In Conversation with Skunkmello

Skunkmello is a Brooklyn-based rock band That’s been thrilling audiences for the last few years with their own lively blend of blues and rock and a unique narrative style of lyric-writing. They’ve just released the track “Highway 17” from their album Hot Chicken, which is due for release the 10th of June. A hectic touring schedule has had them traversing the United States and stopping at some of the best venues and festivals in the country, including SXSW, CMJ, and Musikfest. The band is comprised of Matt Bartlett (vocals, guitar, harmonica), Ed Cuervo (guitar, vocals), Jay Holt (bass, vocals), and Jono Ori (drums, vocals). Recently Matt and Jono took the time to answer Wanda Waterman’s questions about their musical journey.

What role did music play in your childhood?
JONO: I come from a long line of musicians and musical theater people, and the Philadelphia area (where I grew up) has a very rich, insulated musical community. I started playing in my first band at around the age of 12, but before that music was always the most important thing in our house.

MATT: I always liked building things and inventing various characters and faux universes to spend my time in. Music provided another essential avenue of invention in which I could create in real time with sounds. Over time, music became the way my friends and I would hang out. It was what we did to relax and what we did to party:
pumping loud noises out of blasted amplifiers in the suburban basements of cringing parents while clandestinely sipping on the booze we’d previously siphoned from their liquor cabinets or lifted off of stalled trains. High-proof rock-and-roll.

What or who in your musical training had the most?and best?influence on you, as a musician, a composer, and a human being?
JONO: My grandmother was a singer and piano player. She had a shot at being a professional musician, but the schedule and low pay that came with that line of work deterred her. Instead, our family became her audience. She encouraged all of her grandchildren to pursue music.

MATT: My folks put up with a lot of high-voltage noise over my youthful
years, so that counts. There were musical mentors and front-lawn flop-outs, now lost to the annals of burnt brain cells and empty bottles. And there were also all my friends from life and my friends from the records: Hendrix, Zappa, the Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones, Miles Davis, Captain Beefheart, Dylan, the Band, Townes Van Zandt, and so many others. Strange people. Good buddies. Good times.

How did that rockabilly sound emerge?
JONO: The foundation of our music is in our history as a band as much as it is in the roots and rock music that influences us. The whole thing started with us taking Matt’s musical ideas, finding grooves that felt comfortable with them, and then expanding upon those to create structured pieces of music. So any genre we attempt to conquer in our work mainly emerges from that kind of pattern. Jamming musical ideas until a rhythm emerges, and then allowing ourselves to be flexible with whatever style or genre comes out naturally. Sometimes That’s rockabilly, or blues, or punk rock, or reggae, or folk music, or country. It’s always Skunkmello, though.

MATT: Yeah, that sounds right. We started out as a garage blues band but I guess our sound reflects the music we’ve been listening to, and I’ve been digging a lot of rockabilly, outlaw honky tonk, and jukebox rock-and-roll lately?that Bakersfield sound. Been listening to a lot of Chet Atkins, Scotty Moore, Roy Buchanan, Albert Lee, and James Burton. Humbling stuff; hopefully some of it shines through.

What was the most mesmerizing musical experience of your life?
MATT: Depends on the day really and if It’s happening, It’s happening. I got misty a few weeks back watching Jim Campilongo play with his trio during their Monday night residency at Rockwood in the Lower East Side. He’s a beautiful player with a brilliant trio, and in that moment it was utterly mesmerizing. Emotional stuff, for sure.

JONO: I’m mesmerized by music and its ability to unite people all the time, especially now that most of what I listen to is made by people I’ve met through being in this band. I think The Silks, a band we’ve split bills with a few times, are the best damn live band on earth. I’m always blown away with what Hollis Brown does, and they’re writing amazing songs right now. The band Canyon Spells? live vocal performances are magic and rival some of the best I’ve ever heard. It’s easy to be mesmerized in that kind of company.

Who writes these clever lyrics and what prepares him?
JONO: Matt writes the lyrics, with the exception of a few changes made in the moment during recording sessions or when one of us feels emphasis needs to be placed on something else rhythmically. It works. He can tell you what prepared him to do that.

MATT: Yeah, for what It’s worth, I write them and the words are basically born out of a lack of preparation, for life and everything else. I’m always reading and prefer the wilder and more debauched aspects of literature from numerous sources of dubious authority. That, combined with a knack for stumbling into strange and sordid circumstances in uneven parts of the world, helps to provide both the raw material as well as the motive to transcribe it to tune. I typically have pages of drivel stuffed into my pockets, ready to be uncrumpled at the most inopportune moments and unraveled into a song.

How did you find each other?
JONO: I was introduced to Matt through his best friend Brett, who at the time was dating my ex-girlfriend’s roommate. Matt and I had both been searching for someone to play music with and had a lot of shared musical interests right off the bat. Ed was sort of my natural first choice to fill out the band after that because he and I had played and recorded music together in another band for a few years. For live performances, we remained a three piece for a majority of the next three years. When we first started working on songs for what would become Hot Chicken, we realized that some of the stuff would be better executed on stage with a second guitar player, and because Ed already had a good grasp of the grooves we play, he switched to guitar and we recruited Jason from a local band called I’ll Be John Brown to play bass.

What are your rehearsals like?
JONO: It really depends upon what we’re rehearsing for. The double-edged sword of getting more people to pay attention is that we get offered more opportunities that we feel we can’t turn down. It’s certainly not a bad thing; It’s what musicians wish for. But when those opportunities come, rehearsals can feel very business-like because we always want to be as prepared as possible when we get out in front of new people. When we do have space and time to experiment and we’re not just rehearsing for a set of tour dates, our rehearsals are more interesting. We try our songs in different ways, we jam for hours, we hang out and listen to other people’s stuff and try to figure out how we can do what they did. That kind of thing.

Has anything funny or bizarre ever happened to you while in the recording studio or on the stage?
MATT: Ed puked a few times into a garbage bucket in front of the stage one time while we were playing in Boston. That was pretty punk rock.

Does Brooklyn help or hinder the muse?
MATT: Both, probably. It was a great and vibrant place to make music for a while, but we’ve recently had to escape for the greener pastures of Queens. We put our time in there, for sure, but the warehouses and dives we used to frequent are unfortunately being torn down and laid up with astounding efficiency. Instead of quietly lamenting the encroaching vermin, we decided to cruise over the Pulaski Bridge to avoid the low-tide sludge that tends to gather in ditches below the water line.

What do you love best about Hot Chicken? And why did you call it that?
MATT: The flavor and the burn and what it does to your poor and unsuspecting intestines, large and small.
JONO: If we’re talking about the album, I like how concise it feels. It’s definitely more in line with Whiskey & Oatmeal and Lowlife Dreams in that respect. Hot Chicken feels a little bit more like one complete thought from start to finish.
MATT: Dowsed overnight in a briny death sauce of moonshine gasoline mixed with fermented Fukushima fire-sludge for a real cool time.

What did you learn from your previous EPs and LP?
JONO: What’s more important about Whiskey & Oatmeal is probably what we forget about making it. We had a single night in the studio booked to record a demo for booking purposes. We walked out with a complete EP. Lowlife Dreams showed us the value of patience, considering how fast Whiskey & Oatmeal was completed. We worked tirelessly recording and mixing that thing. It’s also how I learned to assemble a full package?sequencing songs, hiring a mastering engineer, creating the artwork, pulling all those pieces together for manufacturing. That was really rewarding for me.

Wanda also writes the blog The Mindful Bard:The Care and Feeding of the Creative Self.

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