatings bandmates run. Though not widely reviewed the record snagged a few positive notices, including a review by NPR which called it, “gloomy but thoughtful guitar rock...[with] enough inspired beauty in the lyrics – and consistently impressive guitar work – to make the music uplifting at times.”
“That first album was kind of personal,” said Skalicky. “It was a special time when Mike and I were writing songs together and complementing each other, but it wasn’t a band. I used to joke that at the end of that album, I’m just going to change the name of the band to Get Pizza. It was just an experience unto itself.”
Yet it was such a good experience, for both Skalicky and Ingenthron, that it continued, and over time, the band that was not a band became...Well, a band.
During the three years between The End of the New Country and The Good Green Earth, Get Help played shows with a revolving cast of friends. “We were just hanging out with guys from Boston and they were into the songs, and so we’d say, hey, we’ll come up to Boston and play a show. Here’s a couple of mp3s. Show up at PA’s Lounge and be prepared to play these songs,” Skalicky remembered.
But by the time he and Ingenthron began to think about recording their second album, the band had solidified around Gene D’Avolio and John Van Atta. That in itself changed Get Help’s process and resulted in a fuller, more rock-oriented sound. “Gene is a tireless preparer and writes these intricate parts that I find very unique and add a lot,” said Ingenthron. “John’s a musical wunderkind on bass, extremely creative and a great listener to what the rest of us are doing.”
“In the past, we would spend a lot of time writing drum parts for a song, using GarageBand or using samples,” added Skalicky. “But now, I can take the barest idea of a song into the practice space and we can start working on it.”
The Good Green Earth benefits from this more collaborative approach in songs that seem denser, more complicated and, at least in musical terms, more upbeat. Tracks like “It’s Only Your Head,” explode with jubiliant energy, a fuzzy drone draped over pulsing, pushing percussion. There’s more than a hint of early R.E.M.’s jangly turbulence, and the surreal Who-like power pop of Bee Thousand-era Guided By Voices.
Ingenthron demurred on the R.E.M. comparison (“I connect more with Hall & Oates than R.E.M.”), but both he and Skalicky are hugely influenced by Guided by Voices. Skalicky pointed to Guided By Voices’ open-ended lyrics as having a major impact on him. “The biggest thing I’ve taken away from Guided by Voices is that you can paint with words,” explained. “[Robert Pollard] says a lot of stuff and most of it I have no idea what he means, but the words, his vocabulary, it’s endless. He creates images in your head about what the song is about. And whether you’re right or wrong, it doesn’t really matter.”
You can hear this influence in lines like “When the reins fly from your hands/and the burn marks scorch the sand/I’ll look through you and wonder how you lost control” at the beginning of “The Opulence of a Clear Blue Sky” that create images without spelling out a narrative. And you can sense the shadow of Pollard in the intersection of great, crashing power chords and well-turned melodic hooks.
The songwriting process remains what it’s always been, with Skalicky building on Ingenthron’s ideas and vice versa. Skalicky remembered sitting down with his partner’s sketch for “All Else Fails,” which appeared on the first album, finding a reverb pedal and adding wild, noisy guitar overlays to its catchy melody. Three years later, Ingenthron was puzzling over “Little Symbols,” a song destined for the second album. “Tony sent me a version fo the song that wasn’t so different from what’s on the album. It was just a little too short for my liking,” he recalled. “The song felt epic to me, and I wanted to create more of a build into it, so I wrote a lengthy introduction and tacked it on.”
This kind of interchange wouldn’t be possible if the two songwriters didn’t trust and respect each other, and indeed, Skalicky and Ingenthron have a warm appreciation of each other’s strengths. Said Skalicky, “Mike is a really schooled musician. He has a very good ear and a knowledge of music. He can read music. He can write music. He has impeccable timing and good pitch and everything...you just want to strangle the guy.”
And conversely, “Tony is the most natural lyricist I’ve ever worked with,” said Ingenthron. “I’ve got all these unused show postcards lying around my apartment, and I scrawl one or two lines on them as they come to me. It takes me weeks and a dozen different postcards to piece together a first stab at a lyric. Meanwhile, I’ve watched Tony scribble something out in eight or ten minutes and then change maybe one line before it’s done. It’s pretty inspiring to watch.”
When a casual collaboration like this turns into a band, and the band makes a record as tantalizing as The Good Green Earth, the big question is where do you go from here? And the answer may be: nowhere in particular.
Skalicky juggles Get Help with his other project, the Beatings, running Midriff Records, working at a print shop and pitching in to care for his three-month-old son. Ingenthron is busy, too, with a full-time job and various musical endeavors, as are the two newer members of the band. There is, at the moment, no plan for a major tour, videos or any of the usual marketing strategies.
The songwriting collaboration will go on, though, as it always has, and music will be made and friendships will be nurtured. And even if that’s all there ever is to Get Help, it is something worth pursuing. “That is, indeed, the beauty of it,” said Ingenthron. “The more limited our expectations we set for ourselves, the easier they are to achieve. Ultimately, we’d like people to hear our songs.”