For the members of England’s Band of Skulls, finding their unique collective voice was a question of trust
As razor-honed and self-assured as Band of Skulls sounds on its debut disc, Baby Darling Doll Face Honey, the English trio didn’t exactly emerge from the womb fully formed.
Looking back, singer-guitarist Russell Marsden acknowledges that it took a good couple of years to get comfortable with vocalist-bassist Emma Richardson and drummer Matt Hayward. When the three musicians first began playing around Southampton, England, under the name Fleeing New York, their songs fell under the admittedly means-nothing umbrella of indie rock.
Even though the players are the same, Fleeing New York doesn’t bear much resemblance to the band that’s building a considerable buzz on these shores. Forget targeting the Matador and Jagjaguwar crowds: Baby Darling Doll Face Honey finds Band of Skulls bringing the overamped blues one minute and revved-up classic rawk the next. In between, Marsden and his conspirators deliver the kind of 3 a.m.-comedown gems that, should they ever graduate to stadium shows, will be guaranteed to get fans fumbling for their Bics.
Reached at a Kansas City tour stop, the group’s de facto frontman has no problem pinpointing the moment Band of Skulls finally buried the remains of Fleeing New York. He cites the birth of “Impossible”, a quiet-loud-quiet wonder that comes in the middle of Baby Darling.
“It was the process of writing that song,” Marsden reveals. “It was like a musical thing where we all of a sudden found the place we wanted to be. We were just listening to some of our unfinished recordings yesterday. They were kind of old, and I was saying to my drummer, ”˜You can hear that we don’t trust each other on these songs. We are pulling away from each other.’
“Writing that song is when we stopped bickering and fighting and started working towards the same thing,” he continues. “After that, we never fought again. And we got songs like ”˜Cold Fame’ and ”˜Honest’ after that, because we suddenly trusted ourselves to play things that were quieter. When you’re a young band, you tend to play everything as loud as possible and as fast as possible.”
Band of Skulls is certainly not shy about cranking the amps on Baby Darling Doll Face Honey, with “Bomb” serving up smoking-gun fuzz-pop at its most riff-tastic. The band also has no trouble stripping things down to voice and acoustic guitar, as on the golden-sunset ballad “Honest”, where Richardson is at her most vulnerable-sounding.
What might be most impressive about Baby Darling, however, is that Band of Skulls does distortion-strafed blues every bit as lovingly as the White Stripes or the Black Keys. Check out the dual-vocal attack on the Mississippi-mud-splattered crasher “Light of the Morning” or the chugging, tension-drenched call-and-response wonder “I Know What I Am”. In fact, Band of Skulls sounds like it’s spent more time in the Mississippi Delta than have most of the American acts currently swimming in the wake of Jack White.
“I don’t really think of ourselves as being a British band,” Marsden confesses. “A British band, to us, is really overt [about it] like the Libertines. We’re more a band that can be explained by the whole transatlantic blues thing. I was thinking the other day how the Stones took all these old original blues songs and then brought them back to the Americas. Then we had the White Stripes bring things back to England. It’s almost like a blues Ping-Pong.”
Rather than cite one particular band or genre as an influence, Marsden suggests that it was a club night back home that helped make Band of Skulls what it is today. He and his bandmates ran the monthly event which, appropriately, was titled Club Skulls. It was there that they soaked up the influences that would shape Baby Darling Doll Face Honey.
“It was really good for us because we booked bands that we liked, and we’d also bring them in to deejay, as well as deejaying ourselves,” Marsden says. “We did it for a year or two, and pretty soon all the bands in town were coming to it, turning it into sort of a music social club. We loved getting our old ’50s records out and hearing them through a huge PA system—stuff that you would normally never hear. Because we hired out the whole place, we could do whatever the hell we wanted: experimental music alongside Dean Martin and Japanese pop.”
Even if Band of Skulls doesn’t exactly bring to mind Dino Crocetti teaming up with the Zoobombs to channel Fantí´mas, Band of Skulls is doing something different enough to build an instant following on these shores.
“We’re like a vocal band, a harmony band, with a really loud backing rhythm section,” Marsden offers. “We’re writing these hooky, vocal songs and then play them at great volume, which is a real technical challenge to do properly live.”
The response to that sound has been immediate. Not only was the group’s Vancouver debut a few months back a sell-out, but the crowd at the Media Club completely cleaned off the merch table, leaving fans at subsequent shows disappointed. Other than that, Marsden, Richardson, and Hayward haven’t been bumming anyone out on these shores. And even better, they have been anything but disappointed with how things have worked out for them.
“We’re about to do a session in L.A. for MySpace in an old studio that was used for sessions by the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, so that’s going to be quite good,” Marsden says. “And after Canada, we’ll go home, where we haven’t been since our record came out. We’re really detached from it all—we just hear about all the press from our families. So it will be weird to see things for ourselves, but we’re definitely looking forward to it.”
Band of Skulls plays Venue tonight (September 3).