Human Skab: Forever young

The Skab is back after more than a 20 year absence. Spencer Grady digs beneath the crust.
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The Independent Culture

"I'm on a mission. I've a message for the world. It's not just playing guitars and stuff good that is important. It's all the things you do."

Confronted with the stark realties of Reaganomics and impending Cold War Armageddon during the mid-80s, one 10-year-old Mohawk-sporting brat was prepared to take a stand, to kick against the pricks.

"I felt ripped off that I had to exist in a world where grown-ups made me adhere to certain standards while they were setting us up for a global disaster, through nuclear war, environmental destruction and corporate greed. I wanted to convey some of the insights I had about life. I wanted people to understand how I felt. I wanted to do good."

Assembling an ever-shifting coterie of willing siblings and neighbourhood pals, Travis Roberts aka Human Skab (a name given by his mum in deference to the amount of injuries he collected as a child), proceeded to make a clutch of home recordings which he would then inject into the musical underground of tape traders, fanzines, college DJs and assorted other freak thrill seekers.

These tapes, spanning from 1984-89, were crammed full of impromptu rants, spittle-speckled tantrums and lo-fi collages constructed from pots and pans, broken bottles, a derelict upright piano, toy guns, a "Snake Mountain" microphone and a garden rake.

Imagine Captain Beefheart collaborating with Charlottesville, Virginia's long-forgotten enfants terribles, Happy Flowers and you might begin to get a grip on this unique brand of din.Unsurprisingly, the Human Skab quickly found himself with a cult hit on his hands, even landing himself an opening slot with Pere Ubu at the Capitol Theater in Olympia, Washington, in 1987.

His Thunder Hips And Saddle Bags recording, originally released as a 1986 cassette, has just been excavated and reissued by Indiana's Family Vineyard imprint. Its primitive exuberance and chaotic brouhaha are the antithesis of the spit and polish contrivance of most contemporary sonic offerings.

Pieces (these are hardly mere songs) like "Drunk And Staggering Around" and "We Need To Destroy The Soviet Union", are surrealist snapshots of the inside of a febrile imagination, tackling curious and wide-scoping subject matter. More retrospective exhumations are in the pipeline, along with an album of new material (comprised of fresh recordings of classics from the back catalogue) as well as a DVD of footage from the Human Skab reunion tour.

Roberts has got some of the old crew back together. But the Skab of today is a world away from the angry, naive adolescent of the 80s. Roberts' early adulthood saw him lead something akin to a Rimbaud-like existence. After a stint serving in the US Army corps as an intelligence officer in the "war against terror" ("it was the only way I could get a decent job, to receive the education and training I wanted"), Roberts was diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after tours in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Egypt and Israel.

But this was only the start. He would later return to both Kosovo and Afghanistan as a private military contractor where, under the weight of his condition and a growing dependence on drugs and drink, he established himself as a black market entrepreneur and pimp. Roberts is the first to admit that he erred ("I lost track of my core values and strayed from my goals. Now I'm trying to get back on track and live my life in accordance with the philosophies I held so dear as a child"), but is resolved to draw on his experiences and use them positively.

"This time I’m making music from the perspective of someone who's seen the darker sides of war and the human psyche," he explains. "I'm bringing a little piece of hell back with me."

Back among his friends and doing what he loves most, could it be that the world is finally ready? Roberts is in no doubt. "The Human Skab never ended. We just didn't release any of our music to the public for the last 23 years. Now the time's right to reintroduce Human Skab music to the public. This music is just as relevant today as it was back then, if not more so."

Thunder Hips And Saddle Bags is out on Family Vineyard.

Spencer Grady is Assistant Editor at Record Collector magazine.