In this month’s local feature, Portland songwriter, instrumentalist and label founder Johanna Warren discusses her labelmates Forest Veil and Indira Valey, getting inspiration from Anne Carson and Sappho and her new album due out Sept. 16.
Although Skull Diver has only formally existed in Portland for a little more than two years, in many ways their music feels like it has been 20 years in the making. It’s not just because Ally and Mandy Payne are sisters who grew up making music together. The music they create as Skull Diver has years of experiences, passion and curiosity carefully woven in. It’s with this combination of experience and carefully honed skill that the Payne sisters are able to offer listeners a haunting, reverb-laden lens through which to view melancholy, longing and loss.
Skull Diver’s sound could be described as eerie, heavy and psychedelic, but their pop sensibilities are undeniably strong and provide interesting counters to their discography as a whole. Both “Pornokrates,” from their self-titled 2015 release, and “Bad Star,” the single from their upcoming album Chemical Tomb (out May 28), prove Skull Diver thrive in paradox.
This only became more obvious after spending some time with the Payne sisters a few weeks ago, where their edgy, glittery image intersected the funny, compassionate, thoughtful way they spoke about the music scene in Portland, each other, Ally’s secret life ambitions and the darker side of partying.
Eleven: Both of you learned several instruments starting at a young age. Is there an instrument that you feel the most affinity toward?
Ally Payne: Piano for me.
Mandy Payne: Piano for me as well.
11: When did you both start learning the piano?
MP: We started really, really young. Our mom taught us. I remember sitting with Alyssa at the piano when I was eight and she was six, kind of learning together. That’s what we did to bond all through our childhood.
AP: It’s the most flexible instrument, especially when you’re talking about songwriting and structuring stuff. Really, to be able to compose something out on piano, it’s so much easier than trying to do it on guitar or any other instrument. You get the rhythm, you get the bass, and you get the melody.
11: Do either of you write piano for anything outside of Skull Diver?
AP: I always had this dream of riding the bus with a really shitty Casio and playing really saucy jazz music. Just sitting at the back of the bus and basically composing for people’s conversations. The things I would do with my life if I had the time to do them are just ridiculous. It’s kind of creepy, but it’s also coming from a place of sweetness, but I would totally just follow someone around the grocery store with a keytar.
11: I’d be really into it, but I have met you.
AP: Maybe I’d just introduce myself first and say, “Can I follow you around the grocery store?”
MP: You guys, consent is so important.
AP: “Do you consent and what’s your mood? I will recreate it whilst you’re in the produce aisle.”
MP: Skull Diver does Fred Meyer.
11: Since 2015, and in the last year especially, you’ve played some really big venues and are on your way to having released two full-lengths. What do you both think has been your biggest accomplishment so far?
AP: I would say our biggest accomplishment is something that isn’t necessarily out in the public. People don’t see it very often, but you can hear it. Our biggest accomplishment in my eyes are the strides Mandy and I have made when it comes to production and audio. Especially in terms of complicated things like MIDI setups for guitar and honing in on some nerdy gear stuff.
All of my guitars are customized to a T; I’ve built them out and ripped them out and done everything myself. And same with all of my setup. It’s all very customized and programmed. It’s really in-depth stuff that you can hear because it gives a really big sound, and there’s a lot of fullness. It sounds like there’s so much going on for three people, and that’s primarily because of the strides we’ve made with technology.
MP: This specific thing is largely male-dominated still and so, with the bigger venues we end up playing, with bigger bands and the more opportunities we get, we want to open a door for women to do that kind of stuff and feel comfortable experimenting. That’s the number one thing people say to us after shows, “How did you do that? I would love to do that, but X, Y, and Z are reasons why I can’t.” And we’re like, “Yes you can. You absolutely can.” So, something we’d like to accomplish in the future is doing more to support women who feel they want to experiment with audio.
11: When you decided to add a drummer to your lineup, did you feel like it was important for her to be a female?
AP: It didn’t really matter at first.
MP: It just didn’t work out.
AP: So, we thought, we need to try and find a female drummer and see if it’s a better situation. And it was drastically better. I don’t know if that necessarily means we could never play with a male drummer; we’ve played with a few. It matters less about gender and more about who you click with. And for Zanny [Geffel] that happened the moment we met her.
MP: She met and exceeded any expectation we had. We were like, “Oh my God. What are you? You’re amazing.”
AP: She’s amazing. She’s spent the majority of her life studying music. She can play drums, play synth and sing at the same time, and keep perfect rhythm. It was the perfect accent for us to be able to keep the sound very full. And have a lot of energy. She always pushes us boundary-wise.
11: Regarding the glitter and leather and showiness of Skull Diver, how much of that is who you are day-to-day versus how much is presentation as a band?
MP: I’m just going to say, #WOKEUPLIKETHIS
AP: For us, a lot of our music and our branding is based on juxtaposition between the ugly and the glamorous. Everything counteracting: the ability to be in the beautiful realm and the dark, scary, fucked-up realm at the same time. A lot of our music is a lot heavier and involves really intense subject matter, so it’s all meant to clash and complement.
MP: I think if you’re going to just show up and have that be what you do, you need to be the best damn person at just showing up. I think this because I’m a visual artist as well, and so when we do music and talk about our live shows — even our albums are a score for a bigger story — I always like having something visual paired with that because it draws you in.
11: Your new single “Bad Star” has a lot of pop elements in terms of rhythm and melody. Is that something we can expect on the entirety of Chemical Tomb?
AP: There are definitely some heavier driving tracks; that single is definitely the poppiest of them all. The subject matter in that one lies in the lyrics and the story behind that song. It basically references a time in our lives when we were younger and partying all the time and basically watching a lot of our friends OD and die from drugs when we were 17 or 16.
MP: One in particular. There’s a line in the song, “Love is just a game we play for fun.” And one of our really close friends growing up, he was a poet, and the last night I saw him, he was reading poetry and he was talking about how he doesn’t believe in love and that it’s just a game we play for fun. So, I put it in the song. So the juxtaposition there is this pop delivery method, because pop music is so powerful, but that song has some really dark personal meaning.
11: Is there a narrative to your albums?
MP: The first album, especially the artwork, was about discovery and reflection and how you have to kill an idea you have of yourself to becoming something new. And our second album, Chemical Tomb, is kind of about death and rebirth and becoming a feral thing that is kind of out of control. A lot of the lyrics on this album talk about a time in my life when I was a little bit of a feral being.
11: Since you guys have self-produced and released two albums now, is there any advice you would go back in time and give yourself if you were able to?
MP: I would go back and say, “Don’t be so harsh on yourself. Don’t be so precious about things. Don’t be so scared to release things.” Because you have two choices: you can release it or not, and you have to pick the one that’s going to make you happy.»