Music News

Skull's Out

Like a trip to the dentist, most bands put off making an album for as long as they can.

It's a put-up or shut-up moment that forces a band to stare at its prospects for success in the cold, harsh light of day -- and few are ready for the truth: Yes, you really sound like this when there are no friends or free beer to cloud your judgment. And as it turns out, half your band members only got into this for the sole purpose of meeting girls and really don't want to progress beyond the proficiency that keeps free beers coming.

No wonder so many bands pack it in mere days after the CDs come back from the pressing plant.

The Smoky Mountain Skullbusters not only embraced this scary dynamic right away, but they actually formed the group during the recording process. Mike Roberts, Rob Davis, Dylan Underkofler and Matt "Honey Bear" Haselow got together for the first time in the studio, and, in less than two weeks, wrote an entire album -- filled with the kind of cultivated hostility it takes bands years to accrue -- from scratch. Weirder still, they did it on Canadian soil.

On one of the first Friday evenings of the season to stay light up 'til eight o'clock, the band has convened for one of its weekly backyard barbecues in Tempe, populated with kids, dogs, and assorted girlfriends and cronies. After listening to the Smoky Mountain Skullbusters' first self-released CD, Viva La Hate, a slab of molten rage, you almost half expect that it will be some loved ones offered up for ritualistic slaughter instead of some anonymous burgers. But this is the story of four guys who became friends by making blood-gurgling music the neighbors have yet to complain about.

Bassist Mike Roberts qualifies as the guy who's played with everyone else in the band at one time or another. A native of Phoenix, he spent half of the past decade living in Vancouver and Toronto. "I have another son [in Canada] from a previous marriage, so that's why I lived up there," he explains. "I met a lot of cool people up there, including a friend who wound up recording us for free. When we decided to make our demo, we weren't really even a band." One of the first people he recruited was Rob Davis, who had been in the Mob 40s until they broke up.

After three years touring behind bands like Agnostic Front, Davis was now a man without a gig and a very large Mob 40 tattoo on the side of his neck. "They call this the job stopper. And boy was that true," he says with a laugh. "Our singer left for California, and our lead guitarist got a killer job doing demos for a car company. So we took a five-piece band going on tour as a three-piece, and people said we sounded just as good. But I was kind of burning out. The only reason I'd joined [Skullbusters] was Mike was such a great front man." Now adept at singing and playing drums, Davis was doing neither when Roberts called.

"I didn't even know Dylan or 'Honey Bear,'" he says. "We all took a leap of faith, went up to Canada, all became good friends and created an album."

If what the band terms "a musical vacation" sounds more like a male bonding retreat, don't worry. The Smoky Mountain Skullbusters never got around to hugging trees and kissing Mounties. The idyllic 13-day sojourn produced as many songs of seething comical rage, such as the self-exclamatory "Get Off My Mom," "Fuck Off and Die," the summer feel-good hit "Throwing Rocks at Cars," and the cautious "We're Gonna Die." And all four members became involved in the lyric-writing process, something that had never happened in their previous bands. Even the elusive Honey Bear, who's currently on a paternity leave from the group in Wisconsin, penned some songs, although he didn't ascribe lyrics to the tune that now bears his name.

"There's no words to that song but 'Honey Bear' and 'hoo Lord,'" Davis says, laughing.

"He came up with this cool song but didn't embrace the singing part of this band," says Roberts. "When he was born, his parents didn't know what to call him for a year. So they called him Honey Bear until they came up with Matthew. It took a whole year to come up with that? It's not like Gallipolis or Januarius."

A new band of strangers might've drawn knives at this point, but band members who've known each other for years can handle such ribbing. "We get pretty harsh on each other," says Roberts. "Like, 'Have you played this fucking song before?'"

The band's enterprise has resulted in a second LP, tentatively titled Boing Boing Round Eyed Rock and Roll (complete with Japanese anime-styled art), ready for August, and a current split seven-inch with Casket Life. Left out of the loop on the finer points of distribution, marketing and tour booking in previous bands, each Skullbuster has assumed the reins happily in SMSB (as the kids call them on Internet message boards).

"We all have responsibilities and a real life outside of the group," says Roberts. "Dylan works 60 hours a week driving a crane. Honey Bear's a janitor, Rob works for a charity delivering paint to poor people so they can fix up their houses. I got three kids and work part-time construction. So we weren't going to do anything that we're ashamed of or couldn't be proud of here today. When we play and we're done, we should be able to tell you what we think and you should already know. We don't want to portray what we're not."

Yeah, but on song after song, the Skullbusters sound like, well, a bunch of bullies.

"We're not, really," says Roberts. "That's tongue-in-cheek. That's how we feel sometimes. You're a different person onstage, but you don't want to get too caught up in that. You want to come home and crack open a beer with the neighbor."

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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic