The guitarguitar Interview: Skindred's Mikey Demus
Published on 03 October 2019
Lot sof bands like to say they defy categorisation, but Skindred REALLY do! With elements of Metal, Punk, Ska and Electronica in their multi-faceted sound, it's a loser's game to try to pigeon-hole them! For the last two decades, these guys from the West Country/South Wales have brought the goods on their own terms. All across Europe, Skindred are a sensation that bring disparate crowds together, all enjoying the blissful power of their mighty music.
It's been a busy year for Skindred: touring is a large part of their modus operandi, and this year has seen them dominate the festival circuit, as well as engage in a coveted support slot for Disturbed. We've been hovering around guitarist Mikey Demus for a while, trying to secure some time to get a chat in. He's a busy lad, as you'll see from the following interview, and as such we opted for an email approach to the interview. Mikey's answers are great: informative, considered and fun. As Skindred prepare for their 'That's My Jam Winter Tour', here is what Mikey has to say about writing, riffs, left-handed guitars and playing live!
Mikey! Hello and thank you so much for joining us! We’re looking forward to some guitar chat but before that, Skindred were touring with Disturbed earlier this year? How did this come about and how did it go?
Thanks for having me! This year has been one of our busiest ever, obviously in April we went all over with Europe with our friends Disturbed, it was a bit of a rebirth for us - it allowed us to take our new material to audiences who perhaps hadn’t heard of us before, so its a bit of a kick up the butt for us to be on point and make a good first impression! The Disturbed band and crew are like family to us (we toured with them intensively in the USA & Canada a few years ago). We’ve never been treated better by a band or crew. Hats off to all of their posse!
Skindred have a sound that is quite an amalgamation of styles. Was this by design?
Yes and no, we are all very different people and we’re all into different things - so that tends to play itself out in our music. We all support each others tastes and opinion on music, I’ve been opened up to a lot of cool stuff from being in a band with these guys. When we’re writing we do consciously try to make sure we’re ticking certain boxes, as long as it doesn’t feel contrived. Things have to feel natural for us, but we also don’t mind disturbing what some others might call the natural order of things.
Who is the primary songwriter in the band?
For the most part, we all write everything equally. It’s the only real way to keep things democratic. Sure, a song may start in one corner of the band before it morphs into the final incarnation once everybody’s put their spin on it. Thats just part of being in a team, it comes with the territory.
Would you say that Skindred are a democracy when it comes to creative decisions?
Absolutely yes, there’s no one member with autonomy on decision making, we’re all in it together ultimately. Obviously sometimes we’d refer to someone specifically for their view or eye on things, but the key thing is to keep things fair and for everyone to have a voice within what we do and what we put out into the world.
Genres are not the most helpful things, but would you say it’s particularly lazy to call Skindred a Nu-Metal band? And how would you describe your band’s sound?
I think there was a time when we were lumped in with certain bands in a genre because we were new and looking to make our mark, there really was only one way to go back in the early 2000s. We’ve been lucky to survive that title which many others found was a bit of a death sentence. The heavy hitters in that genre have always been inspiring to me and that’s never changed. I think we’ve always been hard to label because there’s so much going on. First and foremost we’re a rock band, that’s what I tell people at least. There’s more to it than that but I’d rather let people make their own minds up about it first, it’s heavy at times so rock tends to fit the bill well.
You guys are from Newport in Wales. What is the scene like there? Local scenes can be tricky to escape. Was it difficult for Skindred to break out into a more international market?
Actually the 3 of us are from England, its only Benji who’s from South Wales. But we’ve all lived there on and off over the past 20 years and know the place well. Newport has always had a buzzing scene of characters and people into music so it was a great place to become immersed in all things Skindred. There was also a lot of support from places like TJs back in the day. We’ve never struggled to break out of the UK, there seems to have always been an international demand for what we do - I think its because we were never part of any particular ‘scene’ or music demographic, theres always somewhere in the world where they consider you ‘cool’. Which helps!
Coming through the ranks, what were some of your worst moments on stage?
Best one of these is when I got hit full pelt in the face with a massive dead fish. Somewhere in Europe, first 30 seconds of a headline set at a festival, pow right in the kisser. My guitar tech and I stared at each other in disbelief for about a minute and I was picking scales out of my beard all night. Gross. Weird thing was I think it was like an offering, like a gift! I never found out who threw it.
Mikey, you are a lefty! Did you ever try playing a right-handed guitar when you started out? I’m thinking of players like Billy Corgan and David Bowie (and me! Shhhhh) who were left-handed but played right-handed.
Correct! Well sort of, I actually am right handed but I play guitar left handed. Yes this is ridiculous and yes I am slightly regretful of that. I never tried right handed, this way just always felt natural to me and I was never put right. I think its because both my parents are genuine lefties and my dad plays guitar that way around.
Growing up, how difficult was it to find left-handed guitars that you really wanted? Are things different today?
Yeh it always sucked, to be honest the internet and being a grown-up (sort of) has allowed me to have all the things I’d ever want or need. Luckily these days there are way more lefty options online (especially at GuitarGuitar!)
And who were your primary influences (musical or otherwise) growing up?
I think watching the Woodstock film when I was a kid was a big turning point, Jimi Hendrix was obviously a bit of a mindblower for me as a kid. Alvin Lee in Ten Years After too, the Santana performance was great. The main thing growing up for me was songs, I love the Rolling Stones so Keith Richards was like my idol. Steve Cropper, Billy Gibbons, those kind of guys had their thing too and I loved that. When I was coming up and finding my own music I really got into Kurt Cobain, Tom Morello, John Frusciante, Billy Joe Armstrong. I have always been inspired by guitar players with attitude in spades and lots of swagger. To be honest virtuosity and speed have never really bowled me over, I like someone who picks a fight with their instrument.
What kind of properties do your favourite guitars tend to have?
To be simple, dependable, reliable, feel good to play and sound cutting! That’s all I can ask of a guitar I play day in, day out. Obviously some guitars I have are better than others, and that’s not even a cost based thing. I have some cheapies that are dynamite, and some pricey ones that are dogs. And vice versa.
Do you have separate instruments for recording and touring?
Absolutely yes, I don’t tour with anything super precious and a lot of my private collection are not really ‘the thing’ for what I do with my band. I have a few go-to instruments for recording, but to be perfectly honest with you, the guitar I used the most on the last record was (genuinely) my Manson MD-2 signature guitar. It’s my #1 on stage and I love it!
Are you a fan of vintage guitars?
100% yes! These are even rarer and more sought after for lefites. I have a few oldies which I love, I’m still jonesing for a left handed, pre-CBS telecaster but I haven’t found the one yet.
Some of your riffs are pretty heavy to say the least: what kind of tunings do you use?
The main one we’ve always used is Drop C (C-G-C-F-A-D), for which I use my Rotosound Mikey Demus MD10 signature gauge. We also have a bunch of songs in Drop A# (A#-F-A#-D#-G-C). They’re both fun to play in, and when you go back to a guitar in standard with 9s it’s like butter!
And how about string gauge? Do you like some heft or do you prefer it nice and easy? And what about plectrums?
So my signature string gauge is 10-54, so its not massively meaty and still has plenty of bendability. Picks wise I use 1mm InTuneGP picks, I’ve always got on with picks around that thickness. Anything too thin seems too slippery.
You’re known for modding your guitars: what do you tend to change and why?
Being a lefty, again choice is limited so things sometimes have to get hacked up to do the thing you want them to do! Pickups and tuners is the main thing - typically a guitar I like the look of / way it responds, its not really cut out for drop C or heavier tones. Same goes for the tuners with stability for bigger strings / lower tunings. So it’s only out of necessity more than anything.
You’re a big fan of Orange amps: can you tell us a little about what they do for you, tone-wise?
When I first heard the Rockerverb I was sold, it was everything I wanted from a high gain amp. Tons of gain on tap, loads of character, massive low end, a truly dirty yet articulate sound. I love percussive sounding amps which move you when you dig into them. I’ve never been a by-the-numbers metaller, so I needed something that stuck out tonally as well as visually. With the Rockerverb MKIII the guys at Orange really knocked it out of the park. It truly is a remarkable amplifier.
Do you ever use digital modelling for tones?
Sure! I have dabbled with Axe Fx, Kemper and Line 6 stuff for years. It’s amazing what can be done with digital stuff and I really think its groundbreaking. There will always be a place for pushing the envelope with gear, just like there will always be a place for analogue amps and effects..
What’s currently on your pedalboard?
Amongst other things, I’m currently toting a Redbeard Effects Red Mist MKIV - which is the first pedal from my new effects brand. It’s a super gnarly distortion with gobs of character and attitude. I’m also really obsessed with the Thorpy FX Deep Oggin (Chorus/Vibrato) - it’s sensational. I’ve never been far from a Digitech Whammy and the delay/reverb I’m digging at the moment is the Caroline Kilobyte / Meteore.
When Skindred are on tour, how do you keep your mind occupied?
I’d love to tell you we are always a civilised bunch, but that would be nonsense, we’re a rock n roll band so we dig a party! 80s tunes are often flowing late at night as well as our rider. So we play a drinking game called Buffalo which gets our guests annihilated more often than not… it basically involves not drinking using a certain hand on certain days. That is a constant source of entertainment.
Do you get to do everything you want, in a musical sense, with Skindred? Are there other avenues you explore?
There’s always tons I’d like to do, and heavy music is far from the only thing that gets me going. I am constantly doing other things (I’m teaching myself piano currently) and who knows, maybe I’ll release some other stuff down the line. But it would be completely different from Skindred.
How are the new songs from your latest album ‘Big Tings’ going down live?
Really well! We get a bit spoiled with crowds going ballistic, so it took a minute to realise people standing still singing every word still meant they were having the time of their lives. My dream would be to win best album sometime, and I think that involves more of the latter!
You guys are a big hit on the festival circuit. Does your set list differ from a festival gig to a Skindred headlining show?
For sure, we have 7 albums now so there’s too much to choose from. We try to vary it up for our headline shows where we can be marginally more self indulgent, at festivals we try to hit people hard & fast, and get out leaving them wanting more. As with most things you can’t please everyone, and we’re often hearing “why didn’t you play that!”…
Now, the ‘Newport Helicopter’! We have to ask! First of all, for the uninitiated: could you tell us what it is? And was it already a ‘thing’ that existed or did you guys invent it? Either way, you own it!
So, one year at Download Festival we were told that there was to be no encouraging ‘violent’ crowd participation - which to be honest was never really our thing in the first place. Benji had this idea to make people take their shirts off mid set, then spin them around their heads when the heavy riff dropped. Since then its sort of grown more and more into our thing.
What is next on the horizon for Skindred?
So we’re off to South America later in the year, and doing our own European headline tour in November / December. There’s more coming in all the time! I’m so busy… In the interim I’m working hard on my pedal brand (Redbeard Effects) and writing new material for future releases.
Finally, Mikey: what helpful pieces of advice can you share for other players trying to climb the ladder of success?
Find your thing and do it better than anyone else around you! Don’t be a dick, work hard and anything’s possible. And turn your amp down.
There's some great advice right there! We'd like to thank Mikey for taking some time out of his hactic schedule to hit us up with this great interview! Skindred are touring the US this winter, and will no doubt be playing near you soon! Keep up with them on the Skindread official website.
As ever, thanks for reading! See you next time.