SKATERS: Not Just “Guys You Know”

Music Features
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Hometown: New York, N.Y.
Band Members: Michael Ian Cummings, Joshua Hubbard, Noah Rubin, Dan Burke, (touring:) Tommy Allen
Current Release: “I Wanna Dance (But I Don’t Know How)” single
For fans of: Phantom Planet, The Strokes, Arctic Monkeys

It may often backfire, but sometimes it pays to be pushy. Just ask the members of SKATERS. The upstart New York art-punk outfit probably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for one extraordinary (and extraordinarily awkward) show of nerve. In late 2011, childhood friends and founding members Michael Ian Cummings and Noah Rubin had recently moved to New York from L.A., effectively spelling the demise of their previous group The Dead Trees. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Cummings found himself writing music that drummer Rubin describes as “faster and dirtier” than the sleepy-eyed alt-troubadour style The Dead Trees had been attempting to parlay into a career. Eager to shake off the complacency induced by California’s even-paced lifestyle, Cummings and Rubin (both originally from the suburbs of Boston) set their sights on the Big Apple just as loosely defined ideas for their next creative venture were beginning to take shape.

“In the Dead Trees, we were thinking about records and touring and stuff,” Rubin explains over speakerphone on a car ride with Cummings on the day after the band has turned in the final masters of its full-length debut, which is scheduled for release on Warner Bros. in early 2014. “SKATERS started out as ‘Let’s take this almost less seriously and just have fun.’ Make it more like an art project and focus on creating a specific sound utilizing the strengths of Josh and me. It wasn’t like ‘Dead Trees are breaking up, let’s start a new band.’ It was more like, while the Dead Trees were fizzling out, we were starting this art project called SKATERS. It would be all-encompassing with visual art and magazines, and we’d have a really cool website. We weren’t thinking big. We were just thinking ‘fun art project,’ like school or something.”

Then, with all the subtlety of the Kool-Aid Man crashing through a wall, in walked guitarist Joshua Hubbard (formerly of The Paddingtons and also a one-time live guitar understudy for Carl Barât in Dirty Pretty Things).

“I met him at a party in L.A.,” recalls Cummings. “I was just about to move to New York in a few days. I told him that I wanted to start this band. Being the audacious dude that he is, he was like Let me play anything; I’ll play whatever! I didn’t think much of it, and then a couple of months later, he wrote me an email saying Hey man, I was thinking about coming in the beginning of November. October 31st rolls around and he was like, ‘Alright, my flight gets in tomorrow at 4 p.m.,’ and he just showed up. Noah and I were caught off guard, like Sooooo, let’s jam tomorrow? He was like ‘I didn’t come here to jam. I came here to start a fuckin’ band!’ He forced us to book three shows the next morning, and that’s how the band started.”

Clearly, Warner Bros. hopes SKATERS will make an entrance into mass consciousness in much the same manner. Before the album was even finished, the label went so far as to christen SKATERS as the next act destined to “revamp the musical landscape” on par with what the Talking Heads, Ramones and Yeah Yeah Yeahs are said to have done before them. While this premature myth-baiting has a future backlash written all over it, it would be unfair if the hype ended up overshadowing the energy, verve and crackling intelligence of SKATERS’ music—which, it’s also possible, the label is just that genuinely enthusiastic about. On the upcoming album, which was produced by John Hill (Wavves, Portugal. The Man, Santigold, M.I.A.), Cummings, Hubbard, Rubin and bassist Dan Burke build songs out of crisp buzzsaw riffs that are porous enough to absorb Cummings’ soaring melodies. (Cummings plays a substantial amount of guitar on the recordings but sticks to singing in concert.)

Throughout the album, the band downshifts into loping, stylized reggae grooves that follow in the footsteps of some of the more distinctive bastardizations of the form that came early in the careers of innovators like The Clash and The Police. And, as if to turn the tables on history, the album’s speediest tune verges on the unbridled fury of Bad Brains. But even at their most concise, SKATERS know how to turn a key change into tasty satisfaction the same way a portion-conscious chef rations a meal so that the diner leaves neither hungry nor overly full. Moreover, the music never suffers from the oppressive fixation with simplicity-as-dogma that characterizes the work of bands ranging from Guided By Voices to Weezer to The Strokes (the latter an influence that SKATERS openly acknowledge). Live, the band, which is rounded out by touring guitarist Tommy Allen, delivers bracing, taut sets in which the album’s seductive atmospheres are barreled over by raw punk energy yet the jangling textures in the guitar chords still shine through. In this setting, the piston-like precision and drive of Rubin’s playing comes to the forefront—a universe apart from what he and Cummings did in the Dead Trees. ??

Appearing at Holland’s Best Kept Secret festival this past June, SKATERS closed their show by playing original number “Schemers” before launching directly into Nirvana’s “Territorial Pissings.” The symbolism of the moment—one myth being swallowed by another—would be inescapable were it not for the fact that, if you weren’t aware it was a Nirvana song, “Territorial Pissings” wouldn’t sound out of place in a SKATERS setlist. The fact that the band can walk this fine a line and cut to the chase of what’s truly important—the art itself—is certainly encouraging given the extra baggage its members are willing to carry. Take, for example, their excessive romanticizing of New York. In case for one second you forget the city that the songs on SKATERS’ debut are supposed to be set in, there are several moments where the lyrics spell it out, never more clearly than on “To Be Young,” with its giddy, subway-riding anthem chorus “to be young / in New York City.”

By the same token, the gripping video for the B-side “Armed,” which was released by Warner Bros. on the 7-inch single for “I Wanna Dance (But I Don’t Know How),” unflinchingly exposes an aspect of New York—life in a dangerous, drug-riddled housing project—that few bands would dare to delve into or even have any sense for how to do it if they wanted to without coming off as clumsy tourists. Hell, even rappers who depict this type of subject matter usually come off as poseurs. Credit where due: SKATERS, who don’t appear in the video, had little hands-on creative input; the clip was conceived by director Danilo Parra and rapper Young Dope, who also stars. But the final product, which approaches the cinematic intensity of, say, Massive Attack’s “Angel” video, does reflect on the band’s instincts, which shouldn’t be overlooked. Even in the more lighthearted video for the Dead Trees song “World Gone Global,” one sees the same commitment to imagination and visual presentation that are now bearing fruit. If Cummings, Rubin and Hubbard arrived in New York with stars in their eyes, they also set out to work with some highly creative people. At the beginning, SKATERS shows prominently featured artists working in other mediums. The working relationship with Parra, who has become the band’s go-to video director, grew out of this interest in other people’s work.

“It wasn’t necessarily on purpose that we were trying to make something super-cinematic,” offers Cummings.” It just looked gorgeous so we went with it. But I think it’s important to remember that music videos have come a long way. They’re no longer just a way to see the band. There’s so much exposure for bands now that to see their faces is much easier. So the music video has taken on a different role for us, where it has to be super-entertaining for people so they’ll want to go out of their way to watch it rather than just watch it because it’s what’s on MTV.”

If SKATERS are conscious, then, of how exposure might mean something different in 2014 than it did in 1974, how do they feel about being measured against icons like Talking Heads and the Ramones at such an early stage?

“The Rolling Stones and the Ramones?” Rubin asks—indicating that he maybe hasn’t seen the official Warner Bros. bio.

Once cleared up, the pair addresses the question in a back-and-forth relay.

Rubin: “I mean, I love those bands.”

Cummings: “Those are the bands that inspired us. That scene, the post-punk New York Bowery scene is super-important for us. That’s where we hang out; that’s where all that music was born, and it’s still really relevant in New York.”

Rubin: “And that music’s a lot more confident than a lot of the music these days that tends to be overly sincere.”

Cummings: “Sincerity is not something you need to try to express.”

Rubin: “Those early bands were very sincere. But look at band photos these days. They always look so nice.”

Cummings: “The whole thing is about being just a ‘guy you know.’”

Rubin: “It’s like anti-sincere sincerity.”

Cummings: “It started with Death Cab For Cutie or something.”

Rubin: “Or the Decemberists. Like We’re not pretentious.”

Cummings: “We’re just like the guys at your coffee shop. We’re like ‘fuck that.’”