RIP Mike Skinner: Producer, Drummer, Audio Adventurist

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He could leap into a frenetic beat or lock into a solid groove. He could keep it subtle or go absolutely all out. I loved watching Mike Skinner play drums.

Mike Skinner (photo courtesy of Kevin Devine's Tumblr blog -- credited there to Emily Driskill)

Mike Skinner (photo courtesy of Kevin Devine’s Tumblr blog — credited there to Emily Driskill)

I was as floored as anyone to learn that Skinner – an NYC-based drummer, producer, and a pioneering audio adventurer – passed away this weekend. Mike was still plenty young, with a wife and child and a great deal more ahead of him. But now we’re going to have to make do without his musically inquiring mind.

Mike (not to be confused with the rapper of the same name from The Streets) became best known for his work with the indie rock/folk artist Kevin Devine, who he played/toured/co-produced with across a number of albums by The Goddamn Band and Miracle of 86. Be sure to read Devine’s tender tribute to Mike on his Tumblr blog.

That was the work that thrust Mike most into the spotlight, and I know he loved every second of being onstage with such an inspiring artist. But there was much more that Skinner did that was far behind the scenes – and completely ahead of the curve.

Always Experimenting

Mike worked constantly on creating new and different sound installations, totally focused on introducing fresh musical experiences to people. Although Mike enjoyed the rarified experience of regularly playing on big stages to packed houses, his sound art experiments were all about breaking down barriers around the music-making privilege.

In Mike’s mind, everyone should get a shot at making fascinating sounds, even just by moving. In 2010, SonicScoop wrote about Pole Dance, a bold sound-art social space project that he helped create at PS1 in Long Island City, while he was working for Arup Acoustics. Two years later, Mike politely wouldn’t let it rest until we covered another fascinating Arup project he collaborated on, “Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music”, a 3D recording which allowed installation visitors to experience an April 2009 performance from Lou Reed’s sonic perspective.

On the Front Lines

With Mike’s consistent overachievement, I’m sure I would have been introduced to him through professional circles at some point.

But my first exposure to him was a homespun social affair – Mike was a college buddy of one of my roommate’s friends, and one evening in the late ‘90’s we bonded over drinks and smokes in our East Village apartment. I immediately gravitated to his soft-spoken manner, balanced with an intensive creative drive.

We were always in close contact after that, and I came to see Mike was like a lot of people I know today: a true musical warrior. Looking back, I can’t think of a move he made that wasn’t somehow connected to the auditory experience. I realize now how much he always wanted to hear original things, and open up those moments to everybody else.

A Lesson Relearned

As connected as we were, Mike and I lost contact shortly after the Lou Reed article ran in February, 2012. For reasons that I’m not yet sure of, Mike dropped off the grid – I became aware that he was no longer responding to emails, phone calls or text messages. Other mutual friends I checked with had similar experiences.

Then in June I ran into someone from that original social circle, who had Mike’s new cell number. He passed it on, and I immediately texted Mike, who immediately texted me back. We agreed we were excited to be back touch. We agreed we would talk again real soon.

But I was in the thick of a trade show at the moment, and I never made the call – although I kept telling myself I would as soon as I had a second. I expect Mike was telling himself the same thing. And now here I am with a cruel lesson that everybody has to learn, and re-learn: sometimes you flat-out run out of time. I deeply regret my lost opportunity to get caught up, and that chance is never coming back.

Do you have someone sitting in your phone that you’ve been waiting to get to? If the answer is “yes”, can you put aside a few minutes today to reconnect? Then go ahead and touch the drum, make a sound. Make contact.

— David Weiss

Hear Mike in his element on “Every Famous Last Word” by Miracle of 86:

 

  • Mark Ephraim

    Nice writing. I will deeply miss Mike and all of the possibilities I had in mind working with him as well. Such a huge loss.