Portland trio Skull Diver discusses their earliest musical experiences, their new album “Chemical Tomb,” and their penchant for ornate live performances.
Jesse Bettis is already sitting at the bar when I walk in. He watches me as I scan the room, catching my eye and making a little gesture, as to indicate he’s the one I’m supposed to be talking to. He’s wearing a high-collared jacket patterned in the style of the American southwest, with rows of triangles growing out of one another down the arms and across the chest. Beneath that is a button- down and a slim tie. Also, he’s got on a Trailblazers hat, an homage to his Portland roots. A few of the other members of New Move, as well as some of the collaborators from the latest album, and some friends of the band, are still hanging out too. They’ve just finished shooting the pictures which will accompany this interview, and are now having a beer, or preparing to head out into the unseasonable cold. We make our introductions and decide to grab a seat out back, where it’s a little quieter. Jesse, New Move’s frontman, and Kyle, the drummer, join me for the interview, both of them smoking cigarettes, all of our breath clouding and rising up into the Portland night.
ELEVEN: Let’s start at the beginning. Your debut album came out last January?
Jesse Bettis: Yeah, so this upcoming show is kind of like a year mark from that, which is a good time to release the alternate version…
11: Did you guys know each other, did you have a relationship before then?
JB: We’ve definitely had a rotating cast. We played our first show together in September 2012, so we’ve actually been a band for quite a while. I was in a band before called Oh Captain My Captain that disbanded, so I took time to just write, and it was the first time
I hadn’t played in a band for a long time. The concept for New Move was
to focus more on the technical side of pop songwriting, with no real intention of having it become something. But I ended up working with Jeff Bond who co-produced the record with me, and over the course of like two years we cobbled together a record. The band formed when that was getting closer to done. I really like this setup. It’s drums, bass, Fender Rhodes, baritone sax, and then I play guitar. But it’s mostly about those guys making the rhythm section happen.
11: You said you were trying to focus on the more technical aspect of pop songwriting, and though sometimes pop has the connotation of being maybe less deep, your music has undertone of darkness, or more complex emotions and ideas. Could you speak a little bit about that, and how you approach songwriting?
JB: Yeah, sure. I’m a very dark person (laughs). That’s funny though, we were just talking about this last night, that some of the stuff I wrote with Oh Captain was even more dark, and didn’t have the filter of being pop music to lighten it up. So yeah, my writing is anchored more in deeper feelings and ideas and concepts, but I think that it’s gotten a little less deep and dark than some projects in the past.
Kyle Moore: There are a lot of elements to what actually pop music is. It’s pretty broad category. Just because it’s pop doesn’t mean it’s bland or pointless or you’re just speaking about partying all the time.
JB: I think any good music creates an emotional reaction within people. Any good art, for that matter. There’s a huge spectrum of emotions that people can identify with. New Move combines the sadness and the party, I suppose.
11: Let’s talk about the new album. It’s the same songs, re-recorded by different bands, and with a different track order.
JB: That’s a big part of the process. I knew we were gonna press the New Move album to vinyl, so I thought about itasanAsideandaBside.Whenyou flip a record, there’s something about the ritual of it. Track one of side B has to be something that kicks it off, or goes in a different direction sometimes. The arc of the tracklist is really important. You have to be engaging. You start with one feeling, and you wanna have contrast sometimes, or you want to continue that feeling. It just depends on the situation.
KM: With the remix album though, we couldn’t really keep the same track order, because all of the songs, as opposed to being just New Move tracking the songs, they’re all reimagined, and they all have different approaches.
JB: Yeah, fast songs became slow songs, and happy songs became sad songs, et cetera. I initially wanted to keep the same track order, but when I loaded it up that way, it didn’t work. But that’s a fun process for me. I got to place everything again in a way that works.
11: Each track features different collaborators. Were these all other musicians you knew, or how did this lineup of groups come to be?
JB: Yeah, so I grew up in Portland. I’ve been playing in bands in Portland since I was 15, so that’s like 17 years, and the Portland music community is very rich, there’s so much talent here that doesn’t see the light of day as much as it should. Portland does get credit as like, an incubator for art and music, but if you go to other cities, you’ll see a band half as good as a Portland band on any given night, and people are going crazy. In Portland, we’re spoiled.
KM: We’re overrun with talented artists in this town.
JB: Definitely. So naturally, just doing it for 17 years, you make a lot of connections in any scene or industry, and you find people who dig your stuff and you really like what they’re doing. Collaboration is one of my favorite parts of making music. It started small. I didn’t think we were gonna do the whole album, but I wanted to release some of the tracks from the record as singles, and have the B side of the single be just a different version of the song. That was my idea, and it sorta grew legs. People were interested, and the versions were turning out really well, and then we got Cam and Lizzy on board to do a Radiation City track, and through that we got connected to Illmaculate and Ripley Snell, the two MC’s on the album, as well as Chanti Darling. Luz from Y La Bamba, who I’ve known for over 10 years.
11: One of my favorite parts of new versions is how drastically the songs can change depending on who is singing them. Did any of these songs reveal themselves in different ways to you throughout this process?
JB: Yeah, every track had a completely different process, which was fascinating to me. And I love seeing people’s processes, people whose music I really admire in Portland and how they go about it. I obviously wanted to nurture that, to have their strengths really come through, and I think it
was really effective, but every one was different.
With Minden, Casey Burge came in, and I had an idea for a basic drum beat, and we’d go back and forth, we sort of fine-tuned it, and then he got on the piano and restructured all the chords for the song. His melody is not the same as my melody, and we added a bridge that wasn’t originally in there. I didn’t want to put limitations on that. I wanted it to be very different from the original, otherwise what’s the point?
And then Boone Howard, we wanted to do kind of a “Many Rivers to Cross,” a kind of Harry Nilsson thing, I dunno if you ever heard the record Pussy Cats Starring the Walkmen. The Walkmen covered the album Pussy Cats and I love their rendition of it. And Boone really likes that record too, and we were like, “We should do something like that.” But he came over and he was so hungover, he was lying on the floor the whole time I was tracking the instruments, and then he got up and gave this vocal performance, he just destroyed it. And it was funny just to see a grown man, like, hibernating, hungover, like he was storing up his energy for this one vocal performance that just killed, and made the whole song what it is.
11: You’ve got an album release party coming up on the 26th of January at Mississippi Studios. Could you talk a little bit about the concept behind that show?
JB: It’s gonna be a really fun one. We have Hustle & Drone who are going to open up, and they’re gonna be performing their song, “Take What You Can Get,” in their style, and then New Move is going to play a set, where at least half of the songs is going to be New Move as the backing band. We’re learning all of the alternate versions, and bringing up the singers from each respective band to sing their version, including the Y La Bamba version, and then Y La Bamba is going to play a set as well, which is going to be a very unique Y La Bamba set. I was just talking to Elena, and they just released a record, and she’s already shifting gears and going in a totally different direction musically. So this is going to be the first show that showcases this new Y La Bamba sound. I’m really excited about that.
I wanted to do a show that was collaborative in nature, just like the project, so the question was how do we get everyone involved in a way that’s practical, and I think it’s coming together really well. We’re also working on releasing some straight New Move singles, but my goal is to release more in this same spirit, collaborative singles that we write with other artists from scratch. So this whole project is the beginning of something, a new direction for how New Move is going to interact with the portland music scene, and we’re really excited about it. »
– Henry Whittier-Ferguson