I first saw Casper Skulls on stage at Shea Stadium a few months back in November of 2016 when we shared a bill together with my band Fruit and Flowers, alongside War Cries and Very Fresh for their album release show. They began to play the first song of their set and I was immediately captured by their massive sound. Casper Skulls’ style and energy is admittedly clean but their dynamic and songwriting has a heaviness reminiscent of Sonic Youth. Male and female vocals intertwine and branch out into isolated moments of focus. Their dissonance is calculated and effective. The message that comes across in the delivery of their lyrics is evocative, critical, and at times, political poetry.
This Canadian group is made up of Neil Bednis, who story-tells as his guitar interplays with Melanie St. Pierre’s emotive guitar playing and vocalization. Fraser McClean fills the air with melodious bass as Chris Anthony mouths along the words and hammers away on the drums. Their most recent release with Buzz Records, the five song EP “Lips and Skull,” begins with a powerhouse of energy. “Devotion,” narrated by Bednis, is a commentary on what drives people to devote themselves to causes and beliefs and how it validates their human experience or, on the other hand, how it can be used against them.
Since the moment I first laid eyes and ears on their work, I have been intrigued with their musical careers and the Toronto music scene. They recently took time to tour the U.S., where they played an official SXSW showcase at Swan Dive. It takes dedication to apply for grants and visas in order to share their art with other parts of the world, and it requires stamina to flawlessly perform in the Texas heat with bodies relentlessly buzzing throughout the downtown streets, in and out of bars.
After the dust settled, I was able to pry into their collective mind and get an idea of its inner workings from Neil Bednis himself.
BTRtoday (BTR): Can you sum up your SXSW experience? How difficult was it to get official showcases and travel in the US?
Neil Bednis (NB): SXSW was a really fun time. It was our first time playing and it was pretty hectic although we had a pretty relaxed schedule compared to some of our friends who were playing like eight or nine times. We were able to see a lot of the bands we wanted to see. It was awesome to reconnect with a bunch of old friends and people we’ve met on tour. Also, we stayed in this mansion just outside of Austin for three days, which was incredible. The person hosting us made these amazing breakfasts every day and we were in heaven.
It was pretty easy to get an official showcase. Our label helped us apply and we got in not long after that.
Playing the U.S. is a pretty mind-numbing process for a lot of Canadian bands. You have to wait around four-to-five months to get your visas approved on top of paying thousands of dollars for the actual visas and union dues (God forbid that you have to expedite the visa on top of that). It’s really the hardest part about being a Canadian band. A lot of people we know can’t afford the insane costs of getting their visas.
BTR: Do you feel the positive effects of the Canadian subsidies and government support of Canadian musicians?
NB: Most definitely. Although the granting system does have it’s flaws, it’s amazing Canadian musicians receive any funding at all. We got a grant to go to SXSW as well as for our upcoming Canadian/American dates, and we essentially have most of our expenses covered. A lot of Canadian musicians will often pair their releases with both a Canadian and an American label so that they can still be eligible for Canadian grants.
BTR: Did you tour on the way down or back up to Canada?
NB: We played a show in Dallas which was really fun, but that’s it. It was a really long drive so we just listened to a lot of comedy albums and podcasts.
BTR: What was your favorite show this time around?
NB: It’s hard to say. We played a Canada Blast showcase at Swan Dive and it was really awesome because all our friends were there. We also played a show at Todd’s Mansion which was really awesome because we got to play with some of our favorite artists like Melkbelly, Rick Maguire, Stove, and Leggy.
BTR: How did Casper Skulls form?
NB: Chris posted a Kijiji ad saying he was looking for people to play music with. I responded, and Mel and I started practicing with him about a month later. I don’t think Chris initially knew how to play drums but he had a drum kit and I think I took that as “Oh you play drums.” Chris had booked Fraser’s other bands before and knew him through shows. Chris asked if Fraser wanted to play with us and we hit it off. It’s kind of the classic way to start a band, respond to an ad! This is Mel’s first band, Chris’ first band on drums, and Fraser’s first band on bass, so it was nice for everyone to grow together on their instruments.
BTR: Who are your favorite Canadian bands to play with or that you look up to?
NB: All the bands on Buzz Records always continue to inspire us. I went and saw Weaves play at Cheer Up Charlies our second day at SXSW and it was amazing.
We love Lonely Parade from Peterborough, ON. We started playing with them not long after we started the band and they are just so talented and driven.
I really love Mick Futures and Strange Attractor from my hometown Sudbury, ON. Both of those bands are fronted by the Houle brothers. They used to also play in this band called Varge which sounded like nothing I’ve ever heard before. Also Varge was my first introduction to a baritone guitar. I also used to be in a band in Sudbury called the Almighty Rhombus who are still a band and writing some really awesome pop songs.
Some Toronto bands we love are Beliefs, Chastity (Whitby, ON), Doomsquad, New Fries, Odonis Odonis, Frigs, Blonde Elvis, Ducks Unlimited, Century Palm, Poor You, Vallens, Teenanger… I know there’s a ton more but I’m blanking.
BTR: How much time was invested in “Lips and Skull?” Why do you think it differs from your past releases? What do you plan to do differently going forward?
NB: It was a quick process. We wrote most of the songs in late 2015 and recorded it in February of 2016. We recorded it over four days at Candle Recording with Shehzaad Jiwani and Josh Korody. I think we had the actual copies of the record by May 2016 but had to sit on them until our release date which was October. It doesn’t vary a ton from past releases besides maybe some of the musical ideas being a bit more expansive.
We’re recording our first full-length record now and it’s been a super different experience than the “Lips and Skull” EP. The record overall is more melodic and was recorded between two studios in Toronto. Also, instead of doing it all in four days like the EP, we’ve been recording it in parts here and there. There’s more nuance to it and different instrumentation that we’ve never worked with before. We have a string quartet on some of the songs, acoustic guitar, piano, baritone, 12-string and different kinds of percussion.
BTR: What are some recurring themes in the writing?
NB: I think on “Lips and Skull” we were more influenced by our environment and our relationships with others. I think there’s a sense of anxiety that runs through the music as well. All the songs are like stories that magnify a relationship between two people or the relationship with oneself. The relationship is usually negative and sparks a change or a growing period for the people involved in it.
BTR: Can you tell me about the art for “Lips and Skull?”
NB: Mel went to the library and perused through some books. She found this whole book on spider origami and that’s what inspired her to make the cover. The whole idea behind the origami is taking something small like a piece of paper and morphing it into a whole new thing, which kind of resembles the theme of the EP and how people change. I think it’s my favorite cover she’s done so far. Anytime I see the record in a store I get excited because I love the album art so much.
BTR: Do you have passions outside of music?
NB: Music is definitely our main passion. Mel’s a visual artist and went to school for it. I really love film but I don’t think I could ever make one.