Music News

Skull Session

The ties that bind can often strangle. Just ask the members of Skull Flux, who during their six years together have experienced as many setbacks as successes. But after nearly dissolving in 1998, the band--vocalist Conrad Kehn, drummer David Hesker, bassist Steve Millin and guitarist Greg Stretton--appears to be back from the brink. "I think we have some really positive moves going right now," Kehn says. "And for the time being, I think we're all pretty content to sit back and let things happen by themselves."

This almost hippie-happy attitude isn't reflected in the group's all-or-nothing Joy Division-meets-Soundgarden mix of glowering intensity and nailbiting grind. But it illustrates how the players have changed since 1993, when the act was born. According to Kehn, a student at the University of Denver's esteemed Lamont School of Music and the obvious guru of the group, he and original bassist Jesse Woods decided to team up on a new project out of sheer frustration. "I met Jesse in another band we were playing in that sucked, and we left to start our own," he says.

The pair subsequently recruited Stretton, whom Kehn had met at numerous local shows. "Actually, Conrad and Jesse were concerned that I wasn't going to play heavy enough when we first started," Stretton notes. "But we all decided at the beginning that we wanted to do something different yet still maintain that aggressive edge."

Finding a drummer with enough spleen to do the job proved to be a more difficult proposition. As Hesker says, "They ran through a lot of pussies before getting me. But my first encounter with Conrad was one of those cul-de-sacs in time. I met him at Wedgle's pawnshop when I went in there to buy a snare-drum head. I told him I was going to audition for this band in Longmont. He said, 'Why don't you come down and audition for my band?' and I was stoked. I went down and did it, and I figured I'd blown the audition, but they liked me, thank God."

With this lineup in place, Skull Flux began woodshedding and quickly hit upon its aural trademark--a moody, testosterone-driven sound that few area acts can match. "Everything we do, whether we want it to or not, has a fair amount of angst involved," Kehn says. "We weren't planning on being a heavy-metal band, but playing heavy really is kind of fun, and that's how we started out." In a fit of red-blooded honesty, he concedes, "I just wanted beer, pussy and rock and roll."

As soon as Skull Flux entered the Denver club scene, all three of these goals were suddenly within reach. "Our first show was at this place called the Smokehouse, and the show rocked," Kehn says. "We opened for Sympathy F on a Friday night, so we got to skip that working-your-way-up-with-mid-week-slots bullshit."

More choice gigs followed, which was fine by Hesker. "For me, in particular, I feel performing live is where the greatest exchange of energy takes place between you and the audience. When you're in that moment in time and you feel that they're receptive to what you're doing, it makes it worth doing. It's very satisfying to achieve something in the studio, but the live event is much more attractive."

Before long, Skull Flux had sizable followings in Denver and Colorado Springs, and even the 1994 departure of co-founder Woods, whom Millin describes as being "like Sid Vicious--a ball of angst and violence with no direction," didn't slow the momentum. Encouraged, the performers headed into Alley Studio, emerging more than a year later with 1996's Ophelia. Co-produced, engineered and mixed by Eric Ryan, the self-financed platter is an outstanding piece of work highlighted by "Sleep Forever," in which some deceptively simple Classix Nouveaux-esque chord changes build to a tension-filled crescendo, and "Grima Wormtongue," a showcase for Stretton's crushing guitar work and some appropriately disturbing sexual references. Kehn's lyrics go a bit overboard on the gruesome "Worship," but his words elsewhere are first-rate, and his throaty, full-bodied singing brings out the best in material as varied as the whimsical "Bleeding Bride" and the hook-tastic "Nailed to the Floor." Toss in strategically placed samples (manic laughter, random noise, Monty Python outtakes) that would turn many electronic bands green with envy and you're left with an excellent package that speaks to the intelligence of the musicians who made it.

So why didn't the CD become a hit? Budgetary constraints were definitely a factor, Kehn believes. "After we spent all of our money recording Ophelia, the Alley offered to promote us. They wanted 50 percent of the profits from the disc, and it didn't sound like a good deal at the time. But they really did have a decent PR machine for bands like Chaos Theory and Sweet Water Well, and it probably was a mistake to pass on it."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kelly Lemieux