Seattle-based saxophonist/sound architect Skerik is hell-bent on artistic evolution, and the man has the track record to prove it. An intergalactic shaman of skronk, the erstwhile virtuoso has consistently connected with a myriad of maniacal musicians for nearly three decades in a seemingly endless series of eclectic settings, each one pushing the proverbial envelope further and deeper than the last. From his intelligent interpretations of abstract astral jazz to sinister sessions of psychedelic funk grooves, punk’d up art rock to Sun Ra space oddities, the forever-inimitable Skerik has developed a well-earned reputation for the weird, wily, and wild. This dude is the definition of “avant-garde.”
Skerik has been an essential part of several seminal bands/scenes through the years, including Critters Buggin and Tuatara. He logged time with Col. Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade (and Les’s shorter-lived Fancy Band), multiple iterations of Garage a Trois, all-star collectives like DRKWAV, The Dead Kenny G’s, and Tephra Sounds. In addition, Skerik has performed behind living legends like Roger Waters (Pink Floyd), Mike Clark (Herbie Hancock & the Headhunters), and John Scofield (Miles Davis), among other luminaries. When not on the road with any of the aforementioned acts, the prolific sax scientist has been seen raging countless Seattle stages with the likes of Crack Sabbath, of which he is a founding member, as well as McTuff and his own Syncopated Taint Septet.
[Photo via Electric-Voice]
Most recently, Skerik has been making his usual wacky waves with another supergroup of sorts, the Emerald Quintet. This thrilling ensemble includes longtime cohorts Stanton Moore (drums, Galactic), Robert Walter (keyboards, Greyboy Allstars/Mike Gordon), Andy Hess (bass, John Scofield Band), and Scott Metzger (guitar, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead). The band is a relatively new endeavor, in spite of the fact that Skerik has a deep history with Walter and Moore and played with Hess (alongside Scofield) over a decade ago. However, there is a trusting, tangible chemistry betwixt these masterful players that has the Emerald Quintet already humming like a well-oiled machine.
L4LM’s B.Getz was lucky to track down the ever-elusive Skerik for a conversation just before the saxophonist took off for the Emerald Quintet’s fall run. Skerik was eager to discuss his fantastic new band, as well as a smattering of other topics. The dialogue touches on his experience performing with Amendola Vs. Blades at SFJAZZ, a forthcoming new record from OG Garage a Trois, and more. To conclude, Skerik offers an emotional, detailed reflection on his time working with Mad Season, a beloved, short-lived grunge supergroup from the mid-’90s that included his friend Barrett Martin (Tuatara, Screaming Trees), Mike McCready (Pearl Jam), the dearly-departed John Baker Saunders, and the late, great Layne Staley of Alice in Chains.
Without further ado, here’s our conversation with the one-and-only Skerik!
B. Getz: Hey Skerik! Thanks for taking a few moments out of your travels to speak to L4LM. Are you back in Seattle right now?
Skerik: Yes, I am. But headed out again tomorrow [laughs]. So, I heard you were at a San Francisco show, at SFJAZZ.
B. Getz: Yeah, the SFJAZZ run you just did with Amendola Vs. Blades… and Friends [laughs]. That was fantastic. The lineup also featured percussionist Cyro Baptista (Trey Anastasio Band) and guitarist Jeff Parker (Tortoise). Can you discuss your involvement with that project?
Skerik: That’s pretty much their baby. They’ve been doing that Amendola Vs. Blades duo for a while, and I’ve been playing with Wil [Blades] for quite a while, too. It’s cool that they can just plug people right into it. And I’m just glad that they went for it, and hired that many extra musicians. Because they could have just hired any one of us, you know what I’m saying? The fact that they hired all three of us…
B. Getz: You brought your unique Skerik vibe to that SFJAZZ space. How did you approach fitting into that particular setting?
Skerik: There’s a lot of elements there, and you don’t want to be stepping on other people’s stuff. You want to make sure there’s enough space so that everything can exist together. That’s a real important thing when you’re getting into larger groups like that.
B. Getz: Not everybody has heard you play to a seated jazz audience. It’s a little different than the charged-up onstage intensity that we so often see from you in the nightclubs and theaters.
Skerik: Well, I don’t think we even swung really in that group, you know, with swung eighth notes… They definitely keep it more groovy, It’s a more straight-eight kind of a thing. I thought it was interesting that we were playing SFJAZZ and not really playing those swing kind of rhythms. Whereas, when Benny Bloom [of Lettuce] and I are added onto Stanton Moore’s trio down in New Orleans, that gig he has every Tuesday at [New Orleans jazz club] Snug [Harbor]. Sometimes, they’ll do a quartet with Bloom and I, and that’s super jazzy, with swung eighth notes. We’re playing Art Blakey tunes, James Black tunes, and Wayne Shorter stuff, and Stanton’s original material.
B. Getz: Tell me, playing funky-ass grooves to that particular room at SFJAZZ, is that sort of going against the grain?
Skerik: When you have a drummer at such a level like Scott Amendola, he can blur the lines, because he’s swinging within that groove stuff, and has such a light touch, so there’s so much nuance going on there, it’s just blurring all those lines—which is really what it’s supposed to be doing. Because that’s more of a cumulative effect of interpretation and inspiration, and what you’re trying to do together to create your own sound.
B. Getz: Speaking of Stanton Moore, lets dig into The Emerald Quintet. Smells like JazzFest after dark! You’ve got a sweet three-show run coming up, including the monthly Funk Sessions show in Denver on Friday night. I’ve caught two EQ performances thus far, and they were fiery, to say the least! It sorta felt brand new, but when y’all came out the gates with “Sprung Monkey” it was like, “I know this shit, I know these dudes.” Everyone has worked with everyone, especially you, Stanton Moore and Robert Walter. Many superjams, side bands, and such. What made y’all say that this was gonna be more than that and become a real band?
Skerik: Well, first, Stanton is my brother from another mother, and I love playing with him, working with him, especially rocking out. He’s got a jazz feel now, which is cool, but I love… I mean he is such a high-energy drummer and I have to have that, I have to have that. Where it’s just bashing, slamming… Just his “there’s no tomorrow” kind of drumming, you know what I’m saying? We’ve got 20, 22 years of history of that onstage.
Emerald Quintet – “Don’t Chin The Dog” [Robert Walter original]
B. Getz: Yes, you have a special chemistry with Stanton. Tell us when/how the Emerald Quintet band was officially born?
Skerik: Was it like last year Winter Jazz Fest or something? It was some occasion. I can’t remember. I have to ask Scott [Metzger]. I’ve been wanting to play with Scott forever, too. We’ve been talking for years about doing something, but he’s out there in New York and I’m here [Seattle], it’s hard when you’re not in the same town with people. So, I don’t know, somehow everyone was in the same town, in New York at the same time and… and then Andy [Hess] was available. “Oh, we can add Robert [Walter]?” When we all played, it was just so easy and awesome.
I mean, it looks good on paper. And then it sounds good on stage, too. When I say it looks good on paper, I mean as a musician when you’re thinking about it, like, “Oh what would Robert, Scott, Andy and Stanton and I sound like?” You know? Oh, it’s gotta be, it’s gotta be good. So, luckily, it’s just been happening.
B. Getz: It’s definitely been happening, my man!
Skerik: Everyone’s got such great tunes! I mean, Robert Walter is just an amazing writer and Stanton loves playing Robert’s tunes. I’ve been playing them forever too… You know, I would sub for Robert’s bands for a long time. I did a tour with him, Johnny Vidacovich, and James Singleton once. So I got to know his writing style and his stuff, and we’ve just been friends forever. We like the same kind of music.
I think I met Andy when Stanton and I were playing with John Scofield. We played with Andy at the… it was like one of those Jammy Awards or something. So that was fun. Andy’s such a badass, it’s just such a pleasure to play with those guys. So we’re really going to expand the writing. It’s mostly original stuff and we’re going to do a cover from The Band. Scott’s going to sing on this tour.
Did you see that solo performance of him singing at that memorial like a few months ago?
B. Getz: For Neal Casal? Yes. I saw a live stream from The Capitol Theatre.
Skerik: I was blown away, wasn’t that incredible?
B. Getz: Yes, that was an extremely moving performance. So raw, such serenity.
Skerik: I couldn’t believe it… I was like, “hold on, I’m in a band with this guy. Why aren’t we utilizing this?” Unbelievable. So beautiful, and incredible. So really, I was just like “Dude please, give me a song. What are we going to do? You’ve got to sing!” So I’m hoping that kind of develops more, too.
Scott Metzger – “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” [Richard Thompson cover] – 9/25/19
B.Getz: Scott is a freaking gem, no doubt. So versatile. Do you remember what shows were the true beginning, where you decided you were a band, as the Emerald Quintet?
Skerik: We went up to Alaska and played in Anchorage, a special show up there. That was really fun. We did the Jazz Fest show at Tipitina’s, and we did two shows at High Sierra Music Festival. We’ve been out there playing regularly. We got it going on. This is definitely something we’re going to do in the future, but don’t wait to try and see it because everyone is super busy—Galactic, Mike Gordon, Greyboy… everyone’s super busy so we might only get to do a handful of shows every year.
B. Getz: Sticking with Stanton stuff, but switching gears a little bit here. I’ve been a fan of Garage a Trois since the classic Saenger Theatre show in NOLA back in 2000. The band took on several iterations through the years, but I see that OG Garage a Trois has been gigging here and there. Can we take the temperature on that project for a moment? I know a lot of people are very stoked to see you, Stanton and Charlie [Hunter] getting after it again, with the original incarnation, al a All Kooked Out, and the Mysteryfunk EP.
Skerik: Well, again, it’s two people that are super busy. Charlie has his own band, and Stanton has Galactic, and a lot of other stuff as well. For now, we’re going to do the Pre-Jam Cruise Party in Miami on January 6th. And then we’re doing two shows on the boat for Jam Cruise. We’re really excited about that, and we have a new record that just got mastered. It’s coming out on Royal Potato Family.
B. Getz: You don’t say? That’s awesome. When did you guys put that down?
Skerik: We recorded on the fourth day of a four-night run in Portland and Seattle. We recorded at Stone Gossard‘s studio, Litho, in Seattle. We had been playing again, and we had just done three shows in a row. Charlie had this conflict, he just wants to play these grooves lately. He doesn’t want to play a bunch of songs and clever little things, he just wants to do these grooves. He was like, “Come on! Stanton and I have been playing together for 20 years, we’ve got this rapport and everything.” So, man… we went to the studio, and it was so fun. It was incredible. It was so easy, and just funny. I mean, you’ve listened to these guys, so you know. It’s just incredible. And I’m just on top, adding little melodies and stuff. I’m doing a lot of playing saxophone and keyboards at the same time. We have this one song, it sounds exactly like Stereolab or something [laughs].
B. Getz: Right on. I know people will look forward to hearing the fruits of this session.
Skerik: It’s just bizarre, man! Just nasty grooves. I know you’re going to love it. I can’t wait for people to hear that record.
B. Getz: We will be waiting with bated breath now that you’ve let us know it’s in the can and on the way! I still adore the first release, the Mysteryfunk EP from back in ‘99, which is basically just 30 minutes of atmospheric, spooky grooves, you know?
Garage a Trois – “Mysteryfunk”
Skerik: Yeah. This one, it’s like that, but times a thousand! It has better audio quality too, though Mysteryfunk had good audio… But everything’s so much more refined now. The playing, and my rig is much more together. That Mysteryfunk recording, that was at the end of a session, and we kind of threw that together. Where this [new album] is in an amazing recording studio, with amazing mics. Randall Dunn was producing, he’s an incredible engineer. Got mixed in Seattle at Avast! through this awesome API console, mastered by Chicago Mastering. So it’s like, no expense spared, a really thorough production and… it sounds like it.
B. Getz: That’s really exciting news, and I certainly cannot wait to hear it. And we love Kevin (Calabro) and all things Royal Potato Family!
Skerik: Yeah! Kevin’s really like our… saint. He definitely needs saint status.
B. Getz: That guy is such a champion for artists. Thank heaven for Kevin!
Skerik: [Laughs] Yes! We need to make the team a t-shirt. And stickers. Thank heaven for Kevin!
B. Getz: Since you mentioned Stone Gossard, and you’re most certainly a son of Seattle. Please allow me to ask one question that is decidedly Seattle. Something I’ve been carrying a long time, as it pertains to you and have been itching to ask about. A little known fact is that you are on the Mad Season album, Above, from back in 1995. You’re heard on the track, “Long Gone Day”, and you appear on the concert record, Live At the Moore. I’ve always wondered about your involvement in that short-lived but classic band. If you are so inclined, may we please jump in the wayback machine for a reflection on Mad Season, the late, great Layne Staley, or anything at all from that era that you care to revisit or share?
Mad Season – “Long Gone Day”
Skerik: Well, that was a crazy time because I was really busy doing Critters Buggin all the time, but I lived in Seattle, so Barrett Martin—who is the drummer of Mad Season—he was always thinking really outside the box of what most rock stuff was, and what was happening in Seattle. Barrett was into all different kinds of music and really trying to integrate and innovate stuff. He really tried to push things forward. So anything that he was doing, he would try and include me on it. I even played with Screaming Trees once when Josh Homme was in the band!
B. Getz: Wow!
Skerik: Yeah. I played percussion on something, so that was fun. Barrett is just someone I owe a lot to, and he’s given me so many opportunities. Just a really generous and innovative drummer and musical thinker. He has a new book out [The Way of the Zen Cowboy]. You should check out.
That Mad Season stuff we did, I think we played a few shows at The Crocodile before the Moore Theater show, as kind of a warm-up thing. We had a different name [for] the band. So I would show up there, and Layne would introduce me like, “Oh, and here’s this guy on oboe!” or something [laughs]. And he was funny, but I didn’t really get to know him very well. I was busy and I mostly interfaced with Barrett, but man, it was great coming into the studio at Lawson’s, which turned into Bad Animals Studio, this amazing studio.
I went over on that song, “Long Gone Day”, and I was able to sneak in this little scale-type thing I had been working on, and they actually liked it! I was just happy to be a part of that record. Those guys got together because they were all trying to be sober together and they wanted to support each other. Pearl Jam was on hiatus, and Alice [in Chains] was on hiatus, and so was Screaming Trees. I think that’s the story. Baker [John Baker Saunders], the bass player, Mike met in Minneapolis when he was in treatment. [Note: John Baker Saunders passed away in 1999. Layne Staley died in 2002).]
…Baker, him and I became really good friends, really close—because he was a jazz fanatic, and his record collection was incredible. And he would come to all my little shows, playing around town in Seattle. He was just a great guy. I just miss him a lot. He was just, yeah… Sorry, I’m just… [long pause]
This f*cking drug sh*t!. Wow. But anyway, yeah, [there were] lots of good times, and doing that show at The Moore Theater was fucking crazy. The crowd, they were louder than the band singing the lyrics. I just remember being on stage and shit was like, “Jesus man, I got to go home and write some grunge songs!”
B. Getz: [Laughs] Thank you for that reflection. I remember reading that Mike McCready’s newfound sobriety was the galvanizing force for Mad Season.
Skerik: Yeah, him and Barrett, too. And Baker. They were all on a sober thing. I think Layne was trying to get there, too. I’m just glad that they got together for a bunch of friends. They also recorded this John Lennon song that they had me play on. I think, was it “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” or something like that?
B. Getz: Was it ever released?
Skerik: Yeah, it was on some compilation somewhere, you can find it out there. [Note: It was John Lennon’s “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier” on the Working Class Hero tribute compilation.]
Mad Season – “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier Mama” [John Lennon cover]
[Video: Leo Tomasoni]
Skerik: Right before Chris Cornell died, we did that huge show at The Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. And Chris sang all of Layne’s parts, man… you can imagine! So I got to stand right next to Chris, and play my part on “Long Gone Day” with the f*cking symphony!! It was incredible.
B. Getz: That’s unreal. I CAN imagine!
Mad Season – “Long Gone Day” w/ Seattle Symphony – 1/30/15
[Video: Old Magic]
Skerik: I mean… Chris just killed it too, of course. He is an amazing singer… and I can’t believe he’s gone now too… [long pause]. I’m pretty f*cking lucky to have all of these amazing experiences.
B. Getz: You’re lucky, but… You’re part of the alchemy of that music, and we’re grateful that we still have you. You pay tribute to these dearly departed folks just by reflecting on them in that way. Thank you for sharing that, for taking it there. Since shit just got real, please allow me to thank you. Because I know… all the touring, all the gigging, the financial hardships, and being away from family, you see what it does to people on the road. The carnage, how it can destroy the health and the spirit.
So while I have you on the phone, I want to take the opportunity and say that I honor, appreciate, and am truly grateful for the many, many sacrifices that all of you make, just to take the stage, to make art for our entertainment and pleasure. On behalf of music fans the globe over, thank you.
Skerik: Thanks, man. Thanks, brother. I got to do it.
B. Getz: We are much obliged. Again, thank you for taking time to speak to the people!
Emerald Quintet will return to New Orleans for a special late-night performance during Jazz Fest on Friday, May 1st (technically early-morning Saturday, May 2nd) at One Eyed Jacks. The show will feature special guest Erica Falls (formerly of Galactic) on vocals.
Show: Live For Live Music Presents: Emerald Quintet ft. Stanton Moore, Skerik, Robert Walter, Scott Metzger, & Andy Hess, with special guest Erica Falls
Date: Friday, May 1st, 2020 (technically early a.m. May 2nd)
Venue: One Eyed Jacks – 615 Toulouse St., New Orleans, LA 70130
Doors: 1:00 a.m. / Show: 2:00 a.m.
Tickets: $40 advance / $45 day of show