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Live review: Band of Skulls + Apes – The Hi-Fi, Brisbane – 21/6/14

band of skulls

“IT’S the last night of our world tour,” says Band of Skulls frontman Russell Marsden, a couple of songs into his band’s set at The Hi-Fi. “And we’ve got nothing to lose”.

Tonight is the kind of night that breeds those similar feelings in band and punter alike. It’s Saturday, it’s Brisbane’s West End, it’s raining and the night is young. The need to be responsible is more than 36 hours away, and with a little help from this English rock trio, we’re aiming to fit a hell of a lot in.

Ballarat’s Apes are up first as the venue fills with anticipation and beer farts. Kicking into gear mid-set, the quartet make their mark with an excellent finishing brace of new single ‘Pull The Trigger’ and ‘Helluva Time’.

Marsden, bassist Emma Richardson and drummer Matt Hayward look and sound like they mean business from the off. Lean, mean and tour-tight, the Band of Skulls trio appear up for it and then some; opening with ‘Asleep At The Wheel’ from new album Himalayan, and following on with the title track and ‘You’re Not Pretty But You Got It Going On’ from Sweet Sour. ‘I Know What I Am’ gets the first big sing-along moment, and arms flail and flap in efforts to grab plectrums tossed audience-ways by Marsden. “Don’t worry, we have plenty,” he assures the most frantic, which makes no difference whatsoever.

A stripped-back ‘Nightmares’ threatens to explode into life but never does, providing a poised mid-set highlight and a final ‘Hollywood Bowl’ leaves an audience beaten and bruised yet baying for more, as stomping feet threaten to knock the smell of stale beer out of the Hi-Fi’s carpet once and for all.

A final trio of ‘Sweet Sour’, which Marsden dedicates to the crew, ‘Light Of The Morning’ and ‘Death By Diamonds And Pearls’ is a strong finish and the perfect way to mark the conclusion of one of the best rock performances to grace Brisbane this reviewer has experienced in recent months.

For The AU Review

Russell Marsden of Band of Skulls: “It’s a tipping point now”

band of skulls

ENGLISH alt-rockers Band of Skulls are probably one of the hardest working bands in the business.

Since their 2009 debut Baby Darling Doll Face Honey, the trio of Russell Marsden, Emma Richardson and Matt Hayward have consistently won fans the old-fashioned way; by touring relentlessly and improving with each album. Singer-guitarist Marsden explains how their hard work is paying off with new record Himalayan.

“It’s an exciting time,” he says. “It’s a tipping point now. The fact now that we have three albums to choose from really makes a difference. Only having one record makes playing a show for more than forty minutes quite a challenge, so now that we have all these records to choose from makes our shows much stronger. We’ve had the record finished for a while and it’s kind of a relief to be able to share it with people. I think that’s probably the emotion that’s going through our minds right now. We’ve been playing the songs live, so we’ve got a little bit of a feeling about how people feel about the new songs, but now people can get the record, take it home and live with it, then come see us play. When we’ll be down in Australia, that will definitely be the case, so that’ll be exciting.”

The band’s second album, Sweet Sour, was released in 2012 and saw their songs evolve with a cleaner, harder sound. This time around, they weren’t willing to sit still either.

“We changed producers for this record,” Marsden says. “That was kind of a big shift. Nick Launay came in to do this one, and we made it in London, so this was the first time we didn’t record in the middle of nowhere. We went into the studio every day and worked on the songs, instead of being stuck somewhere on a farm. It really changed the dynamic of the recording session, and I think that comes out in the music; it was fun to do it every day and we really relished the challenge. Previously it was more intense, but this time we were doing a week together and a week apart. This time we definitely took the work away, then reconvened and kept the best ideas and trashed the rest. We all had to learn to accept that fact that your idea might not be the best idea. We’re quite good at it; we don’t come to blows but we might disagree now and then. Musically, I think the sound has come of age. We know what our sound is, but we also feel allowed to not just be a blues-rock band or just a heavy band, and our audience will allow us to continue to experiment in a few different directions. It’s more of a challenge to be able to play the new songs; we’ve written some that are quite tricky and are just at the edge of our ability. We challenge ourselves, and the first few times we play them live are seat-of-the-pants moments, but once you get over the first couple of times the confidence grows and it becomes more natural. Once we get our teeth into them, it’s really great. The record comes out soon and the songs know it; I think the songs are onto us. But there’s a certain buzz about playing tunes for the first time in front of people, and that’s part of the thrill which we’ve enjoyed so far. There are a couple of tracks we haven’t done yet too, so we’ve still got a couple of those moments left.”

Despite the obvious benefits of having new songs to play live, Marsden admits the expectations the band put on themselves to write the best songs possible is the driving force behind the band.

“We give ourselves our own pressure,” he says. “Outside pressure doesn’t even get a look in. We’re really proud of the two records we’ve made and we loved working with [producer] Ian Davenport on those records, but we set the bar higher this time. If a song isn’t as good as something you’ve done before, then it basically isn’t good enough. Recording is an amazing experience, although it’s not easy. There are a lot of long hours, and it can be relentless and the hours are gruelling. It can wear you down and drive you insane. It’s a bit like sitting an important exam, where the result is going to affect your life in the future, but seeing ideas that you have in your head realised is a thrill. When something comes out well in the recording, you can’t help but sneak a thought about how it’s going to sound playing it to people in the future.

An upcoming June tour of Australia is something Marsden is hoping the group can repeat in the near future.

“We’ve been a couple of times now and the audiences are fantastic and really knowledgeable,” he says. “Your festivals are really good as well; you get a lot of international acts coming over. The competition is stiff, and we know it’s not going to be an easy ride, but we’ll be playing some bigger venues for the first time and that’s really exciting. I wish we could come back to Australia more often, but it’s a long way and it costs a lot of money for bands to come over. Hopefully this won’t be the last trip on this record. If it goes as good as we hope, we can maybe come back and do some more cities as we only have three stops this time. Hopefully we can return not long afterwards.”

HIMALAYAN BY BAND OF SKULLS IS OUT NOW. THE BAND TOUR AUSTRALIA IN JUNE.

Record review: Band of Skulls – Himalayan (2014, LP)

Band of Skulls Himalayan

The argument over whether rock ‘n’ roll is or isn’t dead or dying is one that is regurgitated every couple of years, but thankfully groups like Band of Skulls prove it isn’t at all necessary to be desperately searching for the next saviour of the form. The English trio has been making straight-up rock with garage and blues hints since 2008, and shown a pleasing progression over the course of their three albums; from the fresh but scattered Baby Darling Doll Face Honey to the the harder, more polished Sweet Sour and now this third effort, which is also the first to be produced by Nick Launay (Arcade Fire, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds). Radio-friendly singles ‘Asleep At The Wheel’ and ‘Nightmares’ stay rooted in familiar territory, while others tiptoe down unfamiliar alleyways, like the rockabilly-tinged ‘I Feel Like Ten Men, Nine Dead And One Dying’, darkly Gothic ‘Toreador’ and lighters-in-the-air anthem ‘You Are All That I Am Not’. Bassist Emma Richardson’s vocals on ‘Cold Sweat’ are grand and graceful enough to make the song come off like a Bond film theme, and she ultimately steals the show over the course of twelve songs. While there’s no stand-out killer of a track, it’s satisfying to know there are still bands like Band of Skulls making rock music and winning fans the old-fashioned way; by putting in the hard yards on tour and getting a little bit better with each release.