Barreling down a snowy highway in South Dakota, midway through a drive that would ultimately span from Chicago to Vancouver (over 30 hours, for those counting), Brooklyn’s the Skins sounded quite chipper when Fender News caught up with them over the phone.
Sure, the upstart quintet was sandwiched inside a 12-passenger Sprinter van crammed with all their gear and baggage, but this was actually fun for them.
After forming in 2012, the band has supported a sold-out tour with U.K. rockers the Heavy and earned accolades for eye-opening performances at Afropunk Fest, CMJ and the South by Southwest music festival. What’s more, this cross-country trip was for a string of shows opening for the buzzworthy Jake Bugg.
Not too bad for a group that ranges in age from 15-21. Truly, the Skins are on the rise, and they are enjoying the ride.
“This is so exciting, even sitting in the car for 15 hours,” frontwoman Bayli Mckeithan said with a laugh. “We’re playing a lot of places we’ve never played, and at humongous venues with sold-out crowds. We have our own sound guy. I mean, it’s amazing to even be here.”
Made up of two other Mckeithan siblings— Kaya (bass) and Reef (drums)—and two scorching guitarists in Daisy Spencer and Russell Cheli, the Skins are kicking down doors and forcing critics and fans alike to take notice.
Things all started through the School of Rock AllStars, a touring group of some of the most talented students that come through the nationwide program.
In fact, everyone in the Skins is a School of Rock alum. The Mckeithans and Spencer attended in NYC, while Chell rose up the institution’s ranks in his home state of New Jersey.
“I remember the exact day that it became a possibility for me to go to School of Rock,” Spencer said. “I went in to ask my mom for help with my math homework, and there was a commercial for it on the news or something. She knew I wanted to learn guitar, and when I walked in and asked for help with my math, she was like, ‘Shut up! I need to write down this number!’ The rest is history.”
Chell remembered seeing the Jack Black film School of Rock, and apparently the branding worked on him.
“I watched it with my parents, and then they opened one up near where I lived,” he said. “I thought it would be awesome to attend. I ended up there, and even became an instructor.”
The Mckeithan siblings joined in their teens, as well. Reef Mckeithan, the youngest of the crew, credits School of Rock instructors like Dan Crean (from the band Semi Precious Weapons) and Kevin Kendrick for shaping his bombastic sound today, but he was naturally drawn to the drums from an early age.
“They taught me both sides of drumming—the shredding side and the grooming side,” he explained. “But it really first started when my dad brought this electronic drum kit home one day. I could already play a few things, just a few beats out of the blue. I messed around with that until I enrolled at the school.”
Although Bayli Mckeithan is known for her Beyonce-channeling pipes, she took guitar lessons for almost four years. Her inspiration came from watching Led Zeppelin concert film The Song Remains the Same with her father.
“I watched that a few times, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I need to shred guitar,’” she said,
Kaya Mckeithan is probably the one in the group with the least experience with her instrument of choice, even though she exudes a confident approach to the bass on stage.
“I was only at the school for a season or two, but you don’t know how happy I am that I listened to my mom for once and signed up,” she said. “I’m mostly self-taught, with some help from everyone else in the band.”
Those are the basics of their musical education. How they came together was a serendipitous turn of events.
The Mckeithans had posted a few videos online of them playing cover songs, like the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” When Spencer saw them and asked to join the crew, the answer was a resounding yes, and Chell was soon to follow.
Eventually, that led to an endorsement from Adrien Grenier of Entourage fame. Grenier signed the band to his Wreckroom label, which includes a recording space in Brooklyn, and has championed their cause ever since.
“They are the darlings of the Wreckroom and a prime example of why we exist,” Grenier wrote in a blog for The Huffington Post. “Consisting of three teenage siblings and two of their friends, they practice around the corner from me in Bed Stuy and often drop by just to kick it around the house and make noise.”
Rick Rubin, who has worked with such luminaries as the Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Aerosmith and Kanye West, eventually got wind of their “noise.” While Rubin hasn’t lent a hand into an actual track just yet, he figures to play a prominent role into the Skins’ upcoming EP and following full-length release.
“He’s basically been mentoring us, more than just with music specifically,” Bayli Mckeithan said. “He’s very centered and has seen it all. He’s helped us be professionals, like how to approach this business and life. In the future, I’d love to do some more hands-on stuff with Rick, but right now, it’s been a mentor role. That’s crazy, because he’s an icon.”
As if the endorsements from Grenier and Rubin weren’t enough, acclaimed street artist Shepard Fairey has designed a few pieces of merch for the band, too.
At this point, the Skins are working to pinpoint what their sound will be moving forward. It’s clear from their live performances that they are influenced by the classics. Led Zep is tabbed by Kaya and Reef Mckeithan’s earth-shaking bottom-end, Steve Vai and Jimi Hendrix are heard in Spencer and Chell’s explosive fretwork, and Bayli Mckeithan channels Janis Jopin as she completely owns audiences.
But they are also incorporating contemporary artists into their repertoire, as evidenced by a killer cover of Kanye West’s “Mercy” they rocked at last year’s Wreckroom showcase at CMJ.
“When we’ve had time to work on stuff back in New York, we’ve really been open to everything,” said Chell. “The last song that we did that we were really stoked on was kind of an ‘80s-esque Michael Jackson kind of thing. The guitars were kind of muted and compressed with super-clean Stratty tones. There are interlocking guitar parts. But then again, some of the other songs are more straight-ahead rock with badass riffs.”
Now that the Skins are back in New York after criss-crossing the country and appearing at storied venues such as the Fox Theater in Oakland, the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles and Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the proverbial cup of inspiration runneth over.
The Skins have met with a variety of co-writers and producers, and they’ve also continued their jam sessions in the Mckeithan’s Bedford-Stuyvesant basement where the band originated.
“We’re so excited to share the new stuff we’ve been writing, because I think it’s 10 times better than anything we’ve done before,” said Bayli Mckeithan. “It becomes clearer every day, with every session, we’re finding our niche and what we’re really good at. It’s about honing our style, developing as musicians and performers.”
While the Skins are certainly mature beyond their years when it comes to musicianship and performance chops, it will be fun to watch this group grow up.
For more information, visit the Skins’ official Facebook page.
Watch the Skins perform “Summertime” at Walla Fest in the video below, and check out our Spotify playlist featuring the band.