There’s a telling moment, during Band of Skulls soundcheck – on a bitterly cold January night, in a small venue in Bologna, Italy. The three piece from Southhampton, England have been going through song parts individually and together for the best part of an hour, but something doesn’t seem quite right, at least to them on stage (for me sitting near the bar, it sounds brilliant – and feels staggering, with each kick of the bass drum being felt in my kidneys); on stage, singer and guitarist Russel Marsden is working with the sound engineer to find out what’s causing a strange feedback loop, but they can’t seem to isolate it. After a run through of various songs, the singer smiles and says “actually it’s quite melodic, so let’s leave it – I can work with it”.
And that’s not a bad introduction to the Band of Skulls sound – it’s like a big loud wave of noise that gets channeled by the trio into something more refined and crafted. “It’s somewhere between a really heavy blues influenced rock backdrop with, hopefully, some really beautiful vocals over the top – that’s our recipe, if we can make something melodic with a dynamic structure”, Marsden tells me as we chat about the band’s history.
Formed in Southhampton, the trio gigged extensively (first under the name Fleeing New York), running their own club night ‘Club Skull’ at Southampton’s Talking Heads venue before recording their 2009 debut album Baby Darling Doll Face Honey. The album was preceded by a single, I Know What I Am , being selected as an i-tunes free single of the week – coupled later with their appearance on the Twighlight Saga New Moon soundtrack (alongside artists like Thom Yorke, Muse, Death Cab for Cutie, St Vincent and Bon Iver) putting the band firmly in the public eye.
I think it helps sometimes when it’s a struggle writing; when it’s easy it can’t be right for some reason
It’s one thing being in the public eye, though, and another capitalising on it – which is something Band of Skulls have certainly done; the three piece have toured solidly over the last two years, playing prestigious support slots to bands like Muse, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (and shortly they’ll tour with the Black Keys) – as well as playing venues throughout America, and Europe (for example, it’s the second time they’ve played Bologna in the space of 4 months).
This is a roundabout way of saying that what we have here is the real deal, a gifted band that’s not afraid to graft.
That hard graft has been the death of many a band, particularly when they come to make the notorious second album – and for Band of Skulls there were certainly problems along the way, as bassist/vocalist Emma Richardson explains “It’s the obvious isn’t it, you spend a lot of time on tour not writing, and getting back then and trying to come up with something that we thought was worthwhile was pretty difficult.”
The band went straight from touring to writing/recording in an isolated studio in rural Norfolk, but the songs didn’t come easily: “We got there in the end,” Richardson laughs with a touch of relief, explaining the doubt and difficulties they faced in Norfolk; “I think we got more work done, in the beginning in that house in Norfolk, than we actually thought,” she goes on. “We got a lot of riffs and basic structures down there, and then we moved back to our studio in Southhampton where we formed them into actual songs.”
Anyone who’s read Bill Flanagan’s great book, U2 at the end of the world where he documents the process of recording Achtung Baby, will be pricking up their ears at this point, remembering what great results tension,doubt and a dark background can produce.
“What we achieved there [in Norfolk] was the darker bit of the album” joins in Russel – as an aside, there’s an interesting dynamic to interviewing the band as they tend to help each other finish off thoughts/sentences, but with no particular leader emerging or dominating the conversation; “when we got to Rockfield in Wales it was the opposite effect, there was the Royal Wedding, Summer and the making of the arrangements gave it a much more peaceful sound – we were in a much better place as a band.”
Does the song-writing process then necessarily involve hardship, pain, or the blues if you like? “I don’t think it makes it easier,” says Russel, “or helps, but it definitely influences the songs. There’s no formula – it just worked really well for us at that particular time.” Emma then chimes in with something interesting, which gives some context for the rich sound heard throughout the new album Sweet Sour: “I think it helps sometimes when it’s a struggle writing; when it’s easy it can’t be right for some reason; then again, there are some songs that just come to you and you write them down and think ‘that’s pretty much it”.
Drummer Matt Hayward – who falls into that rare category of Drummers who do interviews, and actually answer questions! – puts his finger on it: “We didn’t give ourselves any time off after the two years of touring, we went straight in there to the studio so we didn’t have time to decompress, we were still in that tourhead space, and we were all a bit fucked up which kind of helped. We decompressed as we wrote.”