Look Deeper 

Skull Diver mixes the grotesque and the beautiful

Sisters Ally and Mandy Payne took the name of their band, Skull Diver, from paintings by British artist Cecily Brown.

"I came across ... the Skulldiver paintings that she did," Mandy said. "It was the marriage of explicit and grotesque but also still really beautiful. I really like that combination of things. She's one of my favorite artists."

A similar union of the grotesque and the beautiful can be heard in the music of the Portland, Oregon-based band. The name doesn't always give people the right impression, though.

"For us, people often think [Skull Diver] is a metal band," Mandy said, "but I kind of want to be like, 'Well, if you look a little deeper or you listen closer, there's influences there, but it's not entirely [metal]."

The unique blend of metal, psychedelic rock, shoegaze and other genres Skull Diver delivers has earned the group a devoted and growing audience. Dan Cable of Vortex Magazine wrote, "When you talk about must-see bands in Portland, Skull Diver definitely deserves to be in the conversation." Willamette Week called the band's latest album, Chemical Tomb (self-released, 2017), "pop at its most sinister."

The Paynes probably wouldn't disagree, calling Skull Diver's music "nightmare pop." It's not so much a branding strategy as a last-ditch attempt to define their sound.

"We can't really ever fully decide on a genre," Ally said. "We've been called so many different things that we've just landed [in] the 'nightmare pop' realm. That's as close as it's gonna get."

Although it took them a long time to settle on a genre, the passion Ally and Mandy have for music formed at an early age. They started learning how to play piano at ages 6 (Ally) and 8 (Mandy) and grew up listening to Rod Stewart, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Sisters of Mercy and Prince.

Eventually, the Paynes' interest in music extended beyond playing instruments.

"I started getting really into audio engineering when I was in my teenage years," Mandy said. "I grew up reading Tape-Op and stuff like that, and that kind of lit a spark in me to pursue more technical sides of making music."

Ally learned about midi programming and effects pedals, including "how to build them, how to service them, all that jazz."

"For me, it was out of necessity, honestly," she said, explaining how at one point, she was toting 25 pedals, a full keyboard and doing vocal effects. "Playing live that way was really complex and really hard. It took away from my performance."

The Paynes were born in Elko, Nevada, and grew up in Lamoille, Nevada, and Salt Lake City, Utah. Ally remembers SLC as "a weird place, but it was cool at the same time. I don't know... I feel like if you were drawn to something like music or art there, you were really, really drawn to it. There's not a whole lot else going on."

Mandy and Ally lived apart over the years and experimented with different types of music, but the desire to collaborate brought them back together.

"I was playing in bands in New Zealand for a long time," Mandy said. "And it was really fun and everything, but there was a sound I was going for, which led me back to studying more about audio. I really wanted to be able to get the sounds that I was thinking of or was inspired by. I felt like I needed to come back and start making music with Ally again."

The sisters formed Skull Diver in 2015, producing and releasing a self-titled debut album (self-released) that same year. Before recording Chemical Tomb, the Paynes recruited musician Alexandra "Zanny" Geffel, whose subtle, responsive drumming gives a jazzy sinuousness to tracks like the surprising cover of Nick Drake's "Parasite."

"I remember the first practice we were playing with her," Ally said. "Mandy and I were actually forgetting what we were playing because she was just so good with everything she was doing. She has such an incredible style—if you watch any of the live videos, you can tell she has this really intense energy to the way that she plays. It's very fluid and intentional."

There will be more music from Skull Diver soon. The trio plans to start recording the follow-up to Chemical Tomb after this current tour. True to form, the Payne sisters plan to keep trying new things.

"I want to try and take natural sounds and manipulate them—like, slowed down room noises and things like that to create space," Mandy said.

"Mandy's got a thing for crickets right now," Ally added, laughing. "Slowed down cricket sounds."

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