Trying to classify the music made by Sky Creature isn’t easy. At times, you can hear the presence of thunderous punk rock in their DNA; at others, a much more ethereal sound comes to the foreground. The duo of Majel Connery and Matt Walsh have a new double EP, Childworld/Bear Mountain, out now, with a nationwide tour to follow. Each side of the EP shows a different element of the band’s style, and it makes for a haunting and immersive experience. I spoke with the duo about how the two records came about.
At what point while recording new music did you have the idea of releasing this as a double EP?
Matt Walsh: I’d worked on various sessions with Majel since the early 2000s, and I’d sort of psychically known we’d end up doing something together. More recently, I produced her former band Hae Voces — a phenomenally great, radical new music group. Then we recorded her solo compositions, which included the songs that ended up on Childworld. So we’d already been doing a lot of work together over the past couple of years. In the meantime, my band The Forms was releasing a series of singles. We came to a point where we were both looking to do something different. We share an affinity for collaborative efforts, both ideologically and in practice. So we decided to try working together.
When we finally got in the room, I heard something fascinating from the beginning — a wild collision of very different perspectives. What if Enya were in Minor Threat? What if Hildegard von Bingen had Hüsker Dü as her backing band? It fired my imagination and I found it very exciting. I think Majel found it more confusing than exciting initially, but after a few months we started to hit on pretty undeniable results.
Majel Connery: And practically speaking, when we started working on both Sky and my solo compositions, the roles and the writership started to get blurry. Matt really got inside my EP. He so fundamentally transformed these tracks that they’re basically even-better remixes of the original material. He even came up with the name “Childworld,” which we thought really conveyed something about my compositional orientation.
So at a certain point, we were like “Are these two projects? Isn’t Sky just the music that Matt and I make together?” When we started playing some of the Childworld songs in our live shows, the audience was into it. Ultimately, we came to the conclusion that Sky is the sound of the two of us together. The two EPs are different in terms of their approach. But we think it’s cool to come out of the gate showing we can do very, very unlike things.
Walsh: And we wanted all of the material to have a real life — in the wilds of performance, on vinyl and also digitally. And releasing it this way seemed like the best path to achieve those goals. Initially, the idea was to do a 7″ with “Bear Mountain” (the song) and “We Need A Room” from Childworld as the B-side. We were hoping to have it completed for our 2021 tour, but with delays and problems with the vinyl supply chain, the idea morphed into issuing a double EP on one 12″ record for 2022.
Interestingly, the material on the Bear EP is actually newer than a lot of what we’ve been recording lately. We just got back from Chicago where we cut basic tracks with Steve Albini at Electrical Audio. So, all of the music on the Bear EP, with the exception of the title track, is actually less than a year old — even now!
Did the songs from the two EPs emerge from the same period of writing, or does one EP predate the other?
Connery: The Childworld side is generally much older. In fact, the oldest one is “She Is Older.” (Walsh: ba-dum-crash.) The very last song we recorded was “He Was Dying,” which was actually previously recorded with Hae Voces and never released. Matt had this idea that Childworld needed a dramatic ending so we took that song and completely re-recorded it from scratch and it ended up sounding like a gigantic sacred rite.
Walsh: “Bear Mountain” the song is a bit older than the others — the rest on the Bear EP are newborns.
Is it a challenge to play some of the more ethereal music live?
Walsh: Well, there are two ways to think about that question! Is it harder to get the crowd into ethereal music generally? Or two, is it just hard to pull off logistically?
I’ll answer the second one. I totally get why you’re asking that — it sounds like there’s a lot going on. But our arrangements are actually very simple: Majel generally plays keyboard bass in her left hand, some sort of lead in her right hand. We have an old Akai MPC60 drum machine, and I play baritone guitar through a pair of old tube amps. That’s basically all that goes on at the show and is 90% of what’s on the record.
It’s funny, a friend of ours called Jimtronix — a Buchla-building synthesizer hermit/genius from Yonkers who contributed to our track “She Is Older” — said he loves the layering on the Bear Mountain EP. But actually, there’s not really any layering. There’s really only one guitar overdub on the entire Bear EP. And there’s only one section where Majel did an extra keyboard. Some of the tracks are straight up live takes — “Cold Light,” “Light Reflected” and “No One.”
Our process was to basically set up, play, let the 2″ tape machine run and just pick the best takes. It might sound layered because I’m using the Eventide Eclipse and the Fractal processors in front of my amps. I write this way, and then I’ll re-tweak as we’re going along to create different textures. When we record, it’s basically a couple of microphones in front of the amps. Majel has another Eclipse in her rig and sings through it. It’s a little less elaborate than the recording, in this case. But I think the sound of her voice is really what people want to hear – not effects.
One of the things I love about working with Majel is to watch and listen to her reaction to things. And when I started to get into this guitar approach, she said “Wow, it’s like you’re strumming an orchestra.” And that kind of set off a light bulb in my head and here we are.
Connery: The first version of the question is interesting too. I grew up playing music for people sitting quietly in chairs looking at programs, but it turns out I prefer the world where people are dancing hard and spilling beer on everything. But I’m not great at writing the kind of music that does that. A lot of my music and the way I most naturally sing is, like, way too slow and way too long. Matt had to kill off a lot of the layers in the songs on Childworld! But that kind of sound is still one thing that Sky can do well: create a spacious, big sound. Our friend Jeff Dolven (who wrote some of the lyrics for Childworld) calls this part of our music the “Sky” sound, and the other wilder sound is the “Creature”.
You have an ambitious tour beginning in June. Are you playing the shows as a two-piece, or bringing additional musicians on the road?
Walsh: It’s all two-piece. We sometimes collaborate with other musicians. But in the end, it’s hard to convince people to go out on the road for months without proper pay and health insurance. It’s just not something responsible people do, really.
Which is why it’s so exciting. Majel and I had a conversation recently where we were talking about how much we like the uncertainty of this tour. Anything could happen. Who knows how it will turn out? We just want to be out there sharing our music with people, and the universe will handle the rest. Our tour in 2021 was really inspiring.
Also, Majel booked this tour herself, which was a gargantuan task. But we’re really happy to do it the punk way. No handlers, no interference, no indie industrial complex.
Connery: Our 2021 tour was the most fun 2 weeks of my life.
The other thing about this being a duo is that it’s become part of what the band just is. Visually and musically, Matt and I are these two really different worlds and somehow that difference is part of the band’s identity. Matt is vivid as a performer, and his absorption in playing to the absolute maximum is like watching Michael Jordan drive to the basket. And his guitar sounds are giant and like, four-dimensional. I move in a more contained way, and I sing in a more contained way, but it’s like I’m trying to be this lightning rod that Matt is orbiting around and everybody is watching and wondering, like, “Oh, my god, are those things about to collide?” People comment on this a lot. It’s this magnetic polarity that you can see physically on stage. You can also hear it on the album. I’m not sure that dynamic would be as obvious if there were other people on stage with us.
You’ve both made (and make) music outside of the group as well. Do you see any connections between your different projects?
Walsh: My other band, The Forms, has been bringing out a lot of new material this past year. In a way, I think a lot of the Bear Mountain material could have been on a Forms record. When Majel and I were at Electrical Audio back in April working on new material, I stepped behind the drum kit and Majel said it was like instant Forms. So I do think there’s some resonance between these two projects. But to me, Majel’s voice is so characteristic and huge — it sort of spiritually dominates whatever she sings on. It’s like having Morrissey on a track. It’s just gonna sound a certain way.
Connery: My other projects are in the world of new music/contemporary Classical music, and we’re increasingly finding that Sky can cross over into that world. We played at the Tribeca New Music Festival this year and we were shocked at how easily the audience seemed to navigate the very different approaches. I have a commission with the choir Chanticleer and we’ve been talking with them about a possible project; we might be doing something down at the Knoxville Museum of Art, etc. There was a period of time where I stupidly thought that Classical people just listened to Classical music, and punk people just listened to punk. But that’s mentally boxifying people. It turns out that people are more curious and more open-minded than I thought. They listen to all kinds of stuff. In fact, it’s more thrilling to make punk-ish stuff work in an art space, and make art music work in a dive bar.
Where do you see your music going from here?
Connery: We were talking about this “What’s next?” question and Matt said “I want to challenge people!” and I was like “Everybody says they want to challenge people. It’s a cliché.”
Walsh: But it’s how I feel. I want to actually challenge ourselves and actually challenge our audience. Not fake challenge them by gussying up the same old chord changes with different textures and different metadata, but to continue to make the most progressive music out there, and it doesn’t have to be off-putting. The Beatles did it. Why can’t we?
We’re living in an outrageously diverse age, where we’re aware of Hildegard von Bingen, and Sophie, and African bands like Etran Finatawa or the Matthew Watmon group. On my turntable right now there’s Billy Joel, Wendy Carlos’s Switched-on Bach and a couple of Medieval lute records. This is really remarkable. We have access to an incredible range of genius work.
But somehow people seem to be clinging to the familiar — politically, spiritually and musically. There was a study recently that music is at its lowest level of timbral and tonal variation ever. How is this possible?
It’s based on fear, I think. There are so many choices that we’re culturally paralyzed. And it’s economic as well — musicians are comfy finding a niche and making a meager living that way. And maybe that’s a smart approach, in terms of a career strategy.
But it’s boring as fuck. Our goal is to create a new barrier-free idiom.
Photo: Noah Kalina
Sky Creature will play with Oneida and 95 Bulls at Rippers on June 4.
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