The Courier sent Dimitri Psarianos to meet BAND OF SKULLS and pose some questions to Russel Marsden and Emma Richardson before their headline show at Northumbria Student’s Union.
DP: First of all, congratulations on your latest album, By Default, which received a 5/5 review on behalf of The Courier Online. The first thing I wanted to ask was: was there any difference in how you approached this album compared to your previous three?
RM: Yeah, I mean I think we approach them all differently. So, it’s natural for this to happen; we’ve made a record every other year so far in our career. And it does change because every time you get to that point again things have changed and you have to approach it from a different angle. The biggest thing we’ve tried to do in more recent times is to change producers every time, to push ourselves to work with more people and get more experience. And that’s our calculated risk that we’ve done so far.
So, for this album, Gil Norton (previously worked with the likes of Pixies, Foo Fighters, Twin Atlantic) asked to work with us which is very nice: we accepted. That was the change up we did this time, our biggest change.
"we are showing more of our influences on this record"
Past that, I also noticed that in By Default, there is some integration of new musical styles as well. Namely, the modern funk infusion in ‘So Good’ comes to mind. Are there any particular influences for these new aspects?
ER: Yeah, I guess we are showing more of our influences in this record. Everyone likes quite a lot of different music; we’re always listening to different styles and different bands. I guess we tried to wear it on our sleeves a little more this time around. ‘So Good’ is more stripped back, more minimal, and definitely references that sort of slight disco element, like that four-on-the-floor feel. There are a lot of different songs on the record which are opening doors maybe for what we may try next.
RM: Those elements were always there with the band but we chose not to reveal all on the first album and there were always those links with these songs: I think in ‘So Good’ you can draw a line to ‘Patterns’ and songs like that. They have relatively similar vibes but they came out at a different time and we did them in a different style. There was a conversation at one point to try and make some modern music but with our old-fashioned elements. We’re still a rock band, but we listen to lots of different kinds of music and with ‘So Good’, lots of modern music is quite simple, simple structures, so that was definitely an element of it. Other songs that came out of that were songs like ‘Erounds’, which is a similar idea but a bit more dark and explored a few more things. There were other songs on the record that had a similar thing too. But So Good is really the one that does make a point of it.
Another thing I noticed was some of the more intimate tones in the tracks, such as ‘Fires’ from Baby Darling Doll Face Honey, or ‘You Are All That I Am Not’ in Himalayan, seem to be less prominent in By Default. Was this a conscious decision or more just a change in the approach of writing?
RM: Well there’s a song called ‘Something’ on the record and I think we put all that vibe into that song. And then we wrote lots of songs so we did write a lot more softer music, but we just chose not to release it on this record: it’s how you group the songs together. With ‘Something’, we got all that vibe out with that one song and it’s quite overtly that way as well. Every record has a different balance and this one is particularly stronger with harder ideas. Then one song at the end, we’ve done this a couple of times before, some people are thinking they’re not going to get it and they had to wait until the very end of the record.
"Every record has a different balance and this one is particularly stronger"
I always heard two or three tracks which really slowed the record down, usually one in the middle. Was this change more you wanting to keep the strong tone through the album, and then slow down towards the end, or was it just going with the collection of songs that you had available?
ER: I think it was that the songs which we chose we thought worked well together and it paces the record. The order fitted well, because we think about it and we plan it out. You listen through the album in loads of different ways and find certain songs work well next to each other. This track listing felt really good to us and having the softer song to leave you on at the end really sort of worked. There’s an option to have three quiet ones on every record, but this time it felt like the best way to do it.
RM: We have loads of quiet songs and we’re meant to be a loud band, so we’re plentiful with quiet songs. We don’t play six or seven quiet songs at our shows, so can’t keep adding more and more into the pot; we’ve got to keep it under control. We could write music like that all day, but it’s trickier to come up with stronger songs. It’s harder to come up with original ideas that are more structured. Like Emma said, we just chose those songs, and when we’d had enough of that, ‘Something’ said “Don’t worry, we still can do that.” They’re beautiful moments, that song is beautiful. It’s one of the last ones we did but it’s got a great atmosphere to it. Maybe in the next record we’ll do more quiet songs, like the opposite, but for this one we just kept it strong: making a statement mostly.
Are there any tracks on the album that you feel particularly proud of?
RM: Elements and moments.
ER: I think it works really well as a whole piece. Working with Gil in the studio, he pushed us on certain tracks and that was interesting: to work in a different way with a new producer like that. I think having all those songs on this record together, I feel quite proud of that fact, it’s amazing.
RM: In the future, it’ll serve us well this record as we go forward because once you make those statements you’re allowed to, as a band, go back there and explore elements that you’ve done before. There’s a song called ‘In Love By Default’ which is on the record, and the way that was put together was uncharted territory for us and it was either going to work or it was going to fail spectacularly. There was a lot of good will and belief in the song for it to get through all the stages. How it was put together: we listened to a lot of Hip Hop songs and tried to make some songs in that way, obviously not trying to be a rap band but to put songs together in that sort of way where there’s a sample that is the hook and put the song together in that structure. For us, that was very unnatural, but Gil and our engineer worked with us on that. We actually used a lot of samples that we’d made and brought them into the studios and put the song together in those pieces and then performed the song like that afterwards. There was a lot of belief in that, but that was only realised at the very end. There would have been a lot of wasted time and money if that didn’t come off, so I’m proud we didn’t f*ck it up basically.
I know after your European tour that you’re heading to Australia on tour, how do you enjoy being on tour in more exotic places further from home?
RM: It’s nice, you’re not on holiday but it’s nice. It’s exotic so you get the excitement of being somewhere different and meeting a lot of new people basically. The audience is who you meet that day. It’s difficult because you haven’t got time to explore and be a tourist but there’s the added- what’s the word? Help me out.
RM: It’s a -I don’t know-, it’s a perk, that you get to explore new places. The gigs can be as exciting right back here in your home country, but the day to day stuff can be a little more engaging if you’re exploring a new part of the world.
"You pick up inspiration all the time and then it's nice to be in a familiar place"
Would you say part of the reason you’d decided to start your writing for the new album at the church in Hampshire is because you’d been so far away from home on tour?
ER: It’s always nice to write in our home town. It’s good to go away and tour a lot, and take all these different places and experiences and then come back home and let it all out. You pick up inspiration all the time and then it’s nice to be in a familiar place. The church was in our home town, but we’d never really been inside that building before. It was like finding a new place to work but in a familiar setting, I guess.
RM: And we’re never home, so to go home every day was great and it builds up your stamina for the next tour. And we’re also proud to make music in Southampton, we’re proud to be from there: to be representing where we’re from musically. We’re not very far from London, so people might assume we’d always work up there. We are quite proud that these songs are from there; we wrote our first record there as well. Now that they’re out there for people, it’s nice to think they started their lives in our neighbourhood.
After your Australian tour, do you have any hopes or plans going into next year and onwards?
RM: New music. We wrote 100 songs in that church and we’ve only put 12 out. So we’ve got a lot of unfinished business with those. Two years, nowadays, is a long time to get something, so if everything goes right we could try to release more music more regularly; try to get a different balance between our touring schedule and recording schedule. As I said, we’ve put records out pretty regularly, and not ever really had any time off as a band, but [two years] feels like a long time and it starts to feel more and more nowadays because the world is getting faster and faster. The demand for new things is incredible, so if we can release more music to people, that would be great. We’ve got the music, it’s just finding the time to do it justice by making it properly and still being out there to play it to people. That would be what we start straight after Australia next year.
A lot of your fans know of and have listened to some of your videos of your acoustic sessions. What would you say is your favourite acoustic version or session that you’ve done?
ER: We played at the Hollywood Forever cemetery in Los Angeles. We played with a string quartet in this beautiful building-
RM: The chapel, where they have all the ceremonies.
ER: Yeah, and we had arrangements made with the quartet and put an hour long set together. It was just us, acoustic, the string quartet and Matt [Hayward] on drums. It was great to reimagine our songs with strings and have that as a possibility at a proper show. It opened a possible future.
RM: It’s our secret pet project we haven’t released yet [sarcasm detected], but we played it to people and it was amazing. That cemetery is called Hollywood Forever, all the old Hollywood stars are buried there, people like Laurel and Hardy. So when you walk around it’s like a who’s who of old tinsel town, if you will. Bizarrely now, or maybe not bizarrely, they put gigs on there. They put big gigs on outside, in the cemetery itself -we saw Lana Del Rey there once, flaming lips have played it as well- and they do smaller gigs in the chapel. Playing your songs differently, with a string quartet, literally surrounded by all these legends buried in the ground-
ER: It’s certainly up there, isn’t it?