by Mark Kadzielawa
The Skull is the newest project put together by former Trouble members. Trouble of course is a premiere Chicagoland group specializing in doom/heavy rock. The name, The Skull, was taken from the title of Trouble's second album released back in 1985. The name also indicates the group's intention to concentrate on the early days of Trouble's career. Many claim, it was the first two records that cemented the band's solid reputation, but others will argue the point. One fact however remains argument-free, Trouble had an enormous influence on the metal movement. The Skull is here to take you back into the past.
The Skull is compiled of the drummer Jeff "Oly" Olson, bassist Ron Holzner, and vocalist Eric Wagner. Joining the three Trouble alumni is the twin guitar duo, Lothar Keller, and Michael Carpenter, both from Sacred Dawn. Not only is the band planning to play the early Trouble classics, but intends to write and record an album full of original material.
Dialing from three different locations on a conference call, Jeff Olson, Ron Holzner, and Eric Wagner, are in a great mood. Talking about the formation of The Skull, describing the immediate and long-term plans for the band, and more than often having a good laugh at each other's expense. It was a fun chat, and certain answers are to be taken exactly as they were intended to be taken, with a good healthy laugh.
How did The Skull take shape?
Ron Holzner: All three of us played at the doom fest last year, it was called the Day of the Doom Fest in Wisconsin. All of our individual bands played there. Namely: Earthen Grave, Blackfinger, and Retro Grave. I was like, “hey, let’s play some songs together, and we did.” It really sounded good, and it really felt good. So, Eric was like, “hey, let’s start a tribute band.” He was messing around, saying things like, “hey I look like the singer from Trouble, let’s do some Trouble songs.” So, we’ve decided, why not?
What will the main purpose of this project be?
Ron: Basically, we’ve answered the call of the fans. They really wanted to hear old Trouble songs, with Eric singing them, and they are tired of waiting for the other guys to do it, so they talked us into it. We’re doing it for the fans that don’t want to wait anymore, and they want to hear the old doomy Trouble songs from the first two records. We’re here to deliver.
Jeff Olson: We’ve just heard from a guy from England today. And he’s hoping that The Skull does some of the older material because we didn’t tour a lot when those songs were originally released. But, they also want to hear songs with the three of us as a tighter group.
Eric Wagner: I‘m just doing it for the fun of it. I just want to. I think it’s a lot of fun for me personally. My expectations are already exceeded. I mean, it almost started out as a joke a little bit, at first, as a tribute. But, we’ve been getting a great response from the fans, and it’s been a lot of fun. The project is getting a lot of attention, so it’s cool, let’s do it.
Ron: Most people know us for playing Trouble songs. So why the hell not? Why can’t we play Trouble songs?
Guitars were always very important in Trouble, and they had a very specific role and sound. Who will handle the guitars?
Eric: Well, we got Lothar Keller and Michael Carpenter from the Chicago band Sacred Dawn. You know, we were gonna just used guests and stuff like that at first. But we were all saying that it would be nice to have a steady band. And with Lothar, we all know him. And when he said he was interested in doing it with his other guitar player, we were into it. They’ve been playing together for 20 years, and we just felt like it was a good team. They already knew each other well. And when Michael told me, “we answer each other’s sentences with our solos,” I just thought it was perfect. So we got this nice twin guitar duo to join us. I think it’s gonna be great.
Had you had a chance to play together yet?
Eric: Not yet. I think for us three, we have these songs pretty etched into our brains. Even though I can’t remember them, I’ll never forget (laughter.) And the guitar players live apart from each other, but they’ve been on Skype rehearsing the songs. They’re both excellent guitarists. They’re learning the songs as we speak, and in June we got a couple of dates, and we’re gonna do the doom fest again. I think it’s gonna be real easy thing for them to step into.
Ron: We’re really were gonna do a couple of shows just for fun. And then the demand was so great, and now we have 5 festivals booked, and two or three tours planned. It’s all happening really fast. We all got other bands going, so we’re trying to do this when we can. We were originally gonna start this in November 2012, but we’re pushing it down to June. It’s gonna be good. And the guitar players, they are really familiar with the Trouble sound, and they really know music and their instruments. They are really knowledgeable inside out, so they know how to copy the Trouble sound. I think it will be an easy transition for these guys to learn and play the stuff. They've been playing together for 20 years, so these double leads are going to be really smooth.
You’ve mentioned The Skull would be doing some early Trouble tracks, what about the rest of the catalog? Which by the way was very impressive.
Eric: We were going back and forth at first. No, let’s just do the old stuff. Well, maybe everyone wants to hear a little bit of everything. But then, it kind of came to the point where maybe The Skull should establish its own identity. You know, separate from Trouble, even though we’re playing these songs. But, everybody was talking about playing those old songs, and we never did those, and some guys didn’t want to do that stuff anymore. And with Trouble, we’ve had 7 records, so there is a lot of material we could choose from. So, it was kind of tough sometimes, but I think as The Skull, we should just concentrate on the first few records, and maybe a couple things from “Plastic Green Head,” which was the only record where all three of us played together. So, we’re definitely gonna do a couple of songs from that record too. And that will kind of establish our sound, and who we are. We’ve been talking about doing a new record too, so it will kind of fit everything. Everything kind of fits together.
With all members of The Skull involved in other musical projects, will this group cause any interference?
Ron: I think it’ll just enhance it. We can tell more people about it, pit it that way. All of our projects are just about done. My record with Earthen Grave is coming out soon. Eric’s record is coming out shortly too.
Eric: I think it’s cool we have these projects, because it gives everybody an outlet. Sometimes for me personally, you’re gonna get trapped in what you do in one place, so it’s good for everybody to get creative and have their outlets for other things, and not be limited to certain music or whatever.
Ron: We will have our bands open for The Skull at different shows. Retro Grave will be playing a couple of shows on the East Coast, and Earthen Grave and Blackfinger will be playing with The Skull at the festival in Midwest. We’re keeping it interesting. It’s easier that way.
It looks like the promoters are really excited at having this project available, as you already have big concert plans.
Eric: Yeah, at first we were gonna get together in November for a festival. And they wanted us to do that, then all of a sudden we were starting to get other offers from other festivals. They wanted us to play some of them in June, so we had to start getting ready. I think it’s cool because I don’t think I could’ve waited until November. Everybody is kind of anxious to get going.
Ron: It’s great, but it’s a surprise that they really want to hear the old stuff. It’s really cool, and we didn’t really expect this kind of response. We’re delighted.
Obviously, all of you were Trouble members at one point. Can you explain what caused your individual exits?
Ron: Well, they fired me for being an asshole, for one thing (laughter.)
Eric: They fired me for being a dick, I'm not an asshole, I'm a dick (laughter.)
Jeff: And I just quit.
Jeff, you mean, you quit before either label was applied?
(Everyone laughs hysterically)
Eric: Yeah, he did it before, he sensed it was coming, so he left before he could be called either one. I mean, I wanted to fire him, and I wasn’t even in the band anymore (laughter.)
Ron: I wanted to join the band just to fire him (laughter.)
Now, with Eric singing for The Skull, it will make this project sound more authentic than the current version of Trouble.
Eric: I can’t help it. That’s why we wanted to start it because I look and sound just like that singer from Trouble (laughter.) They're gonna freak out, and think it’s me.
This considered, were there any reactions from the Trouble camp?
Eric: I don’t know. I haven’t heard anything. They’re busy with their thing.
Ron: They are busy doing their record, so haven’t really heard anything from these guys at all.
Eric: And like I said, we wanted to keep The Skull identity a little separate from what they do, and they do more of the later stuff, most of the time. And they got a new record coming. So, they’re gonna probably promote that too. We’re just gonna go out and be The Skull, and I think the fans will dig it, you know. They’ve been yelling some of these songs for years, we’re gonna give it to them.
Ron: It’s like the two brothers that opened up a pizza place together, and basically one brother decided to do his own pizza place. It’s still pizza, but it’s a little different.
Jeff: To me it’s a double positive, just like Ron just said. I think you have creativity happening in two different camps, low animosity, maybe a little bit at times, just from the years that had gone by, but it’s not really a war. It’s just two different versions of album writing, and we can’t wait to work on an album. I think that’s our other thing that’s just popped up in our heads. This is gonna be a blast!
Now, what if Rick and Bruce suddenly knocked on your door, and said, “we’re here, you’re here, let’s be a band again.” Could that be a possibility?
Eric: Well, I don’t know. We have two guitar players, what are we gonna do. We can’t just fire them (laughs.)
Jeff: It’s a tough question.
Ron: If they wanted to work with us, the three of us would be playing on the new record.
Jeff: Yeah, maybe. But I think maybe someday in the future. I just don’t think it was the time right now, and that’s why there is different creativity going on. Maybe someday, you know.
Eric: We’ll see what happens. I mean who knows what happens to all of us in the future. And like I’ve said, they are busy doing their record, and we want to go out and play. That’s all that’s gonna happen.
Ron: We’ll be well rehearsed if it does happen then.
You don’t want to end up like Foghat for example, where there were 4 different versions of the band. You know, it’s easy to drag a respectable name through the mud.
Ron: That’s one of the reasons we’re doing it too because we’ve felt that the name did get dragged through the mud a little bit, and we’re trying rectify that.
You press release mentions the possibility of The Skull working on a brand new material, and Jeff just mentioned it too. So, what are the plans?
Jeff: I’m writing right now, and just hope it sounds good tomorrow morning.
Eric: Speaking for myself, personally I always have something that I’m working on. It’s a natural progression for any band to write songs, and do a new record. At first, we didn’t think about it. We just wanted to play, but for me, it’s my favorite part of being in the band, it’s writing the songs. I’m kind of excited about it. I think it’s cool The Skull will make a record. I think the record will be good, and it will be a lot of fun doing it.
Ron: And playing the early stuff is really gonna influence our writing. I think we’ll write a little bit that way.
Jeff: Yeah, once we’ll start playing, for sure.
Ron: And then if we start playing different stuff like “Run To The Light,” or Def American stuff, that might affect the writing on a different angle. We can get the full aspect of all Trouble years on the next record.
Jeff: I talked to Lothar on the phone the other day, and he was saying how he would like to get music, and work on it. So I’m gonna do things differently than I ever did in Trouble before. Rather than just showing him just some keyboards stuff, I can actually put things down on paper for him because he can read music, then also just focusing on the music will be easier because of the new technology that wasn’t around in the old days. We can just send MP3s to each other right over the phone, or the computer. It’s awesome.
I remember seeing Trouble on “The Skull” tour with Motorhead at the Cabaret Metro in Chicago back in 1985. It was my first time seeing the band, and became a fan literally overnight.
Ron: Wow, very cool.
Eric: We did that? (laughter)
Ron: Motorhead was driving in a Winnebago at that time. We played a couple more shows with them, and Die Kreuzen.
Eric: I remember that, I've seen a flyer (massive laughter.)
Finally, what do you think makes this music so timeless that you're able to form a project like The Skull, and still attract the attention of the fans and the promoters 30 years down the line?
Ron: I'd say we're bad-ass, what else can I say? No, I mean I've had no idea this could influence as many bands as it did. I mean, we've listened to some of the coolest bands from the 60s and the 70s. Trouble never really tried to be a doom band. It was a heavy band that kind of was doing their own thing. We were not trying to be like anyone, or anything else. So that's why the band really stands out because it was original. We were playing doom metal before it was called doom metal, and that's says something right there. Now, doom metal is bigger than ever, it's pretty wild.
Eric: I don't know, it's kind of a good question. It kind of freaks me out sometimes too. I think that for some reason this kind of music is somewhat popular right now. We were an influence for a lot of these bands. I was just sitting down and listening to the old record to remember some of them. I'm listening to the music and the lyrics, and I think it still applies today, and people are connecting to it. But it kind of freaks me out a little bit, and actually I'm flattered we're still are sitting here and doing an interview together 30 years later. I think it's an honor and a pleasure, and a privilege.
Jeff: I'm in agreement with both of the guys. We're lucky because doom did evolve from earlier great records in the 60s and the 70s and then into the 80s in both fusion and metal, and into a good hard acid-rock. And then to end that with what we're doing, you know, we've always tried hard for quality in Trouble. We've always tried to do a killer amount of work at what we do, when we do it. We wouldn't settle just for something that was only all right, just settle for it. It was always, let's do it again, or let's track that again. There is a definite quality.
Ron: Yeah, we've always had high standards. That's for sure, when we were recording. We would never have any fillers on any of our records. We wrote killer songs, and made sure every tune was good. It was a lot of work, but we had to reach a certain level.
That would explain why people still love these records after so many years.
Eric: At first we wanted to be happy with ourselves. If we just go out and make a record for other reasons other than for the love of doing it. We can't expect other people to feel the same way, if we're not happy with the songs or the recording. When they put a CD into their player, and they don't like it, they may not know why they don't like it, they just don't. So, I think we've always set out standards higher, you know, for ourselves. We want to walk away and be happy with what we just did.
When talking about Trouble, I've noticed people are either fanatical about the band, or completely not into it, but not really in between.
Eric: It's like The Doors too, either you love them or you hate them. I got to say our fans are pretty loyal. It freaks me out sometimes how they stuck with us through all these years, a lot of people. And that's who we really are playing for. If we can bring some new people aboard, that's cool too.
Ron: Yeah, they can bring their grandchildren (laughter.)
That's more of a reality than you think nowadays.
Ron: Well, Eric has two grandchildren.
Eric: I'm a grandpa. I'm not old enough to be one, but I am.
Just wait until British press gets a wind of it. I remember Deep Purple getting a "Grandad Rock" tag a few years back.
Eric: It will be Grandpa Skull (laughter.)
Ron: There you go. The Stones are still playing and they're in their late 60s, so I mean, we're young compared to them. I mean look at The Moody Blues, and many other bands, and they're still rocking!
Eric: I don't know, mostly, I think people just love good music, and that's all. I mean, there is a lot of new stuff, and some really good bands, but people love hearing the old stuff. A lot of it transcended all these years, and is still relevant today.