Live Skull: Smart Band in a Hard Place
by Caroline Ely
Greed Magazine, 1987?
In 1985 Live Skull was looking everywhere for a human brain. The New York-based band wanted a picture of one to adorn the cover of their album, “Bringing Home the Bait.”
“We looked every conceivable place,” recalls guitarist Mark C. “We tried to find a monkey brain instead, but it didn’t turn up,” adds the band’s other guitarist, Tom Paine. “We ended up going to a slaughterhouse market where they sell just about any kind of animal organ there is and decided to settle for a cow brain. The one on the cover went on top of the trophy and we photographed it outside in front of Mark’s house — we needed to prop it up with toothpicks because it was really hot and it was sort of drooping in the sun. Little pieces came off in your hands when you touched it.” Photographed in color, the brain looks swollen, soft, bifurcated just a little too deeply.
The brain on the black and white back cover of “Bringing Home the Bait” sits demurely eerie on the trophy, encircled by flames. It seems a little firmer than the cover brain. “We froze that one,” says Tom. “We got an extra one to withstand the heat.”
Live Skull takes a serious approach. “Clenched fist” doesn’t really come to mind to describe the tightness and intensity of Live Skull’s four records — “clenched teeth” is more like it. Mark and Tom learned to play the guitar together years ago, and their two axes churn together in a continuous metallic whir. They don’t solo or play around each other — they play with each other. The sound is thick, heavy, feverishly hot and forbiddingly cold at once, visceral and very brainy. Until lead singer Thalia Zedek joined this fall, the band projected a rigid austerity onstage. Live Skull has its likeable moments, but it’s a difficult band.
Live Skull’s new album, Dusted, is the best record it has ever made. The songs are more accessible, but haven’t lost their edge. The mix is clearer and sharper than usual, and Zedek’s vocals give the band’s material a texture and sinuousness it has never had before. Her singing style, recalling Patti Smith, Marianne Faithfull, the Au Pair’s Lesley Woods, and even Iggy Stooge, adds excitement and depth — for the first time, the vocals enrich and measure up to the music.
Sitting in Mark’s New York loft before the album was released, Tom and Mark talked matter-of-factly about their music. The band does all its own cover and promotional artwork, and the young men showed off some pictures they’d used of college girls performing sadomasochistic acts circa 1953, obtained from the nearby Museum of Soft-Core Pornography. They picked a few top hits from their record collection (DNA, PiL’s Second Edition, the first record by New York’s White Zombies, old Redd Kross, Dischord Records’ Flex Your Head compilation). “The problem with being in a band is that you dissect everyone else’s music. You can’t just listen to it, you have to take it apart,” says Mark.
The density of Live Skull’s sound, the relentless way it builds songs, the stony allure of its female bassist, Marnie Greenholtz, and its New York mental cruelty lyrics often lead rock critics to compare the band to Sonic Youth. Mark discourages these comparisons. “Sonic Youth is a lot of different things. It’s a hard-rock band, an art band, and they experiment with pop — there’s a lot of play in Sonic Youth. We don’t have that sense of play. We just go out and concentrate really hard on what we’re doing. Also, Sonic Youth uses all kinds of unusual tunings, and our tuning is just straight, regular tuning. It’s a completely different sound.”
The personnel changes have also put a distance between Live Skull and the Sonic Ones. Band members used to take turns singing, but Thalia Zedek, formerly of Boston art-punk-rock bands Dangerous Birds and Uzi, now handles most of the vocals. Live Skull also replaced its outstanding drummer, James Lo, with Rich Harris. Mark C. says that the new members have brought “renewed energy to the band.”
It is certainly true that the group sounds and looks a lot different than it used to. When Live Skull played Washington, DC’s Nightclub 9:30 in late October, Thalia thrashed about to the music, adding an interactive element to the band’s passive-aggressive stage presence. Live Skull has jettisoned its sinewy old faves like “Sparky” and “Fort Belvedere” for newer, looser songs that Thalia has helped write. The replacement drummer pounds out a rock and roll beat worlds away from the flourishes of James Lo, who structured and varied the songs piece by piece in an almost symphonic manner.
“James had to work everything out,” says Tom. “Everything he did was very calculated. He wouldn’t do regular rock beats because too many bands were doing them — we would have had to put slivers of bamboo under his fingernails to get those beats. Rich is not a virtuoso like James, but he brings a rock sensibility to the songs.” “It’s OK to have the rock sound,” adds Mark, “because we don’t really play — don’t really know how to play — regular rock and roll anyway.”
“We’re glad we have him. You wouldn’t believe the number of rotten drummers we tried out.”
The addition of a lead singer allows the band’s musicians to apply their deadly-earnest concentration to playing their instruments. Both guitarists refer to singing as “the other thing” in the course of the conversation, and it doesn’t seem to have been something they burned with desire to do. “Marnie misses it, I think. She sang for different reasons than we did,” Tom says.
The Skulls rarely shared or traded off vocals within songs, and still don’t — it’s one of the things that makes their sound so determined and single-minded. Mark: “We just did it a little bit on Bringing Home the Bait. It didn’t come naturally.” Tom: “That’s an example of an honest impulse, and honest influence, that didn’t rise to the surface.”
DELUXE BRAIN PLATTER COMING RIGHT UP
In Dusted, the band wanted to release an album with “a more relaxed, laid-back feel” than previous records. “We want to bring out more of that in the music,” he says. He discusses a side of the band that its records rarely convey, at one point using the word “mellow” with a shrug. Mellow? Laid-back? Hmm. Asked what vinyl evidence exists of this softer side, Tom mentions “Pusherman,” the group’s cover of the Curtis Mayfield soul tune, which is rivetingly grim or incredibly depressing, depending on your point of view. “Raise the Manifestation,” offers Mark. “That’s a pretty tune.”
Many of Live Skull’s songs originate from the members’ experience (“Fort Belvedere” chronicles an acid trip in the hills of Florence), group effort, and long hours of jamming. Mark explains the band’s unwillingness to impose a specific direction on an album: “We try to avoid hitting people over the head with a concept like the Swans’ ‘Time is Money, Bastard,’ ‘Greed,’ ‘Money is Flesh’ and so on — we don’t want to be too obvious. We don’t have a theme in mind, necessarily, but we try to put a record together doing things to the songs so that they are more than a collection of our newest tunes.”
“The records usually end up having their themes anyway,” Tom remarks. “Bringing Home the Bait came out of a very stress-related time for everyone.” It emerges that Tom and Marnie had been involved in a two-and-a-half-year relationship that entered its final throes of death when the band was wrapping up its songs and going into the studio. “The last year or so was a living hell,” he remembers. “It was like on the album.” Asked whether the scars are healed two years down the line, Tom and Mark pause. “It’s what you might expect,” Tom murmurs. “It’s okay now,” says Mark.
“Anyway, the songs come out of our experiences, but people shouldn’t necessarily think we’re like that” — Tom clenches his fist and squares his shoulders — “ALL the time.”
Band members all share songwriting credits. “It’s not worth it to figure out who wrote what part or who’s responsible for what bassline,” says Mark. “It doesn’t really matter. If we were making more money, it probably would, but …”
IF YOU’RE SO SMART, WHY AIN’T YOU RICH?
Live Skull has earned critical raves — the New York Times’ Robert Palmer is a particular fan — but like many bands signed to the larger independent labels such as Homestead, it has not reached a mass audience. Known primarily as a New York entity, the band has toured Europe and made only sporadic forays into the United States. Its standing even within the indie realm is unclear; the band has a lower profile than Sonic Youth or the Swans, the bands to which it is compared most often.
Mark: “Not enough people know that Live Skull exists. More people would like our music if they only knew about us — plenty of people are sick of what they’re listening to and would like something different.
“People hear about us in the oddest ways. A friend of ours who lives in Europe saw a sixteen-year-old French girl who had written “Live Skull” on her notebook. Where did she hear of us? We got to be friends with her when we went over there, but it was a one in a million chance that she would know who we are.”
Tom: “We never get a uniformly good OR bad response anywhere. It’s very hard to say what impact we’ve had or how popular we are.”
According to Mark and Tom, Live Skull audiences vary enormously from city to city. Hardcore kids pile out in Philadelphia; at DC’s 9:30, the band attracted a small but devoted bag of mixed oddballs (Thalia’s folks were there); a crowd of veteran scenesters forms the band’s base of support in its hometown. Sometimes the audiences are huge, sometimes small, and it’s often hard to tell which it’s going to be.
The uncertainty over audience size and character seeps into other areas as well, such as: What kind of sound mix are we going to get? “We have sound problems. Always,” declares Mark flatly. “When we’re not the headliner, the sound people ignore us even though we are pretty well-known and have four or five records out. Almost never is the occasion when all of us hear what we need to hear in the monitors — the sound at the 9:30 was an absolute mess, for example.” For sound reasons (ha ha), the band hesitates to make use of Thalia’s formidable guitar skills: “She’s an amazing guitarist, but the sound is so heavy already — another guitarist is going to complicate things, make the sound even muddier. What we really need is our own sound man.”
With no sound man and no manager, Live Skull has to struggle, and it’s easy to tell that the years of fighting bad sound, booking gigs and tours, and looking for recognition have made the band a little weary. Also a little poor.
Mark: “We’ve basically staked our livelihoods on the band, and we made some money on the band, but we make more money on our jobs. So of course every day we spend on the band, we end up making a little less money.”
Family pressures to grow up and get serious provokes internal doubts sometimes. “Of course they wonder why I’m doing this. Sometimes we wonder why we’re doing this. I can’t help but wonder when it’s going to turn around one way or another.”
Tom: “Jobs can be inconvenient. Thalia’s basically been vacation, between jobs, ever since she joined — in fact, we were going to call the record On Vacation With Live Skull — and it’s hard for her to keep jobs, with the way her schedule goes.”
Thalia lives in Boston. The rest of the band lives in New York. This hasn’t been a problem yet, but probably will be in the future. “We’ll have to see about a definite schedule,” says Mark.
It’s apparent that the band hopes that its new singer will add some alpha waves to the indie world EEG. Mark: “Thalia makes the band special. She jumps around. She’s friendly.” Tom: “She gives her phone number out at a moment’s notice. Oh, just kidding.” Perhaps Thalia and Dusted will warm the band’s brains over. (Scratch that. At press time we learned that both Thalia and Marnie have left Live Skull. It’s a pity — Dusted is the group’s best album. Calls to Mark C. reached only a machine. The group’s future, for GREED at least, is shrouded in mystery.)