can’t figure out who Skeletons are. Not in a metaphorical sense. Like, they’re unfixed and unstuck. They’re Skeletons and the Girl-Faced Boys, Skeletons and the Kings of All Cities. Skeletons. Shinkoyo, the umbrella/label they function under, was started by Matt Mehlan and some friends while studying at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. When he talks, his mind seems to be branching out even before he can finish thinking through a topic. “I dunno. I mean, some nights you go out and you just feel like a different band.” He started making short videos to accompany their new album, Lucas: a rainy day shot from a car on the highway, ice in a convenience store, live footage from bizarre angles. It makes Lucas something other than a record. It’s a sum, a crackpot of ephemera. He loves it big and mysterious. With total conviction:
“I mean, I think TV is gonna be the internet and vice versa.”
“But wasn’t TV the internet before the internet was the internet?”
“I think the internet is gonna be TV and TV is gonna be gone.”
Later, after a call from his girlfriend, he says, “We got the internet today!”
“You think the internet is the future and you didn’t have it until today?” I ask. Matt Mehlan is an ideas guy.
Lucas is supposedly a concept record about a kid with magical long hair who gets scarred by the world, and something about Kansas. Matt Mehlan has very long hair. Suspicion sets in. “Oh, you know, it’s just a press angle thing. I mean, people writing the one-sheets for stuff like this are just so anxious to figure out something to say. It is a concept record, in a certain way, but it’s not a concept I’m gonna, like, share with anyone.”
Which is good, because it’s a vague, ungainly concept that has seemingly zilch whatsoever to do with the music. But while he demystifies Lucas or the band’s slippery name, he also revels in their facades. Shinkoyo is like a corporation in a science fiction movie. “I love when business operates like an art project. Like, there’s just a logo, or a building, and you have no idea what’s behind it, and it’s very secretive.” Later, he tells me that he actually had the name Skeletons incorporated. “Skeletons Inc. does furniture moving, live sound; pretty much any independent contracting work you’d need,” he smirks. “Skeletons does that.”
And it’s what he does on record, too. Lucas is, at the heart, an experimental pop album. It’s also synth-pop and ersatz African music. Also some noirish folk. Also free improv, and there’s a part that sounds sort of like Babyface except it has a lot of extremely discordant violins. It’s polyamorous music, which is a liability. It’s a first-rate blend when you map it out on paper, but so is communism, and Skeletons don’t always pan out well. Sometimes, I find them appallingly inventive (the opening seconds of 2005’s Git knocked me on my ass); other times, they sound like an over-stylized, overambitious mess. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is fine in the endgame—contemporary indie is pretty much choking on crappy facsimiles of a few truly original bands, and good bands who are only good insofar as they nail a template, so you’re left with a record you already liked the first time it came out and a lot of ambivalent praise, like “excellent songcraft.” Mehlan can’t really write songs, and not all of his tunes stick, but at least his imagination is working. On “Sickness,” he sings, “You’ve got a bad case of the big ideas.”
“I remember hearing a speech from someone who won the Ars Electronica [Prix, a digital art award],” Mehlan remembers, “and he was saying that the ability for everyone to make music at home is really ruining things. And I totally disagree with that—I think it’s one of the most amazing things in the universe; I think everyone should make music at home. But what depresses me is that everyone has these tools that can do crazy fucking shit, and they opt to use these preprogrammed bits—preprogrammed into everybody’s brain, even.”
It’s not that Mehlan’s a god-being sucking down fountain after fountain of pure inspiration, but it is important to remember that the key to bits is how you arrange them and what kind of attitude you have about coughing them up. “There are a lot more people like my friend Peter [who records for Shinkoyo and builds his own synthesizers], who have taken it out of that realm. All these people making their own instruments is even more exciting in a way. It’s almost post-apocalyptic, know what I mean?”
He’s like a lot of well-meaning, creative, hippyish types: freedom is really great, yeah, I have some sweet tribal field recordings, everyone should be able to do their own thing, the internet. But he’s not dumb, and even if it sometimes seems like he doesn’t know his own blind spots, he has a relatively good grasp on reality as is: the fact of the matter is, lots of people like making aforementioned crappy facsimiles and can’t play ten different instruments and couldn’t care less about having boatloads of new ideas as long as they’re ideas that have some solid marketability and can hook a brief, inconsequential contract. Lots of people could do anything at all with their free time after work and they watch television for four hours.
The next night, I go to see Skeletons play. When they finally set up, it’s as a quartet: Matt on an upright electric bass, Jason McMahon and Tony Lowe on guitar, and a drummer. How in heaven will they pull off the massive, congregational vibe of Lucas? Sloppily. Unfettered. Ten minutes into their set, I realize that once again, I’ve half-fallen for what is ostensibly a jam band. Oh well. Matt’s hair kinda washes all over the bass and I, under the fog of the hour and three pints, am homosexual for a full five minutes. No, I may be post-sex. Live, the African influences on the guitars are even more obvious: clean lines interlock and overlap, articulating the boundaries of the polyrhythmic thump behind them. Some dude wanders up blowing a horn. He just sort of appears and nobody stops to say anything like, Hey, welcome to the horn guy, or, Who is that with the horn. They break. “Hey, thanks for coming, we’re the Skeletons of Compassion.” Within a minute, Matt picks up a saxophone from I don’t know where and just starts squealing.