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It’s been a delight, as a jaded, old music writer who resists getting excited about anything but has over the past 18 months or so become very, very excited about Casper Skulls — pathologically excited, some might say — to witness many a fellow jaded, old music-industry professional since introduced to the band become very, very excited about Casper Skulls, too.
The young noise-pop quartet is still flying slightly under the radar, even in its adopted hometown of Toronto, but that is largely, one suspects, because the two-year-old Skulls haven’t yet taken their scorching live show, which suddenly went from good to utterly bonkers around the time of a head-turning Canadian Music Week gig at Lee’s Palace last May, out on the road in any great capacity. Also, they only just released their debut LP, the richly textured and prematurely “mature” Mercy Works, a month ago. Everything can’t happen at once. But, mark these words, it will indeed happen for Casper Skulls. They’re too good for it not to happen.
“That Lee’s Palace show was definitely a big one for us, where we also felt like a band kind of in control of what we were doing — more so than we’d ever felt previously,” concurs guitarist and singer Neil Bednis, over beer and nachos on Dundas West with co-vocalist, co-guitarist and real-life partner, Melanie Gail St-Pierre.
“It’s been really, really positive. We’re pretty excited about it,” says St-Pierre of the Skulls’ recent trajectory, which includes a gig on Saturday, Dec. 9 at the Rec Room. “And now we’ve had our first ‘child,’ our first full-length. So we’re really excited . . . It’s nice to, like, have these songs out in the world and we can’t change them anymore or anything like that and they just exist on their own.”
Although Casper Skulls haven’t been a band for all that long at all, they’ve already managed to stage a surprise with Mercy Works.
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Lusher and more contemplative than the group’s spiky first couple of singles and last year’s highly promising Lips and Skull EP, the new record, produced by Josh Korody of Beliefs and sumptuously mixed by Alex Newport, who’s worked in the past with Weaves and Pissed Jeans, witnesses the Skulls downplaying their formidable punk-rock chops and collective penchant for squall in favour of a statelier, sorta-shoegazey/sorta-Goth approach (occasionally with strings woven into the arrangements) veritably drowning in gorgeous sad-girl/sad-boy vocal melodies.
It’s highly literate music, both in the “bookish” sense one might expect from titles like “I Stared at ‘Moses and the Burning Bush’ ” and “The Science of Dichotomies” (even the name is a coded reference from Richard Hell’s autobiography I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp) and in a spot-the-influence musical sense that draws ready comparisons to the likes of Sonic Youth, Pavement, Television, the Fall and early, jangly My Bloody Valentine — this writer also can’t get through “Lingua Franca” without dreaming of Casper Skulls someday dropping a devastating cover of ’Til Tuesday’s New Wave classic “Voices Carry” — but that’s already starting to synthesize those influences into something distinctively more than the mere sum of their parts. As a first foot forward, Mercy Works is a decidedly assured one.
The Skulls’ rapid growth is fairly remarkable, since they only became a band in early 2015, shortly after Bednis gave up doing the long-distance-relationship thing with St-Pierre and relocated from Sudbury to Oakville, where she’d been studying art and design at Sheridan College. The pair found drummer Chris Anthony via a Kijiji ad seeking like-minded folks with whom “to do band stuff” (“He literally learned drums for our first jam,” says Bednis), bassist Fraser McClean followed soon after, and within two months the newly minted quartet was already recording its first single, “King of Gold.” Lips and Skull followed last October. That things have moved forward quickly isn’t lost on the band.
“Originally, I feel like that was the vibe we were going for — the Fall, Sonic Youth and all that stuff,” says Bednis. “that was what I envisioned for it. But after the first couple of jams, I realized, ‘Oh, this is a band. It’s not just my thing.’ Everyone has different tastes, so it was cool getting influences from everyone.”
“It’s just a progression. In terms of songwriting, we’ve been really good at trusting each other and trying new things and not being afraid of that change,” says St-Pierre. “I find with music it’s so easy to just get into the same rhythm and the same mindset and just keep doing the same things over and over again (so) to break out of that and try something new, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable at first, you’ve gotta kind of try to go with it.
“The vibe is still there, though. No matter if we get quieter or we get louder, it still has this weird consistency. Maybe it has to do with the tunings or the lyrics, I don’t know, but there’s something, some sort of spirit in it, and as long as we carry that spirit from record to record I think it’ll encapsulate it well.”
Bednis concurs. “I was saying to Mel on the car ride here, if you were to put the newest Radiohead record next to Pablo Honey you’d be, like, ‘What the hell? Is this the same band?’ But all the records in between make sense as to how they got there.”
Casper Skulls potential was clear early on to Toronto indie label Buzz Records, home to celebrated local outfits Dilly Dally and Weaves.
Shehzaad Jiwani of Buzz noisemakers Greys was an early champion — the band “wouldn’t have a lot of the friends we have if it wasn’t for Shehzaad,” says Bednis — and wound up producing the first EP. It was subsequently an easy decision for the label to get behind the release.
“With apologies to the rest of our burgeoning roster, it only took two songs into a set for Casper Skulls to become our first unanimous signing,” says Buzz co-founder Ian Chai. “They have a creative vision that truly belies their years — how many post-punk bands artfully include a string quartet on their debut LP? — and we’ve had the luxury of allowing them to grow organically and develop their own niche. Fortunately, the band doesn’t require a hard sell: they’re spiritual successors to the Constantines, and this record is only the beginning.”
The Skulls’ next local gig goes down this Saturday at the Recreation Room as part of Buzz Records’ “A Very Special Krampus” party alongside Charly Bliss, Twist and Lonely Parade.
The band’s first western-Canadian tour beckons next, and the plan is to hit the road right through to at least the South by Southwest festival in Austin next March. Other than that, the plan is simply more “writing, writing and playing, perfecting it,” says St-Pierre. Casper Skulls have no intention of slowing the pace of their progression.
“If it starts pouring out of you, that’s good,” says St-Pierre. “It means you’re tapping into something. You should use it.”