Casper Skulls begin their debut EP, Lips & Skull, with a “lesson in survival” that feels bleak: “You gotta look the other way.” What causes do you dedicate your life to? What values mean most to you? What kind of person do you want to be? These are the questions asked throughout Lips & Skull, but there aren’t many clear answers.
Then again, the doubts explored on the EP aren’t always that existential. “You can relate it back to where you buy your coffee,” guitarist Neil Bednis tells MTV News. “Some days you’re just like, ‘Fuck it, I’ll buy it at Starbucks.’”
The concept of devotion threads the EP’s five tracks together seamlessly — not just on “Devotion,” where Bednis chants the word in an almost ecstatic fervor across powerful surges of rhythm, but in every careful choice of syllable, every moment of silence, every bitter stab of noise. Lips & Skull’s confrontational art rock bleeds with sincerity, and it all starts with looking inward.
“The EP in whole is about relationships with other people and yourself,” Bednis explains over beer and cheese fries just prior to the Toronto band’s first Brooklyn show at DIY venue Shea Stadium. Guitarist Melanie St-Pierre, who shares co-writing duties with Bednis, says the songs were influenced by Beat poets and Leonard Cohen, and especially the relationship between 1970s New York punks Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine as depicted in Hell’s memoir, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp. “Reading about it made us realize some recurring themes,” she says. “The song ‘Lips & Skull’ is based off a friendship I had that wasn’t as intense and artistic and historic, but those same differences were there. You complement each other, but you also run into issues. Sometimes that ends the relationship, but it can often make it better."
St-Pierre draws a parallel to her relationship with Bednis: “We’ve been dating for five years, and our relationship is like that, too. I’m a little more outgoing and assertive, and Neil’s a bit more shy and reserved. But when we come together, something special happens.”
Lips & Skull benefits from this duality — it’s summed up best on “Devotion” when Bednis states, “A man is not one but two.” But it’s more nuanced, too. On the EP’s title track, St-Pierre’s delicate voice pleads with itself, as if she’s standing in front of a mirror. “Am I thinner? Am I a wax moth?” she begs. As the rhythm builds, she grows bolder, critical not only of herself but also the outside world (“highbrow tastemaker couldn’t spare a dollar,” she spits). “Errands” is melodic with a dicey edge; Bednis matter-of-factly sings a man’s dying words, cloaking the scene in dark humor (“I hope I’m in your will / Who’s a guy gotta kill?”). Later, he and St-Pierre unite to lament a “spoiled situation” over a wailing guitar and slick beat.
Bednis and St-Pierre, with drummer Chris Anthony and bassist Fraser McClean, formed Casper Skulls in 2015 via Kijiji (a Canadian service similar to Craigslist). The couple both hail from Sudbury, in Northern Ontario, while Anthony and McClean grew up half an hour from Toronto in Oakville, Ontario. Around the same time St-Pierre moved to Oakville for college, Anthony started throwing DIY shows in local restaurants.
“A friend of mine, Chris Flynn, and I wanted to play a show in Oakville, but we didn’t know where to do it. There was no spot,” Anthony recalls. “I went to this fundraiser at a pizzeria that was shutting down. I approached them and was like, ‘Hey, what would you think about doing shows here? We’d sell alcohol, you’d sell pizza, and we’d do $5 at the door.’” One show turned into more shows, which quickly evolved into a scene. “We kept doing it and it started growing. We started seeing a lot of familiar faces,” he says. “We realized there was something actually happening, and it was bigger than just the two of us. People actually cared.”
“It’s really important for small communities to have some sort of outlet to do stuff,” Bednis adds. “Playing small towns — we would do it and know a lot of people, so we’d make money. Then we were able to use that money to press our first 7-inch and put it out ourselves. That helped us get into Toronto as well.”
In addition to that 7-inch single, the members of Casper Skulls also constructed their own zine, appropriately titled Lips & Skull. They blame its stall in production on touring and busy schedules, but encourage other musicians — or anyone, really — to follow their lead.
“It’s a great way to find common ground with people and make friends,” McClean explains. “A lot of early zines were because people really had something to say, but I recently realized that it doesn’t have to be like that. A lot of cool zines are just people’s doodles or comics or crosswords.”
“Just jump into it,” St-Pierre suggests. “The coolest thing about doing a zine is that you can bring it wherever you go on tour. We’ve done interviews with bands from our hometown, like Mick Futures and Dunes.”
Now that they’ve signed to Toronto’s Buzz Records and worked with peers such as Greys’ Shehzaad Jiwani, who produced the EP, touring is a priority for Casper Skulls. And yet, crossing borders isn’t exactly easy.
“So many Canadian bands just never tour the States because they can’t afford it,” Bednis says. “You need to apply 120 days ahead of time to get [a visa], and there’s no guarantee you’ll get it in time. So we had to expedite ours, which cost an extra $1,600 [in Canadian dollars].”
“We’re lucky we did it now, too, because who knows what will happen come January,” St-Pierre adds, referencing recent talk of borders and the results of last month’s U.S. election. (“I’m learning how American politics work,” Anthony confesses. “It’s so messed up!”)
When it comes to the notion of Canada as a utopian refuge for Americans, however, Casper Skulls offer a realistic perspective. “It gives us comfort to think about people seeing Canada as this great place, because we live there,” St-Pierre says. “But there’s corruption in every small town, in every large city, in every country. It’s everywhere. That’s something you can’t control, and when you move somewhere else, you’re gonna find something else to be upset about.”
Lips & Skull is out now on Buzz Records.