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Destined: Skeletons

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Alexander Provan profiles Matt Mehlan's Midwestern avant-pop ensemble Skeletons.

Destined: Skeletons

Matt Mehlan is on a break from work at an Apple store in a mall outside Chicago, where he is surrounded by “really tan people in the middle of winter. Sweatpants and New Balance shoes, dudes with necklaces that say ‘The Boss.’” The other official members of Skeletons – Johnny Misheff, Severiano Martinez, Jason McMahon and Carson Garhart – are dispersed throughout the Midwest and Northeast. “When everybody has new tracks we sit around and play them for each other and talk about how good they are,” Mehlan says with a laugh, describing the irregular meetings between friends. “It’s like when you get new presents for Christmas and call up all your friends and tell them what you got.”

Skeletons was born from the womb of Oberlin, Ohio, and has been making (for lack of a better term) experimental electronic pop music for a few years now. The band, originally Mehlan’s brainchild, has found a sound, but haven’t quite mastered it yet. Skeletons’ consistently inconsistent releases come lovingly produced and packaged by hand, courtesy of in-house record label Shinkoyo, which operates somewhere between a collective and a cottage industry. Mehlan describes the results as “junkyard greeting card treasure and not trash-can trash,” though this may be subject to change with the release of a 12” single and subsequent full-length on the stalwart electronic label Ghostly International this summer.

Skeletons’ first two records, Life and the Afterbirth and I’m at the Top of the World (recently made available at www.shinkoyo.com), reconnoiter avant-pop territory, letting loose noise-damaged funk on computer-enabled precision. GIT, which will be released by Ghostly in conjunction with Shinkoyo, adds additional layers of skewed citation, resurrecting Michael Jackson-esque synth work, flirting with Stevie Wonder’s ghost, incorporating some non-Western percussive elements, and filtering the result through an ethos of communal improvisation.

Mehlan’s self-aware, but rarely overbearing lyrics drift over the bits of electronic and organic percussion, flotsam extracted from the shipwreck between childhood and post-adolescence. Terse confessionals are spoken in a language that breaches the boundaries between sincerity and irony, witticism and playful naivety. On the title track of GIT: “Girl, if you leave / don’t wake me up / I got a lot of things to do but I’m not gonna / I got nightmares / I got favors to return.” Enunciation at times trumps any original sentiment, but Skeletons’ output seems emotionally ambivalent rather than vacant. On Life and the Afterbirth, lush vocal harmonies precede the record’s most and least revealing line: “If you give me a chance I’d like to / fuck away your memory / fuck away mistakes I made.”

Though Skeletons’ music betrays a discreet architecture, it is also imbued with a sense of freedom and whimsy that recalls some (imaginary) shared experience of boyhood, owing as much to the band’s recording process as the relationship between members. Mehlan composes the framework of each song, then others record additional tracks. On GIT, “People laid down tracks that would take the song in a completely different direction,” Mehlan recalls, which “forces you to reevaluate where you thought the song was going.”

Skeletons might be called the flagship Shinkoyo band, though the label itself is more of a collective imagination for its geographically dispersed members, an ongoing collaborative project that regularly spews forth releases that fall somewhere in the miasmatic region between noise and finely tuned electronic abstraction. “We live vicariously through each other,” Mehlan says, regarding the label’s diverse output. “By having one person doing the out-est noise shit it satisfies someone else’s desire for that, especially if they’re doing something that’s more ‘in.’” Skeletons sounds like the exception; or, at least, an aesthetic anchor around which the label’s activities revolve.

With members and associates – mostly artists and audio engineers – now in Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Berlin, Skeletons’ recorded material is marked by a feeling of dislocation, a sense of its contributors being “on the fringes,” Mehlan observes, not necessarily living or working in any easy or permanent community. As well as producing “stranger, more interesting and lonelier results,” the distance gives live shows the feeling of a reunion, a collective paroxysm halfway between a party – friends singing along and playing extraneous percussive instruments – and a recital, with tightly orchestrated songs allowing space for exuberant improvisation.

The idea of getting together in one place sometime in the future is always attractive, prohibitive rents aside. “We’d all like to have a place for wild shows and parties and recording and jamming…someday.” For now, Mehlan says, “We’ve got a ton of amazing unreleased music and projects and crafts and art and we want to keep showing it to people in the weirdest most special way.”

Skeletons will be touring the Midwest and Northeast in late January, performing January 24 at Pianos in New York City. Additional dates are available at www.shinkoyo.com.

By Alexander Provan

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