Heart and Soul of Rock: Skip the Needle rock onstage and off as friends and family
By Lou Fancher
To hear the sound of rich, complex friendship transcribed into vibrant, soul-shaking rock music, tune in to Skip the Needle. Laying down four-part vocals, kicking aside convention with memorable guitar and bass licks and riveting drum riffs or ripping through lyrics with robust messages that sit easy in the ear but rumble the heart, the band’s collective energy stands on firm musical chops. Skip the Needle soars to familiar and otherworldly places on the individual talents and wing tails of Shelley Doty, guitar; Kofy Brown, drums, Katie Cash, guitar; and Vicki Randle on bass. All four members have long claimed their queer identities and, except for Cash, are Black. Almost everything written about them in the media shines a sharp light on the problems for an all-woman, all-queer, mostly-people of color band trying to bust up the mainstream, mostly-white, all-male paradigm of the rock industry.
Only thing is, Skip the Needle has moved so above, beyond and outside of that effort that to continue focusing only on the slog up an industry hill is to risk missing the point. These musicians—not despite being friends, but because of it—bring individual goods to every endeavor and more often than not, land in a rare space to which they justifiably claim ownership. Each is a lead singer, a multi-instrumentalist with an extensive resume, and songwriting is a collective process that leans heavily on improvisation. They jam together without preset notions; it’s simultaneously that simple and drop-jaw mysterious.
Fans and newcomers to their audience will have the opportunity April 1st to hear and see in-person the band’s synergistic dynamics as part of Little Village’s April First No Foolin’ Artist Revue at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley. Others on the multi-genre bill include Aki Kumar, Tia Carroll, Marcel Smith, Nic Clark and Mariachi Mestizo.
“It’s most important to know we came into this band arrangement as friends and people who wanted to learn new instruments,” says Brown in an interview one week before the show. “For the first time ever, I started playing drums. I just really wanted to learn. Shelley and I were in (the band) Sistas in the Pit together and still are, and I said, ‘Hey, you wanna jam?’ Katie is a friend and said I’ll jam with you—and Vicki is a friend and was like, oh, if you’re going to play drums, I’m gonna play bass because I never played bass before. Katie and Shelley were playing their normal instruments, their guitars, and me and Vick were just playing and having fun and trying to figure out our new instruments. For two years, we played as KVSK: Katie, Vicki, Shelly, Kofy, just jamming and having fun. Our first album was self-titled and independently produced. People coming to see us said, get a real name, so we did. Our relationship as people who respected each other’s gifts and talents, it was already there. What has deepened in the last few years has been our communication.”
The foursome gathered a month ago and finished recording a project centered on Octavia Butler and completed in collaboration with the band Anand. Skip the Needle wrote and recorded six songs that need only to be mastered to be released. Some of them will be featured in the performance at the Freight. In recent jam sessions, Brown says she’s noticed a shift, a bump up to a new level. “We’ve fine tuned the way we listen to and respond to each other. The foundation of who we are as a band—that real respect and friendship and love for each other—now allows us to play with freedom to create that’s not normally available. I’ve only been drumming for eight years, but I can experiment, and there’s no shut down on creativity. If Shelley or Katie comes in with a lick, that voice is allowed to experiment and be heard. It’s fun and freeing to play with that level of deep listening. If we just listen to each other, something awesome is going to come out of it. You hear it in this last batch of songs. We dive in and play with different colors and flavors. We have a thing where we just say, ‘I love the band.’ It’s a real joy when the four of us get together.”
It’s possible to hear, in addition to joy in their music, the complexity of four friends in conversation. An amalgamation of crying, laughing, teasing, shouting, screaming, interrupting, murmuring, forgiving, soothing, mirroring, avoiding, targeting, breathing together—translates into wide-ranging vocal tones, bristling instrumental tracks, driving tempos, suspenseful pauses, lyrics that read like friends completing each other’s thoughts and rhythms that catapult, float, pulse or land hard in the gut. In their first, self-titled album, and even more so in their second album, We Ain’t Never Going Back, you hear sonic chemistry, an essential something that Doty says is primarily nonverbal.
“Musical exploration,” she says, “is a language beyond the verbal part. How people interact instrumentally is crucial. It can touch areas in the listener you might not be able to access with linguistics. It comes back to why the band allows me to express myself. We interact and connect on an abstract plane. You can see the joy, the intensity, the rough things that come in because life is so hard. We pick it up and lift it. What I’m saying is that music is language itself; it doesn’t matter what words or vowel sounds you’re making. You can play three notes on an instrument and express emotion. You can do it alone or with a band, which then makes it elevate, and you have a shared experience. Take that out and share it on a recording or live with an audience; it really explodes because we are all translating it through our experience.”
Doty seeks to find something new every time she picks up her guitar or opens her mouth to sing. “Yesterday, I discovered I like to transcribe vocal lines on my instrument. It’s important for me to sit down and not think and just try to express an emotion. It’s one thing if I just need to meditate, another if I’m songwriting. If I want to get an upbeat loud rocking sound, I do that. There are many ways to come about it.” Her aim, she adds, is never static perfection. She offers a word that sums up her intention and almost sounds quaint coming from a hard-hitting rocker: freshness.
Brown approaches music-making with kinetic exuberance and intrinsic joy. “Rocking out, especially as a drummer, is pure, in-the-mix, mental, physical stimuli. When you do it with people who love the music, it’s pure bliss. It’s a workout.” She started writing poetry when she was about 10 years old. Despite never taking formal theory courses, she says songwriting is “second nature.” In her mid-20s, Brown realized the journaling and poetry she wrote were too compartmentalized and, opening the gate on her words, she established a robust following in the Bay Area as a rapper.
“The raps were conscious lyrics about things I’d witnessed. Dope Fiend was a graphic depiction of people I’d seen shooting up heroin. It’s visceral, overwhelming, so the lyrics reflect that.” Her aim, she says, is always to provoke an emotional reaction in a listener. “It’s about the feeling of the song, the music, the melody. I took a road trip for two-and-a-half months and I journaled. The music was the road, and the places we stopped were the melody. I start a song with the state of mind I’m in. If I’m somber, music is the vehicle that can convey what I really feel, matching what I feel inside. Chords on the piano I play have gone inside of me and grabbed my heart.”
Inevitably, or purposefully, the conversations with Brown and Doty spiral to “the heart and soul of rock,” a phrase open to individual interpretation. Brown says, “I don’t know what that means when other people say that, but to me, the heart and soul is Black women. It’s Rosetta Thorpe, who got buried in rock history. That’s the root. I love Chuck Berry. I say that even though he’s obviously not a Black woman, but because it came to me: I love his music, he’s so magnetic. All of that music by Black artists was absorbed and taken and transformed into mainstream White culture. Then you got the Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley mimicking these artists.”
If a person accepts that rock’s “heart and soul” is carried forward by musicians like Skip the Needle, Doty remains circumspect about acceptance and opportunities for Black women. “Because of the pandemic, what I see in the world during the last few years mostly comes through my screen and computer. Black women in general, Black women in art and the life we live, it’s pretty parallel. We just sat through Ketanji Brown Jackson (during the Supreme Court nomination hearings) being harangued by people who don’t have as much of a skill set for their jobs as she has for hers. Black women have never been given the same platform as White men. That has not changed in music or politics. We have to be placed where decisions are being made. As a Black woman in music, I put all of my artistic life into living as an example. Black kids can look at me and see themselves and say, ‘Oh, I can be a lead guitarist.’ Is the greater United States culture finally giving Black women their due? I just continue to model to other Black women and girls so they can watch and say, ‘I have options and I don’t have to live in a constrained way.’”
Although Brown celebrates one thing she says will always be true of her music—“Joy is in my makeup; I’ll spread that forever,” she says—she remains “contained” and will likely be boxed in forever by one song/story, the end of which she may never be able to write.
“I was born in 1968, born into the middle of the riots in D.C. My mother took an ambulance to the hospital because the city was burning. My father died when I was three-and-a-half. He was part of the Blackman’s Development Center, and he was picked up by police and somehow died in a police cell. We never had full information. I inherited his books by H. Rap Brown, Kwame Torres, Malcolm X, and I read them when I was 10. That’s why Black Lives Matter came out; because we have to say it. It didn’t matter that my dad died in jail. I’m 53, and no one can tell me why my dad died at 28 years old. I’ve written songs about it: my first demo tape has Sabotage, and it’s lyrically about this culture and what’s happening. (She rapped it.) I wrote that in 1993. Then I wrote others like Black Lives, written in 2015 about Michael Brown. We shot a video of it during the protests about George Floyd. I wrote it about what was happening in Ferguson, and it was still happening. So no, there’s no shift. It’s just another and another and another Black life lost.”
Brown says she and the other band members are “not the youngest cats around,” and therefore see cycles of good and bad civil rights history repeating today. Which perhaps provides impetus for Doty to seek daily “freshness” and for Brown to never take for granted the joy in rock music. “I say I’m from a different galaxy, a visitor from another planet and everything is frigging amazing; that’s my true self and music is my vehicle,” says Brown. And if the unthinkable happens and the band breaks apart? Well, comfort can be found in knowing each one of these four musicians stands on solid rock: individual, respectful of craft and each other, not world-weary, and strengthened but never tethered by friendship.