We speak to rock n’ rollers Band of Skulls about their latest album, recording in a church and that fighting spirit
Southampton’s Band of Skulls have won many fans over the years with their ear-blistering live shows, and have no plans to stop that any time soon.
The trio released their fourth album By Default at the end of May, a record which enlisted the production power of Gil Norton – a man who has previously worked on Pixies’ Doolittle and Foo Fighters’ The Colour and the Shape.
Now they’re set for a number of summer festival dates, and aren’t taking their foot off the gas.
We caught up with drummer Matt Hayward to discuss the new record, being worked to the bone in the studio, and the joy of playing live.
Hi Matt. What can you tell us about the latest album?
“It’s our fourth record. We started the writing process for this one, we went back to our home town of Southampton and we hired this church in the middle of the city. We wanted to find somewhere interesting to write. Somewhere that would be a good creative space. We use rehearsal rooms a fair bit but there’s not great deal of vibes in them. They’re not too inspiring.
“We set up minimal equipment and just saw what would happen. The sounds we were getting in the church were pretty incredible. They’re built to carry sound. Stick a drum kit and the sound is amazing. That aspect really dictated the writing of the record – it all came from this one place.
“It was pretty great, but then we spent almost a year going to a church everyday. It started to get quite weird.”
How did you find out about the space?
“I don’t know who it was, but somebody mentioned they had walked past it and heard they rented it out for all kinds of things.
“We went to enquire and spoke to the reverend. He didn’t really understand to begin with, what we were or what we did. He was just very accommodating. It turned out his son had a record of ours and it suddenly clicked, I think.
“It’s actually quite an amazing place. It does great stuff for the community, so we were happy to contribute to that.”
Your first demo tapes were recorded in your Dad’s shed-studio…
“Yes. It’s funny, the term ‘shed’ is not appreciated by my Dad at all. But for some reason it stuck and it really winds him up!
How different was the recording then from now? Is it the same dynamic?
“We kept the same kind of dynamic, we’ve just built on it and got better at doing it. In our world, things don’t change in that respect. We have this way of writing together which we’ve honed over the years. The place can change but how we go about doing it has been pretty consistent.”
Is that the reason you wanted to find somewhere different for this album? You have your set structure of how you write songs, so you like to have something that’s a different stimulus?
“Exactly. You can change what you’re playing on and where you’re playing and let that be an inspiration to you.”
You worked with Gil Norton on this record, what did he bring to it?
“Gil was really great. He phoned us up. I think he heard through someone that we were starting to look around and he got in touch with us.
“Someone like Gil Norton and the records he made. It’s kind of like a soundtrack to life in many ways. We were all taken aback. We met him for a beer in London and we were trying to convey the sound that we were getting in this church. It was really important to the writing. He fully understood that and that’s the bit that made us think ‘great’. He’s not going to just get us into the studio and change everything. He was really on board with the idea.
“Within two weeks of meeting him, we were in a studio in Wales recording. It was a really fast process.”
How much can it change from one producer to another?
“They all have their own style. We met a few producers and I think Gil felt like the right guy for this set of songs. The great thing about working with different people is you learn all this new stuff from them. We had never recorded in the way that Gil records.”
In what way was recording in a way that you hadn’t recorded before?
“Gil likes to work a lot in pre-production. Every song is gone over with a fine tooth comb. As soon as we feel like it’s ready to go, then it’s bang, bang, bang.
“I laid down all my drum tracks over a period of three of four days and got worked to the bone! It was relentless. He said, ‘I didn’t really see you for four days and you came back like a broken man!’. He really puts you through your paces and that’s great.”
What can people expect from a Band of Skulls live show?
“It’s very loud. It’s what we’ve done all our lives, really. I’ve been playing with Russell [Marsden] in bands since we were eleven years old. We have this strong musical bond that we’ve developed. Then Emma [Richardson] sits in with that.
“I guess you’d have to come see it. It’s a really honest rock n’ roll band. There’s not too much smoke and mirrors. It’s a good old rock show.”
You played Cardiff Stadium recently. How does it feel transferring your sound to stadium venues, which can be a lot different to venues you did earlier in your career?
“We’re keen to play all kinds of places. I don’t think that will ever change. We’re as happy to play these big shows as much as we are in a small nightclub. I think that keeps it exciting. You have to tackle each show as it comes.
“I really enjoy doing soundcheck in stadiums. You’ve got a drum kit and an empty stadium. You can fire off on a big scale. Saying that, there’s nothing quite like a 200 capacity hot sweaty club gig.”
You’re set for a number of festival dates over the summer. Are there any you’re particularly looking forward to?
“There is quite a few we haven’t done before, which is always really exciting. People speak so highly of Secret Garden Party and we’ve never been. We’re doing Glastonbury which is something a little bit special. Then there’s some of the European festivals we’ve never played before. As long as it’s interesting and different, we’re happy to turn up wherever.”
Is there something about festival dates, where you’re playing to an audience who are maybe unfamiliar with you? Does that add an extra pressure or does it make it more fun to win people over?
“We find it fun. We’ve always had that fight mentality, especially when we were starting out.
“When you’re a young band, you’re trying everything just to get yourself noticed and to get people to come along. We’re aware of the importance of that and festivals give you that opportunity. People might just have heard about you and they’ve come to check you out. You’re playing to get yourself across to those people. We thrive on that.”
If you had to give one piece of advice to a drummer who is just starting out, what would it be?
“Watch the drummers that you look up to. Watch what what they do.
“When I first started out, I had this video which was from a drumstick company. It was this promotional video which had little snippets of all the drummers that used their sticks and I wore that tape to death. Just going over these tiny little 15 second clips and learning all of the bits they were doing. I could do the whole video, I was obsessed.
“Just look at the greats and go from there.”
Band of Skulls album By Default is available now