Interview: Ugly Duckling
Published on October 18th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
Five years ago, this correspondent went to Camden Town’s Jazz Cafe venue to witness Ugly Duckling turn in a highly entertaining set in support of their third album Bang For The Buck, even staying behind afterwards to get my ticket autographed like the committed nerd that I still very much am.
Why, here it is…
As you can see, Ugly Duckling MC Andy Cooper must have misheard my name as ‘Donny’, but that’s by the by.
The point is that this Long Beach trio have been quietly going about their business for long enough now to be treated with the respect that has perhaps been denied them by the still-prevalent suspicion of ‘good, old-fashioned fun’ not just within hip hop circles but also in music as a whole.
Those who are able to see past the marked lack of violent and aggressive imagery in Ugly Duckling’s music have been rewarded with a consistently excellent back catalogue jam-packed with tinkle-me-pink rhyming schemes, sun-kissed beats and, on 2003 sophomore effort Taste The Secret, an absolute master class in how to sustain a narrative thread across the length of an album without surrendering one iota of fun, freshness and funkiness.
There you go: three F words that sum up the Ugly Duckling philosophy, and not one of them is an expletive.
The group resuscitated Taste The Secret‘s bordering-on-conceptual approach for their fifth long-player Moving At Breakneck Speed, this time casting themselves as fleet-footed fugitives from the evil-sounding El Diabolico in what seems to be a dramatic re-imagination of life on the road for a band.
What’s more, it’s as Fun, Fresh and Funky as ever, so Rocksucker caught up with Andy Cooper – one third of Ugly Duckling along with fellow MC Dizzy Dustin and beat-maker Young Einstein – to find out more about the whole caboodle…
How’s the tour going so far? Where have you had the best crowds? Your schedule looks really rather gruelling. How do you keep sane doing this almost every day for over a month? Still, at least it inspired the new album…
It’s going pretty well so far – as I like to say, “No tomatoes thrown”. We did do a show in High Wycombe that was not very well attended so the promoter was scaring in people off the street. One guy brought in a dog and sat him in the first row. He seemed rather unimpressed. We should have had more dog-appropriate material ready for that circumstance. In all honesty, we like to work and perform so doing a show every day is a privilege, plus we can’t afford to pay for expenses on days off. Our goal is to go as many places as possible to meet and entertain as many people as we can, then hit the road again. To quote a lyric I like from our new song “Keep Movin'”: “I leave landmines when they explode/ I’m in the next town so I don’t even know”.
How do you like the food and/or beer over here?
None of us are big beer drinkers (Dizzy likes his Jack Daniel’s) but we do enjoy the food – fish and chips, kabob shops, walker crisps, sweets… – but Einstein has a near-obsession with Nando’s, to the point where he’ll eat there meal after meal if the opportunity presents itself. It’s really quite alarming. We also enjoy dough balls at the pizza express but most of our diet is made up of sub-standard backstage sandwiches – the meal of champions!
So what inspired the narrative arc for Moving At Breakneck Speed? Who did the voice of the bad guy?
We really enjoyed having a storyline on one of our previous albums [Taste The Secret] and we wanted to revisit that approach to making an LP. Plus, we had always discussed doing a travel-themed record but couldn’t figure a way to make it interesting to people and not just make a bunch of silly songs about different countries – we felt that would grow tiresome. On Moving At Breakneck Speed, we wanted the bad guys to represent all of the obstacles to being in a traveling band: monetary issues, group relationships, a hypocritical and corrupt music industry, self-doubt, age, creative challenges and so on. Our friend Dago did the voice of El Diabolico. It was definitely a ¡Three Amigos!-inspired performance.
“I Wonder Where She Is Now” – is this based on true stories? If so, have any of the girls mentioned heard it and got in touch with you about it? If so, what did they have to say about it?
Most of it is somewhat true or a romanticized version of true events. I haven’t heard from any of the girls I knew but the album just came out so maybe I will. I’m supposed to see one of them pretty soon but I don’t think she likes me anyway. Aside from all of that, the song might be my favourite one on the album to listen to; a little too sexy for us but we tried to make it work. It kind of reminds me of KMD – “Peachfuzz”. One thing I love about making music is coming up with a groove, melody, rhythm and/or chord progression and trying to figure out what it’s talking about. Then, one tries to flush out the words that match the feeling of the track. This song is a good example of that process because I went to bed with the loop in my head and, just before I fell asleep, I popped up and started saying “I wonder where she is now”. A nice little experience for me.
Where are the samples from on “Endless Summer”? They’re really lovely.
Samples? Huh? What? We hired dozens of musicians to play all of those parts: vibraphones, ukes, strings, fuzz guitar, harps, flutes, steel guitars, wind-chimes and recorded ocean sounds with a remote studio van. Do you believe that? Oh, I’m glad you like the song – that’s when the credits roll on the movie.
“$100 Weekend” kind of reminds me of “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” by A Tribe Called Quest, as indeed does your rapping style. Are they a major influence? If so, which is your favourite album of theirs? Who else would you credit for inspiring you to rap and/or DJ?
Absolutely, Tribe is a HUGE influence. Maybe the biggest. And I really love the “El Segundo” theme of going on a trek (“had no destination we were on a quest…”) so there is definitely a chunk of that in our song. My favourite album is the first one [People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm] because it’s so silly and strange yet musically beautiful and adventurous (“Bonita Applebum” might be my top rap tune ever) but I’m not sure which albums the other guys like. I would guess Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders. We also loved that era of De La Soul, The Beatnuts, EPMD, Jungle Brothers, Gang Starr, Main Source, Diamond D…all of the sample-based bands of the late ’80s/early ’90s.
Andy, is it true that you went to the same high school as Snoop Dogg and Carl Weathers? Ditto Dizzy with Warren G and Bob Denver? Do you still know any of them or had much contact with them over the yours?
Well, we at Long Beach Poly High School don’t like to brag but we also produced Thelma Houston, Cameron Diaz, Billie Jean King and John freakin’ Wayne!!! Dizzy’s high school (Long Beach Jordan High) did have Gilligan and Warren G. And Rodney’s (Long Beach Wilson) has the members of Sublime as alumni. So, in that sense, we grew up around success and dreamed big. I was in high school when The Chronic came out and it was surreal to have such a popular record be, largely, about the neighbourhood in which you’re standing. W only knew the rappers (and Cameron D) very casually and we’ve bumped into Snoop a few times over the years but “we’re just fleas, and he’s the big dawg”.
I’m a big fan of your ability to rhyme two words/syllables at a time, if you know what I mean (e.g. “Panama/Canada/man of the”). Is there a word for this particular skill? If not, would you care to coin one? And do you have any personal favourite rhymes/rhyming schemes of yours?
“Multisyllablisticallism” is the new term. I’m glad you like it, I write down a lot of little notes when I think of a word that sounds really sharp or rhythmic and try to put together other similar words or phrases to create rhyme schemes that pop with a percussive quality and say something at the same time. It is, quite often, a painstaking process but I really love the results. There’s some good ones on our new song “Sprint”. My favourite ones I’ve done are on “Left Behind” and “Andy vs. Dizzy”. I really like Dizzy’s on “Friday Night” and “Smack”.
Do you encounter much snobbery from people for not swearing and being aggressive in your music?
I don’t know, I don’t think or pay too much attention to what people have to say about UD. I also understand that people want different things from music and, for some, aggressiveness and anger hit the spot. That’s fine and good, there should be lots of music for lots of diversely-minded listeners, but getting mad at something you don’t like is a huge waste of time and it would lead me to believe that someone had an issue with anger or bitterness. If I didn’t like a restaurant, I wouldn’t go back. I wouldn’t spend my time hating it – I’m too hungry!!!
Your music featured quite a bit in the BBC series Ideal starring Johnny Vegas. Did you watch it? If so, thoughts? Do you think America could ever embrace Johnny Vegas? How did that whole thing come about anyway?
Didn’t hear about that one. I don’t know Johnny Vegas but I’ll look him up. I hear he has good taste in music.
Have you ever made/consumed anything resembling a meat shake? If you had to choose one of the available flavours, which would you go for?
I would order the Thanksgiving shake (turkey, gravy and cranberry sauce) because we won’t make it home for the holiday this year and I’ll need something to help me celebrate in France (how ironic is that?). You know, when you think about it, Meatshake is really not much different than soup, is it?
This might be a grossly premature question but do you have material in mind for your next album?
No thoughts yet. Maybe country Dizzy likes to wear chaps.
How do you settle in-band disputes?
They can be very difficult but usually, we can find a solution because we are all after the same thing and no one is trying to hurt the cause. But there are some things that, in any relationship, you cannot ever resolve and it’s a matter of learning to live with things you don’t necessarily like. All of us have made those kinds of sacrifices over the years and that’s what it takes to keep a band or family functioning.
Are there any other bands that people sometimes mistake you for?
I get mistaken for Justin Timberlake all of the time. Calm down girls – I’m not him.
Are there any journalistic clichés or buzzwords that you’re sick of hearing/reading in reference to Ugly Duckling?
“Old-school” is a bit of a double-edged sword because we like the old-school moniker but, at the same time, we feel that our music is alive, creative and relevant today. We use a production approach (looping) that was started in the earliest days of hip-hop culture and we feel that it’s the best way to present the art-form. We don’t just do it because it’s old. That said, we are never mad at anyone for their interpretation of what we do because, as I wrote before, music is completely subjective. Oftentimes, different people love you and hate you for the same reason. What can you do?
If your music was a colour, which would it be?
Ahhhh, what colour was the flower on Charlie Chaplin’s jacket? Whatever colour the viewer wants it to be.
Finally, if you had to name your top three albums of all time – right now, spur of the moment, just off the top of your head – which would you go for?
The Free Design – Kites Are Fun. Sergio Mendes & Brazil ’66 – Herb Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes & Brazil ’66 and Led Zeppelin II. I already mentioned the first Tribe album.
Andy Cooper, thank you.
Moving At Breakneck Speed is out now on Special Records. For more information and a list of live dates, please visit uglyduckling.us or the band’s Facebook page.
Ugly Duckling are currently on tour in the UK. Click here to see if they’ll be coming to a town near you very soon.