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SOUL OR SYSTEM: Skytown Riot’s Van Gallik Discusses The Band’s New EP


Tuned-in ears and dropped jaws are becoming a familiar sight to Knoxville, Tennessee natives Skytown Riot. The anthemic, alternative-rock band has cultivated an exciting sound ready for epic amphitheater performances, garnering them comparisons from Muse to Coldplay. Showcasing enduring melodies, masterful riffs, pulsating percussive beats, and ethereal key tones, they aim to explore the spectrum of emotion and thus, the human experience. “People don’t often expect to hear arena-rock in these smaller clubs,” explains Van, the ensemble’s guitar-wielding vocalist. “But the way I see it, we’re just dressing for the job we want.”

The four-piece outfit began to take shape in 2010 when high school friends, Jimi Judiscak (drums) and Van Gallik (lead vocals/guitar), started playing in a band together post-college. Soon after they found their bassist Jason Gostkowski with the help of a well placed wanted ad on Craigslist. The three began playing together in a different band that eventually came to an end. Still wanting to create together, the trio formed a new group, Skytown Riot. They rounded their new sound in 2012 with the addition of Cody Hensley on keys, in lieu of searching for a lead guitar replacement. Which they’ve stated was their “Best. Decision. Ever.”

Skytown Riot got to work carefully crafting and perfecting their opulent sound, demonstrating their sensational musicianship and composition in their new EP, ‘Soul Or System’. Their music is designed around the spirit of theatrical live performance that will most authentically reflect their head-turning stage presence. The band teamed up with producer/mixer Mike Dearing at HiFi Studios in Knoxville to capture that in their latest 6-track effort. They displayed a natural progression to their musical experimentalism, pumping in new energy through unexpected genre combinations. With mastering done by Spectre in Seattle, and guest appearances by cellist Cecelia Miller, Skytown Riot’s ‘Soul or System’ EP (due out November 19th) is chalk-full of undeniable hits.

Having already shared the stage with bands like Filter, Hoobastank, and Halestorm, it’s clear that Skytown Riot is already on their way. The bands most recent single, “Runaway Princess,” has become infectious among video-gaming YouTubers, as a go-to soundtrack for fan-made battleground videos. The fellas are capturing everyone’s attention and these new, near perfect tracks will undoubtedly keep their momentum rolling. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Skytown Riot frontman Van Gallik to discuss his musical roots, the formation of Skytown Riot, the creation of their new EP, “Soul or System,” and what the future holds for this band on the rise!

Van Gillick
Skytown Riot’s Van Gallik

Take us back to your earlier years. What are your first memories of music in your life?

I remember being forced to participate in Children’s Choir at my church when I was really young. Choir and handbells. I didn’t enjoy it, but my parents insisted. I also took piano lessons when I was a kid. I was terrible at piano, and I haven’t really improved very much over the years, but I can still play my first recital piece! I was in high school before I realized that I actually had any musical talent.

How were your biggest influences as a musician and performer?

Having a good music education from a young age makes a big difference, and I was fortunate to have some great band directors in middle and high school. I never cared much about math, history or science, but with music I was a sponge. I don’t remember having an idol when I was young, but I do remember the first time I saw Jimi Hendrix throw his guitar behind his head without missing a beat, and then proceed to burn the thing.

What made you take the plunge and pursue a career in the music industry?

I was on the college path, heading towards a career in Architecture, and I was miserable. After a grueling freshman year I finally decided to join my friends and go to a sold out rock concert at a dirty little club downtown. I hadn’t heard (or even heard of) them before, but the band playing was O.A.R. They didn’t do anything fancy, but they had catchy songs and turned the room into a massive party. I was sold! And the more I learned about the band and how they came to be, the more inspired I became to take the plunge myself. Music is the only thing that consistently inspires me, motivates me, and brings me happiness. How could I do anything else?

Skytown Riot
Skytown Riot

How did the band initially form?

Jimi and I knew each other from high school, but didn’t really get to know each other well until we started playing in a band together after college. Finding Jason was just dumb luck. He replied to our Bassist Wanted ad on Craigslist. The three of us were all part of a band that didn’t have the legs to really last, and it eventually came to an end. But we still wanted to play together, so we just completely started over and formed a new band, Skytown Riot. We didn’t meet Cody until 2011, when he happened to be at one of our shows. Several months later we found ourselves one member short, and in lieu of searching for a lead guitar replacement we brought Cody in on keys. Best. Decision. Ever.

Who are the players involved and what does each bring to the table for a project like this?

Everyone in the band contributes to the writing process. Jimi plays drums, and Jason plays the bass. Both have spent time on a drum line, and I think that contributes to their tightness and ability to play off of each other. One of the greatest things about Jimi is that he can play just about anything you can imagine. And we don’t go overboard with self-indulgent drumming, but it’s nice to know that we’re not limited by ability in that arena. Cody brings a lot to the table on keys, and really helps to round out the sound of the band. He’s got a great ear, he’s a multi-instrumentalist, and he rocks the keytar like a champ! I usually write the lyrics, and I try my best to sing well and not suck at the guitar.

You have been hard at work on your new EP, “Soul or System.” What were your expectations going into this process?

We didn’t really have expectations as much as we had intentions. We intended to make a record that we would be proud of 30 years from now. We expected to encounter obstacles, to argue about parts and compositions, and we encountered all of that. But we also made it clear to each other up front that if we’re going to be arguing, it’s because we want the project to be the best it can be.

'Sound or System'
‘Soul or System’

For those who may not be familiar with your work quite yet, what can they expect sonically?

This EP definitely has a hi-fi, modern sound to it. And while you’ll hear tinges of American rock music, there’s a distinct Brit-pop influence in there as well.

How did the title come about and what does it mean to you personally?

Soul or System embodies the spectrum of emotions that we’ve been through to get to where we are. I should refer back to one of your earlier questions, “what made you take the plunge?” In making the decision to pursue music for a career I had to choose between the structured and systematic college path, or simply listen to what my soul was saying, choose music, and hope it all somehow works out. I think we all went through that process. It’s interesting to note that we’re never truly devoid of the “system.” But when you’re doing something that you love it’s easier to control (or in some cases ignore) the system of which you’re a part.

What can you tell us about your songwriting process and how you bring a tune to life?

These days it all starts with a hook. Could be a guitar riff, piano part, lyric. Doesn’t matter. We build off the hook. Lately we’ve spent less time jamming out on ideas, and more time molding parts into shape via demo recordings and writing out sheet music. That was a process we developed just prior to working on this EP. Once we have a basic song structure in place we’ll resume rehearsing as a band and make sure that everything translates well to the stage. I like to have the music done before the lyrics (most of the time). I’ll often just sing various vowels and consonants, trying out different melodies until I get what I’m looking for.

Skytown Riot's Van Gillik
Skytown Riot’s Van Gallik

Looking back on the entire process of bringing the album to life, what stands out at as the biggest challenge in creating this album?

The biggest challenge was picking the right songs to begin with. I think we might have agreed on three of the same songs, but we all had different ideas for the rest. Ultimately it took a lot of trust in each other and trust in our producer (Mike D at HiFi Studios) to make the final decisions.

What is the biggest thing you learned about yourself during this intense process?

I learned that I work best when under a lot of pressure! We were on a tight schedule with a tight budget. I rewrote all the lyrics to “Misbehave” the day before we tracked vocals. We composed all the strings for “The Afterglow” the night before they were tracked. Even the album art was completed at the very last minute. But it’s in those moments that some of our best work was accomplished.

What are your tour plans at the moment?

We’re gearing up for a big 2014. Nothing is set in stone yet, but we may be touring up North in the spring, and there are a lot of festivals across the country on our radar as well. Fans should keep an eye on our website (and Facebook) for show updates!

What are your favorite songs to play live these days?

Favorites include “Misbehave,” “The Afterglow,” “Sensational,” and “Soul or System.” Honestly there’s not a song that we don’t love to play right now. We dread playing short 30 minute sets because we have to cut so many songs we enjoy!

Is there something you hope people come away with after they catch one of your live performances?

Hopefully they come away with a CD, which is usually an indication that they had a great time and love the music. Truthfully we hope that people remember the show and feel that they spent their $5-10 wisely.

Are there any other video plans in the making?

Absolutely. We’re working with Jacob Boyd again on our next video. But I don’t want to spoil it and reveal too much just yet!

What do you consider your biggest milestone so far?

Releasing Soul Or System. We’ve never released music like this before. Music that we’re proud of, that we’re confident will propel us forward, and that we genuinely love.

How do you feel you have evolved as a musician through the years?

We’ve all grown, but really a better term would be matured. We write music for the band, not for our own egos. That wasn’t always the case. Personally my focus has been to develop as a singer, and find ways to create a unique voice on the guitar.

What are some of your musical bucket list items?

CONAN. That’s it. If I could perform on his show I would die happy.

Skytown Riot's Van Gillik
Skytown Riot’s Van Gallik

What bands are out there right now that have made you stand up and take notice?

Biffy Clyro & Cage The Elephant (both put on a phenomenal show). Oh No Fiasco (from our hometown of Knoxville, and they’re blowing up right now). Sugarglyder (just broke up, but maybe if enough of us yell at them they’ll get back to making awesome music!). Crash Kings, Foxy Shazam. Oh, and a man (of many bands) that is truly one of the most talented guitarists of our time, Andy Wood. He’s working on a solo record right now that will blow some minds!

What is the best piece of advice that you can pass along to someone who wants to pursue a career in music in the industry’s current climate?

I’ll pass on a quote that has always kept me going. “The trick to staying in the music business is to stay in the music business.” Work hard, don’t quit, and you’ll find your way. Writing a hit song or two always helps!

Anything you want to tell your fans before I let you go?

We’re here because of our fans, and we can’t give enough thanks for all the support you’ve shown us! Can’t wait to see you on the road next year! Thank you for the interview and supporting Skytown Riot!

Get all the latest tour dates and information on Skytown Riot at these locations: