An Interview With Russell Marsden of Band Of Skulls

Russell Marsden Interview

Photo courtesy of Russell Marsden

Formed in 2002 in Southampton, England, Band of Skulls’s amalgamation of blues, indie, and garage rock has long been a sight to behold. Records like Baby Darling Doll Face Honey (2009), Sweet Sour (2012), Himalayan (2014), By Default (2016), and Love Is All You Love (2019) are about as good as it gets, and then some.

At the heart of it all is Russell Marsden, who plays guitar and is the band’s de facto songwriter and frontman. At one point, the band hosted bassist Emma Richardson, who just joined the Pixies after the departure of Paz Lenchantin, and drummer Matt Hayward, but these days, for now at least, Marsden is going it alone in Band of Skulls.

Of course, others will be backing him up—it’s not about replacing anyone. And to be fair, Marsden has his production work with young bands to keep him busy, too. But make no mistake—there’s rustling in the bushes of Band of Skulls’ front yard, and soon, hungry fans will have new music to feast on.

We don’t know exactly when that will be just yet. Marsden will probably rattle off some live shows first. So, in the meantime, Russell Marsden is beaming on ClassicRockHistory.com to dig into his origins, the formation of Band of Skulls, his love for Fender Jazzmasters, and more.

What inspired you to pick up the guitar? 

It was an accident, actually. I was just really getting into music, devouring anything I could get my hands on. But I hadn’t considered making it myself. My younger sister had recently quit her guitar lessons, and her cheap student acoustic was left outside her room on the way to being thrown out.

So, I figured I’d see what I could do. I played it with my thumbs, with the guitar face up like a lap steel. And then I went to bass naturally. I had no technical knowledge but realized I wanted to write songs immediately.

Who were your most significant influences? How do they remain within your sound, and how have you diverged?

Recently, with the last Beatles single, “Now and Then,” I was reminded how the original Beatles Anthology TV show and subsequent obsession with their music inspired me. Paul [McCartney] is my idol, my musical hero. He’s the greatest songwriter we’ve ever had and probably will not be surpassed. He’s also a great guitarist.

Elsewhere, I picked apart Nirvanas MTV Unplugged to learn the guitar parts. I poured over photos of Jonny Greenwood’s pedal board and watched Classic Albums on VH1 like I was going to church. My biggest guitar influence at this point was Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. It spoke to me.

All these elements are still with me. The Beatles gave me the harmony addiction, especially with vocals. It’s still a dark art that can transform any song. Players like [Johnny] Greenwood and Jimi remind me to be creative and always try new ways of approaching guitar.

My divergence is probably into vinyl collecting and sampling. The opposite way to start the creative process is to add guitar at the end and focus on drums and texture. I’m influenced by Dust Brothers, The Beastie Boys, and a sort of postmodern nostalgia.

Do you remember your first guitar and amp? What did that rig teach you that stuck?

I had some cheap ones that I played until the necks fell off. My first real setup was a late-90s CJJ Fender Jazzmaster and a 2×12 Fender Deville Hotrod. Both elements form the basis of my sound even to this day. The guitar is still my number one.

The Jazzmaster was really hard to get hold of back then and had yet to become fashionable again. I saw one on the cover of my dad’s [copy of] Elvis Costello’s My Aim is True album and played an original ’62 at Maccari’s near Denmark Street. I had to have one.

The floating tremolo (including the strings behind the bridge) and spring reverb were the biggest revelations. Being the only guitarist in the trio, I had to find creative ways to fill all the space in our songs. I used the Jazzmaster’s idiosyncrasies to make that happen.

What was your first professional gig? What did you learn?

The first time I made any money out of music was playing bass with a local blues group Named after Bukka White. I was still in high school, and they were much older than me, but they took me under their wing. We played deep cuts like Freddie King’s “She’s a Burglar,” B.B. King’s “Thrill Has Gone, [and] ambitious covers like [Jimi Hendrix’s] “Axis Bold as Love.”

We only stopped for bar fights and the occasional stripper; that’s where the real music hit me. I learned the blues through osmosis; after I left to do my exams, I picked up the electric guitar, and all their influence poured out of me. It still does.

Tell me about the formation of Band of Skulls.

Just after that, I started playing the electric with Matt on drums. We started by having some ideas and a much more organic way of writing songs. We started auditioning people to replace me on bass. It eventually settled on the trio. We were an overnight success after ten years of struggling.

How has the band evolved over the years? 

Well, for a start, we played under the name Fleeing New York; it was another learning phase that gave us the space to experiment with songwriting and the toughness to cope with anything that was thrown at us—sometimes, things were thrown at me! We had our chance at a wider audience with Baby Darling Doll Face Honey, but we, along with some of the songs, were the same band.

Songs like “Hollywood Bowl,” “Asleep at the Wheel,” and even “I Know What I Am” have their roots in Fleeing New York. During the Band of Skulls albums, we had difficulty continually evolving and improving the last effort. I think you can hear that tension getting to a fever pitch and then imploding.

The Marsden and [ bassist Emma] Richardson album was the fallout and, ultimately, the swan song of that period. Now, as the band starts a new era, I see more similarities than differences in the process. I really try to write from a purely inspirational place and not let any bullshit get in the way of the art of making records. The music comes first, always has, always will.

When Emma left the band, was it a shock?

Emma left the band in 2022 to pursue a full-time career as a painter. Yes, it was a shock. We’d just completed what is arguably our best work as songwriters together (Marsden & Richardson). But I had to accept her decision and wished her success.

What did she mean to Band of Skulls, and why do you think she’ll work well for the Pixies, who she’s just joined?

Emma was a long-term collaborator with Band of Skulls. It was always great having a male and female-fronted band, giving us lots of vocal range and texture. I know Emma was much loved by the fans and was a great role model for young women who wanted to get into music. Band of Skulls shared everything as equals; I hope to see that reflected in the next generation of female musicians, as it’s something I’ve always believed in.

I was surprised to hear she was going back to music and in such a similar role for another band. One of our first reviews in the NME [Magazine] compared our sound to that of the Pixies; it’s a funny old world… I can only wish the Pixies all the best for their upcoming tour.

How do you view the way you play guitar today versus the past? What has changed most? 

I play less; I’m much more aware of the spaces left in the music. It’s like breathing, like an actor pauses for dramatic effect. I really like to listen to what’s around me before I play anything. I want to play in my own voice; it needs to be authentic and unmistakably me. I just express myself and work with what comes from that. I think starting out, we all play as much and as loud as we can; less is always more.

Tell me about your present-day riff and solo writing process. 

In Band of Skulls, I often write bass lines to add guitar as a layer. I came up with adding a high octave to the bass to fill in when I took a solo (like a reverse Jack White technique). I started working on that for the second album, Sweet Sour, in 2011. In fact, our engineer at the time, Tom Dalgety, was playing the results to his new band, Royal Blood, who reportedly loved our sound.

I heard the results in 2014 on their debut album. They must have been taking detailed notes and nailed the bass effect, and even some of the tunes were the same! I often get so into bass that I forget there’s guitar parts to do. It’s like a nice added bonus of range to think about.

To me, solos are like songs within the song; I want people to remember them or sing them ideally. Not that I’m averse to some sonic annihilation; a guitar solo should make you feel something. I’m not into overly technical or shredding; music isn’t a sport.

How do you view guitar solos in the modern era? Do they need to be deconstructed and changed from being overblown? 

It’s really interesting how trends change. I still think you can express yourself with a guitar and be modern. In fact, I’ve noticed a lot more pure instrumental guitar bands coming through. Bands like LA LOM are taking it back to the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll, where it’s just the riff and the solos. Maybe we need to ditch the vocals, not the solos.

So, is self-indulgence okay?

Self-expression comes first, [but] when does that become self-indulgent? I just try not to repeat myself, whether that’s in a solo or even song-to-song.

Tell me about your gear: guitars, amps, pedals.

Well, I’ve got a few heavily modded Jazzmasters. My CJI is still with me. The only thing original is the wood; everything else I’ve played to destruction, including the frets, Monty’s brought her back to life.

Second, is a drop-tuning, coil-tapped Jazz that was also modded by Matt at Monty’s. My last one is a custom hollow aluminum body with J Mascis Squire parts. Made by my friend Sparmi, who normally makes historic race cars.

I’m still in love with my Gretsch Falcons but tend to play my anniversary [Gibson Les Paul] Jr. as it’s small and lively but still has the TV Jones pups. Recently, I’ve finally fallen for Gibson; I have a very special 1957 ES-140, which I write with a lot. I’m also getting into 1970s MIJ lawsuit-type guitars—equal in mojo but less precious.

Live, it’s my two Vibro-kings with cabs. They are good enough for the Rolling Stones and good enough for me. They are quite British-sounding to me—Trans-Atlantic. In the studio, I also use a lot of smaller amps, like a [Fender] Blues Jr., an ’80s Marshall Reverb 12, and a tiny, old Danelectro.

Pedals are relatively simple: Volume, various [EHX] Big Muffs, and delays. I’m friends with the team at Gamechanger Audio, so I’m always using the Plasma and Light pedals on records, especially in my work as a producer for other artists. Also, I’m using the UA Audio Dream 65, which is cool for reverb and tremolo.

What are your short and long-term goals? How will you achieve them?

Short-term, I’m working on a new Band of Skulls album and stepping into a slightly different position as a frontman. It’s been so rewarding to play shows and write in this new era. I’m really looking forward to sharing the new songs with the fans and adding them to the Band of Skulls universe.

There are also some exciting plans for the back catalog of Band of Skulls albums. It’s really important to me that the music I’ve been a part of has a great future as well as a past.

I want to keep recording, touring with Band of Skulls, and collaborating with other artists. I love working as a producer as it allows me to help artists realize their vision. I’ve learned so much working with some legendary producers in my career; it almost feels like they are looking over my shoulder when I find myself in the control booth.

So, what’s next is new Band of Skulls music and a tour! And there’s the exciting back catalog news and producing some great new bands. I’ll also be waiting for my signature Jazzmaster (or Falcon, I’m not fussy!).

An Interview With Russell Marsden of Band Of Skulls  article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2024

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