Band Of Skulls @ SXSW 2014 – ‘The Next Gateway’

“Are you serious?,” quips frontman and lead guitarist Russell Marsden. “Your photo of us near an alleyway dumpster made it into Teen Vogue? Was the headline ‘Derelict’?”

Trying to add any depth to a witty, off-the-cuff reference to Zoolander may be stretching things a little, but there really is something ‘derelict’ about Band Of Skulls; making dirty, down and out, guttural rock sound glamorous isn’t just something any band can do, but Band Of Skulls are far from being just any band.

Russell Marsden - Band of Skulls (Photo: Paul Bachmann for Live4ever Media)

Russell Marsden – Band of Skulls (Photo: Paul Bachmann for Live4ever Media)

For as long as we’ve known them, Band Of Skulls have always aimed high.

That’s been obvious right from our first chat; the surroundings were ordinary, but the gigs most definitely weren’t. Even then, the group were wrenching out a sound already too big for their boots, too big for those first venues, certainly too big for their amps.

So four years on, our latest meeting 19 floors up inside a lavish downtown hotel suite at SXSW 2014 presents a very tidy little metaphor for how fortunes have faired since. A perfect symbol of progression, of growth, of lofty ambitions gradually being fulfilled.

The shows this time round are no less telling. Small bars have been replaced by amphitheaters and outdoor stages, keynote concerts at the inaugural iTunes Festival along side Soundgarden and prime-time slots at the Filter party and The Mohawk, a landmark Austin venue.

Earlier this year, latest LP Himalayancemented that phenomenal development on record, continuing a subtle evolution in the sound of three musicians who have demanded change over the course of three studio albums, and who always stride purposefully towards the next challenge.

Watch below and hear Band Of Skulls reflect on the events of the last few years – how things have changed since those humble beginnings, and how they plan to prove themselves once again.

The band kindly reworked the fiery ‘Himalayan’ opening track ‘Asleep At tThe Wheel into something really special for us. Click below to watch:

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Right now, Band Of Skulls appear to be on the cusp of something. In our interview, as in all else, they are true to themselves; a band that in many ways stand apart from so many others in today’s music scene, willing to take the path less traveled to achieve their goals. It’s an ethos which has seen them market their music in a number of unconventional ways.

And it’s this forward thinking approach that defines so much about them, they tell us in simple terms that: “If we didn’t have the access to get our music heard in alternative ways, from traditional ways like radio and television, we wouldn’t be here right now and we wouldn’t have been here the first time round.”

Where does this attitude, to take the unusual approach, come from? Is it born from a hunger to achieve, or just a desire to go against the grain? To the band themselves these are not mutually exclusive, in fact both are necessary:

“It was us being rebellious in a sense to start doing that. If it was the seventies and we were in our guitar-shaped swimming pools, kicking back, it would be a bonus. It would be like paying ourselves a big bonus, but for us it has never been that, it’s been about funding tours and funding our records, and it still is.”

In achieving all this they have built a truly formidable reputation, becoming almost the ‘go-to’ support band for many major acts when on tour. Now, as the group are poised to become the major headline act all by themselves, will they have to adjust their mindset in making the transition. “Well, we just get to play for longer and to our own audience,” they reply. “It’s less kind of winning over somebody else’s audience.”

How does it differ from supporting? “It’s strange, it’s like you’re a guest at someone else’s party; you’re allowed to be there, and you’re allowed to talk to their friends, but you have to be respectful that it’s someone else’s gig.”

Matt Hayward - 'Band of Skulls'

Matt Hayward – Band Of Skulls

Click for live gallery

So, as a band, how do you get around the fact that the audience is there to see someone else? “It’s up to the support band, that’s the challenge,” they continue. “You are up against a band with a back catalogue and a global touring thing. And if you can hold your own at least, then you are through the gate. That’s the next gateway. And if you freeze or whatever – faint – then maybe you should consider something else.”

Yet as a band they realise the inherent honor and opportunity of being offered these slots. “It’s an invitation and a tip of the hat. When we were younger support bands, in England especially, were just abused. Booed, ignored and thrown things at. We thought when we first got these gigs that maybe that would happen. And it didn’t! We were really relieved.”

It would be selling Band Of Skulls very short to think their supports sets are only good enough to avoid abuse. The list of bands they have supported shows just how strong their reputation is; bands from Muse to Red Hot Chili Peppers and Queens of the Stone Age have all called during the last few years.

“We toured with Queens Of The Stone Age in Germany, which sounds like a recipe for a difficult time, you know? A really rock audience with a world class rock band, so we were ready for anything. And it was great, and we played to more people there than we’ve ever done.”

All of which has led to an adoption of the same approach when playing headline slots, and how their own support bands are selected. “It’s like a gentleman’s agreement. You are there from invitation, and it shouldn’t be forced. It shouldn’t look to be forced. It should be a natural thing. It’s like the support bands we choose, we like their music.”

It hasn’t been overnight, Band Of Skulls have worked extremely hard to get themselves into this position. Passion and determination is apparent in everything they do, and experience is helping them and their music to grow. For Band of Skulls, change is nothing to be afraid of, if anything it is what drives them forward.

“That’s what’s changed about South By South West, the walls have gone.”

It might be not be usual to purposefully take a joke about a missing wall in Austin completely out of context, but on the other hand it’s almost a prediction.

For this band, right now, it feels like the walls have gone.

A second acoustic performance brings to an end our latest get-together. A sense of vulnerability, even insecurity, fills the room as the track is shown off in all its bare modesty, minus the familiar wall of noise which on ‘Nightmares‘ is the smile only there trying to fool the public. Click below to watch:

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Emma Richardson during ‘Nightmares’ unplugged performance
 

Departing with a quartet of SXSWs under their belts, it’s hard to imagine where they could be in another four years’ time. Band Of Skulls seem more and more like the party that will never stop; always ferocious live, and now with a back catalogue strong and extensive enough to match, they leave Austin to continue on this latest exciting chapter.

More highlights will be a summer celebration of forty years of rock and roll at Knebworth Park, and their own early winter tour of the UK and Ireland when London’s Hammersmith Apollo is set to host the biggest headline show of their career so far.

After that, what else will the future hold? Who can say, but if we know Band of Skulls, it certainly won’t be more of the same. More of the same is not what they do.

What we do know, however, is the future can take them anywhere as long as they keep aiming high.

That’s always been the dream.

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