This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on August 21, 2014.
Cover photo: Members of Skirts. Left to right: Dylan Vaisey, Hayden Ford, Jacob Walsh, Brianna Battista. (Dadstache Records)
A college music scene can take a city’s musical culture to another level – the conservatory kids create a hub of performances and workshops that supplements the work of local artists, and then the talent pools overlap, allowing for highly creative musical experiments. Rochester, N.Y., is one such vibrant place. Several eminent academic music programs, including Nazareth College, the University of Rochester, and the Eastman School of Music, feed into an active regional music scene that’s already home to a philharmonic orchestra, choirs, an active chapter of the AFM, dozens of venues, and so many bands and DJs that the city feels like a musical statistical anomaly (as reflected on this slightly out-of-date page). Even the wedding bands in Rochester are of stellar quality.
The pop-rock band Skirts – consisting of Hayden Ford, Dylan Vaisey, Chaz Sumner, Brianna Battista, and Jacob Walsh, and sometimes Connor Benincasa – emerged out of the dynamic Rochester scene one year ago, after existing in various other forms for a few years prior (most prominently as Meanagers). Skirts has begun playing across New York State and is increasing its Internet presence. The group’s first album is available online, and the group recently recorded a 30-minute video performance for the web series, Genesee Live.
At this point, dear reader, you might be thinking that Skirts is just a pleasant college rock band.NO. SKIRTS is one of the most thrilling pop ensembles working commercially in America today. Not just in Rochester, or New York. The whole country. Yes, I’m well aware there are hundreds of talented ensembles working in cities across this country, and the Internet is flooded with their music. And yet, Skirts sticks out, or at least rises to the top of the pile, with its professionalism and inventive musicality.
The debut album, SKIRTS [ON] SKIRTS, features eleven danceable, kooky, and utterly delightful songs that frankly are just as good as works by bigger-name alternative acts like Caveman, The Blow, Tune-Yards, Bleachers, and Haim. Combining jangly guitar melodies, echoes and distortion, a resolutely lo-fi aesthetic, unsettlingly fast BPM counts, witty lyrics, and manic vocals (imagine Elvis Costello’s early creepiness combined with Buddy Holly yelps and then multi-track the hell out of it), Skirts creates perfect little gems of pop songs. Listening to the album, noting the utter lack of drag or sloppiness in the instrumentation, one feels as though this is the group’s fourth or fifth album, rather than the first. These people are cohesive and able to churn out rhythmically complex material that other bands would often struggle to rehearse, let alone record. Moreover, Skirts takes a page from the Talking Heads not only in its slightly off vibe, but also in staging live performances that recreate studio arrangements note for note. I’m still kicking myself mentally for not including SKIRTS [ON] SKIRTS, in my Best Music of 2013 article.
Exclusively for The Daily Pulp, I interviewed Skirts and tried to tease out their modus operandi – while, for the sake of entertaining writing, trying with my words to match the off-kilter yet maniacally happy tone of their music.
1. Do you wear skirts onstage? Do you like having a monosyllabic catchy name? Or is there something else motivating the choice of your band’s name?
HAYDEN: No. Yes. No.
JACOB: *starry-eyed beaming at Hayden, proud of him for answering so strongly.*
DYLAN: No skirts, but I did wear a very sexy blue wig on stage once.
BRI: OK, so many feelings about this. Sometimes I wear a skirt, most times I don’t. In real life, I wear them all the time, but on stage it feels too significant – am I the Skirt in Skirts? That would be crazy, I just don’t want all that power. Hayden has reassured me numerous times that it really means nothing to him if I do or don’t but come on that was your first question. I also want to confirm that Dylan’s blue wig was definitely sexy.
2. Your recent live music video for Genesee Live features a prominently displayed, autographed portrait of David Lynch. What do you feel is the link between Mr. Lynch’s films and your music?
HAYDEN: I’m more influenced by David Lynch’s life than his art. He seems like a great person to spend time with. The YouTube video where he teaches you how to make quinoa has more artistic merit than anything Hollywood has made in the last 30 years. Yeah, I said it. Also he was fantastic on Louie. Skirts could use a coach like that. Damn.
JACOB: So good on Louie. He also has a 30-second video critiquing folks who watch films on their iPhone that’s set to the original iPhone commercial music, and I thought that was hilarious.
DYLAN: The Blue Velvet soundtrack is great, but I don’t really know anything else about him or his other stuff.
BRI: “I hate slick and pretty things. I prefer mistakes and accidents.” – Skirts or Lynch?
3. It’s time for a clichéd music journalism question!! Your music combines elements of pop, New Wave, surf rock, and of course the indie/college rock scene. Tell me – where does SKIRTS see itself along genre lines? Alternatively, do you prefer to see yourself as musically interdisciplinary? [Or – criticize the clichéd nature of the question.]
HAYDEN: I think my bandmates will give you some genres that they think we fit into, like “gnarly space dub” or something so I’ll spare you. I think we’re too poppy to be a punk band, and too punk to be a pop band, and definitely not a pop-punk band. We don’t surf, we don’t practice in a garage, not all of us are in college, and I don’t even know if New Wave exists anymore. I guess we’re nothing.
Seriously, though, I would like to think our music is interdisciplinary, but who knows. I’ve always tried to include all genres that I love into Skirts songs, not just rock-related ones. This mostly takes the form of Bollywood or other Indian influences, from ragas to Bhangra. I sometimes wonder how much of that shines through in our older songs, though in our newer tunes it should be pretty obvious. I’m happy with how the sounds are coming together for us. I’m not really aiming to incorporate Indian music into rock in ways it’s been done before, making it mystical, minor, ominous and psychedelic. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just that other artists have done it and perfected it. I love Indian music and I want to do something new with it. We’re often playing Indian rhythms and melodies, but with rock instruments and happy, dreamy-sounding Skirts chord progressions.
JACOB: One time I was naive enough to ask Hayden if he had ever heard of The Bombay Royale.
I think the fact that all of us have been actively doing music as a hobby since our early teenage years contributes to how little a defined genre validates the music. It comes ultra-naturally because it’s just the thing that we’ve done. Hayden and I recently realized that we used to run in the same little high school punk circles in, like, 2007, and that I own a record of a band that he was a founding member of, which genuinely freaked me out. So that’s where the punk comes from, I think. If that helps. It’s just way too fun to play fast, and important to be emotive and play slowly, and as of late it feels like Skirts does both of those things.
To me, it seems like there’s just a ton of stuff that somehow gets funneled in there, which is why it’s so refreshing to play together. Hayden writes the best songs – the communication when we’re putting something new together is really easy because when you have someone who can write melodies and progressions that are as naturally appealing as the ones he writes, things truly just fall into place. So all the cool and interesting stuff that he’s into gets funneled in and we play it, and then we play the shit out of it.
All that said, “Love-punk Surf-pop” – totally.
DYLAN: What’s cool is, even though we’ve all been playing for a while, our backgrounds musically are very different. For example, like Jake mentioned, Hayden was in all of these random punk bands that I’ve never heard but really want to, Jake is an awesome jazz drummer who played in a few reggae bands (maybe just one? I don’t know), Bri did and still does musical theater because her voice is incredible, I screwed around playing in screamo bands in my friend’s basements… weird stuff. I just think it’s fun that we’ve all done our own things and been a part of other “scenes” and now we’re all together making whatever it is we make. I don’t know how it happened, but thankfully we all ended up together. ❤
BRI: UGH GENRES WHAT KIND OF INTERVIEW IS THIS, ETC., ETC. … but seriously, I never understood how to classify genres. I’d echo the guys, though, in that our backgrounds and tastes are where the sound comes from, not from an idea or going after a particular style. And from my perspective, our histories are pretty clear — for example, I think Chaz and his jazz background is undeniable in his bass lines, and the fact that Jake writes folk music (The Wholesale Kids — check it) is apparent in his guitar solos. I love that. I think we owe some credit to Hayden on that one, and the freedom he gives us. When we learn new songs, he shows us the framework and an idea. We can then take liberties and he encourages us to mess around, making it our own.
That being said, “love-punk surf-pop” makes a TON of sense to me. Nice job.
4. Tell us a little something about each member of the SKIRTS collective. (Imaginary bonus points for making creative biographies here, folks.)
HAYDEN: I am neurotic. Jake is a cool baby-boomer dad. Chaz is a mad scientist (he will invent a cure for some big disease, but it will cost him everything). Bri is disarming, social, and clearly the most well-adjusted member of Skirts. Dylan still thinks he’s in Meanagers. Connor is pretty much in Skirts number-wise and personality-wise.
JACOB: Everything Hayden said is 100% real life, and I would especially like to jump on board with his comment about Bri because it is so perfectly accurate. Dylan is the best to hug and is a monster on the drums. I often miss Chaz because he disappears sometimes to go be a genius somewhere else, but you can’t blame him for being smart, and also a genuinely cool dude. One time I had a dream that Hayden was a cherub, and I’ve never told him about that, but he is also intensely funny, insightful, and is comfortable with exchanging “I love you”‘s after every show, which is important to me. Connor is so sincere, talented, and hilarious that we want to kidnap him and just kind of keep him forever because he feels like an important part of the Skirts offstage experience (a.k.a hanging out & being friends). His band is Comfy and they are so good.
DYLAN: Hayden once called me the “brains” of Skirts. My title has subsequently been changed, but I thought it was worth mentioning.
BRI: Things I have learned:
Hayden’s greatest challenge in life is making breakfast.
Jake has been to 74 Phish concerts and he only recently started bringing his children along.
Chaz can funkify like you only DREAM of funkifying.
Dylan is still the brains.
Connor has choreographed riveting dance pieces to the tunes of Freddie Mercury. Footage release date TBA.
And all of these guys are super intelligent and creative and really fun to play with.
We are all neurotic.
5. What were the smallest and biggest crowds for which you ever played? The best/worst gigs?
HAYDEN: Best gig ever was probably at The Womb in Allston, MA. Amazing basement, crowd that was almost too rowdy, Bollywood item songs projected in our faces, what more could you ask for? Our worst gig was probably the one where it was just Dylan, Bri and I and we kept telling the audience that Chaz was dead (I believe he got hit by a bus in Africa?). It was bad. We probably deserved it. Plus we forgot our good luck Saraswati shrine. We also just played a show to literally no one in Ithaca. Surprisingly, it was far from our worst gig.
JACOB: That Allston gig was probably my favorite as well – it was so fun, and we didn’t know anybody except for the promoter (my friend and label co-owner AJ) and a few friends that relocated to Boston after school. Someone noticed that people were drunkenly trying to sing along to the choruses without ever having heard the songs, which was so cool. And the projector was dope. Everyone had fun.
I was in the audience for that aforementioned “worst gig,” and it wasn’t that bad. It was unfortunate that Chaz was killed in Africa, though. I still had fun, and I joined the band like a week later. And Chaz came back to life, which was a dope miracle-type-thing.
DYLAN: Both times we played at the Laundromat [in Rochester’s 19th Ward] were really cool. One of those times we got to play with one of my favorite local Rochester bands, Cottage Jefferson, who unfortunately just broke up a little while ago. RIP cot j.
BRI: The Womb was a great time. The space was wacky and ridiculous. The crowd knocked over the mic (more than once right?) because they were dancing so hard. It probably wasn’t our cleanest gig, but it definitely FELT like our best gig. I loved playing the Weezer show at the Bug Jar [in Rochester, N.Y.] as well. So many people came for the upcoming Weezer covers and we made lots of new friends.
6. What liquid has had the greatest influence on your writing process?
HAYDEN: Songwriting: Tears. Live: Wild Turkey.
JACOB: Lava lamp. Adrenaline. Wait, I don’t write the songs. George Dickel Rye Whiskey. Lots of water.
DYLAN: Cock ‘n Bulls ginger beer.
BRI: Organic Triple-filtered Reverse Osmosis Water.
7. Rochester, your origin town, is often stereotyped as a dying post-industrial city with little culture. Comment on the state of that city and its music.
HAYDEN: Actually, Bri [lives in] Buffalo, and Connor (who plays bass for us a lot) is from Utica, so really our band spans a whole range of dying post-industrial cities with little culture. Honestly though, I grew up in Rochester, went to high school and college here, and was very antsy to leave until recently. I had a few health problems, wound up in the hospital, and realized my dreams of moving to New York or India weren’t going to happen right away. It’s a small city for sure, but the rent is cheap, there are good record stores, some good restaurants, The Bug Jar exists, it’s not a bad place to be a band or an artist. I’m happy here, so long as I’m able to take frequent road trips to get decent pizza and some good sambar.
JACOB: I’ve also been here forever so far, and my whole thing is to purposefully not have a plan to do anything that might stop me from feeling like myself, if that makes any sense. So I’ve thought about leaving, and once I’m out of school, my opinion about living in Rochester might change, but for now, this is the spot for me. I live downtown, in the attic of a huge old Rochester mansion, and I play in bands and eat food and bike around and do the school/work thing. It’s affordable, tight-knit, and I’m very happy here. The medium-sized city vibe is incredibly appealing to me. BUT I MIGHT BE CHASIN’ THAT PAPER ELSEWHERE IN THE FUTURE. Or, if this interview makes us famous (which I’m counting on), then obviously a worldwide tour is in the cards.
DYLAN: WE REPPIN ROC CITY BOIIIIII YOU KNOW ITS ME B WE OUT HERE YOU CANT STOP US YOU AINT EVEN KNOW WHATS GOOD MAAAYYYNNNEEE.
BRI: I love this question. I laugh when people stereotype these cities that way. They’re probably looking for a bigger mall or something.
The culture is incredibly strong here, but it’s on the DL. I feel like that protects it from unimaginative people, tourists, lame-os. In Buffalo, the most fun things are way off the beaten path, and are probably cheap if not free. You need to hunt it down, which has made it special to me. Once you find it, you start seeing the true heart of the city – and these people are in it for the long haul, unlike bigger cities where the citizens are more transient. These post-industrial cities are gritty, but have SO much character. Passionate grassroots organizations, zines, performances, local music festivals, every kind of festival, rallies. I’ve lived in major cities for 5 years and couldn’t be happier to be back in WNY. We don’t have the glitz of a bigger city, but I find that to be a turn-off anyway. GRIT 4 LYFE MAAAAYNE.
8. What band would you want to cover your music?
HAYDEN: Gwar, in the style of Al Green.
JACOB: One of our friends’ bands. That’s always been a weird thing I’ve had.
Dylan: Imagine full orchestral versions of our songs… that would be sick. I’m looking at you, RPO [Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra]. Let’s talk business.
9. Another clichéd question: What is next for SKIRTS?
HAYDEN: We may or may not have an EP coming out through a local record label that we may or may not have already released something through. It may or may not be out September. I don’t know why I’m being this secretive. It feels cool, though. In the meantime we’re playing shows anywhere and everywhere, doing some more recordings, just slaying it, really. IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: We want to play your house party.
JACOB: See above: “We want to play your house party.” We really do. What’s next: hopefully playing guitar and jumping around with you and your friends, as per the usual.
DYLAN: I just like hitting things with sticks.
BRI: Well, to be literal– we’re playing a Carnival-themed house venue in Buffalo on Thursday night [8/14/2014]. It is allegedly including fire hooping and bonfires and silly string.
10A & 10B. Does SKIRTS have a favorite ice cream flavor? And if SKIRTS was a color, what color would it be?
HAYDEN: Skirts is open to all kinds of ice cream. Bri is vegan, but deep in her heart she must love ice cream, too. To limit oneself to one flavor of ice cream seems almost inhuman. Skirts is offended by the question.
Skirts IS purple. There should be no discussion about this.
JACOB: Very tru. CrucIal.
Author’s Note: Skirts released an EP entitled Semesters on December 12, 2014.