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May 10, 2007The parent name of Skeletons has been on the radar for several years now. Initially the musical outlet for electronic-avant rock solo artist Matt Mehlan, over time the group has blossomed in physical size and artistic appeal. The band still features Mehlan at its core but now also includes a cast of talented underground musicians - guitarists, percussionists, horn and string players, and really anybody who brings something interesting to the table - some of whom are also part of the Shinkoyo Records staff and general "crew."
With 2005's Git, Mehlan delivered his first full-length production with electronic label Ghostly International, which marked the first time Skeletons became an official collective as "The Girl-Faced Boys" was slapped onto the back end of the moniker. The album was a stylistic beacon, blending a wide range of live instruments with electronics and edgy production to give the subgenre of "avant pop" a standardbearer.
This year Mehlan has taken Skeletons another sizable step forward with LUCAS. The band has changed their suffix to "The Kings of All Cities" and made an album substantially different from the last, featuring extensive musical improvisation, further exploration into dynamics and instrumentation, and a more profound songwriting temperament. In brief, LUCAS is an excellent record. And for Mehlan and Co., that is what it's all about: making good music, feeling the vibe, and connecting with those who are listening. Let's just call it the "Joyful Noise" theory. If you don't know what that means, well then just read on.
On April 2nd, LAS senior staff writer Josh Zanger caught up with Mehlan in Chicago ahead of a Skeletons & The Kings of All Cities performance at the Lakeshore Theatre. Over beers the two talked about perpetual tours, fake breasts, and small towns.
LAS: First off, how old are you?
Matt Mehlan: Twenty-five.
And you live in Brooklyn, right?
How did it end up that you guys wound up moving out to Brooklyn? Weren't you in Ohio?
Oberlin, Ohio, yeah yeah--we were in school there. We just kinda all moved, a big group of us. Not even like a whole group of the band, but there was just a bunch of people who moved out to New York at the same time. That was just kinda like my idea. It made more sense moving there than anywhere else.
Skeletons is basically you, though, right? You say "we" all moved - is there a core group of guys?
Yeah, there is. Jason [McMahon], the guitarist, has been playing on all the Skeletons records since the first one that I made. It's really just like "the crew." Shinkoyo [Records, the label Mehlan founded] is more like the crew, and we've always been making music together whether it's as Skeletons or as something else. But this tour, we are playing five new tunes, brand new tunes that aren't on LUCAS. And for those, not a note has been recorded yet - we're doing it just like a band style, ya know. It's been amazing. Everybody's been super involved.
Even on Git and LUCAS to a lesser extent - when I was doing a lot of it myself - once we'd get in the van, or even when we weren't in the van, it was "we." I don't really like making music by myself. I like being able to collect the pieces, to look at them and put 'em all together, in terms of recording.
We've been touring so much in the past four years, and by this point we tour more than we record. Because it's what you kinda have to do. You're supposed to tour when you make a new record, but you kinda have to tour twice if you want to keep doing it.
You guys were Skeletons & The Girl-Faced Boys for Git, now you're Skeletons & The Kings of All Cities. Is there any reason why the name has changed?
A little bit, it's just thematic. It's like a footnote to Now. I've always called us "Skeletons." I've always liked saying something on stage. We've been more than just those two band names. And I think we will be more than just those two band names. But don't tell anybody that.
Ghostly [International, Skeleton's label] just thinks I'm a jerk, or whatever. They're just like, You're such an asshole.
Why, because then they have to explain it?
Really it's more their fault for worrying. You really don't have to explain anything.
Back when they played, Butthole Surfers used to be a different band every time they played a show.
It's a part of pop music, it's a part of rock 'n' roll. Fela [Kuti] always changed his band's name. The Mothers of Invention. Parliament Funkadelic. All of those people.
Lucas is the name of a town in Kansas, and I've read that you've thought about the consciousness of the people in that town. Why base a record around the idea of a small town and The Garden of Eden?
Well, Lucas is special because the Garden of Eden is there. It's this beautiful log cabin house made out of cement. And it has enormous sculptures depicting different things. It's really one of the most amazing places I've been to because it's totally isolated and totally this guy's thing.
The guy who lives there... what was his name... he's from Coolsville, Ohio. He was an artist but he wasn't; he was just a guy who wanted to make something. He made everything in his house by himself. A lot of it was actually for money. He buried himself in a glass coffin so that people in the future could pay a dollar to look at his dead body in his tomb. He built the tomb for himself, it's huge. Yeah, it's in his back yard. He has a big garden and these giant concrete statues. There's an Adam and an Eve that goes into this hallway of vines and flowers. The sculptures are very straightforward. There's one of a Native American shooting a deer or a dog or something, and then there's a dog chasing a cat, and a cat chasing a mouse. And there's a white dude shooting at the Native American, and then there's a soldier shooting the cowboy, and then there's this octopus chasing after all of them. And the octopus is supposed to mean or be monopoly. It was made at that time when trusts and all that was going down.
There's this other one called "Labor Crucified." It's the common man in the middle, and he's being pulled in four directions by characters that he considers to be the grafters of the common man - it's the banker, the doctor, the lawyer, and the preacher. There's a booklet that explain all his sculptures.
Part of his goal was to make it a landmark off the highway. It's a museum.
How did you guys find out about it?
It's just one of those weirdo things. Carson [Garhart], our bass player at the time, knew all this outsider shit. We were gonna try to go to the Coral Castle in Florida, you ever heard of that?
I don't think so.
It's just these weird anomalies of America. When the first highways were made, then these small towns had a chance to attract people to the town. Then it became a commerce thing for small towns. Some of those towns turned into big towns, but some of them are still tiny fucking towns. I just think that's an amazing thing.
I guess that leads to the intent of the entire album. Listening to Git, some have called it "avant-pop," I got the feeling like it was electronic and funky at the same time. I feel like LUCAS retains that funkiness and some of the other things, but I feel like it's totally different in that there are a lot of elements that were not part of Git. What was the intent, what inspired the music while making the album?
I was looking for something rawer. I wanted to write songs that I could sit down and play by myself. I didn't want to fuck with the drum machine, and I didn't want to fuck with my computer at all. That's the way it started, but it ended up working as this: you can lay down this super bass thing. From there you can improvise a million different things on top of it. Make each thing a different space.
Also, I went down to the Dominican [Republic]. My brother goes to school down there. I went down there and visited him, and that was amazing. I went to Puerto Rico and that was amazing. I just really wanted there to be this backbone of "that beat" - some beat that's human, that is funky and heavy and super-raw and complex without thinking about it too much. I think I wanted the whole thing to be more about feel from the start. Then we just started working on it and things just piled up. You just fall in love with all the things that end up in a track; there is a lot of stuff in a lot of the tracks that you don't even hear but if you took it out, you would notice it.
Like at the end of "What They Said," when the song is decomposing, and all the underlying effects can be better heard.
There are also a few much longer, "free music" parts. You play these songs that are like little freakout sessions. Where did that come from?
It's mostly from playing, there's a need for me and for us, for the band, to be able to stretch out and get things out. A lot of times that's the best way to get the best thing.
A lot of the horn players who came by to lay stuff down - and I laid a bunch of horn stuff down too, I've been practicing a lot since then [laughs] - there are some guys from New York that are just amazing, we brought them in and wrote one simple thing, and the rest of it was like, Let's just play together. We'll use this track and we'll turn it up in the headphones but then just go. And we'll go from there. That, to me, is a lot more exciting than something like, This is what I want here, this is what I want here, this is what I want here. Because then you just have this thing that happens. [In improvisation] you'll get more things that will happen just once. And more things that pop out and are affected by the energy of the song, instead of being affected by the energy of a composition. The energy of a moment of musical collaboration - that's exciting shit.
Is that how you wrote LUCAS, where you have something figured out going into a composition but you also go off the cuff for a while?
It's both. The thing about "jamming" is that - jamming can just be jamming, that's why it gets a bad rap. It's not that it's bad, it's one of the best things you could do. It is harder to find something that you truly love and that you'd want to repeat over and over again.
The way we ended up working is that we either had an idea or we had a vibe and then went from there. And then you play it once, and you go, That was nice. This is what I like about it, this is what I didn't like about it. And then you play it again, and again. And then you keep doing that. That's what we're doing right now. That's what we do with all the songs that we play live, ultimately. A lot of the songs that we're playing off LUCAS on the tour, they're not the way that they are on the record.
Right, that's something I noticed. Like the track "Git," I wondered how you would do it live. But when I saw you play, you didn't do it at all like it is on the record. Do you write a song and say this is the way it's going to be live and this is the way it's going to be on the record?
Sometimes. Sometimes it's just like that naturally. I think "Git" is kinda like that naturally. It was supposed to be a track where if you played it live you either sounded like John Mayer or you needed to just have a CD playback. When Prince plays with a band they probably have about 10 people, and they probably have a backing track too. Everybody's like that. And their goal is to play it with a little more flare. But it's ultimately the same. That's really not what I was interested in, necessarily, in making that song. There was a reason to make that song and it was just a different one.
Another element that contributes to the way people receive Skeletons are the lyrical ideas and song titles. A lot of them some people would consider "different" - especially with this last album and a song like "Fake Tits" or "The Shit From The Dogs." Where do those ideas come from?
Song titles are usually pretty easy once something comes together. I used to try to come up with clever titles that had something to do with the lyrics but they weren't in the song. But there's good song titles in the lyrics, so you just take them from there.
Lyrics are really important to me. It's one of the biggest reasons to make pop songs, I think. I don't think everybody agrees with that because there's music that's meant to be bubblegum and meant to be jingles, where lyrics aren't that important.
During "What They Said" you are singing about this group of people [chorus: "It's different o'er there/ They keeps it to themsel's"]. I don't even know what some of that means.
Some of the songs are kinda vague on purpose. It's not about anybody specifically, necessarily. It's about what those people would be to you, ya know.
Most of it's just from personal things, things I heard about, real life things. People sometimes think the lyrics aren't about anything. I read the [Chicago] Reader today and it was like, "I'm convinced he writes his lyrics with a magnetic poetry kit." [laughs]
So you're thinking, "Fuck, they found me out."
But it's not like that at all. I - a lot of times - think the lyrics are pretty straightforward in certain ways. One of the first songs people noted when we put out the first Skeletons record, Life and The Afterbirth, was "My Friend Drowned In His Own Vomit." People take it real weird when you say something like that, when you put that in a song because it's so easy to say something like that in a song. Then the goal becomes like, oh, well, I gotta convince them that this is somehow not for shock's sake. But it never has been. That song in particular was a very specific thing that happened to me and what I was thinking about it.
"Fake Tits" are a thing that's in everybody's life [laughs], but they don't want to talk about it. You don't really want to think about what kind of implications fake tits have on anything other than something like US Weekly, or as a joke, or as those aren't real! That song was about something closer to me than that. Then "fake tits" becomes something different. The lyrics are, "Fake tits/ A quick move away from home/ A bald face/ A tall drink of water." It's a list of things that connect. It's not to throw words together, it's because: A) you write a phrase that fits into a nice rhythm, and B) these are the words.
There are some MCs in hip-hop, like Aesop Rock, who use words sometimes to fit a cadence. Then there are other people who make a logical delivery that is almost too easy to understand.
I'm sure if you read something where they said, "This is how it made sense." He would be like, "Well, that's kinda true. But it's not really all that true and you just kinda ruined it."
Do you care if people say, "Oh, I think I know what this is all about" for your music and lyrics?
No, I love that. That what I'm talking about, that's what should happen.
I wish writers would say, "This is what I got out of it" more, and here are the lyrics. It's tough to talk about lyrics, because it takes them out of being of separate world. It's putting them in the newspaper, basically, so it's like "fact, fact, fact." That's why people read fiction, poetry, or watch movies. Nobody wants to go watch something that's somewhat abstract and walk out the door and have the director stand next to them and say, "Let me explain this all to you."
Although that'd be real cool. [laughs]
[laughs] That would be sweet, it would be sweet.
But I kinda hate that a lot of times. I'll see stuff where people get up before the show, and they'll say, "This piece is about an emotional time that I had when I went to Georgia..." And that's kinda what I'm doing at least saying, "Lucas is a town in Kansas." But that's an important part.
If you read the lyrics - they're printed in the CD - if you read them from beginning to end it's not, Once upon a time...The End. It's not as if you read that and it comes through as this simple one thing. With LUCAS that's what I was thinking about; what this town means, what these dreams mean. It came as separate things, it came about organically. I didn't sit down and write beginning to end the lyrics for the whole album. And things made so much more sense to me when I was done. I was sitting in the car trying to tell somebody about it, and they asked, "How is this a story?" And I suddenly understood, Holy fucking shit, because of this and this and this. And then you just realize that the whole thing is related as a cloud of something, the story.
I had no idea where you would go with that because some people have lyrics that are weird for the sake of being weird. Somebody like Frank Zappa...
But he was really into obvious shit too. Like Joe's Garage is meant to be vile in a way, songs about "it hurts when I pee" ["Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?"]. That's a specific idea of building an idea around a story that is almost political. I don't like that about him; I don't always like that about records in general, that's what I didn't always like about The Wall. It's great, but there's a lot of cheesy shit and it's so base in some ways. It's really exciting, it's like listening to a movie, but the best parts are when it branches off into something that can't stand on its own, which is like the singles.
I hate asking questions like this, but since you brought them up - are you heavily influence by guys like Pink Floyd and Zappa?
I think Zappa's really cool, the idea of him. He did amazing shit. I'll hear stuff now and again and go Holy shit! But I don't buy a lot of his records.
Is Skeletons going to pursue the more organic side, or are you going to get back to the more electronic, Ghostly-ish stuff?
I don't know. [laughs]
You said that you have four or five songs you are playing on tour that are unrecorded. Are those the same style as what we have heard on LUCAS?
Well, not so much. There's guitar... and drums... and bass. [laughs] I don't know what the next record will be like but I think it will be pretty unhinged. There will be elements of both records.
Last thing - Out of all of this, what do you hope to accomplish with music? What's your purpose in writing music? Obviously, there are a million other bands out there, so why make music?
Oh, that's a really good question. That's the only thing I want. It's a part of my body. It's something I've always done.
I always think of it like: I'm sure you put a hell of a lot of time into it, and there are a lot of people who put a hell of a lot of time into a day job and they think that - if it's a shitty day job - Why am I doing this? What the fuck do I get out of this? That's where I draw a parallel.
What, you think it's shitty? [laughs]
I dig that analogy, but the difference is that it's the choice to do something that I love. So we struggle for it, we fight for it. Which there needs to be more of. It is serious. It's a sad story that everybody will tell you, but I don't really care about struggling for it. Like I don't even want to talk about it, what else would I be doing. What better thing is there to be doing than driving around the country every night and playing music.... for people. And then talk to those people.
Touring is beautiful but it's still tough because, for example, last night there were ten to fifteen people at our show, and we got four hours sleep and came here. It doesn't always seem like you're doing something, but for the people that are there, there is a person-to-person connection that happens, a joyful noise. That's another thing, Cyrus [Pireh, saxophone player] brought that up. He said, "I just think it's about the joyful noise principle." And that's what it is, you gotta make something that does something for you and for people that you're doing it for. I just wanna be making records. I just want to put out a record every year until I'm sick of it. SEE ALSO: www.skeletons.tv
SEE ALSO: www.ghostly.com
SEE ALSO: www.shinkoyo.com
SEE ALSO: www.garden-of-eden-lucas-kansas.com
SEE ALSO: www.coralcastle.com
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