When England’s Band of Skulls released Baby Darling Doll Face Honey in 2009, it forcibly introduced the band with a tight collection of blues-inspired rock that felt just as authentic as it did urgent. Three records later and in search of a place to refocus, Matt Hayward (drums), Russell Marsden (guitars, vocals) and Emma Richardson (bass, vocals) ended up at a rather unlikely locale. There, the band wrote what would eventually become their fourth album, By Default – a vibrant, crushing collection showcasing the band’s seasoned bravado and sonic diversity. That location? A Baptist church in their hometown of Southampton.
After years on the road, loads of accumulated equipment and a steady crafting of their live stage grandeur, the group thought it best to ditch their musical creature comforts and go back to where it all began to trigger some fresh creativity.
“We decided to strip everything back with this record. We used a tiny little drum kit and a practice amp, and being in the church, the tiny drum kit sounded huge. It tweaked everybody,” said Hayward. “The creative process became about the sound in this church and the way the church projected…we used the church as an instrument.”
Band of Skulls’ music can certainly be traced back to Hayward and Marsden’s college go-to’s—the legendary Jimi Hendrix, for one. Hayward also tips his hat to the Beatles in helping them nail down their approach to songwriting and musicianship. While all three band members write individually, they reconvene for a “sort of show and tell process” to get juices flowing.
“We put it all into the pot and show everything we’ve got, and everybody then goes and works on each other’s work. It’s a very free and open sort of process,” Hayward noted.
This open door policy, along with the freedom for anyone to play any instrument, allows them to connect and create a variety of sounds across just one record, staving off banality and repetition in their catalogue. On Default, the band dives in headfirst, trying garage rock on for size, dipping into ’80s-style arena anthems, and at times, laying down groove-worthy bass lines and killer pop melodies. Their nuanced, yet open approach to writing helps add texture to the final product and builds mystery from album to album, which continues to enthrall listeners.
When prompted about his contemporaries, Hayward is hesitant to reveal any current favorites. “We have kind of a lockdown on anything around us, because you never want to be influenced by what’s around you. You want to do what feels natural to you.”
The band’s sophomore release, Sweet Sour, proved the sophomore slump a thing of mere fairy tales, while its follow-up, Himalayan, continued pushing the band into unexpected territory. By Default continues the trend with Hayward, Marsden and Richardson completely unafraid of exploring detours in style or approach. With the record now released, the group looks forward to returning stateside in the fall. “The diversity of America is incredible, and every city brings its own energy and flavor,” said Hayward. “U.S. crowds have been very accepting of us from an early stage [in our career]. You can play the coasts, NY and LA, and then go play in the middle of America and be accepted in the same way – it’s very awesome.”
While many certainly try to make comparisons to other bluesy, revivalist-types—from The Black Keys to Jack White, and the like—doing so is a disservice to the Skulls. But the band barely seems to care what label gets thrown on them—indie rock, garage rock, blues, whatever.
“We don’t think about it very much to be honest. We’ve been playing music together for a long time. We’re very different people who have very different taste. You get categorized all the time, but it’s just a natural thing that happens with the three of us.”
By Default proves this and more. That the band’s attitude, power and prowess are effusive and entirely their own. Just like how the group circled back to their roots in that Southampton church, so too did our interview, as I was reminded of a striking lyric from their debut album: “I know what I am, they know what they are, so let me be.” That line has never been more fitting.