Skerik: Concept is All Anyone Cares About

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Im as much into Arabic symphonic music as Duke Ellington. Or punk rock, or doom rock, as classical music. Its all the same to me. Im looking for innovation and beauty.
SkerikSeattle-born saxophonist Skerik—née Eric Walton—isn't a jazz musician. Or at least, he wouldn't say he is, because no contemporary instrumentalist is more indifferent to—even contemptuous of—musical boundaries and genres. His early years in Seattle were deeply jazz-informed (his father was a jazz fan), but he was playing in rock groups at the same time he was involved in his school's jazz ensembles, and was as inspired by Bobby Keyes' tenor work on Rolling Stones records and Dick Parry's sax breaks on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon as he was by the playing of John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins or Booker Ervin. His enthusiasms run deep and wide; his conversation is peppered with references to his musical heroes, be they seminal 1980s punk bands the Minutemen and the Bad Brains, underrated tenor man Eddie Harris, or any of a hundred other artists he reveres.

In the 1980s, Skerik's musical restlessness drove him out of Seattle and around the world. During stints in Paris, London and the South Pacific, he played blues, jazz, rock, soukous—really, everything. Upon his return to Seattle, he began experimenting with various electronic effects; he remains a master of these sax-enhancing tools, but is hardly confined to them. An association with drummer Matt Chamberlain led to the formation (with percussionist Mike Dillon and bassist Brad Houser) of Critters Buggin', the longstanding instrumental—and musician-revered—rock band. Around this time, Skerik started playing with, well, everyone: drummer Stanton Moore, bassist/vocalist Les Claypool, drummer Mike Clark, 8-string guitarist Charlie Hunter, guitarist John Scofield and former Pink Floyd bassist/vocalist Roger Waters. "When you're playing live, he's the guy you want in front of the band, Charlie Hunter told me when I interviewed him last year. "He's indefatigable; he just goes to this place where he can kind of do no wrong as your front man. You just feel like you want to work really hard to make sure that he's safe to do whatever he wants.

In 2002, Skerik formed the Syncopated Taint Septet, consisting of Skerik on tenor and baritone saxophone; Craig Flory on baritone sax and clarinet; Hans Teuber on alto and flute; Steve Moore on trombone and Wurlitzer; Joe Doria on Hammond; Dave Carter on trumpet; and John Wicks on drums. The band's first record, Skerik's Syncopated Taint Septet (Ropeadope, 2003), was a bracing set recorded live at Seattle's Owl 'n Thistle club. It was very good. But the new Syncopated Taint record, Husky, released during the summer on Hyena Records, isn't very good. It's utterly great. The music (composed by Teuber, Moore and Doria) is sharply written and brilliantly arranged septet jazz that's marked by thrilling ensembles, singing soloing and a depth of dynamics that's all but unheard-of today. When I reviewed the CD for All About Jazz, I wrote, "Unless an unexpected masterpiece appears in the months to come, this qualifies as the best album of the year. That unexpected masterpiece hasn't appeared. Husky is the year's best record. Skerik's Syncopated Taint duties share time with his work in Critters Buggin', Garage a Trois (his groove quartet with Hunter, Moore and Dillon), his new Maelstrom Trio with organist Brian Coogan and drummer Simon Lott), and with countless other bands, side gigs and guest appearances.

Skerik's the ideal interviewee, because he's so opinionated and outspoken. But he's busy; he's perpetually on the move to another gig. That's why it was so horribly unfortunate that, when I interviewed him, my recording device had secretly broken. I remember Skerik being particularly hilarious that day, as well as fiercely passionate. Those words are lost forever; you can't hear a thing on the tape but a low, sibilant muttering. He was kind enough to let me call him back and do the whole thing over. He's pretty good in this interview as well.

All About Jazz: The group you lead is Skerik's Syncopated Taint Septet. You've got two CDs out and the lineup's the same for each one. I want to talk about the new CD especially—it's my favorite album of this year, so that makes it pretty easy for me. Why don't you tell me what led to the formation of this band. I know it's composed of Seattle players, some of whom aren't particularly well-known outside of the city.

Skerik: Well, I moved to New York about three-and-a-half years ago, but I still keep a place in Seattle. And I always lived and played in Seattle, but around six years ago I started touring a lot, going out of town a lot with Les Claypool, Mike Clark, Charlie Hunter—all these people, a lot of different bands. And I would just come back from the road wanting to really get into more of an acoustic-bass thing and something that emphasized a lot of harmony. And the horn players in this band used to have a horn quartet with no rhythm section, and that was really fun. So basically, when I got back to Seattle after a tour, I had a couple of months off. So I thought I'd try to start something like that with a rhythm section, and it just came together really naturally. It was just really easy, a perfect fit, and we had great gigs every week—we got a little weekly gig at this little club in Seattle and it just started growing.

By no means did I want to start a band. I just wanted to get a little weekly gig going while I was home. But it's just one of those things—you're not trying to do something and all of a sudden, it just happens. Because no one in their right mind would want to start a seven-piece band, because it's a really quick way to go broke. But it's a really great creative thing, and we've had a really good time over the last four years.

AAJ: So was the choice of personnel for the group based on an idea of instrumentation or was it more about the people? Did you have a notion of, say, a "Hammond band? A "no-bass band? Or anything like that?

S: In my world, and in a lot of my friends' world, personalities dictate a band more than instrumentation. I find that works both ways, too, in terms of the people that hire me. Les Claypool wasn't looking for a saxophonist for his band, but he likes what I do with music. Those are the kinds of gigs I get hired for, because it's just kind of that way. So the people in this band were chosen for their personalities and their musical concepts more than their instrumentation. Instrumentation is totally random. These people were chosen for their opinions on music or their view of music. So whether they're playing bassoon or sousaphone or alto sax doesn't really matter.

AAJ: Just like your instrument doesn't matter when you get hired by someone? So you're just hired as a professional Skerik more than a professional saxophonist?

S: Oh, yeah. If people ever call or email me and they're looking for a saxophonist, I usually give them the names and numbers of some really good saxophone players. But if people want me to come play on something, I'll come check out the music.

AAJ: Well, despite the fact that this band came together organically, as human beings, and not out of any sort of professional ambitions—it's a pretty fantastic band.

S: Well, that's how you always get the best bands.

AAJ: So as the ostensible leader of the group, are you in any way guiding the direction of the group's sound?

S: Well, I'm not a composer. And there are some really amazing musicians in the band—great writers and arrangers. So I just kind of do what my strengths allow me to do, which is facilitate the music and enable us to play music together. Get the band a trailer, book the gigs, make sure everyone has a bed to sleep in at night, make sure everyone gets paid. I mean, that stuff is not to be underestimated, because if any one of those things is not happening, it's going to make it difficult to play music. So I'm just kind of the spokesperson for the group. But having said that, I do try to make musical suggestions to people—only when absolutely necessary. I feel that choosing engineers, choosing the studios in which we record, stuff like that—that's a creative act too, that has a lot to do with result. Not so much process, but actual result. So a lot of my actions help define the results, and sometimes processes too. But everyone has their strengths, and hopefully together, we have enough strengths to create a circle.

AAJ: Well, sometimes those sorts of skills that you describe produce quality, because they create an absence of fucked-upedness.

S: Exactly. It's all quality control. It's about putting everyone in a position where they feel comfortable, where they feel that they can create, where they feel excited and inspired.

AAJ: A lot has been made in some quarters of this music owing as much in its rhythms to, say, funk or hip-hop as it does to jazz music. Do you have any opinions about genre, about whether music is "jazz or not, at this point in your career?

S: Well, I subscribe to a couple different beliefs. One is that there are only two kinds of music: good and bad music. And everyone knows what that is to themselves. I used to live in Paris, France, and the record stores there were just alphabetical. So, it's like, "what genre of music do you play? And the answer is, "Skerik's Syncopated Taint Septet.

Then, also, I read this great quote—something Kenny Werner said: "It used to be that the music defined itself. And now critics appear to want to define what the music is for the musicians.

AAJ: Sometimes I wish that I as a critic actually had that much power. I do think that that can be a menace for a musician, but at the same time, it's the record companies and other people that sell music that define it the most rigorously.

S: Yeah. Well, I just don't really pay attention to it. It doesn't have anything to do with me.

AAJ: Your first record, Skerik's Syncopated Taint Septet, which came out in 2003 on Ropeadope, was a live record. That was a very utilitarian way to make a record. But for the new Husky, you went in and recorded in the studio with recording engineer S. Husky Höskulds. Tell me about making this recording.

S: Well, we had a lot of material that we'd been playing for about a year. So we were really comfortable with it and we were just in a real groove—everyone was playing really great and the band was a real band. We had done a couple of tours, so we were a well-oiled machine. So it was easy for us to go into the studio. We were all on a West Coast tour, and we were like one organ. So I said, "Hey, we've got a day off in L.A. Want me to book a little gig somewhere? Because we hate taking days off. We like to play every day, seven days a week, when we're on tour. So our front house engineer— and life coach—Randall Dunn, said, "Why don't you guys record? He's an engineer in Seattle, so he's always thinking about recording. I thought that was a great idea, so I called up Husky, and he had the day off. I called up the studio, and they had the day off. Everything just came together perfectly; it was just meant to be.

So we just went in there and tracked the record in a few hours on a Sunday, and then Husky took two days to mix it. I would have liked him to have three or four. But we tracked it to analog two-inch tape and it got mixed to half-inch tape—at the Sound Factory in L.A., no expense spared. It's one of the great studios in L.A. and in the country. Custom API console, all these great old mikes, amazing sounding rooms. So we just tracked it live in the studio—it sounds incredible. And Husky's this two- time Grammy-winning engineer—not that I really give a shit about the Grammies or the people that he's won them with, but let's put it this way: most of his mixes are refused by major labels. And that's always a good sign. So I just told him, "I want you to be as much a part of this record as us. Whatever you're hearing, and whatever you want to experiment with, production-wise—just go for it with no restrictions at all. So he did some really cool things, and I'm just super happy with it. It was just one of those moments where the music meets the musicians meets the studio meets the engineer meets the production, and everything just lines up perfectly. You don't get very many of those in your life, so I'm happy.

AAJ: The record couldn't sound better. And there's a really high level of quality to the songwriting—[alto player/flutist] Hans Teuber, [Wurlitzer player/trombonist] Steve Moore and [Hammond organist] Joe Doria all contribute terrific compositions. But beyond that, and beyond the greatness of the playing, I'm struck by just how big everything sounds when you want it to. That's not to say that the group is always loud; it isn't. But the arrangements and voicings made me think, the first time I heard the record, that there had to be more musicians playing than the ones I saw listed. How'd you pull that off?

S: I think it's just the instrumentation and the way the arrangements are written. You know, when you're harmonizing horns, there's a lot of information going on there. You're not just getting, say, two instruments. There are a lot of mysterious things going on with overtones and harmonic relationships with instruments that create different sounds. It's as much an aural experience as an arranging experience.

But we hear that a lot on the road. We usually end the set with this medley that I put together; it starts with "Pure Imagination, from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, then it goes into "Moanin', then into this Carpenters song, "Close to You, and then it ends with Count Basie's "Shiny Stockings. And whenever we play that, I think I'm playing in a big band. And people come up to us and say, "Hey, it sounds so much bigger than what's on stage! It just blows the roof off the place. And when you look at the history of horn bands, it's always that way. Look at Tower of Power—when the arrangement calls for all the horns to dig in and really blow, it just sounds huge. Check out the big horn section of any band when they're featured. It's a thing to be reckoned with. So your saying that doesn't surprise me at all.

AAJ: Does each composer write the arrangements?

S: The composer voices everything out for the whole band. They're extremely talented people. We just show up at rehearsal, and it's like, "Here's this thing. Check it out. Boom. Done. People do take liberties with interpretation, especially the rhythm section. They can play things different ways, depending on the night; there's a lot of freedom there. But the horn parts are played as the composer envisioned them.

AAJ: I think you told me before that you do want things to change from night to night. You want the performance to reflect what the room is like, what happened that day.

S: Oh, yeah. Those are just some basic improvisation rules. Like with Wayne Shorter and his brother Alan—they had this band when they were growing up in Jersey, and they were entered in a battle-of-the-bands contest. So they set up in front of the stage, and instead of having music on the music stand, they had that day's paper. And they faced it towards the audience. Sort of saying, "Our shit is so fresh—it only came out today. Pretty funny. I guess they were always pulling shit like that. But every night we're trying to make it different. That's a main priority.

AAJ: The other thing that strikes me about Husky is that its level of dynamics is so strong. I didn't even think people were allowed to master CDs with that variety of dynamic levels nowadays.

S: Well, dynamics are definitely a big priority for the composers and arrangers in the band. I think everyone in the band is equally influenced by different forms of music from all over the world, and classical music, symphonic music, definitely has such a huge variety of dynamic markings. That's something we used to talk about a lot. So I'm not surprised that you hear that. And Husky also is very sympathetic to that. Even though he uses a lot of compression—he uses compression as a sort of effect sometimes, to distort the drums or horns. He loves helping create sections of the music dynamically as much as the musicians. He's listening. Dynamics are essential for this kind of music— especially since there are no guitars or vocals. You have to play on every aspect of music- making to try to make it as strong as possible.

AAJ: One thing about this group is that it is a group. You told me before that you won't play a gig if one member can't make it. You won't substitute.

S: Yeah, it's more like a rock band in that sense.

AAJ: Do you think this band is doing something unique—something that isn't being done nowadays?

S: I don't know. I hope not. There might be other stuff out there. I think it might just be a question of taste. Like if you like this kind of thing, this is what we're doing. Someone else might be doing a different version of it. I know that music schools are generating certain things that don't have too much to do with what we're doing. But I think that more and more younger musicians are being exposed to more eclectic influences. I'm as much into Arabic symphonic music as Duke Ellington. Or punk rock, or doom rock, as classical music. It's all the same to me. I'm looking for innovation and beauty. So I think everyone in our band is really open to that. Whereas a lot of people in the jazz world might not be. A lot of jazz musicians I meet are more conservative than the most right-wing Republican or NRA guy. And the results are plain to see.

AAJ: Yes. Jazz isn't dead, but some of them are embalming it anyway.

SkerikS: Yeah, there's definitely some grave-robbing going on. Especially when people don't have ideas. A lot of people spend so much time working on the technical facility of their instrument that they're not investing any time on life, discovering life. Go traveling! Go get into trouble! Go do something different; do something you wouldn't normally do. So many jazzers for the last 30 years come out of this scholastic environment where they have this syllabus. And they live by the syllabus. They don't have drivers' licenses—they just practice eight hours a day. But they don't sound like anything. They just sound like what they've been practicing. They sound like who they've been mimicking. And it's really sad, because a lot of them are so talented, with so much incredible, natural ability. But there's no concept attached to it. And concept is all anyone really cares about. No one cares how well I play the saxophone; it's more like, "what are you playing this night? Are you playing for me, or are you just practicing today? What are your opinions? What do you care about? That's what I want to hear when I hear a band—I want to feel that. I don't know; instrumental music and jazz just seem particularly to fall victim to certain circumstances—more so than other music, I think.

AAJ: So what are you going to do in the next few months?

S: Well, Garage A Trois is going to Brazil in the fall. I'm going to do a Bobby Previte tour with Charlie Hunter in November. Then I have a little trio with some guys from New Orleans called Maelstrom Trio; we're going to do some gigs. Critters Buggin' are doing some gigs in December. And I'm just looking forward to going back to New York and practicing and studying with as many people as I can. And, of course, the Syncopated Taint Septet is going out on tour in October.


Selected Discography

Skerik's Syncopated Taint Septet, Husky (Hyena Records, 2006)
Les Claypool, Of Whales and Woe (Prawn Song, 2006)
Bobby Previte, The Coalition of the Willing (Ropeadope, 2006)
Stanton Moore, III (Telarc, 2006)
Garage a Trois, Outre Mer (Telarc, 2005)
Benevento/Russo Duo, Best Reason to Buy the Sun (Ropeadope, 2005)
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Symbiosis Osmosis (Kufala, 2005)
Critters Buggin', Stampede (Ropeadope, 2004)
Barrett Martin, The Painted Desert (Fast Horse, 2004)
Mylab, Mylab (Terminus, 2004)
Skerik's Syncopated Taint Septet, Skerik's Syncopated Taint Septet (Ropeadope, 2003)
Garage a Trois, Emphasizer (Tone Cool, 2003)
Skerik, Left for Dead in Seattle (Vivid Sound, 2003)
Jacek Kochan, New Expensive Head (Gowi, 2003)
Stanton Moore, Flyin' the Koop (Blue Thumb, 2002)
Les Claypool Frog Brigade, Purple Onion (Prawn Song, 2002)
Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, The Bridge (Relaxed Records, 2002)
Critters Buggin', Amoeba (Loosegroove, 1999)
Ponga, Ponga (Loosegroove, 1999)
Stanton Moore, All Kooked Out! Fog City, 1998)
Critters Buggin', Bumpa (Loosegroove, 1998)
Critters Buggin', Monkeypot Merganser (1997)
Critters Buggin', Host (Loosegroove, 1997)
Critters Buggin', Guest (Loosegroove/Sony, 1994)

Photo Credits:
Top Photo: Josh Miller
Bottom Photo: Courtest of
Skerik


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