These days, it seems like every musician is in multiple bands. It’s not unheard of for a rock group to find itself with members moonlighting with electronic, folk, metal, or ambient projects. But some bands, like Skull Defekts, scratch their collective exploratory itch by not limiting themselves to one particular sound. Veterans of numerous rock, electronic, noise, post-punk and harder to classify bands from the Swedish underground, Daniel Fagerstroem, Jean-Louis Huhta, Joachim Nordwall and Henrik Rylander coalesced their wide-ranging interests into one all-purpose unit.
Since forming Skull Defekts in 2005, they’ve busied themselves with an eclectic array of recordings, and are receiving their most attention stateside yet with their new Thrill Jockey album Peer Amid, thanks in part to the addition of vocalist Daniel Higgs. Higgs, the singer for revered Baltimore band Lungfish, is also something of an underground cult figure, known for his multiple quasi-mystical musical and artistic ventures. (Lungfish fans will be pleased to know the opening act for Skull Defekts’ American tour is Zomes, the project of former Lungfish guitarist Asa Osborne.)
“We were all fans of Lungfish, and a few years ago our Daniel met Daniel Higgs at a festival, then Joachim met him soon after that,” explains percussionist Huhta of how Higgs hooked up with the band. “When we played Baltimore on our first U.S. tour, Daniel came to see us, then the next night he and Asa drove to D.C. to see us and we asked him to sing the opening song with us. It worked really well and it just took off from there.”
It’s one of those pairings you’d probably never imagine happening—Skull Defekts doesn’t sound much like Lungfish or Higgs’ other work—but now that it has, it makes perfect sense. Higgs’ chants, moans, and evocative singing fit perfectly within the driving, droning format of the band. Incorporating a new member into a group, especially a vocalist, can be a delicate situation, sometimes requiring a tentative adjustment period. It can also add unexpected energy and purpose to a course already charted, as it did recently with Amsterdam’s the Ex, a band Skull Defekts are often compared to. Huhta says the band’s open-ended working method allowed Higgs to ease comfortably in as a frontman in no time at all.
“Most of it came together on the spot, which is how it usually does,” he says. “Our process didn’t really change things, we all just blended into usual Skull Defekts mode, which is to work quickly and spontaneously in the studio.”
It also probably helps that, when in their rock mode, the band has a well-defined template from which they rarely deviate, creating a repetitious, rhythmic powerhouse of a sound created by two drummers and two guitarists, with everybody taking turns adding texture with electronics and synthesizers. While the drums maintain a motorik, krautrock-style beat, the guitars produce a harsh tone reminiscent of the noisy guitar bands of the late ’80s and early ’90s—bands like Scratch Acid, Sonic Youth, Big Black, Jesus Lizard, or Rylander’s old band, Union Carbide Productions. The effect is almost menacing, but Higgs’ vocals serve as a sort of reassuring guide through the swirling bad trip of the music. And while Skull Defekts aren’t exactly a metal band, their crunchy riffs and heavy sound have attracted attention from metal fans.
“The music we do is very simple and doesn’t want to be complicated,” Huhta says. “We want a more direct and primal feel. It’s our interpretation of basic rock ’n’ roll, just this powerful force.”
That’s when they’re doing the rock thing. True to their individual histories, the collective band has several sides, working in improvisational, electronic, and noise forms, and collaborating with the likes of American noise punks Wolf Eyes, Finnish electronic wizards Pan Sonic, and Swedish jazz terrorist Mats Gustafsson. A brief tutorial in just how different the various styles of Skull Defekts can sound can be had by comparing Peer Amid’s “Gospel of the Skull” with an orchestral version of the song they recorded with the Göteborg String Theory, available as a video on the band’s website.
This is the band’s second trip to the States, and Huhta, speaking from St. Louis, is enthusiastic about the tour so far. Even though touring in America is a bit more hardscrabble than in Europe, he says, it ends up being a great experience for them.
“Touring here is different than in Europe, where it’s more organized,” he explains. “There you know you’re going to have your hotels, food, drinks and a proper sound check taken care of. Here, at least at the level we’re touring at, you never know what will happen. Last tour we played in a lot of people’s houses and in some basements. But you meet a lot of interesting people and maybe stay at their house. I think its fun.
“Of course, next time it might not be so fun.”