I’m back in a pub with BEACH SKULLS and everything feels right, like natural order has been restored. Where they’d once have been happy to pose for photos with their pints of bitter in a grotty old man’s pub, the trio now know the importance of doing things properly and not appearing to be a novelty. They even ask me if it’s going to be quiet enough for me to record the conversation above the general hubbub. They care because they’ve put so much effort into their new album, Las Dunas, that they don’t want to risk undermining it or coming across as throwaway. If you missed them the first time round, you can hardly choose to ignore them now.
Taking its name from Frank Herbert’s sci-fi saga Dune, the trio’s new album is their second for Stockholm label PNKSLM and their first recorded at Fresh Goods Studios in Birkenhead. The LP perfectly captures that hazy vista of Californian sunshine and surf filtered through the murk of northern English melancholy that is Beach Skulls’ trademark, and the production of Fresh Goods’ Matt Freeman suits them down to the ground. The fuzz around Jordan Finney’s punchy drum sounds, the crackle of Dan West’s bass and being able to hear the dirt on the guitar strings as Ry Vieira surges through another cutting solo makes Las Dunas really fizz with personality. What’s more, it’s indicative of the obvious fun had in the studio and makes for a massively enjoyable and rewarding listen.
They appreciated the intimacy of Fresh Goods – actually being able to reach out and touch each other – and it felt like a natural environment for them. More like they’d brought recording equipment into their living room or sat round a table in the pub than gone into a studio. “It was kind of like a party,” Ry says of the Holsten Pils-fuelled recording sessions, the complete opposite to their time spent recording 2016’s debut LP Slow Grind at Parr Street Studios. While all three are keen to point out how lucky they were to record at Parr Street and how much it shaped them, they all agree that its precise and clean production wasn’t as good a match for them as the unpolished feel they found at Fresh Goods.
“You can still tell it’s us,” Jordan says of the development from Slow Grind. “A departure is too strong a word… it sounds a bit like a second cousin. Near enough, but not related.” With Ry singing a whole octave higher and the songwriting a little heavier and more serious, Las Dunas definitely captures a band who have come on leaps and bounds since the recording of their debut. The gritty, snarling vibe they’ve hit upon in Sacred Citrus is more like the scratchy, vital Beach Skulls of old and they sound so much comfortable in it, and confident enough to take some risks.
They went into the recording sessions for the new record with a lot more practice under their belts, but they intentionally left it loose enough for the songs to evolve when they got there. “There were still bits that we hadn’t finished when we went in to record, but we wanted to keep that space to let things happen, too,” confirms Jordan. “We’d never want to sound like a scalpel, kind of surgically clean. If you feel more comfortable then it’s definitely going to be reflected in the recording.”
“It’s nice to have that intensity,” adds Dan. “You don’t want to be over-practised because you can stifle it.”
“I think that’s why we purposefully left it to the last minute to write the songs,” interjects Ry, adding: “You can tell when you’re listening if someone’s enjoying playing the song or not. I’d hate for us to come across as bored when people listen to us.”
“There were things we didn’t have the chance to do the last time we recorded [in Parr Street], because we were so rushed for time,” Ry continues, and that’s reflected in the flourishes that make Las Dunas feel like a rounded piece of work. Touches like handclaps, chants and snippets of conversation on the fade-ins and fade-outs – “the seasoning” as Jordan calls them – that add colour and character to the album.
The Holsten Pils bottles came in handy as extra percussion in the intro to Soma Holiday, and they found themselves freer to experiment with tempo changes and breaks. “Because we had more time we could muck around with the tunes more afterwards,” Dan adds. “The instruments aren’t that different – it’s still guitar music. But it’s just the formulas that are a lot different.”
Walk Into The Temple is a good example of the productivity they hit upon in studio, a track they wrote during the recording process and weren’t even convinced was going to make it on the album. Its loose, off-the-cuff vibe comes across in the fact that they nailed it in one take.
Interlude features Jordan speaking some lyrics that he wrote to fill the gap in the song – “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was something there” – conjuring up a cosy image of a relationship, “just sittin’ off with your bird having a brew.” The ambient noise on Interlude comes from the rain and cars going past the studio in Birkenhead – “We just put the mic outside and recorded what Birkenhead sounds like at about 10 o’clock at night,” says Ry – while Soma Holiday is underpinned by a sample of crowd chatter from a bar in Czechoslovakia (courtesy of the Internet Archive). Soma Holiday also finds Jordan putting his ideas around Latin percussion and Cuban rhythms to use on the addition of bongos, which he developed from listening to lots of funk and soul to work out the patterns that would work best with the vibe on the record.
The biggest compliment you can pay Beach Skulls is that Las Dunas makes their previous album sound pleasant and a little too safe. They’ve really ramped up the intensity and grit this time and it has paid off, establishing themselves as a cut above many of their peers. And that’s not to detract from their debut album – it’s more a sign of the band’s progress. When Slow Grind landed in 2016 it caught some listeners off guard; not many people expected these three serial chillsters to be able to rock up with a record as clean and tight as they did, and it made people sit up and take notice. Far from being happy with their lot, however, the band knew they wanted to bring more fire to the table for their follow-up record.
“It was a conscious thing that we all wanted to make it have more sinister elements to it. And by that, just things like more distortion or fuzz,” Jordan tells me, to which Ryan adds: “We wanted more shade and lots of up and down. Come Undone is a great example of that: it starts really fast and heavy and then it instantly flicks into really clean surf guitar. It was a purposeful thing to have those kind of transitions and not get bored by a song.”
In the intervening years since the band released Slow Grind, they’ve spent a bit of time apart from each other: Ry in Manchester, working on his solo material, Jordan in Glasgow and Dan in Liverpool with his other band, Danye. The catalyst for recording the follow-up LP was Jordan’s decision to relocate back to Merseyside, hurried by Ry’s decision to move to Barcelona in June. All three members and assorted friends and girlfriends are making the move with them, for the dual reasons of enjoying the Catalan capital’s culture and to get away from the drudgery of the UK.
“I’d feel really unfulfilled if I stayed here for much longer,” Ry tells me, admitting that living in this area has started to get him down. “I’ve felt quite drained for the past three years, living here or in Manchester. “It’s definitely an escape,” adds Dan, “it’s a chance to do something while we’re all still quite young.”
“I’d be dead pissed off with myself if I didn’t do it at some point,” chips in Jordan. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was little. That path is the right path to walk.”
As their thoughts turn to busking in the Catalan sun or setting themselves up with a bar residency, the appeal of throwing off the shackles starts to feel very appealing. Beach Skulls are an antidote to the flattening boredom of everyday life, and the fact that they’ve always existed on the fringes of both Liverpool’s and Manchester’s music scenes has probably helped them avoid disappearing into the background noise.
Ever since I first heard Jordan and Ry’s early lo-fi Beach Skulls efforts I’ve always felt a kinship with the band, which has grown into a strange sort of pride in witnessing the band that they’ve become. The development they’ve demonstrated so skilfully on Las Dunas is testament to the craft that they’ve honed over a number of years, gigging to small crowds and releasing progressively more mature, interesting and layered music, and learning how to distil that knife-edge spark down on record. Beach Skulls are a gang, respectful of their own sound and where it fits in alongside their peers and influences – and it’s a gang I wish I was in.
Las Dunas is released on 1st June via PNKSLM Recordings. Beach Skulls play The Shipping Forecast on 16th June.