Preaching the Ballads of Jacob T. Skeen

Jacob T. Skeen is Salt Lake City’s wild one-man band extraordinaire. Skeen has opened for numerous acts, enjoyed residences at several Salt Lake establishments and played at Craft Lake City and the Utah Arts Festival. Although his roots are blues-based, he plays with styles twisting rockabilly and garage punk sensibilities by expanding their boundaries into the realms of the unknown. This is superbly displayed through his shock and awe performances blending heavy and strikingly apocalyptically haunting sounds. It’s as if though being subject of a sermon that shakes the foundation of rock n’ roll.

Skeen’s interest in music started in Junior High School. He found himself drawn to heavy metal music, skate boarding, and by extension skate boarding music videos. It was during this immersion that he discovered Black Sabbath’s catalogue and explored their jazz and blues influences. Skeen sought out more artists and would visit his local library. There he would listen to albums by artists like John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters.

After graduating High School, Skeen followed his religious upbringing by serving a Mormon Mission in South Africa. Every day, he devoted his energy to reading the bible and all the standard material from the Church of Latter Day Saints. He also began to gain a perspective about the wider world. “When I told them I was from Salt Lake city, they never even heard of it.” Skeen says, “There’s a lot clashing between different cultures. It’s hard to gain that perspective if you don’t interact with other cultures.” He observed differences, but also how Hip Hop music from the United States influenced the music culture of South Africa.

When he returned to the States, Skeen was eager start performing. He eventually found himself playing for a Gospel Church based in Ogden, which served an African American congregation. Skeen would also show up at bars and play blues standards for patrons. After a while that proved very limiting. He says, “Today’s culture of the blues I hate. It’s turned into old guys having jam sessions. Everyone wants to play like Stevie Ray Vaughn.”

Not to be deterred, Skeen sought to carve his own path by writing music based on his own experiences. “I’ve been to the surrounding states around Utah and then Africa. I always felt like a liar trying to play traditional blues lyrics.” He says, “I grew up in Salt Lake City. I don’t know what that’s about.  I was playing blues I didn’t feel comfortable singing it. It’s not my background. It’s not where I come from.”

While Skeen draws influence from the blues and the vibrant nature of gospel music, he devotes his practice toward finding a harmony between his Christian lifestyle and belief. “The types of music I’m playing, it’s loud and its weird.” He says, “I have to be creative in coming up my own thing to do. I am heavily influenced by early African American gospel music. It’s huge. That music is loud, its wild and it was rock n’ roll and was blues before those things came out.”       

Having a religious background emboldened Skeen’s song writing. “I love learning that stuff. It gives more meaning to me.” Skeen says, “That’s where I get my ideas from. Reading and studying religious texts. That stuff influences me.” Skeen’s uses of religious imagery, like stars or pentagrams, could easily be mistaken for reference of the occult. However, if one really pays attention to Skeen’s work, they will find a clever appreciation for religious symbolism, and in his own way keeping it alive.

After putting together his one-man band ensemble, Skeen sought an audience. In 2017, Blood Shot Bill was due to play the Garage on Beck and Piper Down Pub. Wanting to be involved, Skeen at first tried in vain to get onto the bill. His luck changed when he got Brad Wheeler’s attention. From there he was introduced to Shane Keil and added to the lineup. “I experienced all the coolest bands in one night.” Skeen says, ”I didn’t know this kind of scene existed in Utah. People writing rock n’ roll music and doing new things.”

From there Skeen hit the ground running and looked to get on as many like-minded shows as possible. Admittingly reaching out for gigs is brutally time consuming. it did pay off for him though. He opened for Bob Log III, Oliva Jean. Freight Train Rabbit Killer, Ghalia Vault ,and Reverend Dead Eye. In April of 2018, Skeen– along with Los YaYaz– performed for Reverend Beat-Man and Nicole Isobel Garcia. “I was even nervous playing that show. Reverend Beat-Man is pretty anti-religious.” Skeen says, “I like the music. It’s fantastic. The show was fantastic. The subject matter I kind of hold back on it. It’s pretty worrisome. “

Despite the concern for Beat-Man’s subject matter, Skeen got on rather well with him. Beat-Man helped Skeen in with this gear. He even remarked that Skeen and Los Yayaz were the best opening acts that had so far on the tour, and in turn gave Skeen a Voodoo Rhythm Records business card. 

By 2020, Skeen had several tours under his belt, a full length album on the way and a gig with the Invasione Monobanda festival lined up in Italy. The album, called Death, Thou Shalt Die was self-released on April 6, 2020. To celebrate, Skeen planned to have a massive party upon his return to Salt Lake City from Invasione Monobanda. Unfortunately, the world halted and life as previously known changed dramatically by the Corona Virus Pandemic.

As live shows were canceled —including Invasione Monobanda—Skeen tried to make the most of it by live streaming performances and collaborating with other artists. “I did a live stream album release because I wasn’t able to do an album release show when the album came out.” Skeen says “Everyone was doing the live stream thing. Which is a tricky world too. I hated a lot of that stuff. Mainly just point an iPhone at yourself and play a show, which is boring.”

 Luckily Death, Thou Shalt Die was well received by fans and gained attention via online platforms. He says, “I had 500 copies of the record pressed. Half of them are gone.” 50 records made it to Italy and had already been distributed. Which is great, since overseas shipping costs expensive. Most of the subsequent records were put together with Skeen’s DIY mailers and shipped through the post. This was largely thanks to taking advantage of Bandcamp’s fee waving of all sales during the first Friday of each month.

Locally, Skeen waited before trying to distribute Death, Thou Shalt Die to record shops. “I waited a long time on the record stores.” He says. “It just been this last week that I went to all the local record shops and got the record in there.” Unfortunately, some shops like Raunch Records were not interested in Skeen’s album. Skeen feels that this is because he may not be as familiar to Raunch’s clientele as compared to other shops in the Salt Lake Valley.

Those who have listened to Skeen’s record, know it boasts a raw and doom harkening sounds. The artwork can throw off the casual observer, since it looks like a terrible Christian record one could find at a thrift shop. The style of Skeen’s record was carefully put together to reflect old Mormon culture.

Skeen also felt judged based on appearance. Usually clean cut, Skeen dresses somewhat conservatively, as though just leaving church. Death, Thou Shalt Die cover art displays Skeen praying in a full suit and includes various religious affiliated symbolism found around Salt Lake City. Skeen observes that religious iconography is largely absent from modern places of worship. He says, “I’m kind of taking it, because they’re not using it.”

Keeping to form, Skeen even included a hymn sheet that looks like Mormon religious texts. If one reads closely, they’ll find Skeen’s lyrics derive from passages and verses found in religious texts. Skeen says, “I think it’s funny. Like I said, I kind of enjoyed it in way. You know Raunch, especially the Heavy Metal Shop, the stuff they have on the walls– anything goes. The fact I’m making them nervous makes me laugh.”

The mastering for the record also included a touch of Latter Day Saint to it. It was done by an engineer from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s broadcast studio. “He mastered my record for me. Which is amazing. I thought was hilarious and very fitting.” Skeen says,  “I literally brought my cassette recorder that I had mixed down on.  He ran it through all of the church’s equipment that they do a lot of their stuff on.” Although, not revealing the studio engineers name, Skeen was sure to credit him for his help.

Apart from record sales, Skeen found some time to perform during the height of the pandemic. “I was pretty fortunate there was a lot of stuff going on still. “He says, ““I worried about the audience more than anything.” Skeen managed to play some bars, and a few of the Sartain and Saunders sponsored bike cruises. He even found time to collaborate with Corey Cresswell (International Society of Rock n’ Roll) and Mariano Wilson (Los YaYaz) on a band called The Escalante’s. This venture proved to be short lived. Only lasting for a few shows, the experience reinforced Skeen’s preference to do it alone. He says, “We were like a real band, get together write a bunch of songs, record it and then break up.”

At the moment Skeen has not been actively searching for shows. Skeen has been taking time to reflect on his craft. Skeen says, “I feel like I’m in a transition right now.” This means being open to different methods of making music. For example, Skeen has been moving away from strictly recording analog by utilizing digital production. Experimenting with digital recording gave Skeen music new life. Results of this labor can can be heard with Skeen’s latest recording for the upcoming SLUG Magazine’s Death By Salt compilation.  He says, “It’s very different from anything I’ve ever done.” This new recording is largely influenced by his frustrations and will feature electronic drums, yelling and fuzz guitar. 

With a year to think things over, Skeen has decided that he wants something more than just regular bar shows. “It’s not worth it anymore.” Skeen says, “I don’t enjoy it. I don’t enjoy playing to rooms where people don’t care and aren’t listening to music.” That doesn’t mean he hasn’t performed. Gigs at venues such as Aces High Saloon have afforded Skeen the ability to to ramp up his performance style, much to the excitement of his audience. He says, “I think people are hungry for that.”

For more about Jacob T. Skeen check out their Bandcamp!

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