Formed by guitarist/vocalist Mike Reina and ex-Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, Skysaw presents a delightfully idiosyncratic package with their debut record, ‘Great Civilizations.’ Though the band is named after a Brian Eno song, Skysaw’s sound exhibits progressive tendencies that have more in common with bands like Yes or Mars Volta than the ambient work that Eno is primarily known for. Nonetheless, just as Eno is a kind of “musician’s musician,” so too is Skysaw a band whose music rewards those with keen ears and an open mind. This does not mean Skysaw’s music is inacessible, though — merely that it has layers which reward multiple listens. Nor does every song on ‘Great Civilizations’ sound alike — a synth-heavy rocker built on angular guitar riffs and thundering rhythms might be followed by a bittersweet, mildly psychedelic ballad, adorned with expressive vocals and twinkling arpeggios. Chamberlin’s drums are as intricate as they are powerful, holding the album together like steel bolts on a roller coaster.
Rock Edition caught up with Mike Reina as he was relaxing in his home studio one night. Check out what he had to say.
You’re in the studio tonight?
Yeah. I’m here a lot, actually. This is my place, so I write here, practice here, play, record, and stuff like that.
Cool. So let’s talk about Skysaw. First of all, are you a big Brian Eno fan?
Huge, yeah. Definitely. Love him.
So that’s the reasoning behind the name, then.
Definitely. Just his approach, his experimental nature, and the fact that he was a pioneer in ambient music. Him, along with Daniel Lanois — I’m a huge Daniel Lanois fan.
He’s a genius.
They can kind of do no wrong, to me.
That Neil Young record he just did, ‘Le Noise,’ is really amazing.
Yeah. I’m about 100 pages into his book right now, but he seems like this beautiful spirit. It feels like there’s a mysticism around him. I don’t know, but it kind of aligns with the way that I think about music and writing. It’s a different approach, but the same sort of intent. He’s incredible. I just saw him play a few months ago at a small club here in Virginia. I got to talk to him afterward, and he was just a really, super-nice person. He was playing with Brian Blade on drums, who was amazing. Great, great band. But, yeah, Eno’s sort of been in the center of my mind for a while. [His work] just always seems relevant, and continues to inspire people. Kind of slowly, though — it’s not like everybody even knows who he is. Which is kind of crazy!
Right, and yet, everyone’s heard something that he’s worked on, whether they know it or not.
Yeah, definitely! He’s kind of like this musical nomad. I love him.
Mentioning Eno and Lanois together makes me think you might be a U2 fan, as well.
I am — not as big as others, but I do love the work they did with Eno and Lanois. That’s my favorite period of theirs. But, even those records — for some reason, I didn’t grow up with them. I kind of missed some key bands growing up that I wish I hadn’t, and that was one of them. Aside from a handful of songs, I didn’t go through a “got to get every U2 record” kind of phase, which, in hindsight, I wish I had. But I was stuck listening to The Beatles only, from about age 10 until I was in ninth grade. I didn’t listen to anything else.
All Beatles periods?
Yeah, definitely. More mid-to-late, but really all of it. I just didn’t feel like anything else was music. But that was very narrow-minded of me. A friend of mine at one point was like, “Dude, you’ve got to start listening to some other stuff.” [laughs][laughs] That’s funny. Were you into the Beatles’ solo work as well, at the time?
Yeah, definitely. I love melody. That, more than anything, is what sticks with me, and is what moves me. That’s what I feel like I hear when I’m either just beginning to write a song, or just waking up. I hear melody, and that’s sort of where, for me, a song is born. I haven’t really strayed from that.
Did you ever try using Eno’s Oblique Strategies in the studio?
[laughs] No.[laughs] I always wanted to try them, but I never got it together.
Isn’t that like — there’s a diagram on the back of — I can’t remember which record.
I think so, but I think you can also download them online and print them out or whatever.
Right, right. Like I was saying, my approach is probably different than his, but the intent of aiming to have listeners digging deep into music is something that I’m always hoping for. Having lots of layers, and discovering things after several listens… I’m not quite as big into records that have an immediate impact on you. The ones that grow on you are the ones I tend to gravitate towards. I don’t necessarily listen to thousands and thousands of records, like I probably should be. I tend to stick with a handful of records at a time, and really just try to see exactly what’s going on with each of them in the not-so-obvious ways.
Maybe it’s better that way!
It could be. As an aspiring songwriter and musician, I hope there are people out there who do listen to a lot of records, because there’s a lot of music out there. But I just sort of have a tendency to listen to a record, and then immediately listen to it again, and try to listen to it for a different reason the next time. Or maybe the next time, just see what jumps out at me. It’s not like I’m studying the record, but I’m learning from it. Is that possible to learn from something without studying it?
I think so. It sounds like, from what you said earlier, if listeners of your music do something similar, or are inspired to investigate further and dig into other things they haven’t heard before, then your goal has been met.
Yeah! Definitely. In mixing the record, there were some parts or elements that I really liked, and I wanted to put them loud and have them be heard, but there was this, like, producer on my shoulder saying, “No, back it down. Have it be something that gets revealed later.” That sort of mentality is difficult, because if you like a part, you want to make it loud, but then all that intention behind [having the record hold up to] several listens kind of goes out the window.
It sounds like, in the case of ‘Great Civilizations,’ you handled a lot of the mixing and production duties?
Yeah, we recorded it here at my place, and I engineered it and mixed it. It was a lot of hats to wear. But I’m glad we did it this way. I don’t know that we’ll do the next one that way, but it was a good experience. It was a lot of work, but I just wanted to take it as seriously as possible, and make use of the resources we had inside the band, which is my studio, and my ability to see a song through to the end.
So how did the band get formed?
Jimmy [Chamberlin, drummer] and I have a mutual friend. Really, it’s more like, I have a friend, and he has a friend, and they are friends. My friend works for a company that sells audio equipment, so Jimmy had given him a call and said that he was out of the Pumpkins now and wanted to build a small studio in his basement. So he wanted to buy some gear, and while he was sorting that out with my friend, he also mentioned that he was looking for a new songwriting partner. He asked if he knew anybody, and my friend sent him some of my songs. He gave me a call and said that he really liked the songs, and that he wanted to get together. I went out to Chicago and we hung out for a week. We booked some time in a studio and worked on one or two songs. We just got along great, and it felt like a natural thing to keep working together, so we just decided to do that.
Then, maybe four or six months later, we wanted to fill out the band some more. I told him that I’d been playing with this great guitar player [Anthony Pirog] in the DC area. So he came in to record on a track, and Jimmy loved it, and again the personalities were a good match. We continued from there and the three of us finished the record. Then when we decided to start playing some shows, I told him that I had a bass player [Boris Skalsky] who I’d been playing with for a long time, and another guitar player [Paul Wood], that I had been in another band with. They have a band in New York called Dead Heart Bloom, and I play live with them [sometimes], so we have chemistry and history, and we get along great. Jimmy was into that, so we got together for a couple of weeks, and again it just worked out well.
And you were calling the group This for a little while?
Yeah, I did. I didn’t even realize it, but somebody pointed out that that’s another Eno song title. [laughs][laughs]
I think it’s from his ‘Another Day on Earth’ record. Again, I picked the first track on an Eno record, but that was not intentional. For some reason, I just thought it would look cool on a t-shirt. [laughs] And that people would be into it, or be proud to wear something that said “This.” And I also just like the sound of the word. I like S’s and TH’s. Eventually, we found that there was another band called This, and it was difficult to Google — things I didn’t even think about when I said it. I actually proposed it, and Anthony and Jimmy loved it, and then three days later, I was like, “That’s too vague.” But I also wanted something ambiguous and vague, because I didn’t want it to get old. There’s a point where people don’t even think about the meaning of a band name, and it just becomes that band. They don’t even process it as being another word. I was thinking we could bypass all of that, and just make it ambiguous. I was even kind of trying to argue against it, but they were really into it, and I liked it too. I [even] came up with a logo that I liked for it. But then we found out there was another band, and we didn’t want to get confused with that. After we decided to change the name, I think I really only spent a day or two thinking, and then I was like, “Sky Saw is a pretty amazing song. Maybe it’ll make a good band name!” [laughs][laughs] I think it works! That’s a funny story. I read somewhere that you were really into synthesizers, and I was wondering if you play the synths on the album, and onstage?
I played most of them on the record. Anthony played a couple parts on a couple of songs. But I did most of the synths. Paul, the other guitar player, plays a Mini-Moog live — Paul, Anthony, and I all play synthesizers live. Anthony plays a little synthesizer, and I’ve got another one.
And all of three of you are also playing guitar, too?
So at any point, there could be three guitars going at once, or potentially even three synths, or some combination?
We haven’t done three synths yet, but that sounds like fun to me. [laughs] Maybe we’ll work that out. There are definitely three guitars at times. Nobody jumps around from instrument to instrument. We each have our own rigs. But, yeah, I love synthesizers. They just sound like magic. That again goes back to Eno. I’m also obsessed with Pink Floyd, and synthesizers are a major element of that band. I also love MGMT and they way they use synthesizers is awesome.
I’ve been trying to find a good, cheap synth. I was hoping to find an older one, but I keep coming back around to the Micro KORG. It’s a little bit more than I wanted to spend, but it just kind of does everything you could want.
It does! That’s what Anthony plays live. It’s cool. It’s a little difficult with the tiny keys — you’re a little limited, especially if you play a lot of keyboards and your fingers naturally want to go to those [wider] spacings. But I borrow it when I play for Dead Heart Bloom. It’s got a ton of sounds, it’s super easy. It is kind of expensive for the size, and the build quality is not fantastic.
It’s probably worth it, but I’m just on a tight budget. I’m sure it’s worth what it costs.
What kind of music do you play?
I’m mainly looking for my girlfriend. I guess you would call her a singer-songwriter, but there are a lot of elements to her music. It’s kind of weird and mellow and layered. She uses a lot of soft-synths, but we kind of want something with real keys.
Yeah, and being able to grab knobs, and stuff.
And she’s got a Hammond, which is sweet, but we want some other stuff, too.
Yeah, Hammonds are amazing. Definitely didn’t do enough Hammond on this record. There is some. I’m a huge Hammond fan, and I played organ in another band, but for some reason, I didn’t incorporate much of it into this record.
Seems like organ would fit well with these type of songs.
Yeah, I know. That’s one of my biggest regrets with the production of this record. I sort of equated the Hammond with the other band I was playing in, and for this one I wanted to stick more with synthesizers.
That makes sense. Do you guys write the songs collaboratively?
Some of them. Every song, somebody brought in most of [initially]. We’d work [together] to arrange it, establish a mood for the song, and work out the instrumentation. But as far as sitting down and writing songs together — there were definitely two or three songs that we did that on. There are some new songs that we’ve worked out together [as well]. Being in different cities made that difficult. Getting together was not the easiest thing in the world, so there was a lot of e-mailing stuff back and forth. I guess The Postal Service was the first band that I heard where I knew for a fact that that was what they did, and I remember I was playing in a band in Charlottesville at the time, and I remember thinking, “How the hell does that work?” I never thought I’d be in that situation. But it works, it’s just a different dynamic. You kind of have more time to work your own parts out on your own, which isn’t always the case when you’re collaborating in a room together with people. Especially trying to work a part out when you still have perspective on the song — that’s a constant challenge to me, is maintaining perspective.
Having worn as many hats as I did on this record, [and now] looking back — it’s not easy to hear the songs the way you would for the first time. That’s something I’m constantly trying to work on because, for what I do — being in a studio a lot, for most of the week — you get this sort of tunnel vision. I don’t really leave as much as I should. I don’t take enough breaks, and things like that. Being able to work like that is another goal of mine. I like to work, it sort of stresses me out to not be working. I just get filled with anxiety, and the only thing that really relieves that is working, whether it’s practicing or writing a song. The compromise with that is that it’s not so easy to maintain perspective.
Is there a theme to the lyrics of the record?
Like an overarching theme to the whole record?
Yeah, or common threads?
There’s definitely common threads. That’s something that sort of naturally occurs for me. Having listened to the hell out of Floyd records — the way that Roger was able to follow a theme from the start of a record to the end, leaving the theme and picking it back up — it’s just masterful. A lot of times, I’m not trying to do that, but I hear it, and I sort of allow things to happen the way they naturally do. I’ll go back and listen to what I’ve done and I’ll be like, “Oh, I see…” Sometimes I think wires are getting crossed in my brain in a certain way, and I’m not fully aware of it, but then when I go back and I see it, then maybe I’ll decide to expand on it. There are a few occasions on the record where I did something like that intentionally.
One thing that was definitely a goal from the outset was having the record flow a particular way. That’s something that I’m constantly referencing when I’m working on a song — I’m constantly referencing the last song that I worked on, and making sure that there’s a continuity to it. [The lyrics] are definitely a big focus for me in a song. I think for the next record I’ll probably cover other areas [more], but some of those themes that do pop up are definitely personal, and things that I’m kind of obsessed with in my own life, and they just rise to the surface.
Makes sense. What about this amazing song, “Cathedral”? Why isn’t that on the record?
That was one of the ones that we did write together. It was fairly early on. To be honest, I’m not sure why we didn’t record it. Actually, I do know why. I was adamant about the fact that it needed to grow in a live setting. I didn’t want to assemble it in the studio because I knew that we would find out about where the power and energy of the song was by playing it live. I knew that it was going to require playing it live, and we didn’t have any plans to play any shows or tour before the record was completed, so the record was completed, we booked a tour, and, just like we thought, the song grew and it was different every night.
Now I’m looking forward to just playing the song, recording it, and having that be it, rather than having it be a studio piece. It’s definitely a live song. You can’t really fake that stuff; it just has to be captured the right way, at the right time, and that just wasn’t the right time. I’m glad we didn’t, because I think it would have a disservice to something that we knew was something special, but it just wasn’t ready yet.
Judging from the video I saw of the performance, it seems like that was the right decision. The audience benefits a lot from that, too. That energy is just so powerful.
It’s a lot of fun to play. Powerful is what we’re going for, and I’d love for it to be lyrically a moving piece, or something that touches people. I think it’s definitely going to be a centerpiece of whatever we put out next, which I think will probably be an EP or something quick. We’re not going to take forever on it.
Tell me about the cover art for ‘Great Civilizations.’ Who came up with that concept, and who did the art?
I did the art. It started out as a picture that I took in a cathedral in San Francisco. It was just like the sickest set of pipes I had ever seen. This thing was massive. There were pipes as small as coffee stirrers, and I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “What frequency could that possibly be covering?” I didn’t have any intention of it being the cover. I took the picture before I’d even met Jimmy. It was a while ago. But that picture was always in my mind as this iconic photograph for me. Being an organ player, and somebody who’s into sound… I did some custom amp building for this local hi-fi store, and this pretty crazy guy was all into the idea of using organ pipes for super high-end stereos. I haven’t been to his basement, but he supposedly has a set of pipes and something like 32 6×9 speakers firing into the pipe. It’s supposed to be like a religious experience listening to his stereo.
The owner of that store gets a lot of wealthy customers coming in wanting custom setups. I guess somebody came in and said, “There’s no budget. I want the absolute best sound.” So he took him to this guy’s basement, and to demonstrate this guy’s system, he played him ‘The Chipmunks Christmas’ album. [laughs] I don’t know what his theory is, but I think according to him, that’s supposed to be the highest fidelity recording in existence. [laughs][laughs] Amazing!
[laughs] I think he did a good job of freaking out both the store owner and the client. But I’ve got to get over there and listen to that. Maybe I’ll bring something besides The Chipmunks. Anyway, I went to school for architecture at the University of Virginia, so I have a good amount of experience, and I know my way around Photoshop, so it naturally fell into my lap to do the artwork for the record. After messing out with [that photograph] in Photoshop, it came out looking kind of like a painting. People looking at it couldn’t always figure out what it was, but everybody liked it. So I was like, “This should be the cover of the record.” I love 70s record covers.
It’s definitely got that quality.
The way it looked on the screen, I was like, “This looks like it could be a classic record cover.” I didn’t have to think very hard about whether or not to use it. Those are the kind of record covers that I love, so we went with it. The Skysaw logo — I drew that by hand one night, scanned it in and laid it in there. That was probably the easiest — well, that’s not true. It took forever. Everything takes forever.
If you want something done right…
So, is the album out on vinyl? With all that talk about the cover, it seems like you kind of have to put it out on vinyl.
Yeah, absolutely. I designed it [with that in mind]. In fact, the vinyl wasn’t hard — it was getting it to conform to a CD that was hard.
Oh. The dimensions are slightly different, I guess.
Yeah, definitely. Having a background in architecture, squares and circles definitely come naturally to me. But when you try to wrangle that into a different thing, the proportions go away, and it loses some of that impact, and the iconic feel. You’d think it’d be easy, but it just took a while to get it to work in the format of a CD.
It’s like the difference between ancient architecture, which was based more on natural geometric patterns, and modernism, when people starting building things which were just like flat lines.
Right, exactly. And the back cover is a shot of the control room in my studio. There’s a great green chair which is super comfortable, and the couch was in my family’s house since I was born.
Is there another tour planned?
There’s not another tour planned yet. We did a tour where we we went out with Minus the Bear, and then we did a short week after that. That’s all we have for right now. I’ve been writing a lot, and Jimmy hadn’t been on vacation for while, so he went on vacation. So, I’ve just been here, writing a lot. We’re planning on getting started on the next release. Definitely want to do some more shows, but don’t have anything booked.
Pick up Skysaw’s debut album, Great Civilizations.