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As a teenager, Matt Skellenger was a fan of Twin Peaks, David Lynch's short-lived television series. He loved the contrast of darkness and light in the show, as well as the conflict and resolution. From a textural standpoint, both of those elements play a part in Skellenger's new album, The Owls Are Not What They Seem; some of the song titles are nods to the show as well.
Skellenger says the disc's theme rests on the notion that things are not what they seem, and he explores the idea of duality within them. Many of the songs are exercises on the number two, such as two instruments playing the main melody in unison instead of harmonizing. At times, for example, trumpeter Ron Miles or Skellenger himself will double the melody with pedal-steel player Glenn Taylor.
The other number-two component, Skellenger says, is the fact that a lot of the tracks on the ten-song album could be considered two-part tunes, including "1975," "The Magic" and "The Owls Are Not What They Seem." All of those titles, of course, were inspired by Twin Peaks. "I always have a hard time naming instrumental songs," Skellenger reveals. "Those quotes always kind of stuck with me. It just seemed appropriate for the music and the timing of it."
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But while much of the inspiration for Owls comes from Twin Peaks, the album isn't meant to be a soundtrack. Unlike Angelo Badalamenti's evocative score, Skellenger's music fuses jazz and Indian music. Skellenger hasn't always been a purveyor of jazz, however.
In the early '90s, in fact, he was into bands with prominent bass players, in which the bass was a driving force: Primus, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone, Jane's Addiction and Rage Against the Machine. After graduating from high school, in 1997, Skellenger got more into the jam-band scene. Around the same time, he discovered Béla Fleck and his bassist, Victor Wooten, and started going to Wooten's camps. (Over the past decade, Skellenger says, he's been to six of his bass camps.)
While in college at Metro State, Skellenger studied with Ron Miles, who had a major influence on the bassist. It was during this time that Skellenger started transitioning from rock and funk into jazz.
The inspiration that he took from both Wooten and Miles goes beyond the music; the way the two carry themselves and the type of people they are have also had a substantial effect on Skellenger. "They're just world-class people in addition to being world-class musicians," he says. "I think there's a reason that those two things go together.
"Ron, specifically, has always been very warm, very giving and very humble," says Skellenger. "He, in my opinion, is one of the best improvisers and composers in the world. I'm very blessed and honored to be playing with him and having him play in my group and play my music."
Similarly, Skellenger recalls an anecdote he heard at a recent Wooten clinic in which someone asked Wooten what he looked for in a drummer. Wooten, he says, answered, "'The first thing I look for is a friend — somebody who's going to be a friend to me when I hang out and be able to support me when I need to be supported and listen to me when I need to be listened to. I would do the same for them.'"
"I think that part of playing music with people is really important and influential on me," says Skellenger.
Since he was into the more flashy bass playing of Les Claypool and Flea early on, Skellenger was drawn to Wooten's style of playing. "As I studied Victor's playing more and got to know him," he explains, "the thing [I found] that I really like about him and that I like about his playing is that he's really such a great feel player. Everything he does has such good groove and feel, and doing all the complex stuff — that's why it sounds so good, because he's got that great pocket and great feel.
"It really taught me that the technique stuff and the flashy stuff is great," he goes on, "but if you don't have that foundation underneath it, it doesn't work. For me, that was something that was really big once I started going to his camps and actually studying with him. Focusing more on the fundamentals and the basics in order to make the more complex stuff sound more musical and have better feel and better groove."
On The Owls Are Not What They Seem, Skellenger clearly has a solid handle on the groove, which is helped by his brother, percussionist Andy Skellenger, and Dave Miller, who both play Indian tabla and African unu drums on the album. Both excellent hand percussionists, they get a lot of variation in their sound, says Skellenger, because there's a lot of versatility between the two: "I can kind of mix and match their sound depending on the tune," he points out.
And while there's a certain familiarity that comes with playing with a family member, Skellenger and Miller have also been playing music together for the past two decades, since Skellenger was fourteen years old.
The two percussionists have been instrumental in helping Skellenger carve out his sound. He didn't necessarily start out looking to fuse jazz and Indian music, but thanks to their knowledge of the latter, that's what ended up happening. In addition, Skellenger's older brother, who's not a musician but is a music lover, introduced the three of them to the music of Indian tabla player Zakir Hussain and Indian violinist L. Shankar.
"So combining all those things was really just a product of living my life and living in the environment that I was living in," Skellenger observes. "I was surrounded by a lot of things — the rock, the jazz, the Indian stuff."
In addition to complex bass playing, Skellenger says, he's always been into music that has complex arrangements. A lot of his songs have mixed meters or odd time signatures. "It's not like a traditional jazz tune, where it's the same form throughout the whole song, where you play the melody and you improvise over the same form," he notes. "I have more of a rock or pop influence, where it's more like a rock arrangement."
Skellenger is able to draw on those influences for the other acts he performs with. In addition to his own music, he plays a supportive role in the jazz-meets-hip-hop act Beats Noir, which calls for more funk- and groove-oriented bass lines; and with Grown Ass Man Band, he plays more in the pocket. Whatever type of music he's working on, for Skellenger, it's all about playing your part.
"A big part of playing music and being in a band is being a team and sacrificing for each other and creating a bigger thing than the individual," he says. "That's always been a huge influence on me and my life."