Matt Bower is the leading force behind the mind-crushing outfit Skullflower. Their sound is the most ominous guitar-treated din this side of the Dead C. For some time now there has been quite a bit of Skullflower recorded material floating around (along with various side projects: Ramleh, Total, and a thing with Merzbow called Consumer Electronics). Their new disc, TRANSFORMER (Sympathy) is definitely a transformation from their other stuff. Gone is the large, distorted, droney, din piling down all over yourself; it has now become a bit softer -- well, maybe a lot softer. I guess the picture of the little girl (his daughter I would guess) on the cover shoulda been a giveway. There's even a song structure to a couple of tracks. It's a good record -- kinda threw me for a bit but I dig it. I recently had a chance to talk to Mr. Bower over the phone to bring you this Q and A. The first thing he mentioned when I got him on the phone is that he was kinda strapped for time and suggested I conduct the bulk of the interview with Russell (Smith), their other guitar player. As it turned out, I had plenty of stuff at the end of the interview to not have to do that (maybe another time). Anyway, here's how things basically went:
MB: Do you want to try to flash a couple of questions by anyway before my wife goes out the door and I have to put my daughter in the bath?
C14: OK, how long you got?
MB: Uh, I dunno.
C14: Oh, OK, I just want to ask you about all your side bands and stuff. There seems to be a lot of them, anyway....
C14: How many things have you got going on?
MB: It's just really me doing Total as the side thing. Stuart (Dennison), the drummer, plays in Ramleh as much as he does in Skullflower.
C14: Do you guys play out?
MB: What, live?
MB: Umm, yeah. A few times each year.
C14: Do you plan on playing here?
MB: No, when we play, we're never really put on by promoters. We're put on by a few people in one town maybe. We all live about 300 miles apart and we just meet up in that town.
C14: How long have you been doing this -- like when did you guys start Skullflower and Total?
MB: Well, Total's been going on since 1982 -- kinda solo perilous electronics recording. And Skullflower started about 1985 but we only gave it the name when we had a record out in 1988 -- before then it was kind "the band"; we just needed a title for the record.
C14: Were you guys art students?
MB: Uuummmm sorta. I think only one of us was actually in art school but we used to rehearse there. That was just what we needed. It was really just me and Stuart came from the same town.
C14: OK. That's how you met, just hanging out?
C14: OK, and what's going on with your songs? I have a hard time understanding what they're about. What are you trying to convey.
MB: It's just music. I think the titles tend to throw people off and they think there might be something behind it because of the titles but the titles are kinda like....
C14: You just like the way the words sound?
MB: Yeah, well the title is something that's tacked on after the fact -- nothing to do with it really. It's kinda like maybe if it's diametrically opposed to it, it's more successful than, you know, if it's trying to describe it. One moment (to his daughter calling him).
C14: Sounds like you have the whole family life going on there: wife, kid....
MB: Cats, the whole lot.
C14: Yeah, congratulations.
MB: (laughs) Yeah, you win the prize.
C14: Settling down....
MB: It's just cretaceous.
C14: Oh yeah?
MB: Cretaceous, like barnacles growing on a ship; it just like springs up around you.
C14: Yeah. You have time to go on now?
MB: Yeah, yeah, keep going.
C14: Everything you've done is all original songs. Have you done any covers?
MB: It's funny, but the last disc on Sympathy has got quite a few covers. Rock classics: "Golden Hair" by Syd Barrett, an Airplane tune, and "Morning Dew."
C14: It's cool that you add your own twist to the classics.
MB: Uhh, yeah.
C14: Are those your favorite bands? What do you listen to?
MB: It's very wide. Yeah, but in rock I like Airplane, the Dead better than.... I don't much like contemporary.
C14: Nothing going on right now gets you going?
MB: Uhh, no. But there's a few people that we, I dunno, got kinda an affinity with, you know, worldwide; some of the Japanese noise groups, some of the New Zealand guitar groups -- you know, little pools of interests here and there.
C14: Are they any kind of influence?
MB: Uhhhm, yeah? Nothing's kind of an influence 24 hours a day. It's more a specific influence over a specific use of the sound or something like that. So we're as likely to be influenced by, you know, kinda Wagneresque music as we are by rock music insomuch as we'll steal or borrow, you know. Because if we try to steal or borrow something, we can never be in, I dunno, it's important to know much about music because then it's always your approximation of something.
C14: That's your motive then?
MB: Yeah. It's our take on it, though it's quite interesting to try to cover pieces or borrow moods from other people because it comes out as a third thing.
C14: Anybody ever mistake that Ian McKay (the producer of most of their discs) guy for the guy in Fugazi/Minor Threat?
MB: Not to the best of my knowledge, no.
C14: I guess the different spelling helps keep that straight.
C14: OK... the new album seems a bit less harsh, is that a new direction?
MB: I'm really not interested in the harsh and noisy direction when it's kinda like rockin' and banging away. I really feel a lot of music we've indulged in the past, as well, is a bit of a dead end and I don't really like that kinda Swans/Zeni Geva type of music anymore. I think the guitars are doing the same thing over the top that they always have, it's just that there's maybe no beat or no, you know, heavy riff. Before we would just have this stuff just chinking through, slightly visible through the wall of, you know, drums and bass or whatever. And that's been dismantled and the guitar interplay is just left hanging in the air kinda thing.
C14: It does sound like you have less effects pedals goin' or something.
MB: Yeah. I don't think it has anything to do with getting older, but you want to hear... there's a lot of sound being lost as well as gained by using the effects pedals; small difference that you can bring into play... and certain effects pedals I could be happy to live my whole life without ever hearing them again. I'll not use a flanger or recovox.
C14: Not into flange?
MB: Especially not the flange.
C14: What are your favorite effects or pedals?
MB: Electroharmonix, which is an American one of New York City which went bust in 1980 or something like that -- the Big Muff is theirs. But most of the effects I can't stand. I enjoy the Electroharmonix version of the flanger where you can turn off the flange motion and jsut use it as a filter, and sweep through with this knob until you find the filtration that most affects what you're doing and leave it there and stuff. Incredible effects pedals that nobody bothered to try to reproduce ever.
C14: Do you know of anyone building them or experimenting with effects circuits?
MB: No, it's difficult to get the little transistors -- the things that live inside them. Everybody's, you know, just making chips these days.
C14: You go through a lot of nine volt batteries too I guess.
MB: Well, all the best stuff they do deluxe main versions of which we tend to use, so just use up a lot of sockets -- a lot of main grid power.
At this point I tried to get Mr. Bower to do a station ID but got turned down. Then he asked what kinda music I listen to and I told him I had been listening to Fu Manchu in the background while doing the interview and that I like the space thing too. I mentioned digging Bardo Pond and asked if he had heard them, to which he responded:
MB: I have, yeah. I was curiously unimpressed because they're very much up my street. I think the thing I that, I dunno, there are a lot of American groups close to the Dead C, without the songwriting magic as far as I'm concerned.
[More talk of bands ensues, during which I mention Monster Magnet.]
MB: I was incredibly into Monster Magnet for a while when they first came out. It's odd -- we just drifted away from doing that kinda stuff ourselves.
From there the conversation turned to Beavis and Butt-head and I learned his favorite episode was the Cornholio one. Then we talked about psycho killers and the massacre of school kids in Scotland.
MB: If you ever read the introduction to Colin Wilson's A HISTORY OF MODERN MURDER, the psychopath is basically a 20th century thing and comes from alienation and rats -- you know, people behaving like rats in an experiment. But I think it comes out of a lack of grown-upness and morality that people have because they don't believe in Christianity. And there's this kind of, you know, "I deserve this, I deserve that," and when people like that are thwarted they're likely to do that kind of thing. It's just like a childishness in people, how they've been really kept from growing up. I think people were more grown-up in other centuries and more rounded-out humans, you know. The majority of adults shooting each other after a small road accident or kinda blowing up all over the spot, it's all just infantilized... the guy, for a long time had waged war although he was, kinda everyone knew he was, a pervert and after boys and stuff; he kept campaigning for himself in public saying, "People are spreading terrible slurs about me," and everything. Posting leaflets. People get a sense of injustice -- even though he knew he was a pervert inside. Can you imagine that kind of wanting it both ways basically. It's like the child that won't admit that it's taken the last cookie or something. It'll have a screaming psychotic fit rather than actually say, "Yes, I took it."