Most indie-rock bands don't experience major musical breakthroughs four albums into their careers, especially not the ones who garner critical acclaim right out of the gate. But British rock trio Band of Skulls aren't all that typical, as evidenced by their recent By Default album.
Seven years after the release of the group's debut album Baby Darling Doll Face Honey — which racked up critical comparisons to the the White Stripes and Black Keys — Band of Skulls' songwriting is suddenly less predictable.
With Pixies producer Gil Norton at the helm, frontman Russell Marsden's singing and guitar playing are more sharply focused, as are Emma Richardson's increasingly prominent bass and harmonies. The band's blues-rock formula also now incorporates elements of post-punk, '50s rock and, on "Tropical Disease," even swing.
It's as if the songs are finally being given room to breathe. Heavy breathing, yes, but breathing nonetheless.
"We wrote like a hundred songs, and we wanted to choose some of the more challenging songs, really just to push ourselves," explains Marsden. "We could have chosen more recognizably 'us' kind of material — which we've still got in our locker, I must add — but I think it was about time that we showed our audience that we're not just into one style of music."
Which is not to say Band of Skulls have abandoned the drop-tuned guitar rock sound that Classic Rock magazine described as a "cockily adventurous plasma grenade lobbed out of the blues-rock trenches." It's really just that they're pushing the "adventurous" part a bit further.
"For anyone that's been following our albums, there are definitely these little moments of experimenting," says Marsden. So I guess this record was a whole album of that experimenting. [Laughs.] It was also a way to show off all of our various interests and, hopefully, talents."
According to Band of Skulls legend, college friends Marsden, Richardson and drummer Matt Hayward were calling themselves Fleeing New York when they recorded their earliest songs in the Hayward family shed. One name change later, they'd begun playing London clubs, and scored an early break when iTunes chose their track "I Know What I Am" as its free Single of the Week. More critical and commercial attention followed after their 2010 SXSW debut.
Marsden has fond memories of those early days, including bonding with Athens, Georgia tourmates The Whigs on Band of Skulls' first American tour. "It was a triple-headliner bill with a band called 22-20s from England, and we were all equal and just out there for the experience," he says. "It was just an amazing trip, and if that was the only tour we ever did — if that had been the end of our band — I'd still have been happy with it, because it was such a brilliant experience. And then, of course, you carry on, and get more experience, and it's never quite the same as that golden summer."
Then again, there's always Pokemon: Go, whose characters have been haunting Band of Skulls on their current European tour. Recent Facebook posts have been splattered with images of bandmembers being photo-bombed by the augmented-reality characters, none of which Marsden can identify.
"Our crew members over here are obsessed with Pokemon: Go," he says. "The band aren't playing it, but they're making us part of the game. So either we need to get into Pokemon, or we need to get our crew to work a bit harder."
An unrepentant guitar geek, Marsden says he was especially excited when he saw Colorado on the band's upcoming tour itinerary. It was here, on that debut American tour, that he made his first pilgrimage to Boulder's internationally known Wildwood Guitar store.
"I made the van take a detour to go there," he says, recalling how he and Whigs frontman Parker Gispert eagerly walked up to the counter with guitars they ostensibly couldn't live without. "We were a bit like guitar buddies, except that he was standing there holding a Telecaster while he let me buy my expensive Gretsch. And then he just put his back and was like, 'Great, let's go get a beer.'
"So he didn't do his part of the deal, which is not how you treat a guitar buddy. But I did end up with a beautiful Golden Anniversary Chet Atkins-style Gretsch. I don't tour with it anymore — it's in the semi-precious vault — so it only comes out for special occasions."
Not all of Marsden's road stories are quite so cheerful, especially the ones that involve the loss of childhood heroes. "We were in Boston when Michael Jackson died, and I can't forget it, you know? Everyone was driving around to 'Billie Jean' on the radio, in their cars, like on full blast. And it's just a strange shared experience when you lose an artist like that."
Marsden experienced the same feeling with the recent death of David Bowie. "When I left high school, I went up to a festival in Manchester, where I was lucky enough to get to see him. He was a major influence on me and the band."
As was Prince, whose death was among the most vivid flashbulb memories: "We were in London rehearsing the whole album — in track order, if you can imagine that. We finished with the song 'Something' and talked about how it somehow had this wonderful Prince vibe; I don't know what it is about it, but it did. And then of course we walked to the tube stop and everyone was saying, 'Have you heard about Prince?'"
Meanwhile, there are the less-known musicians like Alan Vega, whose passing brought the Suicide frontman more attention than he'd gotten in years.
"Sometimes you only discover people when you lose them," says Marsden. "There were so many people who were famous at the end of the 20th century, and I think what's going to happen is we're gonna lose them kind of all at once, including some who struck a massive chord with us. And that's going to be tough."
All the more reason to take musical chances while there's still time. "Every couple of years, the world is now changing, and to sort of repeat yourself now would be very foolish," figures Marsden. "So one of our biggest things is to stay current and relevant. And as a rock and roll band that uses 1960s technology, that can be a big challenge."