Sunday, July 22, 2018

an interview with New Old Skull

I'm late to most things, but I was several decades late in discovering seminal noise rock band Live Skull. The band helped define the No Wave style that emerged from NY's Lower East Side, providing an arty, cerebral alternative to the NYHC sound that was taking shape at the same time. Recently, the band's members reunited in the form of New Old SkullI reached out to the band to find out more about this segment of music history that passed me by; guitarist/vocalist Mark C. was extremely generous with his time in answering my questions.

[Before you read, a short noteMark has informed me about issues with Live Skull's Bandcamp page, which is operated by a record label that the band is no longer working with, and not (as I had assumed) by the band themselves. I've embedded links from that page purely in the interest of giving readers a way to catch up on Live Skull's music. As per the information that Mark has provided, I would advise against purchasing anything from - Dreams of Cautiousness]

Dreams of Consciousness: Please introduce New Old Skull - who are you, where are you based, and how would you describe your music?

The core members of New Old Skull are Marnie Jaffe on bass and vocals, Rich Hutchins on drums and myself, Mark C, on guitar and vocals. Thalia Zedek joined us as a special guest on guitar and vocals for the BC 35 record release party at Saint Vitus. All of us are former members of the New York based post-punk band Live Skull. Kent Heine filled in on bass for Marnie at the Philly BC 35 record release show (we play together in o13).

New Old Skull is based in New York City, and our sound is partly derived from the imaginary evolution of Live Skull had it continued to exist past 1989. Post-punk in its roots, rhythmic and repetitive, the swinging deep grooves of bass and drums holding down the fort, while guitars riff between melodically propelling the beat forward and growling and snarling as they tear away at the fabric of the compositions. We love abrupt changes as much as the steady build of atmosphere and drama, our ambition is to be as expressively impactful as possible within the live band context.

DoC: For those who may not be familiar with you, please give a brief history of Live Skull, and the events that led to the creation of New Old Skull. Do you see New Old Skull a continuation of Live Skull, or a completely new band? 

Live Skull was founded by Tom Paine, Marnie, and I to play a gig which Body (Tom and my first NYC band), couldn't. It was a party for the underground cartoonist S. Clay Wilson at Magique, an uptown disco (listed by Paper as one of the ten worst NYC nightclubs in history!). The club sent a limousine to pick us up - gear and all- and ended up tossing us out on the street after a small altercation broke out, in which a cinder block was tossed from the stage into the crowd on the disco floor. We were subsequently invited to play every alternative East Village/ downtown club including the Mud Club, CBGB's, 8BC, the Ritz, Irving Plaza, the Pyramid club, the Sex Club, Limbo Lounge, the World and all the other dark underground spaces where post-punk thrived.

We chose the name Live Skull to challenge ourselves, something to live up to - we wanted to sound big, loud, and noisy; but we also wanted to create drama through nuanced song writing. As John Doran in Brooklyn Vegan recently explained:

"Together with Sonic Youth and Swans, Live Skull defined the term "noise rock" in the 1980s, spearheading the post-No Wave underground music scene in NYC with a series of legendary live performances and eight groundbreaking records released over the course of that decade. Often brutal and yet strangely seductive, each of these classic records creates hooks out of the most unlikely, seemingly disruptive elements, subverting traditional rock forms in previously unheard ways that became an undeniable (albeit often unacknowledged) influence on many of their contemporaries."

And in one of my favorite reviews, New York Times music critic, Robert Palmer declared,

"With each new record, New York's Live Skull delivers a more concentrated brand of emotional intensity, a more ferociously disciplined sonic assault. Live Skull's music – a high-wire act played for keeps, without a net – is as challenging, as spiritually corrosive, and ultimately as transcendent as Albert Ayler's mid-60's free jazz or the implacable drone-dance of the early Velvet Underground. It's one of the essential sounds of our time." 

By 1989 we were opening the Jane's Addiction's US/World tour. That was also the year we imploded and went our separate ways.

New Old Skull came about after Rich and I were invited by Martin Bisi to perform at BC studio's 35th anniversary party. Live Skull had recorded and mixed several records with Martin including our last album, Positraction. We then contacted Marnie so that the three of us could play together at the show. We had little interest in mining the past, so we got together to jam and quickly fell into a groove and writing four new songs, one of which, "Details of the Madness", appears on the BC 35 compilation record and is the featured video. We imagined the new work more as growing out of Live Skull than as a continuation, so we choose (actually kind of borrowed from the now defunct Live Skull fan band: Old Skull) a new name. We have all grown up a bit as musicians and Live Skull was always about pushing the boundaries, not resting on your laurels, so to speak. We still want to expand, deconstruct and adrenalize rock music and help rescue post-punk from the ashes of indie rock in the process!

DoC: I'm curious as to what your musical background was - what led you to pursue music? What were you listening to growing up, and who made the biggest impression on you?

As far as musical experience, growing up I toyed around on piano; free-form mostly and that was it! But I always had an intimate relationship with the music I listened to. I coveted the new long format FM radio stations and listened late into the night to what was to become classic rock on Philly's WMMR. My older sister turned me onto the first albums by the Beatles, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones and the astonishing Led Zeppelin as they were being released. Early on, I borrowed a pile of older Dylan albums, sat down with some friends and was blown away. I also listened to soul and funk music on WBLS, where I fell in love with Parliament/ Funkadelic, Stevie Wonder's solo albums (Innervisions, Music of my Mind) as well as Curtis Mayfield, Earth Wind and Fire, Sly and the Family Stone and one of my musical heroes: Gil Scott Heron. By the end of high school I was also listening to WXPN, which featured avant-guarde and free jazz and I was exploring Mile Davis' electric stuff, like Bitches Brew and Live Evil - two of my all time favorite records. I also listened to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon in Quadraphonic turned all the way up and I still covet my original copies of Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and both Nazz albums, Todd Rundgren's first Philly band.

Fast forward to 1977 when I moved to San Francisco and was thrown head first into the punk scene. I attended every show I could and still have the posters to prove it! I saw the first Dead Kennedys show, the Germs, X, the dills, Sleepers, Negative Trend, (the legendary) Screamers and caught the New York and English bands as they arrived on the west coast for the very first time: The Fall, the Clash (where I almost suffocated in the mosh pit), Public Image, Ltd. with Jah Wobble and Keith Levine, Gang of Four, Talking Heads, the Ramones, the Buzzcocks, the Specials, Madness... On record I was listening heavily to the Fall and Gang of Four singles, Wire's Pink Flag and Chairs Missing, PIL's Metal Box, Brian Eno's Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy) and most urgently to Joy Division's Ideal for Living EP and Unknown Pleasures. (I also started (re)listening to the Stooges and The Velvet Underground.)

While taking photos of local bands for a fanzine I was invited to join a friend's new band. The fact that I didn't play an instrument was not a problem it seemed - as long as I tapped into the free flowing energy of the still underground, punk movement. I bought a vintage Farfisa organ from a pawn shop and later a synthesizer and we started gigging around town, sharing bills with my roommate's new band, Romeo Void. But once I scored a copy of No New York, Eno's No Wave compilation of downtown New York bands, I knew we needed a change of scenery. After a visit to NYC where I saw Suicide and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks share a bill at Max's Kansas City, the band and I packed our bags and headed East.

DoC: Live Skull were active in Lower Manhattan during the Eighties. What was the music scene and area like during that era? Did the art scene that was booming in the Lower East Side affect you - and if so, how?

Well you wouldn't recognize my neighborhood! Abandoned cars, burnt out buildings, vacant lots, store fronts with broken or boarded up windows, junkies galore, poster and graffiti covered walls and subway cars... friends might get mugged coming to visit; knifed; even shot! Sometime you had to pay unofficial "guards" to get thru the unlocked front door of a friend's building. I was attacked once by a group of kids wilding and wielding a golf club in front of the alley next to my loft. Meanwhile there was a growing community of punk rockers and artists who braved the scene, creating an aesthetic based on or in response to / in sympathy with this ruined and officially ignored environment in the heart of the crown jewel of capitalism.

There was a lot of activity without the mindless crowds. Postering at night was a right of passage for every new band and the abandoned spaces turned out to be perfect launching grounds for new clubs licensed or not, spread by word of mouth and catering to the late night crowd. I DJ'd at Eric Goode's (of Area fame) first club and later at the original Save the Robots after hours club. Mixing no wave singles and Gang of Four with Grand Master Flash and Spoony G. When the legal clubs closed everyone would show up there, and by the time my shift was up the sun would be out.

Africa Bambatta, Beastie Boys, Madonna passed thru; anybody was liable to show up with a new, freshly minted disc. The East Village not only had many of these clubs but vacant storefronts were rapidly transforming into startup galleries that catered to the exploding art scene which in turn was feeding off the frenetic interest in new music. (Punk, post-punk, club and dance, Hip-Hop fans and musicians, all hanging and co-mingling.) I want to say there were hundreds of these galleries! After we finished recording our first ep (at Plaza Sound in Radio City Music Hall -where the Ramones and Sonic Youth first recorded.) Tom and I went to an opening of one of these new gallery spaces and found the artist for our first album cover: Rick Proll. Similar aesthetic, different medium! Later covers featured my photography including the burning brain of Bringing Home the Bait, the black and white ruins of Dusted, a girl wielding a large rifle on the Pusherman EP; all referencing the edgy, radicalized New York underground, post-punk art scene.

Energy was flowing in all directions between the arts, and between the different schools of thought. Dancers and choreographers were hanging with punk rockers at clubs where artists like Keith Herring or Basquiat might be in the audience, or Robert Longo and Jim Jarmusch might be performing in the band on stage! And all were mingling with unknown street artists and break-dancers, curious Wall Streeters and the like attending and collaborating in performance spaces from 14th street to Tribeca. You could recognize members of the tribe by their torn clothing and dyed hair -downtown punk and hip hop styling had yet to be coopted by big business and safely spoon-fed to the masses. But everyone was invited to join in - no ID's necessary - and the exuberance of the exploding music and art scene was intoxicating!

DoC: Who would you say were Live Skull's peers? How did you relate to the other Eighties NY bands who went on to define the no wave/noise rock sound (such as Swans, Sonic Youth, and Blind Idiot God)?

Yes to those mentioned above, as well as White Zombie and Rat At Rat R, The Honeymoon Killers, Beastie Boys, Bush Tetras and at the tail end of the no wave scene, DNA and Y-Pants. We often played with SY and the Swans in New York. And we would meet up with Sonic Youth in Europe and the US to do shows. My first band in New York, Body, shared the same drummer with SY, musician and actor Richard Edson. There was as much rivalry as camaraderie as each band went to great lengths to out do each other in terms of the depth and weight of their material. Everyone wanted to sound bigger and edgier. We were all attempting to reinvent the rock band but with an emphasis on different aspects of sound and composition. Live Skull experimented with juxtaposing striking, hyper-dynamic and contrasting elements - key shifts, tempo shifts - to shake up the foundations of song structure. But we wanted the swing and the structure to remain intact, probably more so than our New York contemporaries. From our very earliest shows - Tom and I strapping on guitars for the first time - Live Skull was committed to songs and their ability to express and communicate. We were also listening to the conceptual experimenters Glen Branca and Phillip Glass and were especially drawn to No Wave where structure was mostly replaced by noise and chaos. These contemporary, downtown New York influences continued to inform and inflect our song writing.

DoC: Live Skull has a partial discography on Bandcamp [that I've only recently discovered, and am now starting to work my way through]. How do you look back on those recordings? If you could change anything, what would it be?

Well first, can I please remix every album! No really, first I would re-master everything and repress the vinyl. The original tapes sound so much richer, and deeper. Though it's sometimes hard to look back, I was surprised at how much I was inspired by the material, listening to Live Skull records and live cassette tapes again for the reissue project a couple years back. The strict focus on and dedication to the band sound over any individual or instrument was very effective. And I appreciated the way the band employed deconstructed rock tools to provoke and challenge the audience into entering our sonic universe. Over the years, I've learned a lot about how to create sound with an electric guitar, but I found myself wanting to re-immerse myself in the instinctive and charged world of Live Skull where Tom and I would free form it off a deep bass and drum groove until some riff or jag of feedback just struck a nerve between us and demanded to be written in.

And I would want to complete and record a final album. With working titles at the time of Dynasty (Thalia leaning against a column of a Greek revivalist Newport Mansion) or Shit Happens (maybe the van wrecked at the bottom of a canyon) we had started an album in abstract: developing a new super-jazzed hybrid sound, some of which was captured on tunes recorded live on the never released BBC Peel sessions.

DoC: New Old Skull formed/reunited to celebrate the 35th anniversary of BC Studios. For those who may not know, who is Martin Bisi, and why were his contributions so important to Live Skull?

Martin runs BC studio in Brooklyn, which though started in 1979, has remained a haven for high quality recording of underground and cutting edge musicians. He recorded much of the No Wave, avant garde, and hip-hop of the early 1980s including Lydia Lunch, Live Skull, Fred Frith and Africa Bambaata, and famously Herbie Hancock's Rockit! A lot of these musicians would not have had the means to enter a typical commercial studio at the time. So Martin's role was critical in spreading the aesthetic of the NYC underground to the rest of the world. Live Skull found in Martin a kindred spirit, he refrained from over directing, focusing instead on helping us to successfully translate our very live and complex sound onto tape. We recorded live in the single main room of the studio with Martin right there with us. No separation, just we're all in this together and it has to sound huge!

DoC: Tell me about your reunion show at Saint Vitus a few months back. What did it feel like to play together again after so many years?

The Saint Vitus show was super fun, great crowd, unbelievable bill, and all the level of pre-show press we were used to back in the Live Skull days! Marnie, Rich and I had been fleshing out the tracks previewed at the actual 35th Anniversary party at BC studio, and writing more new material. When Thalia Zedek agreed to come down to jam with us it got even heavier. By the night of the show, the old musical connections between the four of us had sprung back to life in a fresh and the exciting context of performing all new, original material. Onstage we rolled with the positive energy and expectations of the crowd and had a thoroughly exhilarating, Live Skull-type experience.

DoC: Having straddled several musical eras, how would you compare the process of recording and releasing music during Live Skull's heyday to now? Has the advent of streaming services like Spotify and Bandcamp made things better or worse?

I'm like every other musician I know, still trying to put it all in perspective. Mostly I avoid corporate controllers of music like Spotify, I prefer to discover music on my own; I prefer to listen to vinyl and DJ for myself and I resent the low fees composers and musicians receive from these services. But I have found limited uses for Bandcamp, Youtube and Facebook, which help unsigned bands spread the word. When Live Skull started it was an organic, rootsy process: Hang out at clubs, become a fan, make friends and investigate the scene, start a band, watch for new clubs to open, play local clubs, poster every vacant wall in your area, gig out of town, self-release your first record, hand deliver it to record stores, photocopy press from fanzines, invite press to your gigs (because they would often show up) and, well you get the idea... For young musicians today it seems like a lot of their early development occurs online. In some ways it has enabled more musicians to get up to speed to a certain degree without physically moving to a city like we had to do back in the day! But theirs is obviously a very different experience that is bound to affect their aesthetic and modulate their connection to music in ways we don't yet fully comprehend.

As far as recording, it's great that computers enable more of us to make high quality recordings in home or project studios. Without being on the clock of an expensive commercial studio more musicians get to spend time experimenting and innovating throughout the recording process. The project, recording studio becomes an art studio, like a visual artist might have. Computers also offer the ability to edit quickly and precisely, again enabling musicians to more easily try out new ideas. I prefer the sound of two-inch analog tape to digital, but digital recording has a lot to offer.

Photo by Marcia Resnick

DoC: What's next for New Old Skull?

We just played our fourth gig, at the cassette release party for BC 35, at Coney Island Baby in Manhattan and had a real cool time. We are going to mix another track from the BC anniversary recording for a future BC35 part II. And we will be recording the new songs at Deepsea Studio, my recording studio in Hoboken. You can keep track of our activities on our Facebook page. Cheers!

Live Skull/New Old Skull on Facebook

BC35 on Bandcamp

Surfing a No Wave:

an interview
with Blind Idiot God
Mixtape 46:
Mixtape 37: