Skatune Network's Jer on Pushing Ska Forward | Sonic Futures

Photo by Carolyn Ambriano, courtesy of the artist.

This is the third interview in our Sonic Futures series, where we talk to musicians about Black artists that have inspired their musical journey, and how they pull those influences into the future through their own work. Find previous interviews with Suzi Analogue and Justus West.

Jer poses with a trombone
Jer. Photo by Rae Mystic, courtesy of the artist.

Jeremy Hunter is a musician who does it all. They are the sole creator and driving force behind the Skatune Network YouTube channel—a space where Jeremy has gained millions of views, crafting and self-recording over 300 covers in the genre's style. From '80s synth classics to emo anthems to video game soundtracks, Jeremy can arrange a thoughtful ska cover all within their home studio.

Beyond celebrating and surfacing the creative and wholesome aspects of ska with the Skatune Network channel, Jeremy has been pushing the boundaries of music within their personal projects. Their wealth of musical knowledge from learning almost every instrument, being involved in bands and musical projects, and studying composition has allowed them to effortlessly blend sounds.

Having found ska music at an early age and participating in the scene, Jeremy has gained a great understanding and love for the diversity of the music.

For this Sonic Futures feature, we wanted to talk with Jeremy about their musical journey, their history with ska music, and artists that have influenced them to further their musical endeavors and who have paved the way for them to create a rich community within the scene with a message of inclusivity.

Keep up to date with Jer on Instagram, TikTok, and the Skatune Network channel.

I know you play a wide variety of instruments. Where'd your musical journey start? And how'd you get introduced to so many different instruments?

My first instrument was actually the trumpet. I was forced to do band in school by my parents for three years. I wasn't totally against it, but after the first year I was very into it. By the time I got to high school I was like, "I'm very much a band kid, there's no turning back now.

In middle school, I started taking piano lessons and it was one of the very first instruments I learned. I started learning bass around that time, because I always wanted to play in a band and I was like, "I feel like everyone plays guitar, but no one plays bass." I was kind of right, because finding a good bassist can be sorta hard to find now, and by the time I got into high school I was that band kid that would pick up as many instruments as I could.

After high school (I didn't go to college immediately), I started working at a DIY punk venue in South Florida called the Talent Farm, and that's where I started to make a lot of connections with the music scene. I started getting more connected to the community and was playing in bands and booking my own shows.

At that point I was writing my own music—I didn't play guitar, but I was writing my own guitar parts. I was actually going into Guitar Pro and just like tabbing the chords out, which, eventually, when I started to learn guitar, I knew all of the chords. But it was the weirdest, most backwards way of learning an instrument. By the time I started Skatune Network, I was kind of decent at all of the instruments.

What about your intro to ska? With the Talent Farm, I'm sure you were exposed to lots of local bands, but was there a specific artist or a particular release that sparked your interest in the genre?

Originally I had heard ska in the Digimon movie when I was a kid, because Less Than Jake and the Bosstones were both on that soundtrack. Those two bands always stuck out to me, but I never thought much of it. Later on in middle school when I was going through that age of like, "I have an identity, I think?," I started scouring the internet to find as much music as I could. From there, I started discovering a lot of bands like Reel Big Fish, Streetlight Manifesto, The Aquabats, stuff like that.

When I was in high school, the band kids were all into different types of ska and they introduced me to Asian Man Records and Community Records. Bands on Community Records used to play in ska bands back in the 2000s and they had a big influence on the South Florida scene. There were also a lot of local ska bands in South Florida—The Skandals, The Strike Outs, Enrique's Revenge—a lot of bands down there that influenced me and, to this day, still kind of have an influence on the ska sound I have.

It's a very unique, almost New Orleans Community Records sound mixed with the Bay Area Asian Man Records sound. That was the thing that really threw me into the genre. Discovering bands like that and discovering and then playing with We Are the Union really immersed me in loving the genre.

Jer's Skatune Network cover of Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)"

To folks who might not know what Skatune Network is, how would you explain it to them and why do you do what you do with the project?

Typically, when people ask about Skatune Network and they have no idea what it is, I tell them: "It's a YouTube channel where I take songs and I cover them under the ska genre." If they don't know what that is then I explain ska.

I do it because I love it, and I still love to do it. At some point my job started cutting my hours to the point where I needed to post on FB every week to be like, "Hey, let me write you a ska song, I need money, please." I then had a video go viral that same month and that's when my Patreon grew to the point where it was covering my rent and I was like, Cool, I'm glad I can do this full time. Focusing on it full time and putting all of my attention towards it made the content better and more consistent.

On top of that I am a musician that plays in bands and I studied music composition to write for film. There's a whole background of me studying music and wanting to compose for movies and stuff like that. It's a great way to build that platform to get my practice in, as far as mixing and deconstructing songs goes. You learn so much more about music in general so it's a win/win/win in many different ways.

So have you found any effects or pieces of gear through your covers that have influenced your personal projects or vice versa?

They all piggyback off of each other. Over the last month, I've had a lot of freetime and have been focusing on composition. I've been remixing things and noticing that the mixes are coming out smoother, and part of that is because I'm at 300 covers now. I've mixed and tried different techniques and found what's stuck and what hasn't. Overall, my ears have gotten better at learning what sounds good and balanced, so it definitely plays off of each other.

There are some times where I'm trying to work on something that's not ska-related—like a commission to write a funk song—and I study different aspects of that, then it carries over really well into writing or recording ska. At the end of the day it's all music. There's no secret way of making music sound good for one genre or the other. Good music is good music.

Jer performing on stage with Reel Big Fish in 2019.

With that, do you have a set process for how you like to start composing music? Do you tend to approach your tracks for JER in a very specific way? Different from the Skatune covers?

So JER is a lot more personal. A lot of the time it's an idea I get for a song when I'm feeling a certain way about something and I start writing. That almost always starts as a video recording on my phone or a voice memo of me recording chords and sort of singing. Oftentimes, it starts with a very specific lyric.

As a composer I believe heavily in using motifs, using one small musical idea and expanding on that music idea over and over and over again. Across JER music, from song to song, there are certain motifs that I throw in, so when the theme is the same lyrically I put that motif in as well, musically, to match that idea.

With Skatune Network covers, someone will request a song or I come across something that I think would make a really good cover. A lot of the time, I can already hear what type of cover it's going to be. I'll hear a song and be like, "That would sound really good if it was like a Hepcats-sounding ska song or a Specials-like English Beat, 2 Tone song." I hear the general idea and from there I look up the chords and lyrics and then I'll start playing it on guitar and singing along to it. I might need to change the key and then from there I start recording.

I actually do all of that on Twitch. Typically, I livestream the process of writing the drum parts, recording the guitar and bass, and then tracking the keys. Then I record the vocals or horns depending on which I'm feeling. It's a pretty concrete process and I'm knocking out covers within the span of 24 hours at this point.

With recording everything from home, have you locked down the process for recording horns? Do you get noise complaints?

No! People always ask if my neighbors complain and every neighbor I've ever talked to says that they didn't even realize that I was a musician. I think part of it is that houses in Florida are built differently… I can wail on trombone at 3 am and no one will know.

Can you chat with me a bit about a few artists or releases that have particularly stood out to you? How do you like to incorporate them into your own work?

One artist I think that isn't talked about enough in ska, or music in general in my opinion, is Fishbone. They are a big influence for everything that I'm doing, and when I was writing for JER, Fishbone was on repeat.

That band pioneered a lot of the ska sound you hear. They were an influence for bands like No Doubt, Sublime, and big name bands that came out of that '90s ska scene. They put out songs in the mid-'80s that sounded like they dropped in the mid-'90s. They were so far ahead of their time with everything they did. They didn't just stick to ska. They did punk, metal, jazz, they did everything.

I think that it really sticks out to me because as a musician who studied music composition and who plays ska but also loves other genres, I don't want to be bound to one thing. There's definitely moments in my music where I'm starting to branch out and bring in different influences, and if you listen to my covers you'll notice that there may be some weird additions, because why not? Everyone's done a ska version of this, but no one's done a ska version of that with a specific emo flare side of it, for example. I think that stuff is super cool, and pushing the boundaries of music is super important.

Fishbone is a band that has been doing that for almost 40 years now. Lyrically speaking, they push boundaries as far as what they're talking about. They were making songs in the '80s about gentrification and how America normalizes racism. Ultimately, I think that's why that band never popped off. The songs were hits but when you listen to the lyrics they're an all-Black ska band who talk about Black struggles and certain people didn't want to hear that.

"The songs were hits but when you listen to the lyrics they're an all-Black ska band who talk about Black struggles and certain people didn't want to hear that."

I feel that Fishbone didn't get that recognition they deserve. That band has never sacrificed that key aspect of themselves: They have a message to say and they've always said that message. They did have several instances where they charted and many artists may have watered down their stuff to keep that momentum. Fishbone stayed true to their message and existence as a band.

With the future of ska, do you feel that it'll follow the path or play off of what Fishbone has created? Do you want to create music within the realm of that with your personal projects?

It's definitely a big inspiration for my music, and as people hear with my releases coming out, it gets really deep into topics.

I think the future of ska is more of what people want it to be… I don't think genre necessarily matters. I think it's more of the community aspect of it and the identity of a message and beliefs. You have artists like Eichlers who play hyperpop mixed with ska, but then you have artists like The Best of the Worst who mix metalcore or hardcore with ska. You have everything in between those two extremes and all of them identify under New Tone, where they're inclusive, don't support bigotry, and make sure all voices can be heard. They also aren't performative about it—and take it one more step.

I think that's where the future is, taking it one step further. A lot of 2 Tone and ska bands from the '90s were anti-racism but didn't go much further beyond that to look at what causes racism and why it is still a prevalent thing. In my music there are critics on that. It's one thing to be like "racism, bad," but it's another thing to identify that racism is a system that is around us and it's not someone choosing an action, but more of like you can't escape racism without dismantling the system that it is. I think the future of it is definitely taking things one step further and addressing things in a more critical way than before.

Have you noticed a shift in the scene and an effort to work towards this future of being more community driven and inclusive?

People might now know about it, but I did have a "not ska" era. From 2014–2016, I rarely listened to ska because I was so fed up with it. Being a Black person existing in the scene, especially in South Florida, there was one specific moment where this band said that I didn't experience racism because I grew up in the suburbs. One of them actually called me the n word and I ended up calling their band a "Great Value Rancid."

The Miami ska scene was like, "You can't insult a man's band like that," and I was done with the genre. I just stopped going to shows. There also weren't too many shows happening around that time, and when I actually did end up going to them, I had similar experiences with the crowd. I was just really uncomfortable at those shows and I didn't want to be involved in it.

It wasn't until I started playing with We Are the Union again and playing shows with Kill Lincoln, newer bands, that I started to not feel that way at ska shows, and it reminded me of the love I have for the genre. A great example of this: We Are the Union played a show with a band in 2018 and the opener said something along the lines of "This next song is about how it's 2018 and I just can't make a joke anymore because everyone's too sensitive." Then Reade, our lead singer, went on stage and made a speech about how if you can't make jokes anymore it's probably because your jokes suck and you need to think about how women and people of color feel. I never had seen someone take the steps to explain to other white people the effects of that.

Also, with the Ska Against Racism compilation, my ideas were taken into consideration and Mike never overstepped boundaries. It means a lot because they're not doing it for clout, and some of these small bands are risking shadow ban on social platforms. There are instances that I'm seeing with these newer generation ska bands that I wish I had when I was coming up, because I would go to shows and always feel a little uncomfortable, and it didn't seem like there was support. Now I'm starting to see that and the more people play off of each other the more it grows as a community.

Jer's Skatune cover of Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles"

Do you think the addition of social media has influenced how folks are interacting with the genre in the scene? Have you worked to present it in a certain way or have you noticed other bands or artists spreading a particular message through their platforms?

As much as social media sucks, it's also the saving grace of the genre right now. Not a lot of older ska bands are hip to using certain platforms, and I sort of used this as an advantage. I could take over the ska hashtag and talk about things that are important. Now I do feel like there's more content on these platforms, but I do think it's important to talk about the diversity of the genre.

A lot of people want to talk about very small groups of the genre. I feel like the mozzarella stick meme is one of the greatest examples of this. A lot of people have said that that's super relatable—I don't think that is relatable to 95% of ska music out there. It may be relatable to like Reel Big Fish or bands from the 90s that are a bit goofy.

But when Fishbone is making songs about how racism is normalized in America, I'm not thinking about a 13 year old eating mozzarella sticks, nor do I think a 13-year-old eating mozzarella sticks is thinking about race-related issues in America. When you're talking about traditional ska music in Jamaica, which was kind of a symbol for the freedom of colonial rule, I don't think that's what a 13-year-old eating mozzarella sticks is thinking about. When there was a class solidarity movement between the poor white English working class and the Jamaican immigrants in England through the 2 Tone movement, I don't think that's what 13-year-olds eating mozzarella sticks are thinking about.

There is so much diversity in the genre—the genre is like 70 years old—it's had waves in so many countries that people don't talk about. There's Agentinian ska, there's Mexican ska, there's ska in China, there's ska in Palestine, there's ska in Cuba, there's ska everywhere. People don't talk about all of these different facets of ska and I think it's super important to put that out there, to put forward that this is a diverse genre with a lot going on. When people say it's a genre with mostly white dudes from California, it's just erasure for all of the people of color that make the music.

Touching on international ska, are there any bands that have influenced your work or that particularly stand out to you?

One of the main ska bands that I've gained a lot of inspiration from is Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra. They are all trained jazz musicians but they also span themselves. They started playing that traditional ska jazz sound, but towards the mid 2000s they started to diversify a bit and sort of do a similar thing to what Fishbone does. They don't care about what people expect of them and they are kind of weird and mix genres into their style.

They cover all of the ground of ska music and do it proficiently. Every time you see them, whether that be early videos in the '80s or videos from yesterday, they're just having fun, and that's the most important part. I think that's the best example of ska condensed into one group. They are always having fun, being creative, and doing what they want and not what people expect of them.

I love the JER tracks released so far and definitely see the multi-genre influence when listening. Listening to Tokyo Ska Paradise and bands like this, how do you draw inspiration and blend these sounds into your personal projects?

I like to make an inspiration playlist, and there are some songs that are obvious and some songs that people may not hear the influence of, but I do! When I was first writing for JER some of the songs like R/Edgelord were originally written for an emo/pop punk band that I had. So that song was a little easier to translate over into the genre.

When I was first doing the project, I kind of wanted to do a ska punk thing, but I also wanted the ska parts to have more of a 2 Tone traditional sound. Then when punk comes into the mix, instead of doing the '90s pop punk sound that a lot of ska punk bands do, I wanted to add in a newer fresher punk sound along with newer indie music. I listen to a lot of music and think that it would mix well with ska.

The beautiful thing about ska is that it mixes so well with other genres, so there's so much more vertical room. I feel like people have done a lot of things with the X and Y mixing and then there's the whole Z axis that has yet been touched, and I think that's what I try to do. I try to get that additional dimension of mixing genres together.

Jer's Skatune cover of Lil Nas X's "That's What I Want"

What other artists or genres do you like to pull from?

Before ska, I grew up on soul and funk from the '70s, hip-hop from the '80s, and jazz. I still listen to that a lot. When Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars released Silk Sonic, I listened to that record so much and binged records I grew up with, like Earth, Wind & Fire and Al Green releases.

Funny enough, the Motown Reverb video was one of things that got me into the production side of things. I didn't realize they DI'd all of their guitars, and that completely changed how I viewed things. Watching that video, I learned that you can do a lot with DI and some of the most timeless songs were crafted that way.

I used to think that I needed all of the expensive gear and an expensive studio—learning that some of the most iconic songs were recorded on the second floor of a house with DI'd guitars I realized everything was a lie [laughs]. I learned that what I have is working and you can create cool stuff. A lot of it comes from how you write and approach the music.

When I write music, I don't think of it so much as I'm trying to write a good ska song, but I'm just trying to write a good song. I don't want people to listen to my music and think that it's good for a ska song. I want people to just think that it's a good song.

Were there any theme nights at the Talent Farm? Or did just being in that scene influence the creation of Skatune Network?

The venue actually closed in 2013 and Skatune started in 2016, so I wasn't doing it that much yet. But it influenced Skatune Network and how I view music in general. When I worked there, I went to every single show. I played and booked ska shows there and we had fun with it, and that's something I really appreciated. A lot of the other genres, especially the heavier genres were always like "ska is so wack" and I was like, " I don't know, you all are just like macho dudes and it's not like what you're doing is any cooler. We're just trying to have fun."

Every year we would have ska prom and then we had different ska shows like Woodska, which was '60s-themed, The Ska Hop, which was '50s-themed. We had Skaturday Night Fever, which was '70s-themed. We had a lot of themed shows and tried to make them fun. We had a ska homecoming show where I got my school's marching band to unofficially play—which people may have thought was so corny. In 2013 I feel like it was peak hating other people having fun means youre cool. I think it was vital for me to experience that because now that's my goal—get back to not giving a fuck and doing things because I think it's fun and not doing it to impress someone from another scene who just doesn't care.

Have you noticed with the shift in the mindset of the genre that younger generations are, pun intended, "picking it up" and not questioning it or not even knowing how critiqued ska was?

I think that's one of the bigger factors of ska. You had a whole generation that was raised by these cool dudes (TM) who said ska wasn't cool. But Gen Z doesn't care. You can listen to goofy music and act how you want and if you try to make fun of someone who is younger they'll roast you and not care.

"You had a whole generation that was raised by these cool dudes who said ska wasn't cool. But Gen Z doesn't care."

I've noticed that a lot on TikTok. I would make videos and younger people would be like, "This is so cool." They don't remember the entire era of ska that was hating on it. They have no bias.

I think a lot more people wouldn't have a bias on the genre if so many cool guys (TM) weren't saying ska wasn't cool. If that didn't exist and people formed their own opinions then I think ska would have been fine, but it was that snowball effect.

Now, I think the opposite is happening. You have more people hyping ska and more bands are getting into it and more good ska is being created.

With Skatune, there's a nod to the cartoons and video games of the early 2000s. Are there any shows or games that you like to pull from when crafting a cover or that have influenced your music?

There wasn't anything in particular, but I cannot stress enough how much cartoons have had an influence over my life. I still have the Cartoon Network primetime lineup memorized 20 years later. It's actually funny, the thing that got me into the idea of alternative music was nothing more than how every show had an episode where suddenly they played instruments and were in the Battle of the Bands.

Often people might not see the work that goes into creating music for animation or might not consider it "real music." Sometimes a show might actually hire a band in that trending genre to make a song or intro, but you can often tell when it's an artist who doesn't regularly play the genre. I kind of love that though. I like listening to these theme songs where it sounds like someone described pop punk to this person but they never heard it, so they tried to write a pop punk song. I think that's really cool because I think that they pull from so many influences that they might have grown up with to create something truly interesting.

When I first started JER the description was just "this music sounds like the music you hear on the battle of the bands episode of cartoons." That's exactly what I wanted it to be. Sometimes people will try to insult my music or ska in general and say that it sounds like the theme to a '90s show and I'm like, "Yeah, that's tight."

Do you have any releases coming up or projects you're currently working on?

I have a cover record coming out. I actually covered the whole record Honeymoon by Beach Bunny. It's dropping on Valentine's Day for the two-year anniversary of that album. There is a JER record that is in the works though.

Is there anything you want to add for our readers to know?

If anyone is reading this, be you. Don't care about what people think about you or what you love—most of the time those people are assholes if they want to make fun of what you enjoy.

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