Taking a step back from relentless touring, Southampton-based rock trio Band Of Skulls have been squirreled away in Monmouthshire recording the follow-up to their well-received 2014 album Himalayan. With the fruits of their labour – fourth studio album By Default – poised for launch later this month and proceeded with first single Killer, the three-piece comprised of Russell Marsden (guitar, vocals), Emma Richardson (bass, vocals) and Matt Hayward (drums) spoke to RockShot Magazine’s Kalpesh Patel about their process, ideas incubated and developed in a church, and working with acclaimed producer Gil Norton (Foo Fighters, Pixies) for the next phase of their output.
Russell, Emma, Matt, thank you for taking the time to talk to us at RockShot Magazine.
Diving straight into your forthcoming fourth studio album By Default, are there any key themes that drove the songs chosen for it?
[Matt] We chose to hire a church in our hometown of Southampton and started the writing process there. We stripped back all of our equipment to the bare minimum and got to work. The sound of the church really directed the writing, and became the theme weaving through the record. We wrote near 100 songs for this album and had to whittle it down to 12. Once we got into the recording studio, a lot of time was spent recreating the sounds of the church. I would say the church was the most influential aspect to this record.
Tell us a little about your song-writing process? Do each of your bring ideas to the table that converge in a song idea or is there more of a primary influencer/songwriter between the three of you?
[Matt] We all write. We all bring ideas to the table and we all work on each other’s ideas. We don’t have set rules, set instruments; it’s a very open, creative process. The best idea wins. It’s something that we’ve honed. It can be quite time consuming this way, unlike a sole writer, but it’s what makes the records what they are.
Russell, Emma, you guys seem to split lead vocal duties with Emma taking on tracks such as So Good on By Default and Cold Sweat on Himalayan. How do you decide who leads each song?
[Matt] Decisions are made on who sings what by working out what’s best for the song. It’s become quite obvious to us now, more often than not there’s a consensus. It’s what suits the song best, where the two vocal ranges sit in the key of the song. We’ve got very good at working that out.
You’ve said in the past that every time you make a record, you try and write songs that you can’t actually play and then learn them. Was that true once more with By Default and if so, which is the toughest song from the record to play live?
[Matt] We try and make the best record we can first and foremost then piece together how to perform it live. We don’t ever want the live aspect to be a dominating factor in the studio because that causes restrictions. For By Default we have brought a dear friend of ours Milo to join us on tour to add the extra toppings. We don’t believe in backing tracks or hidden musicians. Our goal is to do the songs justice and play the best LIVE show we can. A song called Tropical Disease is definitely a big tune with lots of twists and turns… It’s fun but definitely a challenge.
For the recording of By Default, you chose to return to Rockfield Studios in Monmouthshire where second record Sweet Sour was laid down. What drove your decision to head back there rather than, say State Of The Ark in Richmond where Himalayan was recorded, or somewhere completely new to you all?
[Matt] The decision to go back to Rockfield was mainly due to our producer Gil Norton. We met Gil in London for the first time, hit it off straight away and within two weeks we were making the record. Gil had some time booked there so we went for it! It’s an incredible studio run by incredible people. We feel very at home there and away from it all to focus on the task in hand. There’s certainly a magic about the place.
As you’ve mentioned, you worked with Gil Norton on By Default who has produced classic rock albums such as Foo Fighters’ seminal The Colour and the Shape, Feeder records Echo Park and Comfort In Sound as well as a number of records for The Pixies. How did that come about and what did he bring to the process
[Matt] We were introduced to Gil whilst looking for producers. We were all aware of his incredible work and honoured that he was keen to work with us. On meeting him we clicked straight away and felt it was the right pairing for these set of songs. Gil works in a completely different way to anything we’ve done before. We spent a lot of time in pre-production fine tuning and once we were happy we worked very quickly piecing it all together. He creates an amazing atmosphere which brings out the best in your abilities. He also works with an incredible engineer Danny Allin whose work was a spectacle to witness. The team was very strong.
I last caught you guys playing live supporting charity Streets Of London at an acoustic event hosted by Ellie Goulding. How did you come to be a part of that show and do you see the issue of homelessness in London and the UK being addressed or improved upon?
[Russell] we were invited on behalf of Ellie by Fern Cotton. So of course we said yes. It was seeing the images of the spikes on benches, to deter people sleeping that were the most shocking. We live in a very wealthy and fortunate part of the world. It’s hard to see poverty and homelessness, and people should be given support, not treated inhumanly.
Emma: you’ve previously contributed artwork to Band Of Skulls releases. Have you had much time to catch up with your painting in recent years and has any of your artwork crept into By Default?
[Emma] I think about painting a lot and when I have free time and an idea for something I make work. I really like how the covers of our first three records have a cohesive link and stand together as a triptych in their own right incorporating painting, sculpture and computer generated imagery.
It was exciting for us to collaborate with other artists and designers to see what could be created. For this fourth record we wanted to change it up and use different imagery. It feels like a new era and we always want to keep the doors open for new ways of working in the future. We chose the image of the church because the sound of this place is all over the record and it was where we started writing. It feels very connected with the album. We wanted to let you into our world.
You’re hitting the road proper following a few upcoming road-test shows, rounding out the year with an Engine Rooms show in Southampton. Where are you most looking forward to heading this time around?
[Russell] Well it’s so good to end the tour at home, I’m sure we’ll have a party that night. We always love touring in the UK, every city has a unique vibe. London is always the big one we’ve had so many special nights, our fans are amazing
Band Of Skulls are known for being a great live band, not just a group that rattles through their songs, but who put on a show for their audience. How important is that aspect for you all and how do you tailor your shows between support, festival and headline sets?
[Russell] We treat them the same. Glastonbury, or the local rock club you have to give all of yourself. What’s the point otherwise? When you give, you tend to receive and the audience can really start to influence the music. That’s what we aim for always.
Would you consider a different approach for producing album #5? Perhaps writing and recording on the road like R.E.M. did for their New Adventures in Hi-Fi LP or shifting studios for each song?
[Russell] I had that record, didn’t realize that was how it was made. I guess Sweet Sour was our version of that. We always look for a new way of working on each album we make. So at this point who knows? But if it’s stick or twist, we’ll twist.
Would you be open to collaborating with other groups or artists for songs? If so, who would you be keen to work with?
[Russell] Yeah of course, it’s not happened too much this far. But we do enjoy playing and talking with other musicians. One of our favourites was working with a string quartet, for an acoustic show at the Hollywood Forever cemetery in Los Angeles.
2016 seems to be devastating the music world with two of my personal absolute heroes being taken from us so far. Who are each of your greatest musical heroes and how do they influence your own sound if at all?
[Russell] Both Bowie and Prince were huge in their musical influence to us. And Prince had been discussed during By Default’s sessions. So listen out. I hope all the great music they made will continue to be enjoyed, and inspire.
Which up and coming bands and artists are exciting you guys right now?
[Emma] We haven’t been listening to much new music recently as we’ve been completely focused on making our record and you get fully immersed in it and it takes over. But the great thing about this time now is that we can finally listen to all the great new releases and catch up on what we’ve missed out on. Plus we get to play a lot of different festivals this summer so I’m looking forward to discovering some new artists.
What’s next for Band of Skulls?
[Emma] Our album comes out on May 27th so we can’t wait for it to be released into the wild and we will be playing a lot of shows this year which we are really looking forward to and amongst this we will be thinking about the next record.
Russell, Emma, Matt, thanks for taking the time to speak with us at RockShot Magazine and we’re looking forward to your return to the stage!
By Default is released on 27th May through Liberator Music/BMG Recordings and, following some road-test shows including a stop at Camden’s Electric Ballroom, Band Of Skulls hit the summer festival circuit with stops at Glastonbury, Benicàssim, Kendal Calling, Y Not and Forgotten Fields festivals before a string of UK shows to round out the year including a huge show at London’s Roundhouse and a tour-closing homecoming show at Southampton’s Engine Rooms.
Interview and portraits with Band Of Skulls by Kalpesh Patel – May 2016.
Live review of Band Of Skulls @ Electric Ballroom by Kalpesh Patel on 19th May 2016 here.
Kalpesh has more music photography up on his flickr stream here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/somethingforkate