D//E Interviews: Live Skull

Live Skull, formed in 1982, are widely regarded as one of the definitive underground noise rock bands from New York. Alongside Sonic Youth and Swans, Live Skull played a pivotal role in shaping the genre during the eighties, and had a notable and influential live presence, while their discography counts numerous albums which established them as key figures in the post-No Wave movement.

The band has made a pretty strong return recently with their fresh album, Party Zero, a work which feels introspective, personal and at the same time relevant to current times. The band's own Mark C. discusses Live Skull's new full length, their successful career, their innovative approaches, and more in a new interview with D//E.

How did Live Skull initially come together, and what was the inspiration behind the band's concept?

After leaving San Francisco in 1980, Tom and I started the band body, our first NYC project which for a time included Richard Edson (Sonic Youth, Konk) on drums. The group was really a collective with an ever-changing lineup and instrumentation that plied the downtown NY music scene. More of an art band than a rock band, we were experimenting with a free form approach to composition.  Tom played mainly bass and I played mostly keys (Farfisa organ, Wasp synth).  But we were getting more interested in focusing in on guitar sounds and in taking a more aggressive rock style approach. We began jamming -both on guitars- in my Noho loft with our new friend Marnie on bass. Amps at full volume, reverberated in the open space as we explored generating a larger-than-life sound; layering competing guitar lines and noisy percussive riffs on top of heavy bass grooves. We were following our instincts, drawing on our interest in the early British post punk bands like Joy Division, PIL, Wire, The Fall and Gang of Four. We were mashing it up with the noisy dynamics of No Wave.

Live Skull is recognized as one of the pioneers of the no wave movement. How did the band find its place within that scene, and what was its influence on your music? 

While in San Francisco I got involved in the punk art and music scene. I first heard No Wave when Brian Eno released No New York, a compilation featuring several bands who helped found the movement.  I paid a visit to NYC and saw Lydia Lunch’s Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and Suicide at Max’s Kansas City. I was floored by the intensity, by the courage of those bands to adhere strictly to their own radical aesthetic. Tom and I moved to New York shortly thereafter.  We went to every show we could, saw Arto Lindsey and DNA multiple times, saw Bush Tetras and Nick Cave’s The Birthday Party. It was a radical shift away from the Sex Pistols or The Clash or Ramones style punk rock. Chaotic, conceptual soundscapes banged out on traditional rock instruments at rock clubs! What’s not to like?  

My girlfriend and her roommate hosted the Bowery Project, three nights of underground performances in their loft on the Bowery. It included paired down sets by Sonic Youth, and Live Skull -both having just recorded their first records as well as a monster slide show by the seminal art photographer Nan Goldin. Even though Tom and I had played many shows in the No Wave circuit in body, then Live Skull, it wasn’t until Tom -with my help- curated the Speed Trials festival; and the subsequent release of the live LP of the event - which included The Fall, Lydia Lunch, Beastie Boys, Toy Killers, Swans, Sonic Youth- that Live Skull’s role in the extended No Wave scene was locked in. Our track on the LP, I Was Wrong, stood out as a dramatic, bass laden, minimal outburst, masquerading as a rock song. It would help define our sound going forward and push other New York bands in a similar direction.

How would you characterize Live Skull's sound and style, and how has it evolved throughout the band's career? 

Harnessing chaos for their own believes,” reads the half serious press release for Live Skull’s very first impromptu show in 1982, a party for the graphic artist S. Clay Wilson at Chippendale’s on New York’s Upper East Side. What Live Skull really wanted to do was collage the noisy dynamics and conceptual freedom afforded by No Wave with the cinematic moodiness of post-punk’s bass heavy pioneers. In live performances we tried to live up to our name through the intensity of our focus, attempting to reproduce the sensation of discovery that colored the original jams, expanding the parameters of rock while sharing stages (and record labels) with the likes of Sonic Youth, Swans, Dinosaur (Jr), and White Zombie. On Saturday Night Massacre, Dangerous Visions and most recently Party Zero, we continue to explore these disparate elements within the confines of a rock song, pushing hard against the boundaries.  

What influences shape the band's songwriting and lyrical content?

Free form jamming and recording it all is at the heart of classic Live Skull material! Replaying the tapes to uncover the most compelling riffs and potent changes that can form the foundation of a song. We’ve also been unduly affected by the psycho-analytic, speculative fiction of JD Ballard, William S Burroughs and Phillip K. Dick; the wild energy of psychedelic and creative movements from all disciplines that stay true to themselves, that strive to communicate and enlighten, that help expunge the demons hounding us all. We also owe a certain debt to Marc E Smith and the Fall for inspiring us to start a band with their adept mixing of poetry, noise, melody and repetition, and then encouraging us, as Live Skull developed.

Our lyric content started out obsessed with the politics of personal relationships, but over time has become just as concerned with the state of politics at large - sometimes conflating the two - stressing our disappointment in the system’s failure to address the important issues, and instead wallowing in distractions. We like to make noise and shout about it, it helps mitigate our frustrations! We construct lyrics from cut-ups and found phrases that come together to express ideas that go beyond our conscious minds, embracing the surprise juxtapositions that add mystery and nuance.

Live Skull went on a hiatus in the nineties, and returned several years later. What prompted the band's reunion?

An invitation from producer Martin Bisi to Rich Hutchins, Marnie Greenholz and I to perform at the 35th anniversary celebration of BC studio, where we recorded a lot of our work in the eighties, got it started. We met up before hand and quickly reconnected musically, writing new material on the spot. Upon the release of BC 35 which included one of our new tracks, Details of the Madness, Chris at Bronson Recordings offered to put out an LP of new Live Skull material, and we were off and running, again. But as we often recount; we started Live Skull in the early dark days of the Reagan administration as a means of staying sane, and then reanimated during the Trump era for the same reason!

What is Party Zero about, and what sparked its creation? 

Party Zero is on the one hand a collection of songs of personal trials and tribulations -we had plenty of time to reflect during the pandemic- and on the other a desperate attempt to come to terms with the degeneration of politics on the right (the storming of the Capitol!) Party Zero also tells a story of release and resistance. We cheered on the exhilarating Black Live Matters’ protesters who marched repeatedly past my door during the pandemic. Footage of which appears at the start of the In a Perfect World video, a track off our previous LP, Dangerous Visions, that combined a heavy melodic bass line, spirited, noisy guitar work and driving drumbeats. It is this dynamic mix that set up the heavier tracks on Party Zero. Party Zero, the ground zero of parties, the zero party, the political party that stands for nothing? Mixed emotions and insights are embedded in the grooves of our latest vinyl release.

How was the songwriting and production process for the new album?

We started recording Party Zero in the middle of the pandemic and so we wore masks and worked on the music alone at first, no vocals. Since getting four people together in a room had become difficult, more of the jams were written by members on their own, then would normally be the case. Working on the vocals separately, away from the band meant that band members heard the vocals for the first time at mixing sessions which I think was a bit intimidating for Dave and I who did the singing and wrote the lyrics. But it helped that like Saturday Night Massacre all the tracks were recorded and mixed in the comforts of my studio, Deepsea, Live Skull’s home base, in Hoboken NJ across the Hudson from NYC. I engineered the recording of the band, and we played the songs together live, drums and bass in one room and the two guitars in the other. But we focused mainly on getting good drum and bass tracks. Vocals and multiple guitar tracks were overdubbed. In the end I added some keyboard tracks as well.  For guitar sounds Dave and I made use of my extensive collection of vintage amps. The mixing was a group effort, as they say, produced by Live Skull. But since Deepsea is my studio and I tend to spend much of my time there; and so I worked a lot on detailing the tracks myself.

What attracts you to the heavier and noisier sonic textures which characterize the sound of Live Skull, and how do manage to juxtapose those with melody and structure?

Having grown up on Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, I developed a taste for the stronger stuff early on. But just as I started to play music for the first time - in San Francisco in the late 70’s - I got to see The Clash on their first US tour, and the original Public Image Ltd with Jah Wobble and Jim Walker. I had Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division locked on my turntable and The Fall’s Live at the Witch Trials waiting on deck. It all just reignited my taste for the sublime urgency, the cinematic drama of dark and big sounding rock bands. (The volume of punk and din of No Wave held a similar appeal.) 

In the very best bands, the draw, the sexy part is the toughened melodic structure that underpins it all. Something executed so strikingly for instance in Loveless by My Bloody Valentine, or Disintegration by the Cure or say, Metal Box by PIL. It’s what gets you to replay the tracks multiple times, or just knocks you out in concert. Live Skull leans on melody in all the parts from top to bottom - even when the sounds are noisy- while diffusing it in the wall of sound, so you have to work a bit to feel it!  And structure for us, is all about maximizing the drama, juxtaposing melodic shifts with abrupt rhythmic changes to super charge the jams.

Considering the significant changes in the music industry since Live Skull's early days, how do you perceive today's state of underground music, and current post punk? 

Since Live Skull re: formed I have been excited to hear that the sound that we helped define back in the day is alive and kicking; and is being used as a springboard to further experimentation and aesthetic refinement by new and up-coming bands. There is a very lively post punk scene in NYC, and the East Coast has several bands that could give the earlier bands a run for their money. As far as the music industry, hey on a local level, there are still active independent labels producing quality work by bands that play to crowds at local clubs, kind of like back in the day!

Looking back at your earlier releases, how do you feel about them after all these years?

After Live Skull disbanded, I didn’t listen to our records for many years. Come to think of it I never listened to our records much after we finished mastering them, since by then I had heard the tracks so many times. But when I started working on the reissue project a few years back, I was surprised by how much I appreciated the early music, including cassettes of live shows from the US and Europe. I was impressed by how tight we were as a live band and by the way we riffed off each other with such deliberate conviction. I was impressed by the sheer determination of it all, by how hard we rocked for a bunch of arty punks learning our instruments on the fly!  It took us awhile to fully utilize the studio to enhance or further develop the tracks, we were mostly just trying to get the live tracks down on tape; so, the quality of the production of the songs has its ups and downs, but the quality of the compositions is there from the start. 

How would you describe the band's live presence, and how do you establish a connection with your audience during live shows? 

The current band has played together long enough to create some vibrant interactions on stage. We know the dynamics of the songs and are inspired playing together, trusting each other’s musical instincts. We believe in the music, and I think it shows. We want to bring those vibes to the audience, draw them in and share the energy. We strive to reproduce the new tunes in detail and double down on revving up the vintage tracks. Hey, we have material that we’re really psyched about and we’re gonna do our best to involve you in it. 

What comes next for the band?

We have an US East Coast tour on the horizon starting June 22 in Baltimore and culminating on July 1 in NYC for the official Party Zero record release show at one the coolest clubs in Brooklyn, TV Eye. We’ll also be playing Boston and Montreal in September. We are working on an EU tour and hope to get to the US West Coast soon. Live Skull is just starting to explore the musical potential of the current lineup: Kent Heine on bass, Rich Hutchins on percussion, Dave Hollinghurst on guitar and vocals, Mark C on guitar, vocals and keys; we will continue evolving our sound moving forward.

Party Zero is out now

Photo by Jen Jaffe

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