Wednesday, September 2, 2009

On the Verge of a Musical Breakthrough - a Moment with Band of Skulls

It began like a finale - an eruption of fuzz from guitar, bass and drum, occupying the ears of the crowd long after the cut off, like the sun burnt into a bloodshot retina. Singer/guitarist Russell Marsden wringed the strings on his Fender Stratocaster, torturing the guitar to cry out to his vocals. “I want to see you in the morning.”

Bassist Emma Richardson and drummer Matt Hayward tag-teamed the final two beats, meshing the Strat with a blast of snare drum and a humming bass. Then, a pause for effect. The guitar groaned, and cried out again. “I want to see you when the breaking day is dawning,” Marsden sang through the straight, bleached hair masking his face. The strands whipped out with his exhale.

“You gotta go, you gotta go, it’s alright… I want to see you in the- see you in the- light of the morning! Hey!”

It was on - the crowd was seduced into a mob of nodding heads and swaying hips. Band of Skulls ripped through at 10 songs off their first and only album “Baby Darling Doll Face Honey” at St. Louis’ Fubar. Richardson’s boots stomped to a rhythm rife with a bluesy, down-and-dirty ethic. Marsden wrestled the tremolo arm of the Strat, juicing his instrument for every last drop of 70s-psychadelia with a consummate deftness. Hayward drove the band forward with a solid, unflinching beat, evoking the 90s garage movement.

It’s easy deciphering the influences of this power trio. Perhaps the band’s strongest asset is that while its sound was done before (as recently as Kings of Leon and any number of Jack White bands), the catchy lyrics and undeniable energy forces one to accept it on its own terms. As one reviewer explained: “The history of popular music might very well lie within this promising band from England. But its’ the future they ought to be concerned about...because it’s going to be a bright one.”

By some standards, the band’s rise could be considered meteoric. Having formed in January, by March they cut and released a full-length album of 11 songs. The next month, ‘I Know What I am’ was the iTunes single of the week. In August, they were featured on Lollapalooza’s BMI stage, although it was a lightly-attended show before noon on the Saturday of the festival. Also that month, Band of Skulls provided HBO’s popular series “True Blood” with background music in a scene. That wonderfully appropriate song, ‘Blood,’ may have reached up to 5.2 million viewers.

Perhaps the band’s biggest boost will come in October 13, when the highly anticipated teen-centric vampire flick “New Moon” releases its soundtrack, where Band of Skulls will take a spot on a track listing alongside monstrously famous acts such as Radiohead and Muse. November 20, the same track will be played for tens of millions of theatergoers.

(This writer’s best guess is that the track will be the same as featured on HBO’s “True Blood,” although a recent Tweet indicated the band recently spent time in its LA studio, and so may just have created the track. Or, perhaps some completely unrelated new music.)

None of this was apparent at the St. Louis gig. Only 23 showed up on that Monday night. It was an uneventful evening for the band, who enjoyed a bite at a nearby outdoor café in near anonymity. Shortly before the show at the venue, when a fan did approach at the bar, the band looked stunned.

“I was wondering if you could sign this,” the fan said sheepishly, holding a copy of the band’s vinyl record.

“Of course!” Richardson said in a proper British accent, taking the album and dispatching its plastic wrapping with haste. “The cover is a bit slippery to sign.” She opened the album and took out the complementary poster.

“I don’t like what they did with the artwork,” she said, explaining that the record company took her original painting, cropped and mirrored it for the album cover. She passed the poster and a sharpie to the nearest band mate.

“We wanted to catch you before you get so big that we’ll have to pay $80 for a ticket to a stadium show,” the fan said as the guitarist, Marsden, made an autograph.

“That would be great,” Marsden said. “Not that you have to pay $80, but that we would have lots of people come to see us.”

Band of Skulls went on to make their performance, and ended in a massive crescendo. With Richardson and Hayward playing loud and hard, Marsden struck a chord on his Strat and laid the guitar on the stage. Bass and drums continuing to blast, Marsden cranked his effects pedals for maximum reverb, with the chord ringing and ringing and ringing. To the sound of a Strat blasting a hypnotic cacophony of fuzz and whatever happy noises a crowd of 23 could muster, the musicians left their instruments and headed to the adjacent bar.

I sat with my colleague, Joe, the one who approached the band before the concert, and watched as fans struck up conversations with the trio. This was a rare, strange moment, we considered.

“My son really likes your music,” one man, who appeared to be in his early 40s, said. “Would you mind signing this for him?”

Joe and I were at a neighboring booth while Richardson hovered nearby, cigarette burning between her fingers like a post-coital habit.

“Could you sign this poster for my co-worker?” Joe asked.

“Sure, what’s her name?” She said.

“Beth,” he said. “I got her turned on to you guys. She likes the band ‘Heart,’ and you really sound like the band, ‘Heart.’”

“Who’s that?”

“You don’t know who ‘Heart’ is?”

“No, how do you spell it? Just H-E-A-R-T?”

Joe nodded as she scribbled her name, the name of the classic Seattle rock band from the 70s featuring Ann and Nancy Wilson, and how she didn’t know who they were, but was confident that they rocked.

“How can you not know who ‘Heart’ is?” Joe said. “Your vocals sound just like theirs.”

Richardson, the member of the band with a collection of 20,000 records, looked at Joe, puzzled. I felt nervous and turned to Joe, murmuring, “Come on, man…”

“You better keep that Sharpie,” I said to Richardson, changing subjects suddenly. Joe and I scoured a six-block radius in my car, looking for a single felt-tipped marker, in preparation to score pre-concert autographs.

“You’d think a fan should have manners enough to bring their own pen to a concert,” I added.

“Yeah, really!” she said, pointing the end of the marker in the air, and resting her free hand on her hip. “Who do they think we are? Michael Jackson?”

Richardson turned to acknowledge a group of three girls. Emma’s black tank top, and hip-hugging jeans clashed with the suburban-mall-party-girl-esque outfits of the girls.

“We really like your music and think you’re going to get real big someday,” one of the fangirls said, holding out a poster to be signed. Emma nodded approvingly and left her mark on the memorabilia.

The audience, satisfied with autographs and posters and CDs, filed out of the bar, leaving the joint near empty. While the band spoke to punk-rock looking girls who stayed after, Joe and I nursed our beers and debated what next to do. Before long, I decided to embark on a buzzed journey to relieve the burden of my newfound, Mexican friend, Sol Beer. Joe left to the adjacent table.

“You know, Emma says she doesn’t know who ‘Heart’ is,” he said to Hayward.

Hayward turned to Richardson, astonished. “What?! You’ve never heard of ‘Heart’!?”

I returned shortly after to find the band table sans-Richardson. I was informed that everyone at the table gave Richardson grief about not knowing who ‘Heart’ was, to the point where she left the table in mild frustration.

Hayward wrote on Beth’s poster “Beth!! You like Heart!? I like Heart! Let’s get together!”

We shook hands with Hayward on the way out the door. The band would finish its American tour August 30, before knocking out 11 shows in Canada and returning to the UK for another 19 appearances, all before September. Next stop, the unknown.

“I’m busy booking our next tour,” Hayward said as we made our exit. “Just keep checking our MySpace, it will be on there.”

Set List, 8/24/09:

“Light of the Morning”
“I Know What I Am”
“Diamonds and Pearls”
“Cold Fame”
“Holywood Bowl”

Read on...