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All This or Bust: Band of Skulls Reflect on 'Baby Darling Doll Face Honey'

Friday, 22 November 2019 Written by Simon Ramsay

To outsiders, it often seems that any fresh faced group who ‘suddenly’ arrive on the scene with a bang, and subsequently reap the rewards their newfound status commands, have had it easy and somehow fluked their way out of obscurity. But before hit singles and worldwide tours, there often lies a story of hard graft, setbacks and intense frustration, making that eventual breakthrough taste even sweeter.

That was certainly the case for Russell Marsden, Emma Richardson and Matt Hayward, a Southampton based trio whose 2009 debut album ‘Baby Darling Doll Face Honey’ marked their arrival on the map after 10 years of battling to stand out from the crowd.

Having changed their name from Fleeing New York to Band of Skulls the previous year, the trio set about crafting an energised, devil-may-care record that catapulted them into the spotlight courtesy of its eclectic brew of groove-based hard rock, haunting balladry, shimmering indie and Gothic delta blues.

With a fizzing sense of determination buzzing from every note, the album’s songs not only found favour in television ads, prestige TV dramas and video games, but also saw them make an instant  splash in the United States and Canada, launching a career that would deliver a further four records over the next decade. But there was something about ‘Baby Darling Doll Face Honey’ that marked it out from the pack.  

It’s one of those deeply resonant debuts where a cocktail of musical, lyrical and emotional power struck an instant chord, which is why fans are set for a special, pre-Christmas present this winter when the group, minus drummer Hayward who left a couple of years back, marks its 10th anniversary by playing the album in full at a series of gigs across the UK and Ireland. 

Prior to those shows we took guitarist and co-lead vocalist Marsden on a trip down memory lane to revisit the making and release of the album, mull over its lasting appeal and discover where that brilliant title came from.   

How has returning to ‘Baby Darling Doll Face Honey’ after a decade made you feel?

For any artist or band that gets to this milestone, it’s a reflective time. We’d never have believed, if you’d told us 10 years ago, that we’d be here talking about that music. A lot of the songs we play are still popular, like Diamonds and Pearls, I Know What I Am and Cold Fame. There’s album tracks we tend not to play every show because we’ve made our new record and always have new ideas, but the biggest discovery was playing some of those old ones and realising what we were doing then.

It was really interesting musically. There’s a song called Dull Gold Heart and we played that on the anniversary shows in America. People got a kick out of it because we never play that song and we got a kick out of it because it’s kind of technical and was like taking an instant time machine back to the studio. The first time we hit the intro it was like we were there, it was 2008, we were making that record and full of ambitions and dreams. That was the trip.

What are the album’s greatest strengths?

There’s an atmosphere on all records, kind of a vibe, and my favourite albums have all got this ‘moment in time’ thing going on. It’s not to do with fashion or the musical style, it’s like its own atmosphere and you can play it forever and it makes that moment happen again. Somehow the first album did that and that’s what connected with people. There’s a mixture of rock and heartfelt music but there’s something about it that just put the album in its own little bubble and still does, which is why people are still so fond of it. It got magic in a bottle somehow. 

Did you have any overarching stylistic or thematic vision for what you wanted to accomplish?

Stylistically, we’d done lots of different things up until that point and when we got in the studio our producer Ian [Davenport] was always saying ‘let’s keep it simple.’ So we just used the elements of our band without going too crazy as it was going to be an introduction to us. The thing I remember most was what we didn’t put on the album, with instruments and the crazier ideas. We held back and put together quite a pure and simple sounding album. We had lots of ambition with the music, but the main element of our music was just us three, with Emma and my two voices. Which set us up for the Band of Skulls thing. We’ve always tried to stay true to that ever since. 

How much experience did you have in a recording studio prior to making the album?

We worked with a legendary guy a couple of years before, Chris Kimsey, who was the Rolling Stones’ engineer and producer. That was the big London studio and the big situation and, for many reasons, the album was never released. We had that weird false start, as lots of bands do, so when we were in the Courtyard Studios with Ian it was more intimate and the right studio for us at the time.  

What we didn’t know was that we were making an album, we were just doing a couple of tracks, which is often how these things begin. We did Blood, Fires and Patterns. That was our first session and because of how those sounded everyone we were working with thought we qualified to go back and do another three songs. The strength of the music opened up the opportunity. It wasn’t that pressurised until the end. Shit got real at the end. But it wasn’t too overwhelming, it was just a great time and we loved having the freedom to be in there for a long period to work.

‘Baby Darling Doll Face Honey’ is a great lyric and name for an album. Who came up with that?

A friend of ours called Toby. I think he signed off or texted his girlfriend with it and I remember thinking ‘this is either the corniest or best line ever.’ Sometimes with a good line you think it will be the chorus, but that turned out to be the first line of Fires, set up the whole song and became the name of the album. These are little moments that happen and then, the next thing you know, you see them on a poster a decade later. Little did we know. It’s one of those things for all songwriters, not necessarily coming up with ideas, just having your eyes and ears open to when these little things come along.

People threw around comparisons with the White Stripes, the Black Keys and Radiohead when they heard the album, but it was clear you were drawing from a much wider set of influences.

We’d been going for 10 years before the debut came out and, although there were bands around at the time that we were aware of, be it Jack White or the Keys, that wasn’t the catalyst. We were uncool, going against the grain and the world kind of came around to us. The timing was good. Of course, the classic bands we listened to, Zeppelin and Sabbath, that was there. Radiohead was a band we definitely grew up listening to and were in their manor, in the studio they used early in their career and, although not in the same style, were trying to emulate their quality. Then you put a record out and everyone else makes those comments.  

We didn’t talk about that making the music and, since then, we’ve got to play with some of those artists. Life has a funny way of putting people together. You’re mentioned in the same column and the next thing you may find yourselves in the same room. That’s a weird one. At first your peers are the bands in your town and on the scene where you play, the city you go to for your gigs, so for us it was London. You’re not really thinking of the bigger picture and when you have an official release, or do your first tour, you join that next league and suddenly have to talk about that, even if you don’t think about it in the beginning.

When the album made an impact did you think ‘we’ve made it, onwards and upwards to Wembley Stadium’ or did you manage to stay grounded?

We were immensely proud and excited about the future and the possibilities of the music we could make. We’d done this album but knew we had a lot more ambition and inspiration. Then you find yourself in these ridiculous situations that you’d dreamt about, doing gigs you’d dreamt about playing, people you’d dreamt about meeting, and all of a sudden you’re there. But it’s just like a giant version of a gig in your town.

Even Wembley has a crummy backstage area and lots of things are the same, just on a different scale. We had an amazing time and, for us, the most surreal moments were playing in far flung places. Making that record was a powerful thing and we never would have had that opportunity to meet people, travel so far and play our music so far around the world. That’s the bit that takes your breath away sometimes.

In England it was weird, though, because we made the record here and then went over to the States and Canada first. That was all very surreal and felt like a movie, it wasn’t like real life. That felt fantastic but a little bit after we got home people cottoned onto it back here. That was more real and, in a way, smaller victories at home often feel more important. I’m glad people did discover us over here because, for a minute, we thought we’d have great success overseas and England was gonna be a bit more tricky with the style of music we were doing. So we were knocked out when we could do the same size shows at home as elsewhere.    

Is ‘Baby Darling...’ your best album?

We’ll always say our best album is our next because you’re putting all that life experience and musical experience into it. So I can’t answer that until we’ve stopped creating new music. It’s probably the most surreal album because we’re still talking about it. When we made it we were skint, our equipment was falling apart and we had one last chance, one last window of opportunity, and perhaps that was the secret.

It was ‘all this or bust.’ We took the bull by the horns and really went for it on that record because it was our moment, our opportunity to break through and that probably still comes across. I know it’s a special one and it’s special to lots of people and that’s the most moving bit. We’re very touched we can still play those songs and people still get a kick out of it.

Band of Skulls Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Sun November 24 2019 - DUBLIN Button Factory
Mon November 25 2019 - BELFAST Empire Music Hall
Wed November 27 2019 - LEEDS Brudenell Social Club
Thu November 28 2019 - SHEFFIELD Leadmill
Fri November 29 2019 - EDINBURGH Liquid Rooms
Sat November 30 2019 - NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE Boiler Shop
Mon December 02 2019 - BRISTOL Thekla
Tue December 03 2019 - BRIGHTON Concorde 2
Wed December 04 2019 - LONDON O2 Forum Kentish Town
Thu December 05 2019 - MANCHESTER Manchester Academy 2
Fri December 06 2019 - PORTSMOUTH Pyramids Centre

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