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Destroying submission, one band at a time

By Gary Moskowitz & Photos by Nathan Weylandfeatures
Feb 7, 2007 - 12:00 AM

Skerik has played the saxophone for various bands including Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade, the Dead Kenny G’s and Galactic. He’s also helped pioneer a style called saxophonics, which combines the sound of the saxophone with electric effects.

Skerik leads the Syncopated Taint Septet. Their latest album, Husky, was released in July 2006.

Skerik stands outside San Francisco’s famous blues club, the Boom Boom Room. A saxophone player from Seattle, Washington, he’s playing here tonight with one of the dozen or more independent, underground or alternative bands he either fronts or is a key member of. He kicks ass on his instrument, and he is the horn player in demand among the new school of young, jazz-influenced improvisational bands. The place is packed.

Friends on the sidewalk call out inside jokes to him while fans look on. His black, unzipped hoodie covers a black Southern Lords death metal T-shirt. A thin, vertical strip of dark facial hair lines his chin. His piercing eyes glance at his phone to see who the last missed call was.

“I’m a big fan of doom rock,” Skerik says with a shit-eating grin as he fidgets with his cell phone. “I use distortion to help create a similar feeling, but I don’t segregate music by genre. It’s all the same to me. It’s like Thelonius Monk said, he ‘listened to ALL music’ and people wanted him to clarify, and he would repeat, ALL music.”

There is no other horn player as prolific as he is in this music scene. He has performed with Buckethead, the enigmatic thrash metal, funk and electronica musician who wears a white plastic mask and a KFC bucket on his head. He’s played with Primus’ Les Claypool in his Frog Brigade band and New Orleans drummer Stanton Moore and his new school funk band Galactic. Among many other bands, Skerik also plays with the Dead Kenny Gs, a band whose music mixes the hardcore vibe of D.C.’s Bad Brains and the avant-jazz of Art Ensemble of Chicago, and whose name is a sarcastic rip-off of San Francisco hardcore band the Dead Kennedys. He’s played with musicians from The Meters, Alice in Chains, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Rollins Band and James Brown’s band. He also leads his own band, the Syncopated Taint Septet. One of his nicknames is "Nalgas sin Carne," which can be roughly translated as "Butt Cheeks without Flesh.”

He’s been credited with pioneering or helping expand a playing style called saxophonics, which combines the sound of a saxophone with electronic effects to produce an altered sound, and can sometimes include playing two horns at once. Eddy Harris and Sonny Stitt experimented with it in the 60s, and folks like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, David Sanborn of Traffic and Dana Colley of Morphine continued pushing the technique in subsequent decades.

Skerik has chops for days. He can play for hours, and thinks nothing of playing a gig until three in the morning. The tenor saxophone, in his hands, is strong, loud and powerful. It can also be soft and melodic, then spastic and distorted. He can bust out a shit pile of notes in rapid speed, and then go way out into improvised jam territory. He can also be tempered, soulful and jazzy, and in the Taint Septet, easily compliment a masterful horn ensemble.

His playing is not always easily accessible, and his musical style or genre is difficult to categorize or describe. At shows, depending on what group he’s playing with, the crowd might include jazz aficionados, jam band fans, hipsters, funk lovers, punks, hard rockers, and fusion heads. Some people drink, others dance, and many huddle up to the stage to fixate on musicians’ movements and techniques. But Skerik admits he’s not thinking about fans all that much when he performs or records.

“I’ve got so many other things to think about, like practicing my horn or getting to the next gig,” he says. “I respect all people that are important to me. There’s not really such a thing as a fan, a musician or a club owner to me. I prefer dealing with people as friends. I don’t blog, I don’t really do fan mail. I don’t run and hide after shows. I’m really a socialist at heart.”

Tonight, Skerik is performing with the Maelstrom Trio, which features organist and keyboard player Brian Coogan and drummer Simon Lott. The band’s moniker – “a powerful whirlpool”—is appropriate. Their mostly improvised music is dense with layered, complicated organ lines, tireless polyrhythmic percussion and sparse but rhythmic and melodic sax work. Moments of New Orleans-influenced funk emerge, only to be swept away by long sections of avant/blues/jam/free-jazz fury.

The band’s My Space page doesn’t help those looking for a literal tell-all of what the band is about. The site describes the trio as grunge, screamo and shoe gaze, and lists their influences as white Russians, lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper, and large-breasted creatures from another dimension, both male and female.

The sarcasms and ironies of his website fade during one-on-one conversation. He’s comfortable in his own skin. He makes jokes, and gives straight-forward, honest responses to questions about touring, jazz music, record labels and online music file sharing.

“Digital culture is driven only by convenience,” he says. “Music these days is too easy to access. But converting music into small digital files, such as those found in iTunes, 128kbs, is only a small portion of the music. The files should all be FLAC or full bandwidth, 16-bit 44.1 khz, until larger files can be stored on to smaller hard drives. I don’t know why people don’t talk about that more. I’d rather have the kind of infinite resolution you get with analog and vinyl. I mean, this is something we care about, but it’s a double-edged sword because artists don’t sell as many records as we used to but you can sell more stuff on your website now. People think they are getting more music, but you’re going to get less eventually, because [music] labels are disappearing.”

These days, he’s selling more music online and a good amount at live shows on the road and abroad. Regardless, he and the Syncopated Taint Septet spent top dollar (he didn’t say how much) on their second and most recent release, Husky.

“I can’t believe how much we spent on Husky, Skerik says. “We used the highest quality production on earth, and you tell me the only way you can sell it is in these little 128 kbs files? I mean, I thought the quality of CDs sucked, but right now I’d rather go back to the shitty quality of CDs.”

In an email prior to tonight’s show, Skerik wrote that his music was “blending Captain Beefheart with Coltrane, the anarchy and terror of punk rock and real hard rock, and helping people become less submissive through autophysiopsychic music.” Standing against a graffiti-covered wall outside the club, I ask him to clarify.

“Yusef Lateef used the term autophysiopsychic, and wants the word included in Webster’s Dictionary,” Skerik says. “That’s really where [the attitude of] punk rock comes from, and real rock, and real jazz. I don’t want to play shit you’re forced to like. Music is another vehicle for truth, and the more truthful it is, the less submissive people will be.”

Onstage, the band takes their places and a thick, red curtain rises up and a round of applause and cat calls fill the room. “We are transmitting information to you, San Francisco,” Skerik says. “Hopefully you will transmit information back to us here tonight.”


Gary Moskowitz is a musician and a contributor to OH DANG! He likes to talk shit with other musicians on his blogsite, Blogowitz.

Nathan Weyland is a freelance photographer.

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