As you may have been able to tell, I’m a fan of The Skeleton Dead. Their melacholic balladry has charmed me with its inspired mix of intimate folk in the Smog vein with evocative imagery and intelligent production. It’s consistently intriguing and engaging, and I wanted to know more. So what did I do? I bloody talked to them, didn’t I? This was originally written for DIY.
You’ve released your debut album for free, was that a tough decision or one of necessity?
Tom: It wasn’t a very difficult decision to make. We’d already recorded the album and had it mixed before we decided what to do with it. I think Bandcamp’s great, it’s amazing that you can now make a record and have it available straight away to anyone in the world with an internet connection.
Claire: We haven’t recorded this to make money, it was purely to get our music out there. I don’t think we actually intended to make and release an album when we started working together, it was more a case of just recording stuff to see what we sounded like and before we knew it we had an album’s worth of material. Our friends were constantly nagging us for CDs so it was a way to keep them happy too. We did all the recording ourselves for next to nothing so there wasn’t an issue of recouping expenses. We want to share this album with as wide an audience as possible so a free download seemed the best way to do it, particularly being a new band that most people haven’t heard of.
Your album contains all the tracks from your debut Bandcamp releases. Did you see it as a natural expansion of what you’d started out with, or do you feel the album presents a more varied set of tracks?
Tom: There’s no kind of plan we’re working to, but the songs all definitely have an overall style which I think sits together quite well. It’s quite hard to listen to songs you’ve been involved in writing objectively so although I hope it sounds quite varied I suppose ultimately it’s not for me to say. There’s quite varied subject matter though when it comes to the lyrics, all tied together with some common themes. Also musically there’s quite a bit of variation from track to track – there’s harmonium on some, ‘80s Casio keyboards on others… The xylophone gets a fair bit of use, as does the nylon string guitar, the Ebow and Claire’s distant, reverb-heavy harmonies, but we’ve used a few different time signatures across the record and tried to add some unexpected instruments and sounds here and there which should keep people listening.
Claire: We recorded in dribs and drabs, just putting the odd few songs on Soundcloud as and when they were finished. We then found ourselves with an album’s worth of material and had to think what to do with it. It all came together very naturally over a period of about six months. We were finding our sound as we went along, trial and error really all the way.
You have a very well-drawn sound for a band releasing their first album – was there a period of consciously attempting to “find yourself” as a band or did your style make itself clear immediately?
Claire: I suppose we’re constantly finding ourselves, experimenting with different sound effects, weird instruments and tunings. This wasn’t conscious though, just the songs naturally developing. Having said that though, our style did make itself pretty clear from the start. ‘Gather Up Your Clothes’ was recorded during the first rehearsal we ever had, it came together really easily and I reckon set us off on the right path.
Tom: I’ll agree with that, writing and recording our songs has been a surprisingly natural process so far. It’s just been a case of meeting up and recording songs in a few takes. We’re both pretty relaxed people which I think helps, not obsessing over getting things absolutely perfect – I never like it when songs sound over-produced. I prefer to listen to records that are a bit lo-fi, a bit home made.
As a duo, songwriting must be a more communal, communicative experience than for many bands. How would you say that there being only two of you has affected your work?
Claire: We work together really well. In previous bands I’ve been in there have been huge arguments when song writing, often a case of ‘too many cooks’. As there are only two of us we don’t have that problem, instead our differences in taste and opinion seem to complement each other. We’re passionate about different aspects of the music. Whilst Tom is very much into the story telling, lyrical side leaning towards the more melancholy, I’m all about melodic lines, guitar parts and harmonies, introducing an element of contrast. Kind of like the dynamic between Morrissey and Marr (or so I’d like to think!).
Tom: I’m a bit obsessed with Morrissey in all honesty. Not that I think I’m anything like him other than in a fascination with the north of England sixty or seventy years ago.
I think there just being two of us helps to keep the songs sounding personal and intimate. I’m a firm believer in less is more and I think if there were more people involved then we’d end up with parts on the songs that didn’t really need to be there. We’ve talked about getting some friends in to play with us live which would be good for some songs, ‘Another Night in the Surgery’ and ‘Are You Going to Overreact?’ in particular. We did have a rehearsal in the beginning with some friends playing drums, bass and a keyboard. Was on a Saturday morning after quite a heavy night out though and soon descended into utter chaos and farce. Fun as it was, we haven’t attempted it again since.
There seems to be a sense of both the deeply personal and the imagistic in your lyrics – are you treading the line between the two, or do you simply write that way?
Tom: It’s important to write about what you know and for me, other than living in and around London in recent years, that’s growing up in West Cumbria. So I’ve ended up writing about old mining towns, knackered industry and faded glory. The coastline along the Solway Firth is one of the most dramatic and beautiful places in Britain and I’ve always had a huge affection for the place. It can also feel like the most remote place in Britain at times, cut off from even the rest of the North West. To come back to the question though, as with most things in my life I tend to write songs without thinking too heavily about them, if you try too hard to get a particular style then it’ll end up sounding contrived. I always have images in my mind of the places I’m writing about, which presumably other people aren’t able to see, but hopefully some of it comes across.
You have a particularly English aesthetic, with unfeigned accents and talk of Bank Holidays in your songs. Do you feel as though you’re making a specifically English type of music?
Tom: I think we’ve got a fairly English sound, but I suppose you’d expect that as we’re both English. I love Graham Greene, George Orwell and The Smiths. That said though I also love John Steinbeck and think we take quite a lot from Leonard Cohen and Bill Callahan.
People should always sing in their own accent. People needn’t however always write about their own experiences, where would we be without The Final Countdown?
Claire: Yes, we’re just being ourselves. I can’t stand English people putting on dodgy American accents – any dodgy accents for that matter.
The creaks and thunderclaps of ‘A Nautical Theme’ or the echoey, diegetic noise on ‘Lock the Doors’ make for peculiarly atmospheric music. How important is the “feel” of a song to you?
Tom: Yeah the feel of a song is just as important as the music and lyrics I think, helps you connect with it. Johnny Cash’s cover of ‘The Mercy Seat’ is miles better than the original because it feels more personal, although that’s more down to Jonny Cash than him using sound effects.
I like adding texture to recordings, a bed underneath the music recorded from nature or snippets of conversations under the instruments. I’ve been out recording with an ancient Minidisc player a few times and spent some time messing about with synthesisers to get textural sounds. Anything you can’t get or make yourself though you can usually find from the Freesound Project (freesound.org) which is great – you can lose hours listening to the stuff people feel a compulsion to record and put on the internet.
Claire: I LOVE the creaks and thunder in A Nautical Theme. If you close your eyes then they take you out to sea. I think they’re very important, a huge part of our sound.
What’s next for The Skeleton Dead?
Claire: More songs. We continuously write and record so I’m sure there’ll be another album’s worth of material ready to release in 2012 sometime.
Tom: Yep, more songs definitely. I really enjoy writing with Claire so there’s definitely more to come. We’ve started on the next collection of songs but aren’t really sure what we’re going to do with them yet – maybe put them together as an album next year or maybe just make them available to download one at a time as we finish them.
More live shows too. We played at a fundraiser for Hackney Pirates in Dalston Roof Park a few weeks ago which was fun, although being September extremely windy. It’d be good to do some more interesting gigs and some festivals next year. Anyone reading this, we’re available…
Where can we see you play next?
We’re having a Xmas party at The Monarch in Camden on Tuesday 13th December. Come along, drink some mulled wine and be merry/melancholy.
The Skeleton Dead’s self-titled debut album is available for free from their Bandcamp page (http://theskeletondead.bandcamp.com/)
The Skeleton Dead – I Get So Lonesome Without You