Photo: Andy Cotterill

In Love by Default: An Interview with Band of Skulls

When you have to move out of the church you are recording in because your fans found out, that's generally a good sign that you're Band of Skulls and up to something good.
Band of Skulls
By Default

To some extent, the concept of indie music has in recent years typified the homogeneity of the major label artists it originally intended to react against. Whether or not you’re a fan of dream pop, intimate indie folk hybrids, or boppy guitarwork, their saturation of the modern “alternative” music scene is undeniable. In contrast to these formulas, it is a rare band that can both maintain an indie aesthetic whilst readily and consistently incorporating hard rock influences.

Southampton trio Band of Skulls can.

Active since 2004, the band are signed in the US to Vagrant Records alongside indie heroes such as Blitzen Trapper, The 1975, and James Vincent McMorrow, and to [PIAS] in the UK, a label so under the radar that its name is in brackets. Yet the band seamlessly juggle stylistic influences from alt-J to ZZ Top. It is here that we find the root of their charm. Band of Skulls seem to be a reluctant embodiment of the indie rock tag, emphasising the “rock” part of the genre and insisting that their music “has no boundaries” in listener base, aesthetic, or possibility. It’s a readiness to tear up the formula that has allowed the band to explore uncharted waters on their latest release, By Default. Admitting that they had stretched the possibilities open to them in their original style, lead singer and guitarist Russell Marsden has emphasised how natural their efforts at innovation have been.

“Natural” is probably a good way of summarising much of the band’s transitions on this record: the inclusion of Pixies producer Gil Norton, the decision making process on the album, and the trajectory of the record itself all smack of a natural kind of instinct. It is this willingness to trust their instincts that has allowed the band to refine their craft on By Default. Marsden admits that, like most attempts at changing the formula behind the music, their transition as a band has involved taking risks. As it turns out, however, the risk has paid off, and Band of Skulls have been left with a “contents page” for journeys even further into unknown territory. PopMatters sat down with Russell Marsden, one of the band’s two lead singers, to talk change, influence, and other light-hearted buzzwords.

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You’ve said that this album marks a new era for the band. Considering the critical success of your 2014 album, Himalayan was it a difficult decision to go in a new direction?

I think it was a natural progression really. Before, we were trying to push the limits of what was possible as a rock and roll trio. I think on Himalayan we found those boundaries and sometimes went over them. When we got to touring that record, I think we could almost see the future and what we’d be up to next: a couple of the songs came out really well but some of them to me just didn’t, and we were like, “You know what, we might have to flesh out the sound and try a few things differently next time around.” I think we had that in the back of our minds. And also all the songs we had written in the touring phase for the album, we’d kind of recorded all of them by Himalayan. We stopped and spoke about what we want to do next. We had a meeting and thought that we would still use some things, but we wouldn’t be finishing off old work.

Do you think we can expect more of your later work to be in a similar vain to By Default?

It’s hard to say, we’re just focusing on this one that’s coming out. But I do know that there’s a bunch of ideas and songs that we didn’t have time to include this time around and they’re very exciting. I think perhaps By Default might be a good guide, a good contents page for directions we might explore in the future. We’ve always said we like to open doors. If we write a song and we get away with it, it almost gives us permission to do something more extreme next time around. So that’s what we’re probably heading towards.

Does the album’s title, By Default, have symbolic significance?

I think we’re always trying to take something from a song title on the record for the album title, and somehow, after a while, it normally sums up everything else. This one was from the song “In Love by Default” and when we put it on the album cover, I think it had this kind of ironic twist where people thought of it as Band of Skulls “on default setting,” if you will. I guess what we’re trying to say that our default setting is ripping it up and doing things differently.

You mentioned that you had material that you didn’t include on the album, was it difficult to cut some of that back?

No, because we never really cut things away — it was just that other ideas rose to the top. We were working in a big church and we had this huge sheet of paper and we’d write lists. In the beginning, it was about five song ideas, but we’d be re-writing and re-writing these lists, until we kept sticking pieces of paper onto the bottom of the list. Then it was just the top 12 that changed into something the quickest and the most naturally that were the ones that ended up on the record. But there’s this whole other list [of ideas] below that we just haven’t had enough time to finish. The crazy ideas are at the bottom, the really nuts stuff. [laughs] It’ll be cool to see what’s on that list when we go back into the studio.

You mentioned that you recorded the album in a church, what brought on that decision?

I think we’re always look for new experiences, things we haven’t done before. It’s almost like we wanted a new, secret place to work where no one would expect us to be. We wanted to be in our hometown, in Southampton in England, but we didn’t want to be visible. We didn’t want people to be like “Have you heard that Band of Skulls are down in street x? What do they think they’re doing?” [laughs] So we held up in this place where no one knew we were there. By the end I think there was a subtle rumour sliding around that we were there, so we left, we changed directions. We were working on our secret recipe, you know, that’s what it was.

We were working on our project, we wanted to keep it under wraps. We wanted to have the freedom to try things out and not be judged. All the crazy experiments gave it an air of mystery. It sounded great, we stayed in the church because it sounded so amazing. We used a lot of sounds on the record and kept them on. We learned a lot. When we got into the studio with Gil, the producer, he was like “Where did you record this?” and we told him. Lots of the drum sounds especially were influenced by the demos. We listened to the demos and took little snippets and got that vibe onto the songs. It was cool that Gil was so open-minded to do that and not just do the studio version differently. We kept a lot of [the church’s] vibe there. It was amazing, and that’s what the design’s for I guess. The drums sounded great.

You mentioned that you worked with Gil Norton who’s worked with classic artists like Pixies and Patti Smith. What specifically did you want him to bring to the table when you were working on the album?

I think it was a very natural thing. Gil phoned us up and said “I hear you’re making a record, can I put my name on the table?” and we said, “Of course you can.” It was really cool. We met him for a beer and we talked about music for a while. I think he knew we were going to go into a transition and try some new ideas out and take risks in that aspect. I think we wanted someone who’s got a lot of experience and could do something for us that was going to be great. Also it was a privilege for him to have asked us. We didn’t expect Gil to get so into the atmosphere of experimenting. That was a bonus, he was so cool with all of that. We had a very young and very talented engineer, Danny Allin, as well, who again brought that balance. When they both thought we were doing something that was cool, I think we were like “Yeah, we’ve got this one.” You have to take a risk with working with new people, of course, because sometimes it doesn’t work out. We were just very fortunate that it did and it gelled. Within a few weeks we were trusting him [Gil] and in another few weeks we were really starting to work.

The band’s sound is a very unique one, there are moments of really brooding, heavy rock but there are refined melodies as well. I’m curious, what specific artists have you drawn influence from on this record?

It’s really hard and I think more and more we try our best not to be influenced. There’ll be a moment when we’ll go into a lockdown and not listen to other music, only being inspired by the memory of that music; we won’t actually go and listen to an old record. I might have listened to a guitarist like Duane Eddy, for instance. To make the guitar sound like those Duane Eddy records, we won’t go and put the record to hear what it’s like. We’ll just try, from memory and imagination to capture the spirit of it, because at certain points you can copy something, you can end up doing it and re-writing stuff and you don’t want that to happen. So we just try to be influenced by the spirit of it rather than the actual record that we’re using. But it changes every day. There’s elements of hip-hop in this, lots of dance elements and some rock and roll elements too. Of course now that we’ve finished the record we’re having a go at listening to everything. But during the writing and especially in the recording, it was nothing.

Would that include if you were on the road too and you were writing a track there?

I think when you’re on the road, it’s amazing because you’re playing every night and you might have a support band or you might be doing a festival, so your whole day is full of music. It’s a privilege, but when you do get travelling, I find less and less that I want to listen to music when we’re not working, because it’s the only part of the day without music in it. You can get a little fatigued by that. So when you do discover something that you like, it’s the best; you wouldn’t enjoy your dinner if you’d been eating all day. But now, right now, we have time to listen to music and talk about the next set of ideas and enjoy it. But it does get quite intense [on the road]. You need to save some space from the music or you’re going to burn yourself out too much and that’s sometimes hard to enjoy.

It’s rare these days to see groups dabble so readily in heavier rock influences, but also be able to appeal to the hipster cohort at the same time like you guys do.

[laughs] Thanks man.

Was it ever a concern when you were starting out, that you’d be typecast as appealing to a specific set of fans or was that something that you never really considered?

I think when we started out we were happy to have any kind of fans. We weren’t going to be picky about it, and I think that’s kind of continued. The only time when you can really study it is when you go to a gig, when you go to a new city or new country perhaps, and you look out into the audience and you see what kinds of people are coming to the show. We’ve always had a really mixed audience which we think is fantastic. People that wouldn’t necessarily know each other in the outside world, come to our gigs and share the music which is really awesome. Sometimes I see people come and look around a little confused and go, “Am I at the right show?” They’re expecting to have lots of people from their demographic. I love the fact that our music has no real boundaries. We like to do acoustic music, really beautiful songs, but then we also like to get really heavy and experiment. And I think it’s great, you look out, and the more diverse the audience, the more fun we can have appealing to different kinds of people. It’s cool with us. You have to be happy for everyone that likes you, you can’t just say that a certain kind of people aren’t welcome.

Is it a relief to be able to share vocal duties between yourself and Emma, or is it something that when you’re not doing it, you’re always itching to be up there singing again?

It’s very natural for us. We’ve always done it. We’re all songwriters in the band, and Emma and I sing as well so it makes it easy to just go “This is the song I’ve written, I can sing it as well.” Especially with only three of us, there’s quite a lot of space to fill so I think it’s the natural thing. I think it makes it really interesting, people were confused with it in the beginning, they didn’t know who to watch. Even our first sound engineers, for the settings, they’d say “Who’s the lead singer?” and we’d both pipe up and say “I am” or we’d both put our hands up. We’re a band with two lead singers, so that’s it. We have our own instruments, but we’re both the frontperson and that’s just how it is. It’s always felt quite natural and it makes it more interesting. Sometimes the audience looks like they’re watching tennis. It’s hilarious to watch on the stage.