Back in 2004 the small UK indie label Retribute Records released an album made by four Ohio drunks with a feel for the blues so filthy it was righteous, so darkly fuzzy in it’s moonless groove it was irreproachable. Then after such a storming debut the band announced their split, the members going separate ways and all seemed over for this particular beast. So, it was with much unrestrained delight that I discovered the band had in fact regrouped, not only that they’ve been holed up in the rehearsal room during the long cold Ohio winter writing a new album. Keen to hear the news and get the low down on their electrifying new record I caught up with drummer Brad Thorla who was a plenty keen to spill some beans for The Sleeping Shaman.
Hey Brad how’s things in Ohio today? To start the interview off can you just give us a bit of SKK history. How did the four of you get together and what were the early days of the band like?
It is an uncharacteristically beautiful day in Ohio. The sun is out, and it is warm. People are happy. I’ve known Ryan and Chris for over a decade now, from their first band- my first band used to play shows with them occasionally. Their drummer back then had to cancel a show because he was getting his hair highlighted, so I filled in. The show went well, we were loud, too loud for the Mantis (my favorite Kent show spot, defunct for years now). It was great. We started jamming later that year, recruited Paul to play bass. Matt Bremkamp jammed with us on guitar, did some tours with us, then we parted ways, and Mike Burns (who plays in Rue) filled in for a bit. We started talking about just being a four piece, tried it out in practice, Chris ran more equipment, and it worked out fine.
How has the SKK sound changed over the years? You guys have always had a more apparent soulful approach to the blues metal genre, what are your primary influences?
Going from two guitars to just one gave Chris a lot of room to expand as a guitar player. He’s always been amazing at writing riffs, every time he picks up the guitar, and plays a lick to check the volume on his amp, it’s something good enough to anchor a song. His lead work really got boosted in the transition as well, he is completely immersed in the 70s rock stuff, doesn’t put a lot of thought into, it’s just so natural for him. He’s a total feeling player, not concerned with playing the proper scale, he knows how each part is supposed to “sound”, and I think that naturalness is where the soulfulness in our music comes from. Paul and I make sure there’s energy, a good vibe, a sweet groove and we let Chris go to work.
I know that in 2005 you guys decided to take, what in retrospect, was just a short hiatus but at the time was a declaration of the end of SKK. What brought about this decision and its swift reversal, and in hindsight was it a much needed break for everyone or a hindrance to the bands momentum?
Yeah, Chris moved 12 hours away. He took a job in the Carolinas, and turned out hating the job, the town, the people. It was pretty inopportune timing, we were just thinking about recording some stuff. We had hours and hours of demos. I like where we are at right now, and that break has a lot to do with it, so in the end it’s worked out. I can’t say if we’d be in a better position if we hadn’t taken the break though. Hard to say.
When you guys got back in the rehearsal space how did it feel? How good was it to play the old songs again?
It was like riding a bike. It felt great, the vibe hadn’t disappeared, SKK always feels great.
You guys have blogged that you’re in the process of getting a new record out. What’s the update on that, is the new album recorded already and is it going to see an official release?
It’s being recorded right now. It’s a slow process, our schedules have grown complex and conflicting. This album has to, and will sound perfect, exactly as we intend it… And as of now we are funding it all ourselves. Our friend Jason Tarulli is helping us with the engineering, and its being recorded in the basement of our practice spot. We’ve been talking to some labels, one really big label not to be mentioned until it’s confirmed, but I’m sure it’ll be out sometime, maybe in the next 8 months or so, realistically.
How is the new material sounding and how does it compare to ‘Midnight Magic’? Do you have a particular favorite out of the new songs?
The song writing is radically different. Midnight Magic was all about perfecting the pop structure, and applying it to Chris’ massive riffs and tone. There are still the same huge riffs on the upcoming record, the same power as our other stuff, but these songs have gotten massive, intertwined with each other. There aren’t really songs as much as there are “sections”. There’s not going to be a second of silence from when the album starts to when it finishes, everything linked together, flowing like a mighty river. We really looked at this album as a whole, and spent about a year working on the order of everything. We’ve been playing it as a set whenever we play out. In a lot of ways, it’s what we’ve been working towards for about 5 years now.
How is life in Kent, Ohio? The bluesy metal sound is often associated with the south, do think your northern upbringing has lent you guys a different edge to your sound? It seems to have more in common with the groove of Clutch than the Skynyrdism of Alabama Thunderpussy?
Kent is a tiny university town that dies when the semesters end. I live in Akron (comparatively it’s a “proper city” with prostitutes, gangs, pollution, all the other cloying qualities absent from Kent). Paul lives in Cleveland, and Chris and Ryan in suburbs of Akron. Kent has some good show spots, but we have mainly stuck to Akron and Cleveland for local shows.
I think that our global society has completely destroyed the idea of a geographic culture. At least in America. In other countries, you may have some different music on your radios or at your second hand stores, some different TV shows here and there. There might also be some differences in the older generations in various locations, but as far as counter culture, the newer generations have basically the same, nearly endless variety of music, art, etc available to us by the internet. If anything, the only geographic differences might be your proximity to a city, where you can see new music LIVE for yourself.
What’s it like getting gigs in America? I guess the sprawling geography of your country make it near impossible to play one off shows in different states, would you say it’s essential to tour to get the band known across the country?
Out west, definitely. Looking at a map, you don’t realize how far apart the cities are. I mean sure you think it’s so and so miles away, but it doesn’t really sink in until you’ve been looking at the same barren Texas landscape for 400 miles, filling up your gas tank TWICE from one city to the next until you think, “Man this sucks.” And we last did that when gas over $2.00 was ridiculous. I’ve been spending about $3.80 for gas lately. Getting to the west coast seems impossible. But we are lucky- the East coast is so much older, more entrenched, more closely packed. You could easily find a tour route that has drives of no more than 2 hours between cities. And I think that’s what you have to do to not completely go broke touring. We’re looking to do that sometime next year. Until then, being in Akron works out great- Cleveland is 45 minutes away, Pittsburgh 2 hours, Columbus 2 hours, Detroit 3, Cincinnati 4, West Virginia 5, Chicago 6, Philly 7, New York 8. Ohio is the Heart of it All.
Have you guys ever managed to take the SKK sound to foreign shores? A European tour would be great.
You’re telling me that’d be great. We would love it. Right now we’re doing all our own booking (Black Flag as hell) and Europe seems to be an Ocean away, which I guess, it is. I know there’s some really great scenes over there, I’ve been to a handful of amazing cities, Vienna, Berlin, Prague, Amsterdam, and would love to get to play music there. You find us a booking agent that can make sure we cover our costs and we’d do it in a second. It’s hard to tell what from what on the internet.
You must have some funny live experiences, is there any one tale of drug induced misadventure you’d like to share with the loyal TSS readers?
Our two favorite places to play outside of Ohio are in Richmond, Virginia and Little Rock, Arkansas. The people are always really nice to us there, and we always end up wasted, fighting with each other or other people. I quit the band twice the last time we played Richmond. It was our friend Glen’s birthday party. Everyone was out of their minds. I saw lesbians comparing their breasts before we played, Chris was sitting on the ground behind his cabinet completely unable to figure out how to plug the amp in the power strip. I think we made it through the first half of two songs. I apologize to the people that wanted to see us, but it was close to 2am, and it seemed they were as wasted as we were. And in Little Rock, Chris and Ryan turn into destructive, destructive people when they get wasted. I think there’s something in the beer there. The Little Rock shows have been our best, though, no on stage band fights, just high energy shows. That’s definitely on our list of places to play when we get on the road again.
Reading the lyrics on ‘Midnight Magic’ it would appear SKK are rather partial to various toxic vices, how important are the drink/drugs to the creative process? Are the lyrics inspired by actual events whilst under the influence and who takes the lead with the lyric writing?
Ryan 100% handles the lyrics. Normally we do demos of songs, give Ryan a tape, and he comes back with those vocals that fit so well in the music. I’m positive that no one else could come up with lyrics so fitting for us. I mean, they may not speak for each of us individually, but when you get the four of us together, especially if we’re playing a show, I mean, listen to those songs as a whole, yes, we drink. We drink a lot. This is Ohio, home of the 7 month winter. There’s not much to do besides drink and play music, or go to church or something. Any other band in the area will tell you the same. Lately, we’ve been trying to separate the drink/drugs from the writing process, but I doubt it’s possible to separate it from the performance.
How can you see SKK progressing? Do you guys have a musical blueprint that you stick to, or is there an open uncharted direction you can see the band going down?
I mean, for a while we just kind of took what we were given- you do an intro, verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo-chorus. It was easy. It didn’t take much thought, and no one would fault you for it. And after a while it started to annoy me, at least, I don’t know about the other guys. I think people should fault you for using a tried and true format. I think the Green Milk from the Planet Orange and the Mars Volta were the impetus for me regarding that. The whole prog-rock song structuring. I started looking at jazz compositions- they do chorus-huge linear solo-chorus. There’s so many other ways to use a riff, why stick to the format that’s been used since fucking Elvis? He’s dead, bury him, bury his ideals, let’s make our own. And for a while it was hard, it took us years, literally, to write the upcoming album. But I hope people listening to the new album appreciate it. Our efforts to write new music. There’s still Chris’ riffs, but I think our unwillingness to be lazy with the song writing will make them sound all the better. I hope so.
What are your thoughts on the current US Metal/Rock music scene? Any other bands from the Ohio area we should check out?
I’ve never been super into Metal. It just always seemed to be metal for metal’s sake. There’s of course good stuff in there, but I can’t speak of it. And rock has gotten a lot less distinguishable, which is good in my eyes. There’s a lot of adventure going on, boundary stretching. Too much for me to keep up with. It’s all I can do to keep up with local bands. The local heavy bands that I’m into are Rebreather (of course- giant elephants stomping and stomping and stomping and all the thought required to lift the leg), National Suicide Day, the Suede Brothers, Album (reviving NE Ohio Metal), the recently deceased Beast (though I’m sure CDs are still available) consistently blew my mind. The Akron community I’m sure failed to realize how lucky they were. That band was incredible. Fistula and Rue are still going well. There’s a bunch of other groups hard to define like “No, Don’t!” and Battery Collection. Also Mr. Gnome, If These Trees Could Talk, As If, there’s a lot. Akron is a close-knit scene. There’s lots of incestousness, I see it like New Orleans in ’99 or Seattle of ’90. I for one am also in Hell’s Information (LOUD LOUD psychedelic stuff), “um…FORCEFIELD?” (a weekly improv group) and a new group tentatively titled, Dunes. Paul played bass for Duma for a while and Chris is jamming with Burns (from Rue) in a band called Kreatur. It’s a small town (250,000 pop.), and everyone here does their best to make it seem bigger than it is.
Ok, on a more personal level and it’s a difficult one for ya Brad, its desert island disc time! Scenario is; Your being sent to a desert island all on your own and your allowed to take 5 records with you. These will be the only records you’ll ever be able to listen to ever again, which 5 records do you take?
Not hard at all. I go for quality AND variety:
1. Charles Mingus ‘Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’ (best album ever made… and made in one single day, those fucks).
2. the Melvins ‘Hostile Ambient Takeover’ / ‘Gluey Porch Treatments’ (burnt onto same cd.)
3. Bjork ‘Vespertine’.
4. Green Milk from the Planet Orange ‘Concrete City’.
5. A Tribe Called Quest ‘Low End Theory’ / ‘Midnight Marauders’ (burnt onto same cd).
I could survive for decades on the musical meat of those five albums.
Ok, we’ve reached the end of the interview, thanks for answering the questions and good luck to SKK with the new record, feel free to write some final words or have a rant, the space is yours…
I don’t know, I wish you and everyone else the best. Thanks for checking in with us. And get us to Europe, someone.
More info on Sofa King Killer at: www.myspace.com/sofakingkiller
Interviewed by: Andrew Sloan
Photo Credit: John Straub