Portland trio Skull Diver discusses their earliest musical experiences, their new album “Chemical Tomb,” and their penchant for ornate live performances.
The moon is enormous and orange and ash is raining from the sky. There’s an apocalyptic feeling in the air (which isn’t far fetched given the current political and environmental atmosphere we’re dwelling in). As I bike to the home of two thirds of Mr. Wrong. I’m welcomed in and served bubbly rose while we take a seat in what can only be described as a gothic parlor. Mr. Wrong has been playing together as a trio for over a year now and has played over 100 shows. They are powered by the joy of music and relentless unwillingness to succumb to stereotypes or preconceived notions. The individuals of Mr. Wrong are gaining recognition and speed. They are about to embark on a tour in support of Babes in Boyland, their first project as a three piece outfit.
Eleven: The newest album, Babes in Boyland, is nine tracks. Can you tell us a little about the process?
Ursula: We had done some recording with our friends at Cosmonaut, maybe a year ago, and we definitely knew that we wanted to record again. We were happy with those recordings but now had the awesome addition of bass and new songs, so we really wanted to document that. We didn’t know it was going to turn into a record or anything. We recorded with Adam Becker at Red Lantern and then had a synchronistic experience while we were recoding. We were hearing a band practice there [Black Water] in between recording and we were saying, “Oh we really like this band,” Leona went to learn what the band was called. It turns out a member of the band has a record label and had recently been to one of our shows. He asked us to send the recordings and after hearing them said he wanted to make a record. We had talked about wanting to make a record but we just didn’t really know how to, so the fact that it just kind of happened makes me feel really lucky and amazing.
11: I’ve found that the mixing process can take a really long time for some bands. Was that the case for you guys?
Mof: We only spent a morning mixing. We thought the recordings would ultimately end up on cassette, not vinyl, so we weren’t super picky about how it sounded. Once we learned it was going to be on vinyl we spent some more time listening and realized that some drum parts weren’t coming through and other little things needed to be tweaked. It all took less than a day and that was it. It was actually mastered by Timothy Stollenwerk.
Leona: The recording process was really good. We recorded all together–all the instruments at the same time, which I think is really characteristic of our sound. It felt better that way. We recorded all the vocals together as well. We were just in a big room together and it felt really good.
11: Did you guys go in with everything pre-written?
Ursula: Yeah and there were actually some songs we had written as a two-piece that were on a demo and were put onto the record with the three of us, sort of reincarnations of songs we had previously recorded.
11: I love the message you guys are putting out. I think it’s important, especially now, to support bands like you that are writing the right kind of stuff. It’s one way to fight back.
Ursula: I feel like personally, I could be doing more and I want to do more but it does feel really good, like we’re moving in the right direction with making art. It’s a reaction to what’s going on. The dissatisfaction with the status quo, you know.
11: I feel like everyone has a different role to play whether it’s starting an organization or a campaign or physically protesting. And this is your role, writing this music that’s going to inspire more women, or POC, or trans people to step up and be them selves and not live in the shadows and not be quiet.
Ursula: That would be amazing if any of that happened, that’s what we hope for I think.
Leona: I feel like so many people are fighting already and it’s good to figure out our way to plug in, and like you said there are so many ways to plug in and music is what reminds me of what I fighting for. So many people are inspiring me to keep going, I hope I can inspire someone to keep going. I’m often inspired by the youth. I meet a lot of youth who realize how serious the situation is and are not as conditioned as we are becoming with our age in this world. I just want to give credit to the people who are fighting really hard and are fighting battles that have been going on for a long time and because of my privilege I’m only now becoming aware of. It’s like a legacy and we have a little part in it and it feels really good.
Mof: We’re really inspired by late 70s/early 80s punk and post punk, especially with a strong femme presence. Music can be a great way to learn about the past and realize you’re not alone in the battles you’re facing; people have been there before even if it’s not in the history books. Music can be a way of documenting what we’re experiencing.
11: Oral history is so important. I was listening to Kim Gordon’s Girl In a Band and it’s so interesting and resonates so deeply with me. I’m glad she took the time to write this down and share some of her darker moments with us.
Leona: Yeah and figuring out the places that we can share and be authentic. It’s like you said, sharing our darkest moments. The parts that maybe we don’t want to show anyone because they’re ugly or not really put together, or feeling like you’re going to be judged. Making music is really a great way to do this.
11: Yes, vulnerability–I give huge props to you guys and all musicians for getting up there and performing.
Ursula: I kind of don’t know how I even do that. In a way I feel like I focus inward more, I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. If I were to go up and a make a speech I’d be fucking terrified. In front of groups or crowds of any sort it’s really frightening to me. I feel a lot of support from these two (Mof and Leona) and what were doing is so important and makes me feel so joyful. I want to share this. It’s a good lesson, because some people are drawn to performing, it comes naturally and they are well suited for it, but I don’t think I ever was like that and now I am able to do this. I just want to say anyone can do this. You just really have to fucking care about what you’re doing.
11: I want to take this in different direction for a while, you guys do get lumped in with the riot grrl movement and I’m just curious how you feel about that?
Ursula: We have a lot of feelings about that. Riot Grrl is definitely an influence and it is a more contemporary, quasi recent, PNW connection. I can understand why people do make that connection. I think I get frustrated with how narrow of a lens that is that people are looking at us through. We are aware that we are part of this timeline (legacy) of bands; and the female fronted bands that came before us mean a lot to us and were very inspired by them but also, sometimes, it feels like people are just picking riot grrl because it’s females screaming on stage.
It was highly publicized and people who don’t quite know how to explain us just jump to that. Our influences are really broad and to me it feels like were being simplified. We’re more complex and it is an over simplification of our sound. It’s frustrating. I feel like a lot of femme bands get characterized by riot grrl and we all sound so different. At a certain point I think people are just looking at what we look like and the fact that we’re angry and they’re putting that label on it. There should be room for so many different kinds of femme bands in this town. I don’t know why we all have to go into this category. There should be room for of all of us to be experimenting and doing whatever we want and people shouldn’t put it all in the same little box.
Leona: We’re definitely building off that movement but we think a lot differently now because of the context that we’re in.
11: So how would you categorize your sound?
Mof: I would say it’s a mix of bare bones punk and post punk. We’re still kind of laying the foundation of what we are. We added bass just a year ago and our songwriting process is pretty democratic, so it’ll take us longer to realize what we’re capable of as a group. I can see with our new songs that we’re going in a more post punk direction but that could change. Even though our sound is changing we still have the original energy and style. The genre may vary, but the vocal style in particular is remaining a constant pillar.
11: I think that’s something a lot of bands struggle with. You do want to hold onto your identity and your foundation but you also want to evolve and make new sounds. That’s a really hard juxtaposition in any kind of art. How does one keep their integrity and also start something new?
Ursula: When we first started we didn’t play our instruments very well so everything was very organic and straight from our souls, we couldn’t’ say “we want to sound like this” it was more like we were just feeling some feelings and this is what comes out and we’re friends and that’s our band. Even though we’ve gotten better at our instruments, we haven’t lost that energy that Mof is talking about.
Mof: With our earlier songs, I was afraid we would forget things if we didn’t record practices- because I do forget stuff easily. I would listen back and write down what I could hear of my stream-of-conscious lyrics, then maybe alter a phrase or two.
11: When writing lyrics, do you have any rituals or traditions you practice? Even a funny story about a song?
Mof: (Funny story) We were writing a new song, which isn’t on this record, the unofficial name is white male teacher (this is not the real title, we’re still figuring it out). We were really frustrated with this song, we were struggling. So, Ursula was like, “let’s go get some ciders to take the edge off & get out of the shed” (we practice in a shed behind the house). On the way back, just a house down from ours, these two figures came running up behind us and at the last second before running straight into us yelled “MOVE” but we didn’t have time to react. They plowed through us and went through our neighbors’ garden- our neighbors live off the food the grow in their yard so it was particularly upsetting to watch their hard work get trampled. The duo didn’t turn around to apologize or anything, just kept going. We kind of yelled after them, but were so in shock we didn’t do more than that. Upset & all kinds of fired up, we went into the shed. As the door shut behind us the rain came down hard and a thunder storm started- we wrote the next part of the song with thunder in the backdrop- which felt serendipitous and powerful.
11: You guys play a lot of house shows. What’s your take on the DIY/ all ages scene here in Portland?
Leona: I grew up going to house shows here and that was a huge formative experience for me to have access to music as a kid. The fact that many of the all ages venues have been shut down pisses me off. It seems intentional. Youth need places to go and music to hear and things to do. Most venues are 21+ and there’s a trend of booking touring bands with no local support. A lot of things added up make accessing music really hard. Like charging way too much for shows. These venues are profiting off this thing that was created by artists, then taking it away from the people who made it and who made the scene. There are a lot of layers of nefariousness. The DIY scene however circumvents all this by creating spaces that give people a platform that mainstream media wouldn’t give them. I mean if we looked at the media it would seem only CIS white dudes were making music. By reclaiming spaces and making our own spaces and supporting each other, the DIY scene can be really, really good. Now more than ever it’s important that we build these safer spaces where people can work together and be vulnerable.
Mof: I’ve been continually inspired by the people who are trying to book shows that are benefit shows and the bands that are willing to play those benefit shows. There’s a solid community here. Although many houses have been shut down there are thankfully new ones popping up all the time.
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