Bristol band SKIN aren’t ones for standing still. Their latest single, ‘Lurker’, mixes shards of melody with the wailing wall of guitars now closely associated with their primary songwriter and leader, OJ Sault.
With a new EP, Darkwave, set for release later this month, we spoke to Sault about his band, who gave some frank, honest and articulate answers about his band’s past, present and future.
Talk to us about your influences. What bands, songs and records shaped your music style?
Stuff from the late 80s and 90s obviously massively helped to shape the sound of SKIN. Husker Du, Pixies and Dinosaur Jr were always around when I was a kid so for me, those huge noisy ideas just stuck with me through every musical phase I went through. Rumours by Fleetwood Mac is one of my favourite albums. I discovered Nirvana quite late on. I always go back to those bands even though my music taste is pretty diverse, maybe it’s surprising but I listen to a lot of current chart music. At our core, we are a pop band. Most of our songs are short and follow a structure you would expect from mainstream Pop which is a really big part of what we are doing. I always wanted to take the sound of the bands like Mary Chain, Dinosaur Jr and Pixies but keep it commercial and accessible to people that might have never heard those artists or aren’t a traditional fan of alternative music.
Tell us about SKIN’s new single ‘Lurker’. What inspired it, lyrically and musically? And in terms of the songwriting process, is this something you do as a band or alone?
I’ve had a really challenging couple of years but I’m not ready to go into details yet, the time isn’t right. That’s the main theme in Lurker and really the whole of the Darkwave EP. The songs were all written when I was feeling pretty hopeless and nothing was really going the way I wanted it to. I think a lot of people can relate to that as well. I want people that might be having a difficult time to hear the tracks and know that they aren’t alone and that people can help or at least understand what they might be going through. In terms of creating the tracks, I’m the primary songwriter - the other two chip in with nuances or ideas for their own instruments quite frequently but it’s rare that I don’t have a clear direction I want the track to go before I introduce a new tune to the other members.
Your sound is grunge in its purest form, but in the past you’ve expressed disappointment with the lack of airplay. Do you feel your sound is sometimes hard to pigeonhole within radio genres (i.e. shows that play indie or, shudder, pop punk)? Or do you feel SKIN are starting to get some recognition?
It’s a difficult one. No band has a right to be successful or popular but I find myself really frustrated sometimes - over 12,000 people have heard our track ‘Lucid’ across several platforms (and seemed to enjoy it based on the feedback we received) yet BBC Introducing snubbed us. I don’t want to sound bitter, I’m content with the position we are in at the moment but we often seem to find ourselves in a confusing position where we miss out on opportunities for no real reason. The fact that we don’t really fit into a broad genre is a factor – it’s hard to place us as we do have much of that Seattle sound but we’re not a Nirvana tribute band. I understand the grunge connections and they’re justified but we’re not just trying to piggyback on the 90s revival hype. I think a massive part is our age. Someone complimented our new single via a private message last week and thought I was 21. I turned 17 last month. We’ve been sharing bills with bands that are 15 years older than us for years now. Personally I don’t see that as a problem but it has always got in our way as a band. The other reason I think a lot of bands get shut out is because of this ‘’Internet friends’’ culture. Everyone and their dog has a band and a Facebook page now, and only a handful of them are any good. But if you like the right kind of music and you make the right friends you get popularity and you get opportunities. That isn’t me, I don’t want to pretend to like people that I don’t agree with or people to give my band attention because I post a certain type of thing on Facebook. It’s not all negative though; we’ve had really good reception in the last few months and things like supporting Allusondrugs in December show that our hard work has paid off a little.
You’re quite the gearhead when it comes to all things guitar. What’s your current setup, in terms of guitar / amp / pedals? And do effects play a big part in SKIN’s performances?
I’m always chopping and changing because I’m a horrible example of a perfectionist, however my ethos to creating my sound actually hasn’t changed that much. It’s always a guitar with a single coil pickup, usually a Strat or a Jazzmaster, into a fuzz box and a Chorus pedal and then I’ll use a loud clean amp. I’ll play most of the guitars that Fender produce. I think a Strat has the best balance between the deep modulated clean sounds I use a lot and then the huge fuzz/distortion sounds that the band is probably best known for. My amp is a Fender Twin that I got for unbelievably cheap from some clothes shop on Park Street in Bristol. I’m not going to expose my pedal setup yet, not because I’m that far up my own arse (I promise) but mainly because I’m still perfecting my sound and I want to be 100 percent happy before I spill my secrets. I could easily strip back my setup to a few crucial elements though; I have some other stuff that just adds something a little bit extra to certain parts. I don’t want people to think SKIN is all effects. They’re usually unnecessary.
You’re also very active on social media, in terms of promoting your band. Do you feel for a band to really get noticed in this day and age you have to fully embrace and utilise social media? Or do you feel ‘success’ is more happenstance?
It’s probably a mixture of both. In some ways I wish that SKIN were around before the rise of the internet because I think bands could get further on merit alone. A lot of people don’t like us and therefore they don’t want to listen to SKIN's music but they haven’t even met me. Then on the other hand, people come to our gigs that I don’t even know and that just like the music and that wouldn’t be the case if we didn’t spread the word via social media. It’s always going to be a bit of luck and a lot of hard work. I’m up till 4am most mornings in a week doing stuff for the band that people don’t even notice. We’re a really hard-working unit, we just need the luck part. Or maybe we aren’t very good, I’m not sure.
SKIN are breaking out of Bristol with their debut gig in Birmingham. Are you hoping this will lead to some more exposure on a national scale? And are there any plans for gigs further afield?
We’ve dabbled with playing gigs out of Bristol before but this time it’s really exciting. I’ve spent a lot of time in Birmingham, the scene is great and the venues know what they’re doing. That isn’t the case in Bristol. It’s totally not ideal to be an upcoming band here - there are a handful of good venues and all the prestigious slots have an awful lot of competition between local acts if they are even offered to anyone local at all. The turnouts are usually pretty poor as well - we’ve generally been really grateful and fortunate to have respectable crowds but it can be disheartening when you go to one of the bigger venues like the O2 Academy and it’s barely half-full. Going back to the social media aspect, there is only so much you can do to promote and people will either come or not, it's a lot of chance to do with potential fans in a small proximity to yourself.
For 2017, what are you hoping to achieve with SKIN in the short-term? Are there plans for a new EP or a tour?
Well, first and foremost, the entire Darkwave EP will be online by the time we hit Birmingham on the 24th Feb. What happens after that depends on the response to the EP. Honestly I have no idea what’s going to happen. We have a load of new songs we could record tomorrow if the chance arose. But we do want to spread ourselves out more, we’re only 17 and we just want to put ourselves out there and play songs that we believe in. We really do think we can do well with SKIN, people seem to be enjoying what we have done so far and I think that the stuff we have released is only a tiny fraction of what we can do.