Music is often a product not just of its creators, but also geographic locale. Consider the role that place plays in popular music throughout the decades. Not just in terms of particular scenes, but in the way that place can seep into the very fabric of a song or album, evoking the cultural mileu in which it was created. For example, I cannot separate overall aesthetic of Bowie’s “Young Americans” or much of John Lennon’s mid-1970s records from the cultural landscape of New York City in that decade. To take a more obvious example, consider the ways that the sounds of industrial Detroit seem to permeate the sonic textures of Motown’s golden era.
The same can be said of Manhattan, the debut album from New York City band SKATERS. While the title is blatant, the ways in which NYC frames the album are unimposing, yet unmistakeable. We had opportunity to chat with SKATERS’ Michael Ian Cummings about the band, the album, and what’s in store for SKATERS in the immediate future.
As Cummings puts it, “The band came together pretty haphazardly. Noah and I were living in LA. We had loosely talked about starting a band, but nothing official. Then when I was back in New York, he just randomly showed up unannounced. We started the band the next day, and booked our first few gigs.” That initial spark moved quickly as far as forming a cohesive band unit, and the band made the most of their time as an unsigned act. “[Creating a repertoire] took a while. When we first started booking shows, we only had like five songs. But everything was evolving rapidly. We had a full year before we got signed, so in that time, we just kept writing, demoing, gigging. The band started quicker than the first record developed – that didn’t really come until after we got signed.”
SKATERS’ influences are clear; throughout Manhattan, one can hear echoes of the Clash, the Buzzocks, the Pixies, and the Cars, among others. But the band skillfully weaves these influences together, rather than attempting to replicate the sounds of a bygone era. Speaking to the formation of the SKATERS’ sound, Cummings notes that “It was pretty clear from the get go that we wanted to make upbeat, punk influenced music, but not from pop punk, or anything that came close to that. We were more interested in drawing from post punk, particularly the idea that you could have real songs and still have an aggressive record. We wanted to make songs with a hook; we’re not afraid to write a good chorus, and we don’t have any real superfluous parts. A different mentality might dismiss that approach, but for me it’s actually a challenge, and I enjoy that.”
In advance of Manhattan‘s February 24th release date, SKATERS teamed with director Danilo Parra to put “Miss Teen Massachusetts” into video form.
I mentioned to Cummings that one of the video’s strengths is that as an audience member, it gave me a completely different perspective on the song’s potential meaning. “The concept of that video was to make something that felt attractive visually, and that had a lot to do with the director Danilo Parra. It’s interesting because when you make a video, you often don’t want to do a direct meaning of the song. But when you give it to someone else, it allows for a different, cooler angle to what the song could mean. So we just wanted to do something that was a little outside a straight up, literal narrative, which I find boring.” Indeed, the story that plays out in the video is compelling even before an unexpected twist ending.
And despite the album being on the verge of release, “Miss Teen Massachusetts” is actually the third video from the album, in addition to the clip for the b-side “Armed.” SKATERS have fully embraced music video, at a time when the vitality of the medium seems to be perpetually in question. Are videos still an effective means of communicating with audiences in 2014? “Basically they’re the same thing as music video’s always been, except you’re targeting an audience that has a shorter attention span, that won’t just stumble on it, and that will find out about it from blogs or whatever. I actually think it’s the best vehicle for promotion on the Internet, because it gives such a strong visual element. When you listen to and love that song, that becomes a huge part of what connects with audiences. Think of Nirvana and ‘Teen Spirit,’ for example – you can’t hear that song and not think of those cheerleaders. Even if the image isn’t terribly profound, it creates a strong connection between the audience and the music.”
In support of the album, SKATERS will play at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom on February 24th, before heading across the pond for a string of dates in the U.K. This brings us back to the topic of the role that New York plays in the band’s music. With NYC so central in SKATERS’ work, how does their music translate outside the U.S.? “I think it works really well in the UK,” says Cummings. “They are really receptive to new music in general, and I think a lot of our influences are from British bands, just as much as American. And were a guitar band, as they call it. So they’ll hear it, and it’s New York-centric, but it’s not really alienating in any way.”
Back in the States later this Spring, SKATERS will play South by Southwest before heading out on a U.S. tour in support of Manhattan. Reflecting on playing for new audiences, Cummings comments that “I just want people to have a good time, honestly, I know it sounds like a cliche, but it’s true. Something that can be universally liked by people who like different kinds of music. I just want a broad accessible sound, I just want people to come out and have fun, and it won’t matter where your heads at.”
Manhattan will be released February 24th via Warner Music. You can pre-order the album here.