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No Haters, All SKATERS

NYC’s SKATERS integrate their grassroots Pop/Punk ethic into the major label paradigm

By Brian Baker · March 26th, 2014 · Music
music1_skaters_photo_shane mccauleySKATERS (Photo: Shane McCauley)

If you accept the premise that SKATERS’ debut full-length, Manhattan, vibrates on a Pop/Punk wavelength almost everyone can identify with, it may relate to the fact that they are from (or have been) almost everywhere. 

Frontman Michael Ian Cummings and drummer Noah Rubin are native Bostonians who have lived in Portland and L.A.; guitarist Joshua Hubbard is the British Punk poster boy for the new millennium; and bassist Dan Burke hails from New York City.

Despite their disparate experiences, the quartet’s palpable chemistry clearly accounts for SKATERS’ fast-track success. They recorded their debut EP, Schemers, in 2012 and posted it online as a free download. With no official publicity campaign, the EP quickly hit 10,000 downloads and put SKATERS on the industry’s buzz radar. Signing with the major of majors, Warner Brothers Records, has prompted some critics to hit the “sell out” button, but Cummings quickly dispels that notion.

“We were doing everything ourselves and we still kind of do,” Cummings says with a laugh from the band’s van en route to this year’s South by Southwest festival in Texas. “Warners came to one of our shows when we were releasing the first single we ever made, and within four days we were on a plane to L.A. Warners was the earliest and most interested.”

Warners’ financial backing presented the band with an opportunity to reach more listeners and to tour more widely, but the members are still very hands-on when it comes to their day-to-day operations. 

“Everything we do is still homegrown; we’re still designing our own T-shirts and merch and making our CDs by hand and selling them to our fans and driving our asses around England and America,” Cummings says. “The difference (now) is we have tour support, or we wouldn’t be able to do it at all. If you get dropped by any label, the one thing you can take away from it is your fans. Being able to tour more and playing to as many people as possible, it makes you realize that 10,000 downloads is a drop in the bucket compared to what we could expose ourselves to.”

On Manhattan, SKATERS reflect many of their foundational influences without sounding derivative or retrograde, as the album vibrates with a manic Pixies energy and a Clash-like contempt for convention (and propensity for filtering Reggae through a punkish lens), as well as an earthier, street-level Strokes sensation.

Of course, it’s not what goes into SKATERS as much as what comes out.

“There were songs on the first EP that were a little loftier, like The Cars or aspects of Post Punk that were more like Blondie and later Television,” Cummings says. “Things got more aggressive when we started playing shows because that was the music we were getting the best reaction off of and was the most fun to play. Having said that, we incorporated songs like ‘Band Breaker’ and ‘Fear of the Knife,’ which are totally opposite vibes but super important to the sound. You take little references to help guide you and (bands like Pixies, The Clash and The Strokes) did that really well and created something new out of something familiar. You’ve got to get the vibe right and not emulate it, but tip your hat to it.”

The SKATERS’ seeds were planted when Cummings, Rubin and a couple of friends left Boston seven years ago for Portland, Ore., to begin their musical exploits as The Dead Trees, a Folk/Rock outfit that recorded a handful of releases and opened shows for Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. Eventually, Cummings and Rubin moved to L.A. to record a new album and revitalize The Dead Trees, but the band was beyond saving. At a random party in a mansion, Cummings met Hubbard, their subsequent conversation sparking an amazing chain of events.

“I met Josh right before I decided to move to New York,” Cummings says. “We were instant buddies. He was friends with my sister in New York and we had mutual friends. It was one of those nights where you find yourself at a party and you end up talking to just one person. We’d known about each other for so long, and it was kind of a little bromance when we met.”

Four months after Cummings and Rubin arrived in New York, Hubbard made contact from England with a fairly surprising announcement.

“Josh wrote me an email saying ‘Maybe I’ll come in November,’ and then he wrote on Oct. 31 and said, ‘My plane gets in tomorrow,’” Cummings says. “Noah had never even met him. When he showed up, he crashed Noah’s birthday party and we had a drink and we were like, ‘I guess we’ll jam tomorrow.’ And Josh was irritated. He was like, ‘I’m here to start a fucking band, not jam.’ So without ever playing together, we started a band.”

The newly fashioned SKATERS played a couple shows as a trio until Burke joined, which led to the EP, impromptu showcases and the Warner Brothers contract. With powerful label backing, SKATERS entered the hallowed halls of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios with producer John Hill (Wavves, M.I.A., Phantogram) and close to 30 songs in order to record Manhattan’s 11 tracks.

“When you make a record, you whittle down songs for some continuity between tracks,” Cummings says. “Then there’s the unexpected aspect. You think some songs are 100 percent on the record and you can’t capture them with the right energy. You keep re-recording the same song and you lose all the magic. It was more of the first than the latter; for the most part, it just felt like those songs were a collection and they worked well together. They felt like they had the most clear identity of the band.”

It could have been daunting for any band with relatively limited recording experience to walk into arguably one of the world’s most famous recording studios to track its debut album. For SKATERS, there was at least a hint of intimidation, but they got over it.

“Dude, it’s crazy,” Cummings says of Electric Lady. “It’s like the old-school studios where there are multiple studios and everyone who’s working in every studio is totally legit. You put pressure on yourself because Usher is across the hall and Arcade Fire is mixing in another studio. It feels like the ’70s and there’s all this important shit going on and you’re there to make something worthwhile.”

SKATERS play Southgate House Revival on Tuesday, April 1 with Team Spirit and Come on Caboose. More info/tickets here.



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