Surprises are something of a tradition at SXSW. Mine happened when my friend Kris let me know Band of Skulls (he is part of the tour crew) was playing the PBS SXSW party at Austin City Limits (ACL)—and that afterward, I was completely blown away, as was friend Tisha and all the rest of us who were lucky enough to experience it all live.
I’d ventured to Austin many times but had yet to be present during the taping of this infamous ACL music show. It was a first for the group as well, and a Band of Skulls virgin voyage into the SXSW history books.
Band of Skulls’ performance at that PBS SXSW party made the whole experience magical, setting off more than pleasant surprises for both the audience and band members, including Russell Marsden (guitar & vocals), Emma Richardson (bass & vocals) and Matt Hayward (drums).
“It’s kind of strange to think that last year, and the year before that, we imagined being there,” Russell recalled as we spoke on the phone a few weeks later, after the SXSW dirt and dust had settled on 6th Street. “Then the album came out and we did a couple of tours before we got to go [to SXSW]. When we did finally go it was sort of way ahead of what we expected.”
The night started in a subdued way, with a yummy Mexican buffet (one of the better party meals of that week) and a singer/songwriter-esque set from Nichole Atkins. Keep in mind this PBS party fell within the Interactive portion of SXSW, days before die-hard rock fans had landed their Chuck Taylor and thrift-store crafted bodies into Austin. So most in the audience were either fans of PBS, geek-related topics, free food, or all of the above.
When the three band members from South Hampton cranked into “Light of the Morning,” a dirgy hooked, gut stretching rant, you could feel the heart beats increasing from seat to seat. Remnants of convention lighting and web programming panels were blown clear off, leaving only wide eyes and smiles.
“Yeah, every five minutes or so I would look up to check out what was going on,” Russell recalls, laughing. “People were sort of bending the rules at the [ACL] studio and getting in the way of the camera men. It was so strange. It started off with everyone eating dinner. I felt like I was sort of in a cabaret club or on a cruise ship or something.”
Well, the audience may have started off with a Carnival Cruise lines, white man’s underbite jig, but by the end it was clear why the band’s musical equipment continued to cry uncle throughout the week. There was annihilation on all fronts.
“By the end everyone was sort of into it. It was a strange way to start a tour and a strange way to start South by Southwest, ’cause it was so early on and we were there the rest of the week. I just kept meeting people that were at that show.”
I’m not sure if anyone on the bus ride back into downtown was any of those people Russell met, but the energy of the SXSW attendees resembled an 8-year old who just got the bike they always wanted for Christmas. This guy named Kyle said it all, “I feel like I’ve been hit over the head with rainbow.”
Russell chuckles again as I repeat that quote, “It’s interesting to hear people describe what it feels like, that’s for sure.”
The next night my friend Tisha and I met up with Kris, tour manager Pete and Russell at Casino El Camino to grab some drinks and enjoy a little down time before the mayhem really began. Band of Skulls had a packed SXSW schedule day to day, including a jaunt up to Dallas and back down to Austin again; par-for-the-course at SXSW for many acts. Certainly no time to enjoy other band’s music.
“So it was like, tactical sleeping and that kind of stuff,” he explained. “The only time I saw any bands was bumping into them on the street. I ran into The Whigs, who we’re on tour with now. Bumped into Metric, who we were on tour with last year. It was like a sci-fi convention for music nerds.”
True. The Spock ears and Star Trek garb has been switched out with Urban Outfitter, Zooey Deschanel wanna-be ensembles. Despite the ironic, look-alike fashion, the emphasis always comes back to the music.
Although Band of Skulls was one of many in Austin that week, those appearances carried with them a vibrant buzz. The band’s showcase at the British Embassy was packed out. Tisha and I were thankful we made it in early and got a spot up front, capturing again, the immense propulsion of “I Know What I Am” and “Death By Diamonds and Pearls.”
And as luck would have it, technical difficulties arose again with amp issues, as Russell’s guitar made a low pitch thundering noise a few songs in. It was evident that things were going awry, as he and Kris scrambled with plugging and unplugging chords into various inputs.
Finally, Russell stooped down and pulled a MacGyver (or should I say, MacGruber?) with one of his pedals and was back in business. It was a bit amusing, knowing the issues they’d already had, while watching the finesse and almost transparent way in which things were fixed, making it subtle transition into “Patterns.” I’m not sure people towards the back room even knew that anything was wrong.
“I’m glad you enjoyed watching me struggle and flounder a bit,” Russell said, cracking up. “I don’t remember what I did there, but by the end of the week it was sort of, ‘Band of Skulls Blow Up.’ I feel like things like that sort of following us around. We played in Brooklyn last night and the monitors and my whole microphone went out. I don’t know. I think I’ve built up some static energy and need to get some natural fiber pants or something.”
The members in Band of Skulls did make it out of SXSW alive and can now add that badge to their sash. “Yeah, it’s very unnatural to put 2,000 or so bands in one city. It’s a formula for destruction. I’m happy to have survived it relatively unscathed.”
Next on the tour to-do list was to play a number of dates with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, starting with Houston and moving through the heartland of America, including Tulsa, St. Louis, and Madison. But technical difficulties hadn’t abandoned him quite yet. This time, it was the three-shows-a-day SXSW schedule and not electronics that was to blame.
“The second day of Black Rebel Motorcycle club my voice box malfunctioned,” Russell explained. “I guess it’s better than a wardrobe malfunction.” Yes, J.T. would have been really embarrassed if the Super Bowl curse stroke twice.
Thankfully they had the next day off, so it he had a quiet day of tea and not talking. Russell took it all in stride, seeing it as a crystal ball opportunity to understand what his SXSW gigs will be 30 or so years from now. “Gives me a peek into the future.”
Switching gears from BMRC to The Whigs, Band of Skulls picked up the next leg of the tour on the east coast and working their way west, where they will land at the Boulder Theatre this coming Tuesday, April 13.
The first time the band played Colorado was at the small space within the Walnut Room in August, 2009.
“That was on our first tour, yeah. We had a good time. It was funny because we’d never been there before, so our whole experience of Denver was in that room. Had a good time…from what I remember.”
Given that Walnut’s room is typically featuring a singer/songwriter or folk-ish act, I expected that the crowd was a bit blown away by the band’s, well, loudness.
“What are you talking about? We play very quietly.”
“Well, yeah. That was the thing. There were all these romantic, candle lit tables. We were like, ‘We’re a rock band. Can you kindly take these away, please?’ It was like Austin City Limits all over again.”
Maybe that’s their next side project: only cabarets and dinner theatres.
“Sure. I could come out with a tuxedo and white towel over my arm, read the menu off the set list.”
Band of Skulls stays on tour, sans the dinner menu and white towel, for the next six weeks. This includes another first for the band, playing Coachella on Saturday, April 17, possibly squeezing in a golf cart race and a chance to actually see another band play—Them Crooked Vultures.
Then there are more cities, including San Francisco and Seattle, up to Canada, home for some U.K. festivals, and maybe Australia and Japan. Then the band plans to find some quiet time, so to speak, to work on the next album.
“We’re house hunting at the moment.”
As far as thoughts for new material, Russell doesn’t expect to venture too far from the style and energy of Baby Darling Doll Face Honey.
“When we put together this album, we kept the list of ingredients kind of basic so we have somewhere to go and try out other, crazy ideas.” Then chuckling again, he said, “It’s very presumptuous that we’re going to make a second album. But I can tell you it won’t be a jazz record or anything like that.”
And that brings us back to the side project, dinner theatre idea.
“I could jump on one of those cruise ships that stops at South Hampton and literally be dropped off at home. But with all the electronics on the ship it would probably go haywire. So I should probably stay away from that.”
To make up for laughing at his expense and at his struggles at the British Embassy, I offered to bring some duct tape to the Boulder Theatre show, at which he replied, “And a couple of spare amplifiers, if you would.”
You got it, MacGruber.