An Interview with Matt Mehlan of Skeletons and the Kings of All Cities
  • FRIDAY, JUNE 29, 2007

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Even for a quirky label like Ghostly International, the eccentricities and sheer diversity of styles found on Lucas, the second album from Skeletons and the Kings of All Cities (FKA Skeletons & the Girl-Faced Boys), may seem out there. Centered around Matt Mehlan, but featuring a cast of dozens, Lucas is the perfect contradiction. Within and between tracks, free jazz workouts mix with electronic elements mix with strings and horns mix with…well, let’s just say Mehlan is a brilliant musical schizophrenic, never settling in to one idea too long but always anchoring each track with a melodic pop backdrop. With so many adequate, yet completely forgettable, albums out today, Lucas stands as a singular entry into this year’s releases, surpassing so many who write nine times the same song. Mehlan spoke to Baeble about how to work well with others, “weird” music and why “Mambo No. 5” has the potential to be a good song. (We’re still not sold on that last one.)

Baeble: So in your press photos, it looks like you have about 300 members. How was the album created with so many collaborators?

Mehlan: Well, I write the most basic version of whatever that song will be and I’ll put that down as a beginning point. With Lucas, there were a lot of people that I wanted to be involved and a lot of input that I wanted. It was like, “Here’s a song idea, let’s go from there.” Then we just improvised over the top of everything.

B: Were there new additions or mainly people you’ve worked with for a while?

M: It’s a combination. I mean, there is a set band. The live band right now is all people that have played in previous versions of the band and played on previous records. Other people are people I know that I think are amazing players. Personally, I’ll switch around a lot. On one tour, I played drums. Another, I played bass. Another, I played guitar.

B: What would you consider your weapon of choice?

M: Right now, it’s the bass and saxophone.

B: Tell me about the logistics of making a record with so many people. How do you decide who plays on what and how do you maintain your role as ringleader?

M: You make the decision based on what you know about people’s musical personalities and what kind of things they’re gonna add. But I don’t have an ego about it. I do when it would come down to something I don’t like, but I guess I don’t really like to make music with people that I don’t think are going to add something. The people I’ve worked with, I’m so excited to play music [with]. And I’ll put my input in there as much as I’d like my input to be in there, but otherwise, I’m looking for other people [for help]. I think the solo genius is overrated. People always wanna make that concept up with people. Look at Prince. He always brought in sick people.

B: So it’s not like your band?

M: Well, I guess if I quit, it wouldn’t exist anymore. (Laughs) I guess I’m the producer or whatever you want to call it and the recordings end up in my hands. I’ll bring people in to help mix and give me their opinions and at that stage, it’s [just] opinions and I can do whatever needs to be done. But I really enjoy working with people.

B: You just shot down my image of you tinkering for three days straight alone in a basement.

M: It happens, but more out of necessity. You do turn into that crazy person at some point because it has to get done and you want it to be perfect. But it becomes problematic too because we’ll get into that mode where we do a song for a week, and people think it’s weird music, but I don’t think it’s weird at all.

B: Each song sounds like a synthesis of three of four different songs. Was this the result of improvisation or a combination of different ideas?

M: Songs just happen, y’know? I was telling somebody this a while ago. I don’t think there’s really such a thing as a “bad song.” I think there’s bad versions of songs. Frequently. No matter how bad something is—say lyrics are the hokiest thing ever in a song—if you did the right version of a song, then those terrible things could be considered good.

B: Even god-awful crap like “Mambo No. 5”?

Yeah. Just give it to me and I’ll make a new record and it’ll be f**kin’ great.

B: I’ll take your word for it. When you’re performing live, do you try to recreate the album?

M: Not too much. We try to change things and make them interesting to us first. That’s the main goal. But we also try to make them exciting and push us to do things differently every night. So the live show has always changed. We’ve done tours with ten people and three people. Right now, it’s like a standard rock band. Just two guitars, bass, drums and some saxophone. But it’s trying to take that to a different level. It’s always changing.

B: Does it ever get tedious or frustrating?

M: You get tedious and frustrated every time you play a song and that’s when it gets exciting because you push yourself to do something different. I’ve always been like that. I think part of what being a fan of music is, is to keep trying to expand what you like. [With my music], I think the tendency is to be like, “Oh, this is weird” and to write it off but I’m not interested in making weird [music] for weird’s sake. I’m more interested in pushing my tastes and trying to make something transcendent.

I’m gonna listen to these songs a gazillion times when we’re making this record. If I’m gonna listen to it that many times, the songs that stick and make it all the way to the record are the ones where the millionth time you’re listening to it, you’re still hearing something that you’re into.

B: Does this improvisational attitude also extend to the length of your songs? [Lucas’s tracks range from three to eleven minutes.]

M: Well, you start with the improvisation and once it’s in some recorded form, then you’re gonna hear it over and over again. That’s a big thing with improvised music in general. Once you record it, it’s a document, but it becomes a document that will be heard over and over again. Since we’re making pop music ultimately, you can improvise up the wazoo, but since it’s a pop song, you want to take it and make it perfect so you arrange and make it something that works from beginning to end.

B: Do you read a lot of your press?

M: I do. I think press is a fascinating part of making music. The only way to release records and have anybody know that they exist is with press, y’know? It’s just a very interesting relationship that all of these things have to each other because nothing is exactly correlated to each other. Everyone still talks about this magical thing that happens called “hype” and it’s kind of depressing because if there wasn’t that idea floating around in the air, then people would have an easier time finding music that they like and they would be less affected by that stuff.

B: Do you think it’s harder now to establish longevity than in the past?

M: I do, but I’m not gonna go anywhere. It is really interesting though when a record finally comes out because in a very bizarre way, it ends up affecting your life. You spend a lot of time in a concentrated period, totally engrossed by the music itself, and then you spend an even longer time just trying to forget about it because it won’t come out for a year or two. And then it comes out and there’s sorta this emergency vibe where it’s like, “We gotta get all this s#!t happening.” I’m gonna just keep doing it and see what happens.

* * * * * * * * * * * *


Lucas is out now on Ghostly International. For more info, you can check out Ghostly’s page HEREor Myspace page HERE.

- Jason Newman

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