Dean McLeod is a musician and as such has spent a fair bit of time doing musician things.
Recently I was afforded an enjoyable opportunity to rattle off some questions at Dean regarding Turtle Skull, a band that operates within the sphere of music.

You can find Turtle Skull’s music here.

Ez: So I tried to do a quick search on you before we started and there’s not much out there from what I could see, but you seem like someone who has been in the industry, or at least adjacent to the industry for a while.

Turtle Skull – at least in terms of releases – seems like a relatively new project. Did you come into it bringing a lot of experience?

Dean: I guess Turtle Skull is somewhat new, although it’s five years now, probably, but because of the way the pandemic went we lost two or three years. In terms of my musical journey, I came into it with a reasonable amount of experience. By that point, probably eight or ten years playing in bands and I’ve been playing music for most of my life.

I’ve played in several other bands with varying degrees of success, and I’ve learned a lot from those projects so I did come in with quite a bit of experience through that and through study.

Ez: In regards to starting Turtle Skull with people who I imagine also have similar kinds of experience, do you ever worry about what you’ve learned prior shaping how the band should sound a little too much, or do you think it’s just the right amount?

Dean: I suppose… I don’t have anything other than my collection of personal experiences. I don’t know that it could be anything other than informed by that. I’ve played in a few different styles of bands and I like that I’m drawing on other aspects of my experience, other types of inspiration, other genres of music [and] try to create something somewhat new, I’d like to think.

In my best attempt to make something fresh and exciting for a modern day audience drawing on many different things… yeah. I’m happy with the way it’s going so far.

Ez: Was it a conscious decision to do what you’re doing with Turtle Skull, which probably the main descriptor is flower psych-doom? Or is it doom and flower psych?

Dean: For fun we call it flower doom.

Ez: Was this a conscious decision, or was it something that just came from playing with the people in the band?

Dean: It was very consciously a decision to try my best to make something fresh, drawing from disparate genres and influences and experiences. I didn’t necessarily have any exact idea how it would go at the start, but I came into it off the back of playing in a handful of bands, gathering up that experience, and then I traveled for a while with my partner. We had some quite inspiring moments, including some musical ones, and by the end of those travels I had come to the conclusion that I needed to start something. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but I knew I wanted it to be heavy, psychedelic and guitar-based.

Other than that I wasn’t too sure so I spent a number of months gathering material and putting riffs together and writing songs and speaking to people who might be interested. [This] culminated in bringing together Charlie on drums, Julian on bass and Ben sort of more as an audio engineer for a somewhat impromptu recording and jamming session. I didn’t really know what that was going to be; It only really started taking shape as we did it.

Shortly after that we were like “Oh, we’ve got this music, we may as well start a band”. Then Toby got involved as well and only after we’d been doing it for a while it became apparent what it was and where it was going. Then we came up with that flower doom name because it seemed to suit it well, but it’s also a little bit of a joke. The genre doom, I find it to be quite serious and sometimes aggressive, sometimes sad sometimes whatever which is all fine; all music’s great, but I was like “Why don’t we explore this a little bit with these heavier psychedelic riffs and give it a bit more of a happy, psychedelic hippie name like flower doom?”. And now we chuckle about it ’cause now we’ve got these online doom blogs all like “self-professed flower doom pioneers”.

I can only imagine these actual doom-heads writing flower doom must be like “Oh my god, fuck that”. We’ve had a chuckle at that one, but it makes sense as well.

The band I played in before was kind of like a psych-pop band and a lot of my influence comes from that realm. I live in the hippie capital of Australia, Mullumbimby so we’re bringing in some of those “hippie” elements into our music as well. That’s the flower side of things.

Ez: Even looking at the doom side of things it doesn’t seem very much like Sabbath worship. And even in terms of heaviness, it certainly is heavy without necessarily the aggressive slap. I think it’s more heaviness through the thickening of specific elements of doom and bringing them forward.

From what I remember, on Monoliths there were certainly airier components. Most of the heaviness is very much treating the bass as a lead rather than a rhythmic backing, or at least making it the main component and pulling the guitars and synths a bit back when you do go into those heavier things. Taking all these differing elements and mixing them together, do you think you’ve found a way to be heavy without being aggressive?

Dean: Yeah, for sure and that’s the whole point. That’s what I wanted to do. Play heavy heavy music and allow it to have a lightness and, hopefully, a meditative aspect as well, [and] I love super heavy bands. I love Sabbath worship; I love Black Sabbath. I love that heavy as fuck doom as well. That’s quite intense.

Ez: Like Ahab?

Dean: Yeah, and what else? Beelzebong and… fuck, I don’t know. I don’t listen to much straight doom to be honest because a lot of the time it’s a bit much for me, but I do love it. I love hearing heavy, distorted, saturated guitars in any context.

We definitely thought “Let’s try to have super heavy guitars and instruments but have another aspect to it”. Incorporating some of those classic psych band sort of things like Pink Floyd, like synthesisers and a beautiful mystique and more vocal style stuff, three point harmonies, two point harmonies. Nice, beautiful sounds to compliment the heaviness and balance it out with a bit of lightness as well.

Ez: Psychedelic music, at least from what I’ve listened to and experienced, seems like a genre very stagnant in a lot of ways and a little too self-celebratory. Do you worry about taking elements of psychedelic music and moving them forward in a way that is meaningful, or are you more concerned with not so much meaningful progression but rather just using them purely as an element to fill out the sound and have fun?

Dean: I don’t necessarily worry about the elements.

I know what you mean about the concept in general. I suppose if there’s any worry to be had it’s maybe calling your music psychedelic music and trying to roll with it like that, but in terms of taking the inspirations from it and parts of it and using it, no.

Whether or not it is branded under the name of psychedelic music, there will always be that kind of music. There always has been.

I don’t know if anyone even knows how to define it properly so we’re talking about like an intangible sort of thing. It doesn’t seem to have exact boundaries, but I guess it’s like long-form music maybe, maybe somewhat mind expanding, repetitive, cerebral, somewhat all these things. Whether or not you want to classify it or give them all names, people have been doing that kind of music since forever.

Some of the most psychedelic music I’ve ever heard is traditional music that I suspect has been around for a long time. One that comes to mind is a Sufi band. What are they called? I [think] it was something simple like Sufi Brotherhood.

(Note: Dean may be referring to Islamic Mystical Brotherhood.)

They were from Morocco and I found that music to be incredibly psychedelic. It’s some traditional Moroccan instruments, Sufi chanting and it was quite an overwhelming experience but they didn’t necessarily have any of the modern day tropes of psychedelic music. There was no electric guitars and no guy with a flower bandana around his forehead and none of that, but it was very psychedelic.

But yeah, I know what you mean. It can be kind of self-celebratory.

Ez: It’s also kind of a shitty question as well because there’s a lot of genres you can say that about quite easily, you know?

Dean: It’s still true.

Ez: Heavy metal for instance.

Dean: *laughs* Yeah, for sure, for sure.

Ez: Let’s talk about Turtle Skull as a performative unit. I don’t know how simple or complex the notation is. I don’t profess to necessarily want to know because I don’t think it is the most important thing to know. Obviously that’s more of an inter-band thing.

Even though I said it seems like the bass takes the lead at times, at least from what I saw when I was shooting [the band], it seemed like it needed to be very tight and everyone needed to be locked into each other. Is that a fair assessment, and if so, especially what with having a slight changing of the guard in the band relatively recently, how much time is spent rehearsing? Is it a lot, or is it not much because [due to] experience, you know how to lock into each other?

Dean: For me the highest compliment to give a band is how tight they are as a unit, at least in terms of live performance. There are other things; how good is the songwriting on the album, all that sort of stuff, but in terms of live performance? For me it’s how well the individual members [are] interfacing and presenting some sort of tight, locked in thing, so that is really important to me.

I’ve known everybody in this band for a long time, especially Charlie who plays the drums; we used to play in a band together. Ally who is now in the band, we used to play in a band as well. And Julian for a long time. I’ve known these people for a long time, so as good friends, I think that really helps to bring it all together before you’ve even picked up an instrument.

[There was a] changing of the guard. Dan and Toby decided to pursue some of their other interests more so they stepped out, and Ally stepped in to play the synthesiser, so there’s four of us now. Unfortunately because of the way that Covid went we moved around a little bit. Julian moved to Melbourne and the three of us live on the north coast of NSW so rehearsing is a little bit difficult.

Ez: *laughs* sounds like a tad bit, yeah.

Dean: Yeah, so we probably don’t rehearse as much as any of us would like to, but I know that when we get together and get a couple of rehearsals out of the way it all just slots right back in so I’m never worried about that.

That’s one of the things I’m proud of; the way that we all work together [and] synchronise, and it has to be like that because a lot of the kind of music that we play is long-form, can be repetitive in a good way and incorporates a lot of motorik grooves.

For anyone who might be reading this later, motorik grooves are like these long-form, four-to-the-floor things. Go listen to this band called Neu!; that’s a good example of that sort of stuff.

So we do a lot of those sort of things, and if you’re not locked in it’s definitely not going to work. You can’t be in a long-form repetitive passage that is meant to be providing a meditative experience for the audience if you’re not locked in together. It’s going to sound like shit and people are going to walk out of the room.

We work hard to make sure that even the most simplistic, repetitive groove is rock solid. That’s in large part [due] to Charlie on the drums who is such an incredible musician and timekeeper, and very good on many other instruments, and also Julian on bass who has a knack for holding down simple bass parts and locking in very nicely with drums, and of course he’s very good at playing more complex passages when need be. That stuff is very important.

In terms with what you said about bass, at that particular Sydney show that you were shooting at, from what I’ve heard – ’cause I wasn’t out the front listening – the bass was mixed quite loud and the guitars not as much. That wasn’t my choice. I would probably tend to prefer the bass and guitars to be relatively equal volume. I like everything to be relatively equal.

The way I like to imagine this band mixed, or the ideal scenario is we’ve got the drums holding everything down rhytmically, the bass filling out the bottom end, the guitars filling out the mids, and the synthetsiser basically filling out every single other gap that is not being filled. Kind of like when people talk about eating ice cream after a big meal because it fills in all the gaps. And then the vocals just kind of float around on top of that.

There is a lead aspect [to the] bass as well. There’s often times where the synthesiser is making a wall of noise and the guitar is kind of doing that as well. Then the bass can be freed up to move around a little bit more. I guess that’s like the classic Paul McCartney thing; taking liberty with the bass to give it more of a melodic lead element.

Ez: It probably also feels that way, as you said, because of the mixing at the show.

It was interesting before that you said the biggest compliment a band could receive live is that they’re really tight. Do you think that that is the ultimate, or would it be better to say “did the songs justice”? Because sometimes songs can require a sloppy performance.

Dean: I still maintain what I said.

Ez: That’s fair.

Dean: But I love it! I think that’s an interesting concept. I think there’s a difference between doing a sloppy performance and doing a tight sloppy performance. I get it; there’s a vibe with the thing that happens, but there’s still a difference between being decent at your instrument and decent as a group, and having a sloppy thing going on as opposed to kind of just being shit.

But doing the songs justice, that’s important.

Ez: I just had this thought when you were talking because, you know, obviously when someone is performing they want to hear that they were good. I know that when I’m performing I want to hear that I’m good. Performing music live is kind of an egotistical endeavour and you do want that kind of validation, but it doesn’t necessarily say anything about the music.

Dean: I suppose that’s another one. Doing the songs justice, is the song good? Is the performance of the song and the song two different things? What if it’s an experimental, improvisational piece? There are no songs to do justice to. I guess then the performance and the song become one thing?

Ez: Well if it’s completely improv then everyone has to say it’s good because no one wants to be seen as the person not getting it.

Dean: *laughs* That’s why improv bands have so many fans.

I guess I just love the whole thing about… I love rock ‘n roll bands and I love performance, and I love that whole thing. I come from that whole background, but maybe if you come more from a background of, say, singer-songwriter or traditional folk musician, even classical musician, maybe they might be giving more thought to presenting the song and doing the song justice.

That is a very important aspect of performance as well.

Ez: So Monoliths was released toward the end of 2020, early 2021?

Dean: 2020 so it’s just over two years old.

Ez: Was it recorded in 2019?

Dean: Yeah, probably. It must’ve been 2019 and then all the pandemic stuff happened and we released it in 2020, August.

Ez: And then you started playing live shows again… last year?

Dean: Midway through last year. July maybe. We played a show [and] it was the first show we played for two-and-a-half years, and we required a few rehearsals to get back into that one.

Ez: *laughs* I can only imagine it would’ve been exciting because it would’ve been like “Yes it’s happening yes it’s happening”, but was there any hesitation? ‘Cause obviously with music everything moves very slowly but everything happens very suddenly as well, so between late 2020 to early 2022 that’s eighteen to twenty-one months roughly. That’s not that much time but between them there’s just been so much that’s come.

Obviously even if the pandemic hadn’t happened the scenes would’ve shifted and changed, so were there any concerns or self-doubt about whether you should still be doing this?

Dean: Yeah, definitely. And truthfully there were times during the time we had off due to the pandemic I was wondering if the band would continue, whether there was enough drive on our part, whether there was enough momentum externally, and then in my darkest hour I was like “Well, fuck. Maybe I’ll just quit music, I don’t know”. *laughs*

Then I realised that I can’t ever quit music and that was just a silly mind game. [Then] things started easing up a bit and shows started popping up. We started speaking a bit more. “How are we all feeling. Are we going to get back into this?” Then a show popped up which we were like “Alright, let’s give that a go”. That show ended up getting cancelled. That was a bit of an up and down.

Another six months passed and again we were like “What’s going on here?” Then another show came up and then this time we were like “Alright let’s check this out and put some time and energy into it” and that one went ahead and it went really really well. The performance that we did that night after having not played for two-and-a-half years or something like that; That’s probably one of the longest times in my adult music life I’ve not performed on stage, so playing that show was a very cathartic, beautiful and rewarding experience.

We played really well; we had a lot of pent up energy. After we were like “Fuck, man, what were we thinking? How could we ever think about putting this aside or not doing this more? This went so well, we have such a good connection, it’s so fun playing this type of music. We’ve got to keep going with this. We’re on to a good thing.”

So from there we lined up some album launch shows. Finally got a chance to play Monoliths properly. Now we’re looking ahead to album number three. We’ve been writing a bunch of new songs and jamming a bit and… yeah.

It’s really exciting. It’s good now, but it was tough for a little while there and I know that’s happened for a lot of bands as well. I don’t begrudge any band for stepping out of the space as well, because it’s a difficult path sometimes, but the stars aligned for us again and there’s more music on the way. It’s very exciting.