Off the cuff with Mr. Scruff

Published

Gerry McKeever

… sits down with British DJ Mr. Scruff to discuss a love of tea, six-hour sets and the state of modern music

Andy Carthy (aka Mr Scruff) is generally recognised as one of the foremost exponents of ‘quirk’ in modern music.  Since the release of his first single in the mid-nineties, he has cemented his own reputation as an individual artist, both with his successful recording career and famous DJ sets.  Chatting before a Glasgow appearance at the Arches on the back of new album ‘Ninja Tuna’, he confirmed his reputation as a true music purist and a lovely chap.  On topics varying from tea and fish to the subtleties of DJ performance, Scruff exuded a genuine charm and a formidable enthusiasm for his work.

Why do you choose to play such long sets? (six hours)

I’ve done that pretty much every gig for the last ten years now.  I like warming up, creating the mood for the evening.  I like it to be quite relaxing, then once you’ve got people comfortable you can do what you want after that.

It’s almost like you’re your own warm-up act.

Definitely.  I like playing really mellow stuff — other people’s idea of a warm — up is stuff I would play at peak-time.  I think the more mellow and odd the first hour or two are, then the more weird stuff I can get away with at peak-time too.  So you’re just setting up the mood — every night is different, because every venue’s different; different crowds.  It’s just the way people attract in that space — it might have a really comfortable bar area which means people might want to chat for the first hour or two, which is cool, so I’ll just play it really low.  Sometimes people are straight on the dance-floor — quite often the way people behave when they first come into the space dictates what I do.

So your set is quite flexible?

Yes extremely, I never plan anything.  That’s half the fun really — I can get properly into it and I haven’t got a clue what’s going to happen.

You’re obviously a bit of a record geek. What have you found recently that’s particularly exciting?

A lot of new music actually — there’s a really good record label called Prime Numbers from Manchester, which has been putting out some kind of very slow techno stuff.  What else? I’ve picked up hundreds of records in the last couple of weeks, but then I get asked a question like that… Just a lot of new stuff — Hip-hop, Dubstep, Deep House…

So what do you think about the state of popular music at the moment?

I think with music in general, there’s so much of it about nowadays, but the amount of good stuff seems to have remained constant for the last thirty or forty years, it’s just the amount of general-average and terrible music has increased by a thousand.  There’s so much more stuff you have to wade through.  Whereas twenty years ago I would have been able to listen to and individually appraise every single new release, now I can probably only get through 5% of it.  So much stuff is getting released which really shouldn’t be, out of people’s bedrooms.  Or the Myspace thing where everyone’s just shoving their music in your face.

It’s like: ‘I’ve had a computer for an hour, here’s my first tune.’  It used to be that you’d wait till you got to a certain standard where you were confident that your music’s alright, then you let that out into the public. So I think a bit more editing from music makers would be good.  I mean the whole music industry is kind of in disarray, but that’s not a bad thing.  I’m sure it’ll sort itself out, and the people who’ll sort it out will be people who’ve grown up with this new way of making and distributing music.

There’s a track on your new album with Roots Manuva.  When we talked to him about a month ago he was bemoaning the fact that you two have never got it together to do a whole album. is that something you’d be interested in?

Well, I’ve thought about it.  He’s a guy with a lot of ideas, but he’s always really busy.  He tends to be in the studio full-on for his album, he’s got nippers and stuff so he’s a busy family man, and then he goes on tour and proper hammers it.  Then he’s just exhausted and disappears, to reappear maybe a year later to do another album, on that cycle.   So he’s a really difficult guy to pin down, you’ll ring him one day and you’ll get him, then you won’t speak to him for months.  But he’s a very individual character, so hopefully — but I reckon an album would take us about 40 years to make.  Unless we just said ‘right well, you come over to Manchester, or I’ll go down to London, or over to Sheffield or wherever you are and we’ll get stuck in’.  But yes, that’s a good one, so you might be the catalyst for the Scruff–Manuva album.

Tell us about the tea thing.

The tea thing started from obviously being obsessed with tea, but that’s nothing unusual in this country.  I started to sell tea at my residency about 9 years ago.  We had a little teashop in the corner, there was just a little spare room that wasn’t really suitable for a second room for another DJ, so I thought we should pipe the music through from the main room, sell tea and give the money to charity.

It was one of those things where people walked in and thought “Bloody hell, I can get a brew”, and even if people didn’t want tea, they walked in and smiled, because it was something they weren’t expecting.  It provided the best drink of the day for people who either were driving or wanted to take a break from boozing or whatever. Then a few years later, when we started touring, we wanted to take pretty much the whole club.

So over a few years gradually I started getting renowned as the guy who sells tea at his gigs.  Then we started doing festivals like the Big Chill, WOMAD [World of Music and Dance] and Glastonbury, and doing a tea stall there — I happened to be DJing at those festivals too, but the tea stall was there for the whole weekend, so it became something that kind of stood by itself. So it got to a point where, rather than just being an add-on to the club, it stood up by itself as well, so we thought: “Why don’t we do our own tea?”  We were selling thousands of cups to people at festivals.  So we did a bit, well a lot, of research over a couple of years, and released a tea brand.  It’s quite odd that it’s happened out of one daft decision to do a teashop in a dirty little club in Manchester, and seven years later we’re selling tea in Selfridges.

Apart from tea, the other theme in your career seems to be fish.

Same again, just one daft decision in a studio fifteen years ago — I sampled a lyric about a whale, and then straight after I finished that tune it came out as my first EP, and I found loads of other samples which I wished I’d used in it.  I found all these fish samples and I though “Damn, I wish I’d had these when I was in the studio”, because I didn’t go in with the intention of making any kind of fish tune.  In those days I used to go into the studio with a bag of like, ten records and make a tune out of them.  After that I thought I’d do another tune along the same lines and make it a bit more involved.  By the time I’d finished that second tune, I thought “I’ve got a series here”.

I began actively looking for spoken-word records and nursery rhymes and stuff that had something to do with water, fish, sea, whales, fishermen or anything aquatic.  People were sending me stuff as well, you know – Salmon Fishing the ‘whoever’ way.  So you might have five or six different sources in one sentence, all from different records and different people. You could get the tones and the cadence of the speech right so that it worked like a sentence, but also worked well over the beat so it was in time with the music.  So that satisfied the kind of geeky editing side as well.  It was obviously a great laugh to do, but very painstaking as well.

Throughout the history of recorded music the tools have often shaped the sound.  Is there a particular piece of equipment or instrument that’s crucial to your sound?

Not really, I’ve kind of moved through different equipment.  I’ve always used quite basic set-ups.  I used to use the MPC60, and that was about twenty years old.  There’s no automatic stuff on it, but the restrictions on that machine definitely helped to shape my style.  But you’re absolutely right, Lee Perry’s records wouldn’t have sounded like they did if he hadn’t had a posh 24-track.  You just want some equipment that sounds good, and you don’t have to fiddle with too much, then you work within the parameters that you get given. I think if you have rooms full of equipment, either you’re never going to get anything done, or you’re only going to use two or three things.

It’s like bands with twenty guitars on stage.

Yes, it’s a bit unnecessary really, although I’ve got like a thousand records on stage — but I’ll play at least half.

Do you go out for music events much yourself?

Yes I go out to clubs all the time, and see a lot of bands and stuff.  I think it’s really important to be a punter as well.  Otherwise how can you create an environment where people are going to enjoy themselves?  Which is why I’m very particular when I go to a club.  I like a good sound-system, I don’t like lights, I like to get a decent beer or brew at the bar, I like clean toilets, not having to queue for ages, having room to dance… All these things I make sure happen at my nights.  I don’t like dancing and treading on dropped beer bottles or having people barge past because there’s no way round the dance-floor, just things like that.  So it’s making sure at my nights to eliminate things I don’t like from other people’s nights.

Would you say there is a political or social message behind your music?

Not really, apart from celebrating my enthusiasm about other people’s music.  It’s the other side of the coin from the DJ set, so if you’re getting people into different kinds of music, you’ve done something – but that’s not really political.

It almost seems like there’s a ‘feel-good’ ethic?

I suppose it’s… What annoys me about a lot of popular music or clubs in general is you’ll get one thing and it generally won’t be very good quality.  The range of influences that popular music especially draws on seems so limited.  There’s so much amazing music all over the world, which over time has all gone into feeding this huge pot of music that we all draw from, but still people are only focusing on 1 or 2%, or that latest big thing, a lot of which is Electro and Clash-up at the moment – a lot of bad versions of New Wave.

A lot of that was great music thirty years ago and it’s being enjoyed by people who weren’t around the first time, but all the same mistakes seem to be being made again.  You know, Dubstep seems to be repeating a lot of the bad mistakes of Drum n Bass, it just seems to creep in on itself, or feed off itself a bit too much.

How have you managed to balance having a diversity of sound without it being incoherent?  Does the mixing of genres not risk making it difficult for the crowd to get really into the music?

Well, what is a genre, you know? Generally you have a number of stylistic motifs, maybe a style of production or a style of drums or instrumentation.  So if you trace the family tree back in any kind of music you’ve immediately got relatives that do actually have a lot in common.  If you take Dubstep, it has a lot in common with basic-channel Techno, Digidub and a lot of 70’s Steppers.

Straight away you have four different kinds of music. So rather than thinking, “I’m going to play half an hour of Dubstep”, you’re thinking “Well that bass-line would work with…” Sometimes it’s easy, for example you think, I like this Johnny Chimpo release, ‘Children of Israel’, which is a wicked tune, but it takes a big sample from the Dennis Brown tune of the same name, so straight away you can get from up to the minute Dubstep to Roots music from 1978.  They’re both the same tempo, they’re in the same key, and both have really heavy bass.

Are you someone who plays music yourself?

Not really, I make music in the way that I type, with one hand scratching my head, and the other one with one finger on the keyboard.  I’m not afraid to get stuck in, I can find my way round a keyboard, and I can chop it up afterwards to make it sound like I know what I’m doing.  I quite like wonky, out of time playing, so quite often when I get session musicians in, I’ll be bumping into them trying to make them play wrong notes and stuff.  It’s just making sure it’s not too clean, when music’s not quite there, when there’s something a little bit wrong about it, sometimes that’s what makes it intriguing.  So luckily I can manage that without too much trouble.

What’s next in terms of your studio work?

Just carry on, I’m not going to stop recording, obviously a bit less because I’m on tour now, but I’m always in the studio a few days every month.  I did have a studio at home, in the cellar, but it kept flooding, so I got the stuff out of the house.  Half of the studio kit I use on tour and half of it I just put in the studio that I use.  I like working with people, some of the wiring up and some of the more esoteric, fiddly bits I’m quite happy for someone else to do so I can just get on with the fun bits.