I'm a big fan of beautiful accidents," Skeleton Key leader Erik Sanko says.
And he might as well be. Though he is referring to spontaneous creative accidents, Sanko also admits to being mystified that Skeleton Key — which formed in 1996 amid a thriving downtown New York arts scene — has managed to survive at all, much less for more than a decade. Having endured label troubles on both the major and independent level, numerous lineup changes, and frustrating delays in releasing albums (the band got dropped from Capitol in the middle of recording its second full-length), Skeleton Key has most often, even in the Capitol days, had to tour without an actual record to sell at its shows. The band's second album, Obtanium (Ipecac) took years to finish, while its third album "is sitting on [producer] Bryce Goggin's computer" for lack of a current label deal.
"I don't think anything has happened with this band the way it's supposed to," Sanko says with a laugh.
Nonetheless, Skeleton Key's off-base timing may have actually worked out more auspiciously than it first appears. The band emerged during a fertile period that saw avant-garde sensibilities begin to encroach upon the mainstream, often with interesting and memorable results. Throughout the late '90s, like-minded acts with a broad-based musical palette — Sonic Youth, Prong, the Melvins, Failure, Enon, and a slew of others — were able to achieve moderate levels of success and garner critical attention for their work. Skeleton Key's classic 1997 full-length debut, Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon, reflects the creative climate which originally nurtured the band yet has a strangely enduring appeal. In fact, aside from the enthusiasm of the current band members, most of whom have only been on board since 2002, the album almost single-handedly represents the basis for Skeleton Key to keep going, as much of the band's cult following developed around those particular songs.
Not surprisingly, Skeleton Key's sound doesn't fall easily into one category or another. In its first year, for example, the band toured with sax-driven soul rockers Morphine, post-hardcore/alt-metal pioneers Helmet, and electro-pop mavens Cibo Matto, and sounded equally at home with each. Its sound is built evenly on driving, heavy rock on the one hand and an angular, found-sound pastiche mentality on the other, but it would be a mistake to relegate Skeleton Key to either camp. One of the band's most distinct features is the use of a "garbage" percussionist — a player who basically plays pieces of scrap metal, such as trash can lids and pipes — alongside a more traditional drummer.
As Sanko explains, the junk percussionist seat (originally occupied by Rick Lee of Enon/Cibo Matto fame and currently by Benjamin Clapp) is absolutely essential.
"When I first started the band," Sanko explains, "I had the name of the band and the idea of what it should sound like before there ever was a band. I knew that I wanted it to sound like this giant piece of machinery gone haywire. Because there's something about the sensation of being really happy and really frightened at the same time that really turns me on. If you go on the Cyclone, which is a 100-year-old roller coaster at Coney Island, it's fun, but you also are in fear that you're going to be killed. Because it's pretty rickety. Your senses are piqued, and you feel really alive and kind of giddy and terrified at the same time. I love being in that place. My intention was... to try to recreate that."
But Sanko doesn't just arrive at that sensation in a strictly musical sense, as playing in Skeleton Key apparently involves a very real element of risk.
"The thing that's really fun about being in a band with a guy who plays junk percussion is that, because none of those objects are created as instruments, it's very challenging for the person to play them, but it's also pretty dangerous standing next to it!" Sanko says with a laugh. Most of the "garbage players" have sustained minor injuries from flying metal debris — "not to mention myself and anybody else standing nearby — mostly me, because I stand in front of the garbage player."
Sanko's predilection for mixing fear and joy only partially accounts for Skeleton Key's somewhat dichotomous sound. An alumnus of John Lurie's raucous instrumental alt-jazz group the Lounge Lizards, Sanko was first drawn to music via a Mahavishnu Orchestra record that left him feeling disoriented and unsure of whether or not what he'd just heard constituted music. The long-term creative implications of this experience make even more sense when you consider that Sanko has synasthaesia, a condition where, in layperson's terms, one's senses overlap. More prevalent in his childhood, Sanko nonetheless still experiences sounds and colors together from time to time.
"If you're going to have some kind of neurological malfunction, it's a good one to have," Sanko says. "For me, certain musical choices absolutely make perfect sense when they may seem kind of arbitrary to some other people. Certain notes go together in the same way that certain colors go together. And I can kind of drift in and out of it. It's a really wonderful way of experiencing the world. It sort of randomly pops up, but when it does, it's always very welcome."
Considering his history of working with Lurie, film composer Danny Elfman, the post-classical outfit the Kronos Quartet, and others outside of Skeleton Key, one might be surprised to learn that Sanko (who is also a puppeteer) doesn't read music.
"It hasn't presented a problem thus far," he explains, "because I do understand theory in my head. I just don't know how to read the dots on the paper. Also, I've been lucky enough to play with people who are less concerned with the technical aspects of music than with the artistic inferences of what you're trying to say."
It follows that his distinct sense of color comes in handy, and when he's working with other musicians, including the rest of Skeleton Key, Sanko prefers to communicate musical ideas in terms of the character of the individual song or piece.
"That's a lot more interesting to me than the actual harmonic information," Sanko says. "There's an old jazz joke that says, if somebody asks if you know how to read music, then the answer would be 'Not enough to hurt my playing!' That's a cliché, but if you adhere to the formalities very rigidly, it could potentially prevent some opportunities that arise naturally that may be unconventional. To me, music education is obviously important, but frankly, I think a kid somewhere in Africa with a rock can make more music than the entire graduating class at Berkelee [School of Music]. I mean, the language in terms of communicating is necessary sometimes. But, otherwise, it's become so formalized, it can actually inhibit and prevent some beautiful accidents."