Skeletons was designed to be a collective with no leader. Founded in 2002, one of the strategies the core band (Matt Mehlan, Jon Leland and Jason McMahon) employed to disrupt such a hierarchy was to perform and record under different band names, and with a fluid constellation of musicians. Sometimes Skeletons was a duo, other times a quintet. One day they called it Skeletons and the Girl-Faced Boys, the next it was Skeletons and the Kings of All Cities. The bones were permanent, but the meat on them changed unpredictably.
Skeletons, Zs and Future Shuttle play The Bowery Electric Saturday (7:30 p.m., $8).
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Git, released under the name Skeletons and the Girl-Faced Boys, was an eccentric pop album coated in sparkles of funk. Skeletons and the Kings of All Cities’ Lucas was a multi-layered collection of free-jazz outbursts, kitchen-sink percussion, handclaps and chants. “It was like making a sculpture,” Mehlan says of Lucas. “We piled things up and then chiseled away at it, but we piled on so much stuff, at the end we couldn’t see over it.”
Skeletons built a monster, and that monster became a burden. But rather than simplify things, when McMahon suggested forming a big band during the recording of 2008’s Money, they decided the best solution would be to add more heads and hands to the beast. The following year, they assembled a 20-person ensemble (including New York jazz players like Darius Jones, Mike Pride and Jeremiah Cymerman, most of the musicians had never performed together before) to play four consecutive nights at Roulette. Released this September on Shinkoyo, the label Mehlan co-founded, The Bus captures parts of these (and other) live performances by the Skeletons Big Band.
“We wanted to create a new beast, and this time make it so big that we couldn’t control it,” says Mehlan, sounding like a mad scientist. The irony is that this massive, uncontrollable creature required a master. Even though the Big Band’s music would be mostly improvised, a composer seemed necessary. This was a significant, and potentially implosive, modification for a collective that had resisted such notions since day one.
“Everyone was like ‘What the fuck? This is a dictatorship all of a sudden after years of it being an open vibe? Now you’re gonna tell us what to play?'” recalls Mehlan, who composed most of the pieces on The Bus. “None of us felt comfortable being a tyrant, and the composer is a tyrant. A composer is an all-knowing being that knows what the music sounds like before it’s played. It feels close-minded to have to make those decisions. I love music, so why would I want to burden it with all these terrible things, like rules?”
Shrugging off this initial skepticism, they did it anyway. But, in order to undermine the rules he’d inevitably have to enforce as a composer, Mehlan created open ended visual scores that prioritized chance. His instructions for “Chicago to Elyria” (a bonus recording that comes with The Bus), includes the following instructions: “REFRIDGERATORS, AIR CONDITIONERS, STATIC AND COLOR BARS, ENGINES, TOO MUCH COFFEE AND NOTHING TO DO.” I have no idea what this means, but it seems like an invitation for total chaos.
Chaos doesn’t reign on The Bus, though. “Numbers (1)” opens with Steve Reich-like pulses that provide minimal structure to the rumbling fury beneath it. “We’re the Boss” is a delicate droning piece that threatens to skronk but never does. The album’s last three songs are the most rambunctious and anarchic, but even here the Big Band sounds reined in. Somehow the addition of more musicians playing in a more unpredictable environment allowed Skeletons to produce an album that sounds more focused than Lucas without charging in a clearly pop-oriented direction, as the band did on last year’s People.
“One of the biggest problems Skeletons has always had is trying to stick with one vibe,” explains Mehlan. “We like to just jump in and see where it takes us. But we wanted The Bus to be much more monolithic, so we try not to stray away from one vibe. That vibe is this sort of controlled, chaotic melancholy, whatever that means. And we try to make it beautiful in some way, too.”