Portland trio Skull Diver discusses their earliest musical experiences, their new album “Chemical Tomb,” and their penchant for ornate live performances.
Stepping into the candlelit darkness of the Red Fox, things take on a velvety quality, smoother and softer, like flames behind tinted glass. I meet Max Stein, the bassist for PWRHAUS, at the bar. He’s already talking to Mercy McNab, our photographer here to shoot for the feature. Max has with him a photo in a thick silver frame, adorned with a pattern of vines. “This is Tony,” he says, holding out the photo, which I now see is of a young boy.
PWRHAUS’ future-soul comes in a wash of sound, thick synth over distant drums, acoustically electrified guitars, and everything half-melted, flowing viscously, gleaming in the lights. At the center is reclusive frontman Tony Schatz, whose vocals float there in layers, reverberating back and back, creating a strange presence that always seems to be receding, drawing you into its depths. The way he crafts his songs speaks volumes about the man. It’s the sound of someone ensconcing himself within his own sonic landscape, a place over which he has perfect control, a place he’d probably never leave if he didn’t have to.
Max and Mercy and I get a table. Max sits holding the picture of Tony, who seems to watch the conversation from just behind the frame’s glass. Tony is incredibly shy, Max explains. Max is, in addition to playing bass, the band’s spokesperson. Max tells us that Tony is grateful that we’re taking an interest in his music, but he didn’t feel he’d be able to give the interview himself. Apparently, he dropped the photo off at the bar before Max even got there, and subsequently vanished. The man is, even to his own bandmates, something of an enigma.
The boy in the photo is holding what might be a stuffed dog, or a rabbit. The creature’s head is mostly obscured by the boy’s hand. The boy’s hair looks impossibly soft. His gaze is almost right at the camera, and the hint of a smile plays on his lips.
Eleven: I wonder if you could tell us about your introduction to Tony, and how you ended up in the band.
Max Stein: I play bass in this band called Wild Ones, and we were taking a break. We were touring a lot, and we basically took 2016 off. I knew about Tony because I had seen him play a couple times. I’m a big, big soul music junkie. Tony does this kind of future-soul, and I saw him play at Turn! Turn! Turn! years ago. He had like a ten-piece band and it was just this spectacle, very glittery, very Bowie-y, if that’s a word. That’s how I got hooked.
I know that Tony has been working on this project for about the last ten years. He’s released ten records or so himself, and he has hundreds of unreleased songs. He’s just this little hermit that I know about, that I happened to meet. I met him officially at my house. We were having a Halloween party, and there was a Devo cover band called Debo that he was playing with, and I recognized him. He dresses like Prince; he’s really soft-spoken; you can barely hear him, but he sings like a motherfucker. Live, it’s like, holy shit, you know? And so I found him to be really interesting. We started talking, and I pretty much hustled my way into the band. But he’s been working at home forever, making song after song after song. I’m trying to use whatever I have to help Tony do his thing.
11: There isn’t much out there on PWRHAUS aside from a handful of YouTube videos and a few digital releases available through your website. Several of the albums only exist physically on vinyl, which is rare in this day and age. Can you speak to the decision to keep a lot of the music off the internet?
MS: You know, it’s funny, I feel like I know about as much as you guys. Like, I play with this guy, and I spend so much time with him, but he’s just this thing. I do know that he’s incredibly self-conscious. He’ll release something and everyone’s like, “This is great,” but a month later he’ll take it down. I think he just lives in this world, and when you live in your own art world, it gets so close and sometimes people can’t let it go, so he purges it. But I think that he sees this upcoming record as a new beginning. He’s made all these records, but now we’re going on our first tour, and this is his first release with a label. This is the beginning of a new chapter.
Also, I think Tony likes being mysterious. But there is a conflict of interest when you’re trying to get a career going and you’re this mysterious man, so that’s kind of why I’m here. I’m just a big chatty Kathy, and I just wanna use my gregariousness to promote him. I always feel weird being like, “Hey, check out my band,” but I feel much more comfortable being like, “Hey, check out his band.” And his soul music is the shit.
11: Speaking of the new record, I’d like to talk about the compositional process of these new songs. This new EP feels more electronic than the previous albums I was able to get my hands on. How did Tony go about writing these songs?
MS: Honestly, I don’t know too much. But there was definitely more emphasis on synthesizer. For a while there was a lot of strummy guitar stuff, but I think he wanted to leave that sound. The concept we use to describe the band is future-soul, and the synthesizer fits that idea really well.
11: What’s it like for you when you go in to record these songs? Does he have charts for you? How does Tony translate what he’s written to you?
MS: He’ll show us the tune, like, “Here’s the chord changes,” but recording with Tony is interesting. You’ll go in and do like seven takes of a thing, thinking that he’s only going to use one, but he’ll use all seven. He affects them, morphs them into one track. You’ll see a song and it’s got a hundred tracks on it. Really there’s only five parts, but it creates this kind of wall-of-noise sound.
As far as for us though, it’s interesting. Most of the songs are only three chords, but a lot of it is texture. So now he uses a sampler to capture the most important sounds from the record and he can play them like that, and then he also sings. He’s a very good singer. I write a bass part, and the drummer and Tony have usually agreed upon what they’re doing before I get there. It’s pretty loose.
11: I noticed the drums sound more electronic on the new album as well. Was he playing those on the sampler?
MS: I thought they were synthetic drums too, but they’re actually just incredibly processed live drums.
11: What is the recording setup like? Do you go to a studio, or is it a home setup?
MS: It’s a home setup in Tony’s basement. His house is like going to Mardi Gras. This guy is like a hermit in the middle of North Portland. Swear to god, he has 12 cats. It’s just this psychedelic weird k-hole. And house shows have gone down there. He has this huge property and in the back yard — it’s so fuckin’ cool — he hooks up all these twinkly lights and candles through this little forest area. It reminds me of when I’d visit Portland in 2006, 2007, 2008, when this house show scene was happening here. It just felt really innocent. I’m sorry, I forgot the question. [Laughs.]
11: That’s fine. I’m just enjoying hearing about this dude.
MS: Yeah, you know, I’m this big loud chatty motherfucker, and all I wanna do is help this dude do his thing, because I really believe in what he’s doing. It just knocks me out. And I’ve been really lucky to have some amazing musical experiences. Even playing a shitty club with this guy, I mean, he’s got the thing, you know? It’s amazing to be a part of it. I have so much respect for him.
Can he be a pain in the ass sometimes? Absolutely. Like, he convinced me to do this (gestures to the portrait) and I was like, I dunno man, is this just the most pretentious thing ever? Like, I don’t wanna disrespect you guys — what you do is so important to me — so I was worried that me holding a picture like a psycho would be weird, but at the same time, maybe that’s interesting. Whatever it is, it’s definitely Tony.
11: So you said this upcoming tour is the first one PWRHAUS has done?
MS: Yeah. Tony toured in Europe once. He’s really good friends with Neil Morgan. They went on a tour together, and Neil Morgan does a solo thing. But this is Tony’s first American tour. I booked the tour. We’re playing in Seattle, the Bay, Oakland, Sacramento, and here. I’m really trying to turn this into an actual act, get a booker, and get people excited about this guy. And I’m willing to do the legwork, to just let him write songs and worry about making the best motherfuckin’ songs, and I’ll do all the errands. I don’t mind.
11: You said he’s really soft-spoken, and clearly shy. What’s it like watching someone like that perform?
MS: When it’s on, it’s fuckin’ on. Sometimes he can get a little self-conscious, but it’s a guy who talks this quiet (whispering) and then he doesn’t even need a microphone in practice. It’s just a really amazing thing. It’s deeply moving. And for me, I’m just a soul fan; I’m a fan of the band, and like, I play in it, I get good things from it, but I’m just a fan. But yeah, a new person comes out when he plays.
11: And the show in Portland is at the Holocene on Feb. 8?
MS: Yeah, correct.
11: Well I’ll have to make it out. I’m definitely interested to see Tony in non-picture form.
MS: He’s a real treasure, and you know, people have been interested in him. When I started booking this tour, I found out there are people who knew Tony somehow and were like, “Yes, good for you, let me help you.” People were really down to help Tony and [me] set up this tour. And I just hope people will come out and see this amazing guy.»