X-mas with the Skull Force

The political, post-apocalyptic punk rock band Skull Face and Others are finally releasing two 7” records on December 22, after two years in the works. Elling Lien spoke with vocalist Rodney “THE IRON HMSTR” Wall and bassist Ben “Lord Scrawny“ Jackson about the recording, the band’s politics, and about the holiday season.

[This is the extended interview — an edited version was selected for print]

So the 7-inches. Why are you releasing them right now?

RW: Because they’re finished? [laugh]

I mean that’s the easiest and most accurate answer. I mean the reason we waited to do the bar show to take advantage of Christmas when we’ll have tons of friends home.

It’ll be a fun, celebratory kind of show.

The 7 inches were a long time coming, and we’ll be happy to finally have them out and move on to new Skull Face projects.

So what’s it like having this release where it’s all this older material from two years ago? Are you still playing a lot of those songs?

RW: Most of the stuff on the 7”s are not a regular part of our shows any more. There’s a degree to which we’ve always been a two-step-forward-one-step-back kind of band, and so we’ve always, right from the beginning been trying to catch up with ourselves.

What do you mean?

BJ: Well, particularly because of the membership changes and all that stuff. 

Who are the original members?

RW: …I’ll say the original core members were Jesse, Phil, Mopey and Jason.

How did Skull Face and Others start?

RW: I used to be in a band called Zapruder, which was St. John’s first power violence band… and we were more popular than I expected to be. We weren’t incredibly popular but we were fairly well received. Got asked to play shows, and developed at least one rabid fan. That being Phil.

And after Zapruder broke up he approached me and asked if I wanted to start another power violence band, which I did. And he suggested that he and I could be co-vocalists. And that was totally something I wanted. Even in Zapruder, where I was handling all the vocals, it was a lot of work to do all of it. And Zapruder wasn’t even as fast as I wanted to be. If we played as fast as I wanted us to play, I’d hurt myself.

Just wearing your voice out?

RW: No, just too much too fast. I wouldn’t be able to do it and breathe at the same time.

With Zapruder, I swear I almost lost consciousness — regularly — while we played.

So we started rounding up these other people. He came up with Jesse Walker [drums], who was mostly known for playing death metal around town, and from there we looked around for a guitarist and a bassplayer. We had Big Dan on bass at first, and then Jason … Then Mopey came in on guitar. We played a bunch of shows and they went really well and we almost immediately made plans for recording.

Our first attempt to record was disastrous and we got nothing out of it. Our second was much better, but still we weren’t completely satisfied. Out of the second recording session we got the tape, These Songs Go Off Like Torture.

So that was the initial band, and we just always had a hard time getting anything to work in terms of recording.

When Phil started traveling around, hitchhiking around the country, and he would be here and gone. And in between we were learning how to do the songs as a four-piece rather than a five-piece. Me and Jesse were doing the lion’s share of the vocals then.

Then Jason left, Ben came into the band, and Ben’s been a friend of mine for a long time and we’ve done musical stuff together in the past and he had been in bands with Jesse, so it was an easy transition.

So we decided we wanted to do these recordings to get definitive versions of the first batch of songs – which was about 30 songs.

We started this recording process did everything the slowest possible way. And that’s one of the great things about having them out finally is that after all this work, we do have a thing at the end of it. And a lot of bands, especially local bands – because those are the ones that I see – have gone through this thing where they try to get recordings and they struggle for years sometimes to get something workable and never do. The Killing are an example of that.

BJ: Despite their being a popular band at the time.

RW: All they left behind are some CD-R demos, you know? Which will probably float around for some time, but I don’t think that’s quite the legacy they wanted to leave.

They were a hardcore band, right?

RW: Yeah.

It seems in hardcore, it’s a scene that changes a lot faster than almost any of the other genres or scenes. Is that true?

RW: I don’t know, it is and it isn’t. There are a lot of kids involved, so people are going through. And it’s mostly all-ages.

BJ: …In St. John’s.

RW: In general, actually. I mean, definitely if you go to Toronto you’ll find hardcore bar shows happening regularly, but still when those bands tour, they’re playing as many all-ages shows as they can, because that’s where their fanbase is.

The Killing did a tour where they toured around part of the US and parts of Canada, and they did it with larger bands. And Dave has got lots of contacts in the hardcore scene. …

So is releasing these 7-inches part of creating some kind of lasting legacy for Skull Face?

RW: A lasting legacy and to have the songs done in a definitive way, if I can say that. The demo had a really raw, live sound about it. Very live. We were having trouble getting Phil to sing into the microphone. It was a difficult proposition.

But isn’t that part of the Skull Face spirit?

RW: Yeah, when you record the song, you wrote the words… Like, some of the vocals disappear from the recording mid-line sometimes. In a live setting, that’s no big deal at all, but in a recording you would rather have something that is a bit more standardized. Where everything is audible and people can actually hear what is going on.

But I think we managed to hit the nail on the head on these 7-inches. These songs on the records are the definitive versions.

BJ: Yeah, and the other thing is that these are the best songs out of the 30-or-so songs we recorded. That’s another reason why it took so long.

RW: When we started recording, there was a shitload of stuff that we wanted to get down, and to record thirty songs took a ridiculous amount of time. We still have the recordings, and we’ll do something with them someday, but these are the ones that we felt good enough about to put on a record.

RW: These were the ones we felt were the strongest. And the initial feedback I’ve gotten has been strong. The people who bought it have liked it

We learned so much in the process of doing this.

So it’s going to be easy next time… [laugh]

RW: Easier. A lot easier.

This is our fourth year as a band…

Which doesn’t seem like such a long time, but it seems like you’ve outlived a lot of other bands in the city.

RW: We’re the oldest band playing in the punk rock scene.

Really.

RW: Really.

How does that feel?

BJ: Strong! [laugh]

Are there kids looking up to you guys?

RW: The punk scene isn’t like that. We’ve definitely had fans, and there’s a girl who is our biggest current fan. We played a show this summer and she brought a skull with our logo scrawled on it and left it for us. She wears her Skull Face jacket everywhere she goes.

BJ: Then there’s that kid who did the series of Flash animations of our songs…

Does it feel weird to have that kind of attention?

RW: Oh yeah. There was a while there when we were one of the biggest bands in the scene, and I would walk down the street and people would yell shit. And that’s definitely weird, since I’m a shy guy. I find it weird when people just come up and talk to me about stuff. And I don’t really know how to deal with that.

Which is funny, because in the band you come across as a really outgoing personality. You rarely wear shirts on stage.

RW: It’s a completely different situation, to be onstage and to be walking around downtown.

BJ: [singing:] “Here I am, up on the staaaaage. Here I am, playing the star again. Here I am, turn the paaaaage.”

Hey! You guys should cover Bob Seger. [laugh]

RW: When you’re in the hardcore scene, and when we had huge crowds who would lose their minds when they saw us play, we also had very vocal people who would tell us we sucked shit, regularly. Who would mock us every chance they got.

They couldn’t truly appreciate it.

RW: Well, you know, we play a subgenre of a subgenre. So there’s a degree to which, you have to understand that you’re not going to please everybody anyway.

Some people had problems with our politics. Being too PC… We were made fun of for being “fags”, we got made fun of for “eating garbage” [dumpster diving], we got made fun of for not showering… I shower every day!

And most of these people we didn’t really know all that well, and it was all happening on the internet. That kind of comes with the territory.

Yeah, the internet is full of that.

RW: But even so, punk kids are rude. They’re obnoxious. If they don’t like you, they’ll tell you. So you get a really direct response – if it’s really working they lose their minds, and go crazy, and if it’s not they leave or lob insults at you. [laugh] And that’s kind of cool.

Skull Face is a really political band… Can you give me a primer on the politics of Skull Face?

[We were talking before about this, when the tape wasn’t on…]

There are the four violences… Pansy violence, Posi violence, Pedal violence, and Power violence.

[laugh] What are they?

RW: I just put the name to them. To express the kinds of issues that we regularly talk about in our songs. Like, early on, we wrote songs about queer politics, and I really like the idea that we’re in a genre that’s heavy and fast and hyper-masculine. A lot of the stuff I’m into has those qualities: Superhero comics, and wrestling, and barbarian movies, and post-apocalyptic movies.

I’m really attracted to hyper-masculine characters, but at the same time, I’m attracted to them with a queer sensibility. [laugh] And I’m critical of it as well. Hyper-masculinity often brings along with it misogyny and homophobia, and violence even.

And so, we do the hyper-masculine thing, but we also bring up the queer stuff. Which kind of throws a monkey wrench into it, because we’re being hyper-masculine, but some of the songs are about being queer.

BJ: And then there’s cross-dressing stuff too. We wear dresses and stuff…

RW: So you get this hyper-masculine thing on the one level, but the guitar player is dressed like a girl…

BJ: And pretty consistently too. He used to dress in women’s clothing pretty much every show.

RW: It was always a different outfit too.

BJ: [laugh] That guy has a wardrobe like you wouldn’t believe.

RW: I mean the world is not consistent. We like to pretend that things fit into boxes, but they usually don’t. And those boxes are just things we use for convenience.

So is that the essence of Skull Face and Others? You’re a collection of seemingly paradoxical elements?

RW: I think that’s one of the elements that’s continued to make it interesting for us. However people think of it on the outside.

But I like playing with those inconsistencies.

The pedal violence is about bicycling, but it’s also about ecological politics, and it’s about ownership of public space in cities… Like in Phil’s “Andy Wells Fix Your Roads” tune.

BJ: Stylistically, the songs that we’ve tended to write — and Rodney has a real tendency to do this – have a specific concept in mind. We never have lyrics as filler. We start with an idea. The idea turns into a bunch of lyrics, and then the lyrics get put to music, and then there’s a song.

A lot of bands, they’re musicians and then they realize that they want some vocals, so they try to come up with something. It doesn’t have to make sense, but they’re just vocals.

But we’re not like that. The vocals are very upfront. The rhythm is based around them, and the concept Which is funny, because as we’ve been writing these songs, we’ve been working on these same kind of areas and themes, and it was really starting to develop.

Like with the P-4 violence thing, [Pansy violence, Posi violence, Pedal violence, and Power violence.] that was a reaction to having written a million songs before that were about each of those things, and then we end up writing a song called P-4 Violence which brings them together.

RW: And the idea of coming up with four P-words to go with violence was fun too. [laugh]

Posi-violence is about making positive change in your life and in the world, and it pokes fun at the violence part of it. Because the violence is really just the musical style.

I remember early on in the band, the people who weren’t familiar with power violence seemed to think that we were about all kinds of crazy things, and I don’t know where they were getting it.

Like Nazism… or…

BJ: Yeah, almost a fascistic exaltation of brutality…

RW: I don’t know who coined the term exactly, but it started in southern California in the early 90s. Maybe by Chris Dodge, of Spazz. Maybe by one of the guys in Man is the Bastard [both genre-blending bands from that time.] But I think it was supposed to be a really absurd name. “Power violence” is so absurd and over the top that it pokes fun at itself. I think that’s the kind of humour I’ve always been interested in, and a lot of the politics I’ve been interested in, and a lot of the art I’ve been interested in.

It’s funny too, because we’ve always been tagged as a sort of joke band.

But you are funny.

RW: Yeah, we are funny, but at the same time I’ve always been very, very serious about the songs I write and the topics I choose.

So I started wondering: Does anyone really notice that the songs are about specific things? [laugh]

Do they?

RW: I don’t know. I don’t know. Certainly some people do, and they’re singing along with our songs.

But are you changing the world? [laugh]

RW: We did draw attention to and politicize people about, say, homophobia, in the local scene. Not that everyone was homophobic before we came around, or that by any means it’s fixed, but by writing songs about queer stuff and becoming the target of homophobia, suddenly people in the scene would take offence to that. And we wouldn’t always have to come to our own defense.

What happened?

RW: Getting called “fags” with some regularity.

…At one point, Jesse was being discussed on a local metal board, and the person — who didn’t sign their name – was really shittalking Jesse. He was listing all the things he didn’t like about Jesse. And one of the things, maybe even the last one was, “he was in a band with people who were literally gay.” [laugh]

Right! I’ve heard of that. And that was used for the name of a band. “The Literally Gay”

BJ: Which s just lovely. Because it actually did seem to create a certain amount of discussion. People shittalking us in that way created a bit of a discussion and brought things out in the open a little bit more. Which is interesting.

I don’t want to force it on you guys, but the Christmas angle… This interview is in the holiday issue.

BJ: We could talk about Jesus… the baby Jesus.

No, no. My question is: What does Christmas mean to Skull Face and Others? That’s my question.

RW: [laugh] A consumerist orgy.

…But I like orgies!

I don’t know. Christmas doesn’t mean that much to me. It’s a convenient time when a lot of people come home, and I’m really excited to see people. So I have a definite fondness for the Christmas season, but I have a lot of criticism for it.

There’s a great quote from H.P. Lovecraft where he talks about the Yule, and how it was stolen by Christians. [laugh]

I don’t know. If you rearrange the letters in Santa, you can spell Satan. That’s pretty cool. [laugh]

If you want Skull Face and Others to get down with Christmas, we obviously believe in celebration and festivals. The idea of a bunch of people coming together to celebrate their lives and their friendships and their relationships and that stuff. I’m completely behind that.

BJ: Christmas is the unity of Christianity and capitalism, and we would – no joke – like to see both of those things wiped off the face of the earth forever. That’s our Christmas theme.

That’s why it’s really interesting that I’m talking to you guys at this time, so you can express your unique perspective.

BJ: But mummering on the other hand – mummering is great.

Why?

BJ: We’re totally down with mummering. It’s all about cross-dressing, getting loaded and invading people’s houses.

RW: Yeah! We support that totally! [laugh]

If Skull Face were to fight with Santa Claus, what would happen?

RW: Hard to say. He defeated the martians in a movie I saw the other day. He’s tougher than you think.

What we’d have to do is free his reindeer and elves from his tyranny.

BJ: We’d get the elves to form a union. [laugh]

What’s on Skull Face and Others’ Christmas wish list?

BJ: …We want world peace for Christmas.

If Skull Face was in charge of Christmas, we would put skulls on all the trees instead of stars. And we would not take the trees out of the forest, where they belong. [laugh]

BJ: And then we’d dance around them!

And you’d go mummering.

RW: Yeah, last year we got a bunch of people together to out mummering, and we wore black metal [a genre of heavy metal featuring raspy vocals] corpse paint [exaggerated black and white makeup used by black metal musicians] And we brought a boombox with us with black metal tapes, and we demanded entry. [laugh] We drank booze, and we picked up other mummers along the way, and then we ended the evening in the graveyard. [laugh]


(Photo by Rachel Jean Harding)

Skull Face and Others will be throwing their 7-inch bar release show on Friday, December 22 at Turners Tavern (Water Street) now at BAR NONE. Also featuring Dig up the Dead, Tough Justice, and Local Tough.