Inspiration is a fickle entity. It can be elusive and evasive. Inspiration can also strike at the most unlikely times and come from the most unexpected places. For Knoxville based electronic artist Gene Priest, aka Skeleton Beach, inspiration came courtesy of Sabrina Spellman and Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Sabrina‘s spell kick-started a sonic exploration that resulted in Skeleton Beach’s latest release titled Ritual. Equal parts ceremony and score for a film not yet made, the album is a journey through analog soundscapes and an engrossing auditory experience.
While best known for their killer soundtrack releases, Lakeshore Records is also dedicated to supporting and cultivating creative stand alone releases. Through Lakeshore Records, Ritual made it’s digital debut on June 14th. However, for those of us devoted to physical media, Skeleton Beach has a vinyl version of Ritual available as of July 19th, via Grief Thief Records. To celebrate the release of Ritual on vinyl, Nightmare on Film Street spoke with Priest and are premiering Skeleton Beach’s music video for ‘Death Walking.’
Directed by James Reeves, ‘Death Walking‘ marks a pivotal moment in the album’s journey. It marks a shift in not only the narrative but in the overall tone and transition from light to dark. Following up the video release for the opening track ‘Blood Moon,’ the release for ‘Death Walking‘ is a glorious and beautiful visual partner. I recently had the privilege of speaking with Gene and we discussed Ritual, his process, and of course, why vinyl rules.
Rachel Prin for Nightmare on Film Street: Talk a little bit about the story behind Ritual. And if Ritual were a film, what would it be about?
Gene Priest: One of my favorite TV shows on Netflix is The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. I’m obsessed with that show. And when I started Ritual I was deep into Season 2. That’s what made me decide, ‘Ok, I’m going to write something’. I’ve always been obsessed with the dark arts, witchcraft and the occult, so the idea behind Ritual is between Side A of the record and Side B, the transformation happens. ‘Death Walking’ is the transformation.
The early part of the album, is about someone who is new to witchcraft but is trying to get into it and learning how to harness and use the powers that they have. Witches can be extremely powerful. Between speaking with the dead (which is incredible), to creating these potions, that’s always intrigued me. The fact that witches were so inventive in their ways, their horror is a little bit more unpredictable. You don’t always know what a witch is doing and that’s what is so incredible. The album follows through these different stages of witchcraft from beginning to the transformation and the realization of the powers that come towards the end with the ceremony.
“for me, vinyl is important because […] It strips away some of the modernization. It brings the focus back to the album as a whole.”
NOFS: Why was it important for you to release this album on vinyl?
GP: For me, pressing vinyl was a necessity. When I initially got reached out to by Lakeshore Records and they said they wanted to put out this album, I was super excited about it. And I realized after a few conversations that they were only going to do a digital release. Because it wasn’t a proper film soundtrack, and they only do digital for artists on occasion. They don’t even do it very often. So, I thought, you know what…I have my own label Grief Thief Records that I normally release my own stuff on digitally, but this has to have a vinyl pressing. It’s my first major label release, so being a vinyl guy, I couldn’t let it be just a digital release on a label I love so much and knowing that it will get a bigger audience because of that. So, I asked them if I could release the vinyl and they were like, ‘Go for it!’
And for me, vinyl is important because I come from a very tactile experience when it comes to creating my music. I don’t like to use a lot of plug-ins and stuff, I like real hardware so I can press buttons and turn knobs and make things the way I want. And I look at vinyl the same way. It’s a ritual of putting a record on and listening to it start to finish because that is the intent. Usually, when you put a record on, you don’t skip around. It’s very intentional. And for me, that’s the allure of vinyl. It strips away some of the modernization. It brings the focus back to the album as a whole. When an artist puts out a record it’s often meant to be listened to in a specific sequence.
NOFS: I know you’re a huge horror fan, how has horror influenced your music? What are some of your other inspirations?
GP: I know that it’s probably one of the most ‘heard’ things from anybody that makes music influenced by the horror genre, but for me it was John Carpenter where my obsession began. And it began through my Dad. When I was a kid, he would watch Big Trouble in Little China, Escape from New York and The Thing like, a lot. He was always watching them. So, Carpenter was ingrained in my brain from a young age.
Nothing really scares me, but I love to be scared. It all comes down to John Carpenter and those soundtracks. I gravitated towards them. A pivotal one was Halloween. The first time you hear that theme it brings you in and it begins to swell; layer after layer of all these beautiful synths. Carpenter was one of the first people that I recognized and said, ‘I want to do that.’ And then, Morricone. He has done more than I can even begin to scratch the surface of!
“Nothing really scares me, but I love to be scared. It all comes down to John Carpenter and those soundtracks. […] Carpenter was one of the first people that I recognized and said, ‘I want to do that.”
I have two main loves in music. And that’s horror scores and early 70’s modular music. Tangerine Dream is a massive influence on me I can’t even explain. Klaus Schulze, he did a lot of modular stuff. And Conrad Schnitzler is my biggest influence in the modular world because he could make something that would start so simple and slowly build on an idea or a theme. Nothing ever overtook anything else, it all fit seamlessly. Even when it was weird and sounded off, it all connected and worked together. To me, the science behind modular synthesis is what really sucked me in. You can create anything if you know what you’re doing.
They gave me a lot of inspiration about how I wanted to create the music and then guys like John Carpenter with the Prophet synth, and the Juno. Those are so iconic and they’re on so many records. And whether it was Carpenter or Phil Collins they were using the same things! Back in those days that was ‘The Sound.’ Depeche Mode is another huge influence. They crafted everything from the bottom up as far as the sounds go because they didn’t have presets the way we do now. Everything was intentional. And I wanted with this record, everything to be intentional and not a plugin. It had to be organic and what actually came out in the moment.
NOFS: While Ritual is a journey for a young woman through the world of witchcraft, it was also a journey of sorts for yourself. Talk a bit about the process of creating this album.
GP: The transformation of Skeleton Beach has happened over the last 7 albums. The first album was a little bit of hardware and a whole lot of software. And I found, that by the end of the process, 90% of what I was doing was sitting behind a computer with a mouse and a keyboard. It didn’t feel right as far as creation. I was spending more time crafting the song within my computer as opposed to organically as it happened. So, what I started doing overtime was accruing more and more hardware. Over the past 2 years I’ve built up a pretty insane, probably ridiculous and stupid amount of hardware because I’m obsessed with it now and it’s my preferred method. I started a YouTube channel back in January that was me, experimenting with live sessions. I would run one particular sequence and play to it and keep adding or taking away. Experimenting live with everything that I could play right there, without a computer. And I realized, through these sessions, ‘This is my process! What have I been doing!?’ It literally hit me one day like a ton of bricks. ‘What if I was able to just play what I want and just capture it? Done!’ So, I’d say this album is about 85% live and then a few things upon listening back that I thought could use a bit of texture here, or a drum beat here that I couldn’t trigger live.
“I wanted with this record, everything to be intentional and not a plugin. It had to be organic and what actually came out in the moment.”
For me, it basically came down to the feeling of being tactile. I like to turn knobs. I like to press keys. I like to play the music and perform it as I’m going. And the great thing about synthesizers is you can run them through sequencers and they can be playing on their own without you doing anything. And then you can manipulate the sound as it’s going. I can play 2 or 3 instruments at the same time easily. So I discovered through some ambient jam sessions that I was doing just for fun, that spark. I found that this is how I write. This is how I write the best. I find that sometimes I overthink things in a tremendous way when it comes to mixing. This was an exercise for me in that, what I capture is what I capture.
Through this journey and process of experimentation, there’s an innate intimacy found in Ritual. The world that Priest creates ebbs and flows in an organic and beautifully personal way. As the album progresses, it’s not simply Skeleton Beach’s fictional leading lady that we are journeying along with, but Priest himself. Through each and every layer of added sequences and sounds, we can hear his passion and influences oozing out in glorious tribute. His love for acts like Depeche Mode, Tangerine Dream, Eno, Radiohead and NIN; these artists and more are present here, but interpreted and honored in Priest’s own unique way. It’s an album with true depth, beautiful vintage analog sounds and character that grows and evolves with each and every listen. The atmosphere of swirling layers and shifting melodic focus on Ritual encompasses the listener in a way that embodies the concept and idea of a true album. There’s a method to the path laid out through the track listing and it’s a path Skeleton Beach is inviting you to follow.
So, light some candles. Turn off your phone and turn up your stereo. Ritual is an album best experienced. Embrace the journey and traverse the electronic soundscape that Skeleton Beach so masterfully lays before you. You can find a digital version of Ritual through Lakeshore Records here. And for a vinyl version, you can hit up your local record store or purchase a copy online here.