More than ever before, there are two schools of musical success story these days. Those riding a wave of almost instant gratification based on a blog hit gone viral, a reality show win or a particularly canny advert sync. And those who have taken the more traditional approach: gigging and grafting and slowly building their arsenal into a formidable sonic weaponry.
Band of Skulls firmly fall in the latter camp, and ‘Himalayan’ – the group’s third long player – is an album indebted to years of polishing, perfecting and whittling their skills into a core that packs an immediate and inimitable punch.
Breaking out of the blocks as Band of Skulls in 2008, having initially played together under a different guise for the previous four years, the Southampton trio, formed of Russell Marsden (guitar, vocals), Emma Richardson (bass, vocals) and Matt Hayward (drums), first began to pique interest with the call and response vocal interplay of early single ‘I Know What I Am’. A debut, 2009’s ‘Baby Darling Doll Face Honey’, shortly followed alongside a host of glowing reviews praising the record’s dangerous, dusky charms and glam sensibilities. With impressed comparisons to The Kills and The Duke Spirit, NME labeled the record, “so deliciously evocative, it’s like taking a hike to The Joshua Tree”, while Clash described the debut as, in turns, “seductive”, “catchy” and “raunchy”.
Following successful support tours with the likes of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and The Dead Weather, a new EP (‘Friends’) and a live record, the trio then unveiled album #2 in February 2012. ‘Sweet Sour’ not only took the blues-ridden sonic imprint of ‘Baby Darling Dollface Honey’ and ramped it up several gears, it also showed a band dreaming bigger. Fuller and more fleshed out than its predecessor, the likes of ‘The Devil Takes Care Of His Own’ and ‘Bruises’ were tracks born to fill bigger venues and tracks that very quickly did. By the end of 2012, Band of Skulls had played their largest shows to date – including a headline slot atLondon’s 5,000 capacityBrixtonAcademy– and supported some of the biggest bands in the world (including Muse and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers) at some of the biggest venues in the world. It makes sense, then, that when it came to starting album three, the band’s scale would continue to grow in this same trajectory…
“We learnt a lot in that middle period,” begins Russell. “It gave us a bit of validation and confidence. We realized then that we wanted to make an upbeat and energetic album, and we mostly succeeded I think.” He continues: “This album feels like a coming of age record for the band because of the confidence in it. We really know our own sound now. On your second record you’re doubling your back catalogue, which is a bit stressful. Whereas on your third, you’re adding to your canon of work and they all start to interact and reference each other. We’re doing the MA of ourselves now.”
The classroom they chose to begin their studies was Terminal Studios onLondon’sBermondsey Street, where the band spent the first few months of 2013 writing. An intense period made more intense by the ever-nearing deadline of the building’s imminent demolition date (“I originally wanted to call the album ‘Wrecking Ball’, but then… well we couldn’t now,” Russell jokes wryly), the session nonetheless yielded immediate results. “We went in with a very clear idea of what we wanted to do,” continues Emma. “We were trying to get rid of the choice of what would be the single and make 12 pop songs.” “Playing to lots of audiences has helped. You have songs that clearly do something and you can see it happening, and then you see gaps in your armour and you have to go back and write them,” adds Russell. “It’s like a very long-term plan of filling in the gaps.”
With an almost-complete album written and Terminal Studios heaving its last breath, the trio then decamped to State of the Ark Studios inRichmondto record with noted producer and ‘Sweet Sour’ mixer, Nick Launay (NickCave, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Cribs). And within less than two months, the group had managed to hone their strict vision for the album into something that fundamentally stayed true to their original ideas, but also allowed room for some interesting curveballs.
From the opening assault of recent single ‘Asleep At The Wheel’, which the group say, “bridges the gap between the last record and this one” and represents ‘Himalayan’ in terms of its “confidence and swagger”, to the gutsy, full-throttle riffs of the title track. ‘Hoochie Coochie’’s seductive glam rock-isms to the expansive, echo-laden atmospherics of Richardson-fronted ‘Cold Sweat’, the record begins in dramatic and uncompromising form. “‘Cold Sweat’ is a tune that’s been around for a while and it felt like the right moment to do it justice,” Russell informs. “Sometimes when you’re younger, you write a song that’s almost too mature for yourself or the band whereas later it seems to align with how you’re feeling.”
Much of ‘Himalayan’, indeed, was also born perhaps from interesting beginnings such as these – either sonically or lyrically. ‘Heaven’s Key’, they note, “was written as a pop song, but it turned into this monster rock song”, while ‘Toreador’ was inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s 1932 novel ‘Death In The Afternoon’ and a subsequent trip toSpainwhereRichardsonbecame interested in the rituals and culture of bullfighting. The intriguingly-titled ‘I Feel Like Ten Men, Nine Dead and One Dying’, meanwhile, was named after a favourite phrase of Marsden’s great grandfather. “Sometimes people say these great lines and they don’t even realise; it’s up to us to at least do something with them,” he notes.
Between these intriguing idiosyncracies and the overarching scale that the group are quite clearly aiming for now, ‘Himalayan’ lands at a junction that’s epic without sacrificing personality. It’s a record that can afford to aim big because, with ten years leading up to it, it’s earned the right to. And it’s a record that’s not afraid to wear that aim on its sleeve. “We were hyping ourselves up [with that title],” Russell smiles. “We thought, why not go brave with it? Calling it something with an epic title seemed quite fitting as that was our manifesto all along.”