Upon first listen, you might think SKATERS’ debut full length is a pretty good album. It spans multiple genres, narratives, and moods, and all in all, it’s a fun sound. However, those who are wise enough to take a second listen might just start to agree with me that Manhattan is one of the best albums of 2014.
The first time through you might miss the deftly made choices and level of effort each member poured into Manhattan. The reggae influence, the social chatter layered between tracks, the music video execution…SKATERS have been hands-on from the start to ensure that this album reached its full potential.
As the band was touring in support of the record release, members Noah and Dan sat down with me over Thai iced coffee to talk about it all before they put on an explosive performance at the Satellite in LA.
Manhattan is out, and I know it’s a clear homage to New York, which is where you’re based, but I heard you kind of got your start here in LA.
Noah: Yes and no. The idea of the band started in LA. Josh and Mike met at a party here. Both of them had been in other bands, and they talked about starting something together, but the first shows were in New York. The songs came together and were written there.
Aside from the title of the album, did you find a lot of your inspiration in the city? Was it personal or external perspective that served as your writing foundation?
Noah: It’s almost all external perspective. We tracked, I think, 17 songs, and then when it came to deciding which tracks were on the record, it was a combination of what lyrical content seemed in line with the city and what we liked aesthetically.
Dan: There are a lot of emotions in the record. When Michael was writing, he drew from his personal experience with other people he knew in that first year when we all moved to New York: the stories, the trials and tribulations of someone trying to make it happen in NY, doing whatever you have to do. We were all bartenders, artists, models… There’s a lot of inspiration from the melting pot of people who hang around East Village.
Noah: I think that we thought we understood the city really well because we had all lived there in different periods of our lives, but this time we really experienced the city in a different way. We truly experienced the stories that people talk about, stories that had always felt fictitious, but all of a sudden, after a year of being there, those things started to actually happen. We didn’t touch on those things in the album explicitly because I think that would have been pretentious, but we tried to touch on them in the safest way that we could.
Dan: We’d explain them through anecdotal story content.
And have it all within about 3 minutes.
Noah: Right, because, while it’s an homage to the city, it’s also a hate/love kind of thing where it’s not necessarily something to be proud of, but we’re still proud of it. It’s weird.
Dan: It’s like, that city can be your best friend and your worst enemy. You kind of have to live with it and take a punch every now and then.
Noah: It’s like a drug. It can make you something you didn’t think you had in you, and that can be a very embarrassing thing.
I noticed you have some dialogue mixed between the tracks. Is that pulled candidly from some of your experiences in New York?
Noah: That was all live.
Dan: Yeah, that wasn’t a skit. It was legit field recording.
Noah: Mike was taking a taxi home from work at 4 o’clock in the morning, and he had a wasted cab driver. The other one was from when we were sitting at a restaurant and a group of girls were just yelling things. They didn’t even realize how spoiled they were, so we just captured those moments. That’s kind of the hate side of the city, when you’re struggling, working 50 hours a week at a bar, and the people around you are talking about “struggling,” and you just want to punch them in the face.
Has touring solidified your love of New York, seeing all these different places and then coming back to the city?
Dan: Yeah, I mean New York is definitely home to us. We all consider it that way even if none of us were necessarily born there. We all have a lot of love for the other cities in our lives, LA being one of them.
Noah: Yeah, you name a city, we’ve got something good to say about it. We probably have more bad things to say about New York.
Dan: We get to see the good parts of the cities we visit; we have to live in the bad parts of New York.
I’ve noticed you feature a wide range of perspectives and themes in your music videos. “Armed” was significantly different than others, which have been quite a bit more upbeat. How did you approach “Armed”?
Dan: Danilo Parra was our director. He works hand-in-hand with us, and in that case, we had been in touch with the kids in that video through him. Young Dope and his crew all lived in the Coney Island projects, and Danillo had been working with them at the time. That song [“Armed”] was a bit of a departure from what we had been writing, and I think we took an opportunity to create something that was a little more heavy than our other stuff.
Noah: Yeah, I think we started with the basic theme of being in a situation where you have to prove that you’re hard in whatever capacity. It started with this idea of a girl going to the projects and getting deep into it and then maybe going a little bit too deep. Then we wanted it to have a little bit of a sci-fi element to it because we want all of our videos to have a fantastical element to them just to make them a little more interesting than reality.
Dan: Not your average storyline.
Noah: Yeah, it just evolved. We were just spitballing, and with every step that the video took, we were able to get a little bit deeper and expand on the concept that we had. We got such incredible performances from the actors, and the song fit the vibe. I think I saw in some comments people calling it racist, which I didn’t really understand, but there’s no racism at all whatsoever.
You guys are more overtly featured in other videos, such as “Miss Teen Massachussetts.” Is there a general preference you guys have regarding your level of involvement with music videos?
Dan: I think we like being in videos. We like working with the concept and the storyline for the videos, so when we’re are in them, we know how to dive into that world.
Noah: We didn’t want to be in any of our videos for the first couple years, and then with “Miss Teen,” we decided that it was the time to be in our videos. I think we’ll be acting in some capacity in all of the upcoming videos, as long as we’re not performing in them.
So you wouldn’t want to do a live performance visual for one of your videos?
Noah: We tried it once. It was terrible.
Dan: It just wasn’t great. Not to say that we can’t make a good one, but until we figure out how to do it and make it great, we’d much rather be characters.
Noah: The only band that I can think of who did that and did it well was The Strokes with “Last Night,” and I think we have enough Strokes comparisons that we don’t need to do a partially live video as well.
How do you feel about being compared to The Strokes?
Noah: Well, they’re our very close friends.
Dan: Yeah, people know they’re our friends, and if you look at it from a distance, we’re another rock band from New York that…
Noah: Has the exact same instrumentation.
Dan: Yes, the same instrumentation, the same come up. I can see where the comparisons are coming from.
Noah: You can also compare us to any band.
Dan: There are plenty of other bands you could compare us to that would probably make more sense.
Sometimes all it takes is a riff that sounds inspired by another band to lead to a comparison, and it just takes off from there.
Noah: I guess so. I compare bands as a musician, but not necessarily where they come from. We always joke with all bands about the comparisons that we get. It’s just a musician joke because most of us just don’t get it.
We hear we sound like The Strokes, but we think, “But we have drum fills and harmonies and electronic elements. There are reggae songs, and our first record is heavier while the Strokes’ first album is pretty light.” That’s how we think. I’m not trying to defend it; it’s just how we see the comparison.
Dan: If you go back to that one riff that inspires comparison to a band like The Strokes, the thing is both bands are probably deriving it from a band like The Ramones. It’s all drawn from personal influences.
You mentioned reggae in your music. Do you plan on pulling from different genres as you record more in the future?
Noah: Yeah, exactly. That’s why we do it. We could have done all punk songs, which I think some people wanted us to do, but we knew if we did that our next record would have to be the exact same thing. We made a conscious effort to get the reggae tracks and “Miss Teen” on the record, so it wouldn’t come as a surprise if we chose to slow down a bit [with future songs] or go more in-depth culturally, such as with Jamaican culture.
I went to Jamaica a few months ago, and it made me want to write more reggae songs. I know that we probably shouldn’t do it, but I would do a full record of reggae tracks. I don’t give a shit if we’re white, and it sounds white as fuck. I just want to do what makes us happy.
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