Sitting backstage at Leeds Beckett Student Union, Band of Skulls are awaiting their Live At Leeds headline show, about to begin a new chapter with their fourth album By Default.
It’s a back-to-basics record, shaped by a desire to return home and be shut-away in a unique working environment. We chat to the band about the changes in their sound and creative process four records in.
You headed back to your hometown of Southampton to work on this record - what was it that took you back there?
Emma: “We wanted to find a different set-up to be inspired by I guess. We found this amazing church and rented it out so we had time to write there. It started the whole process of the new record, with a new feel.”
Russell: “It’s the first time we’ve headed back home to write songs since before we had a record deal, but we recorded it in a studio in Wales.”
You’ve used an image of the church for the album’s artwork, so it obviously played a big part in creating the overall feel of the record. How did this workspace inspire the new material?
Russell: “It absolutely did with the overall sound - especially the drums – that was the starting point. We found this room for just practicality and a bit of a vibe. We went in there with a very small setup, and a very small drum kit. Matt went in and hit the snare, and we heard the record almost.”
Matt: “Yeah. Those places were designed to carry voices. Before any kind of microphone or anything like that, they’d be doing services and singing, so the idea of a church is that the whole sound reverberates around”
So you were leaning towards a grander sound this time around?
Matt: “Yeah. As we were writing, the sound we were getting in the church was dictating a lot of the writing, because we knew what sort of sounds we could get from it - so it would evolve like that. By the time we got into the studio, our producer Gil Norton was trying to recreate those church sounds. We used a lot of the reverbs of the room on the record.”
Russell: “We did take some samples of the drums in the church – thankfully. Although they were crappy and done with our gear, we were able to build-up some things like that. For us, we can hear the church is on there. Having those little bits in there, and having the image on the cover – it’s cool.”
Did any aspects of the space inspire the record lyrically?
Russell: “It’s too soon to say. In like a year’s time you look back and think ‘oh yeah’ - so maybe subconsciously - but it wasn’t a concept album or anything and we didn’t set out to do that. Who knows, there could be an undercurrent.”
Emma: “There’s definitely a lot of different personality in there, it’s got its own character.”
I read there were quite a lot of ‘out-there’ tracks recorded in these sessions, which didn’t make the album. Why did you decide against some of the more experimental songs?
Matt: “The world’s not ready – they’re too crazy. After the first three records, we sort of went in trying to do a bit of cleansing, and go back to where we started before the first record came out. It was completely free and open to put in whatever you wanted, so some of the ideas are pretty out-there. We ended-up writing something like 100 songs, then had to whittle it down to 12 - so some of the wilder ones went out. They’re still there though, and we’re still playing around with them.
Russell: “I’ve got a playlist of 12 songs – a whole different kind of record!”
Matt: “We’re just gonna come out with a different band name and just release it as a separate thing.”
Russell: “We may have already done it, it might have already happened – there’s no of knowing (laughs). There are lots of ideas to work on, and the songs we actually chose are the ones that felt like they fitted together, and the ones that felt right. We always say we try to open doors for ourselves, rather than getting closed-down in to a particular place. We’ve taken a few risks on the record, but we could’ve taken some bigger ones! (laughs)”
You have the rare advantage of having two lead vocalists in the band. How do you decide on the balance between the two?
Emma: “It’s usually just what works best for the song. It’s great to have both male and female points of view coming at you lyrically, and with different tones of it.
Russell: “I was listening the other day actually, and I’m on the record more than I thought - I’m just singing really high. People get confused as to who’s singing now and again. It’s like an instrument in itself.”
Emma: “It’s the sonics of it – it’s just nice to play around with that.”
You seem to have experimented with this more on the latest single ‘So Good’.
Emma: “Yeah we’ve definitely gone somewhere new sonically, and that’s quite appealing to us. It feels good to release that as a single.”
Russell: “There’s an element of the album which that song covers quite nicely. If you like that one, there’s a bit more of that world on the record, and a bit more of that world in our band in general. We sort of exploring using less bluster and more groove-based stuff, which is the music we really like as well.”
So things have been stripped back a lot?
Russell: “Yeah, just doing more with less elements. Play less, achieve more, repeat! (Laughs). You can just achieve more space. When you’re a young band everyone plays the same note all the time, which is great, but it’s amazing what you can achieve by just dialling things back, and seeing that the spaces in between are often quite interesting.”
Matt: “Yeah, we learnt from a very early point when we first started gigging, that because there’s just three instruments going, we need to create space to make some things sound grander. It’s not about everyone trying to play everything at the same time – the more spaces you give, the bigger something can become. We’ve always maintained that when we’re writing, and I guess it’s kind of imprinted – not that we think too much about the live gig while writing."
There’s an American sound and aesthetic associated with the band – did being closer to home change the feel of the music you were making?
Russell: "Of course some of our influences are American, yeah. It’s funny because some of our American friends and the people we work with over there said that now and again, there are little British-isms that come through, within the lyrics especially. They’re just like “I can tell you’re not from America, ‘cause we don’t say that”. We’ve just spent a bit more time back in England, so I reckon it was a bit more normal. If not, you end-up just being a nowhere person, because you don’t have a base. It’s nice just to be back to where you feel cool and where you made your first record."
Are there any new acts you’ve had your eye on?
Russell: “I think for us, we just discover things when we’re out now. When we’re in the studio we’re just focused on ourselves and really closed down – we turn the radio off, and try not to be influenced at that crucial point. Now we just get to go to gigs and listen to other bands at festivals. I look forward to just being out and about and seeing music, because we’ve been cut-off from the world.”
We’re right at the start of the festival season, so I guess they’ll be a lot of that to come in the coming months?
Russell: “I don’t know! We’re super-superstitious, and we don’t really like to say we’re doing anything. We touch wood and only believe something is happening when we’re in it. We get told things, but we’ll only believe it once we see it.”
By Default is out 27 May.
Band Of Skulls upcoming tour dates are below. For tickets and more information, visit here.
Wed May 18 2016 - LONDON Lexington
Thu May 19 2016 - LONDON Electric Ballroom
Thu October 20 2016 - LEEDS University Stylus
Fri October 21 2016 - MANCHESTER Albert Hall
Sat October 22 2016 - NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE Northumbria University
Mon October 24 2016 - BRISTOL SWX
Tue October 25 2016 - NOTTINGHAM Rock City
Wed October 26 2016 - LONDON Roundhouse
Thu November 17 2016 - SOUTHAMPTON Engine Rooms