Sunday, May 04, 2008

INTERVIEW: Helen of the Skabs

Ah, the Skabs. I've admitted on numerous occasions how smitten I was with them, and I jumped at the opportunity to publish a little chat with former front-woman Helen. The Skabs definitely stuck out in the mid 90's NY punk scene alongside bands like H-Tomb, Dysfunctional Youth, or the Casualties (perhaps you've heard of that last band). Whereas the lion's share of bands opted for some degree of Partisans or Conflict worship, the Skabs influences clearly laid elsewhere. I would say they were ahead of their time, since the Skabs might have had a prescient feeling about the post-punk craze that would take hold of NY a few scant years later. However, the Skabs simply didn't care about time, and moreover, their noise was so very different in style, comportment, and attitude from what came after, and I dare say most of those folks weren't from New York anyway.

It's timely to be able to post this today, since we've just made the Skabs album CONTENT available as a digital release. Only a lucky handful can claim to have the handscreened LP, which was split with the unfortunately-named, but actually pretty good band "Anal Sausage". In addition to a re-mastered version of all the tracks on that split record, there are also a handful of bonus songs from those sessions that did not appear on that piece of wax. I do believe it is my favorite record of theirs. Hopefully the Skabs vaults will eventually yield yet more material from this band...

Some links:
the Skabs on myspace
MP3 of "Sexy Ass" from CONTENT
MP3 of "the Draft" from Aged to Perfection

The Skabs - Content

Augenmusik: What is the history of the Skabs? How did you get together and where are all of you folks from? The Skabs are from different boroughs, right?

Helen: The Skabs members are from different boroughs, yes - Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens - myself, being a Queens girl.  We all met in LaGuardia Community College.  Sometime during my first collegiate year, I got together with Eddie, Remi, and Adam.  Through those guys, I met Ania, who was attending highschool elsewhere, and voila!  The Skabs were born! 

Augenmusik: I remember the band playing countless times at ABC No Rio-- enough that I'd wager that the place played an important part in the band's formation. What drew you guys to the place in the first place?

Helen: The others were already frequenting ABC No Rio long before I showed up to the scene.  Frankly, I didn't know my ass from my elbow, but I was ready and determined to make my presence known.  I can remember my first Punk show like it was yesterday.  There was a band from Florida.  It was great watching the singer, some fat and drunk bastard with fucked up and dirty green hair, smash an empty beer bottle against one of the poles in the basement and cut himself in different places.  He was bleeding like the fat and drunk bastard he was.  He reeked of piss and sweat.  I immediately thought this was the right kind of place for a wide-eyed youth like myself.  Not long after that did I pull out the Manic Panic and give myself a stylish green troll hairdo before graduating to a sexy purple and green Soo Catwoman haircut.

Augenmusik: The falling out with ABC No Rio was well documented. It's a good bit in the past now. Do you have any words about what happened and what sparked the Skabs' ire-- with as much or as little diplomacy as you'd like?

Helen: Feigned diplomacy is a popular method of manipulation that works so well because it often goes by undetected.

Augenmusik: Skabs' releases were few and far between during most of the band's existence. Some of the bands of that era in the NY punk scene went on to release a lot of music, and others didn't. Given that the Skabs were big enough to pack a club, played out of town a good deal, and toured more than a few times, to what do you attribute this for the Skabs? It seems there was a lot more recorded material than there was recorded output.

Helen: Our recordings were few and far in between due to a crippling lack of financial resources.  That we constantly played benefit shows meant that we weren't going to be paid for our services.  I'm amazed we managed with what little we had.  We weren't shrewd business people, after all.  Moreover, there were small labels that offered to put out Skabs material but declined upon listening to what they perceived to be as either too harsh, too weird, or too confrontational for underground Punk marketability.  How ironic.

Augenmusik: The progression of the Skabs' music was pretty gradual, but quite pronounced as it incorporated more electronic elements and got darker. How did you guys approach writing songs like that? To what do you owe the shift in sound over the years?

Helen: I think it's important to remember that The Skabs were a band that was all about experimentation.  None of us were in previous bands to start with, so it can be said that our project was a long work in progress.  I wouldn't call it a "shift" in song writing so much as I would call it a dire need to kill off approaching boredom.  Without boredom, I don't think we would have grown musically or have bothered playing shows and booking two solid tours by ourselves.  Besides, shouldn't something happen when people learn to play their instruments?  How can a band possibly make the same record forever?   

Augenmusik: For sure, there were plenty of bands the Skabs played with at the time the band was around. However, in retrospect, the Skabs really stand alone during that time in New York in my mind. Are there any bands that you felt were kindred spirits at the time?

Helen: I cannot think of any spirits that were truly kindred.  Everybody's looking out for themselves in the big scheme of things.

Augenmusik: Touring must have been a trip for you folks since the Skabs could have toured the punk circuit, but didn't quite fit in, and routinely ignored anything akin to an indie scene, and hit the road with song crazy shows on the itinerary. What were the tours like? Any good stories?

Helen: There are too many stories to get into, so many in fact that I really shouldn't bother unless I was writing a book.  Once, we arrived to St. Louis where people showed up to see a New York City circus.  It seemed like our reputation had preceded us again.  We got through playing three songs.  Some guy looked me in the eye, grabbed his crotch, and shouted for me to take my shirt off.  I called him over, and sure enough, he approached the stage willingly.  It was then that I kicked him in the face and busted his nose.  He was bleeding all over the fucking place.  His friends tried jumping on stage when we started the fourth song.  We fought them off with mic stands as the power got cut off.  As we loaded our equipment into the van, the next thing I knew, I was surrounded by an angry mob of testosterone-driven males.  The soundman, who looked like he could've been a member of ZZ Top, fired his shotgun into the air to disperse the crowd, and helped us out with our equipment.  We skidded off as 40 oz. beer bottles rained on our van.

Augenmusik: What are the members of the band up to these days? From what I remember, it's some pretty interesting stuff? Do you guys keep up with the goings on in music at all? It's a very different music scene than 15 years ago...

Helen: I'm looking forward to hearing the new Portishead cd.  I'm a big fan of Goldfrapp's Supernature - liquid gold music and a voice like mulled wine to match.  The new Diamanda Galas cd intrigues me.  As for keeping up with any kind of scene, I'm just glad we did what we did when we did it.  Not only is it a very different music scene, but I find it's a very dull one as well.  After The Skabs, we have since traded the music scene for the world of high gastronomy.

Augenmusik: While the Skabs had a good run, one can't help think they broke up at just the wrong time as a lot more bands came along with whom the Skabs could probably have pal-ed around with on both sides of the country, but started making noise just around the time of the band's demise. Any regrets? Any desire to do anything again with the Skabs or with music again?

Helen: As a former member of The Skabs, I honestly feel we couldn't have broken up at a better time.  When the Towers fell in '01, strange feelings of displacement were resonating with the members and affecting different areas of our lives.  I walked away eagerly and swiftly without looking back on my experience for a very long time.  You know, no life is without its regrets, but I don't do my dirty laundry in public.  As for our direct involvement with music, given the right circumstances, it would be good fun to do a last record.

Augenmusik: An extended version of "Content" has just been made available again. Is there anything you'd like to share about this record? Hopefully it will help satiate some longtime Skabs fans, but also introduce more people to your music. Are there any words you'd like to leave with the folks discovering the Skabs for the first time?

Helen: CONTENT is my personal favorite Skabs release because that LP is the hallmark of our creative peak.  The songs are reflective of the magic and the darkness we felt collectively, and the personal struggle we were enduring at the time.  Listening to those songs again for the first time in years has transported me to a New York which, I'm afraid, will never be seen again by future generations.  For now, I will say only this, that idealism and romanticism are the follies of youth.  We should've sold out when the majors came knocking.


Saturday, May 03, 2008

A night out in Montreal: Trouble Vs Glue & folks at Sala Rossa.

It's pained me a little bit that I moved to Montreal and have made a habit out of always posting about music that is happening elsewhere. Thankfully, this will change with this post. A few weeks ago, Duchess Says actually played their record release party to much fanfare in town. They're a band I've wanted to see ever since I moved here, but they've only played but a handful of times in the year and a half since then. Indeed I had planned on writing down a few lines about that show because I was excited to go. But, at the last minute I flaked out. While $18 in a nice theater isn't an entirely unreasonable price, that + a subway ticket + some drinks at the show was feeling a little hard on the wallet on that particular day. Alas, nothing to report.... except that I rather like all the songs of theirs I heard and have been itching to hear a lot more. Apparently people in town (and elsewhere) are rapidly beating me to it.

Last week I got an email from Toni of the italian spazz-y dance band Dada Swing that his new band with fellow-Swing member Manuela, Trouble vs Glue was on tour in North America and were playing in Montreal on April 30th and May 1st. I went down to the May 1st show at Sala Rossa with Big A Little A, Thundrah, and An Albatross. While this won't be news to anyone from Montreal, Sala Rossa is a decent sized venue hosting the shows of Blue Skies Turn Black (and reminding one a little bit of Union Pool in Brooklyn, albeit a bit bigger), housed in the ballroom of a former Spanish social club, which is now also home to a very nice Spanish tapas restaurant right below the venue. I must say, if this popped up a few years ago on Ludlow Street, I'd have been mortified (as I was when those types of things popped up), but on St Laurent, it's actually quite nice; the shows are nice, food is reasonable, sound is always good. It's like if Pianos were ripped out of NY and not over-run with bridge and tunnel. And the food is pretty fucking awesome, thank you very much.

Dada Swing played with the Weegs on a past tour in Europe and have been penpals since around then. Trouble vs Glue is the new band featuring two thirds of the aforementioned act, formed in the vacuum and creative frustration after DS's guitarist moved from Rome to Brussels. As a two piece, they have a slim drums and keyboards and a quirky, guitar-and-keyboards sound. Very fun, loose songs that would sound best at a drunken party. The big stage was a bit of an awkward set up for the two-piece, but within 3 songs, they quickly commandeered the situation and got the attention of the arriving audience who had likely never heard of them before. As the show went on, the band's energy level crescendoed, as did the appreciation of the crowd. It was fun to watch and I'm glad their stop in town pulled me out of the house that Thursday.

[Trouble vs Glue. Mediocre photo by: me]

After our openers came home-town act Thundrah. My first encounter with them, they made quite a good impression. Every town seems to have their tropes, and one of Montreal's is the lengthy, rhythmic, and noisy. Thundra had all of those, especially the first two, in abundance, and at times came across as a mixture of Neu! and Hawkwind intent on harnessing the raw tempos of ESG. I quite dug it, and they more than kept my attention. If I were to complain a little, which I feel justified in doing since I did actually play close attention, is that they had a number of very good, insistent parts that built up nicely but didn't quite resolve into anything else. A little more emphasis on the hooks in the transitions and they'd be quite nice. I know I'll definitely look twice the next time I see their name in the paper. I'd like to see them again.

Big A Little A are from Brooklyn, and the name sounds familiar to me from those Todd P mailing list emails I used to get. I can't admit to having seen them before. I also can't admit to digging their name very much, but the kinds of band names that play on language have gaining in prominence for a while. Nobody consulted me whether I like it, and I doubt anyone will, but I can deal. As for the music, very bluntly: having 3 drummers in a band is a great idea. Period. But also one that can get old very quick and where you need to be on your toes with your ideas. Aa's first few songs were slightly spacey jams that incorporated some interesting Carnaval-style drums. Percussive and interesting enough to yield a decent song, I did find myself losing steam by the end of the song. But then they changed it up with a darker, more electronic-inflected number that reminded me of a slower Nitzer Ebb tune and really took me by surprise. And the set continued to go through different moods, all the while retaining its emphasis on percussion. I'd be glad to snatch up a record of theirs for repeated lessons, and if there wasn't such slim pickings in the bank account now, I probably would have. Some of the drum beats were a bit quaint, like Samba-junior. But shit, if these guys went to Rio for a year to study drumming, they'd come back and write a legendary record. Seriously.

An Albatross. When I was in the Bad Form, we had a show booked at ABC No Rio around 2000 where we were supposed to play with them. They didn't show up... and neither did half the Bad Form (we still played). But I still haven't seen them! They seemed like nice enough dudes, and I've been curious to check them out a few times, but things didn't change today. I had work early the day, and not enough steam in me to go without decent sleep, so I skipped out. Next time, then!

Tomorrow: a Skabs interview!

Labels: , ,