Craig Skelton has played in bands for over three decades, but his latest outfit is his favourite and for very good reason. The Skelton Collective features Craig on keyboards/vocals, his wife Deb on bass/vocals. daughter Jess on lead-vocals/saxophone and son, Dan, on drums. It is, as Sly Stone would have it, a family affair…
I can see the joy in your face – everyone’s, actually – whenever I’ve seen The Skelton Collective play. What does it mean to you to have the family in a gigging band like this?
It’s a little surreal, to be honest. It’s really quite remarkable when I stop to think about it. I love that we get to do this, that we can do this. A lot of the time when we’re playing I’m not overtly conscious that we are family, they are my bandmates, it’s not at the forefront of my mind. But then there’s moments when we’re blazing away, when that part of your mind that seems to sit back and observe everything kinda nudges me in the side, winks, and whispers ‘your boy just played that’, ‘that’s your daughter singing like an angel right there’, ‘that gorgeous chick on the bass? Yeah you’re married to her!’.
I think one of the most special aspects for me is I now get to share the reality of being a professional musician with my family. ‘What Dad does’ is no longer a mystery. I love that I get to share those incredible feelings and sensations that only performers get to experience in the heat of the moment. It really does mean the world to me.
You’re an incredibly musical tribe, at what point did you decide to take it out of the lounge room and onto stages?
I think the kernel of this idea began in the middle of 2014. The school where Deb was teaching wanted to put on a fundraising dance but was worried about having to spend a chunk of the money raised on entertainment for the night. Deb put forward the idea of us as a family band getting a rep together and doing the gig. We had Deb’s brother, Andrew John, on guitar so we called ourselves ‘The skElton John Family Band’! We all played various instruments and shared the lead vocal duties and had a ball. Later that same year I did a solo spot in support of Stone Circle and for that show I pre-recorded myself playing drums, bass, guitar and backing vocals so I could play my material with a ‘band’ like I’d always wanted to.
It was mid-2015, Deb and I were on holiday, where we really began seriously talking about pursuing this. I was kicking around the pros and cons of getting a vehicle together to pursue my original career and Deb put forward that I already had two incredible musicians under my own roof in Jess and Dan so why not use them? Classic Deb to not include herself in that description when she so obviously is! So we started jamming on my material over the summer of 2015-16 and The Skelton Collective was born.
Did it fall together easily at the start, or were there challenges as you all got it together as a musical unit?
I felt that it did come together pretty easily but the others may have different perspectives. I think they put themselves under pressure and felt they had to suddenly live up to their perception of what my other bands had been. I was deliberately conscious of this from the start and made it very clear that this was ‘our’ band, not ‘my’ band, and we would play our material however it came out. If I wanted to tell people what to play I would just hire session musos! I wanted it to be an equal partnership where everyone brought ideas to the table and we tried anything that was put forward. It is a Collective after all!
It was a steep but very rewarding learning curve for us all. There were challenges, but they were musical not personal. We all get along really well and we all speak the same musical language. We all have very broad musical taste and we just love to play so it was more a matter of trial and error and figuring out how we were going to bring this music to life in this format. Deb was very tentative at the beginning as she was learning how to play bass as we went along but I love that the bass lines she comes up with are so intrinsically hers and that’s a big part of what creates our sound. Initially I was doing to bulk of the lead vocal work and Jess was singing harmonies, playing sax and some second keyboard parts. As she brought her material in she would sing her stuff and I would sing mine. Fairly quickly into it I put forward that Jess drop the second keyboard and take on all lead vocal duties as she has such a stunning voice and, more importantly to me, such a ‘contemporary’ voice. That really helped settle and focus our sound. I also wanted the audience to have one focal point vocally and I feel it really works harmony-wise, as we are able to put vocal harmonies both above and below the main vocal line. It’s been an awesome experience feeling the band grow and evolve. It really is the easiest band I’ve ever worked with or been in.
It’s diverse, genre-wise – is that important?
I think it’s just very natural for us, it’s just the way we write. We are, each of us, so broadly influenced by so many styles and genres. We’re also so very fortunate in that we are all very comfortable playing in a variety of styles and genres. I think we feel it far more important to do the song justice and play what is best for the song. We’ve never approached a song with a mindset to show off or be deliberately obscure or obviously clever. That being said we do like to challenge ourselves and push our boundaries. We’ve all had so much classical, progressive and interesting music in our upbringings. It’s no real surprise to me, or to anyone that knows us, that odd time signatures and interesting chord changes crop up from time to time and to be honest I think the audience gets as much of a kick out if it when we do it as we do.
What’s the approach to songwriting?
Usually downwind after it’s eaten so as not to startle it or make it angry. Up to now songs have been brought in in pretty complete form by either Jess or myself so I can only really answer this question from my perspective. There are no hard-fast rules for me. Sometimes I’ll get a lyric idea or theme and flesh it out before a melody even suggests itself. Sometimes chunks will pop fully formed into my head with melody and lyrics ready to go. Other times I just sit at the piano and play and chords and melodies will suggest themselves. I have some songs that have taken literally years and years to write as the initial idea will occur but then be put in the vault as I can only take it so far at that time and then later another idea will come and I’ll think, ‘oh this bit will go really well with that other bit I wrote back in 2002’. On wonderful but rare occasions whole songs will just come out in a matter of minutes. I do think there is also a discipline involved. Its great to be spontaneous and let ideas flow but then you do need to sit down and craft those ideas into a coherent whole. If there is one constant in all this it is that melody is key. If you don’t have a good melody you don’t have a song and we are all very conscious of this.
It’s the arranging where it really becomes a team effort. We are very conscious of giving each other the space to interpret the material naturally as each person feels. Everyone voices their opinions, ideas and suggestions regarding structure, harmonies, accents, and dynamics and even on each other’s parts. We will play a new song many many times over a number of weeks to let it settle and take on a life of its own. We are constantly tweaking little things here and there as we go to make the song the best it can be. As this year progresses we are looking to write more as a unit and see where this takes us. I feel our approach will evolve as we do and I will be very interested to see how our answer to this question changes over time.
What are the songs about?
I think the majority of my songs are love songs. Not just romantic love but also the love between parent and child, between friends, watching other people fall in love, trying to promote love between all people, the love for life, the tragedy that occurs when we don’t love or lack compassion. It is such a driving force for me. Jess’s songs tend to be more story telling songs – and yes the story can be about love) – she has such a gift for language, for prose, for saying so much on so many levels with so few words.
You’ve been through adversity with a house fire a few years ago. Has it only strengthened the family bond?
Oh, absolutely. In some strange way it was the best thing that ever happened to us. We have always been a pretty tight unit but this bound us and bonded us in ways that would not have otherwise happened. And not just the immediate family but also the whole extended Skelton/John clan. Made us realise very quickly and deeply that the single most important thing to us all is family, is those around us who care and support us. Things can be replaced but people cannot. Not only did it bring us together, but it showed us in stark relief just how much support we had in the greater community and how important it is that each and everyone of us looks after each and every one of us.
With the EP released, what are the plans from here?
Well we have released two video singles from the EP already and we will shoot another video in the weeks after the launch to be released in early August. We have a heap of new material and are planning to get back into the studio post-haste, so we have a second EP ready for release around November. We are in the early stages of planning an east coast tour for January, 2019, and in the meantime we will be playing as many gigs as we can in and around Perth in as many venues and with as many other artists as we can. Through all of this we continue to promote our music via any and all means open to us in the hope of raising the profile of the band nationally and internationally and then who knows? Onwards and upwards!
The Skelton Collective EP is out now via iTunes/Amazon/CD Baby and is launchd Sunday, July 1, the Paddington Alehouse with help from Sweet Magenta and Sgt. Hulka. Details via www.facebook.com/events/835732573288385/