By Max Dropout
The fiasco of holiday lights emitted a seizure-inducing pattern of flashes; and by nauseating coincidence, all that blinking lined up in flawless tandem with the midi-Tejano arrangement pulsing from the PA located just over my shoulder. I fixated on this relationship for a few minutes, and it only made me want to haul tail back through the door I’d just staggered through. It was too late, though. A paralyzing venom distilled from alcohol and confusion had begun to drip into my kneecaps, and I collapsed against the padded bar behind me. And while the clownish terror around me gained in sickening momentum, I realized there were worse places for my body to abandon me. I clenched a five dollar bill in my hand, and waving it like a wand I summoned the fat senorita casting cheapo cervesa into the lashing tide of hipster haircuts and pearl snap shirts that lapped at her trench. She huffed, “Gracia’s, mijo” like only a real mama could and flashed gold capped teeth stained with blaring red lipstick as she handed me my change.
I nursed my lone star and sensation slowly seeped back into my lower extremities. I assumed a less vulnerable pose and continued to observe the glazed leathery man in the ten gallon hat, losing a battle to coordination. The little migrant man would drop a beat in his heat and fumble every other two step, and though I do not speak Spanish I could tell he had jumbled the words to whatever Mexi-pop jam he was struggling to keep up with via karaoke monitor; the merry brown mob he danced before would erupt with a bellowing laughter at every error, and it was all in infectiously good nature. The clamor only seemed to encourage even sloppier interpretation from the performer, whom, framed by that hazy web of Christmas lights, looked like some saint off the side of one those votive candles I regularly bought at Fiesta mart.
This joint had all the authentic atmosphere of a border town; I half expected Chuck Norris and Louis Gossett Jr. to walk in through the door at any moment and start tossing poor immigrants through windows, ala Firewalker. All the quaint, stereotypical detail oozing through the Red Scoot Inn induced a euphoric bewilderment all on its own, but systematic stream of waifish scenester rabble trailing in from the courtyard outside to pick the bar apart like ants breaking down carrion took it to a surreal level. Astral bodies were clashing, but instead of some end-all shattering collision, there seemed to be a peaceable merger between them. I was fully mobile now, so I grabbed another beer from the false batting eyelashes behind the bar and ventured out into the humidity with the exiting strand white kids.
Culture shock waited behind the swinging patio doors, poised like a beat-happy aluminum bat wielding thug, just waiting to pummel. In abrupt contrast, this crowd were all a head taller than the small, affable aboriginal folk inside, and a blaring rice paper pale… you could practically see their circulatory systems. They stood in geriatric poses, all hunched over and and weathered looking; they scrunched their faces up while choking back foreign swill, and with each little nip their faux-Euro intoned anecdotes swelled in volume. It was an art school graveyard, and these, the spectral waifs of failure wafted amongst each other in garish, dramatic fashion. I stung past the fish-eyed flirtations of the disaffected, swatting gaseous clouds of whore’s water from my nostrils and made way toward the stage in the corner of the yard. There I was greeted by my slight, obliterated friend, who’d drawn me from my home that evening with the urging that I check out this band who’d come down to play from San Antonio.
The prattling drunks flanked around had me second guessing my decision to drag myself out to this obscure corner of town until the four characters I’d been begged to come witness emerged from the crowd, assembling behind the set up in front of the stage. Immediately, my eye snags on the neon pink hoods fastened to their faces, all of which have been mutilated in a unique fashion to accommodate the specific member’s needs. The man who picks up the microphone has eye holes and a mouth piece cut from the clothe to scream through, while the others have merely forged openings through which to see. One member of the party sits perched behind an organ, with the hood merely draped over his skull, like a towel as he looms over the keys like a vulture. All were clad in black formal wear, and ornamented with blaring pink corsages. They looked like they’d crawled out of some old horror serial, as part of some collective of villainy bent on terror and world destruction; this brood looked more accustomed to lurking through gorilla infested mansions with rope-bound damsels slung over their shoulders than playing lame-ass ice cream socials like this.
A matter of seconds later, I learned that gloom can be overbearing, and even abrasive without being outright doomish as a mess of blast of keys assembled some strange, plodding melody. Its tone had same integrity as some old silent film print, replete with scratches and blemishes. Even with the more modern calamity of feedback, fuzzed out bass lines and staggering drum fills, this riot crossed the line between modern punk rock dive and the orchestral pit below the better number of Lon Chaney’s thousand faces with a veteran agility. And then came the odd tone from the man with the microphone, vibrating with anticipation. His pitch was difficult to actually suss out between the noise, which both embellished and canceled out certain tones. The show came to an abrupt start and the terrorists punctured the perfunctory gaze of the audience. It took little to provoke reaction in the drunken crowd who surged forward, forcing the organist to clamp his instrument down with his free hand. Pushing and shoving ensued as the hooded conductor gouged the audience with sputtering and hollering, which soon attracted a series of alien spectators toward the front. Several UT frat boys pushed their way toward the stage to flex their muscles and shove other kids around, in some sad attempt to provoke conflict; frontman, Leonard grabbed one of their burnt orange Long Horn ball caps, and tossed it toward the other end of the crowd. Seconds later, a skinny white fist swung the cap as someone else lit it a’flame. The fiery accessory was then flung back in the direction of the intruders who quickly disappeared to the back of the court yard, coddling each other.
More pushing, more shoving, more noise, noise, noise… all these components acted as that county fair goody contraption kneading and stretching out time like a hunk of laughy taffy. What was a mere 20 minutes seemed more like hour in amongst the blender of fists, foreheads, tits, and hips, and by the time the Skullening reached their shambolic climax, their hoods had been rended from them by the audience… my initial assessment that surely this was some concoction that had emerged from the part of hell located directly beneath Berlin was smashed to bits. They were quite human.
Closer to two years have passed, and the band have gone through a handful of changes, many of which emanated from the departure of their original organist, Dan, who was expelled after a brawl broke out on stage between he and frontman, Leonard. Ryan, one of the band’s founding members, resurfaced once again behind the keys, and with his classical training brought an entirely different pacing to the operation. Beyond the aesthetic changes, which include an new, less harmless imagery which flagrantly contradicts the Skullening moniker, the band have also gotten much speedier over the last year, while much of the gloomy atmosphere has been expelled from the general atmosphere of their performances and songs. Gone now is the confrontation and ominous bleating behind their horror show anthems, though they remain compelling nevertheless.
Scott Jennings is quiet, brooding in a contemplative way, and of the sort of physical stature that might prevent you from approaching him in any other sort of manner than delicate. Behind the facade of the hulking thinker is an affable, awkward guy with a caustic sense of self appraisal that can make you sad to observe if you’re fond of him. He is the bizarro maestro behind Skullening itself. While most consider the functionality of a drummer within the creative ranks of a band to be real “second unit” kind of stuff, Scott is Skullening’s principle songwriter. As comfortable as he may be with his percussive duties, it seems his role may have been determined merely by circumstance. He’s just one of those guys who can do a little bit of everything to some degree of effectiveness and with little effort achieves more than most people who might be entirely dedicated to their respective field.
Scott took some time to answer some questions while struggling with Summer plans for the band. Whether or not they’ll pop up in your town remains up in the air at the moment. Regardless, they’re worth seeking out if they pop up in your neck of the woods.
Your name, sound, and even imagery have always been pretty evocative. Where did the name itself come from? What does it mean?
The name means absolutely nothing at all. We went through a bunch of names in the earliest days of the band, from Blonde Ambition to the Coffin Bangers, as well as a bunch of different names that never even made it to a live performance like Cunt Rockula and Grotesques. The name Skullening was actually a song title for over a year. At the time, we were going by Blonde Ambition, and we just didn’t wanna call ourselves that anymore, so we were like yea, “Skullening seems to confuse people… lets use it!” Plus, it’s not any sort of reference. We coined it. If you search the name, the only stuff that comes up is about us.
Your early lineup had guitar, which you ditched for just the bass and organ. And strangely enough, the guitar stuff I heard was way more sludgy, whereas now, you guys have a really light, frenetic sound. What inspired the shift from guitar to organ?
Well, Dan’s guitar playing lent itself to that doomish sludgy sound cause of his playing style. The organ was floating around from the beginning. There were certain songs that Dan would play organ on that we never did live, but we would practice them. He had a bunch of Electric pianos and stuff, and eventually we realize that using the organ really set off the songs and made us sound different from anything else going on.
The fact that you have no guitar kind of throws people off though. A lot of people kind of react negatively at first, which is funny because you’re playing a style of music that got famous for defying convention. Any drawbacks to the lack of guitar in terms of either the art itself or just people’s attitudes?
Not at all, if they don’t understand it, we don’t care. The organ ends up sounding a lot like a guitar in certain ways because of the distortion we throw on it. It’s not like it handicaps or confines us. And when I think of reasons people probably don’t like the band, the organ is on the bottom of my list, actually.
Well if organ is on the bottom of the list for reasons people hate your band, then what are the reasons at the top?
Well, the cover story about us in the Austin Chronicle got us as much negative attention as it did positive, especially within our peer group. It was great to have that coverage, but at the same time everyone was watching our every move for the next few months afterword. We’d have one sloppy show and everyone would be like, “what’s all the fuss about?” I don’t regret it at all, but people get petty and jealous over stupid stuff like that.
Yeah, trust me, you weren’t the only one who got shit for that. People STILL whine about that article. These assholes get pissed off when you’re not backing their horse.
That’s stupid. But back to the organ for a second, I guess it’s not really a traditional punk instrument. And the distortion and volume of it isn’t really garagey either. It falls somewhere in between both of those genres. We get a smattering of people from both of those crowds, but it also alienates the traditionalist type fans who are into generic, by?numbers stuff. I guess the way we present that element of the band is kind of confusing to them, but it makes people have to really listen and make a decision about what’s going on.
The organ tone is fantastic, and stylistically, it’s like something oozing out of an old silent film theater. What influenced the style? I can’t compare it to any other punk band’s keys ? It’s really archaic sounding.
In the first line up, that could be explained by the fact that Dan was obsessed with anything from the ’20s, including silent films and theater actually. He was more into music and art from that era than anything punk rock. Ryan on the other hand is very talented and also into tons of older types of music, so he was able to take some of what we started with and make it his own.
So, is Dan’s departure why the Spookiness kind of left? Did he take the ghosts with him?
Well, it wasn’t like Dan was the total instigator of all that. We all shared similar interests and I wouldn’t even say Dan cared about that element of the band particularly. I can’t speak for him; I won’t even try.
Now, when I first saw you guys, you had those hoods and the black formal wear, which really went along with your sound. Was it the look that came first, or the sound? And how did one influence the other?
The sound came first, we played like less than five shows without uniforms, but the songs were the same. We just decided one day that we wanted to dress like a gang, and for over a year we were wearing all black and had matching armbands, which freaked out more people than the hoods ever did. We would show up at some of our first shows in uniform and keep them on all night, where as now we usually just change before we play. The main reason we kept doing it is because the first time we tried it, we were playing this shitty dive bar in San Antonio that isn’t even there anymore and it was like we started playing and we had the uniforms on and a switch flipped. We had a lot more energy and confidence, it was like we were acting as one being. From then on it was never a question of if we should wear them or not.
Your new stuff is definitely a lot less brooding. It has a more chaotic, modern sound… like Nintendo on meth. Even your imagery is a lot more artsy and fun these days. Why did you diverge from the melancholy stuff, and the overt menace of the hoods? You guys used to make people nervous. I miss that.
It has to do with a few conscious decisions we made after Dan left the band. We seriously considered changing the name, but it was the worst possible time to do that because of the sudden surge of interest in us (Chronicle article and playing more in Austin or whatever). Basically, we felt the “scariness” was kinda played out. I mean our fucking name was Skullening, and coming from San Antonio, which is like the metal capitol of Texas, it’s easy to get dismissed really quickly just because of our name. So we decided to make it more lighthearted, more cartoony, but keep the name so it just disoriented people in a way. We stopped wearing black all the time after Dan left; for our first show with Ryan we switched to all white… it was kinda like a rebirth. The horror stuff and imagery just seemed kinda dumb, and the new uniforms still keep us somewhat of a mystery, but its not so confrontational. It’s funnier to have tough songs and attitude but wear stuff that gets us called fags.
How do you classify what you do, if at all?
Its always been really important for us to be just a good, loud rock band. We don’t really want to be stuck in any genre. Of course there are certain bands we like that we would prefer to be associated with, like people with open minds who are offended by cliche punk rock, and who get what we are doing. But it’s fun to be liked by classic style garage bands and hardcore kids and artsy kids doing the whole keyboard revival thing.
Explain how the San Antonio scene works. What are the shows and the kids like? Do you guys do well there? And also, who do you guys play with? Who are your contemporaries? Or anyone worth mentioning for that matter.
The San Antonio scene is extremely tricky, but can be fun if you do things for yourself. You can’t rely on clubs to do anything for you, and the ones in San Antonio are especially bad about money and creating good bills or giving bands chances that aren’t in the vein of whatever’s popular at the moment. Of course there was Tacoland, where we played our first show and many shows over the next few years up until about a month before Ram was killed. Tacoland was about the only place San Antonio had to offer as an alternative venue that was worth a shit. Ram was always fair to us and gave us chances when no one else would. Now, as far as venues go it’s fairly dead, there were about two spaces open for the last year that had shows that could be fun and were all ages, but both were plagued by noise complaints and general financial problems. There is a new record store there called 180 Grams that is having in-stores and the owner is really supportive of whats going on around town. He also tries to bring national acts down when he can. As far as bands, our main allies would be Animals of the Bible and the Spark, both of whom are great bands. AOTB has made a name for themselves really. Their new stuff is really great, taking rhythm to another level and trying out percussion stuff that not really any other bands are trying right now. The Spark have played out of town less, but their list of shows in San Antonio over the last eight or so years is impressive. They have played with tons of touring acts and they gave us our first chance when we were starting. We begged a lot of bands for shows who we admired, but the Spark were the only ones to come through for us. It also helps that they are the two nicest guys ever. Coincidentally, we share a practice space with both of these bands now.
Tell me about Dan’s departure and Ryan’s return. And why Ryan left to begin with.
The main reason Dan left is still a mystery. It was getting harder for us to play with him because of things he had going on in his life. I’m not going to go into scandalous detail. We just grew apart musically and socially. One of the hugest reasons was he wasn’t interested in touring and even playing out of town was difficult for us at that time. Ryan was in the band during the transition of guitar to organ, and was also the singer when the band existed in a skeletal form while we were in high school. He didn’t play with us on guitar for long because he was busy with school and other things, so it was the obvious choice to bring him back into the fold, really.
You were the primary writer of the band’s material for a long time, which is interesting considering that you’re also the band’s drummer. A few questions here:
? Why did you choose to play drums within the ranks of the band?
? Has your role as the main contributor at all lessened over the years? Is anyone else putting anything forward?
In high school drums interested me, but I didn’t know how to play. I never took lessons and I played bass mainly. We quickly figured out that most drummers are fucking retarded, so I just started banging around on this kit made of trashcans basically and taught myself how to play. It was mainly out of necessity.
As for the songs, for a while I had written most of the stuff, and we were just playing them cause we were kinda lazy and no one else was bringing stuff. Now, it’s completely different. Ryan is the main song writer, and I only have a couple in the set. Ryan writes tons of songs; he has so many we can’t even realistically play them all. It’s really nice to be able to pick and choose. We all contribute now though, so its become a lot more fun.
Technology has really changed things for bands, in terms of making it easier to be seen or heard, and also reaching a very broad audience with less effort than it used to take. As a result, we have way more bands out there, and a lot of them aren’t even very good. Just about anybody can make a record now. I think one of the pitfalls has also been that it makes bands lazy, or more complacent. What are your feelings on technology and its pitfalls for bands like yours?
In a sense, it IS great. You have something like myspace, where you have whole communities of very like-minded people gathering who might otherwise never meet, and it’s made it really easy to share information, too. It’s made it a lot easier to reach a specific kind of person; word-of-mouth is eighty to a hundred times faster now than it was maybe twenty years ago. I mean, I’m sure it does make people lazy, though. Lately, I see no point in fliering our town when I know the same set of friends are going to log onto their computer at least once a day. It’s definitely made it cheaper and easier to set up tours and promote out of town, but it’s probably hurt the whole DIY culture too, significantly. There’s way less zines and art being produced.
Yeah, definitely. Which is odd, because it’s easier than ever to lay something out. Anyway… in terms of success: it’s a pretty bleak probability that bands that make music as edgey or raw as yours will see a big pay day or the embrace of some major label deal. There was a chance say twenty or so years ago that when you turned on the radio you’d still hear SST shit in a city like LA. Years ago, you might find bands like yours on “left of the dial.” Today, you can’t even be reached via the dial, really. Clear channel has made that an improbability, and satellite radio isn’t all that accessible yet. Success in terms of mainstream definitions of what success is, is a pretty bleak prospect for a lot of bands like yours, and consequently, I think it’s made what I call punk music much darker, more edgey, and much more nihilistic. At the same time, the audience is kind of shrinking. What do you think of this, and what do you consider success for your band? And also, how do you see underground music on an international level changing within the next few years? For better or worse?
Knowing that we will probably never be popular outside of a cult realm lets us be really irresponsible, because popular opinion doesn’t touch us, and probably can’t stand us. We have no one to please but ourselves, though. I mean, I think there are a lot more chances being taken now by bands all over the world because there’s no fucking hope of achieving even a minor mainstream success. There’s always been a desire for an alternative… alternative isn’t very alternative anymore anyway. I like that we’re not dependent on an audience or a label. We have a lot more freedom to fuck up in our own special way, and some people, the people who are sick of all the conformist mall culture crap, will naturally love it for whatever reason, which may not even be genuine. It may just be that they dig it because it’s the antithesis of what they’re selling at Hot Topic. But who cares? We’re sticking it to them somehow at least. We’ll take what we can get and some people along the way are bound to just genuinely love what we do. Besides, even if crowds are smaller, I don’t think it’s going to ever be any less fun for some of us.