To understand Skaters completely, one has to understand what was happening in and around New York during the turn of the century. While it is a city that is perpetually seen as the center of the universe, 2001 was a year when New York seemed like the only place on earth. The release of records by The Strokes, The Walkmen, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs made rock important again. It rippled through Detroit, with the rise of The White Stripes, over the pond, with The Hives and The Libertines, and all points in between (let’s not forget The Vines). Fashions and influences were up-cycled from the late ’70s for a new era, and for better or worse, there was a five-year span there that felt like something new was taking shape.
Though Michael Ian Cummings wasn’t a part of the revolution of the early ’00s, he was absorbing it all from a high school in suburban Boston. Punk and hardcore was the norm, but there was a manna worn in the grooves of Is This It? that has informed Cummings’ songwriting ever since. Sure there was a huge detour in the form of a mediocre beach fuzz band Cummings helmed called the Dead Trees, but eventually he ended any soul searching in the same hollowed clubs and (now gentrified) neighborhoods in which Casablancas used to slouch. As Cummings explains it, he’s long held the romantic notion of moving to New York and making art for the world to see, feeding off of the energy inherent to the city. That sentiment courses through Manhattan, the Skaters’ debut, out on Warner Bros. next week. Songs echo with late-night debauchery, name-check Harlem and Chinatown, and gather street sounds and subway samples—all in an effort to express the gregarious, yet grand, of living in the metropolis.
Manhattan has the soaring, if not coolly indifferent, pop hooks, as well as the jangled guitars and the big, boastful production cues of The Strokes. And though at times it sounds as if they are trying too hard to be a copy of a copy, there’s a humility in what the Skaters do and a professionalism that shows they understand we live in a different time and place. It’s understandable to be nostalgic for those days, even if they are just a decade behind us. Fortunately, Skaters know which sensors still work. I talked in depth with Cummings about this phenomenon and how his band responded to a forced exile from Los Angeles to New York.
So tell me a little about Dead Trees first. What was it about that band and Los Angeles in general that forced that chapter to end and for you to start fresh in New York?
Michael Ian Cummings: That band was around for a long time and sometimes you can lose steam. We had a hiatus, then recorded the last record we did together. When that didn’t really take off, Noah (Rubin) and I decided to head to the East Coast. It felt like a long relationship that just dragged out, and moving to New York felt exciting, so we just had to bite the bullet and end it.
You’ve been quoted as calling Skaters a “project” more than it is a band. Can you elaborate on that?
MIC: When we came to New York, we had the concept for the band. We were going to make music that was the complete opposite of what we made in our old band. We decided to show a different side of ourselves. We hadn’t been in a punk band since high school, but that was fun, so we wanted the band to be this project where we were going to go back to that and having fun. Eventually, it became Skaters and what we are doing today.
In moving to New York, you now call it your adopted hometown. You even titled your first record, Manhattan. What about the city fed into the music as opposed to say the Skaters starting off in LA?
MIC: I think you can tell a lot about a band from where they are from. We couldn’t have made this record without living here and living the pace that New York has. We didn’t think we were going to hustle our way through anything here. We had to scrape together whatever we had and make things happen for ourselves. The city really changed us. We’d stay out to 4am and party too much. You’re just out of your house more here, living faster.
You guys have no bones about citing The Strokes as a direct inspiration. I’m curious to know what you were doing musically when Is This It? came out.
MIC: Everyone was into different things, but I was really into local (Boston) punk bands, hometown hero hardcore music, and educating myself with classics like Pavement and The Band. We all played in punk bands, but when The Strokes came out, they changed the way people played music. All of a sudden things got more garage-y.
What about popular music in general do you think has changed since those days?
MIC: You can look at 2001 when all of the New York bands were really good at that time, but then you have to look at what else was released around then: boy bands and Britney Spears. All of the other pop music was just garbage, saccharine shit. We’re in a time now when the production aesthetic is so strong in pop music, but the songwriting has been completely dulled. Like even if Lady Gaga sounds amazing, we are supposed to forget about how bad the song is. Back in 2001, I just think those bands were just being reactionary to the pop music of the time. It was punk, even if it didn’t sound like punk per se. I’ve always thought of punk as more of a mental thing. I don’t know if we are going to change anything by what we do, but there aren’t a lot of bands making introspective guitar rock that sounds organic and new. I hope we are doing that.
A lot of time has passed between the Warner Bros. signing, the first single, “I Wanna Dance (But I Don’t Know How),” and the album. What took so long for an album to surface? Was it a lot of fine-tuning or did you write a ton of new songs that worked better as a whole?
MIC: Putting out a record on a major label takes a long time. There were about 30 songs in the running for this record and we had to whittle that down. The delays occurred because we were gaining some traction in the UK and we decided to go tour there. So we were starting to go back and forth between the studio and touring. It was a busy year of juggling a lot of things.
Any plans for the next album? How do you think Skaters will evolve over this year?
MIC: I’m actually in the studio right now for the next record or EP. I want to keep the energy that we have on this record, but go into a new world and show how diverse we can be.