Interview: Mr Scruff
Published on January 29th, 2013 | Jonny Abrams
Legendary DJ and doodlesmith Mr Scruff will be back on the road throughout February and March, playing the following dates (as detailed in his own inimitable penmanship)…
There are links to tickets right here on his website, and if you need any convincing whatsoever then simply acquaint yourself with the six-hour magnificence of his previous show at north London venue KOKO…
Needless to say, Rocksucker was chuffed as chocolate buttons to get to pose Scruff some questions via the wonder of telephone – first, though, please do enjoy this choice cut from his most recent studio album, 2008’s Ninja Tuna…
Will this forthcoming string of shows be heralding the release of a new Mr Scruff LP?
Yeah, I’ve not had an album out now since 2008. I’ve been doing lots of gigs in my normal style – possibly slightly too many as it’s been preventing the recording of the follow-up album, so I’ve taken January off and I’m nearly there now. Hopefully there’ll be something out late this year but I’m not going to promise anything because I’ve been saying that for the last three years!
It’s been good, I’m really excited about the new stuff. I had three singles [available here] out over the last year to eighteen months so that’s a taste of the new stuff.
Will those tracks be on the album?
I’ve no idea, to be honest. The way that people digest music now is different. That traditional way of releasing a lead single, then an album, then a couple more singles – it’s kind of gone out the window to some extent. I started releasing singles off this album before I’d done the album, so I kind of shot myself in the foot a bit there, but it’s nice to get tunes out soon after you record them.
People’s buying and listening habits have changed, although I still like the old singles/album format. The shift in behaviour has led to more opportunities to try different things, which has added an extra unpredictability – coupled with my bad memory and lack of organisation, there’s your answer!
Super-obvious question: how do you feel about the demise of HMV, and indeed high street stores in general?
I’m not sure. It’s the same as anything else: survival of the fittest. HMV had the same problem as a lot of high street stores in that they were competing in a progressively more competitive and price-cutting market. Also, HMV’s main product was a format that’s falling out of favour and being replaced by downloads. I buy a lot of vinyl online from good little record stores – how do you switch such a big organisation as HMV into a really good online operation? You still have the massive overheads of the rent and the staff, so high street stores were in a position where they probably couldn’t compete with the Amazons of this world.
It was kind of inevitable after the closure of other high street stores, but really good little second-hand shops like Piccadilly, Honest Jon’s and Kingbee in Manchester, they’re still going because they can offer a service that very few online stores can match: there will always be a hard core of people recommending music to each other, which isn’t really something you could do in HMV anymore. Back in the mid-to-late ’80s, each HMV or Our Price store used to have a specialist section where you could go and find out about Afro-beat or Lee Perry or whatever, which I used to do as a teenage boy. You could go to the one with the massive reggae section and know that the bloke at the counter could do you a list of reggae you needed to know.
That was when people who knew about music worked there, and were I suppose given the free rein to probably spunk all the store’s budget on records that very few people actually bought! They seemed to be more relaxed in those days, but the more those big shops became like supermarkets, the less it differed from the online experience.
I don’t feel a massive loss but I suppose it has repercussions for the whole industry that probably aren’t great. My heart still lies as it always has done, with the little shops ran by geeks who are really passionate about music – and that goes for both real shops and buying online. That’s always where it’s at from a musical point of view, for me.
When you’re record shopping, how often are buying something you already know about compared to how often you’re taking a plunge on something that’s somehow tickled your fancy?
It depends. Most of the time I want stuff I don’t know, especially when it’s new stuff, but a lot of the time someone recommends you something or you hear something on the radio, so it’s about half and half. I suppose if you’re a music junkie then you’re always after that first hit of hearing something new and inspiring, a new buzz from a different arrangement of notes and drums. It’s always good to keep your ears open and I think that’s one thing you can get from going into a record shop, hearing something you wouldn’t necessarily have pulled out just because it’s being played on the stereo by someone else, a shop like a Piccadilly or a Rough Trade where you might have eight people behind the counter all specialised in different areas. You can stand at the counter and they’ll each bring you two records, and you can have a nice chat and a brew at the same time.
I love discovering new music and new artists, because in a few years they’re the ones you’ll be familiar with and going back in to check out their second or third album. You’ve always got to keep your ears open, even to music you might have written off or decided you didn’t like without knowing enough about it. I think if you just try to be as relaxed as possible about it then your experiences will be all the better for it.
Rocksucker is looking forward to your show at KOKO, somewhere you’ve played a few times before. What keeps you coming back?
It’s a really grand, impressive venue when you go in for the first time, imposing in a good way because although it’s big it’s also very welcoming and fun to explore as well. All of the crew there are lovely – I get on well with the security, the sound man, the lighting guys, the venue reps and all that – and there’s always a good atmosphere there. The dance floor feels quite intimate and it’s a great view from the stage so you always feel part of it. It’s a very impressive venue to play, especially when you look up at the peak of the night and see three levels of balconies with people dancing on all of them. It’s a pretty incredible spectacle.
The sound system’s amazing as well – it’s got progressively better over the years, the last few years especially. It’s formidable in the bottom end but also very comfortable and detailed at the top end as well. So all in all there’s nothing wrong with KOKO. The drinks are a bit expensive, but that’s London!
I’m an old-school DJ so I like having residencies, playing in places you feel at home at. Once you feel comfortable in the situation you’re playing in, that’s when you can push your creativity a lot more. You don’t have to find your feet or start from scratch again, you can just let loose, have fun and not have to introduce yourself every time. A lot of people come to every show as well – I must have played KOKO about fifteen times now – so you can’t repeat yourself, whereas if you’re playing a different venue every night then there might be the temptation to fall into the trap of just doing routines that work well, especially if you’re a bit knackered or haven’t had enough downtime to recharge your batteries and work on some new music.
It means I need to keep trying new stuff, new combinations of stuff, playing stuff I haven’t played before and taking risks. It’s an inspiring venue – and it can take a long time to find the right venue for you in a city, so when you find it you’ve got to stick with it. It’s like finding a friend.
It’s a bit early to be asking, but do you know yet of any festivals you’ll be playing at this summer?
A few, yeah. It’s still quite early in the year but a lot of them seem to be on the ball, and if one starts booking then they’ll all start. It almost gets a bit like Christmas in supermarkets, everyone announcing their September festivals in January!
I’m doing three in Croatia this year: I’m doing a Sunday beach DJ set at the Electric Elephant festival in July, then I’m playing the Outlook and Dimensions festivals in Pula, in the north of Croatia, in September. Then there’s Love Saves the Day festival, a one-day festival in Bristol on Saturday 25th May if my memory serves me right, then on Sunday 26th at a family festival in Blackpool run by a mate of mine called Alfresco, which will be good. There are more to be confirmed: quite a few that haven’t been announced yet, and ones that aren’t quite confirmed that I probably shouldn’t say anything about yet unless I get into trouble!
Croatia sounds like a great place to go for a festival.
Yeah, it is. I’ve not played there for two or three years now but I used to play out there quite a lot. It’s lovely, decent weather. Our summers have become pretty much like today [a grim winter’s day], but out there you can pretty much guarantee sunshine. If you pay £150 quid for a ticket to be in a field, and it’s a damp field, it kind of loses its appeal, so everyone’s a little bit more good-humoured and relaxed because they’re on holiday. Tickets and flights aren’t too expensive either so over the last few years a lot of people have been going out to festivals in Croatia or Exit festival in Serbia, that kind of thing.
There seem to be quite a lot of eastern and southern European festivals tempting people away from the cold, damp climate that we’ll experience for the rest of the year. Yeah, Croatia’s great: the food’s nice, the people are lovely and the actual places where the festivals are set are great, generally by the sea. There’s sunshine, warm weather, beautiful architecture, and there are little villages and a local town ten minutes’ walk away from the festival site so you can get involved a little bit, whereas most UK festivals are in the middle of nowhere.
I suppose at home it is nice to escape for a few days, but when you’re abroad it’s nice to experience the culture a little bit as well, and you can get out for dinner, go for a swim or visit another island so that you’re not constantly ‘at it’ for four or five days solid. If you’ve ever toyed with the idea of going to a festival in Croatia then I’d highly recommend it – I don’t know anyone who’s gone and had a bad time, put it that way.
Are you any closer to doing an album with Roots Manuva?
No. Rodney and I have done a few tracks together in the past, and someone suggested in an interview a few years ago that we do an album together. The person who interviewed me had interviewed Roots Manuva a few months before, suggested it to him and he said, “Oh, that would be a good idea.” I think it’s just practicalities, really: he’s really busy, got kids and that kind of thing, and it’s taken me five years to finish my own album so it’s one of those! He’s a creative, disorganised type like myself.
I keep badgering him about it every week so hopefully one day he’ll say, “Yeah, I’ll come to Manchester for a week and we can do loads of tunes.” So yeah, I keep nudging him but the last thing I want to do is drag someone into the studio against their will, because people are busy and have their own personal lives to deal with. I know he wants to work with me and we’ve earmarked some tracks, so I’ll keep asking. Fingers crossed we’ll get a track done for my next album, then maybe while he’s in the studio I’ll just lock the door and not let him out until he’s done ten or twelve tracks! He’s a great artist and an inspiration, but like all of us he’s busy so we’ll see. It’s an ambition, but I think all the artists I’ve worked with before – whether it’s Alice Russell or Quantic or whoever – are all people that I’d like to do more work with.
Do you get many offers to release compendiums of your doodles and illustrations?
Yeah, quite a few over the years. A lot of people have asked me to do things like exhibitions or some images for a book, and that’s something I’ll probably get round to as I get on a bit. I don’t feel like I’ve got enough of a body of work to form a cohesive exhibition, the same way when someone says “put an album out” that you want to work on it until it makes sense conceptually. People have asked me to do imagery for kids’ books which would be great but something I could only really dive into when I’m immersed by it. At the moment the drawing is just a daft little thing I do to illustrate songs or make flyers for my gigs, and I don’t really take it that seriously so I suppose I’d have to apply myself a bit more, put a bit more a effort and concentration into it.
It’s flattering to get these offers but part of me thinks, “There are people who do illustration for a living and who can actually use Photoshop properly.” I don’t think I could do it part time – I think it would require as much effort as music, so if I did a book then I’d have to stop DJing for a bit, or something like that. I have difficulty focusing on one thing never mind two things! Something will happen with that eventually but for now it’s about getting my tunes out, carrying on playing some records, and when the time’s right maybe it’ll happen.
Mr Scruff, thank you.