Of the three bridges that connect Brooklyn to Manhattan, the Manhattan Bridge is the one that receives the least amount of love. The Williamsburg Bridge is best for taking on foot, with broader walkways, a skeleton of steel that looks good from every angle and the perk of landing in the Lower East Side once you step onto the island. The Brooklyn Bridge, that behemoth of brick and beams, is the tried-and-true favorite, a symbol of industry and manpower clogged with tourists trying to capture the sun going down over the Statue of Liberty or the city skyline descending into dusk. And then there’s the Manhattan Bridge: just a bit shorter than the Williamsburg bridge; just a bit dirtier, too; poorly lit; tattooed with elaborate tags and graffiti and merciless on the eardrums due to the closeness of the passing trains. Walking beneath it in DUMBO, you confront its gargantuan size; the echoes of the subway bounce off the stalwarts of its foundation and its hue matches that of the East River curling under it a few blocks away. It’s something to behold, and it’s here, at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge, where SKATERS have hung their collective hat.
SKATERS’ frontman isn’t a huge fan of the bridge, though. “The Manhattan Bridge, you feel like you’re in prison!” jokes Michael Ian Cummings as he reclines in his practice space in DUMBO. “When I walk under it right here, the trains go right above your head, and you can’t even hear the music that you’re listening to on your iPod.” Cummings has been living in downtown Brooklyn for a while now, but he and the rest of SKATERS have spent enough time on the road in the last couple of years to consider themselves citizens of the world more than a New York band.
A few cities have factored into the creating of SKATERS before New York became their home: In 2009, Cummings and drummer Noah Rubin moved to Portland, Ore., before driving south to Los Angeles and ultimately settling in New York, with bassist Dan Burke and guitarist Joshua Hubbard joining the fray. “You shed your ego a little bit when you move around,” says Rubin. “You start to experience all kinds of different people and places. When we went to Portland, there was still a little bit of a chip on my shoulder: ‘Boston’s the best!’ And then we went to LA after that, and then we came to New York. By the time we got to New York, it was like, no place is really the best; no band is really the best. You just got to do what you do and be humble about it.”
The band was technically formed in LA in 2011, but their native Boston is where Cummings and Rubin cut their teeth as musicians, playing dives to 21+ crowds when they were still in high school. It was great scene—Drug Rug, Age Rings, Tulsa and Viva Viva could’ve headlined the venues of Central Square on any given night—and one full of friends gigging together and swapping band members between them on occasion. Still, there was a glass ceiling there, and they wanted out from underneath it.
“There’s a thing with Boston where it stays really isolated for some reason from the rest of the country,” says Cummings. “We felt like our friends were talented and the shows were so great, and we wondered why no one was picking up on that. I felt like it should’ve been known all around the country: ‘Look at all the music that’s coming out of this two-block radius!’ I didn’t feel like it was going to. Honestly, I needed a change, growing up there my whole life, so we wanted to move and see what we could do. It’d be really easy to get comfortable in Boston, but then you’d write comfortable music. You’d write in your comfort zone, or art least I would. It would be harder to grow and experience new things because you’re kind of going to the same spots all the time.”
And that’s how the all-too-appropriately named Manhattan came to be. The majority of the record—SKATERS’ official debut—was written in Cummings’ apartment down the street from their space and the bridge of the same name. Recorded at Electric Ladyland Studios and released by Warner, Manhattan isn’t merely a big-label debut for SKATERS but an exquisitely produced and enthusiastically backed one. When it came time to pick a partner in crime to make these songs a reality, the label handed them a list of top-notch producers to work with, including Danger Mouse and Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Laura Marling, etc.) They found a perfect match in John Hill, whose prior credits include MIA, Snoop Lion and The Vaccines.
“There was a couple of weeks where I was talking on the phone with people who have made my favorite records, just to feel them out, and you learn so much!” says Cummings. “You realize, ‘This guy wouldn’t be good for us,’ even though he made this great shit. We learned about what we needed from a producer … and [how to] not remake the records that you love that they’ve already made. One thing that I took away from working with John Hill was that a good sound is a good sound and it doesn’t have to be recorded with a fancy microphone. It’s just about a take, a tone that you don’t need. Usually you end up using the same amp. You find what works and you stick with it.”
The songs of Manhattan, ironically enough, have been played across the pond more frequently than they have in New York, or even on American soil. By the time Manhattan sees its release, SKATERS will have completed six tours in the UK and have yet to tour nationally in the United States, save for one run up the West Coast. That’s not to say that the adoration for SKATERS abroad won’t cross over, or hasn’t already: the band has been tapped to play New York City’s Governor’s Ball in June, alongside The Strokes, Jack White and Outkast, and an extensive American jaunt is on the horizon. The song that brought the house down in the clubs of London, the effervescent “I Wanna Dance (But I Don’t Know How),” has given way to their latest single, “Miss Teen Massachusetts,” as the crowd favorite. Either way, the raucous affair wrought by the songs of Manhattan is one SKATERS’ growing fan base is eager to devour, even if the stuff they’re working on now sounds a little foreign when compared with the record they’re about to drop.
“For our first record, it was important to keep it really simple,” says Rubin. “A couple things were going out of our comfort zone. As we progress, we get more and more out of our comfort zone.”
Boston, Portland, LA, New York, London—their comfort zone expands across massive geographic sprawl, and their musical prowess is a formidable foil that’ll keep growing, even in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge.