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Band of Skulls set up shop in church to conjure the unholy rock of ‘By Default’

The Audiophile Russell Marsden of Band of Skulls
Achim Raschka/Wikimedia

“You’ve got to fight the good fight for the music and what’s best for the song.”

< p class=”dropcap”>Next time you pass by a church and think you’re hearing the unholy sound of loud guitars, howling vocals, and crashing drums emerging from the sanctuary, it may not be a young Christian rock band discovering what the dark side sounds like — it might actually be one of Britain’s premiere alt-rock power trios, Band of Skulls, working through new material.

Call it church-shedding — which is exactly what Band of Skulls did for the 12 songs that made the final cut for their balls-out rockin’ new album By Default, produced by alt-rock stalwart Gil Norton (Pixies, Foo Fighters, Dashboard Confessional).

“We wanted to make sure everyone knows we’re progressing,” Skulls guitarist/vocalist Russell Marsden told Digital Trends. “We’re always trying to push the boundaries. The riffs and the grooves in the record have to survive the test of us first saying, ‘That’s a good idea.’ Then we’ll play it for a while and go, ‘Is this happening? Is this feeling good to us?’ We worked through 100 or so ideas to get to the 12 songs that spoke to us the most.”

The Skulls’ collective instincts are indeed spot-on. By Default surges with an aura of holy energy, from the chug-along groove of the aptly named Killer to the infectious yet ominous warning of Tropical Disease to the hypnotic Prince-ified drone of Something.

Digital Trends called Marsden across the Pond to discuss the fruits of the ever-present in-studio creative push-pull, how they discovered new sounds in that church setting, and where streaming might be headed in the next few years.

Digital Trends:  How did you guys hook up with Gil Norton to produce this record?

Russell Marsden: It was very nice, really, because Gil called us. There was news on the grapevine that we were making a record or were about to, and Gil called us, which was a great thing. It was a great phone call to receive.

Things moved quickly. We had all the songs we wanted to record and we had everything else in place, but a producer had yet to be decided. We met up with Gil in London, and within about two weeks, we were in the studio tracking drums. It was that kind of moment. It just felt right, you know?

Would you say Gil influenced the way you ultimately put together the mix for this record, or was it more of a collaboration, as far as the sound goes?

Yes, it was definitely a collaboration in the sonics, and how we interpreted the work. We chose Gil because of his experience, and also the fact that he’s worked with a diverse, wide range of artists. And because of the Pixies thing, we thought, “Well, he’s not going to be too conservative.” We know what he’s achieved in his back catalog.

A lot of the songs were ready to go before we started, but Gil did get involved and wasn’t afraid to say what he wanted to change on a few songs. If you did ask him, he’d say I was probably fighting him the hardest on some things. (chuckles) That’s just the nature of it. I’m not afraid to challenge anyone, if it’s good for the song.

Well, ultimately, your name is the one that’s on the front of the record.

He’d argue that his name is on the inside. (both laugh) For the sake of the music, you’ve got to fight the good fight, and we had a lot of late-night discussions about what’s good for the song. In the end, it was great working with Gil. He’s a real interesting character. And I think the record came out great.

Oh, me too. I love the overall punch this record carries. I think of a song like This Is My Fix, which has that distorted edge at the front of it, and then you have a literal party going on in the middle of it, with the glasses clinking and the chatter.

Yeah yeah yeah. There is a party there. We have wilder parties than that, of course, but we couldn’t put those on there. That was the pre-game. (chuckles)

Where did you record this “pre-game” party?

A lot of that character stuff comes from the demo stage, and you want to keep some of that “real feel” intact. You can clean things up too much in the studio.

We “stole” a couple of sounds from the church when we were demoing, like the snare sounds, and the drums. We’d be going around with a drumstick, hitting things in the church like the organ pipes, just trying to get some vibe. When the reverend was away, it was like, “What does it sound like if you hit this?” (both laugh)

When the reverend was away, it was like, “What does it sound like if you hit this?”

We were church mice for a year, and you end up getting quite inspired. We brought some of that reality into the studio [Rockfield Studios]. Gil called that “adding in” to the mix.

And that’s the church we see in the album cover shot, where the drums and amps are set up? What’s the name of that church?

It’s a church in our hometown, Southampton, but I don’t want to give too many things away. But it will be on the inside of the sleeve if people want to find it on their own.

We took in the smallest amount of equipment. We had Matt [Hayward]’s old drum kit — which was actually his dad’s — that was used on the first record [2009’s Baby Darling Doll Face Honey]. We had the smallest amps in the world, like my very first amp (chuckles), and no microphones, so we just sang at the ceiling.

It was the worst, or the least, amount of gear we could get in. If an idea sounded good, we’d keep it, and move on from there.

That demo stage where you’re all facing each other and playing live in the church clearly influenced the overall feel of the record and its very “real” sound, even with a few clear overdubs. To borrow a song title, there are some real Killer songs here.

You’re killing me! (both laugh) It’s self-explanatory. We’re not shy about saying things like, “We like having a song called Killer, or So Good.” We like to spell out the vibe of what we’re thinking with the song titles sometimes because, well, why not? We’re confident! (chuckles)

You can totally hear that in Killer, where you’ve got all those “whoops” going on. It sounds like you guys are having a good time making this music.

That was one of the first songs we started. We were in the church while that was happening. The church isn’t soundproofed and no one knew we were there, but eventually, people figured out it was us in a church in our hometown, so we had to leave — but that’s another story. (chuckles) It was a very funny juxtaposition. We were laughing about it: “If anyone knew what we were doing in here …”

What’s the line in that song — “You protest too much.”

Yeah, perhaps I do! Well, it was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death recently [on May 3], so it doesn’t hurt to have a line like that every now and again. [The original line from Hamlet goes, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”]

Do you have a favorite Shakespeare line, besides that one?

I’m not sure, really. But I think that dark humor is what translates to rock and roll. Our long-suffering guitar tech lives up in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown, so there are a lot of good jokes that happen with him. You can only be so cool when you’re living in a town that’s literally a living Shakespeare museum. (laughs)

You often have echo and reverb effects on your lead vocals. Did you work that out with Gil, or was that something you specifically wanted?

Records do cost money to make, but people aren’t used to paying for them anymore.

There are a few little flavors you know over time that are on certain records that you like, and they suit certain things. A lot of records like that for me have that slapback-y, [John] Lennon-y, Marc Bolan, or David Bowie kind of thing. That suits certain parts of certain songs, and is almost a character in itself. We went to that place working with [producer] Nick Launay on the last record, Himalayan (2014).

I quite enjoy recording with the effects on my vocal. You can kind of perform against it, and that gives you a vibe to sing with as you’re actually recording. It’s better than having a super-dry reality thing happening. Using a great microphone in a great studio can be too real sometimes, so I quite like having the idea for the final mix up before we actually do the take. That’s often quite nice to do.

It’s really effective in Bodies and Tropical Disease, and especially when you get to Erounds in the back half of the record.

Erounds was definitely an out-there kind of song, and I’m glad we decided to keep it. I don’t think it’s the kind of song we could have made on our first record.

I’ve definitely been exploring the lower ranges of my voice. It’s like when you have someone onstage, and you give them a plain white light — there they are, you know? But if you’re doing something different, like on Erounds, it’s almost like spoken word, where you need to put a bit of meat on the bone — but not too much, because it tends to disguise things.

And it brings out more of a performance from me. If you feel like something is happening as you’re doing the take, you can bring out more of the performance on the song — though sometimes it’s like dancing in a well-lit room. (chuckles) But a bit of vibe is always quite good, yeah.

With the vocal, there’s a little bit of despair coming through. It’s not quite speaking nor not quite singing; it’s “merely” singing. I wanted to explore that so when we get to play that song live, it could be a whole moment or a journey onstage. We can really play with it, and I’m really looking forward to where that leads us. What’s the next evolution of a song like this for us? I’m not quite sure — yet.

Speaking of evolution in music, we can listen to this album in a number of ways — vinyl, CD, download, streaming. As an artist, what do you feel about streaming?

It’s a hot potato, isn’t it? Our first album came out in 2009, and the change in the landscape since then is unprecedented, and it will change again. By the time we put our next record out, we’ll have a whole other set of things to think about.

You can’t stay still on your opinion on it, because it will change, and you have to keep moving with it. Things may not be ideal right now, but we could argue that when we put our first record out, people were sharing videos of our first gigs and our first concert in America, which were all filmed and all put up on YouTube, and I reckon a lot of people discovered us by seeing that content.

If we said we didn’t want to see any of that happening when we were a young band, perhaps we would have been missing out. It’s very difficult for artists at every level to survive, and make enough money to be an artist and make records. There has to be a new way to get us through this moment. It’s still not easy. If it’s challenging for bigger artists in the middle of their career, it must be really difficult for anyone wanting to break into this business. But if we can survive through this, I guess we can survive through anything.

It’s a funny period of time where records do cost money to make, but people aren’t used to paying for them anymore. The sea change has to occur. Perhaps it will get to the level where people can subscribe to their favorite artists, and it gets that fragmented. Or maybe it gets reformed, and there’ll be one supplier and they’ll figure out the minimum compensation. I don’t know, but something has to click over to make it OK. I think we’ll see it in the next 5 years, but I couldn’t predict it right now.

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