Sky Chefs was formed in 2015 by Los Angeles-based songwriter Dale Nicholls. They have released two LP’s and three EP’s, and their third album, ‘Aquarians’, is coming out on 29th September.
The sound of ‘Aquarians’ is an ambient mix of rock, folk and jazz, with an alternative bend. Although influenced by a diverse list of artists, Nicholls’s writing has a strong sense of individuality. The new record offers a very pleasant and accessible listening experience with a lot of melodic tunes, while the lyrics are packed with social commentary, inspired by the turbulent political climate of 2017 America.
“Russia’s in the mirror, Russians in the lake / Mommy shot poor Lincoln ’cause she thought he was a snake,” ‘Martial Arts Academy’ opens with some catchy lines that are very inviting to sing along to. ‘Trouble in the Treble’ is a radio-ready track with nostalgic riffs and charming backing vocals by Leeann Skoda. Another highlight is ‘False Flag’, where the oldschool meets the contemporary, with a soul vibe that’s enhanced by the trumpet and saxophone parts. ‘Young Gods of Hollywood’ and ‘665’ are witty and heartfelt compositions that will make you want to dance and think at the same time.
‘Aquarians’ was co-produced by Psychic Temple’s Chris Schlarb, who also plays some guitar on it. Other musicians on the record associated with Psychic Temple are drummer Tabor Allen, percussionist Danny Frankel, guitarist Davin Givhan, trombonist Danny T. Levin, bassist Steuart Liebig and saxophonist David Moyer.
60s Today spoke to Nicholls about the new record and other aspects of his musical journey.
How could you write and produce three LP’s and three EP’s since 2015? It seems like an awful lot of work. What’s your secret?
I write constantly. I have stacks of notebooks with lyrics, observations, bits of overheard conversation, story ideas etc. My phone is full of voice memos and videos of demos. Mostly garbage, but I sift through it and find seeds to work with. Sometimes I write compulsively, in concentrated chunks of time. Once there’s a solid batch, I make demos for the band, then we rehearse and record the same day. Pretty straightforward!
What’s the story behind ‘Aquarians’?
Aquarians is mostly about finding love in the age of Kali Yuga; how to reject evil and protect each other, and find life in the small things.
My buddy Chris Kursel is an amazing artist in NYC. I was there for a spell and we were discussing the current psychic health of the USA. That led to thinking of fringe groups, conspiracy theories, societal anxiety, how all those fun things are reflected in the lyrics of the songs. Darkly comic times for sure. That led to visualizing manifestos, underground ‘zines, grindhouse movies, and that led to him drawing the cover art.
How does the style and mood of ‘Aquarians’ compare with your previous work? Did you try to do anything differently this time?
The last record (‘Ghosts & Goblins’) was pretty much all live. ‘Aquarians’ has much more studio tinkering. All the songs were recorded live with the band, then I recorded acoustic guitars, synths, vocals and noises in my garage studio. So its about 80/20 live to studio.
Once everything was tracked, I spent time deconstructing: cutting entire sections, running instruments through tape echo or guitar pedals, blowing up tones. I didn’t use many room mics, so it’s more claustrophobic than the previous records. Songs are like journal entries, and each album is a snapshot of my head at that time. ‘Aquarians’ was made during internal and external turmoil, reacting to this fucked up 2017.
Was it a challenge to bring such an impressive list of musicians together? Have you worked with all of them before?
Lucy ]Martin] and I have been friends for 10 plus years. She’s like my sister. Tabor, Leeann and Phil have been on since the debut. Davin played bass on Ghosts & Goblins and guitar on Aquarians. With the exception of Lucy and Leeann, I met everyone thru Chris Schlarb. They’re all amazing.
Which are your favourite tracks on the album?
‘Sweater Weather’ is the newest song on the record and my favourite. I like the nocturnal vibe. It’s gentle. It’s a good example of deconstruction. Originally, the full band played from the top. I mixed everything but the vocals, recorded a new acoustic part, and brought the band in later.
With the title track, I aimed for a simple 50s ballad, and it morphed into this sunburnt sci-fi end-of-the-world thing. I wrote it late at night during an intense freak storm in the desert in Joshua Tree. I was in this weird homesteader cabin, sitting at a table while the windows are blowing out. It’s the only song I remember writing. Ha. I dig Lucy and Leeann’s singing.
Tell us about your work prior to 2015. How did you get your start in music and what projects have you worked on?
Before Sky Chefs, there was Spy Island. Born in Detroit, died in Portland. We released some LP’s and EP’s. Lucy was in both bands. My ma taught me guitar and piano when I was young, and I started writing nonsense tunes almost immediately. High school and college bands, 4-track machines, standard indie nerd narrative.
Who are your biggest musical influences? Have they changed over the years?
This could fill pages! The constants are pretty standard, haven’t really changed much. My listening habits are pretty unadventurous. Stones, Roxy Music, Pavement, Clash, Lou Reed/Velvets, The Meters, Dylan, Nick Cave, Bowie, Motown, Kinks, Duke Ellington, Beatles, Blur, Syd Barrett, The Band, Lee Scratch Perry, Eno, Fleetwood Mac, The Smiths and onward forever.
How would you describe your songwriting process?
My songs are quite simple really; simple chords and melodies, then we add the window dressing. I’ll have a chord sequence and a rough melody, open a book of lyrics and start rambling until something clicks. Everything falls into place pretty quick. I try not to overthink the actual writing part. The record I’m working on now was written over a couple days while my gal was overseas. I was bored and didn’t have anyone to annoy. So I sat on the couch, fired up the Brooks Falls Bear Cam, and banged out the tunes.
Do you collaborate with other artists on records other than your own?
I’ve written lyrics for a few artists here and there. I wrote lyrics on a tune for Leeann’s record. ‘False Flag’ was for her record but ended up on Aquarians.
60s Today is all about innovation in music. Do you believe that music can still be innovative in the 21st century?
Hmm. I think there’s innovative artists if you know where to look. I don’t know where to look. Ha. Kendrick Lamar, Juana Molina. Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree is remarkable in the way they tore down their usual tropes and ways of working. The songs are like these ethereal tone poems with spoken word overtop. But most of my favourite innovators are in the past for sure.
Where can we see you live?
There will be a couple release shows around LA, then who knows! I played a lot when I was younger, but these days I feel more at home in the studio than on stage.
Visit Sky Chefs’ website for more information. ‘Aquarians’ is available to purchase in all the usual online stores.