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Calgary photographer Keith Skrastins shares his raw, rock ‘n’ roll view of the scene with gloriously gritty new art book Haus

It’s a common thing, rock band’s referring to someone as their unofficial third, fourth, fifth, etc. member.

Usually it’s someone who either helps them in their sound, like a producer, or in their careers, such as an agent, manager or A&R person if that’s still a thing. 

But the thing about rock ’n’ roll, is that it is as much a visual thing as it is a sound and feel.

For quick reference, look at photographer Anton Corbijn and what he did for U2 and Depeche Mode, to name but a few, or Charles Peterson and his documentation of the Seattle scene.

Or, closer to home, you could do no better than to look at local lensman Keith Skrastins and the work he’s done in the Calgary indie rock community with his “alternative conceptual art house and marketing firm” The Haus of Skrastins.

For the past 10 years he’s made his name shooting such notable local acts as Free the Cynics, The Northern Beauties and Black Phoenix Orchestra — all of who consider him an integral part of what they do and how it’s viewed, the latter which even named their last EP Haus that was also adorned with the shooter’s mug and featured tunes about him.

With his romantically raw, gloriously gritty, beautifully grimy, almost tactile even olfactory approach to capturing the city’s music community— the people who make it, the people who support it and the sights that surround it — Skrastins is as rock ’n’ roll as anyone who takes the stage.

“It’s very much an aesthetic that I can not escape,” the artist says. “There have been a few bands that actually consider me their ghost member or their offstage member of their band because they say that I’m more musician than I am photographer.”

Is he a musician?

“I can’t play or write or sing a thing,” he says with a laugh. “I always jokingly say that I play the camera.

“That’s my music contribution to rock ’n’ roll is the visual side of things. Even when I’m shooting my editorial or my portraiture or even some of my street photography it’s just a look that I can’t get away from and it’s something that I fully embrace in my approach.”

“It’s the way my soul captures things — it’s supernatural, I can’t describe it.”

He doesn’t have to. You just have to nab yourself a copy of his superlative new photography book Haus.

The 164-page tome displays some of the best from his decade of shooting not only the musicians and fans in casual or set settings, but even still-life scenes that fit his rock ’n’ roll view of the world, such as outsides of clubs, old abandoned houses, cold concrete buildings and  dark empty streets.

There are no words to tell you what or who you’re seeing, because what you’re seeing says it all.

And as a whole, it’s a pretty remarkable statement from someone who describes himself as a “creative late bloomer.”

It was in the late ’90s, early 2000s when he was first turned onto art — sketching and painting initially — when he was attending a private school in Grade 11 and 12.

“I guess the easiest way to put it is that I was a, uh, rebellious teen,” he says. “Putting it very mildly, I was a rebellious teen and I had very concerned parents that thought that maybe a private school would do the trick. And it totally did. That’s where I discovered the arts, and without that I don’t know where I would be.”

That said, when he graduated, he didn’t initially pursue it, starting up an aircraft cleaning business that, while a living, eventually left him feeling “lost.”

It was then he indulged in a childhood fantasy, attempting to become a filmmaker. Skrastins wrote a five-minute short, assembled a few friends and the necessary resources, with all of them acting and contributing to it.

The film took a few days to shoot, but a year to make and release, and the results were, well, underwhelming.

“It was just something that an early twentysomething would do and think was so profound, but it was just garbage,” he says.

Still, that experience, and particularly one day of filming when he looked through the lens and thought before the word “action” was even called there was so much going on, left its imprint and set him off on his current path.

“Why tell a story in thousands of frames when you can tell it in one?” he says. “And that was the start.”

That led to him taking his dad’s 35 mm camera into the world before moving to digital, getting his feel for what his look and style would eventually be. The biggest step to discovering that was when a former high school friend who was starting an online zine in late 2009 approached him, asking if he would provide some visuals, take shots of local artists in and and out of their elements.

“As soon as I was shooting live shows and hanging out with musicians I knew that I found my home, I found my family,” he says. “And it went from there.”

He continued to shoot, continued to chronicle the scene while also becoming an integral part of it. Then, with so many sights accumulated, he thought it necessary to give them even more meaning, by giving them a fitting venue to be collected and viewed.

That, of course, is Haus.

“I’ve had this book in my mind and my heart for some time,” Skrastins says, noting that it’s been percolating for the past five years.

“In the early stages of it, when I was trying to create something, it was almost like it was being forced, that I was forcing it. There was too much going on in my everyday life within my work that was redirecting me from actually creating this book. And now looking back and in retrospect the reason why I wasn’t able to create it back then was because the story wasn’t finished. Or at least the chapter wasn’t finished.”

To get to that point, he took what he calls an “active hiatus” of two years to step back, work on his personal life, and allow his archive to gestate and “be at peace with releasing it to the world.”

He continues. “It was very healing, it was a very healing process. Creating the book was a good process to create a new jumping-off point from where everything had left off … It was a good jumping off point to honour the past and … to (move) forward.”

As for what he expects the reaction to be and who will gravitate towards it, there are those in the scene who might consider it a “year book” of sorts, seeing themselves and their friends and felling a little wistful of those past days and gigs. He also expects “friends, family members and people who have supported me throughout the years” will snag a copy, celebrate what he’s accomplished.

But ultimately, when asked who he released Haus for, Skrastins gets a little more selfish.

“Primarily it was something that needed to be done for me as an artist, for me personally,” he says. “And being able to sell it and share it with the world is an added bonus, like a cherry on top. 

“And who would I think it would appeal to? People who are in it, people who have experienced and lived the same life, the music and art life, even people who enjoy art and photography but don’t know what the rock ’n’ roll life is all about and they get to have a little voyeuristic peek into it.

“I believe art is for everyone and anyone can create it, anyone can access it. It’s all about who discovers it, how they discover it and what that discover adds to their journey.”

(All photos courtesy Keith Skrastins.)

Keith Skrastins’ Haus is available for purchase from blurb.ca (http://www.blurb.ca/b/9238081-haus) or from his website https://www.hausofskrastins.com.

Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for theYYSCENE.com. Follow him on Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at mike@theyyscene.com.

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