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Interview: Michael Ian Cummings

25 May 2023

Photo by Guy Eppel

After a brief major label dalliance with Warner Brothers with his band Skaters close to a decade ago, singer Michael Ian Cummings dropped out of sight. Stinging from being dropped, Cummings was burned out and ready to move on to whatever came next. Fortunate for listeners, the flame was rekindled in the last few years with Cummings testing the waters to see if he still had it. With a five-song reintroduction EP, and some time to decide that he’s not ready to give up, Cummings is considering this the next chapter in his musical career rather than the final chapter. And, along with the new solo material, Cummings’ band, Skaters, will be reuniting for a show in June and leaving the door open for more to come.

I have often listened to “Miss Teen Massachusetts” and been like, “Whatever happened to Skaters?” And now I’m happy to find out. What happened to you?

MICHAEL: Basically, life happened, man. The only way I can really describe it is that a lot of little things happened. We got dropped from Warner. They kind of bungled our release that “Miss Teen” was on. That dampened some spirits. And then, basically, people started having children and getting married, and life happened. It was definitely a combination of all those things that made it a little less feasible to survive on making music. Yeah, we were lucky enough to be able to just make music for all those years but it just got kind of impossible.

When that single came out were you led to believe by the label that this was going to be the next big hit?

MICHAEL: Well, we actually heard through the grapevine, I can’t say any names, but that the programmer at KROQ was really excited about it. The label put money into our radio budget for the “teaser song”, which was the song called “Deadbolt,” and it charted at number 43 or something on alternative radio. I thought, “Wow, that’s great.” And then it was like six weeks out from the “Miss Teen” single and the label pulled the radio budget. They spent half a million dollars on making our record and pulled the budget of $16 grand to service it around the country.

We’d already played the radio shows. We’d done all the PR for it, we’ve done the legwork to put out a real single. And that was the first big sour taste that was left in our mouth.

And then the label dropped you and, as you said, life started happening. In 2017, you quietly released a second Skaters record, Rock and Roll Bye Bye.

MICHAEL: I think, arguably, we made a better record. We made a second record that I’m extremely proud of and we went really hard. We had, like, 74 different songs, demos for that record. We were really ambitious and we didn’t really care about the label drop. We wanted to make the best possible record. It was originally going to be a two album thing, like a double record, and then we whittled it down eventually to the second record, which is Rock n Roll Bye Bye and I think it’s better than the Warner one. It didn’t have that push, and it didn’t have the money behind it, and the people that heard it appreciated it, but it wasn’t the same impact, for sure.

Was it all the same members of the band that played on the first record?

MICHAEL: Yeah, the band was the same. It’s funny, I’ve been reading all these articles about The Walkmen getting back together and them being like, “We never said we broke up.” And I really related to that. We didn’t really have a plan to break up. It was literally one show. On stage at Baby’s All Right, during what turned out to be our final American show, Josh [Hubbard] was like, “This is our last show. Thanks so much.” And we’re just looking around, and we looked at each other, and we didn’t feel like any way about it. We’re laughing. And then that was kind of it. It wasn’t like there was any writing on the wall and everyone was disagreeing. We were all close friends. It was just reality. We were just looking at what was in front of us. We did some amazing shows in the UK. We always had a stronger UK following than we did in America. And we went over there and toured and those were actually officially the last shows we played. Those were great. They were as good as any shows we played before that.

Was the downtime caused by the pandemic the thing that got you writing music for your solo album?

MICHAEL: To be honest, COVID wasn’t a very inspirational period for me. It was just an opportunity to take a beat and not do the rat race struggle of hustling to pay rent and all that shit creatively. Those songs all came about in the last couple of years, just organically. It wasn’t a big push. Most of the things I’ve made, I’ve always pushed. Like I said, that second record was 74 songs. This was very slow. I took my time, and when it felt like it was a group of songs, I finally got a crew together during COVID and we went to a studio in Greenpoint called The Cave. My friend was so generous and just let me record the songs for free. And that was the catalyst. I guess if it wasn’t for COVID, I might not have had time to do that. But I don’t think COVID was particularly inspiring. I spent most of my time drinking beer with my friends on church steps in the East Village. I actually resented people when they were being so ambitious during COVID. You’re not going to take a second to just be stupid for a second? I mean, people died. It was terrible. I was always shocked that people were writing COVID records when we were in the midst of it. We didn’t know what that really even meant yet or when it would end. And I’m like, “How can you have perspective on this thing that nobody understands?”

Is it freeing to write your own stuff and not have to bounce it past bandmates or was that challenging?

MICHAEL: It was a little bit of both. I think it was challenging because of the self-motivating factor that was needed just to have the work ethic. Without the pressure of the band, I find it to be more difficult. However, other decisions are much easier because you ultimately maybe have one other person. For me, it’s Noah [Rubin], who played drums in Skaters. He’s kind of like my soundboard. Any idea I have, I can bring to him just as a friend. We’ve know each other so long and he gets me. But it’s not like a rejection process with my solo stuff. It’s more like just a little opinion. With the band, it always felt like I was the songwriter, so there was an expectation that there had to be songs to have a band.

So you had to do it because you had a whole team of people and people would be let down if you didn’t do it. There’s something to be said about that as well. I mean, you get a lot done. I’m not sure which is better, but I have really enjoyed not conferring with people on every decision when it comes to artwork or playing shows or whatever on the solo EP. And it feels like a really freeing, pressure-free way to create music that reminds me that I like doing it.

That’s important, right?

MICHAEL: It’s literally the most important. And that’s the thing. I started to hate everything after six years of not doing anything. And then I realized that it was a mental block. I was just repressing whatever trauma from being in a band, being dropped, all that shit. And it really had nothing to do with making music, which I still enjoy.

Are those real strings on “Oldest Troubles”?

MICHAEL: Yeah. They were done by a friend of mine named Jesse Kotansky and he’s just one of the most incredible musicians and one of those kind of people who you almost resent because they have so much innate talent. I sent the song to him and he was in a different part of the state. I think he was upstate at the time. And he just arranged and recorded everything himself and sent it to me and we went through like maybe one tiny round of notes and that was it and then it was done. I wish I could take credit for arranging those strings. That was definitely Jesse.

Did you write the song with the idea that you wanted to have strings on it?

MICHAEL: Well, for that song, I knew there was something about that song which was particularly strong and I recorded it in this little shithole under a pizza shop in Flatbush that I was renting out, like a tiny little room. I tried to recreate it with a band and Noah and I had tried to flush it out and make it a full band thing, kind of give it a different vibe or make it fit more. And in the end we did that and it was cool. But the thing that was most powerful about it was the intimacy of vocals and guitar. I sang it and played it once and it was meant to be a demo, but then it just sounded better than anything else when we recorded it. When I decided I wanted to keep that version of it, that’s when I reached out to Jesse to do the strings because I felt like it could be like a John Cale song or something. It had some kind of deepness to it.

Strings, I feel like, are always really helpful with some records, like Sea Change by Beck. All the string arrangements on that are amazing and without them that’s a very different record.

And so I kind of heard that with this song and decided to go against the full band version. And I only know one guy that can really do that and that’s Jesse.

And “Hooray For None” has female vocals.

MICHAEL: That’s my friend Laura Jean Anderson, who I recently wrote 20-something songs with, and she sang on that pretty quickly, similar to the strings. In the demo, I kind of was emulating that sound and I’m a big Pixies fan and I wish I sounded like Kim Deal singing, but unfortunately my voice is not interesting. That’s what I was kind of going for, that call and response, like Pixies thing.

Would you say the EP is for you or is it for the listener?

MICHAEL: You know what? I’m not going to lie. I made it for me. However, most of the stuff that I like I bet was made for the people who made it themselves as well. I think it might be my most honest group of songs I’ve ever released. It really feels super personal, and I think that’s what people are relating to, or at least my friends that I’ve played it for. This is super personal and it makes it more interesting and makes it better, so I hope people relate to it. But, first and foremost, I got to like it myself, right?

Coming back and doing stuff, it was a cathartic experience. This was 100% for me to regain my balance in making and releasing music. And part of that was not doing things I didn’t feel good about in my gut. And whether that was a choice, like re-recording something so it sounds pristine, or keeping the live take, keeping the fucked up guitar that might be out of tune because it just felt better. All my favorite records, all my favorite Guided by Voices songs, have that charm. It wasn’t pristine. And you can tell that they made it because they really wanted to.

As you mentioned, the lyrics are personal but it doesn’t sound like you’re necessarily atoning for any sins or anything. It seems like this is just your life that you’re singing about.

MICHAEL: It’s undeniably about myself. But I try to keep it as universal as possible to be relatable to other people. It’s not a record of Michael’s gripes, you know, but there’s definitely personal life stuff in there. And I’ve always been kind of a cryptic, tongue-in-cheek lyricist. But I think I’m going further away from that with this stuff. Maybe not as earnest as typical singer-songwriter stuff, but that’s really not my vibe anyway.

Do you consider this the next chapter to your career? Are you moving forward or did you just feel like you needed to get these songs out there and then you’ll go back to your day job?

MICHAEL: This is reinvigorating. The whole point of this is really just peeling off the band-aid. I needed to do it and know I could do it. And then once I’ve done it, I’ll be able to go back in and write songs with a purpose, knowing I know how to put them out now, remind myself, “You’ve done this your whole life. You definitely fucking know how to do this.”

My goals are really small. I just want enough people to stream this that I can get a few hundred dollars together to do another session. You know what I mean? I’m not shooting for the stars. I’ll take whatever comes. But my plan is to just keep writing and keep releasing music and whatever capacity that is will be based on how much people like it.

What would be the best way for fans to support you?

MICHAEL: I’ve actually been told my friend Jenny Eliscu that the most beneficial is pretty much Bandcamp for someone doing what I’m doing because there’s a following of people who genuinely want to support artists directly. Because there’s no label, I feel like maybe that’s the best way. And obviously coming to shows, buying t-shirts. I don’t know how many shows I’m going to be playing, but we’ll start with one and see where we go. But, yeah, I’ll tell you, Spotify is not the best way to necessarily support an artist directly. However, sharing music is. So whatever people are comfortable with is cool with me. As long as you enjoy it and you play it for other people. And that’s really the only thing that matters, because weird stuff happens, man. Weird things can happen on the internet out of the blue. So you never know. Just put it everywhere. Let people enjoy it or download it, or pay what they can, or take it for free, whatever. It’s all going in the right direction is the way I think about it.

Considering the fact that you haven’t toured or put out music for a few years, do you have a day job?

MICHAEL: I own a bar with Ryan Levine (The So So Glos) and Maria Devitt in Manhattan which I bartend at. I make my money from bartending. We haven’t really paid back the business. It’s called Victoria! It’s on Eldridge Street in the Lower East Side, and we opened it almost a year ago now. I’ve been bartending for 18 years, and it’s one of the only professions where you can leave and go on tour and come back.

Is there something happening in the Skaters world?

MICHAEL: We just announced that we’re going to get back together and play with the The So So Glos at the Bowery Ballroom with Beverly opening on June 23.

Is this a one-off show? Will you work on new music?

MICHAEL: It’s all up in the air. It’s kind of a test to see if we enjoy it and want to keep doing it. It’s baby steps in all ways, shapes and forms over here. Whether it’s my personal stuff or my solo stuff or the band, we’ll see. I’m super excited to do it. The first time we got all of us in the room together, it felt like a therapy session. It was really nice to just be hanging out with each other again and playing music and laughing. I can see there definitely being more stuff coming, but we haven’t decided on anything quite yet. We’re going to see how this goes.


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