Too many careers in rock’n’roll are sprints rather than marathons. Few artists make it past their debut album without having already squandered their life’s quota of creative ideas. Fewer still make it to four albums in without hitting some kind of existential crisis, without losing direction, or going on autopilot and resorting to the same old tricks to keep a dwindling fan-base interested.
Meet Band Of Skulls, then, whose fourth album, ‘By Default’, is the sound of a group on the sharpest form of their career, more engaged and focused than they’ve ever been. An album that electrifies with rock’n’roll cut back to its most vivid elements, focusing all their brawny power and maverick invention into choruses, hooks and expertly-sculpted three-minute bursts so unashamedly anthemic and accessible they’ll soundtrack this summer, and far beyond.
“It’s definitely a new era,” says guitarist/vocalist Russell Marsden. “The first three records were like a trilogy, a piece of work in themselves. We wanted to do those things, and we did them all. We took a breath, took a look at what we’d done, and started from scratch again.”
“We hadn’t stopped since releasing our first album in 2009,” remembers Matt. Their new contract with BMG Recordings bought them breathing space, time to reflect on where they’d been creatively – and where they wanted to go next. They hired rehearsal space in Central Baptist Church in Southampton, and loaded in the barest bones of equipment – some ratty old practice amps, Matt’s dad’s drum-kit from the 1960s; “Even shit songs sound impressive on expensive gear,” explains Russell, of the spartan set-up – and started work on writing a new future for Band Of Skulls.
“We went back to Square One,” smiles Matt. “It felt new and exciting again.” In the church – between visits from the vicar, bringing tea and biscuits on his trolley – they found the new songs in hours of woodshedding, each member bringing new ideas into the room, which the band studied with unforgiving ears. “We’re pretty merciless,” says Russell, of this process. “We’re emotional about it – we get mad. We get mad at each other, at ourselves. We care about it. We were looking to challenge ourselves, to surprise each other.” Indeed, as they rehearsed and rewrote the new material, Band Of Skulls stalked far outside their comfort zone, hammering out their own version of techno music on their primitive instruments, or writing songs around the spectral sound of hands clapping in the natural reverb of the church.
After accumulating a sackful of new tunes that had withstood their punishing audition process, the group went into the studio with legendary producer Gil Norton (Pixies, Foo Fighters, Patti Smith) to commit the new songs to tape. They brought with them sounds sampled in the church, to preserve the magical ambience they’d discovered. They also brought with them some of their strongest songs yet – from the primal brilliance of opener Black Magic and the irresistible dynamics of Killer, to the slow-burning drama of the powerful Embers, to the razor-edged funk of So Good, to the swaggering, steroidal, futurist blues-rock of Little Mama. Norton helped them polish the raw material; more often, though, he encouraged further excursions into the unknown, like the wild freakout that scores the muscular rhumba of Tropical Disease.
The band’s drive, their passion for reinvention – their reluctance for simply following the same beaten path – should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been following Band Of Skulls’ movements thus far. They formed just over a decade ago after Marsden and drummer Matt Hayward (who, from a young age, spent every Saturday morning making a righteous racket together after their folks recognised their love for music was more than just a passing thing) joined forces with bassist/singer Emma Richardson.
From the off, Band Of Skulls were different. They had two lead singers, and all three were songwriters. “We had high ambition,” remembers Russell. “We wanted to tour, to make albums, to be in it for the long run. We were never in a rush for an instant fix, it was never a scene thing; we were always outsiders, the three of us banded together, but all of us battling for the spotlight.”
There’s a key moment in the Band Of Skulls story that illustrates their drive, the sense of purpose that’s set them apart from their contemporaries. In America to complete work on what would become their 2009 debut album ‘Baby Darling Doll Face Honey’, they lit out for their first American tour. But this was no whistle-stop visit to New York and Los Angeles and then back home: instead, the group elected to play every city they came across until they’d completed a circuit of the Americas.
“We’d paid our dues, played all over Britain, and were looking for a new challenge,” says Russell. And a challenge it most certainly was. Their only calling card was debut single, I Know What I Am, which had been given away free as iTunes’ first-ever Single Of The Week; they used this notoriety to book a slew of tiny gigs across America, and proceeded, as Russell puts it, to “knock those small gigs over one-by-one”. There was no ‘Plan B’, no safety net; either Band Of Skulls succeeded over those months as a touring band in America, or the game was over.
Not only did Band Of Skulls make a triumph of that first circuit of America’s vast expanse, they completed a second victory lap of larger venues before returning home to the UK, establishing a momentum that carried them through three acclaimed albums – ‘Baby Darling Doll Face Honey’, 2012’s ‘Sweet Sour’ and 2014’s ‘Himalayan’ – and further long tours across the globe (Matt reckons they spent no more than a month off the road during this era).
‘By Default’ is an album of which Band Of Skulls are understandably proud, but the group know it is more than just their latest record; it’s also the gateway to their future. “This album could have been fifty songs, each one a minute long, because we had so many ideas” says Russell, hinting that the group’s fearsome pace and creative stamina are far from exhausted.
Now, the band’s focus is taking these new songs on the road, to play them before audiences. “For us, it’s like a tightrope thing,” says Matt. “Like, can we pull off this trick?” Smart money says they can, with a killer flourish. “We’re proud of this new album we’ve made,” adds Russell. “We hope it bursts out of the speakers to make that clear.”