An Interview with Skittish
Skittish is a band that’s all about grandiose statements. For their third album, Skittish are releasing a double-album titled “The Perfect Shade of Green” on October 22 at Station 4 in St. Paul, MN. I recently had a chance to sit down and catch up with Jeff about all things Skittish.
Todd Millenacker: Why a double album and why now?
Jeff Noller: Well, I had a single album all planned out. With my new home studio I was going to record it myself and get it out there and start touring immediately. But I had some drastic life changes and decided to add a second half to the album. A darker, more experimental side to the rock based first half. I also wanted the artistic challenge of weaving themes and ideas back and forth between the two sides of the album.
Plus, I’ve always loved albums. Sergeant Peppers, Graceland, stuff that has a feel and flow through every song. A complete piece of art. And in this day of downloading singles and quantity of content produced, not quality, it seems like the album is dying. Its fun and delightfully self-sabotaging to do the exact opposite of what ‘industry experts’ are saying. I still have plenty of “fuck you!” left in me from college.
Todd: Did you find it hard to come up with enough quality material?
Jeff: Well, after our last record, I had a pretty hefty case of writer’s block that lasted about a year. I ended up having to go to Nashville to cure it. On the way back I wrote the entirety of ‘Keep Driving’ off the new record, and for the next four months or so, the songs just came hemorrhaging out of me. The thing about writer’s block is that you’re still writing stuff, it all just sounds like crap to you. There are actually a couple pieces of songs I wrote during that dark time that I came back to and thought, “hmmm, this isn’t so bad” and popped them into songs on the album. If you just keep the antenna up long enough, eventually you’ll get filled up and the creative sap will have to flow out somewhere.
Todd: How did you determine what would make the cut? Are there many outtakes?
Jeff: What made the cut were the songs that fit well together, and flowed with the themes in the album. Also they had to be damn catchy. There are a couple songs I cut that really advanced the themes of the two records and melded them together even more but I had to axe them because they weren’t that interesting. There ended up being about five songs left off the record. So, 29 total written in a couple years, that’s not bad.
Todd: Could you tell me a little bit about your musical inspirations? What do you look for in a song/band?
Jeff: As a kid I listened to Beatles, John Denver, Simon and Garfunkle and show tunes.
As a teen I got into NIN, Marilyn Manson and Korn, but always kept coming back to folk-rock and good songwriting. I suppose now I think a song really needs great, non-clichéd lyrics, and some sense of showmanship. In my opinion, the best bands out there right now are Radiohead, Okkervil River and Sigur Ros.
Todd: Skittish performs in many different guises (2-piece and 5 piece to name a few), do you consider Skittish to be a “duo”, “band”, or “solo” act? Are you always the one writing the songs? Who performs on the new album?
Jeff: In my mind, Skittish is always Vonnie and I. She’s stuck it out through cold winters of me mixing and recording in my basement for months on end, and we’ve spent hours working out harmonies and different parts for these new songs. Plus, I’ve written a bunch of songs for her to sing lead on for this new record.
I do pretty much all the writing, but a lot more goes into making a band work than just the writing, she helps with morale and is damn good at the live shows. We’ll always be bringing in a handful of members for live shows, but this band belongs to Vonnie and me. That being said, we have collected some very skilled and loyal players recently. Like Colin McCowan, our drummer. Talented MF-er, that one.
There are also performances on the new album from about 10 different people I hired to do little parts here and there with instruments I don’t know how to play. Then Vonnie sings a lot and plays the accordion. Our friend Chris Lahn played some mandolin and helped with suggestions here and there, as I was living with him, and would get his opinion when he was leaving for work in the morning and I had stayed up all night mixing. Although I played and sang everything else, my pride lays in the ‘found sound samples’ I used for rhythm tracks. Using my computer as an instrument was vital in the uniqueness of this record.
Todd: What was the process of putting together the songs for this record? They all sound quite live — Did you and the session musicians record together in one room or did you lay down a guide vocal/guitar and work from there?
Jeff: I made each drummer a rough copy of the songs that had just me singing and playing guitar. They’d listen for a week and then we would get together and work out the parts. I would play with them and give suggestions and we’d hammer out each hit before the studio. I wanted the drums and bass to be perfect so we spent a lot of serious -read sober- time getting those parts down well. After that, all the guitars, vocals, and other instruments were recorded by us getting in the feel of the song and keeping huge chunks of takes, warts and all.
Todd: You mentioned the percussion on this disc is composed of ‘found sound samples’. Would you care to elaborate on this? What’s the most unusually percussion instrument you’ve found/created?
Jeff: Sure. Before recording this album, I knew that I wanted much more than traditional drums. I’ve always loved the feel of NIN Downward Spiral. That “organic techno” sound. Now, I didn’t go as far in the techno direction as Trent Reznor, but my weird folky numbers definitely have elements of frenetic counter-rhythms and layered sounds.
I had this idea before even starting the recording process, so I bought a nice handheld field recorder, and for the 4 months that I was actually building my home studio, I would walk around my house, friends’ houses, my parents cabin, my factory workplace and collect various rhythms/sounds that people hear everyday but don’t really pay much attention to. I then incorporated this (time to sound REAL pretentious) natural soundtrack into songs on the album that needed some rhythmic kick, but also something other than the clichéd drum sound.
I used doors slamming, light-bulb pull chain, glass clinking, wood snapping. My favorite is the main, low banging sound in “Love Songs and Lullabyes” which I made by taping a contact mic to my dryer and banging the hell out of it to the beat of the song.
Todd: What’s your recording set-up? How/where did you pick-up your engineering chops?
Jeff: I bought a crappy little house with all my inheritance money when the market was down, spent four months building a studio, a year recording it (in 2009 I saw the sun 6 times), and 4 months mixing/mastering it. My setup is a Digi003 with Protools 7 and an A2D with API preamps, a distressor, a lunchbox, an OCD attitude and a high tolerance for staring at a computer screen.
I learned how to do all things recording by spending 7 years aggressively lummoxing my way through Protools and doing everything wrong in between violent fits of swearing. Nothing sears the correct way of doing things onto your brain quite like ruining 20 hours of work on a stupid mistake. So by this record, I was quite confident in my abilities and with the help of the gearslutz.com forum, I think I did about as well as I could. Of course, as always happens, I learned so much in the process.
Todd: What do you look for in a song? What do you feel makes a song good?
Jeff: Since I am quite the jerk when it comes to liking/respecting songs, my criteria is a slippery tightrope flanked by hungry crocodiles. A good song has to walk the line between really catchy and not too poppy. Interesting instrumental work without being to masturbatory. And never insulting the intelligence of the audience but without like they wrote it with a thesaurus. But trumping all of this, it has to be honest. If I don’t believe the singer, than I am immediately turned off. I can still like the song even if I disagree with it, but I’m fucking pissed off if you try to lie to me.
Todd: What’s next for Skittish? I imagine after recording a double album you’re not too anxious to get back into the studio? Any plans for a tour?
Jeff: I am not too anxious to get into the studio. We have big plans of skipping out on the Minnesota winter in favor of a tour that takes us any place warm. Our CD Release show will be October 22nd and we’ve got big plans for that involving burlesque dancers, horn players, a choir all on stage. Should be a good time. Really I just need to get out and see the world that I’ve been missing for the last year and a half. It would be a bit too hypocritical to preach seizing the day, experiencing the world, and escaping small towns in my songs and then spend the next year watching Full House in my living room. Although…that is pretty damn entertaining.