New Death Buy EP out now on In the Red Records
While donning a trench coat and stomping out a cigarette on an abandoned dock in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a shaky, thin man approached and slipped me the Skull Practitioners debut EP, then dashed back out into the rainy night. I slid it under my coat, checked to make sure the coast was clear, and made my way home.
Okay, actually a DJ pal of mine gave it to me at a “punk flea” on a Saturday afternoon. But the fact it was a pre-release print with a plain white sleeve gave it a clandestine allure; and the ‘70s crime movie aura really set in when I got home and put it on.
Clanging guitar chords come rolling in, hydraulic drums pummel in the distance like a factory angrily working well into overtime hours, and a steadied bass line makes its way along like a beat-up, shaded-window Oldsmobile slowly trailing you. As their songs fade and turn the corner away, you only barely take another breath.
Titles like “Death Buy” and “Grey No More” imply dark intentions, though they don’t give you tons of clues, eeking out ideas about “toxic stew,” “lies,” and “states of confusion.” Each band member comes snarling in only occasionally, and for the most part, leader Jason Victor lets his guitar work do the talking, and screeching, and squawking, and chiming, and lacerating. If you’ve ever heard Victor’s six-string work with his main moonlit gig, as lead guitarist in Dream Syndicate for the last few years, you know he is one of the most visceral and inventive guitar players alive. So it was cool enough just to go see him shred some more with his own band, Skull Practitioners, when they started creeping around town a few years ago.
But as this new four-song Death Buy EP proves, Victor’s plower trio has cranked up its own sound and vibe, as each live appearance has gotten noticeably illuminating, like Deep Throat appearing from behind the shadows. Think Gun Club fugues played by anxious Amphetamine Reptile Records ghosts deciding they’d prefer to continue to walk the earth, the worries of which are briefly undercut by gossamer guitar lines in and out of songs. Like the iridescent lining of that flat grey trench coat, there are layers underneath Skull Practitioners’ fierce façade.
We checked in with Jason Victor, who was decamped to an island in Croatia. Oops, I probably shouldn’t have said that. It’s just a vacation, I swear, nothing fishy…
Give us a rundown of the birth of Skull Practitioners, and why it’s taken a bit to get some recorded music out there.
This band arose out of the ashes of a band Alex, Kenneth and I were in called DBCR, a five-piece who released one 7” before imploding. A funny story, but we all met through a series of online ads. I had put an ad out looking for musicians, as I wanted a local band when I wasn’t touring. Kenneth was in Awkward Thought, the NYC hardcore band. Alex had just moved here from Ohio, just weeks before seeing one of the ads. The three of us just had this instant chemistry, personally and musically.
After DBCR dissolved, we were looking for singers all the time. And we had some really great ones, but for some reason it just became obvious that with a fourth individual, the chemistry wasn’t the same. So we decided to split vocal duties amongst ourselves.
I’m not entirely sure why it’s taken us so long to release an EP- we released a tape a couple of years ago, and have been recording in drips and drabs over the years. We probably have about 30 tunes in various states of completion.
You’ve been a kind of clandestine contributor to a number of acts over the years; and your vocals are kind of mid-mix on the EP. Is there a part of you that is still a “reluctant front man?”
On a tape we released, I don’t sing on any of the songs. Alex is the only one of the three of us that does. On the Death Buy EP, of the two vocal tracks, Kenneth sings one and I sing another. I think in a way, we all would have preferred a singer/front man, and definitely a lyricist. But as time goes on we’re getting used to doing it ourselves. It’s like a band made of three Phil Collins.
Your guitar playing is anything but reluctant. When did you first pick up the guitar, and who were some early inspirations?
I started at around 11, after playing piano for about six years. At that age, I’d say my biggest influences were Alex Lifeson and George Harrison. At around 13, after “discovering” punk, Greg Ginn and East Bay Ray were probably the two guitarists that I became obsessed with. I definitely can hear them in my playing. A little later than that it became Sonny Sharrock, Fripp, Fred Frith, Syd Barrett, and Roger Miller.
In the song “Miami” – and in general, even on your Dream Syndicate work – considering the often slashing, scratchy, heavy sounds you can conjure, you create these kind of smoother soundscapes too that sound like they could be soundtracks for late night drive scenes in some crime flick. Have you thought about doing film soundtracks? And do you have some favorite soundtracks?
I love that you get it! A lot of our stuff is instrumental. I would say they all start as such, and then we decide if we feel it’s already whole or complete. We have discussed performing an all instrumental set and releasing an instrumental record. And in a similar vein, doing soundtrack work; it’s something we would love to pursue. I think this band is content playing a mood for 10-15 minutes or more, and seeing where it takes us. Alex and Kenneth are so good at that. And as a guitarist, it’s just inspiring to play to.
These days I’m finding it becoming more difficult to listen to music with words, so I find myself listening to a lot of instrumental and soundtrack work. Some that I always come back to are Aguirre, the Wrath of God, The Shining, 2001, North by Northwest, Halloween, Les Stances a Sophie, and Suspiria.
So where / when was the new debut EP recorded?
It was recorded piecemeal over the last few years – four songs in four spaces. Two were recorded in different practice spaces, one at Jason Lafarge’s Seizures Palace, and one at a studio with Ted Young engineering.
And what’s the story with the upcoming album?
Every so often we would go to a studio when we had time. We’ve ended up recording a lot of songs, some in various stages of completion. We told Larry at In the Red that we have a bunch of tracks and could have something complete in a few months and he thankfully said, “Great, let’s do it.” So after my fall touring schedule finishes, the plan is to complete the record.
You seem pretty busy, but are there any Skull Practitioners tour plans in the works?
We would love to. We’ve only played a few shows outside of New York, mostly Ohio, because through Alex we have some ties there. We’re hoping to do more U.S. and Europe in the upcoming year.
Having seen Dream Syndicate live lately, not to mention the two great rebooted albums you’ve done with them, it’s not like you are held back at all from screeching away as desired. But what do you feel Skull Practitioners offers that you can’t get in Dream Syndicate?
I’m lucky in that the bands I play with pretty much let me have free rein as a musician. Steve Wynn is the best band leader one could hope for. He never tells me what to do as a player.
But as much as I feel, and the band makes me feel, that I am a full and equal member of the Dream Syndicate, Skulls is a whole other beast to me. Firstly, it’s our band that we all started together. Also, the sound is different. While I would say melody still plays an important part in our songs, I think we tend to be more aggressive in our sound and approach. I feel we’re coming from a very different place, although there of course will be some junctures which overlap.
VIDEO: Skull Practitioners live at Gold Sounds