Review – Thrill-sharing ZKELETONZ take Coventry on a joyride of indie venue appreciation
As we approach Record Store Day on Saturday April 13, it seems appropriate to look back on another key national celebration of grassroots music, Independent Venue Week, and a gig which took place in Coventry last month as part of the celebrations.
Tenaciously independent and self-managed, Zkeletonz keep up a busy performance schedule despite day jobs for Spotify and the Mayor of London. They’ve performed live approximately 100 times since forming at, you guessed it, a gig, which they put on for a Halloween house party at the East London flat they still share, back in 2014. They’ve also organised over 25 of their own ‘Zkeleton Party’ club nights in independent venues, most with live music as well as DJs, and played at community festivals and carnivals in Brighton, Peckham, Hackney, London Bridge, Cornwall, and Lichfield, Staffordshire.
Meanwhile, back on home turf in Warwickshire, where founding member Ed Trotsky grew up and went to school, Zkeletonz have won plaudits aplenty from BBC Introducing, who’ve played them 25 times on local radio so far, and recently invited the band to record a live session this April. Further afield, praise and airplay has flooded in from impressive sources like Amazing Radio, Radio X, Channel 4 Sunday Brunch, the Birmingham Mail and Chilevisión, the South American country’s equivalent of the BBC.
The Tin Music and Arts centre, in Coventry’s canal basin area, has been one of the city’s most important independent venues for over a decade. Formerly known as Taylor Johns, it transitioned to charitable status in August 2013, and now functions as a thriving creative hub offering regular live concerts alongside community, yoga and craft space.
They used Independent Venue Week (from 28th January to February 4th) as an opportunity to support a brand new local promoter, Drink Your Milk. They assembled an exciting lineup featuring Zkeletonz and strong support from noisy Southampton rockers Mystic Peach and local psychedelia duo Jaghana.
Jaghana opened the Saturday night event, weaving haunting and intricate soundscapes that evoked more well known bands like Foals and Minus The Bear. They frequently achieved a similar sense of hypnotic immersion to Arctic Monkeys’ recent concept album ‘Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino’, especially when the singer crooned beautifully at some of the sparsest moments in each long track. Being just a two piece certainly didn’t hold Jaghana back; in fact, at points, their eyes locked on one another’s in blissful musical telepathy. The audience responded with careful, patient attention and warm applause.
Mystic Peach followed in the middle slot, tearing through a heavy and hard-hitting set which clearly took influence from shoegaze and slacker rock as well as more classic indie acts like the The Manic Street Preachers and Ash. Lead singer and guitarist Curtis Gale gave an unapologetically punky performance, screaming and wailing his way through a wall of aggressive noise with confidence and swagger. A few mellower moments broke up the trio’s relentless sonic assault, but it was thumping drums, distortion and screeching feedback which stood out. Again, keen local music lovers in the crowd responded with a friendly and appreciative reception, as the gig approached its climax.
Headliners Zkeletonz actually got off to a slightly rocky start, arriving on stage to find most of their synthesizers weren’t playing through the house PA! Technical difficulties then derailed proceedings for around 15 minutes while some of the band’s usual psychedelic visuals flickered tantalisingly in the background. A few smiles, jokes and apologies later, they politely thanked the sound engineer for helping to resolve the situation, before rescuing the mood in the room as casually, quickly and effortlessly as veteran entertainers twice their age.
Bopping around their amplifiers and drum machines in bright green and gold sequin jackets, Zkeletonz rocketed through a short and sweet set that included all 4 of their most recent catchy and critically acclaimed Spotify singles. Like fellow synth-pop pioneers Chvrches, whose incorrect spelling directly inspired their name, Zkeletonz understand how bold and colourful aesthetics can add to their music.
They insisted on playing in almost total darkness except for the aforementioned video art. In an intimate setting like the Tin, the red and blue lights pulsating from their equipment also helped build a hypnotic atmosphere. It was hard not to think of Hot Chip, another tech-obsessed band who pride themselves on total electronic whizz-kid wizardry. And a state of total musical union between man and machines.
Zkeletonz lyrics are, to be honest, poetic to a point, but also a bit confusing. Each song seemed to explore vague themes of hedonism and togetherness, then build to a euphoric chorus filled with soundbite-style statements that your local MP would be more than happy to spout mindlessly into some passing media microphones. But the overriding impression Zkeletonz give is one of fun and optimism, with some fantasy and kitsch thrown in.
Singer Gav displayed skilled musicianship, nailing note after note above the bed of lush electronica that the rest of the band supplied. His performance flirted outrageously with a Scissor Sisters style falsetto and at raw moments accidentally borrowed, or perhaps deliberately stole, from the vocal delivery of Prince and David Bowie’s most emotional mega-hits.
Similarly to many of disco, funk and heavier dance music’s most famous tracks, Zkeletonz simply don’t need to hammer home too much of the meaning behind their music. They focus instead on the escapism available in a delicious, unforgettable groove. They also respect and rely on the revolutionary power of digital technology to transform music, an approach becoming increasingly common amongst new bands, as acts like Bastille, Fickle Friends and The 1975 lean more and more heavily on robotic, 1980sy influences and production techniques.
Closing with ‘Neighbourhood Nightclub’, a song about their own love of discovering and watching new bands in London and Coventry, Zkeletonz certainly felt like perfect poster boys for independent venues, and the friendly DIY ethos that should always define them! Their next steps in the live scene look exciting too, with further sets booked in Birmingham on Saturday 30th March, at Edinburgh Fringe festival on August bank holiday weekend, and a ‘New Blood’ Battle of the Bands Quarter Final in London on Friday 15th March, which could see Zkeletonz progress to appear alongside Lily Allen and Noel Gallagher on the main stage at Isle of White festival.
Independent Venue Week 2019 was a roaring success overall this year; over 200 venues took part across the UK from major city centres to tiny villages. The in-house team at The Tin pride themselves on “supporting high quality and innovative arts and artists from Coventry, the UK, and all over the world”, and the Zkeletonz show on Saturday 2 February was no exception. Mystic Peach and Jaghana combined perfectly with an infectious, energetic and heartfelt Zkeletonz performance to give Coventry a night to be proud of. And if their first gig was anything to go by, a young and passionate team of new rookie promoters will soon be taking the city’s indie scene by storm.
Written by Daniel Warwick. Photography by AH Gallery Photography.