DNCE’s show at the Fillmore on Sunday was unambiguously a pop show, except not exactly. While the band brought pop-style extravagance to hits like “Cake by the Ocean” and “Toothbrush,” its opener, The Skins, was not so stylistically easy to pin down.
Composed of siblings Bay Li, Reef Cole and Kaya Nico on vocals, drums and bass respectively, as well as guitarists Russ Chell and Daisy Spencer, the band came together in music school in Manhattan playing classic and neo rock covers and uploading them on Facebook. “Our school was in Hell’s Kitchen, in Manhattan, but we rehearsed at my mom’s basement in Brooklyn,” Li explained.
Everything changed at one of The Skins’ gigs at the festival South by Southwest, where they were approached by an associate of legendary producer Rick Rubin.
“We were like, ‘no, you aren’t,’ ” Spencer recalled of their initial disbelief at being approached. “A week later, we were chilling with Rick Rubin in Malibu, (California). It was really wild.”
That experience guided the group’s sound away from purely classic rock and toward more modern styles. “Rick never sent us a pop band from 2015 and said ‘play something like this.’” Li explained. “He would send us really old school, weird, chanty, almost nursery rhyme-type vibes, to get the idea of hooks and chants in our head. It was a self-learning thing, trial and error. That’s why it took three years.”
The result of those years of experimentation is a stage sound that spans everything from modern and classic rock to synths and hip hop. Singles like “Runaway” and “Bury Me” have distinct pop and R&B vibes, yet “i” and “Stampede” have funk rock bass riffs and alt-rock chord structures. The eclectic song-to-song variation produced a dynamism to their Fillmore set and left the audience wondering what each subsequent song would sound like.
The sonic variety was compounded by the band members on stage, who introduced choreography in their numbers and even threw fresh flowers into the crowd. “We’ve always had limited resources, and that made us a very DIY kind of band,” Li explained. “We don’t have a lighting guy, we don’t have a stage production, we just have the show. So where we can add little sprinkles of fun like that we try to.”
On stage, the friendship between the band members translated into organic and energetic interactions, despite the show being planned to a T. The members not only represented a wide range of personalities, but also a diversity frankly lacking in indie and pop rock. “We happened to be a diverse group of friends,” Li said. “We didn’t choose for that to happen, but we really are all about diversity and diffusion, creative diffusion, cultural diffusion.”
“And Fuck Donald Trump!” she added. This sentiment, echoed by all the band members, was their place of intersection, “as people of color, as women, as queer people, as liberal fucking yankees,” and it helped strengthen their desire to create a space and community around the people with whom their music resonated. “We just hope that we can let each other into each other’s world and create a community,” Li said.
The audience at the Fillmore responded viscerally to that feeling; hands were in the air and reaching forward within the first two numbers. Everything the band members projected about the social goals of their work was left unsaid vocally; instead they preferred to put their full effort into performing and allowed the audience to react for itself.
In a way, The Skins’ style wasn’t a perfect fit for headliner DNCE, with its bombastic, latent sensation of surface level pop, when stacked side-by-side. DNCE never purported to put on anything but a fun, danceable funk-pop show, and they did just that. The Skins, on the other hand, was certainly not what everyone at the DNCE show was expecting. But for those in the crowd who, as Li put it, “fuck with it,” the impression was undoubtedly lasting.
Imad Pasha covers film. Contact him at [email protected].