Given that Skull Defekts
is an established band on a respected indie label, it can be awfully hard to find out what they're up to. Guitarist Daniel Fagerström says it's a natural result of the band's approach.
"Everything is totally unclear," he says via video chat from Sweden as the band prepares to tour behind their new album,
Dances in Dreams of the Known Unknown
The band, which plays the Gold Bar May 2, formed out of the ashes of influential Swedish noise band Kid Commando. After the breakup of that band, Fagerström says, guitarist Joachim Nordwall wanted to play in a "tribal, ritualistic, monotonous rock band" with percussionist Henrik Rylander. They quickly gathered a core group of Swedish underground-music vets-including Jean-Louis Huhta, who played in classic Swedish hardcore acts like Anti Cimex as well as in electronic-music collective Lucky People Center. With the addition of Fagerström (who played in hardcore band Trapdoor Fucking Exit) on guitar, the band put out several early releases on the Important Records label. They've since added "spiritual ringleader" and co-vocalist Daniel Higgs and, now, spread out between Gothenburg and Stockholm-plus wherever Higgs resides at the moment-the band plans little in advance.
"But I think that's OK," says Fagerström. "It gets people confused, and maybe they get more interested in the band."
Baltimore-area music fans might be familiar with Skull Defekts because of its association with longtime local music figure Higgs, the elusive leader of Lungfish and Reptile House. Higgs is also a world-renowned tattoo artist and solo musician-and since 2011's
, a member of Skull Defekts. This transatlantic connection began after band members met Higgs several times at various international music festivals and on tours. Then, at the Washington, D.C. date of Defekts' 2008 tour, Higgs showed up, which resulted in a spur-of-the moment 10-minute live collaboration.
"That was really the starting point," says Fagerström, but "we all felt like we needed to do something more." The something more turned out to be an invitation to Higgs to record an album with the band, which eventually resulted in
, released on Thrill Jockey. With Higgs in the band, the venerable Chicago indie label-who also works with Baltimore artists like Future Island, Double Dagger, and Arbouretum-showed a keen interest. "It was really easy how everything came together."
Fagerström admits that, for some fans, the presence of a well-known underground figure like Higgs has colored perceptions of the band.
"I think a lot of people think,
This is fantastic, Daniel is singing with a rock band again, but who are these idiots from Sweden, how did they get the chance to play with him?
" he says. The band also gets questioned constantly-about whether or not Higgs is playing at this show or that, and Fagerström says, "something that people have to understand-we are band with Daniel sometimes and without Daniel sometimes. And it has to be that way." On the new record, the members share vocal duties, singing alone on certain tracks, together on others. This approach extends to live shows as well. "We can really have the energy come and go, and play the other songs from the records that Daniel is not on," says Fagerström. "It's more dynamic to do it that way."
Indeed, that sort of change and uncertainty seems to permeate Skull Defekts' approach. The band rarely rehearses, preferring to keep material fresh.
"We try to meet and rehearse, and it's usually making three new songs and not caring about playing the stuff that we already know," says Fagerström. "We try and keep it that loose, and I think it's a good thing for the band. It has that nerve."
Even in the studio, the band starts with only ideas, themes, and perhaps skeletons of songs, finding the music as part of the process. This can backfire-during the recording of their new album, they recorded the whole thing twice, decided it lacked inspiration, and scrapped it to start again fresh.
Some of the early reviews of
Dances in Dreams of the Known Unknown
have searched for political themes amidst the mysticism and spirituality that come with a Skull Defekts release-pointing out the possible connection between the name of the title track and former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's famous discussion of "known knowns" and "known unknowns" (which was also mined for Errol Morris' recent documentary about Rumsfeld,
The Unknown Known
). But Fagerström rejects that connection. "For me, that song is about trying to find a place in your life or in your mind or in your dreams-a place that you know exists but you don't know what's going to come out of it if you go there," he says. "It can be an experience in music or art or drugs or . . . whatever. That's the known unknown."
Further describing what he calls his vision of the band, he refers to Joachim Nordwall's lyrics for the album opener, "Pattern of Thoughts." "'This is a dance, I found it in a cave, maybe it was for controlling animals, or some kind of sexual magic. Or maybe it was just about having a good time.' It's all these mysterious notes-sex magic, Crowleyism, animal shapes, and controlling animals. This tribal, ritual, weird stuff . . . but maybe it was just plain dancing for no reason. I think that's a really fun way of seeing it."
For a band who works with dark, sometimes sinister themes, perhaps retaining a sense of playfulness is essential.
"That's very important," says Fagerström. "You can have interesting mysticism, but this is also music that just makes people laugh or makes people want to hear more. You don't have to complicate it."
Skull Defekts plays The Gold Bar and The Crown on May 2 with Asa Osborne, Horse Lords, Microkingdom, Multicult, and Wume.