It’s impossible to paste a pleasingly succinct descriptor on The Skull Defekts. Band members hail from various corners of the drone, electronic, noise, and experimental corners of the musical landscape. The relatively recent addition of Daniel Higgs (of Lungfish fame) brings a sizable post-hardcore pedigree. Earlier Skull Defekts efforts — 2009’s The Temple and 2011’s Peer Amid, among other recordings — presented moody stews of corrosive guitar riffs squeezed between looming electronic pulses.
As if to clarify, The Skull Defeks boiled their varied sound down to a raw framework on their latest album, Dances in Dreams of the Known Unknown, which was released earlier this month on Thrill Jockey. They eschewed overwhelming electronic instrumentation in favor of stark, arresting vocal rounds, guitar riffs, and aggressive drums, sounding at once punk and primitive.
Guitarist and vocalist Joachim Nordwall recently spoke to me from his home in Sweden about The Skull Defekts’ skeletal new sound, the meditative effects of their songs, and his complicated relationship with the guitar.
When Skull Defekts went into the studio to record Dances in Dreams of the Known Unknown, did you have all the songs ready to go or did they develop during the recording process?
We had the basic skeletons of the songs, which we made in rehearsal. We had worked on them for a couple of years; ever since the last record. We tried to record [Dances in Dreams] a couple of times, but we trashed it [both times] because we didn’t think the material and sound was good enough.
When we finally came to version number three of the album, we said, “OK, we think we have the basic material we need now.” Luckily, when we went into the studio everything fell together. Daniel Higgs […] brought his ideas.
It was the most difficult process we’ve had so far in recording an album but, in a way, the most rewarding.
I have this love/hate relationship with the guitar. I sort of hate playing it, so that’s why I enjoy treating it kind of badly… to find new ways to play it. I use different kinds of tuning… I enjoy not treating it with respect and using it more as a percussion instrument.
Much of this record centers around cyclical sounds and words, like the continuously-repeating guitar riff of “The Fable” and the looping vocals of “Cyborganization.” It sometimes feels transcendental, like a mantra.
I think that’s one of the foundations of the band. We’ve always been interested in that transcendental aspect of music and how to put yourself in a different state of mind or find different ways of creating atmospheres. Everything we’ve done in the past leads up to Dances in Dreams of the Known Unknown. I think this is the most successful album when it comes to the idea behind The Skull Defekts: everything comes together.
In a way, the songs are maybe not so important individually. But the album — if you listen to it from beginning to end — it’s a nice journey. That’s been the idea for the past records as well, but I think we’ve been afraid of being too minimal. What happened [on this record is] we didn’t try to do a “good” album, we just tried to make a meditative one. I think the songs became stronger because we didn’t care about them. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but when you lose the idea of doing “good” songs, suddenly they appear.
Interesting. That reminds me of Buddhist philosophy: leading yourself into an attitude of not “trying.”
It’s some kind of zen thing going on, probably.
I noticed less-prominent synth and electronic sounds on this album than on your previous LP, Peer Amid.
We got the feeling that the songs didn’t really need a lot of electronic disturbance in them. The electronic elements are still there, but they’re more of a coloring thing than a disturbing thing. That’s a big difference, when you allow electronics to be more a part of the music than to just be there to create an experimental atmosphere or whatever. The songs didn’t need to be disturbed. We were more interested in letting the songs flow as they were.
When I listen to this record, the repetitious riffs give me the same kind meditative vibe I get when listening to electronic drone, noise, and experimental music. It’s like Skull Defekts are accomplishing the stylistic goals of experimental music, but with more widely recognizable rock instrumentation like guitars and drums.
I feel [it’s] quite the same. We are all very interested in the drone and trance aspects of electronic music. We used to do a lot of electronic records with Skull Defekts as well. It all has the same source — it all comes from the same place. Sometimes it comes out as rock music and sometimes it comes out as electronic music.
Now we have decided to stop playing strict electronic stuff as Skull Defekts because we have noticed people get confused. Especially if we play live as Skull Defekts and only two of us show up and play nothing but deep bass drone. We will continue to do it, but separately in different compilations and solo work. From now on with Skull Defekts, we’re focused on [the style] we’re doing with Dances in Dreams of the Known Unknown and any future projects will be connected to this.
Do you think that the use of instruments more pleasant and familiar to the collective consciousness makes the meditative nature of your music easier to swallow? For example, not everyone is used to hearing synthesized bass drones, but we’ve all heard rock riffs.
Definitely, especially live; it’s easier to get people with you if you have a guitar, play a monotonous riff, and rock out to it than if you stand behind a couple of modular synthesizer and don’t really move. I think communication is so much easier if you use the rock context. I really enjoy that, too, because I’m a big fan of dinosaur-rock bands like Led Zeppelin. Their concerts were all giant rituals. Somehow I feel if you’re in the rock context people are so much more open-minded and you reach more ears.
Now we have decided to stop playing strict electronic stuff as Skull Defekts because we have noticed people get confused. Especially if we play live as Skull Defekts and only two of us show up and play nothing but deep bass drone. We will continue to do it, but separately in different compilations and solo work.
I suppose the nice thing, though, about synthesizer is they are built with so many parameters and modifiers. The really create a nearly infinite palette of sounds. With guitar, you can run the signal through effect boxes, but it’s still going to sound pretty much like a guitar. Given that you’re so conscious of the aesthetics of the sounds you’re creating, what is your attitude towards your guitar?
I can only speak for myself. I think Daniel [Higgs] has another idea on it. Personally I have this love/hate relationship with the guitar. I sort of hate playing it, so that’s why I enjoy treating it kind of badly… to find new ways to play it. I use different kinds of tuning… I enjoy not treating it with respect and using it more as a percussion instrument. I kind of enjoy just hitting it and treating it badly!
When I was younger, I went to music school and played Spanish acoustic guitar. I was forced by my parents to go to the school and spent hours and hours learning [technique]. [Afterwards,] I spent years and years trying to unlearn myself. Finding a new way of tuning was a way to get away from the aspect of actually playing guitar as you “should.”
I really like finding new tones inside the guitar and just letting the guitar play itself, in a way. Sometimes less is more. I really enjoy minimalism.
To get back to your question my attitude toward my guitar is that I don’t like it.
I had a similar experience when I was young. I practiced guitar incessantly until I finally hit a burn-out point and I just couldn’t pick it up or look at it for a long time. That experience forced me to search out different kinds of music and instruments.
I think that happens to a lot of people. The people who don’t go into the direction you and I did, they become Steve Vai or someone.
What is the reaction of your friends and family to Skull Defekts’ music? Do you hope your child will one day enjoy Skull Defekts?
It’s kind of interesting. We all have kids. Skull Defekts is very connected to our personal lives, but it’s an aspect that allows us to do things not allowed in the family realm. Maybe it’s also a [place where] we can breathe and do different things that allow us to be better fathers. I would love my son to listen to Skull Defekts. He already does: he’s only nine months old and he’s already rocking out to some of our tracks!
[Photo: Micke Keysendal]