First, Erik Sanko lost his record deal and had to fight to get his album back. Then came the really hard part: finding a new garbage player.
Erik Sanko of Skeleton Key
Sanko"s band, Skeleton Key, supplements the standard rock lineup of bass, drums and guitar with a fourth member, a percussionist who beats on scrap metal and other found objects. Few music schools teach that particular skill, and it doesn"t show up on anyone"s resume. "We already had the tour booked, and it was looming in the near future before we finally found him," bassist-vocalist Sanko said in a phone chat to preview a Thursday appearance at Radio Radio. "We tried playing briefly as a trio without a garbage player, and it"s just not the same. Once you have the luxury of standing between two guys pounding away on crap, it"s hard to go back. I"m completely spoiled." Fortunately, Sanko found Tim Keiper, a drummer by trade who didn"t mind picking through junk yards and hauling propane tanks and trash cans out on the road. With a new lineup in place, Skeleton Key is once again ready to take on the world with a sound that has one foot in funk-metal, another foot in industrial noise and a third foot in some distant galaxy of demented nursery rhymes. Odd as it may sound, this project is merely the latest chapter in the New York-based Sanko"s long career of experimental work. For more than a decade, he was a member of the Lounge Lizards, the art-jazz cult band led by the Lurie brothers. More recently, he lent his talents to one of Yoko Ono"s performance and recording projects. For several years, Sanko has worked with Velvet Underground veteran John Cale, with whom he will tour later this year. Skeleton Key is Sanko"s baby, however, and the band got off to a strong start. The 1997 debut album, Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon, won critical acclaim as well as a Grammy nomination. Capitol Records soon gave up on the band, however, and the lawyers wrangled for more than a year before Sanko regained rights to a half-completed second album. Meanwhile, his bandmates moved on to other work. Five years would pass before the 2002 release of the follow-up album, Obtainium. "When we got dropped, we were sort of paralyzed," Sanko said. "When all the smoke cleared, I got control of the record and sat around and drank a lot for a year while I was really depressed. Actually, my wife sort of kicked me in the ass and convinced me to get up and try to do something again." Sanko began assembling a new lineup and new material to complete the record, which was released on Faith No More veteran Mike Patton"s Ipecac Recordings label. Some of the songs, built on big bass and guitar grooves, would not be out of place on commercial modern-rock radio. As a whole, however, Obtainium is probably too odd and too intelligent to break through to the general public. Eerie samples and shortwave radio squeals share time with metallic tinkling and clashing that recalls Tom Waits at his most eccentric. "Apparently it"s a little too weirdo for some people, and it"s also too normal for people who really embrace the avant garde," Sanko says. "That was part of our problem at Capitol, for example. They had such a formulaic way of promoting music, they couldn"t figure out what to do with us." Skeleton Key has been touring on and off since the fall and in May will hit the West Coast with the Melvins. After taking a month to tour with Cale, Sanko will take his band out again in late summer. Meanwhile, with guitarist Craig LeBlang and drummer Matthias Bossi, the new edition of Skeleton Key is accumulating new material and plans to return to the studio this fall. Though soon to turn 40, Sanko is clearly enjoying his second chance at the rock "n" roll dream and has no plans to slow down. "It"s the thing that keeps me young, except for my lower back," he says. "It was a Herculean task pulling myself up by the bootstraps and finding a new label and a new band, and now that I"ve been given the gift of having that happen, I"m not going to take it for granted. The music is intoxicating to play, with these wonderful guys. My wife is incredibly supportive. "All I can say every day is, "Man, I"m one lucky motherfucker."" Skeleton Key performs Thursday at Radio Radio with guests Saraswati, the Nods and Lord of the Yum-Yum. Tickets are $6, available at independent music stores. Scott Hall is the music columnist for the Daily Journal of Johnson County and The Zone in Columbus. Visit him online at www.onthebeat.org.