A detailed look at the meticulous planning that goes into Skullcave’s blend of doom and shoegaze.
Skullcave’s debut album Fear sits somewhere between doom and shoegaze; not quite as dense and bluesy as the former, not quite as whispery and ethereal as the latter. Whichever of those descriptors is the more accurate, their shared characteristic of space is one of the defining elements of Fear. In metal, two guitars are sometimes expected, but when listening to Fear and the expanse it conveys, it makes sense that Perth’s Skullcave are a three-piece; room to breathe, room to think.
It starts off laid-back enough, and with Liam Young’s clean vocals it is actually quite relaxing before the weight comes down. Lyrically, Skullcave are concerned with the everyday, addressing the negative effects of social media (“Everyone wants to be liked!”), yet it is certainly an exploratory listen, journeying into prog country and showing a bit of a Mastodon influence along the way. Despite the lengthy songs, there is a real flow, with the ideas coming along and developing quickly enough.
We had a few questions for Skullcave guitarist Jay Marriot ahead of the release of Fear through Art Is Catharsis on 20/9/18.
Why the name Skullcave? Is it just the image you like, or does it refer to a particular historical event or a place?
The name Skullcave represents the area where your brain sits, where you contemplate, learn and create. I think a lot of people initially think the name represents a physical and violent act, which to a certain degree works with some of the tones and moods of our art. Our art generally represents our interpretations of ego, miscommunication and anxiety.
Your music possesses a lot of space. Does it take a while to know when it’s just right, or do you find the balance fairly quickly?
Liam [Young, drums/vocals] and I spend a long time working on the blueprints and structure of the pieces. We generally have a very strong concept of what we want to write about before we begin actually turning it into music. I think being clearer in our intent made it easier to have so much space in our composition. The track ‘Bleak’ was the first single that we wrote for the album, and that one took around twelve months to write. This was largely because we were approaching our composition in a different way, so it took a lot of ‘guess-and-check’ before we started to figure out how to do it. The rest of the record took about another twelve months to write. It definitely started to flow a lot faster as the project went on.
You’ve said that you didn’t want to rely on lyrics to tell the story, so as to avoid relying on dialogue. So is this a concept album? If so, are there any clues in the lyrics as to what the plot is? If not, can you give us any clues?
In Skullcave, the lyrics are always approached last. A few years back we started feeling that our lyrics were sometimes getting in the way. In a similar way, as an audience member at various gigs, I started to notice that I was waiting for the vocals to tell me where the song was structurally, which was distracting from the other aspects of the music. The way I interpreted it, was like when you’re at a party and it’s 3am and everyone there is silent, waiting for the next person to speak to ineffectually break the paranoia. It’s just awkward.
So we decided to limit how often we use vocals. In this way, they actually have a more powerful effect on the composition and on the audience. The lyrics become like an exclamation mark rather than spelling the whole story out to the audience.
I’m not sure if Fear is a definitive concept album, because there isn’t one singular plot that develops over the course of the record. However, each song represents a different part of our mediations and perspectives. As I mentioned above, ego and how we all communicate (or miscommunicate) with one another plays a large role. The other major areas are depression, suicide, cancer and near death experiences, all of which were affecting our lives in a big way while we were writing the record.
So, in short, is it a concept album? No I don’t think so, but it is largely conceptual.
What was it that first inspired you guys to combine shoegaze and doom? What acts are you influenced by?
I think the two genres work very well together. Both styles of music are very physical and feel tangible to the audience. They also have the ability to be crushing, loud and depressing but at the same time can be uplifting, gentle and meditative. We took a lot of inspiration from acts that had a very broad pallet at their disposal, those who could almost trick the audience into feeling safe before dropping them into a new emotion or mood. I was personally inspired by two fantastic acts from Perth that I had the pleasure of watching and learning from.
Tangled Thoughts Of Leaving are an entirely instrumental act that writes lengthy and aggressive jazz-inspired post-rock. The keyboard player, Ron Pollard, runs an amazing studio called Studio Sleepwalkers’ Dread, where we decided to work out of for Fear. He was crucial to my understanding of composition as I pieced together the tracks for the album and gave me insatiable advice when I needed it.
The other huge influence on me was Drowning Horse. They are easily the loudest band I have seen live, though I find the experience is much more enjoyable when you aren’t wearing hearing protection. We rarely get to see D’Horse live these days, but they are one of those acts that I go out of my way to see when they do. The way they approach their music is really inspiring. I almost think they trick our ears into using sound in a similar way to how we smell. In the sense that after a while, you no longer recognise that something is very quiet or very loud, before they make it even quieter or louder. They’re another act that don’t rely on vocals to move a song along, which means when they’re used they are so much more effective.
A doom influence rears its weary head, particularly on ‘Fear To Hide’. Are there any other, less obvious influences? At points it sounds like there might be a Mastodon influence, and acoustic guitars pop up in the album a few times, such as the solo in ‘Forgiving’.
Mastodon are definitely an influence on us. I’ve always liked that although they are a metal band, they take a lot of influence from classic rock. In a very similar way, Elder has been a huge influence on Fear. Although Liam and I do enjoy the darker side of music, I definitely wouldn’t consider ourselves to be metalheads.
The Hard-Ons are a big influence on us too. Those guys walk the tightrope of a heavy punk-inspired act mixed with pure pop. They have a huge range of influence in their music too. I think they are Australia’s answer to American acts like the Melvins.
As far as our use of acoustic instruments is concerned, I do a majority of my writing on an acoustic and love the percussive nature of it. We’ve been very conscious to try and do the opposite of what may be expected of us with this album, so using a lot of acoustic guitars (particularly for the guitar solo in ‘Forgiving’) was a deliberate decision. I like the understated nature of it. Heavy music doesn’t always have to be loud and aggressive to be bold. I’m a big classic rock lover, particularly with the ‘standards’ like Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, and always loved how much acoustic music they produced even in heavier tracks.
The track ‘Next Earth’ is followed by ‘Bleak’, and you’ve called your album Fear. Do you find writing and playing this music cathartic?
I think all art should be cathartic. Generally speaking we spend a lot of time mulling over what we are trying to say before we sit down and commit it to music. Ron Pollard gave me great advice pretty early on saying (and I’m paraphrasing here) that you’ll have a better understanding of what you are struggling with now, three months from now. In a moment of conflict or confusion, it is very unlikely that you will be able to explain the situation in a clear manner. So we made sure that we took our time to understand the points we were making, so we would be able to clearly convey our message to the audience. Personally, I find the more time I have spent working on a particular theme, the more I personally get out of creating my art, and the better I feel after the fact when it is all resolved. It makes live performance very special. I feel more confident.
I think one of my biggest emotional triggers is when I am being misinterpreted or when I do not properly understand what someone is trying to explain to me. I think we can all relate to that. So I like to make sure our art is clear in its intent.
What’s the music scene like in Perth? Do you find yourself playing alongside similar bands, or playing with bands of a different style?
It is a real pleasure to be able to contribute to Perth’s art scene. I grew up in a tiny country town east of Perth called Northam, and moved here to pursue music twelve years ago. I’ve read time and time again how Perth’s geographical isolation contributes to the city’s unique artistic output, but when you’re a part of it I think it’s easy to lose sight of it. At the end of the day, we are where we are and we do what we do.
Obviously, our isolation makes the art scene very competitive, but I think that inspires Perth’s artists to reach deeper and to actively try and create something unique.
Although we are a heavy act I don’t think we fit on ‘metal’ bills because we aren’t that heavy, and at the same time, we are often too heavy to fit on purely ‘rock’ bills. So more often we play on mixed bills or will pick up a fortunate support slot on an international act’s tour should they decide to venture out our way. Perth is so lucky to have an amazing radio station called RTR FM, who have been so supportive to Skullcave and many other fantastic Perth acts.
We played an amazing mixed-bill gig earlier this year for Tangled Thoughts Of Leaving’s No Tether album launch that featured Mt. Mountain and Yomi Ship also. All of the acts were definitely different sonically (post-rock, jazz, psych, doom, shoe-gaze and math-rock) but our approach to composition was very similar. All of the acts were really pushing their own boundaries artistically which made for a really great night.
The album artwork is minimal and fairly different to a lot of metal album art, even post-metal – what made you choose that?
Patricia Young painted the art piece that we have used on the album artwork. Trish has been the backbone of Skullcave (and various other projects that we have worked on) for about ten years now, and I can honestly say that without her I doubt we would have been able to achieve what we have. Liam has done all of the graphic design work on the album. Liam is an amazingly prolific creative. I am so very lucky to work with him.
We didn’t want to make a standard metal album cover, purely because we aren’t metal. We also wanted to make the artwork minimalist, because despite our use of volume and dynamics in our art, we consider it to be fairly minimalist. The less we have to say, the clearer our intent can be. Some of our favourite album artwork has been super simple, so I think we applied the same approach to our own.
Fear is out 20th September on Art As Catharsis. Purchase here.
Words: Gregory Brooks