Band of skulls

Blues Rock from Southampton

Starting where we started!

On April 11th, Band Of Skulls started a 4-month long journey all over Europe and the US called “Love Is All You Love Tour”. We had a chance to be there on the opening night and sit down with Russell and Emma to talk about the new album, the new era of the band, their hometown Southampton and of course gear – how PLASMA can add that extra level of power to their new and old tracks. 

Russell: Well, “We’re alive” is brand new today. So, this week we just started trying to make a live version of that. It’s quite fun – the record’s been finished now for quite some time – so it’s fun to finally have it out, released into the wild. Ironically – a live version of it.

It’s like a pop song in our way. We tried to make a pop song but it still came out kind of Band of Skulls. And it’s, like – when we finished the record Emma would say it was like a melancholy disco, like a sad disco song. Which is cool. But when we’re playing it live, it’s going to evolve now. Like all the songs, and find their home. They always change a little bit live. All songs have found their live version, so that’s kind of interesting. 

Emma: Like settling into the set as well, after a few shows playing them usually.

Russ: Yeah, it is amazing – you always set out to make the most different record you’ve ever made, and then, of course, you take those songs on to the road with your other material and they all seem to glue together somehow. Even if you’re trying to completely do everything opposite to what you’ve ever done before. Like “Carnivorous” – we didn’t do any rules we’ve normally done before yet it still kind of sits in a rock set pretty well.  

Matiss: It shouldn’t be a priority playing other genres – the rock energy will still be there.

Ilja: You’ll still always be you, whatever you do. Even if you play like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.  

R: Yeah, which is funny, because you think “Oh, I wanna be different” and you get bored of yourself essentially. I know I do. And you want to…

E: Try something new.

R: Try something new. When we made our first record our producer Ian gave us a really good bit of advice which I think is good for young bands – don’t put all of your tricks on your first song or your first record. Just do like one side of yourself. And then you can almost evolve, but with your ideas. We wanted to put all of the ideas we had on our very first record, on “Baby Darling” and Ian was really strict with us and said “Put that away. No!”

E: Don’t show your whole hand.

R: Yeah. Which I at the time was kind of frustrated with. I was like, cmon, let’s go for it – put the synths on, glockenspiel, the rest of it. But it was cool because we got to reveal those bits of us, we got to reveal the elements of our band every record as we went. And of course by then you know yourself a bit more and essentially you’ve probably done a better job than you would’ve done struggling with it on the first record.

M: Talking about new things – this is the first time you play in this venue (The Central Hall in Southampton) as well, right?

R: Yeah, I don’t think there’ve been many gigs here for a very, very long time. We’ve done some gigs that were at churches, was it Manchester…

E: Yeah, the Albert Hall. 

R: And there’s Paradiso in Amsterdam. Which is kind of similar, like an old converted church. But this is still a church, you know. 

E: But yeah, we walked around town. We were trying to find somewhere different and new, and just to kinda have a change really. And make it a bit more exciting for us and also the audience. It’s quite exciting knowing that quite a lot of people are gonna come tonight who have never been inside this building before even though they live in Southampton and they’ve lived their whole lives, so it’s quite nice to open that up for people.

R: Yeah, we walked around the hotel, looking for buildings. I guess when we were younger – we both grew up here – when we were younger, we would do that. It was more of like a fantasy – not to play in the very cool venues. Because we have The Joiners which is just here, which is the more famous rock club. It’s really small, like, less than 200 people. But that’s been going since the 60s and all through the 90s and then when we were going to see bands for the first time. Everyone played there – Oasis, Radiohead, Coldplay. And then right through to Libertines, all the bands. It’s like one of those first touring routes around the country. If you come to the city that’s where you would play. So, it’s cool that that’s close. I feel like we’re still at home, ‘cause that’s one of our real home venues.

Some of the guys from that venue are going to come tonight as well, which is cool. Southampton used to be, it felt a little bit more competitive, but now it’s definitely a sense of “everyone’s together” and a supportive network of people. And especially – it’s a small enough city, I said this to you last night – it’s a big city but the music scene’s small enough to know everyone. And it’s cool to see when new things come through. Like, we got a guy Defcon Lawless supporting us tonight who’s from Philadelphia, but he’s living in Southampton. So, essentially we’ve got Philadelphia hip-hop coming through Southampton and that sums up what kind of surprises you can get in the city. 

I: Today’s a really special concert, right? Because you’re launching the tour.

M: Also the album launch itself.

I: Is that why you chose to do it here where you grew up?

R: It all just came together. I mean, it was not just our hard work but of all of our team and our new label. And it’s all come together. With regrouping the band, you know, it’s been lots of changes the last couple of years. It felt right and I think it’s going to be great. We’ve never started a tour in Southampton before, we normally go to Heathrow and leave. Touring only for us is leaving. And we play here every couple of years and it’s often at the end. So to start the new era for the band and start our touring life here at home is really special.

E: Yeah, feels good to begin in our hometown. 

M: Lots of familiar faces.

R: We’ll have a look. But, yeah. There’s a lot of support. We’ve had so much support for what we’ve been trying to do on this next stage of Band of Skulls. Lots of the audience have preordered the album on the whole tour. So basically if they’re here, you’re supporting the band. And we really appreciate that. And it’s gonna be cool to give them something back. For them all have given us all that reassurance that we’re doing the right thing.

M: That’s really cool. Where are you going next?

E: We’re going to be in Brighton tomorrow. So, that’s the actual day of the record being out. Which will be exciting. And then we’re gonna be touring around the country so we’ll go up to Glasgow, Manchester, Bath and Brighton and Cardiff, and I think we’re doing a … record day in Bristol.

M: So tonight’s concert is special just because of the album release. 

R: Yeah, this is the last day before this record is released. You can’t really go backwards once the record comes out, it changes you and you can’t really undo that moment. So, it will be fun tonight. We’re going over, we’re doing a couple of, not churches, but similar small shows in New York and LA in May. And then we’re touring in the States properly. Which is not a small undertaking, you’ve got to understand that… like, we walked to the show today. And there are some shows that are a two day bus drive, you just have to travel for two days.

M: A proper tour.

R: Proper touring which we really enjoy. Julian is gonna be at home. All of a sudden the benefits go back to you (Julian) of not having to travel to the first show, hopefully. Half the recording was done in America, so there’s an element of it being from there as well. This is a kind of Transatlantic recording. We’ve not been back since 2016 so it’s gonna be special to be back there, and, yeah – we love touring in the States. That’s gonna be another home from home. Cause this is home and that’s kind of our second home musically speaking. 

M: Me and Ilja, we were talking that you, guys, you have that American element in your sound as well, you don’t sound like a typical European band. You’re really familiar with the music they’ve been producing.

R: I think it’s what we listened to when we were younger. Probably we sound very English to American ears, I’m not sure. 

I: He (Julian) knew about you from the American radio. 

R: Yeah, that’s right. We’ve been really out there right from the beginning. In fact, ur first audience was built up in America. 

E: yeah, we spent a lot of time touring out there with our first record. We were out there for a couple of years doing our work.

M: It obviously affects the rest of the things you do.

R: Yeah, it changed our idea of how much work was involved, so the work ethic thing. I think we realised it when we toured with Julian’s band the Whigs on that very first album tour, so we’ve been friends since then. So this is another kind of lucky thing or it feels kind of like a faith kind of thing. We realised the distance, the level of musicians and all the different kind… how many bands there are in each city. So to have any kind of presence you really have to work hard. We learnt that there and I guess we brought that back to what we do over here. It’s just fun, it’s great when anyone’s music translates to different countries, so we really appreciate it when audiences for us, you know,  the same reaction happens whether we’re in Europe or in UK, or further.. It’s kind of fun when music gets rid of those borders. We want to hear good music, you know.

M: We were talking earlier – there are no rules anymore, you can record anywhere you like, so you can split between USA and Europe and wherever. 

R: It’s an ever changing thing. Everytime we make a record the world’s changed again and especially in music. Elements on a record that were definite, like demo things, that we took right through to the final thing – we got a chance to work in Nashville recording, and that was another ambition of ours and a really amazing experience.

E: It was the first time we recorded a full live band out in Nashville. We were working with Richard X. in the studio in London and still recording live instruments, but a lot more electronic stuff was done on the programming side of things, so it was great to bring those two worlds together, playing with that line of the electronic and the live band. This time it was really good to be able to record in America. We had done it once for a couple of songs for our previous records, so it was great to be there and actually record a whole set of material. And it has it’s influences, you know, being in Nashville.

R: Yeah, I wouldn’t say ours is a traditional sounding Nashville record. And I think, we realised that some of the language and the way we work, especially the language, in the musical kind of way. We had lots of fun. You realise your differences when you get in that kind of intense environment. But it was cool and slightly mysterious, we weren’t finishing the album there, we were just doing backing tracks. Like the backing track to Carnivorous with no context, I’m sure it was quite interesting to anyone that was in the studio that day. We did some amazing things, we did some cool stuff, anything acoustic, so Julian was doing lots of percussion, and, like an old 1920s vibraphone, electric vibraphone and tubular bells and stuff that we didn’t have access to in England. We went to town in the studio with that kind of stuff. Some of those ideas really made the record and glued together some of these electronic parts with some real… yeah, some interesting things that we hadn’t tried before.

Yeah, it was just cool. I think we’ll do something a little different next time, and just not to repeat ourselves again. I guess as soon as this record’s out we can start to think about what we might fancy doing next. And that kind of feeling… it’s almost an itch you have to scratch to make another record. You get the satisfaction of making an album, as soon as it’s out it’s like… that next cup of coffee. Or whatever. So, I’m waiting for that.

M: Do you have the same approach when you write lyrics? 

R: No, the lyrics is a painful, long process. We often write the title and then a year later finish the lyrics, because it just goes on and on. Sometimes it comes all at once.

E: Yes, sometimes it just appears, doesn’t it. We got this little collaboration between us two. Which is good, we work quite quickly together.

R: We often say absolute gibberish, and then the other one writes down what… what’s that thing where you do like a medium and they kind of do an automatic writing. Then we just sing the demo and it’s absolute nonsensical noises and then the other person would listen to it and write down what they think the lyrics are and often that’s the best. And it’s not that kind of contrived, lumpy field of writing verse. Sometimes it comes all at once like Love is all you love is a bit more like that and sometimes we are on the train to the studio and we have to record that day and we just finish them quickly.

R:Sometimes pressure is good, you just have to do it.

I: I think that many people reading this can relate.

E: Sometimes there are lyrics that have stuck around and have never found their place with a certain mix of music. There’s an instance of that on this record. A couple of times small lines appear and you think “aaahh, finally I get to put this in a song”. Yeah, some things take a bit longer.

 R: Yeah, and we also have songs, music that does that as well, like sometimes there’s a song that we’ve had since the beginning of the band just waiting for a moment, and a record that it would fit in to. And sometimes a song can be written that day and recorded the next day and another one can be written when we first started out. But we almost weren’t the right band to release it, it wouldn’t have been in the right context. That’s an interesting bit of it – putting together music and deciding what material goes together. And hopefully, those decisions are good.

Meeting with Emma, Russell, and Julian from Band Of Skulls on the 12th of April, 2019.

 

M: We just have to ask you this – does the gear inspire you?

R: I think the gear enables us. We often start with quite small amount of things. With different instruments to start with, we also get a piece of gear to start. 

E: We’re usually trying out playing ideas on different instruments we’re not good at. Just to see what happens. This time around we were programming a lot of drums as well as playing live drums and stuff. We were messing around with different pedals and sounds. It was just an experimental beginning.

M: I mean, if you take an instrument and you don’t know how to play it, you kind of make up your own way.

R: Absolutely. Someone said that – happy fingers. If you pick up a guitar, I don’t know, what do people go for – they go for, like, the bar chord or G. 

E: Your safe place.

R: You go there, cause you can do it, and you’re checking if the sound’s okay and you often would try and write a song but you would always start at the same place. Like, for instance, Carnivorous was definitely on a phone app, a musical mini note-pad-y kind of thing. And the main guitar riff was written, programmed in like that, like a little finger shape or whatever. And then when back and learn that and found the guitar part, tuned the guitar to this thing and played something I never would’ve come up with if I picked up the guitar first. Things like that are always really interesting. We play a little bit of keys but not much and starting on drums, the drum machines – again, super alien to us. Anything, really. A new piece of gear often – it makes you play more. If I get something new, I’ll play more guitar that week cause you have the new pedal, even a new guitar.

I: I saw you have Aluminum Esquire guitar. It’s fantastic.

R: Yeah, it’s cool! A friend of mine made that for me, he’s coming tonight. We took a Jazz Master and remade the body in aluminum. What he does is, he repairs antique racing cars. He’s technique is – he hand beats the panels, like a coach builder. So he has a hammer and a bag of sand and he does this. He said “Oh, what’s that guitar you have? I reckon I could make that”, so I sort of said “Okay, I dare you to.” And he did.

I: Is it hollowed out inside or is it just like plated over?

R: It’s hollow but then we kind of put some wood in it. It’s very kind of… yeah, it’s a prototype. It took a long time to make, I don’t know if you could make a lot more of them so it’s a very unique thing. It’s got great sound. And, yeah, all of that stuff is very interesting because if you can make something, like you guys do, that is very unique, then it’s your sound. It’s harder for people just to buy a unit and have that recipe. And it’s also a deeply personal thing, especially the instrument – it’s your thing. So, yeah, it’s really cool. Emma thinks it’s a bit unsafe and I’m gonna get struck by lightning or an electric shock.

E: I’m a bit worried, but…

R: I’m actually gonna play it tonight for the first time… maybe for the last time. Yeah, cause the guy is coming, so I promised I’d play it. It sounds really great, amazing bass in it. It’s like You would think it would sound like a tin can but it’s a pretty powerful guitar.

I: Speaking of lightning, what do you think about the Plasma drive?

R: Yeah, the PLASMA, unfortunately, it arrived late and we didn’t have much time to try it on the record, but since we’re playing the shows we’ve used it lots of songs. 

E: It fits in really well with… I usually use just like a regular distortion, sometimes a Big Muff, but I use a Hot Cake guitar distortion pedal. And I usually try to have like a step up – 1 and 2. So for heavier moments in a lot of the tracks, the PLASMA is amazing for doing that kinda crazy, the wild distortion on the top of the end of the track. 

I: Sounded so good when you were using it today. 

E: It keeps all the low end, I need to turn the low end down on it almost. Kind of amazing. 

R: Yeah, it’s very extreme which is good. I mean, in recording that’s got to be fun to experiment with. 

E: It fits in really well with the new tracks and the old tracks. Yeah, we’ve got to have fun with it. 

R: I’ve always had Big Muffs – Russian Big Muffs and now I’ve got an American one, the silver one. Only because if I break it then I can replace it more easily, you know. So that’s kind of fuzz on top of things – it’s always a part of my sound. But the PLASMA’s got that gate which is so… that’s the wicked thing about it. Like, to have all of that noise and then to tune that gate in. so you can have, in between chords, you can have silence. And there’s all that kind of little crackle of it, it sounds like something very expensive is breaking. Like you broke a PA system, that’s the sound. So it takes a little getting used to – that’s normal and that’s good.

I: That’s how fuzz was invented actually.

R: I guess so, it’s an abuse of the system, isn’t it. It’s really cool – experimenting with the sustain pedal. The PLUS pedal. I’ve experimented with that. I do a lot of stuff with some long drones. So I think that would be a great song writing thing, and to write a song with that… to make that essentially… You know, you have to have it to perform and make some things possible. It feels like a piano so that’s great. That’s another rule breaker, a game changer. I love that thing. I’m excited to see what you guys do next because essentially you’re gonna provide, I said this last night, you’re gonna provide the starting point for musicians to then jump off and see where they can go with it. And the combinations that are there, I think, you’re doing things that weren’t possible beforehand and that’s a really exciting bit. 

E: Yeah, giving people inspiration with sound like that to kinda then write with and, you know, integrate into the music and their song structure. It’s amazing. I can’t wait to see what you do next.

M: My take on this is that the pedal is not our company’s final product, the song is the final product. And we can bring the value, bring something new to the artist who can then later on create the final product with our ingredients.

R: Yeah, and I think musical bits of equipment are the best, cause everyone can have an effects pedal that makes a noise but if it’s musical and it’s tactile – it’s easy to work with and it’s almost instrument within itself. I think that everything that we like, brings on.. it helps the band sound, it’s not just something that you have to control, basically,  it doesn’t play you – that’s the rule we have. If you’re busy working with this thing rather than performing a show then we might have it for a few shows but then those pedals go back in the studio. Things that kind of give you freedom to perform more. Cause it’s all well and good having good sounds and interesting things to work with but if it detracts you from doing your gig and connecting with your audience.That’s kind of our rule of thumb, if we’re looking down at the pedal board a little too much, we know we have to focus back on the crowd, and our songs and performing as well. So, it’s things that make it easier to express yourself are always on our radar.

I: Seeing the soundcheck, you guys are… you’re in total control.

R: That’s what it looks like, but it’s not true. There’s lots of micro adjustments going on. We rather do the adjusting in soundcheck, that’s what we’re trying to do. And then at the gig just have a… it doesn’t have to be perfect it can just be a vibe. 

I: We feel really honoured and we feel so happy that we can be here and watch the soundcheck. We’re really excited for the concert as well.

R: Thank you!

E: Great to have you here!

R: Welcome to Southampton!

E: Glad you could make it before the show!

R: We’ll have to repay you and come to Riga. Or play in Latvia, at least we have to do that.

I: We can organise you 10 000 people event if you like. 

 R: Yeah, sounds good. I just want to see the country – looks nice.