I had a great conversation with my girl’s uncle a few hours before I first met Russell Marsden.
Her uncle was in town visiting. He’d planned the trip to last a week or two. But a family emergency, the kind that changes things, changed things. He was needed. So he was here.
We shared family stories, successes and failures. Things we liked; and didn’t. We talked about a new band he’d discovered, in middle age, that reminded him what he loved so much about music. A band whose sound had found him, somehow, across an ocean, in a north country town where the sun doesn’t rise ’til nine in winter. Where things don’t usually happen that easily. A band fronted by Russell Marsden.
Pardon the suspense. They are, of course, Band of Skulls. From Southampton, England.
My girl’s uncle heard their song “Light of The Morning” on TV one night in a Mustang ad. Next came album orders. Downloads. YouTube searches. I knew how that went. I’d done the same thing last summer after seeing them at Bonnaroo. He wondered where, exactly, was Marsden, a guitarist and singer, pulling from. How had voice grown so elegantly between 2009′s Baby Darling Doll Face Honey and spring’s Sweet Sour. How did this band’s three songwriters co-exist, delegate, survive? What motivated their edits? I wondered, too.
Forgive me for writing so few words about Marsden here. He is truly a lovely man. One of ambitions both admirable and true. Indeed, you sense an inner honesty in him. I’d gladly buy him a pint (he prefers Belgian) anytime. And I wish him very well. His future is bright.
I shared these details with my girl’s uncle that night as we got ready to watch Band of Skulls. Me, my girl, her 50-something uncle and his sister. For a few hours, my family forgot the impossibly hard times awaiting us at home. We shared in the night and each other’s easy company. I hope one day Russell Marsden finds out his band’s hard work helped us arrive at that night. I think he’d feel good about it.
Here’s more of our conversation about life’s hard lessons and how to walk through the doors your work opens.
I want to start with a memory from the first time I saw you guys, at Bonnaroo, last summer. I understand that show left a lasting impression on you. There was something about it that you wanted to try and capture again. What was so memorable about it?
Technical details. Matt (Hayward, drums) got a real vibe off what was happening. I think a lot of people did. They were just going crazy. From the first hits. We opened with “Sweet Sour,” like we’ve been doing since, so it was defining it that sense as well. He was hitting the drums so hard that the stage was moving up and down, which was moving the amps, which was making the reverb tanks slap the insides of themselves and gives you that kind of lightning sound. We brought it home and watched it on video and thought, ‘Well, that’s cool.’ So we got back to Rockfield (Wales) and basically showed the videos to our producer and said, ‘We want the record to sound like this gig.’ He ended up jumping up and down on my far-too-overpriced-and-delicate amplifiers. That really was the connection. We’re back in Wales… and that’s on the album. It was one of those absurd details that became reality.
That’s brilliant when one of those little details ends up colouring an album. Sweet Sour can obviously apply to many things. One of the first that spoke to me was a focus on contrasts. I guess it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise coming from a band that’s touched on Patsy Cline and Led Zeppelin.
(Laughs). It’s true! There you go!
I’m curious – when you first come together, at the beginning of the writing process, are those contrasts particularly apparent? Or is it easy to see what’s common?
If it’s a Patsy Cline-esque melody with a Led Zeppelin-esque whatever, we’re like ‘Throw that shit together!’
That’s something that would make our ears perk up. Even if the bits to an idea seem weird, we want to see what happens. We have a very broad range of tastes – musical tastes, listening tastes – and we also have a broad range of stuff that we want to do. So it always favours the work. And this record is no exception, really. I think we continue to try to bring many different influences in. Sometimes it’s risky doing it. But I think if we weren’t fulfilling ourselves artistically, I think we’d be disappointed in the work. We’d be feeling repressed. Which we’re not.
When you take the album as a cohesive set – which, of course, people increasingly don’t do these days, though they ought to – I find it interesting that rather than a study in contrasts it feels it many ways like you guys have refined a lot of the elements you brought together on the first album; a distillation. Does it sound that way to you when you play the songs?
We don’t listen to it! We only play them. Listen to them to learn them, if you have to play them. (Laughs). I think for us it was making sure that everyone knew we were a real band. It wasn’t just a flash-in-the-pan thing. We’re a band on a journey writing music. We wanted it to open doors for us into the future rather than close them down and reduce our options. So, [there are] some interesting things. There are interesting time signatures that we did. We kind of got quite experimental, I think.
That’s true of the time signatures you hear in “Wanderluster.” It’s an interesting jump to hear. Very cool.
We could’ve easily not done a song like that. Played it safe. But I like the risk. It’s exciting. We sort of write the idea, not as a ‘Band of Skulls’ thing, but then it has to go through these channels to be possible to do. It was very interesting to do. And very satisfying to finish and get on the record. I’m glad it made it. It gives the record some edge.
You actually met (Emma Richardson, bass) when you were in art school together. Considering what you do now, what would you say is the thing school most taught you?
I think that everyone has a personal experience but we meet in the centre when there’s an experimental and creative mood. It’s great to be around people that are doing so many things. At the time, [school] was very exciting. We try and retain that sense of creative processes. Any idea’s good enough because it’s an idea. That’s a powerful thing. We sort of do have an art-school way of working. We sit down, we throw ideas around. It’s just like coming in with a new idea. We have development days. I guess that’s what we learned from it, really. How to see through a creative project. And how to collaborate. Hopefully we learned to be a creative team in any sense. That’s what we try and do. It’s very strange that the front end of it is this rock band.
We sort of look at it sometimes, like, ‘What the hell happened there?’ But we’ve always collaborated and it’s always exciting. Right now, it’s music. It’s raw, powerful music that’s exciting people. It is exciting. And in the future there’s lot of other things we want to do and it’ll be exciting where it takes us. We work with people in America and back in England as well. We’ve spent a lot of time in Canada, Montreal especially, and it keeps that slightly unusual way of doing things alive. That’s not the usual route. Which is always, for good or worse, the way we do things. We do things the other way of doing it. We’re very fortunate. And we’re hopeful of protecting that creative bubble that we have now. It works for us.
What do you think being in a band has taught you about yourself?
It’s great to bring something exciting into town. And hopefully make people’s week a bit better, you know? Tough times often need a bit of relaxation. A bit of escapism. Rock and roll’s always done that. So, if that’s the case, then we’re very happy to supply it. And also, we’ve been a band for a long time but we’ve been musicians for a longer time. We’ve come across many barriers and people have written us off left, right and centre. It’s a very English thing. There’s a lot of history there and it’s super tough to break through. Anyone that’s sort of said that we were shit…it’s sort of satisfying when you make it to a certain level. The same songs, the same band – with a bit of hard work. We had an opportunity to share our work. The rest of it’s the same. Once you’ve come around and you have a good show or a good audience, or whatever, even if one person’s a big fan, it’s worth it. All summed up in one moment. Crystallized.