Band of Skulls are trying something new: “It was quickly obvious that we had quite a different record”

Russell Marsden and Emma Richardson reflect on the band’s shift from bluesy guitars to upbeat pop as a vehicle for change. “It was a risk,” they explain.

“It’s our future so don’t you get in our way.”

Statement of intent don’t come much clearer than the clarion call from mega single ‘We’re Alive’, the second taster from Band of Skulls adventurous new record ‘Love is All You Love’.

“It goes back to that general feeling, that powerlessness that everyone has felt sometime in their life, especially our age or younger,” reveals guitarist Russell Marsden of the band’s most invigorating track to date. “Where you want to move on in life, but there is so much in the way, you feel like you’ve been sold a bit of a raw deal. Whether it’s like having to pay for your education or not being able to move at the same pace as your parents did in terms of what they achieved at your age, and that not being as easy for you.

“It’s almost that frustration coming out with that song. Although it seems on the surface very upbeat and poppy, underneath the sentiment is a lot more frustration. We like the counterpoint of those two things.”

At a time when older generations are imposing regressive ideas upon millennials and children are going on strike to point out that the planet becoming uninhabitable might be a cause for concern, that feeling of frustration and pushing back resonates powerfully through ‘We’re Alive’ in a way few of the band’s songs have cut through in the past. That they put it across in a defiant sing-along jam is all the more impressive. The sentiment of owning your future rather than being held captive by the past speaks to the musical approach on the duo’s fifth album as well as it’s lyrical content.

After four albums of blues-indebted rock’n’roll, Southampton’s Band of Skulls have taken a risk, switched up their sound and come up with some summer festival bangers-in-waiting. Having parted ways with long-time drummer Matt Hayward in 2017, the band was at a creative crossroads. “We started talking about pushing what was possible with a band like ourselves. What’s possible, what’s impossible? That’s how this record started,” Russell explains. To help them stretch their boundaries, they teamed up with super-producer Richard X, known for his work with Sugababes, Goldfrapp and M.I.A, amongst many others.

“It was mainly wanting to change up who we worked with, and Richard works more in the electronic and dance world,” explains bassist and visual artist Emma Richardson. “It was exciting for us to work with a new producer where rock music wasn’t his first love-”

“Or any kind of love,” Russell chimes in.

“It was quickly obvious that we had quite a different record and we went with it,” Emma continues. “It was a risk, we didn’t know if it was going to work or not, but as soon as we started working with him, it moved in a direction that was exciting. This mixture of electronic and live, and how far we could push our sound and still get away with it as Band of Skulls.”

In terms of the lead single ‘Cool Your Battles’, it’s an anthemic side that Band of Skulls have always possessed but rarely pushed to the forefront, favouring heavier riffs and rock swagger. “To sum it up, it’s a great intro to the collaboration [with Richard] and the sound of the record,” Russell offers. “The sentiment of the song felt like how we felt at the time, and how the country and maybe even the world feels at this time.”

That positivity and idea of burning light in the growing darkness is core to the ethos of ‘Love is All You Love’. “There’s so much energy being spent on the negative factors of the climate we’re living in, and I think we were expressing that with [‘Cool Your Battles’].

“And that’s how we feel at the moment, we want to take the energy from the negative stuff, and put it into something constructive, and remember what it feels like to have a good time! It all gets a bit much in the end, the bombardment of everything being so gloomy.”

“That was the driving force, and we wanted to make a strong record and a positive record,” Emma affirms. “It’s kind of tough and tender at the same time, this album.”

“It all gets a bit much in the end, the bombardment of everything being so gloomy”
Russell Marsden

Having recorded a bunch of ideas using electronics, programmed drummers and synths in Richard’s studio in the UK, Emma and Russell decamped to Nashville, Tennessee to lay down live instruments with a hand from Eagles of Death Metal drummer Julian Dorio.

“That was when it got really interesting, and there definitely are rock elements, like live drums on the record, but there’s also that sense in terms of tempo, and the way it locks in…-” Russell pauses for thought. “It was us trying to be electronic instruments with our now prehistoric instruments, just bits of wood essentially,” he laughs. “When you think about how modern music is put together, when the drops are, but just doing it with guitars. Sometimes we go back to that and think about what’s going on in music now, and try not to fall in any rock cliches; ‘cause music has to be new. You can be genre-smashing. I think that’s what’s fun about it.”

Putting those electronic elements at the forefront and testing out new techniques led to greater freedom in the songwriting process Russell reasons. “Essentially, if you’re not familiar with an instrument, you’re not going to repeat yourself and write the thing you’ve done already, especially with a guitar. There’s a happy place for your fingers to go back to, so if you’re on anything apart from your first instrument, you’re going to come up with something different.”

This time around Band of Skulls have let the vocals take centre stage over guitar riffs and drum fills and used the versatility of having two lead singers to their advantage. “It’s always what sounds best, we’re not precious about it,” says Emma of the delegation process. “Whoever writes it, we both try it out and see what works. Especially on this record, it feels like we’ve used some of the doubled vocal, harmony approach.”

“Something like ‘Cool Your Battles’, we kind of slotted into an unusual harmony and that was the core of the song really,” Russell adds.

Having crafted an album from the balance of organic and electronic instruments, Russell is excited about testing the new material out at their live shows. “These songs might be in a different style musically speaking but they fit right into our live show because they’re different. That’s exactly what we need as a band, different styles, different moments.”

“And it’s exciting playing these new ones with the three of us in this traditional rock three-piece, ‘cause the sound is kind of different but it’s still a powerhouse, which keeps that feeling,” Emma says. “It’s pulling off songs that people don’t expect. There’s more music on the record and fewer people on stage, so that’s going to be fun!”

“For us, it was a beginning of a new era in that sense, and really is going to be the bridge between what we did in the past and what we’ll do in the future,” says Russell, summing up the album’s direction. “And [what we want] for people when they’ve got the record is to get a kick out of the sentiment. That kind of uplifting, positive thing which I think is important for us at the moment, and the music has definitely done that for ourselves,” he admits.

“If it can do that for other people that’s mission complete. To break the gloom that seems to persist in every other avenue in the world right now.”

It’s an ambitious aim, but of all their records, this one has the potential to mean something to more people than they’ve reached before.

“If things get better, if the world cheers up, perhaps we’ll make a really depressing record next!” Russell jokes. “As musicians, it’s kind of our job to give the world an escape. We’re singing what we feel, but musically it has to kick you up the arse and be that escape.” In daring to take a chance and embrace change, Band of Skulls have lit the way to their future.

Taken from the May issue of Dork. Band of Skulls’ album ‘Love Is All You Love’ is out now.

Words: Dillon Eastoe

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