Live Skull, Dead Body
Seeing as all of their songs on Spotify have a little "less than 1000 plays" symbol next to them, chances are you haven’t listened to much Live Skull. They were the best of the New York no-wave psychos, and they've aged better than Hungarian dessert...
Seeing as all of their songs on Spotify have a little "<1,000" symbol where the play count is, chances are you haven’t listened to much Live Skull. This is your fault, not the band's. Of the scowling noise-rockers peppering downtown Manhattan throughout the 80s, the quartet was the leanest and meanest around, free of Sonic Youth’s mass-market aspirations, Swans’ mesmerizing histrionics, or Rat at Rat R’s sociopolitical bent. What Live Skull did boast were gnashing, telekinetic guitars and a musical ferocity that has aged better than Hungarian dessert wine foot-stomped by gypsy slaves bred explicitly for that purpose.
From a structural standpoint, the group's tunes vacillate between repetitive, lumbering grooves and jarring suites scarred by abrupt shifts in mood and tempo. Gnarly lyrics stuffed with splatter-film kitsch paint an anxious portrait of urban malaise and emotional torment. Recited in bassist Marnie Greenholz's stern wail or guitarists Mark C. and Tom Paine's cold-blooded monotones, the words obliquely encapsulate a Koch-era New York nightmare. In 1987, vocalist Thalia Zedek came onboard; further lineup changes ensued and the material moved in more straightforward and melodic directions.
During its seven-year run, Live Skull released four studio LPs, three EPs, and a concert album documenting a performance at CBGB. France's Desire Records recently reissued the first two of those works, 1984's self-titled debut and 1985's devastating Bringing Home the Bait, with the rest of the catalog slated to follow. In honor of that, Mark C. invited me into his NoHo apartment, where we discussed his zip code’s seamier days and their influence on his life and art.
VICE: How long have you lived here?
Mark C.: Since 1980. The space that I'm still living in was the open loft where Live Skull started a couple years later. Marnie, Tom, and I got together in a big, dark room with our amps facing each other, just letting the sounds ring out, like a meditation.
This neighborhood has certainly changed.
Real estate agents have all been developing the Bowery, especially over the last 10 years. But this used to be a complete ghetto. Broadway was abandoned. It always amazed me that you could have a whole neighborhood full of empty buildings, storefronts with broken glass, and vacant lots in the middle of downtown Manhattan. You couldn't get the police to come visit you unless there was blood or a gun involved. But there was a certain amount of freedom because of that. The city was exciting because there was a lot of underground music and art going on. All this real estate was available for people to do what they wanted without regulation. It seemed like anything was possible.
What's the most surreal thing you saw here in the 80s?
We didn't have a buzzer on the door; we often didn't even have a lock. You had to be in touch via pay phones, if they were working. In order to visit your friends, you had to pay off the junkies who were guarding your friends' doors. They'd claim it as their territory so you had to offer them something in order to get past. People would get mugged when they were waiting for me to come downstairs. I remember going with my brother and my girlfriend to some restaurant, and this guy started following us with this big stick. We were walking, keeping an eye on him, and we got to the restaurant. Before we went in, he said, "You owe me." We said, "What are you talking about?" and he said, "For protecting you." And we just ignored him, stepped inside, and sat down. For the entire meal, he tapped on the glass with this big stick, waiting for us to leave. We ended up calling a cab and getting the staff to help us avoid this guy who wanted protection money for walking us to the restaurant from our house, which was only six blocks away.
How did this environment impact the band?
It was interesting to see how society turns when it's ignored by the powers that be. You had the extremes of humanity right in your face. I think it subconsciously affected our work and a lot of people's work. We used noise music to reflect that chaos.
Live Skull has a stone-faced reputation, but the lyrics feature all this B-movie imagery. Did people tend to overlook the humor?
I often felt that a certain amount of our audience took all of this gore too seriously. We were trying to use gore as a metaphor. We needed extreme imagery—the imagery in these horror films—to express the intensity of our frustrations with the world as we saw it. We needed the Driller Killer, drilling into live flesh to evoke our sense of alienation from the cultural norm! That imagery could also live up to the extremes of the music. We had a monster beat and an in-your-face guitar sound as big and noisy as we could make it. Lyrics about love and pretty descriptions of rides in the countryside weren't going to cut it. But machetes chopping off limbs and spurting blood were attuned to that sound. We were equating the psychological drama of our lives in New York with this physical drama on the screen. A big step was putting those gore images in the first person instead of just commenting on them. In our song “The Loved One,” I screamed, "You know I'm coming/ To wreck your life/ To tear your face off/ And drive a stake through the heart of your loved one." Suddenly, I had a character to explore—a loud, angry character craving attention, craving a release.
To whom does the song "Mr. Evil" refer?
"Mr. Evil" was just a nod to all of that degraded, messy, and fucked-up imagery in punk and post-punk music and art. We chose the name of the band partly because the art in New York that was really moving everybody was loud and bold and coming on strong. We picked the name Live Skull because we thought that was something we had to live up to. And "Mr. Evil" is a title you have to live up to. It's not "A Small Evil" or "Just a Little Bit Bad." It's "Mr. Evil." This is it. And you wonder, where does it come from? What is that part of the psyche and how do we all relate to it? We're intrigued by it while we're repelled by it. But we explored it all the same in our art and often in what we saw in our day-to-day lives. One summer evening, I was riding my bike home and a group of kids, ages 11 to 14, fanned out across the street. I tried to turn my bike around but I was hit from behind and knocked unconscious. Someone had swung a golf club, hit the back of my spine, and knocked me off my bike, in front of my house in the heart of New York City. That was the world we were living in. That's "Mr. Evil."
What's the story behind the cover of Bringing Home the Bait, the one with the brain inside a golden trophy?
First, we came up with the title of the record. Once we got the idea to use a brain, the notion of putting it in a trophy cup came to us immediately. In this demented, creepy, B-movie world, you cut off someone's arm and you wanna show it off! It's just the height of absurdity. At that time, any day you walked over there, the Meatpacking District had full-size dumpsters piled with bones with bits of meat and blood still attached to them. There was a big hooker scene, too. But we went there specifically to find a fresh brain, whatever looked closest to a human brain. A butcher told us to use calf's brains. He gave us one that had been frozen; it didn't look so good. Then he called us when he got a fresh one. I'd already gotten the trophy from a sports store. We plunked the brain into the trophy, took it outside of the loft, and started taking pictures of it. We got a little worried about what was happening to the brain in the sun. We had the frozen one and the fresh one. For the back cover photo, I think we tried burning the frozen one initially. We just put newspaper under it and didn't do any fire prevention. In the beginning, Tom was trying to hold it, then we just put it down on the kitchen table and lit the newspaper and almost burned the place down while I was snapping away. Now you have all this artwork with body parts and gore that has become big in galleries. Back then, when the album came out, it wasn't viewed as art.
Tom ate the brain that appears on the cover. Was it tasty?
Tom was interested in gourmet food and had worked at a semi-fancy restaurant in San Francisco. He had some recipe for brains. I can't remember what herbs he used—I'm sure there was a little garlic. It was kind of scrambled brains. I'm a vegetarian, so I obviously couldn't try it. I think it tasted OK, although I don't think Tom was totally in love with it. To his credit, he was determined not to just waste the thing.
Nose-to-tail eating. How did Live Skull's approach to guitars relate to everything we've discussed?
Tom and I knew that we wanted guitars to be the central, present, and evocative core of the music. We didn't want anything that sounded bluesy or like 70s rock. No obvious leads, not like heavy metal. We wanted the vocals low in the mix, and a charging, swirling guitar sound infused with noise and melody and based on repetition. We wanted to build a huge and, at times, cinematic atmosphere. We were, first and foremost, trying to be explosive with guitars. We wanted visual guitar playing, that knife blade dripping with blood. My name for the kind of music that we played wasn't "noise rock." I always thought of it as "expressionistic rock." We didn't just want the crashing noise of no wave or the pretty flourishes of some of the great British post-punk records. We wanted to create a richer, fuller sound that was as big as a movie screen.
Head to Desire Records to pick up two recent reissues of Live Skull's early records.