- Peter Lee
- One-man party Jacob T. Skeen doing what he does best.
It's not a stretch to say that many people are loath to strike out on their own. That's also true for making music, and while soloists abound in the music world, cases of literal one-man bands are a bit less common. Not every individual has the guts to perfect the chaotic skill of playing a bunch of instruments at the same time, all while achieving a cohesive, filled-out sound. But prolific local artist Jacob T. Skeen does.
When Skeen tells the story of how he got on the path to one-man-bandship, he paints a picture of a kid with tastes just a little over his peers' heads. As a high school student in the mid-aughts, he was introduced to '60s and '70s rock 'n' roll through skateboarding videos, and learned guitar from a friend. But it wasn't long before his interests expanded, and he felt limited by his friends' interests. "Playing guitar led me to discover blues music, and that is really what I wanted to play," Skeen says, "but it was very difficult to find anyone else my age that wanted to play that type of music."
He solved this dilemma the only way he knew how: by doing what he wanted to do, all on his own. "I started playing solo and would add a harmonica, then a tambourine and a suitcase drum, until over the years, it [became] the mess of a setup I have today," he says. "I'm not saying everyone should be a one-man band, but other people should not stop you from creating and performing music."
Besides time spent playing at the New Zion Baptist Church in Ogden, where he helps share the gospel music played there, he's continued to play mostly alone, and thrived that way. "When it is just you, you are always thinking of ways to make more sounds," he says. "There is a huge visual aspect to being a one-man band. It is one thing to listen to a one-man band, but a completely different experience to see their performance in person and see how all these sounds are made," he continues. "Every one-man band has their own unique approach to it."
Skeen acknowledges that his background growing up in Utah, far from the Southern hubs of the music he loved to play, also influenced his music. Aside from a visit to the Deep Blues Festival in Clarksdale, Miss., he's spent all his life in the state. "I had never experienced anything like what they were singing about," Skeen says of attending that festival dedicated to the music that moves him. "I thought that I would incorporate my culture and upbringing into my music, which was religious," he says. "Salt Lake City has a fascinating religious history, and that has been a big influence in my lyrics and appearance as an artist."
Besides traditional blues artists, he still counts noisy, garage-influenced work as important to his sound, though, citing acts like Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall and A Place to Buy Strangers as reasons for the heaviness and volume that's evident in his work.
He also finds inspiration in other one-man band acts from all over the globe. Online connections landed him a slot at the 6th Festival di Invasione Monobanda, a one-man band festival in Italy where Skeen was slated to present his distinctive stylings on the weekend of March 26-27. It was cut off by—you guessed it—the damned coronavirus. "They were also going to be releasing a 7" compilation of the different acts, but it is all shut down now," Skeen says. "It is very sad how hard Italy has been hit by coronavirus."
Right before everything shut down, his new garage- and surf rock-focused band, Escalantes, played their first show on March 12. Now, in addition to his Italian trip, his album release party has also been impacted due to the shutdown of venues and bars—which is even more of a shame considering it's his first album, and it sounds like a trip.
"I found that it may not be a good thing to have my own recording studio," Skeen says about the recording process. The freedom of his own space meant that the record got wacky, and got wacky fast. "One song, we recorded using all cassette recorder plastic microphones," he recalls. "Another, we powered two guitar amplifiers off of a lighting controller that was reactive to sound. It would power the guitar amplifiers on and off depending on the notes I was playing."
The album is also completely analog, recorded to a Fostex B16 tape recorder and an Aries 24-8-16 console found at a Deseret Industries store. "It was very challenging doing all-analog recording and mixing," he says, "but that is what made it meaningful to me, and what will make the album sound different from anything out there."
Those who want to hear these stylings can hopefully see Skeen perform at the Utah Arts Festival in June, in Durango, Colo. at the Durango Blues Train at the end of May or online here. In the meantime, as Skeen says, "Everyone stay safe and help others in these troubled times."