Beneath the streets of Manhattan, there’s something living; amid the buried memories and the rats, an energy flows. It rises like steam from a subway grate. It channels through every surface, affecting everyone it touches. This palpable force lies in the concrete sidewalks and on the grime clinging to the metal bars on the F train. The way it’s expressed, however, proves ever-changing.
For NYC-based SKATERS, the electricity of Manhattan is captured in the sound-waves of their music; the sirens, lights, and horns transcend through everything they create, or as frontman Michael Ian Cummings put it: “You naturally play things with the energy of your life around you. It all just kind of comes out.” Join us as we go along for the ride. Stand clear of the closing doors, please.
Artist of the Week – SKATERS
With every passerby in New York City, there’s a story. Whether it’s a beggar, a man rushing toward a train, or a tourist looking desperately at a map, there’s something to be said about the serendipitous nature in which every path intersects. If we were to gently fold the fabric of time back to 2011, we just might happen across Michael, running around through a labyrinth of city blocks. A few short years ago, the SKATERS singer was “juggling four jobs,” and as he put it, “hustling” his way through the fast-paced bustle that this city provokes.
The routes of Cummings and his bandmates would eventually intertwine, though, as a few met-up at a party, and (presumably after a few drinks) decided to start making music together. The content of what would eventually become SKATERS’ music was fittingly soaked in the daily experiences of what it meant to live in New York—bartending full-time, covering rent, and making ends meet.
This tension found its way into SKATERS’ early recordings, as the band worked on their first EP in the same environment where all of these thoughts and emotions were born. “The Schemers EP was recorded in my apartment bedroom. It was totally for fun, no pressure. We were just trying to make a recording to send to our friends,” explained Michael. These makeshift sessions were recorded among an audience of scattered clothes and empty beer cans, and they eventually culminated into an EP in early 2012 with a running time of 14 minutes, 40 seconds. As brief as it was, the record dripped with a certain immediacy that only New York could embody. It was a moment and a state of mind frozen in time.
“It was kind of interesting because when we initially started the band, the goal was to play fast – that kind of post-punk early New York sound – and that was always the intention. It was kind of inescapable after a while. You didn’t even have to try. – Michael Ian Cummings, SKATERS
It didn’t take long for this sound to resonate with fans, as the album attained the band’s first taste of success after they self-released it for free on their website. They toured extensively on that strength, including a key stint at SXSW in Austin that allowed their music to fall on the right ears. Before long, SKATERS received a record deal with a major label in Warner Bros, and they were on their way towards their first LP.
“The EP kind of took on a life of its own. Before we knew it, we were on our way to Electric Lady Studios for a month, and recording with John Hill, and we had a budget and things like that. It changed everything. We were able to record in a way that we couldn’t really dream of,” Michael described.
Electric Lady, of course, is the brainchild of the late Jimi Hendrix, located in NYC’s Greenwich Village. The legend only played there for four weeks before his untimely death though, as the construction was continually delayed by, quite literally, an energy flowing beneath the streets of Manhattan: Minetta Creek. This subterranean force was a tributary essential to colonial New York still living just below the surface, perhaps giving new meaning to the unseen power beneath this city.
The experience there proved a bit more lavish for SKATERS, as opposed to the process of recording in a bedroom. “It was great,” said Michael. “You get interns to do everything for you. You can stay there all night long; you never really have to leave that place if you don’t want to. So we just kind of camped out in the API room and it was great. It has the feel of an old classic recording studio where there’s always someone working in another room.”
It appears the sleepless nights of recording are a constant no matter where you’re making music. Nevertheless, the stakes were exponentially raised with the record deal in early 2013, not to mention the surrounding atmosphere that Bob Dylan and John Lennon once used as their creative domain. “The challenges are all self-imposed,” continued Michael. “You just feel like you’re there and you don’t want to waste your time and money. You have more pressure to put on yourself to come up with a product that’s worth what you’re putting into it. It was a good form of pressure.”
The challenges didn’t stop there for the young band. Suddenly, everything around them moved more quickly than they could have ever foreseen. Evidently, touring and recording are no longer mutually exclusive; they happen simultaneously. “We kind of recorded as we were touring. We did a month in Electric Lady, then we went on this tour after SXSW. We went to LA, and did some recording there. And then we went to the UK and did some recording there. So it kind of interfered, you know? It didn’t affect the sound, but it’s just a juggling act,” the lead singer confessed.
When asked about the relationship between recording music and playing live, Michael added: “We were playing the songs live a little differently than they were recorded. Those two things should have their own life.” That last term – “life” – in the context of music is one that resonates. It returns to the aforementioned idea of a verve that must be captured into music, and in the case of SKATERS’ upcoming debut LP, Manhattan seemed like the perfect title and muse alike.
“There was just no other place that would allow us to capture that same energy that we wrote the songs about,” Michael said when asked of the influence of Manhattan. “We couldn’t make a ‘stoner’ kind of vibe when we were running around the fast-paced New York.”
With this in mind, it makes sense that Manhattan possesses the grit and raucousness that The Strokes lost track of after Is This It?. It seems SKATERS found that same energy saturating the half-lit downtown streets, and perspiring through exposed brick. The record is truly the sound of something new bubbling in its namesake city, and it’s worth getting excited about.
As far as capturing the feel of NYC into music goes, Michael took a pretty literal approach. “We had some tape recorders and stuff. We traveled around with them for a few months just recording sounds and people. We walked around with this big, clunky tape machine for a while; just trying to get samples,” he explained. The sound bites show up throughout the record, including everything from subway announcements, to cab drivers, to banal conversations among yuppies. The vérité perfectly captures the din of day-to-day living, weaving throughout the LP as if it were a hip-hop record.
Everything about SKATERS’ debut appears well-thought out; you can almost smell the wafting aroma of street vendors, or the lingering scent of stale beer in a dive bar. It’s only fitting, then, that they cap-off the release with a show at New York’s Bowery Ballroom on February 24th, the day before the record comes out. When asked what New York fans can expect, Michael shared one last word: “Chaos.”
Alas, behind the corporate-sponsored gauze that’s being taped over Midtown, there’s a counter-movement bubbling. Despite well-funded efforts to streamline Manhattan, it seems as though the energy that flows beneath it cannot be tamed; it’s starting to permeate the youth culture again, and this band sits atop a levee that’s about to break. Perhaps, just as much as SKATERS needed New York, this city needs them.
Article by Nicolas White