Wednesday, 1 August 2012

BLACK EARTH - An Interview with AJ Skull





Article and interview by Christine Leonard

Breaking up (with the dead) is hard to do, but for Anthony Janicki (a.k.a. AJ Skull) a parting of ways with his Calgary-based horror punk band, Conniving Cadavers, was just the motivational shot in the arm he needed. Primed to match his mettle against that of bassist Glen Murdock (Sanity in Numbers) and, shortly thereafter, drummer Steve Richter, lead singer/guitar player Janicki launched a new outfit under the ominous moniker, Black Earth.

“If you look at my CD collection you’ll see over 600 selections running the gambit from Meat Loaf to Tegan & Sara,” Janicki reports. “When we started Black Earth, back in October of 2009, I just wanted to make rock and roll badass and cool again. When Steve came on board, his style allowed us to open up and experiment with that dirty rock sound. We all liked ‘80s hard rock so we thought we’d try our hands at mixing that genre with punk to see what happened.”

What happened was that Janicki realized he’d be better off devoting himself to his musicianship and letting someone else sit in the band’s hot seat. Moving away from his initial role of lead vocalist and all-around frontman, Janicki began to ease Black Earth’s hard-driving ethos towards something a little sweeter. Enter singer Erika Leah. Marrying her feminine vocals to Black Earth’s fecund rhythms, Leah has set the band ablaze with her idealism and creativity.

“Erika and I both appreciate that the paradox of rock and roll. The simplicity of the thing is what allows you to do so much within its architecture,” he explains. “We all have our own vision for the band. For example: if I had it my way, we’d look exactly like Judas Priest!”

He continues. “At first our stuff was all coming out of the extra material I had written when I was in other bands. Gradually, Erika started taking over on the writing, which is what I’ve always wanted. She’s a much better singer than I am. It’s awesome having her on the mic so I can focus on my riffs. I’ve always preferred the idea of being a mysterious, badass sideman, like Boba Fett!”

Regulars at local cantinas such as The Distillery, Broken City, Vern’s, Dickens and Mos Eisley, Black Earth garnered enough support to release their debut EP, Fingers Crossed, recorded with Casey Lewis at Echo Base Recording Studios, in June of 2010. This was followed by a critically-acclaimed, self-titled, full-length album in August of 2011. Refitted with rock-steady percussion, a femme fatale and a songbook full of freshly-penned nightmares, Black Earth has spent the past year diligently constructing an opus that accurately reflects the depth and breadth of their metamorphosis into a multifaceted, heavy-hearted, punk-rock entity.

“I think our new album, Dreameater, shows just how far we’ve come as a band,” observes Janicki. “It’s a more cohesive production. You can hear that we’ve kind of figured ourselves out, which is all the more impressive because haven’t been together for too long. Erika is a very talented and knowledgeable singer and pianist; she brings her own personal sound our concept. Her lyrics tend to be more personal while mine are more straight-forward rock tunes, but we bring the same passion, energy and execution to every song. We actually tried to get her to sing like Brody Dalle from The Distillers, with that sexy smoker’s rasp, but her voice was just too pretty to be punk rock.”

Like flies to honey, fans of Black Earth’s edgy, yet completely relatable, aesthetic have embraced Leah’s onstage presence as a welcome alternative to the usual four-guys-from-a-garage formula. Strutting their collective stuff alongside performers like Buck Knife, Caught Off Guard and The Vibrators, the feisty quartet has come out of the shadows into its own. Poised to celebrate the release of Dreameater, Janicki has plans to visit his neighbourhood pawn shop in search of a Saturday night special to put the perfect exclamation point on the end of Black Earth’s life sentence.

“It’s super exciting to be releasing this new album,” Janicki confirms. “We just completed a very successful mini-tour of B.C. and Alberta and had a chance to try out different stage shows. Erika likes to dress up fancy and the rest of us will wear all red and black, or dress up like post-apocalyptic Mad Max warriors or something like that. I always enjoy throwing some visual appeal into our performances; I guess it’s a vestige of my horror rock past. I worked at Dairy Queen in my youth and spent a lot of money on collecting sub-par guitars, so now I’ve got a bit of a reputation for smashing instruments on stage. I’m running low on guitars these days, but I love buying old televisions for $30 and putting them behind us while we play. The flickering static-light they cast is the perfect hypnotic, atmospheric lighting for our shows. Plus, they’re a helluva lot of fun to destroy afterwards.”

Originally published ·

By Christine Leonard
Photo: Sara Mohan

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