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Halloween can’t wait: Skeletons in the Piano.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Rock & Roll Circus

Saratoga Springs band Skeletons in the Piano celebrate a communal creative spirit


By Kirsten Ferguson

At last Friday’s release party for Stranger on a Damned Staircase, the new album by Saratoga Springs rock band Skeletons in the Piano, fans and friends of the group were invited to participate in the Putnam Den festivities. A Grim Reaper character in morbid face paint and a double-breasted suit dramatically introduced the band, waving a skull perched on top of a stick. Crafters sold handmade jewelry on one side of the club, while a painter brushed layers onto a dark-hued abstract portrait of the band (recognizable mainly by a depiction of the top hat that Skeletons violinist/keyboardist Jeff Ayers wears onstage). Belly dancers in minimal clothing weaved and shimmied onstage as a scratchy black-and-white video, projected on the wall behind them, recalled the 1920s silent-film era.

Meanwhile, the band (Ayers, guitarist/vocalist Elijah Hargrave, drummer Eric Donovan and bassist Dustin Alexander) played noirish rock combining elements of the angst-fueled ’90s (loud-quiet-loud dynamics, brooding vocals) with the campy, swirling ’60s cabaret of the Doors.

Someone stumbling into the venue without prior knowledge of the band might have struggled to make sense of it all. Middle Eastern-style belly dancers and face-painted ghouls are typically not seen together outside Halloween. Skeletons shows are often part bazaar and part performance art, typified by the band’s well-attended, crazily costumed annual shows on their favorite holiday.

“We’ve selfishly taken Halloween for ourselves,” Ayers says in an interview with the band the week before their release party. “The last three years, our Halloween shows have been really big. We come into our own that day.”

All year long though, performances by Skeletons in the Piano—who played their first few gigs in face paint several years ago—incorporate a mishmash of art, video, dance and commerce, reflecting the band’s desire to harness the creativity of its social circle. “It started out as an invitation [for fans to participate],” Hargrave says. “Once people saw they had access and an invitation, they were into it. The CD-release party is the culmination of our love of celebration, partying and spirits. We’re bringing everyone in to get this album off our chests. It’s a huge sensory overload of everything we’ve been trying to do—to make it a movement, a force.”

If such a communal (and bacchanal) release is needed, it’s because the band spent many painstaking hours crafting Stranger on a Damned Staircase, their sophomore album (now available from the band at shows or digitally on iTunes and CD Baby). Stranger follows a loosely structured 11-song cycle, touching upon themes of addiction, mortality and desperation in tracks with forbidding B-movie titles: “Sarcoughagus,” “Spookshow,” “Aiding the Cyclops,” “Celestrial Wax.”

“We’re really excited to get this album out,” Ayers says. “We’ve been playing this material out for the past year, but we’re just finally getting to release [the album] to the world.”

The album was recorded and mastered by producer Don Fury at his studio in Troy, and the band largely credits Fury for helping to refine the album’s sound. “We brought him a beautiful broken machine and he tightened all the screws for us,” Donovan says.

“Don gave us a little more faith in ourselves,” adds Alexander.

From the spirited, bounding beat that propels opener “The Old Hound Dog” to the heavy thud and dark guitar drone that anchors closer “Leave It Bleeding,” Stranger’s musical progression gives it a concept-album feel. The title of the album was taken from a lyric in an old song written by Hargrave. “The whole album floats on that mood of mortality,” he says. “We know we’re going to die. It’s one of those beautiful unsettling facts. It’s a personal distraction/obsession. The term ‘stranger’ is something otherworldly. The stranger is the phantom.”

But, Hargrave clarifies, “It’s not a concept album. That’s just how it happened. We threw the album on the table, mastered it, and it told the story to us.”

“We knew going into it that these 11 songs would work together,” says Donovan. “We just didn’t know how. But you’re able to piece together [an overall theme] if you pay attention to it.”

Skeletons in the Piano have an undeniable attraction to the dark side, an attraction that seems rooted in a number of places. Hargrave, Donovan and Ayers started out playing together years ago in Lore, a self-described “dark fucking metal” band. And in the first months of Skeletons, the band practiced in an old slaughterhouse in Rock City Falls, where they and several other hardy local groups paid their dues by rehearsing on the killing floor in frigid wintertime temperatures (and with a sewer setup too disgusting to describe in detail).

And then there’s the group’s spook-show name, which further plays off mortal-coil metaphors and black-and-white imagery (skeletons: white; piano keys: white and black). The name was inspired by a lyric in the song “Nobody Home” from Pink Floyd’s The Wall: “I’ve got a grand piano to prop up my mortal remains.”

“It’s the party after the funeral,” Donovan says. “The celebration of life after death. We play this music as a celebration.”

“Eli had a really great quote,” Ayers adds. “‘Skeletons are not created in death but in life. They’re the foundation of life.’”

Much of the band’s songwriting output has been shaped by Hargrave’s artistic bent (he is also a painter). “I’ve been drawing since I was one,” he says. “I was in plays and choir and I sang. I had an overactive imagination and I never took medicine for it.”

And his penchant for things dark and old has also informed his work on the band’s videos and album art. “Since childhood, I’ve been obsessed with old, old photographs and silent films,” he says. At a gig in the Skidmore College cafeteria, Hargrave once mixed images from Victorian-era pornography (“Oh come on darling, throw on a fish skin”) into the band’s video backdrop. “I like pushing the boundaries of sleaze and sophistication,” he adds.

Not without senses of humor, the members of Skeletons in the Piano are pretty excited and optimistic in person, rather than the dark and brooding types you might expect. “What’s great about this band is we all have fun,” Ayers says. “It’s a constant joy to play with this band.”

“This is our refuge,” says Hargrave. “We go to work and deal with all that bullshit. When I look at these guys, it blows me away that they all have such a commitment to keeping this thing going. Nothing can touch it.”

With big plans ahead—from recording new material already written to an upcoming opening gig for sludge- rocker Dax Riggs—each day lately seems to reveal a new excitement for Skeletons in the Piano. “I check our e-mail 13 times a day,” Alexander says. “There are things going on all the time.”

“I got a tarot reading,” Donovan adds. “It said, ‘This year is going to be the most hardworking and exciting year of your life.’ ”

Skeletons in the Piano will perform Tuesday (Aug. 17) at Bogie’s (297 Ontario St., Albany), opening for Dax Riggs. See Noteworthy for more on the show, or check out the band at


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