By Ashley Allen
Have you ever gotten chills when listening to music? The hair on your arms and neck may stand up and you might shiver, if even slightly, as dopamine floods your brain while the track runs on. Tingling runs down your back. That’s because the reward system in our brains listen out for that perfect chord or chorus patiently, and when it finally plays, the brain responds with dopamine. It is a phenomenon that researchers still study, as it is truly fascinating how our bodies respond to music. I have those experiences all the time, and a recent one in particular comes to mind.
Local band, Skunkwerx Audio Unit, has been working on some very interesting and awe-striking projects in the last few years. In October, at Bookhouse Cinema, the group released a soundtrack to a silent film. This wasn’t just any silent film, but the mammoth “Metropolis”, a nearly three-hour beast. With the Skunkwerx soundtrack, however, it evolved to an entirely new experience. It then becomes nearly three hours of tension and edge-of-the-seat anticipation. From the opening track, I experienced the chills, and I knew I was in for a treat. It was a great success at the viewing, and despite the film’s length, everyone in attendance stayed for the duration of the film and applauded enthusiastically once it ended.
I recently sat down with Skunkwerx’s Mike Jilge and Travis McKenzie at Blackthorn Pizza & Pub to ask them just what this unique band is all about and what’s coming in the future.
Q: What is it about silent films that made you want to start making soundtracks for them? Who got that idea?
Mike: A lot of bands have been doing it for a long time. I’ve always wanted to do soundtracks then I thought, if it’s a silent movie you don’t have to worry about the audio track, the talking. So, I went to the hospital for some stomach stuff, and when I got out it lit a fire under me. Like, ‘Okay, now we’re talking. Let’s do this.’
Travis: I’ve always liked soundtrack type of music. Even if it’s just soundtrack to a feeling. Actually, I hadn’t seen any of these movies we’ve done until [Mike] brought them up. But I love those movies now. Sometimes I like a soundtrack more than a movie. That’s what kept me there. Now “Metropolis” is one of my favorite movies.
Q: How do you watch a scene and then channel the emotions, what’s going on, in the scene to make the music fit?
Mike: “Metropolis,” I’d seen it so much that I knew the storyline. I watched it and chopped it. One scene stops here and begins here. Then I’d have them all on a computer. [Travis] would come over and I’d say, ‘this is what’s going on.’ Trying to set the mood. Then we have a big monitor, so while you play you can watch it.
Travis: You sit there and get the feel of it and be working something out. The crazy part is that we never do it in chronological order. We’d watched the movie a lot and taken notes. It seems too big and hard to conquer beginning to end.
Q: On a quick side note, your bandcamp page has all of the Skunkwerx discography, but I also saw the Freakflag Experiments. What is that, a side project or series?
Mike: I just started putting people together for live shows. Kind of like what I did for “Metropolis,” but when we play we have big sheets around us and show videos and slides while we play. It was all instrumental, noisy. We try to make the noise make sense; make the melodies fit.
Travis: I was a fan before I even knew [Mike]. To me it was, a space rock band and a noise band coming together.
Q: Has Skunkwerx played any live shows?
Travis: Yeah, but we kind of just started writing music beyond our capabilities live.
Mike: Like 10 guitar parts!
Travis: But we are interested in getting other musicians to step forward.
Mike: If there’s any musicians out there, classical musicians, anything that’s different. Just get ahold of us on Facebook, if they’re interested.
Q: Do you guys have any interest in doing music outside of silent films and adding vocals or is instrumentals and soundtracks something you’ll stay with?
Travis: I would never rule out anything honestly.
Mike: I’d be fine with it.
Travis: It would have to be a singer who was kind of like an instrument. I don’t know if we’ll ever be a group that has ‘verse, chorus, verse,’ kind of formula.
Q: Do you have a favorite track from “Metropolis?” Or a couple?
Mike: I redid a lot of songs right before showing. Some of the songs [Travis] hadn’t even heard.
Travis: And I’m thinking, ‘That’s different!’ The mix he sent me to go over, we couldn’t find much wrong. To me, I think it’s all pretty good.
Mike: I like the Moloch song, when the machine starts blowing up. When everything
Travis: I think the intro is fantastic.
Q: You guys don’t have a project you’re working on right now, or just taking a break?
Mike: I’ve been recording other people.
Travis: I’ve been working a lot on my stuff. I think we are going to, now and then, do a live podcast from the studio. Once a month. Where we just play live music. Keep it alive while we’re not alive. [Mike] is going to help me mix my album.
Mike: There’ll be new stuff coming. I just haven’t had time.
Travis: I’ve been interested in making an album of music that doesn’t go with film. Or making an album that someone makes film to.
Mike: If any local people make movies, it would be awesome.
Skunkwerx is a real hidden gem in the Joplin music scene that I highly recommend checking out. I also suggest viewing their past film projects on their official Youtube channel. You will never look at silent films the same way again. Their entire discography can be found on bandcamp. If you’re in for a trip, check out the Freakflag experiments too. Anyone interested in working with them can contact them through their official Facebook page.