Fast and frenetic doesn’t always abandon intricacy. Human Skull songs often emulate Saturn 5 rocket lift-offs, often with similarly sustained escape velocity. But bend your ear in a bit closer, fold it through the feedback, and you’ll hear the nifty hooks, agile drum fills and the signature growled-fuzz of the bass in songs like “J. Ramsey” or “Most My Age.” Actually, all eight songs of this Ann Arbor trio’s debut burst with a swiftness that suggests the kinetics of punk. But there’s much more musicality laced into the brunt of this band’s brand of raw power.
“I’ve been trying to answer that ‘genre’ question in a concise enough way to be written down since we started playing together,” singer/guitarist Joel Parkkila said.
“Personally, I’m happy to have this band called ‘punk,’” bassist Brent Barrington said. “Though, I might not use it as a primary description, myself. It strikes me that punk is a mature genre; it has so many sub-genres and offshoots, it seems like anyone that gives a shit about punk rock has a different idea of what it sounds like.”
“The only reason I confuse myself with that question is to write a bio,” Parkkila said.
FUZZ FEST II features Human Skull, along with Fred Thomas, The Amino Acids, Congress, Wolf Eyes, Blue Snaggletooth, Beast In The Field, Bison Machine and many more. The three day festival is hosted by Jukebox Productions and Bang! Media and features 11 bands per night, (cover is $8 / night for 21+ and $10 / night for under 21). As its name suggests, it’s a sonic revue honoring all things FUZZ, from pedal-affected psychedelic rock, to shoegaze, ambient drone experimentalism to noise-pop or, anything with a bit of bite to it, really.
We’ll see how Human Skull’s un-punk-ish style fits in.
“Describing our sound is something we have struggled with from the beginning,” said drummer Stefan Krstovic. “Our music is pretty non-offensive though so we can usually make it work in the end where everybody is happy and having a good time. Depending on the night, I feel like playing louder, faster and more loose and other times I feel like sounding tighter and more controlled or poppy. I guess that's where playing inside the stormy sound is cool, because you can pick and choose how you want to present your band…”
The trio’s humbly titled debut, Demo, rings with dissonance and distortion; and although it’s an altogether enticing sounding rock trip sparked with its gutsy guitar hooks, it’s certainly fraying at the edges. That aesthetic is part of its allure, but vibe of the record also comes from environmental circumstances: they recorded it in Parkkila’s basement in a single afternoon. The singer/songwriter engineered and mixed Demo on protocols, with drums and bass recorded live while the guitars bled through, later overdubbing them with the vocals and back-up vocals.
“We did it in a hurry because we wanted it available at our first show,” Parkkila said.
Barrington did the artwork, inspired by a photo of Billy Idol (you can kinda see a sneer in that ghostly face). “I think it looks especially great for just being a cheap demo to throw around.”
But back to the musicality: Parkkila says he knows there’s no “right way” to write and record but that he’s likely learned all the “wrong ways” by now. “There are certain progressions that I refuse to play and there are certain words that I just think sound ugly. I do have an intention of making our songs cohesive with each other. I tend to start recording rough copies of our songs on garageband before I’m finished writing lyrics and music. This helps me finish the songs. It’s hard write a fast song while playing it.”
“It’s always different though and it can become very menacing in this kind of weird and addicting way. Anyway, there is nothing more fun than playing aggressive music. A big part of it for me is the tempo. All of our songs are practically the same tempo.”
Parkkila draws from a lot of disarmingly non-punk influences, as disparate as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. He says that his two favorite bands are the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, but, also that he changes his mind about stuff like this all the time. “I actually listened to Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right” about 15 times last week. It’s funny and I don’t know why.”
Barrington, meanwhile, came up through punk, with outfits like X, The Ramones, Dead Kennedys. He never got grungy as he grew up, leaning instead towards the innovators of the more shoegazey-fog of indie rock like Yo La Tengo and Mission of Burman. “When we started Human Skull,” Barrington said, “I was thinking about starting a band that sounded like The Feelies' first record—nervous and fast, but plainly presented. We definitely have a scrappier/tougher sound than that, but the influence is there.”
Krstovic’s background has a lot more jazz and classic rock, inviting a lot more open-ended jamming and soloing. “And…in this band, there’s pretty much none of that.” Krstovic was an only child and so he never had that cooler/older music-head to pass down recommendations to him, so he stayed in that more improvisatory diet for a while. “I feel like just in the past handful of years my own style has been sounding more well-rounded,” Barrington said. “I’m discovering music I missed out on and becoming more in tune with new bands and side projects.”
Krstovic knew Barrington for a while before they finally started jamming together. Soon after that, one of Krstovic’s bands, Anonymous Touch, started playing more with one of Parkkila’s past groups, Tan House. I'd always see Joel around late night style, and he'd be like "dude, when are we going to start a band?!"
Barrington admits he’s still new to playing out with bands on the scene, but had some time with Krstovic in another group called Scared To Death. The drum/bass duo met Parkkila through shows with his other bands, notably Chit Chat. “The first time we jammed,” Barrington recalls, “Joel asked us: ‘What do you guys wanna play…? How bout some gnarly shit?!’ …And, then he played the verse riff from our song “The Chase.” That might have been the defining moment for this band.”
“I met these dorks behind a subway restaurant in Romulus,” Parkkila claims. “After finally convincing them that they shouldn’t eat meat sandwiches out of a dumpster, I brought them to my great, great aunt’s house and we plugged in. The rest is present and that was history… Brent and Stefan already gave “their sides” to that story… So, whatever you wanna believe is up to you…”
Human Skull head out on a tour with fellow Ann Arbor rock-outfit PiNG PONG. They just finished recording new material with Fred Thomas, a batch of songs that will sound decidedly sharper than Demo after it’s mastered by Chris Koltay at High Bias Studios. (This bodes well, because this writer already liked what he heard on the decidedly “rough” Demo…)
Human Skull performs on the 3rd day of Fuzz Fest II (June 13)
Full line up:
Thursday, June 11
8:15 Fred Thomas
8:45 Zen Banditos
10:45 Wizard Union
11:45 The Howling Loud
1:15 The Amino Acids
Friday, June 12
8:15 King Under Mountain
9:15 Super Thing
10:15 Buffalo Coven Party
10:45 John Krautner
12:15 Blue Snaggletooth
12:45 Caveman Woodman & Bam Bam Moss
1:15 Wolf Eyes
Saturday, June 13
8:45 Beset by Creatures of the Deep
9:15 Imperial Sun Crusher
10:15 PING PoNG
10:45 Scissor Now
11:15 Human Skull
12:15 Wild Savages
12:45 Bison Machine
1:15 Beast In The Field
Light show by The Overhead Army.