by Craig Young


There is a warm yet cantankerous hum to the sound of Skeleton Key's music. Like the rusty springs of an old watch wound by the shaking hands of your grandfather (whose charcoal laughter you still remember fondly), or the sigh of a steam locomotive as it slowly lumbers out of the station in exasperation, their music catches your ears and forces your attention to the auditory oddities that sit not-so-quietly behind the pop craftsmanship of their songs. Obsessed with vintage equipment and discarded junk, the quirky rhythms pull you in and steal a smile in the process.

Manning the controls of this musical contraption is bassist/singer Erik Sanko and percussionist/sampler Rick Lee, who, along with guitarist Chris Maxwell and drummer Stephen Calhoon, came together in the mid-'90s under the auspices of forming something "[that's] gonna be fucked up," according to Sanko. At the heart of this credo were cleverly crafted pop songs driven by Sanko's lumbering bass and Maxwell's angular guitar skronk, both backed by the steady pounding of Calhoon. But the fuel that gave Skeleton Key its signature combustion was the mad "junkyard" percussion of Rick Lee. Banging on everything from Red Flyer wagons, to hubcaps, to propane tanks, his contribution was the lightning bolt that fired life into this Frankenstein of a music ensemble.

An EP on Motel Records in 1996 caught the attention of Capitol Records, who signed the band and released the brilliant Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon the following year -- an album whose artwork would garner the band a Grammy nomination. Then after exhaustive touring and an increasing wariness of indentured servitude that was life on a major label, the band went on an indefinite hiatus. Maxwell began writing music for commercials; Rick Lee worked on a project called Enon with Stephen Calhoon and Brainiac's John Schmersal; and Sanko quietly tinkered away in his home studio (affectionately titled Hiss Studios), releasing the quietly beautiful Past Imperfect, Present Tense on Jetset in 2001.

[ skeleton key ]
[ give a listen! ] "One Way, My Way" MP3
96kbs/48sec/584kb

Finally, after a five year hibernation Skeleton Key found a welcome home on Ipecac Records and released their long-awaited, much anticipated, third album, Obtainium. Stephen Calhoon was replaced by Colin Brooks, and Chris Maxwell decided to hang up his touring hat for good (replaced by Craig Leblang), but the sound is still vintage Skeleton Key. "Simultaneously more hi-tech and more low-tech," it loses none of the band's patented clatter -- squeaking lovingly as it dances through 11 rusty tracks that are as onerous as they are haunting.

I had the recent pleasure of interviewing Erik Sanko. Amazingly humble, he spoke with a boyish enthusiasm about his music both inside and outside of Skeleton Key, music he is -- even after being put the grinders of a major label -- still devoutly passionate about. Kind thanks to Sheila at Tag Team Media for setting things up, and to Mr. Sanko himself for his time and, most importantly, his music.


Your publicist mentioned that you were going to Danny Elfman's for a 4th of July BBQ. I find that interesting, because in describing Skeleton Key's music to others I often say things like, "Imagine them as the house band for the movie Beetlejuice," or, "Imagine them as the auditory equivalent of The Nightmare Before Christmas" -- both of which are, of course, films Elfman did the music for.

Erik Sanko: I take that as a huge compliment. Thank you!

So when I heard you were at Elfman's, I had this visual of the two of you standing around in the backyard eating homemade potato salad off of paper plates while talking about how best to recreate the sounds of rusty farm equipment.

Erik Sanko: [Laughing] Yeah! It was not that far off from that. There was also a lot of beer involved.

I also see he's also listed in the liner notes of your most recent release, Obtainium. I'm curious how you met him and how he influences your music and, conversely, how you influence his.

Erik Sanko: I met Danny about... He says it was ten years ago, but I think it was more like eight. We met through a mutual friend who used to be president of a CD-ROM company. I make marionettes besides making music, and this friend of mine said, "Oh, you'd be the perfect candidate to design a CD-ROM." So I ended up writing a story, and I said that I'd like to get some celebrity friends of mine to be the voices. I'm friends with John Lurie, Jim Jarmusch, John Cale -- all of whom have amazing speaking voices. And my friend said, "Oh, I know Danny Elfman..." And about a month later Danny called me out of the blue when he was in New York. He came over and it was kind of weird. We ended up having just the most amazingly great day, and he's been one of my best friends ever since.

That doesn't surprise me.

Erik: Personally, we're very, very much alike. We're both kind of on the reclusive side, and we both collect almost exactly the same things -- things on the macabre side.

Marionettes... Quite the interesting preoccupation. How did you first get into them?

Erik: When I was a little boy, my mom used to take me to a puppet theater in Greenwich Village, which is now long closed. And like many little kids I just found them absolutely hypnotic. But unlike many little boys, I never got away from them -- for better or worse. [Laughs]

[ erik sanko ]

Is this just a hobby or is this your profession outside of music?

Erik: It's always been a hobby of mine, but my wife and others have been trying to force me into going public with it. [Sighing] I think it's kind of embarrassing for a grown man...

Oh, I don't think so. It sounds amazing! That would explain the puppet inside the cover of your solo album, Past Imperfect, Present Tense.

Erik: Yes, that's one of them.

Past Imperfect, Present Tense was an unexpected-yet-pleasant surprise I came across while record shopping recently. I hadn't realized you had released a solo album. Do you have different expectations for your solo stuff than for your Skeleton Key material? And was the solo release because you felt those songs couldn't live within the context of Skeleton Key?

Erik: It did seem like they would maybe get squashed if placed between the Skeleton Key songs. Being so fragile, and being that Skeleton Key songs are so heavy and lumbering, I was worried that they might get stepped on by accident. With Skeleton Key tied up for so long in litigation with Capitol Records, we couldn't really do anything as a band. I had these songs piling up on top of one another and I was lucky enough to find an outlet for them on Jetset.

I've only had the album for a little over a week, but I like it a lot, it's really grown on me.

Erik: Thank you.

Given that it's something you play all the instruments on, as well as being the person behind the board twiddling all the knobs, I'm wondering how you keep focused -- how you keep your sense of direction with no one else around you?

Erik: Well, I had built in limitations in that it was recorded on an ADAT, so it was only eight tracks of music at the most. I guess there's nothing too ambitious about the songs. I felt like I should just record them until they were finished. I know it's a tendency with many people in many aspects of life to keep working on something just because you can.

[ one of sanko's marrionettes ]
[ give a listen! ] "Overboard" MP3
96kbs/39sec/476kb

Especially in today's digital recording environment where it's so easy to keep adding layers and layers of music with nothing to stop you from going overboard with it.

Erik: Absolutely. Knowing when to step away from things and say "done" is something you have to learn. I've been lucky in that I've gotten better at it... I think.

Aside from your solo album and the ill-fated tour to Antarctica [It was jokingly reported some time ago on the band's website that during a tour to Antarctica the band's plane crashed and Sanko was forced to eat Chris Maxwell and Rick Lee.] it's been five years between Obtainium and your release previous to that, Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon. You also switched record labels. Earlier in the interview you mentioned going through litigation, and I assume that was with your former label, Capitol Records. Is that the reason it's taken so long for a follow up?

Erik: We were ready to start the next record and we got dropped [by Capitol]. Actually, we'd asked to get dropped, but as soon as you do something like that the record company thinks, "What do they know that we don't know?" So they started dragging their feet and making things as difficult as possible. Finally when they did drop us it took a really long time to get anything done because of all the lawyers sitting around doing nothing. So, during that time frame the band was kind of paralyzed; we couldn't really go out and tour because we had already toured the record [Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon], and we were really eager to get started on the next one, but because of all of the stuff with the label we just kinda sat there.

Chris and Rick were antsy to get working and didn't really want to wait around for things to get resolved -- as was I. So that kind of ultimately led to the falling apart of the band. For awhile there was no band at all. Rick joined Enon, and Chris got together with a partner of his and started writing music for television commercials, as well as producing other things, which he was very happy to do.

It's taken until now to find a new home, a new record company, and getting around to having some semblance of a band together. And it's going to be mostly the original band with the exception of Chris, unfortunately.

[ steve calhoon, chris maxwell, erik sanko, rick lee - photo by joshua kessler ]
photo by joshua kessler

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