The Cincinnati electro jam band called Skeetones boast a long history of musicianship and an interesting mix of instrumental skill-sets that uniquely overlap. Four of the five members play keys and three of the five play samples, in addition to one each on guitar, bass, synth, and drums. Furthermore, two of them are brothers and all of them have played with at least one other Skeetone in a previously existing band. Though their roots are in jam, rock, and jazz, the band also toys with elements of electronica. Perhaps most notable is their ability to create dubstep songs live and their overarching desire to perform without pre-recorded backing tracks.
I met up with the Skeetones last Saturday just before their performance with Digital Tape Machine and Strange Arrangement at The Lafayette Theater. Below, we discuss how they make their music, the success they’ve seen thus far, and their upcoming album release.
NUVO: Can you each introduce yourselves and briefly explain what you do in the band?
Robby: I play drums and I do a lot of the booking for Skeetones. Cole and I are brothers.
Mike: My name is Mike and I play the guitar, as well as do a little sampling stuff on Ableton. I’ve played guitar for about six years now. I started out learning a lot of jam and rock. I’ve been playing with Tyler and Robbie since high school, which is about five or six years.
Tyler: I play keyboard. I started out playing jazz piano about eight or nine years ago. Like Mike said, I’ve played with him for a long time; a lot of jam stuff. Phish. That kind of thing. And these guys kind of got me into electronic music. That’s when I really took a turn and started getting into synthesizers and stuff like that. I also write music for the band. [other members chime in here and all agree that Tyler is the rockstar of the band]
David: I play bass and mess around with Ableton. I’ve actually been playing with Cole since we were in 7th grade. So we’ve been playing together for about 10 years. I started playing bass, then switched over to guitar for a few years, and then went back to bass. I do most of the artwork and flier design for Skeetones as well.
Cole: I’m Cole. I originally played the drums with a couple of other bands before I got into DJing electronic music about two and a half years ago. In Skeetones, I play samples and secondary keyboard parts. I’m pretty much the band nerd with technology and stuff.
NUVO: I am most interested in the construction and structure of the band. It’s not uncommon to see live instrumentation with electronica these days, but it’s usually only one or two elements. For example, Pretty Lights plays live with a drummer, but it’s nowhere near a full band. Or, there could be a full band with electronic icing on the cake, like Papadosio. How do you categorize Skeetones? Where do you see yourselves fitting on this spectrum?
Cole: We kind of pride ourselves on not using pre-recorded backing tracks or loops. Like you mentioned Pretty Lights & Papadosio. They use backing tracks for a lot of the stuff they’re playing. I think all of our roots are in jam, rock, and jazz so we want to preserve that live energy element and leave room for improvisation.
NUVO: What is your songwriting process like & how do you find balance between live instrumentation & electronica?
Robby: We write a lot of songs in Ableton. In learning how to do that, we’ve actually scrapped a lot of them because they sounded great on computers, but trying to do it live just didn’t come out the way we wanted it to sound. I think we’ve got a good system now. The last few songs we’ve written are translating better to the stage.
Cole: We really take advantage of the technology available because we all use the same software. So we’ll write it and then send it to each other and someone will take a stab at it and we’ll toss it back and forth. And then we might meet up to work out some of the final issues so they we can have a pre-recorded version of the song. It’s really helped us to take off because when we started, I think I was the only one with a laptop.
David: Those were our early jam songs. I didn’t play any keyboard parts. Cole didn’t play any keyboard parts. We were strictly just bass, drums, keys, and then Cole would add on top of that. So, just recently in the past six or seven months, we’ve been adding more electronic songs to our repertoire.
NUVO: There is some overlap in your instrumentation. Almost all of you have your hands on a keyboard during a performance. Does that help in situations where you might need a sub in someone’s absence?
Tyler: Fortunately, we haven’t come across that yet.
Cole: A lot of the parts are very specific. Mike is in a geology program at The University of Cincinnati and he’s going off to a camp to do a senior project soon. We’re going to be doing three shows minus Mike. It’s going to be more of a live PA setup. Which we’re still…
David: Yea, we don’t know how we’re gonna do that.
Cole: It’s gonna be hard without Mike.
Robby: Well, Cole & I are brothers so we’ve been playing drums since 3rd grade and piano lessons since 1st grade. Mike came to me when he wanted to learn guitar and we started playing together before we were even in a band with Tyler. Basically it’s a cluster of tons of bands, in and out. Tyler and David were in a band together called Chronic Influence. Cole and David were in Chimp Pimp. So there are probably about four different groups that had two or more members of Skeetones in them.
NUVO: So when was the actual formation?
Cole: We started playing August 2009. That was one of our first shows.
NUVO: Who have been your creative inspirations as Skeetones continues to develop its sound?
Cole: I think everyone is different. Like I listen to a lot of jazz and hip hop. And then I like DJ’s & producers, too.
Tyler: I like jazz and jam bands- Phish, Grateful Dead & that kind of stuff. I’m still really into that. I don’t listen to it as much as I used to, but that definitely affects the way I play and has pushed me in a certain direction in terms of where I’m at now with my playing. We’ve all had very drastic changes in our tastes of music over the few years. You know, I didn’t really listen to electronic music AT ALL two or three years ago. I didn’t even listen to it or know anything about producers. I listened to jam bands. I was always a big Umphreys McGee fan. I think me and Mike can both agree on that. I like hip hop, even hard rock and heavy metal. Really, any music is good music to me.
NUVO: Getting more specific, there is an obvious and heavy dubstep influence. Who in the band is responsible for that?
Robby: I think I remember sometime around 2008 playing some dubstep like “You guys heard what dubstep is?” and we started getting into it. I think our musical taste was more spread out and we all started getting into electronic music. As our musical interest started focusing on electronics, it became obvious we needed to be an electronic band. But I think we all really like dubstep. Maybe Tyler the least.
Tyler: I really don’t like dubstep.
Cole: I think dubstep is something that we wanted to try because you don’t see a lot of live bands playing it. I think it was just one of those things where we wanted to see if we could do it.
NUVO: How do you do it?
Cole: It’s in the way we have the laptops set up. Like, sometimes David and I will be playing two different basses at the same time.
David: It’s like, I’ll be playing the sub line and Cole will be playing the wobble line. [laughs]
Cole: It’s just fun to produce those dubstep sounds.
NUVO: And that’s all done live?
Cole & David: Yeah.
NUVO: And that’s what is phenomenal, in my opinion. Even in the live electronica ballgame, you just don’t see those sounds being produced live. Like, that’s always prerecorded.
Cole: A lot of the bands that do it are using click-track and the drummer is playing on top of the computer.
Robby: For example, you mentioned Pretty Lights. We love Pretty Lights, but all the drum tracks they do are pre-written and played and then their drummer plays over the top of them. They’re really sub mixed in low so you can’t hear them that much. Instead, we do electronic drums and I have my SPD-S and most electronic drum noise you hear I’m playing personally.
Cole: We really like to hope that people are trying to understand how we’re creating music. We could write our songs and I could just go up there and press play and that would be it, but we want people to understand that there’s room for improve in our songs.
NUVO: Do you find the Midwest to be a challenging market for your music or have you found it to be generally supportive?
Robby: Well, I don’t think we really have a base to compare it to another market. We’ve seen lots of success. The first show that I ever booked for us was in May of last year, so we haven’t even been touring for a year yet. Tonight we’re on with Digital Tape Machine in Lafayette. We played at The Madison Theater with Papadosio and The Werks on New Years and we were also on the main stage at North Coast festival. I don’t think we could be happier or complain about how the Midwest has been treating us.
NUVO: Tell me about your album you’re getting ready to release.
Robby: The album title is Retrospektive and I think it’s appropriate because it’s really a culmination of all these crazy things that have happened. We have all these songs we’ve written over the years that we’ve been tweaking for a long time that we’re finally able to share and perform. The real important thing that we want people to know about this album is that it's a representation of how we play live. If you go to our website now, you’re going to hear tracks produced on our laptops and Ableton. They have no live drums. They have no live guitar. It’s just not the same thing, really. We’re excited to get that sound on there. We are working with Chris Schmidt from Cincinnati to record, mix, and master our album. Cole and David do a lot of work on the production side as well.
Cole: The album is like, we grew so fast that we were like, “Shit. We need an album.” But it is like what Robbie was saying with Retrospektive. It’s like stop, take a breath and look at everything that we’ve done in the past year and a half. We really wanted to put a lot of effort into this because we’ve overheard people at our shows saying things like, “Yea, I don’t know what’s up with that EP. I don’t know if I like that.” And then they see us live and they’re like, “Yeah, can I get a real CD?”