Sometimes, in order to know where you’re going, you need to go back to where you came from. This would up being the case for the blues-tinged Brits from Band of Skulls, who wound up back in Southampton – their hometown on the south coast of England – after wrapping up a world tour in support of their 2014 album, Himalayan. It was upon this brief of reflection between album cycles that the band began thinking toward their future.
“The way this band operates is pretty non-stop,” says Matt Hayward, the band’s drummer. “We tour and we only break to write and record another record – and then we go again. With this record, though, I feel like we got a little bit more of a breather than we normally get between records. We all went back to Southampton, and we sat down to take stock of what we’d achieved and what wanted to do next over a pint. That’s when the idea originally came to us.” The idea Hayward is referring to is what happened when the band – completed by vocalist/guitarist Russell Marsden and bassist/vocalist Emma Richardson – came to selecting a place for the band to start writing and rehearsing what was to become their fourth studio album, By Default. Rather than head to your usual run-of-the-mill band-room or studio, the trio optioned a space that was at once entirely alien and yet instantly familiar. “There’s a church in the centre of town – I’ve walked past it all my life,” Hayward explains.
“We were looking for somewhere inspiring to go in and write, and a lot of the rehearsal spaces we were looking at were quite sterile. We decided to go and speak with the Reverend, and we asked him how he would feel about us renting the space whenever it’s available, between services and funerals and the like. I don’t think he quite understood who we were or what it is that we did, but he was very accommodating. They actually needed some money to get the roof fixed, so it ended up being a pretty good deal for both parties.”
Upon setting up shop in the hallowed halls, the band began to concoct new material – and it became clear from the get-go that the album was going to sound bigger than their previous efforts. Although the band only brought in the bare essentials in order to write and rehearse, the vast nature of the space in which they were jamming quickly reflected in the music itself. By Default charges out of the gate with a thunderous drum fill and mammoth guitar groove to back it up – and it all began in the very same place the city’s senior citizens would commune each Sunday morning.
“The church was the most inspiring thing,” says Hayward. “It’s the biggest influence on this record. We stripped back all of our gear – I just had my dad’s tiny little drum kit that he bought back in the ’60s. It wasn’t overly flashy or anything, but when you’ve got drums playing in a big hall with a high ceiling they just sound absolutely massive. It was incredible. We learned how to use the church as an instrument of sorts – we learned how to play the songs there, and it dictated how the writing was directed. All up, I think we spent about nine months in there – and it definitely got a bit weird there toward the end. We were spending more time in church than with our friends and family – once we realised that, it was pretty clear it was time for us to go.”
With the songs ready to go, the band optioned several producers to work on By Default. After a few dead ends, the band received contact from someone completely unexpected – Gil Norton, the acclaimed producer behind such classics as the Pixies’ Doolittle and the Foo Fighters’ The Colour and the Shape. “When somebody like Gil gives you a call… I mean, the albums that he’s worked on have soundtracked our lives,” says Hayward.
“For him to want to work with some little band from Southampton – which is the way we’ve always seen ourselves – was just so humbling. We met him in London, and he loved the idea of playing in the church and the demos that we had to show him. He got on board instantly, and within two weeks of meeting him we were in the studio together. He had some time booked out at this studio in the countryside of Wales called Rockfield that we’d recorded our second album [2012’s Sweet Sour] in, so it was a very quick process – we already knew the space very well.”
One of the key challenges presented by writing an album in the surrounds of a church is going about replicating the sound of such a unique environment. Thankfully, Rockfield Studios – located in Wales’ northeast – knows a thing or two about achieving a big sound. It is, after all, a studio that has housed such arena-filling artists as Black Sabbath, Coldplay and Iggy Pop. For Hayward, getting his kit into action and getting a huge sound out of it is half the battle when it comes to making a Band of Skulls record – and this was no exception.
“The back-room of Rockfield has a very hard floor and very hard walls,” he says. “It’s a very reflective room, so we were able to reflect the big drum sound that we’d gotten in the church almost immediately. We always start with getting a good drum sound – once we had that, everything else tends to fall into place. It certainly helped that the four of us were pretty intimately familiar with the studio and the way it sounded. We’d recorded there, and I think Gil had previously done some stuff with the Pixies there, as well. It’s funny how these things fall into place – we trust our gut a lot, and the process of making this album involved a lot of that.”
Since the release of By Default at the end of May, Band of Skulls have toured extensively in support of it. It will bring them back to Australia once again at the end of the month, where they will perform a run of headlining shows following on from last year’s appearance as a part of the massive 2015 Bluesfest line-up. As always, it will be Hayward, Marsden and Richardson playing tracks from all of the band’s releases – business as usual for a band that has kept the same lineup intact for 12 years and counting. When questioned about the longevity of the band – especially when many of their peers have had shuffles of membership or complete implosions – Hayward sees it as simply an inextricable bond mixed with a common goal. As long as the three of them are on the same page, then there’s no reason for them to stop what they’re doing. There’s still something to prove.
“Russell and I just realised the other day that we’ve been playing music together for longer than we haven’t,” he says, the tone of his voice verging on incredulity given the weight of such a realisation. “Emma’s not too far behind that, either. We’re very much in tune when it comes to this band. There’s a massive gut feeling we get when we know we’re onto something while writing new music. We don’t feel so different from when we were kids playing in our local venues. We keep a tight inner circle – a lot changes on the outside, but we’ve never really lost focus of our main objectives. We’re only as good as our last gig and our last record. No-one can be a rockstar in front of anybody, either. We’re too much like a family for anything like that to happen. We see lots of bands come and go, and we’ve been able to weather the storm all this time. That’s what we hope to continue doing.”
Band of Skulls are set to tour Australia this month. See details below.
Band Of Skulls 2016 Australian Tour
Thursday, 24th November
Croxton Bandroom, Melbourne
Friday, 25th November
University of Wollongong Uni Bar, Wollongong
Saturday, 26th November
Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle
Sunday, 27th November
Oxford Art Factory, Sydney
Wednesday, 30th November
The Triffid, Brisbane
Friday, 2nd December
Disconnect Festival, Perth