The Southampton-based Band of Skulls were the prime movers in kick starting a British back-to-basics rock'n'blues approach that saw the likes of Royal Blood recently take full advantage, although of course it was the American White Stripes and Black Keys who helped to pave the way for all concerned. They in turn can trace their ancestry to the likes of Led Zep et al. Such is the great turning wheel that is rock'n'roll.
Their no-nonsense approach, allied to a bag of great tunes, helped them to get out of the blocks quickly back in September 2009 with their critically acclaimed debut album Baby Darling Doll Face, released just barely months after they decided upon the name Band of Skulls. In fact, as I mention to lead singer and guitarist Russell Marsden, upon the release of that album they were still playing small venues such as Latest Bar in Brighton. "I remember that one," he says. You worked on a ticket sales split I say (hands up: I booked the band). "Really?" he says with a note of disbelief. "Well it was only a few miles from Southampton," he laughs. It was right on the cusp when interest in the band started ballooning, to become one of the biggest guitar bands of the last few years.
As part of the preparations for album number four, By Default, which is being released at the end of May, they've just done a couple of similarly small warm up shows, helping to get the train chugging along once again. "In the last week, we've just done a couple of warm ups, secret shows. We played up in Guildford, a really small show. If you can do that, you can do anything. If you can play those small clubs you can play a big stage," he reasons. "You've got to be able to convince a hundred people before you can convince any more than that. You do miss it when you're in the studio, to get out there and do some gigs. Sometimes those small ones are the best, everyone is close to each other.
"It's the calm before the storm," continues Russell, who along with drummer Matt Hayward and bassist Emma Richardson, make up Band of Skulls. "The weather is nice, isn't it? It would be very easy to go to the pub, but I'm doing well not doing that," he laughs. "We've been working on the record intensely, and now it's just a little moment before it comes out, and it goes crazy. It's the calmest moment you have got me at!”
But, it’s still exciting? "It's still exciting. It's a funny thing, with the first record you don't know what to expect. Just talking to you, knowing that we'll be coming to Brighton soon, you start to feel it and look forward to it. The moment of sharing that on the record never goes away, it’s always quite a thrill."
From the release of their debut through their subsequent hit albums Sweet Sour (2012) and Himalyan (2014) it's been almost non-stop, building up a considerable fanbase here and around the world, including the States, and featuring tours along the way with the likes of Queens of the Stone Age and Muse, in enorno-domes around the globe. But, finally last year they afforded themselves some time off to re-calibrate and get those creative juices flowing again. "We stopped touring last year and it was the beginning of us preparing for our future. We did three albums before, there was no let up, done as one big project. This time we know what we want to do in the future, and we wrote a hundred songs. A bit like what you do for your first album. The rest are still there – all 88 of them – some really extreme ones. Matt was like, 'I don't think the world is ready for this.”
Certainly, Band of Skulls still sound a bit like Black Keys and Arctic Monkeys, and now that Royal Blood have suddenly become stars, they sound a bit like them too, on songs such as opening track Black Magic, and recent single Killer (although of course, if truth be told, Royal Blood are very influenced by Band of Skulls), and their penchant for retro stomping glam shines through again, on This Is My Fix and Back of Beyond, their songs remaining as sharp and melodic as ever. Elsewhere though, there are detours…
"There's a song called ‘Tropical Disease’ which is quite different, a song called ‘Erounds’, which is quite progressive for us, and the title track, ‘In Love By Default’, sums up the energy we had with the new songs, basically ripping up our rulebook but still trying to make it us. Quite liberating and exciting for us.
"With ‘Tropical Disease’, I said to Matt can you play samba, or a South American thing. 'Have you ever done that'? And he said, 'no'. That was enough to annoy him, and he went away and learned it. He's got it now. It's not like a rock or blues or folk thing. We learned that and then we thought 'how can we mess it up'," he laughs.
By Default is certainly their most eclectic and ambitious record to date, one that still contains their melodically hard'n'heavy core sound, but which has now been rounded out by tracks such as ‘Erounds’, which as the promo video attests, is just Russell on vocals (no guitar), while Matt takes up six-string duty. "Erounds is a made up word, one of those working titles that everyone liked. We tried to give it a real name, but everyone got upset. Like naming a baby," he laughs.
"I'm not going to tell him (Matt) what to do. That would be unwise. He can do what he wants!" he says about the imposing figure of the drummer. This seems to be one of the secrets to their success, their collaborative approach that has seen them being very wary about any of the three taking individual credit for particular songs, or lyrics even. For instance on the ‘Killer’ track, Russell will only say this, "Let me remember," he feigns. "It does get confusing. Did I do that, who did that? I did have something to do with it," he finally admits, but adds, "We have no roles. If you come in with some guitar chords, fine. If you come in with a whole song, fine. Or just a lyric. We'll work on it, or if someone takes an interest we'll run with it, and bounce it around until something happens.”
Both Emma and Matt contribute a lot in the singing and songwriting department, and Emma’s talent as an artist means they are always using her artwork for their releases. They are very much a self-contained band who refuse to compromise.
"We do like to write. Because we'd been on tour forever, that urge had been building up. There would be a week where we would do ten songs. It was in us, we needed to do that. Get it out of our system. On the road, you're doing a soundcheck every day, then a gig. Often you write in the context of what you're doing at the time, so the building blocks are similar. It gets samey, trying to find some time to eat. When you are off the road, you can go and seek the inspiration you want, spend time exploring stuff, and that's what we all do."
By Default also features the handiwork of Gil Norton, perhaps one of the most famous 'indie' producers on the planet, responsible for helping develop The Pixies career, but also responsible for albums by the likes of Foo Fighters, Patti Smith, Jimmy Eat World, Gomez and Twin Atlantic, amongst a very long CV. How did you hook up with him? "He phoned us up! He said, 'what are you dong'?" Russell laughs at the memory. "We met him for a drink, and two weeks later we were in the studio tracking. It happened really fast. The recording was quite quick, about a month, and finished it off at his place. He's a great guy, and very humble with it. You don't know the stuff he's done. He's very low key about it.
"It was another great experience for the band. We have learned a lot from him; you get an insight into their creative processes and the work ethic. It was a pleasure."
As any self-respecting musical artist will tell you, it’s all about the songs. As Jake Riviera, co-founder of Stiff Records, said so eloquently of Doctor Feelgood, when they were not writing new songs, “If you haven’t got the songs, you’re fucked”.
“We never did cover versions,” says Russell, about his and Matt’s initial forays into music making. “All our friends had a good repertoire of covers, but we were terrible at it. Only now, when we get asked by quite big radio shows, when they ask us to do a cover. 'Oh no!' That’s not our forte. it was never in our nature. We could write the songs before we could play the instruments properly. The first thing we did was write the song. It's always been that.
Even when they’d attempt a cover, it is done quickly and quite randomly it seems. “We were booked to do a TV show in France called Taratata, which is like the French equivalent Jools Holland’s show, with John & Jehn (who went on to form Savages). We met them on the way to the studio. We actually met in the cab on the way to show, and we discussed the structure of the song (The Rolling Stones’ ‘Sympathy for the Devil’). And, of course, between two languages. We got there and did it. I imagine maybe back in the day that was what it was like, how it was done. It’s out there on YouTube, I encourage people to watch it.”
So, what was he listening to growing up? “My dad was a big music fan and he went to lots and lots of gigs before he had kids. I think the biggest thing for me was I discovered his record collection. He would buy these records from the gigs. So, it was like a bit of history, and usually from the same venue in Plymouth in the late 70s. People like Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, The Clash and bands like Wire, Buzzcocks. I inherited access to his records. I listened to Pink Floyd and thought that was fantastic, but when it got to Buzzcocks I thought 'I could do that’! Eventually, I tried to find someone with a guitar, and that was Matt.
By Default features more than just the straightforward guitar, bass and drums combo, and live on stage they have recruited an old friend, Milo Fitzpatrick, from Portico Quartet (now just called Portico) to help realise the full sound. “He is our old mate, a good friend from Southampton, who went to school with Matt. We got to the point of ‘shall we continue with these ideas, and cross this boundary where we're going to need more people’? On the last record, we went ‘over the barrier’, but didn't do that on tour. There were a few songs we couldn’t really do. We thought that was a shame. Our ideas are more than what we can achieve with just three of us. So, we phoned Milo. Over-qualified is probably the best expression for Milo. He’s bringing loads of things, he's free to interpret. He plays everything that we can't. He's like a micocosm of the extra stuff we put on the record. He's also adding to the stuff on the previous record that we couldn't do before. That has been the most pleasurable thing, bringing the ultimate versions of the other songs we've never had the chance to play.
“It's funny, people are always surprised that we've got friends or connections with bands who have a different style than us. But, we've always been like that.” Similarly so with ex-Sotonians The Moulettes, with whom Emma has a particularly close bond, having appeared on some of their records. We'll probably have them on the next record," he laughs. “They're great. Again, we all knew each other before we stared doing bands. It's awesome to see your mates doing well with their own thing, in their own style. Emma got a preview of some of their new tracks (both The Moulettes and Band of Skulls’ new albums are being released on the same day, 27 May). It sounds awesome. They've stuck to their guns and that is what we try and do. Different style, but the same morals behind it.”
As well as tours and festivals (including, it is rumoured, Glastonbury, which Russell does not deny) later this year, the band are back in Brighton for The Great Escape, which they last played in 2010. “It's as good as a hometown show. It’s gonna be good, and it's great to play in the Concorde again. It reminds me of SXSW. We were there a few years ago, starting out, but there were some bigger names playing there. Secret gigs but some really famous people. It's interesting, this mix with brand new bands in the same street, the same night. Maybe we'll discover some new music ourselves.”