Graduating from playing in a punk-rock band to producing dance music is nothing new. In fact, ever since "Losing My Edge," it seems practically mandatory: You cut your teeth in an indie rock combo, then you can start cutting disco 12-inches. Not quite so for Julian Grefe of Pink Skull. Back in the early thousands, ("I'm really bad with years," he says), Grefe was playing keyboards and guitar with Frenchkiss Records band S PRCSS. But at the same time, he was DJing Philadelphia's acclaimed long-running, genre- mixing dance party Making Time.
"I've been playing music since I was like 6," says Grefe. "I'd been in orchestra or band, and a couple bands on Gern Blandsten. And I've been making house records for years—stuff for Plastic City, 611, Society Hill, Soul Society—while being in bands. S PRCSS was the closest I came at the time to putting my love of electronic music in a live music arena."
Eventually, Grefe left S PRCSS"I was completely fed up with being in S PRCSS, and they were fed up with me being in S PRCSS also, so it was a mutual parting of ways"and Pink Skull was born. "I had done a mix CD for Dave P's RVNG label with my friends Ian [Kelly] and Justin [Geller], and it was fun and low key, and I was just like, 'Fuck it, let's work on a record together.'"
Of course, the real reason you see so many rock musicians transition into electronic circles is because nobody who truly loves music only loves one kind. Your favorite rock band might be listening to funk, techno, rap, country, or classical at this very moment. Terrifying. And indeed, Grefe has been collecting a variety of records for a staggering amount of time.
"I've been buying records since I was 12," says Grefe, now 34. He currently estimates his vinyl collection at "five or six thousand." "I probably should have a lot more but, you know, sometimes they come and go, and sometimes you have less liquid income than you'd like. But I still have records that I've had since I was 10. I still have my copy of Zeppelin III since fourth grade. Fishbone's It's a Wonderful Life from when I was 12. I do also have the first techno record that I got, Stakker Humanoid, I have the 12-inch for that."
But while diverse tastes make for great record collections, they don't always fuse to make great records.
Pink Skull's first record, the Blast Yr Akk EP, was a more strictly electronic effort, minimal and built on microsamples from their combined record collections—a fine but not mind-blowing record. But in the last year and a half, Pink Skull have expanded to become more of a full-fledged band, combining electronics, samples, and live playing, equally able to jam in the studio as onstage.
"I finally learned how to do what I wanted to do with the electronic dance music and not have it sound like a bunch of indie-rock kids playing electronic music. Which, not to sound like an ass, is kind of something that happens pretty often. There are a couple of bands that are pretty popular right now that sound like a bunch of kids who were in punk bands and were like, 'I want to make dance music,' and, you know, they miss a lot of stuff, although there are happy accidents."
Pink Skull's recent sophomore album, Zeppelin 3, is less happy accident than it is a perfect synthesis of electro, disco, funk, hiphop, psych, rock, dub, and more, all mixed and sampled and screwed together to make for one mad house party. Evidence of Grefe's record geekery is everywhere from the album's obvious title, to tracks like "Fuck 'Dead or Canadian,' Let's Play 'Homeless Guy or Arthur Baker!'" "Itchy Woman," and "Bubblelog Aftermath," which reference Baker (duh), the Eagles, and Aphex Twin, respectively. Indeed, Zeppelin 3 might be the only album that will ever feature vocal tracks from both K Records darling Mirah and the Wu-Tang Clan's Ghostface Killah (Grefe mastered an old Mirah record and traded the vocal track for payment; Ghostface appears on Plastic Little's "Crambodia," which Pink Skull remixed).
The album begins in earnest, after an instrumental intro, with the single "Gonzo's Cointreau," possibly the funnest hand percussion and rubber bass house workout since Zongamin's "Bongo Song." "Unicorn Harpoon" lays unintelligible, smurfy vocal snippets over a strutting bass line and a loose, shaking beat. "Itchy Woman" is a psyched-out, echoing synth rave-up that hits a near-sexual vocal climax. Elsewhere, Pink Skull delve into hazy, bong-addled funk rock grooves ("Zing Zong," "U.g.uo.aaaahhhhh"), ambient guitar goofs ("Sslit"), slightly detourned techno pulse ("Cry for Meee"), and, of course, Plastic Little's off-the-wall party rap.
For their live shows, Pink Skull consist of Grefe on keys, computer, and vocals, surrounded by a bassist, a guitarist, and two live drummers; although their Seattle debut will be a stripped-down setup, featuring only Grefe and the two drummers. "The larger setup definitely lends it to being a little Kraut rockier experience," says Grefe. "But the smaller setup, which we play with quite a bit, is very dancey."
And what, if anything, did Grefe learn from his indie-rock days that applies to Pink Skull?
"Just: Don't be an asshole."