Interview: Skin & Bone on jazz, freedom and the future

Skin & Bone are an accomplished group of three local percussionists with a rich array of experience and many projects on the go. Performing in a largely improvised style and bringing with them what individually must easily be over a hundred percussive components to each gig, the group have big plans for how the project is going to develop in the future. We caught up with them for a coffee and a chat to find out what lies on the horizon.

“I went to Tate Modern yesterday, the new extension,” starts Walt Shaw, varied percussionist of the band. “There’s this fantastic viewing platform where you can see three hundred and sixty degrees, and there was a ladder going up the top of the chimney and I saw these guys going up it in visibility gear and this guy in all black followed and I thought ‘he looks a bit weird’. I didn’t know at the time it was Tom Cruise, because how would you know?”

“A chair with Tom Cruise on the back!” fires George Grignon, much to Greg Rawson and Walt’s amusement and laughter. George performs in Skin & Bone mostly utilising a standard drum kit. Greg bridges the gap between the two domains, having a drum kit augmented by a substantial array of world percussion. To get an idea of how Skin & Bone came about, we started discussing their individual involvements outside of the band. Improvisation is a skill that doesn’t appear to this this level of mastery overnight, so how did they get to here?

Walt begins, “I’m in several different bands, like we all are.” The others readily agree. “I do a lot of ad hoc ‘sitting in’ because I’m very much involved with improvisation; the whole improv scene tends to be ad hoc ensembles that get formed briefly for the one gig, so I’ll play with different people in different scenarios. There are certain regular bands that I work with on a more formal basis – Orchestra of the Upper Atmosphere, which is progressive-avant-rock meets improv meets kraut-rock, then there’s Deep Tide Quartet which is two thirds improvisation and one third composition – we work a lot from graphic scores, not conventional scores, and we will have key points that are triggered, changes in mood or energy or dynamics, so there’s structure involved with some of the pieces, and with others it’s a blank canvas and that’s my preferred and default scenario. With Skin & Bone we’ve moved more and more towards a ‘blank canvas’.”

George Grignon is emphatic in agreement on this and takes the reins. ‘”I play in loads of other bands, but not as many. At the end of last year I cut it down. Kaliugah which is an electric bass player and myself on drums, it’s an avant garde jazz rock duo outfit, and Soul Deep Fusion Project is a jazz rock funk fusion band, and occasionally work with keyboardist Matt Ratcliffe on another project.”

Kaliugah is the biggest surprise to me here – whilst I was well aware that George lists metal as a genre he is comfortable with I wasn’t quite ready for the awesome barrage that the two-piece are capable of, and it’s quite a departure from Skin & Bone.

Jazz seems to broadly underpin the styles that they have played over the years, so they seem like the perfect people to begin my further education. It’s a spiral which began when I openly claimed I was out my depth before Oobleck played Déda, but I’m still determined to understand it better. What’s a good starting point to find out about jazz when you think you know nothing about jazz? What is jazz?

George begins, “What is jazz?! Good question, very good question!” He pauses briefly, but it’s clear it is more to find the best way to put forward an answer than to decide one, there is a wealth of knowledge here. “I saw an interview with Mike Stern (six times Grammy nominated jazz guitarist) who was asked ‘What is jazz?’ and he laughed. He said ‘Is it Louis Armstrong? Is it Weather Report?’ You’re talking about more than eighty years, but in between you’ve had Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Billie Holliday… so what is jazz?”

Walt continues, “The problem is like the Eskimos have I don’t know how many words for snow, it’s the same for jazz. People talk about it like it’s this entity, but it isn’t. It’s just an umbrella term for all of this music.”

The same could be said of ‘rock’ though, and I can get my head around that and all its sub-genres. How does all this link together fairly?

“The thing that comes to my mind,” says George, “is creativity. I’ve played in rock/metal bands and in my opinion there’s very little creativity, it’s very formulaic, very straight forward. I started listening to metal or rock in the sixties with Hendrix and Cream. It’s not really changed. You could listen to someone now and it’s still the same basic format. With jazz there’s just so much more room for creativity. Jazz draws in, in my personal opinion, so many cultural influences.”

“I’d say there are certain key things,” says Walt, “one is improvisation; without improvisation I don’t think you could call it jazz. The fact is there might be a tune ahead, but then at some point those musicians are going to go off on a creative journey and they don’t know where that journey is going to end up and they don’t know what path it is going to take. The other key thing is…”

“Communication,” injects George, unwittingly proving the exact point as Walt carries on the sentence without dropping a beat.

“That collaboration and having a conversation in some shape or form with the other musicians. We’re having a conversation now, and there’s an exchange of ideas. That has got to be taking place and it isn’t present in other music. Would you agree?” he passes to Greg Rawson who has been agreeing throughout with calm enthusiasm.

Greg is a private drum teacher, session drummer and live drummer for a wide array of professional outfits including but in no way limited to top Abba tribute groups who play capacity shows to substantially large audiences. He’s even been supported by The Venga Boys. With a more local interest, he is the solid and actively dynamic percussion section to the charged borderline shoegaze Derby band Goddesses who are currently writing new material due to be showcased live in the near future. “I see it as freedom. To express the music how you want to say it at that moment with other people and it’s a collaborative thing. It can be solo; it can be as a group. When you start to play it, you’re just free; you don’t think, you just do it,” he explains.

“I wouldn’t set rock and jazz against each other,” considers Walt, “because they complement each other. In the seventies it sent jazz off in a different direction. If jazz starts to get stale at all something comes along and goes wham! and blows it all in completely new directions; it’s happening all the time!”

George continues, “It revitalises it, That’s why when Greg says ‘freedom’, and I say ‘creativity’… that’s what jazz has.”

Surely there are certain rules that you have to stick by, I ask. Like with a chord progression can you only drift off key in the off beats? There’s a thoughtful pause before they commit a disagreement.

“It’s a tough one that you’ve raised there,” considers Walt. “You’ve got some jazz where there are very strict rules and as a reaction against the rules and the strictures in the fifties and forties you got the development of free jazz with people like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, who are musicians who tore up the rule book.”

“Is that structurally you’re talking about?” interjects Greg, “because harmonically I’d go back to Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.”

“It’s creativity, freedom and, as Walt said, it eats itself and changes. To me it’s the most creative art form there is,” sums up George. So Skin & Bone is…? “All of that!!” he jokes.

“We’ve all got different backgrounds and if we look at it we probably have different focal points in our interests, but Skin & Bone hybridises into a new monster. It’s like you’ve got three little beasties running around easting each other and we become a different monster and we don’t know what it is!” theorises Walt.

Art and music come full circle in some ways and their conception is laid out via another local artist. “Vitor Azevedo of Artsmith, it was his idea, he’s responsible for this really. He kept saying ‘why don’t you form a percussion trio, you guys would make a really interesting percussion group’, and we said ‘that’s a great idea!’ He had the space which made us able to meet up and have a rehearsal. Right from the off we laughed – you know if you’re a fish and flapping about, and then somebody drops you in the tank, it just felt like that, really good!”

“It did!” reminisces George. “You’re never going to know if it will ever work. I’d seen Greg at gigs, I’ve known Walt for years, we got into Artsmith and it worked, and it continued to work. Walt said the other day that we’re just scratching the surface and there’s so much more that we can do!”

George paraphrases Wayne Shorter saying, “Jazz is like getting to the top of a mountain, looking over and thinking ‘I’m gonna jump! I don’t know what’s going to happen!’ and that’s how I feel when I’m playing with these guys. Walt does lead it brilliantly, but we don’t have notes, or a chart, or a tune. What we do have is a theme. For example, the tiniest bone in the ear, so it’s got to be delicate, so that paints a picture for me and I’m thinking ‘Okay, I’m not going to bash anything!’ and where you go from there is entirely up to you.”

Seeing them perform in the past seemed to suggest that some of the performance was completely improvised, and some had comfortable patterns that they fell into. Walt clarified. “We’ve got some pieces which are based on bones of the body, so vertebral columns are going to be solid, anchored, strong… George said about the three tiny bones in the ear which have to be delicate. Then we have other pieces like the pelvis which is ‘dancey’ with an element of rhythm in it. About three or four rehearsals back we introduced the element of skin which is total free improvisation with a blank canvas and we jumped in to see what happened.”

Rehearsals? How do you rehearse something that doesn’t involve a requirement to perform in the same way for the gig itself? “It’s like supposing that I want to get to know you better, so we meet up and chat more, and eventually after ten or twenty times we chat comfortable, have a laugh, know each other’s sense of humour, and the more you discover about each other the more you create sparks and new ideas. The rehearsals aren’t so much about external structure, but about discovering the internal forces that make us tick and gel.” Both Greg and George solidly agree. “The next gig we’ll probably fall out big time and try and kill each other! Then we’ll look back on this interview and think “’hose were the Golden Days, chaps!'”

“When you say ‘percussion’ to someone they immediately think of rhythm and time” says Walt, “but to me sound is equally important, as well as exploring texture. If you’re doing a painting, line is important, but colour is important as well. We’re trying to reinvent the wheel in a sense because drummers have this role of being sat at the back, the butt of all the jokes, keep that solid beat.”

Greg, a strong knowledge of ethno-musicology having studied it intensively at degree-level, and beyond counter-qualifies “That’s in Western culture! There is something liberating saying ‘We’re musicians as well! We can create sounds! We can create colour! We can create moods! We can create dynamics!’ and allowing a much more holistic view of what percussion is about.”

The last performance at Dubrek Studios was recorded down by Jay Dean and passed across to the band. Playing in a band means that you rarely get to see how you come across live. “I’d never heard a recording of what we’d done before,” says George. “We sat in Walt’s beautiful warm living room  drinking coffee and eating mince pies, really relaxed, listening to it back questioning ‘Is this music?’. I sat there and really enjoyed it. There’s moods, and movement.”

Do they have particular roles within the ensemble? We establish that Walt is the colouration. Greg continues. “I flip between both the other two guys, and that goes for everybody, we have the freedom within to see how far we can move out. If you’re playing with really good players you can move out to another universe where you don’t have to think about the beat but when you finish you know where that beat is because the other guys have got you, and you only get that with really good musicians who know how to support each other. That’s a level of communication you only get by having your craft down. If you look at younger drummers who come out and do jazz and they try and do clever break beats. What I find hilarious is they’ve never been part of that culture, they’re just playing that kind of drumming because it’s ‘hip’. They have never been to a club and danced until three in the morning. And this goes back to our conversation about where jazz is now. A lot of elements are coming from club culture. A lot of the London jazz musicians and in Manchester… I see a lot of really trained people there who are taking from what is around their landscape and what is in their community and they’re building them into their music. The aesthetic of their music is changing. They’re shaping their surroundings into their music.”

Having previously mentioned that jazz is always evolving and changing, and that they’re pleased with their sound, where is Skin & Bone heading to keep things interesting?

“We’re on the edge of a new departure involving dance! Rachel Huyton, a great choreographer and dancer, and possibly with a dancer called Joanna Geldard, hopefully doing improvised dance to the music. We’ve also got Andy Sugars who is an expert in video, photography, moving images, projection… so they’re two elements which we want to incorporate into our gigs at some point this year. We want to get out of town into Nottingham and Leicester and get out a bit, too.”

Skin & Bone are performing at Dubrek Studios on 11 May 2018, which also doubles up as an art exhibition launch for Walt Shaw’s paintings and mixed media works.

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