His hands in many pies, Wellington-based musician, producer and record label owner Bevan Smith talks Skallander, and other ventures, with BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM.

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BEVAN SMITH is a bit of a musical chameleon. Having made music for over a decade as a musician (e.g. Signer) and as a producer, owning his own record label (Involve Records), and being an integral member in a number of other projects other than his own (such as Over the Atlantic), Smith is a local veteran who has had considerable overseas success too. Whether it’s ambient, shoe-gazer, rock, electro-pop, Smith doesn’t seem content with being pigeon-holed into one musical form. He’s collaborated with an old New Plymouth friend Matthew Mitchell in Skallander since 2000, and their second album together is getting a belated local release, and there are (at least) two more in the making. The work matches Smith’s eclectic background and production wizardry with Mitchell’s compelling song-writing, and the result is challenging yet playful. There was plenty I could have talked to Smith about, but he was pretty keen to push the Skallander work, something which he is justifiably proud of.

Mitchell and Smith met “at a cricket match in New Plymouth when we were eleven. We were at high school together but we weren’t good friends until university when we were flatting together. We used to record shoegazey songs onto four track and then an eight track reel to reel which was real cool.” Smith’s interest in electronic music also found the two experimenting in the burgeoning genre. “We started making techno and playing some of the big Wellington raves in the early to mid ‘90s. That was super fun. I’d been turned on to electronic music in a big way and was no longer interested in guitars. We had loads of analog gear that was really easy to pick up cheap for a few years there. Playing pounding dance music through amazing PAs to big crowds with crazy lights and lasers and shit. Man that was awesome.”

Mitchell was at jazz school during the ‘90s but moved to the UK in 1998. Smith went over as well in 2000, and they ended up working together again. “I was helping him out with some of his non jazz recordings, he was making crazy beautiful electronic music out of sine waves. Very, very raw stuff. We start recording songs again but onto computer this time. Skallander evolved out of this.” The jazz influence is admittedly quite pronounced on Mitchell’s “non-jazz” work though. The band’s unusual name comes from the Russian language. Smith says that it’s “a play on the Russian word for ‘rock’. Which is skaffander? I think. Mitch’s partner is half-Russian, half-Hungarian.”

Despite being in a band together, the two have lived a large portion of the time that they’ve been in Skallander in different continents. Mitchell has spent some considerable time in Hungary during the last few years, meaning that the collaboration process is rather different to most bands. However as far as Smith is concerned, this geographical separation hasn’t proven problematic. Technology has proven useful, with computers providing a musical conduit. “Mostly it’s a lot better than both being together. We get to both work simultaneously on the songs so we get twice as much done. Two people can’t operate a computer or record their parts at the same time very successfully. Also we argue over less stuff in our online chat and we don’t muck about eating French fries and drinking spritzy water.”

“We started making techno and playing some of the big Wellington raves in the early to mid ‘90s. That was super fun. I’d been turned on to electronic music in a big way and was no longer interested in guitars. We had loads of analog gear that was really easy to pick up cheap for a few years there. Playing pounding dance music through amazing PAs to big crowds with crazy lights and lasers and shit. Man that was awesome.”

Smith has been described as a bit of a “perfectionist”, particularly in the production process, something that doesn’t necessarily gel with the looser structure that Skallander’s music has. “Matthew is an incredible musician and records everything perfectly. He never records more than once, even vocals are done in one take and they’re always so good sounding. A lot of people aren’t used to hearing music that is non metronomic and not run through tools like beat doctor, sound replacer for drums or auto tune, melodyne for vocals. Ninety-nine percent of current music is robofied so when you hear stuff that’s not played to a click and has non metronomic groove and interesting pitch bends and emphases it can sound a little weird. A lot of the looseness in structure is from Matthew’s jazz/improv background where he’ll be recording a track but just think of a nice idea for a change while he’s recording and he’ll just move to this and play it. It might involve a change in time signature, tempo change, key change or whatever but basically he’s so well trained and well listened, well Skallander is a bit of joke to him in some ways. It might take me three months to be able to even barely be able to play one of the songs but to Matthew, it’s incredibly simple, verging on dull, child-like music, so there’s this kind of tension in the music also.”

However, Smith is not particularly fond of the term ‘perfectionist’ either. “Perfectionist is an over-used term in creative fields. I like stuff to sound good and I work on it until it gets that way. It’s usually far from perfect but I just get bored too easily to keep on and on with something even though I know I can make it better. I will always work harder on stuff that isn’t mine. The Signer and Aspen stuff I finish as soon as I can and it’s always a bit rough sounding. The Over the Atlantic, Skallander, Thought Creature, HDU mixes I stress out about far more and work far harder on. It’s also mostly a lot funner working with other people.” As an example of his versatility, he’s been mixing the Thought Creature which he states “has been incredibly hard work and we’ve had a bunch of stress outs but for it’s been super fun to hang out with those guys.”

Smith describes the third Skallander album as “folk-y, pretty songs, mostly acoustic.
Production is subtle layering of sonics and textures and [it] sounds very analog. Skallander 4 which we recorded in Hungary last year is more eclectic in song styles. More prog, longer songs made up of multiple parts, more electric guitars, sax, trumpet and drums, lots of 12 string, lots of faster songs.”

With the plethora of styles that Skallander employ, and the apparent current worldwide prog explosion, it seems apt to ask if Smith views prog as being sexy at the moment. Smith having played with the Animal Collective and Panda Bear around the States is probably in a good position to comment or refute the statement. “Well I don’t agree that prog is sexy. The Animal Collective and Panda are more in the new psychedelia thing which has been hip, and before that, the whole freaky folk thing, which I’m glad has died off. As far as I’m concerned Animal Coolective (hehe) and Panda and those guys transcended the associated trends from the beginning and they’re just great creatives and will probably always make great music. When I think prog I think ELO, Emerson, Lake and Palmer at one end (softer, cheesier, synthier) and I think Gnidrolog, Groundhogs, Paternoster (darker, more guitar-y) at the other. That’s a pretty simplistic view but I don’t have the time to get bogged down in that deep mire. But who’s doing songs these days with ten different chord patterns and multiple time signatures and temp changes..? Well Skallander is but it doesn’t sound that way unfortunately.” Smith admits though that Smith’s solo album Muriel Tsains “is definitely proggy and psychedelic and a proper head-fuck. Very very immersive evolving songs that should get him more recognition.”

For the ultra-prolific Smith, Skallander is another way in he gets his musical craft out to listeners. Together with the rather locally unsung Mitchell, Skallander is a whirligig of musical styles and sounds. It’s a sound that Skallander do particularly well too. Previous albums have been released on Wellington label Loop and given the multi-genre backgrounds of the performers, this suggests the work will appeal to diverse tastes. It’s also the sound of a band that takes a few risks, and given that for the most part, the band pulls it off with often fascinating and surprising results, it’s well worth checking out.