Monday, June 30, 2008

Eat Skull Interview

It's rare for a band less than two years young to surprise with their debut album, but that's just what Eat Skull have done with Sick to Death, released this month on Siltbreeze Records. After a pair of exuberant, limited-run singles and a slathering of praise (guilty!), the gang in Portland raised the bar for the lo-fi pop set with an album full of bizarre, touching and often hilarious anthems. Eat Skull pick at the corpse of '80s hardcore, the scruffier wing of the Flying Nun discography and British DIY, laughing all the way. Sick to Death is immediately jarring and a tough cookie to crack, but after a week it will be that friend you've needed in these tough times. I caught up with singer/guitarist Rob Enbom as he gears up for their first nationwide tour later this Summer.

Let's begin with the band pre‒Eat Skull. Which members were in bands previously, and what did they sound like?

Rob Enbom: Rod (Meyer) and I were in the Hospitals. He started the band with (Adam) Stonehouse and left broke and destroyed, later to rejoin for the four-person line-up and leave again broke and destroyed. I was in the band for awhile on second guitar with the excellent Ned Meiners (the third person to play guitar). I remember we played Columbus once in a basement with Sword Heaven. I was wearing flip-flops. I quit after that tour, and then Ned quit and I rejoined and we started recording Hairdryer Peace. Later Rod and Chris Gunn joined, and that's how I met Rod. Rod was in some '80s hardcore bands in the Dixon/Sacramento area like Necromancy and Puppet Show and also some '90s bands. Most of the numerous weird bands I played in don't have much to do with Eat Skull. But I spent years playing in different projects with a couple of dudes who always deserve mention: Randy Lee Sutherland in San Francisco and John Benson in Oakland. Both are completely wonderful and insane and very active and inspirational. For a while Beren was playing drums in practically every band in Portland, but eventually she settled down with us. Scott (bass player Scott Simmons) was a deejay at this place called Tube.

Eat Skull seemed to take form not long after you left Columbus. How quickly did it all happen?
RE: While in Europe with the Hospitals, Rod and Chris told me I should move to Portland because I was totally broke and didn't know where I wanted to go when we got back. We talked about playing music there, and Rod said he would let me stay at his house. So we got back and all that happened and was really cool, except that it was cold and rainy as shit and I had holes in my shoes. It can be a depressing atmosphere and that comes through in the music. It's bittersweet, I think. We started the week after we got back and the first batch of songs came very fast. The name Eat Skull came fast too. Once we got Beren and then Scott we practiced once or twice and recorded the first 7-inch and the song "Dead Families." Then we started playing shows in town.

Did you have a specific idea of what you wanted the band to sound like or was it a more of a progression?
RE: We wanted to start two bands and write tons of songs and record ourselves. One would be a sick California-style hardcore band and the other was going to be a sick California pop band. We knew the hardcore band was going to be called Eat Skull, but we couldn't figure out what the other was called so it turned into one band. More than anything we're trying to make a classic California band while exiled from California in a green hell.

Did what was going on in Columbus at the time affect your approach to songwriting or the band's sound? Was forming Eat Skull in any way reactionary to the scene in the Midwest?
RE: I do enjoy the Midwest's whiskey-and-wings vibe, but it doesn't specifically have much to do with what we're doing. A couple of songs we play were written when I lived there, but I think they were looking forward to this time here more than being of that time and place. What we do is more about the sun being missing from our lives right now. The songs and sound come about naturally and very quickly from drinking a lot of beer and walking around here in Portland. Rod and I grew up on punk and acid in California. That's where the roots are.

Was it the band's intention to introduce a more hardcore approach (or at least a hardcore influence) into the lo-fi pop sound?
RE: Hardcore factored in because it makes sense when you are going crazy. It's also probably my and Rod's first real musical love. A good hardcore song is just as infectious as anything else. A good hardcore song is an undeniable assault. That kind of energy makes sense to us.

After the first (self-released) single came out it didn't take long for the collective slobbering to happen. How quickly did Mr. Lax (Siltbreeze Records mastermind) lock Eat Skull into a long-term deal. Did he make any of his infamous threats, or was the signing with Siltbreeze amicable?
RE: He got in touch some time after the first 7-inch came and went and during the six-month wait for "Dead Families" to come out. He came out and barbecued some octopus and acted like a dick. He's not a first impression kind of dude. He drunkenly made fun of us all while eating food I can't pronounce. Pretty much a class act.

I hear the song "No Intelligence" has an interesting back-story to it, something about a disastrous trip up to Seattle. Care to discuss the relationship between Portland and Seattle, or your opinion of Seattle?
RE: Seattle is a stupid place full of idiots. Every time I've ever played there there has been some kind of psycho drama. It's a place full of rich brats who think they are activists and are obsessed with the WTO riots and nitpicking. Either that or drug addicts. We drove up there last summer to play a show and immediately the shit began to fly. It was absolutely ridiculous and all sorts of these Seattle people should be ashamed of themselves. "No Intelligence" is actually about Scott. We did recently decide to give Seattle one more chance and it was really fun, so maybe all that hatred is paying off. Scott is a real sweetheart, by the way, that's why I get to make fun of him so much.

With the new album, I think it was Scott who told me it was intended to have two distinct sides, the first half more "difficult" and the second more "pop." Was this just an easy way to break up the different types of songs you guys have? It seems like the singles are split up that way as well.
RE: The idea was to have a "sick" side and a "death" side, like the tape 94 Mobstas by C.I.N. (a gangster rap group from Richmond, California). I used to listen to them back in Cali around that time with my dumb friends. C.I.N. loved MGD, but I'm more of a High Life kind of guy. That's where the name of the album came from. But really it was more about making the songs flow in a way that made sense. We picked 14 out of about 25 songs and figured out where they went. We didn't really argue about it much, they just sort of popped into place. I think it's the sort of album where side one doesn't really hit you right until you flip it back after side two. I like records like that.

What do you plan on doing with all the other stuff you have recorded?
RE: We put a song on the Worlds Lousy with Ideas, Vol. 6 7-inch, which should be out any day now. There's a split 7-inch coming out this summer probably with the Ganglians, who are a bunch of delinquents from Sacramento. They rule, and we're going to be touring with them in July. Other than that, I think we're just holding off on stuff. Maybe we'll use some of those extra songs on something. I don't know. New material is piling up and we've recorded some of it, but we're getting better at recording and want to spend a little more time on the new stuff to achieve different results.

One of the greatest things about Sick To Death is the lyrical content. You seem to tap into a very youthful dialect: confusion, "Punk Trips," licking spiders. Where does it all come from? Do the lyrics come before or after the music?
RE: Thanks Doug. Usually the song title comes first. There is no separation between the lyrics and day-to-day life here in Portland. The lyrics describe or predict what is already happening. Sometimes they come before and sometimes they come after the music. They always eventually feel predetermined and make more sense than I think they do at first. My uncle told me that Willie Nelson said that when he needed a song he pulled one out of the air above his head. It's kind of like that, but less evolved probably.

Does Eat Skull as a band have a favorite food to eat on tour?
RE: Tacos Sinaloa on International Boulevard in Oakland.

Do you all agree on the music in the van? What are some albums and songs Eat Skull love that most wouldn't expect?
RE: Scott puts on shit like Sun City Girls or Blue Cheer. He's a record collector and has an iPod. I prefer Rupert Holmes' "Pina Colada Song" for roadtrips. I think we all fucking love Buckingham era Fleetwood Mac (except maybe Scott). I love all his solo albums too. None of that Peter Green shit though. The blues suck. The stereo is broken actually, so I guess we can agree on conversation. I don't know what music people wouldn't expect. I guess people might find it weird that for most of the winter, when we were writing the tunes that ended up being on the LP, all I really listened to in my room was DRI's first stuff and TSOL's Dance With Me. People might expect that another big one is GBV's Same Place The Fly Got Smashed. I have, however, never listened to the Axemen.

I am also a huge fan of Lindsay Buckingham. If Eat Skull were to cover a Fleetwood Mac or Buckingham song, which would it be?
RE: "That's How We Do It In L.A."—definitely.

So, a big tour coming up later in the summer. Any fun tourist spots the band plan on hitting or ir is this tour one hundred percent business?
RE: One hundred percent business. Except the beach down in San Diego. Probably Encinitas. Should be cool to hang out at Carabar (in Columbus), maybe have a drink before the show at Bourbon Street.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Hospitals, Nothing People Reviews

It is fitting, in a time when bands like Eat Skull, Psychedelic Horseshit, Sic Alps and Times New Viking are grabbing headlines with their lo-fi shenanigans, that Adam Stonehouse, a.k.a. The Hospitals, unveils his most chaotic statement to date. See, if you were to ask me where exactly the roots of the new shit-pop revolution began, the conversation may just begin with Stonehouse and the Hospitals records on In the Red and Load, from 2003 and 2005, respectively. As good as those albums were at reinventing the noise-as-pop sound, though, his new LP, Hairdryer Peace, blows them away.

If Eat Skull et al. use primitive recording techniques and off-the-cuff style to turn pop songwriting inside out, Hairdryer Peace turns that notion on its head, utilizing pop technique to sculpt a new kind of noise experiment. Song fragments—a vocal melody here, a catchy bass line there—tie together a series of violent sound icebergs. It is like somebody telling you a story while the vacuum is running. There is a peace to their voice being drowned in noise. That is the "hairdryer peace."

Stonehouse relies heavily on percussion for the backbone of most songs, with trebly symbol crashes and snare fills tackling each other for the lead. If not drums then scratched strings or warbled bass lead the way. There are, of course, times where nothing leads at all, taking an aimless route reminiscent of the Dead C's finest moments, only in much shortage passages. Whenever Stonehouse's vocal do manage to seep through, you're tricked into thinking a groove is forming—that is until the moment quickly dries up and shrivels into something sounding like Twin Infinitives played backwards.

Each note on Hairdryer Peace veers toward blown-out feedback, threatening to engulf every groove on the record. Like a tightrope walker carrying a batch of barbed wire, the Hospitals' newest record is as enthralling as it is dangerous. Some fans of shit-pop may find little to enjoy here, but those interested in the long-running history of way-out sound—from ESP Records to Sightings—will find plenty to be happy with.

After three excellent singles, Orland, California's Nothing People finally hammer out their much-anticipated full-length. A side-to-side comparison of the Nothings' debut single, the Problems 7-inch (also on S-S) from 2006, and Anonymous, the new record, shows a distinct difference in production and style, but not necessarily for better or worse. The trio began as a tinny, guitar-driven psych-garage unit with a heavy West Coast leaning, modern disciples of the Twinkeyz and early Chrome. On Anonymous, the sound is more paranoid art-punk, as the band places an emphasis on synthesizers, heavy bass tracks and a fuller, thicker production. The early sound is still there, just dosed with some glam barbiturates and New York smack.

Opener "In the City" is a perfect example of the new look; buzzing synths recall Roxy Music's debut, with a guitar solo that should please even more devoted Laughner fans. It's proto-punk with a heavy sci-fi obsession. On the other hand, tracks like "Should've Known" jam extensively, leading me to believe that these cats are in full embrace of the popular records from the era as well. Toys in the Attic anyone? Nah, put on Killer.

The back half grinds things into a more interesting dust. The Cramps-ian beat of "Suspicious" gets my stuff moving every time, before the killer solo comes to an abrupt halt. "Omega Man" is the Bo Diddley shuffle by way of Mike Rep, while "Outsiders Are" proposes a world where the freaks are "in," and industrial runoff is good for you. You could play "name that influence" along with most of Anonymous, but that's not the point. At their best, Nothing People play by a new set of rules. That they're so impeccably well versed in all things cool should not go down as a detriment. Instead, enjoy Anonymous knowing that this genre of outsider rock has a new leader.

Go to the Hairdryer Peace site to pre-order an copy of the second pressing. S-S should have the Hospitals record soon too. They have copies of Anonymous as well. Naturally.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

New Batch of Sacred Bones

Sacred Bones Records' newest batch of releases has raised the bar for high-quality, affordable, and most importantly, available music. After three releases that quietly trickled out more than a year ago (including the buzzed-about Blank Dogs 12-inch, Diana (The Herald), the label took an extended hiatus to work on a quartet of dark, mystifying discs.

The label model is admirable: take an under-the-radar artist, declare needed format—usually vinyl-only singles or full-lengths—and create limited-edition versions along with standard editions that are to be repressed upon demand. Both the limited and standard editions are handmade and carefully silkscreened, with a common design theme throughout every release. The limited versions all have unique embellishments to them, like wax seals, stamped sleeves, cardboard bands and colored vinyl. Each release—limited or not—is an item to behold.

But we wouldn't be talking about any of this if the music wasn't so great, and the new Factums LP, The Sistrum, is the best place to start. Fans of their synapse-frying debut on Siltbreeze last year will not be disappointed with this doozy. But don't expect to be handed all the barbed hooks they passed out last time. The Sistrum has more of a cohesive feel, as many of the songs are allowed room to breath, venturing into the four- and five-minute range. Opener "Mushrooms" is the Peter Gunn theme played in a German bunker, while "Origami" pounds out sub-motorik pulses beneath layers of guitar feedback and tuneless organ. The second half cools down into a series of sinister grooves, a few of which you could even dance to. The midget from Twin Peaks would approve.

Sacred Bones' second full-length offering does not disappoint either. After a single compilation appearance (on The World's Lousy With Ideas, Vol. 2), the Pink Noise dole out their highly anticipated debut album, Dream Code. While the Canadian duo plays by the same rules as other synth-guitar-pop weirdos like Blank Dogs (and dozens of other Myspace mysteries), their sound is the most naked of all. Live drum loops (or live-sounding drum machine), succinct synth lines, guitar and vocals are all they use to get these bits of shrapnel stuck in you. Check "Dead Glitter Sun" for some heavy Suicide worship; other parts remind me of '80s West Coast synth-god Minimal Man. Individual tracks tend to sound a bit throwaway, but as a whole Dream Code gets by on its raw sound and simplistic mission.

No less essential are the singles from Nice Face and Dead Luke. Nice Face brings a little deep bass to the equation, pushing both tunes into the party zone. These two are the most purely enjoyable songs of the whole batch, a fun time for all. Wisconsin native Dead Luke steps up to the plate with, of all things, a Troggs cover ("I Want You"), here re-imagined as a pent-up love letter to all dead machines. Ballsy for your vinyl debut, yes, but he takes the task seriously and nails it. Not so successful is his original on the flip, but who wants to outshine the Troggs?