Proving once again that “power trio” isn’t just a descriptive handle from the distant past, but a louder-than-God 21st Century reality, New York's Skull Practitioners release their first full-length album, Negative Stars, for In the Red Records on January 20th. The album is the second release for Los Angeles-based In the Red by the trio — guitarist Jason Victor, bassist Kenneth Levine, and drummer Alex Baker, following the band’s acclaimed EP, Death Buy, issued in 2019.
Previously, Victor had established himself as the dazzling co-lead guitarist for Steve Wynn and the Miracle Three - when Wynn revived his ‘80s L.A. Paisley Underground consortium The Dream Syndicate in 2017, Victor took the guitar chair previously occupied by Karl Precoda and Paul Cutler. Levine was playing in DBCR, a three-piece unit. “We wanted to go to a five-piece, and needed a drummer and another guitar player,” he says. “We put an ad out on Craigslist and met Jason and Alex that way. Alex was just two weeks into living in New York. We played together for a while, and then it just sort of dissolved. Jason, Alex, and I actually had more of a shared, common musical perspective, and the three of us decided, ‘Let’s stick together with just us three.’”
Skull Practitioners recorded a limited cassette-only debut, st1, which they self-released in 2014. The four-song collection, on which Baker was the lone band member to take a vocal, marked the start of a long hunt for the right voice. “We kept looking for a new singer, and that person never came,” says Victor. “None of us wanted to sing at all. After a while, we had been together as a three-piece for so long that we had our thing, and it became difficult for someone to fit into it. So we pulled a Genesis! The best thing about it is that now all three of us will sing, and that takes the pressure off just one of us.” Levine adds, “Whoever writes, sings. It’s their expression, so they should say what they have to say.”
On Negative Stars, Levine performs “Dedication” and “What Now,” and Victor sings “Exit Wounds,” “Leap,” “Intruder,” and “Ventilation.” The album’s expansive instrumental tracks are “Fire Drill” and Skull Practitioners’ longtime club highlight “Nelson D,” which first appeared on st1 in a live version. You can hear a multitude of influences coming off each other in Skull Practitioners’ music, ranging from the Gun Club to Sonic Youth to Joy Division, Black Flag, and beyond. Each player brings something uniquely his own to the mix.
“Black Flag was huge for me,” says Victor. “There is that element of improv, and of aggression, that I was attracted to in that band. With our band, there’s definitely an aggressive angle there, and absolutely an improvisational one. We’re all willing to give everyone the space for contributing ideas. This band really does function as a democracy, which is nice.” Levine adds, “All of us were into different things, and there’s some kind of overlap and we kind of influence each other, and there’s stuff that we turn each other on to."
Everything on Negative Stars coheres so seamlessly, but like with so many others, its recording was hampered, and protracted, by the COVID-19 pandemic.“The main album session was a few years ago,” Baker says. “That was when we went into the studio for a couple of days with our friend, engineer Ted Young, and we tracked the bulk of the album there. We recorded the instrumental parts first, then started vocal tracking in January of 2021. It took us so long to decide that all the instruments were done at that point. The vocals were actually done at our practice space. We just set up the mics and did that ourselves.”
Levine adds, “The record was in mid-flight, and then the pandemic hit, so we were just sitting around for six months or a year, and we said, ‘Well, we may never finish this.’ So we wound up literally sitting in a room with masks on during most of the vocal tracking. If we’d waited to go into a real studio, it would have come out even later. Alex did all the engineering on that, and we’re very appreciative of all his engineering prowess.”
With their album finally complete and the pandemic lifting, Skull Practitioners have begun to take to the stage more regularly: they have opened shows for Lydia Lunch, Hammered Hulls, Live Skull, and In the Red label mates the Wolfmanhattan Project (Kid Congo Powers, Mick Collins, and Bob Bert). They plan to get on the road in the near future.
Says Levine, “I think the band is represented at its best in a live setting. That’s where we’re in our element. Playing live, we’re out for blood.” Victor adds, “With the live thing, we just want to destroy, in the nicest, most friendly way — we’re nice people. Someone said about us, ‘These guys look like a bunch of accountants.’ People don’t really know what to expect before they hear us. I think they’re all a little surprised, maybe, and we like having that element of surprise — ‘We’re gonna blow your minds a little.’”