You can tell a lot about a band or artist from their records, but there’s no better education than seeing the real thing live. Finding that new band or singer to obsess over requires time and effort, the music doesn’t simply fall into your lap.
I still put that time and effort into it because of the ethos of the music mentor I had as a very young audio engineer. He said “Go to shows when you don’t know anyone on the bill, go to shows at weird DIY spots, and go see someone’s first or third show. Also, when you meet someone who says they’re a musician, take that shit seriously”. For me personally, it has always been about actual visceral experiences and seeing somebody and connecting. That’s also the story of how I discovered Gothenburg six-piece SKULDPADDA.
A cold evening at the end of January, Messed!Up were invited to Westkust’s show at Pustervik in Gothenburg, a band we interviewed at home turf in Hamburg in May last year, but we didn’t know anything about the support acts. But we learned after SKULDPADDA’s show that there’s an endless stream of really awesome music coming out of Gothenburg, and SKULDPADDA are one of those bands standing out of the crowd, a guarantee for an intense and energetic live experience.
While recording one of our live sessions, we invited front vocalist Michaela and drummer Johan, and we chat about their new album “Commitment”, not being able to tour the album and why it’s difficult to pin down what sort of music they do.
New album and the Excite Music year – and the virus that stopped it
You have just released your second album ”Commitment” and probably had lots of things planned like most bands have after an album, and then we get this complete lockdown situation. How does it feel as a band to have all these expectations and then have to accept that nothing is possible, maybe for the rest of 2020?
Michaela: It’s just insane in so many ways, but we’re always a bit ahead of time and plan for future projects already, it’s just how we are. When a record is done we’re already working with something new; it’s always like “Ok, let’s start writing new songs and record the next album”. Maybe we’re a bit too excited at times and thrust ourselves into new projects a bit too quickly. (laughs)
Johan: We’ve already zoomed-in on the concept for the next album or EP although we just released this album.
In a way, it’s less stressful when we won’t have live shows for a while. Of course it’s sad, but we know it’s not possible anyway. When someone else makes that decision for you it’s easier to just let it go.
Michaela: I don’t think we’ve had time to reflect on it, the band live in some sort of denial and just continue with other things (laughs). What is relaxing though is to have released the album. It’s done and it’s out, and we can do something else now. That pressure is gone.
Maybe you even consider the lockdown as an opportunity? When you can’t go to work or university studies you can spend more time in the studio.
Johan: It is like that in some ways. It’s just like with our release party; it’s not possible to do it because we’re not allowed to squeeze loads of people into a club, and you ask yourself “What can we do instead?”. That’s challenging because you push yourself to be creative and find other ways to reach out.
But of course we’d love to have a release party and to play live shows. Everyone releasing an album wants to have a release party.
Michaela: SKULDPADDA is a live act, that’s what defines us as a band. We’re not saying we’re the best live band out there, but we do something unique on stage that people remember us for. That’s something I miss working with at the moment.
Quite many things must have changed from your original plans, like touring.
Michaela: We just had a few shows booked, together with Slitna Nerver.
Johan: We had those shows planned and a few others in Stockholm which won’t happen, not at the moment at least. But we didn’t have that much of a plan because we’re always a bit late with things, especially booking shows. (laughs)
We’ll do it when all this is over, just like every other band.
But since you already have some international touring experience after an intense week in London two years ago where you did a mix of acoustic sets and ordinary live shows, I guess you want more after such an experience. Is that the major goal for you with this new record, to play more in Europe?
Michaela: Most definitely! We were picked up by Westside Music Sweden’s Excite project this year, 2020 is our year and we’re super grateful for it – and then all this happened. But we can’t do anything about it, many things that have been booked won’t happen now and we just have to deal with it.
It’s a bizarre situation, but we still plan for an international tour as soon as everything restarts again.
Johan: Touring Germany and across Europe, maybe down to Spain – that’s something we really wanted to do with the release.
Michaela: That week in London was insane and so awesome! It was the summer of 2018 when it was super hot, and since we didn’t have a car we had to drag our stuff around on the underground. Let’s say it was hard and sweaty work (laughs). But I had so much fun that week.
Beer, pizza and late night work makes music happen
“Commitment” is SKULDPADDA’s second album in two years and the band evidently have heaps of creativity that transpires into lots of new songs.
New research even suggests that musicians may be at their most creative when they are not rehearsing or playing. Being a former music researcher and a bit damaged by it, one study I came across suggests that inspiration and breakthrough moments strike many musicians when they do something else: tapping out rhythms on the kitchen table while having lunch, humming in the shower, or, just like for SKULDPADDA, when you bring enough pizza, beer and late evenings into the game. And the band are excessively creative at those moments.
Michaela and Johan also talk about how they changed the album process completely with “Commitment”, built their own studio, and did it all DIY.
What I really appreciate with SKULDPADDA is that in times when most bands just release singles and EP’s, you put lots of effort into writing full-length records. “Commitment” is your second album in two years. How do you reflect on that in the band when you talk album releases versus EP’s and singles?
Michaela: It’s very simple to explain, we just write heaps of music (laughs) and we’re always in a position where we have to pick what songs to be on the record and not.
Johan: Although we did that to this album, we put quite many songs on it in the end.
Michaela: It’s not that we don’t want to release EP’s, but we cannot just release one EP, it has to be a series of EP’s because of how fast we write new songs.
Usually bands just have one or two main songwriters, but you must have several?
Michaela: We have four crazy songwriters producing a lot of music. (laughs)
Describing what you do is kind of tricky. Most of the “Little Islands” reviews, your debut album, define your music very differently. It’s everything between “melancholic indie rock”, “experimental pop”, and “psychedelic rock”. You describe it as “dreamy kraut with rock influences”. What are SKULDPADDA music-wise?
Michaela: When you consider the time journalists, or anyone, spend on listening to a record, it can’t be more than two or three songs, and depending on what songs they listen to I can understand why they all get different impressions.
Johan: Absolutely! Our music is kind of diverse in the sense that we don’t stick to a genre because we don’t want to be pigeonholed. The kraut in our music is just that we’re inspired by krautrock rather than playing kraut. On the other hand, when I write music it’s always based on seven-minute-long kraut songs that we have to edit later. But we do have a lot of pop in there as well, it’s not all about repetitive jangling guitars for seven minutes.
Michaela: We have pop elements in there and some songs are influenced by psych rock. Let’s say it’s a mash-up of music we like to listen to and we just put it all in the pot.
If your debut album had all that, how would you say that “Commitment” sounds like? What is different this time?
Michaela: The process was very different because we’ve done everything the other way around this time and didn’t spend loads of money on the recording as we did on the first album. With “Commitment” we did it all ourselves.
Johan: We bought mics and gear for the money and made the record in our practice space.
Michaela: And we removed a wall! Our practice space was super tiny but we got access to the neighboring room as well and just changed a few things, and built a studio.
Johan: And right after that we got this feeling ”It’s time to do a record”. (laughs)
”Commitment” is different because we’ve grown as songwriters and know how to “think” music. You’ve learned to rely on what you like, that’s when you write good music, and when you write music you like yourself, others will like it because it becomes authentic.
Michaela: It’s way too expensive to pay for studio time and you need to have everything planned and organized, and we may not be that good with time management (laughs). SKULDPADDA have to drink beer, eat pizza, and work late nights to make it happen. It always happens suddenly, like four hours after midnight, when someone pulls out a totally crappy Casio from the eighties that barely starts and says “Hey, that sounds super awesome, it’s our next song”. (laughs)
Johan: Maybe it explains why it took us the whole summer to record the album, while we did the first album in a studio in a week.
Michaela: But it wasn’t really good to do it like that. We recorded nine songs in a week to our debut album because we couldn’t afford to spend more time in the studio. Nine songs in a week, that’s just too much.
Johan: It’s much easier in our own studio because you can just start all over again if you’re not happy with the result. When everyone knows that, you become more patient and pay meticulous attention to details, and write songs everyone in the band likes. We wanted to do that on the debut album but there was no time or money for it.
To me it seems like you’ve started to find an identity containing how you want to work but also how SKULDPADDA should sound. Have you reached a point where you have a sonic identity today?
Johan: Maybe it is like that. After our debut album it was obvious to us that our live sound and recorded music were two different things. When we recorded “Commitment” we found ourselves and what we wanted to do, like “This is SKULDPADDA, that’s how we sound”.
Michaela: We’ve learned a lot from playing live, especially what happens with our songs when we perform, and we have brought that into the songwriting process today. It can be that we listen to our live recordings and realize “Hey, that’s not how that song sounds like on the demo we did, let’s remake it”. We want to make the recorded songs sound more like the performed songs.
But does it also affects how you write music where you start in the thought “This will sound great live”? Like the whole creative process is defined by the live sound.
Johan: To me it was obvious when I wrote one of the songs to “Commitment”. I had this feeling that “This will sound great on stage”. It doesn’t always mean that it can trickle down on record because lots of live elements can’t be re-created in the studio, it will just sound horrible on record.
Michaela: What we brought in from our live shows is to make music through jam sessions. There’s a lot of jamming when we play live and we’re good at it. Why not use it in the studio?
It’s quite clear that there won’t be any live shows for months and with a new album out that’s not an optimal situation. Have you reflected anything on how to reach out to people or what you will do while waiting for everything to come back to normal again?
Johan: My first thought is doing live streams like many bands have started to do, or start working on the next album.
Michaela: For once we actually have time to reflect on things and maybe cool down a bit and come up with a plan for the band. We rarely plan anything, the songs just happen, many things arise from somewhere but no one knows how. It would have been good to be ahead of things, and why not be a bit ahead of the next record.
When we did “Commitment” it was as usual, built on inspiration, and a lot like “It’s gonna be fun to do a record, let’s go!”, but now we have time to reflect on the next album.
Johan: I really look forward to rehearsing the songs on this album and let all that transcend into our live sound. They won’t sound like on record because there’s always something that changes, maybe another instrument on stage. And with the whole lockdown of the scene, we have a lot of time to work on finding that live feeling and get the songs ready for shows in the future.
What’s at the top of your to-do list when we’re back to normal?
Johan: Live shows, I really want to get out there and play live. It will be a massive live show boom when it’s over.
Michaela: I have this dream, although it’s weird to call it a dream; we book a full weekend at Skjul Fyra Sex [venue], squeeze in as many as possible, serve homemade drinks and play shitloads of songs until people can’t stand us anymore, and then we’ll play a few more (laughs), and end it all with other bands we like. That’s how I want to celebrate the return to normal, with a massive party.
Photographer: ©Richard Bloom