I'll admit that I was late to the game in my first real exposure to Band of Skulls. When a friend said I had to check them out, I was a little leery, but after playing me a couple tracks off of his iPhone, I realized he was right -- I already knew the band, whether I realized it or not.
That can be understood as the group's initial exposure to US audiences was two-fold. Even before the group's debut album was finished, iTunes agreed to release "I Know What I Am" as its featured free single of the week in March 2009. The inclusion of a previously unreleased single, "Friends," on The Twilight Saga: New Moon Soundtrack also kicked up a brief buzz, but it was the inclusion of "Light of the Morning" in a nationally aired Mustang commercial that really brought the band's sound into the public subconscious of US audiences.
When asked about Band of Skulls' explosion in the American market and what impact the iTunes single had on the band, bassist Emma Richardson recently shared, "That was our first exposure at all. We were making the record song by song and got a call when we were three quarters of the way through asking 'Do you want to release the song in two weeks?' We said yes and that was our initial push."
As a result, the band's debut album, Baby Darling Doll Face Honey, was wrapped up and rush released to keep up with demand just before heading out on tour in the UK and across the US. The band even stopped in Tulsa in March of 2010, supporting Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, a show that Richardson recalls being "a really cool show -- the crowd was crazy drunk at that one."
Following a year of heavy touring, Band of Skulls headed back to the studio and emerged with Sweet Sour earlier this year. That album, much like its title, is a study in dichotomy: it's both heavier and more delicate than its predecessor. When discussing this with Richardson, she agreed that the dynamics are more extreme and explained that "A lot of it is louder. After playing the bigger shows, we wanted something that would translate live in those big rooms."
At the same time, she also agreed that the quieter songs were even more so as well. "We all write in different styles, so we take tracks that reflect that," she said. "I think it shows the two sides of the band and leaves us open to experiment and shows we're not just your typical three piece rock band."
Regarding the writing process, Richardson said it truly is a group effort, with all three members (guitarist/vocalist Russell Marsden and drummer Matt Hayward complete the band) contributing. "If someone comes up with something, it's very much instantaneous," she said. "It just happens -- we see what ideas each person has, and if the groove is right, it's right. We'll go on playing it together and see what comes of it."
That groove oriented mentality is what comes through first and foremost in Band of Skulls' songs. Although the latest album's title track, "Sweet Sour," is hauntingly heavy, the magic comes from the groove and how it wraps around your head. Likewise, "The Devil Takes Care of His Own" revolves around a heavy groove that grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go and "You're Not Pretty But You've Got It Goin' On" opens with a guitar hook that sticks in your head, then spins off into an explosion of guitars.
As infectious as the album is, however, the band is even more explosive on the live stage. As one of the first bands I was able to see at SXSW this past March, the group hit the audience as a force of nature -- and a wall of sound. All of the hooks and riffs were there, but the band took everything to another level, leaving the audience in awe.
When asked how the chemistry in the studio translates live, Richardson shared "When playing together, whether in the studio or on the stage, it's all about the trust you have in each other. If it feels easy and natural, then it all works, but it's good to take it up a little in the live moment."
"I think the studio captured it pretty well, but when we're live, we'll play it different every time, because that's part of what the live experience is all about for us."
Indeed, while Band of Skulls stuck with the basic riffs, part of the magic in the live performance came from its improvisation and an energy that felt like dancing on the edge of coming apart, pushing the heavy dynamics as far as possible, then pulling back to make the quiet moments even more intimate.
When the band stops at The Vanguard this Monday night, Oct. 1, it plays one of its last headlining gigs of the year in the US on a night off before returning to the Red Hot Chili Peppers tour for a sold-out arena show in Dallas the next night. After wrapping up the Chili Peppers tour, Band of Skulls plays a handful of club and theater dates before returning to the UK to wrap up the year.
When asked what the future holds and if further tour plans were being made, Richardson said they are preparing to go back to the studio to work on the next album.
"Everyone is already thinking of new ideas for the new record," she said. "The key is getting back in the studio, because we'd like to speed it along a little faster this time. After finishing in the US, we've got a UK run. In between, we'll go into the studio for a couple of weeks to lay down tracks and see what we've got. Hopefully, we'll have enough to get started in a new record early next year."
Before wrapping up the current tour, however, Tulsa gets an opportunity to catch Band of Skulls for a rare club show on an off-night from playing arenas opening for Red Hot Chili Peppers. You can be sure that the intensity will be even greater than I experienced in Austin, as this will be an up-close-and-personal experience in a club that holds only 500. Out of all the club shows in October, this is the one I've been holding my breath for.
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