Talking Heads: Simon Dobson

simon-dobson

Interview with Alec Snook

Simon Dobson is a man of many disciplines. To date his musical career has found him out front as a conductor and composer, then behind the scenes as an arranger and multi-instrumentalist. On occasion all those disciplines combine, often with the London-based Parallax Orchestra, with whom he has worked on shows for rock and metal bands. The last year has seen a return to solo composition, with his second artist album MDCNL, released by Lo Recordings in May 2021, delivering five substantial musical statements including the single Quiet, Pls. Here he gives Arcana the lowdown…

In the making of your new LP ‘MDCNL’, was your hand forced to change recording styles/techniques due to the on-going pandemic?

Yeah, pretty much everything about the way I work had to change. Until last year I’d mostly worked to commission, one nail biting month to another, but with ensembles not meeting there were no commissions and no conducting work. I’d been looking to move away from that for a while if truth be told and so I got into production.

What is your relationship with electronic music composition as opposed to the more ‘traditional’ orchestral music that you trained in?

Other than loving listening to it and being a huge fan of it, my relationship with it is super new. This was pretty much the first time (other than demoing stuff at home to later be recorded) that I’d produced music electronically…which is pretty weird, actually. Being a composer and a conductor is obviously a bit of a ‘musical control freak’ thing and there’s more control to be had in the production of electronic music and all the infinite variations it contains. I’ve always been a fan of acts like Squarepusher and Aphex Twin though, I feel like all roads were going to lead me here at some point.

Do you feel that instrumental composers have to work harder to create a narrative or tell a story?

Maybe. Telling a story is hard regardless of the forces you’re writing for. I feel like the world of electronic music is just a language with more words or a shelf with more paints, though.

Does taking a more electronic focussed ensemble on the road appeal to you?

For sure. I love the idea of making electronic music live (and I do have some well tekkers plans up my sleeve), but for the moment getting over the panic of being ready to perform again in ANY way (having not played for the longest time in my adult life) is the first thing to tackle.

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When writing and arranging for guitar bands, what shifts in focus or strategies need to take place?

Big talk. Firstly, I’m always aware that in those work situations whatever I write is always beholden to someone else’s music. It’s only ever there to back it up and enhance it, so sometimes it’s hard to let go of ego and be utterly cool with stuff getting chopped or dissed if it’s “too far out” (it never is). Secondly, I generally only arrange for acts or a style I’m into (for example metal), that way I can throw myself into it and have fun as a composer/arranger.

Do you feel more pressure when collaborating with another band/artist? Or does it give you a freedom to step away from pieces that weren’t initially conceived by you?

If I’m working for an act or an orchestra I’m well into, I’ll obviously want them to think that my work is rad. So, I work hard at that shit for sure, but yeah, if I don’t have that sense of total ownership of a piece of music it is easier to be subjective about it.

What order of priority do you give to your orchestral work; the film scores; and the contemporary music arranging?

Honestly, music is my life so there is no strict priority order. I love the orchestral arranging work because I know I can add sheen and value to someone’s creations (plus metal/orchestra stuff is literally the funnest job ever, and the culmination of how I grew up loving heavy music but being classically trained). Film score stuff is new to me but again a very specific discipline and super fun; and contemporary composition is often solitary and hardcore but utterly fulfilling. I basically throw myself right into anything I do – ‘cos it’s music, and music is rad.

If you could work with one film director on a project, who would it be and why?

Either Werner Herzog or Wes Anderson. I know these two are miles apart, but they always have music that I absolutely love. I love the fun, quirky thing with Wes, I reckon I could give that a good crack, and I love the abstract serenity and epic emptiness of Herzog film scores; I’d love to write some weird soundscapes with a string quartet for whatever mad thing it is he does next.

Which other contemporary bands/artists, past or present, are you finding inspiring at the moment?

Anna Meredith (obvs, as always), Olly Coates, Colin Stetson, Steve Reich, Brian Eno (of course), Radiohead (for ever and ever), Matt Calvert, Mica Levi, Esbjorn Svensson, Tigran Hamasyan, Grace Lightman, LYR... you know, the normal bunch.

What other projects do you have coming up this year, whether studio or live?

I’m currently working on a big orchestral gig with my London based crew, Parallax Orchestra. This is a live gig with a band, but I can’t say anything about it just yet, safe to say I’m currently buried under a mountain of orchestral arranging. I’ve got an interesting contemporary commission on the horizon in collaboration with my mates LYR, and I will also be writing a sax quartet for my friend Andy Scott‘s group Apollo.

Oh, I’m also involved in a long-term project working with a local beekeeping start-up called Pollenize, writing generative music based on real time data sets coming out of beehives in Plymouth where I live. Other than that, who knows, MDCNL2 maybe…

Simon Dobson’s MDCNL is out now on Lo Recordings, while a new remix from Human Pyramids of Quiet, Pls has been released today (30 July 2021). You can hear that in the Soundcloud embed above.

Talking Heads: Nicholas Daniel

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Interview by Ben Hogwood

As part of the inspiring Summer At Snape season, the counter-tenor Andrew Watts and oboist Nicholas Daniel, are giving world premiere performances of Sir John Tavener’s La Noche Oscura, with the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Sian Edwards. Arcana took the chance to talk with Daniel, who received an OBE for his dedication to music in October 2020, about his lasting friendship with Sir John, as well as his hopes for live music in such a difficult time.

To begin, we look back to Daniel’s first musical meeting with the composer. “I remember hearing The Whale and thinking it was fabulous and risqué,” he says. “It became a piece people talked about more than heard when I was at the Royal Academy. I first met him through Richard Hickox, who I persuaded to ask John to write for me as a thank you for playing at his and Pamela’s wedding.”

While writing La Noche Oscura, Tavener did not consult with his dedicatees. “He never consulted with me about writing”, says Daniel. “I don’t know whether he did with other artists, but for me his pieces seemed to have arrived as a newborn but sitting up and asking for food. Even with Kaleidoscopes we only vaguely discussed the idea of wearing Indian clothes to play it and lighting it really well, months before he wrote it.”

The piece itself is an intriguing balancing act “Noche has inside it a major contradiction in terms. The words are absolutely agonising: “Where have you hidden, beloved, and left me moaning?” “Tell him I suffer, grieve and die” “but thou hast utterly rejected us: thou art very wroth against us,” but the music is not. He says “shining, intense, with majesty and grandeur”, and from my preparation I see the music as flowing through the words to a place where the music is in control. It’s as though the grinding agony of the words are not ignored, but swept away by the beauty of the harmony. It seems a little like Niobe, Britten’s D flat Major tribute to the Queen whose 14 children died (from the 6 Metamorphoses after Ovid for solo oboe), or maybe Gluck’s Che faro senza Euridice, which has nobility in the face of death. Interestingly both those pieces take their lead from Greek Myth.”

Written for oboe and countertenor, La Noche Oscura blends a relatively unusual combination of soloists, though Daniel refutes my initial suggestion the combination would be hard to balance. “In what way would it be difficult? Because Andrew Watts has the biggest counter tenor voice on the planet and therefore the oboe would be drowned? Possibly. Or that the oboe in the high register might drown the counter tenor in the middle? Well, John knew my playing very well and my high register is something I’ve worked very much to develop over years, partly through composers writing death defyingly quiet music for me up there. Listen to the cadenza of John Woolrich’s Oboe Concerto for instance. Noche is a whole major third lower in my part than the highest parts of Kaleidoscopes and I know how to balance to the gentler parts of a counter tenor voice anyway.”

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He speaks with great warmth of Tavener (above), both as a friend and as a composer. “I adored him. He was completely unique, and although he maybe lived in other realms as well as ours he was completely able to exist in a very charming and entertaining way in the here and now. I think that he probably felt quite relaxed with me because he was very free in what he said, possibly sensing in me the very non-judgemental and open nature of my soul. His health must have been such a burden to him, and I was always slightly aware of his frailty – the main time I knew him was towards the end of his life. I will never forget the sound he made on the piano and ‘singing’ the music he’d written for me. It was like a seance.”

Is his music particularly appropriate for the times we are living through? “I believe that John’s music is appropriate for any time and any space. He can turn a bike shed into a cathedral with his music. I would love to think that as we have entered the very promising Age of Aquarius we might find it has uses for meditation, for finding stillness, and for connecting ourselves with the planet and with each other.”

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Talk turns to the pandemic, and a particularly special concert Daniel and long-time recital partner Julius Drake gave at the Wigmore Hall in 2020 (above), part of a special season of lunchtime concerts marking the hall’s reopening in June. It was a meaningful concert for those watching online – and for the two performers. “Oh my goodness, thank you. Well, it was a fantastic moment to be able to play to the world, yes. We chose the programme to entertain, and to touch people’s hearts. It was very moving how the artists in that first week all supported each other by text messages!  It was so special to play two new pieces there, by Michael Berkeley and Huw Watkins, and also to play Madaleine Dring’s music, which I adore. As it happened it was two days after the murder of George Floyd, and I decided to dedicate the Bach encore to his memory. It proved harder than I thought to speak about it. The reality is the piece I played (basically in one breath using circular breathing) was shorter than the time he was prevented from breathing. The connection was obvious and absolutely shattering.”

The current situation with Government restrictions from the Coronavirus pandemic means plans for future concerts are sadly up in the air. The reality is stark, and Daniel’s diary has a small number of entries. “A few. Incredibly few. 2023 is looking a little better than the rest of 2021 and 2022 put together. This is all going to take some time. It’s also going to take some fearless programming and risk taking to make concerts irresistibly inviting. New music, new presentation, fresh diverse repertoire; young, diverse artists, a fresh dawn for true diversity and the certain knowledge that we will never take an audience for granted ever again.”

There is a little consolation on the recording front, where Daniel has been busy. “Haha! I’ve been very lucky to have some recordings released over the last while, music by Eleanor Alberga, Roxanna Panufnik and Mark Simpson with Mozart, the latter recorded in lockdown. I had the huge joy of recording a disc for my new label Chandos with the exquisite Doric Quartet of British music which will be out later in the year. On that disc I recorded the Delius Two Interludes on Leon Goossens’ 1911 Lorée Oboe. It was a huge privilege to be allowed to play this massively historic and important instrument.”

Will his approach to making music be any different after the pandemic? “Yes”, he says emphatically. “I’m saying to my students that it has to BURN. No prisoners can be taken, risk taking is everything and make it HIT the audience like your life depends on it. Now is the time to make music COMPLETELY relevant to people’s lives, especially to our children, each one of whom deserves to play an instrument and learn the language of music. Scotland is giving this to their children but England and the rest of the U.K.? Not yet.”

The effects of restrictions imposed in the pandemic are clear to see, and Daniel addresses this head on. “I would love audiences to spare a moment of thought for the artists right now, let alone the effect on our incomes. Not being on stage for more than a year plays havoc with your mind, and just getting to the concert hall seems to involve rules and regulations and risks we have never known before. Personally I’m very grateful that people are taking some of the same risks coming to hear concerts, but it feels weirdly exposing to walk on stage to the smell of hand sanitiser having just ripped off your mask, metres apart from your colleagues. We do it despite these things because we want to and because we have to, and because most of us are addicted to music and concerts.”

Andrew Watts and Nicholas Daniel will give two performances of Sir John Tavener’s La Noche Oscura with the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Sian Edwards at Snape Maltings on Friday 25 June. Their program, part of the ongoing Summer at Snape festival, includes music by Handel, Tansy Davies and two works by Britten, including the Temporal Variations orchestrated by Colin Matthews – who spoke with Arcana earlier in the season here. For details and tickets click here

Summer at Snape runs from Friday 4 June until Saturday 11 July. For full details on all the live events, visit the Snape Maltings website.
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Talking Heads: Colin Matthews

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Interview by Ben Hogwood

The Aldeburgh Festival may not be with us in name this year, but its spirit burns brightly in the form of Summer at Snape, a series of safely distanced concerts to be given over every weekend in June.

As with the festival, these concerts feature imaginative programming, with contemporary music to the fore. Composer Colin Matthews has an illustrious history at Snape and Aldeburgh stretching back to his time as assistant to Benjamin Britten late in the composer’s life. He will be close at hand, with two new works receiving their premiere live performances. Firstly, the Nash Ensemble will feature in the first performance with an audience of Seascapes, setting poetry by Sidney Keyes. Conducted by Martyn Brabbins, the verses will be sung by soprano and dedicatee Claire Booth.

The next day will give audiences a chance to enjoy a new arrangement for string orchestra of the Double Concerto by Britten himself, a work completed at the age of 18 when the composer was still a student. Matthews arranged the original for full orchestra but has now reduced his forces, and the Royal Academy of Music Strings under John Wilson will reveal the new version with soloists Thomas Zehetmair (violin) and Ruth Killius (viola).

Matthews is a generous interviewee, taking time to consider questions from Arcana around both works and the return of live music – not to mention the problem of finding inspiration as a composer during the pandemic. First, however, we started by asking him about the poetry of Sidney Keyes, whose verse forms the bedrock of Seascapes.

“As far as I remember I first came across Sidney Keyes through Tippett’s The Heart’s Assurance”, Matthews recalls, “and I wrote a song cycle to Keyes’ words as long ago as 1968, long since withdrawn. Re-reading Keyes’ complete poems a few years back made me want to make a (hopefully better!) attempt to set him, and one of the poems (Night Estuary) was one I set more than 50 years ago – although I can’t recall it at all. The complexity of his thought doesn’t make for easy setting, but the words have a lyricism and power which calls for music.”

The work was first performed at London’s Wigmore Hall on 30 April, part of a Nash Ensemble program including works by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Julian Anderson and Simon Holt (which you can watch above).

What was it like seeing the work finally performed live? “Rather remarkable – only my third experience of live music in about 14 months, and an unusual experience to hear a work for the first time more than a year after it was completed.”

Claire Booth is the ideal singer for this work, and Matthews wrote the vocal line especially with her in mind. “Absolutely. I’ve known Claire since she took part in the Aldeburgh Composition Course in (I think) 2000, and this is the third piece that I’ve written for her. I chose a small ensemble whose colours are relatively subdued: a lot of the music is introspective in mood and is designed very much for the soloist to float over it.”

Moving on to the Britten, we consider the Double Concerto for violin, viola and orchestra, written at the age of 18 – and which Matthews has now reduced to the accompaniment of strings only. Does he detect is a lineage back to Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, a work for the same instrumental combination? “Obviously he (Britten) knew the Sinfonia Concertante, and he mentions a performance (with Lionel Tertis) in his 1931 diary, a few months before he started on the Concerto. It was one of the last pieces I heard him conduct. But there’s no influence from Mozart other than the soloists: instead, it follows very much the three-movement form of his Sinfonietta Op.1 which he had just completed, but on a larger scale.”

How much work was required between the 1997 version, made from the fully catalogued work (above), and the version we will hear at Snape? “A great deal! Making the 1997 version was comparatively simple, as Britten had made very detailed indications of instrumentation in his short score. Reducing it to strings alone – which was Thomas Zehetmair’s idea – meant a lot of rethinking and reworking. For instance, there is an important timpani part in the finale which took a lot of work to transfer satisfactorily to the double basses.”

We move on to talk about Britten’s writing for strings, and Matthews pinpoints several passages in his writing that have left a lasting admiration. “This work of course predates the most important of his string pieces, the 1936 Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, whose string writing is a model of flair and virtuosity. The string writing for the original version of the Concerto is rarely as adventurous, so I was to some extent constrained by what was already there, as well of course as having to adapt music that was written for wind and brass. In many respects it had been easier to emulate Britten’s string writing in my orchestration of the Temporal Variations, originally for oboe and piano, and so starting from scratch.

We move on to discuss the last year, and how it has been for Matthews as a composer. Has he had plenty of material for new works or has it been hard to find inspiration at times? “At first there was a sense of freedom in not writing to commission or deadline”, he says, “and I wrote a fairly large-scale orchestral piece in the summer of last year. Subsequently I’ve been finding it a bit difficult to focus on projects other than small or solo pieces, and this is one of several arrangements I’ve made for the smaller forces that are necessary in these difficult times, which has been a good way to keep up momentum.”

The last question requires the simplest of answers to confirm just how valuable Summer at Snape promises to be. What does it mean to Colin to be part of live music making at Snape once again? “Very special.”

Summer at Snape runs from Friday 4 June until Saturday 11 July. For full details on all the live events, visit the Snape Maltings website. For more on Colin Matthews, you can visit the composer’s website here
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Talking Heads: Grasscut

Interview with Alec Snook

Andrew Phillips and Marcus O’Dair, known to us as Grasscut (above), make a welcome return with their fourth album Overwinter. It is an atmospheric, weather-beaten score with imaginative use of the acoustic instrumentation, blending nicely with the pair’s electronic know-how. In this interview the duo talk about their music-making to date, the writing dynamic between the two, and what they would change about the music industry if they could…

This is the first new Grasscut material for nearly 6 years; tell us what you’ve been up to…

Andrew Phillips I’ve been working on a lot of film and tv scores, won an Emmy and got nominated for a BAFTA, but have also been working on Grasscut material the whole time! (hangs head in shame) It’s just taken a long time to get the balance right! A few times I went back and started again because we wanted to develop and change as we have with every album.
Marcus O’Dair I’ve been working on writing projects, including spending a summer as writer in residence in the North Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I’m currently doing something for the European Jazz Network. I’ve also been doing academic projects, including a stint as researcher in residence at Digital Catapult in London, during which I wrote a book, and a project with British Council Mexico.

How did you guys meet and start making music together?

AP We met through a mutual friend in another band in the 00s. Marcus was a music broadcaster and journalist as well as a musician, and was full of interesting thoughts and takes on lots of contemporary music. While we were touring, I started making what turned out to be early Grasscut tracks on my laptop on the tour bus and he was really into it. I think I probably would have poked something out on a very small scale, but Marcus got Ninja Tune to hear it, brought a lot of ambition to the project, and here we are.

Do you employ largely the same techniques used while composing/scoring for TV/film when writing for Grasscut, or do you deliberately change up the process?

AP It’s similar musically really, but for the fact that Grasscut songs often start in my head as lyrics or a phrase. But like a film score, the songs I write for Grasscut are always serving a bigger idea than just themselves: these albums are not just a collection of songs over a period. Also, and I shouldn’t admit this, but sometimes I’ll be writing something for a score and save it for Grasscut, because of its tone, or because it won’t leave me alone.

What does a Grasscut writing session look like, between the two of you?

AP Our collaboration is unusual in the sense that we’ve never written music together – the music lyrics and production are my job. Overwinter is a classic example of how Marcus and I work together: I’d started Return of the Sun and a couple of other tunes in 2017; then Marcus brought Grasscut an arts commission to respond to the Wessex Film and sound Archive in Winchester, and we both worked with a film director colleague of mine there. The resulting film had a profound effect on what then became Overwinter – and there is a track called The Archive on the album as a result. So different elements feed back into the writing process. I think it takes a very special kind of creative trust to work like this, and I really appreciate it.

How has the COVID situation affected this process? Have there been any positives, musically, to come out of the enforced restrictions?

AP I’ve worked remotely with a lot of musicians during Covid on film and TV scores, but like a lot of composers I’ve been doing this for years – the recording session with the string orchestra for Overwinter in Moscow in 2019 was a remote session. You’re communicating with the conductor and orchestra via video link and hearing the sound in real time, and it can work really well. But also this year, lockdowns permitting, Marcus and I started playing together again in my studio and it was like a breath of fresh air. I just hope we get to play live more next year.

Is Grasscut a welcome distraction from the film work and writing?

AP For me they’ve come closer together in the last few years, particularly on this record. It is lovely to write without an obvious deadline, and sometimes in a freer style. But I think my work as a composer has been more affected by being known for Grasscut, so the two feed into each other now.
MO It might seem as though they’ve moved further apart for me. In 2015, when the last album came out, I was working in the music department of a university. I still work in a university now, but more in the context of art and design. But actually, I think the things I do in Grasscut – not just management and playing keyboards and double bass, but helping dream up madcap projects – are still pretty aligned with what I do beyond. The bit that *is* a welcome change is actually making music.

How has the Grasscut ‘sound’ changed over the years? Has the progression been a conscious decision or has it occurred organically?

AP I think it’s progressed organically, and been affected both by our obsessions, poetry, Robert Wyatt, Kathleen Ferrier, and what’s going on around us. When we started Grasscut some of the music was more explosive, we were having fun, the mix of samples, strings, synths and poetry felt really exciting. But though it’s always been about human experience in landscape, now the landscape has changed. Overwinter is more orchestral, darker and hymn-like I think. And also more political: I find myself writing about homelessness, a crisis of identity in this country, and our relationship with our past. After the last 5 years in the UK, what else would I write about?

Previous LPs have seen you embellishing the music with really unique conceptual extras (See: the treasure map-esque aspect included as part of 2010’s 1 inch: 1/2 Mile LP package, which led fans to a totally unique musical artefact, hidden in a deserted hamlet in East Sussex). Does the new LP have a conceptual element? Tell us the idea behind the album.

AP Our ‘3rd member’ is designer and photographer Pedr Browne, who has been an integral part of presenting all the albums. For Overwinter he has produced a 10 image sequence of stereoscopic photographs. Stereoscopy is Victorian 3D, so the images, like the songs, explore the idea of looking at ourselves and our environment through the lens of the past, to understand how we’ve got to where we are. The limited edition album bundle includes those images and a pair of stereo specs.

If you had to choose one musician/writer/artist without whom the Grasscut sound would not exist, who would it be?

AP For me it would be Gavin Bryars‘ piece Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet – a string orchestra accompanying a tape loop of a homeless man singing from 1971. I heard this when I was a teenager in the early 80s. It doesn’t immediately sound like Grasscut, but the collision of unlikely elements that heighten the intensity of the listening experience, is something that’s stayed with me, and I don’t think Hilaire Belloc would have been on In Her Pride, Kathleen Ferrier on We Fold Ourselves or Siegfried Sassoon on Red Kite otherwise.

2012’s Unearth saw you collaborating with Robert Wyatt; is there one artist you would dearly love to work with in the future?

AP Right now, composer and turntablist Shiva Feshereki would be amazing.
MO We knew Robert because I’d written a book about him, and it was humbling to have him contribute to Richardson Road. But we’ve worked with some other great people too, including jazz musicians like Seb Rochford and John Surman. Also Robert Macfarlane, who wrote liner notes for Everyone Was A Bird. Right now, I seem to be mainly listening to jazz records from the 1950s and 60s, and dub records from the 1970s, which don’t throw up a lot of potential collaborators. But I’d love to do something with David Coulter playing singing saw.

What part does the live element play on completion of a new project? Is it integral to conveying the ideas/concepts, or is it simply a necessary evil?

AP For us I think the live show is always an exciting reinvention of the record, and it brings different things out of the songs and arrangements. I really hope we get to play it live later in 2021.
MO Yeah, bring on the gigs. Obviously, one thing 2020 has shown us is how much we need live music. I realise I’m not alone in this but I really miss it, both as a performer and an audience member.

If you could change one thing about the music industry, what would it be?

AP Genre. I find the obsession with it exhausting, misleading, and conservative. And it can end in so many playlists that feel like a padded cell lined with oatmeal wallpaper.

MO I would change the way in which streaming works, which relates in part to Andrew’s answer. But I also mean I would change the money side. I should declare an interest in this, as I’m a Director of the Featured Artists Coalition. There is great work happening with the Broken Record and Fix Streaming campaigns, led by people like Tom Gray, and now the Digital Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee are having an enquiry. But they are up against some big beasts. We’ll see.

Overwinter is out now on Lo Recordings – and a full review will follow on Arcana soon. The album can be purchased through clicking on the Bandcamp link above.

Talking Heads: Mr Scruff – DJ Kicks

interview by Ben Hogwood

When Arcana called to speak with Mr Scruff , aka Andy Carthy, about his DJ Kicks album earlier this year, we were locked down – but he was using the time productively. “I’m having a big tidy. Musically I’ve been all over the place and want to lay my hands on stuff quickly. I’ve been organising it like a record shop, just having a big clear out and all that. I know a lot of DJs who are doing the same thing. When you’re not pulling out all your records all the time your collection’s a bit static, so it’s easier to organise. I’ve got triple albums where the three albums have been reunited for the first time in about twenty years!”

Has he made any rediscoveries? “Loads! I’ve been going through whole sections like hip hop 12”s and house 12”s. Each section takes about a week to go through, and I’m listening to loads of stuff – promos I received 25 years ago. Two thirds of them are ‘see you later’, but one third is ‘wow’. You’re hearing stuff for the first time.”

We turn to his DJ Kicks compilation, widely acknowledge as one of the best mixes released this year. His approach to it is instructive. “However much you try it’s never going to be like a live mix”, he confirms. “When I started mixing in the 1980s, that was the decade of the megamix. It was still quite ‘in the moment’ but the tools at your disposal were different, and you could be more considered. It reminded me of being a teenager doing pause button edits, it was great fun!”

He starts with a long list…but inevitably elements such as copyright and clearance whittle it down. “It’s an odd one, because !K7’s initial advice was to pick 30-40 tunes – there’s your record box – and they would see what they could clear, and we’d do the mix. They also wanted a very wide ranging mix, and I said that would probably work if you were doing quite a linear mix at one tempo or texturally similar, like a box of DJ tools. This way it will probably go all over the place in terms of tempo, instrumentation and genre, by the very nature of the request. Each record is a very important piece of the puzzle, and if you lose one then the next five or six might not happen. It was a chicken and egg thing, so I did a draft mix, and then made lots of development. Then we would try and clear stuff and half of those tunes couldn’t be used, so it was a little frustrating. You’re normally used to taking records and putting them on, so I had to find ways of keeping interest and focus, and keeping the fun element of the project, without getting dragged down by the politics of licensing.”

He is familiar with such things. “Those frustrations are part and parcel of any licensing operation. On one hand you have the idealist approach – people need to hear this, this mix is beautiful, nothing should impede all the people hearing it – and when you’re DJing, nothing does impede it. Then it’s like, ‘We can’t have this one’, and I’ve had that before. You just need to get over it and keep reworking it, but not too much. You can’t get too bogged down or upset by not being able to use a certain tune.”

Was the idea to also give the listener a sense of discovery? “Kind of, but then on another level a lot of these tracks to me are classics. It’s an odd one because one person’s unknown and obscure is another person’s familiar comfort music, if you know what I mean. The recent obsession with many people of obscure ‘tropical’ music, for want of a better word, is a case in point. I’m thinking of K.Frimpong, something like that. When I first heard one of his tunes via a Ghanaian friend’s parents, I thought it was amazing and obscure, but they told me it was the Ghanaian equivalent of Sex Machine, everyone knows that tune!”

Some will be new to the listener, however. “There’s a few unreleased bits, or ones that haven’t been widely available. Quite a lot of them like the Tiger tune When, which is a classic from my youth. If you weren’t around at the time you’d be like ‘What’s that weird ragga tune by the guy with the slightly nasal, really weird comedic voice?!’ Some tunes on there like Fats Comet‘s Dub Storm are very important tunes from my teenage years. I’m not going out to be deliberately obscure, saying ‘look what I’ve got’ – the music has to be there for a reason. For me it was more about freewheeling, and the joy about putting the mix together is that each tune has to be a transition, taking it somewhere and passing the baton on to something else. With certain older tunes they are more dynamic and less linear than modern electronic productions. The transitions are very important, but that shows that if you take one tune out nothing can fill that gap, either in terms of key or lyrically. If you play an old tune that speeds up you can get from 90 to 110 bpm effortlessly in four minutes. You’re not having to do that as a DJ, the tune’s doing it for you. it builds the energy as a DJ set should do, but if I tried to do that with electronic music it might take me two hours! It’s letting each record do it’s thing, allowing the music to speak and breathe. It’s an especially important consideration when you’re overlaying lots of things, and you have to be careful not to get too much into showing off skills or obscure music. It’s nice to get technical and loopy but other tunes, let them breathe for five or six minutes. The records and audience are part of the conversation, and when you’re doing a student or bedroom mix it becomes a lot more between you and the music.

Is there even a similarity between the structure of a DJ set and a classical work? “You’ve got to have a strong start with a DJ mix, something that is arresting but also a little confusing. I think you have to have a bit of mystery, and it can be drama or ‘what’s happening here, where is this going to go’? It’s like introducing the character at the start of a film, with some plot building. After 3 or 4 tunes you’ve laid out your foundations and some reference points, so people are like ‘yeah, I’m strapped in now, let’s see where we’re going!’ I don’t think you can think too much about it at the start, other than mellow and a bit mysterious, then energetic and maybe comforting at the end. Any more planning than that and I think you’re taking out the opportunity for happy accidents, or just letting the records speak. They become part of the narrative, and it’s about how they add to the story. You’re creating a collage.”

He moves on to wax lyrical about Antibalas, and Battle Of The Species, the twelfth track in the DJ Kicks mix. “That to me is another massive classic. When the trombone comes in it’s like an elephant coming into the room! With tunes like that, ever since I received it, it brings back countless memories of seeing them live. Just the heaviness the guys in New York, like the Daptone Collective, Gabe Roth and the old school producers recording stuff on tape, recreating the 1970s but doing it in such a way that is heavy but nice to be able to introduce them in a mix without smoothing out the mad, raw energy. That’s the danger with a mix, in your rush to make everything seamless you can work against the dynamics of the music. You have to have an ear for what those tunes do. Many of these tunes I’ve played 150 times in a club, you know, so that wasn’t going to be an issue.”

There was an upside to wrangling over copyrights and permission. “The licensing provided some opportunities, because you might get to a certain point in the mix where you have to wait a week or two for things to come back, and you can listen to it from a less technical point of view. It’s good fun, and for me the challenge was trying to combine hard electronics and free, life affirming, organic music in a way that didn’t feel incongruous. Sometimes when you’re overlaying stuff you can lose the up and down dynamic, so it has to be more side to side or push and pull. The joy of playing with these different dynamics is mind boggling at times, the creativity that is inherently possible in mixing. It doesn’t detract from the narrative, and you can almost create a completely new tune! I never lose the joy in that creation of hearing two things that go really well together, whether they are from the same genre or not. In the early 90s I used to mix reggae over techno because the tempos went together – say 140 or 70bpm. There are so many different combinations, and they are unlikely but if you trace them 30 years back you can the genres lived next door to each other. For me though it’s the oddball records, the unclassifiable mutants, hopping and skipping around – they are the real heart and soul of the DJ sets. They really do help get you from A to B!”

These tunes fit in with Andy’s principal philosophy. “What I’m trying to do is connect with the feelings I get when I listen to something new for the first time, then try and pass it on to other people. You’ve got to at least awaken curiosity and excitement in people, and constantly look at it from different angles.”

The beauty of this – from my own point as a listener – is encountering new discoveries such as Andy Ash’s Ease Yourself. “Andy is a producer from Liverpool”, Carthy recounts, “and he sent me a CD of this tune about 15 years ago. From quite a mysterious sort of hazy drum and flute thing, it’s very effective, and I found that getting from something that was percussive and jazzy to some house stuff, it was the perfect transition record. Also in itself, in a dark club, it’s pretty intense. For some reason I remembered that tune, and it’s never been released. For two or three years I played that at every gig, and luckily I found the CD and it still works! He’s great, and a lot of his stuff is house tunes that sample the jazzy end of late 1970s soul. It’s a really nice thing, and that’s happened a few times. The Drymbago tune Chupacabra, they grew out of a regular night we had been running at Bangor University for over ten years. Bangor’s not the first place you think of for an appreciation of African and Caribbean music, but I love these incongruous situations where a whole scene can spring out of a small group of people’s love and obsession about certain kinds of music. This country is full of little scenes like that. It’s another of those brilliant head scratching moments!”

What is the ideal length of a Mr Scruff DJ set? “It depends. As much as it’s nice to play all night, it’s also nice to play alongside other people, to keep it free and easy. I’ve done it on my own for 15-20 years, so it’s been nice in the last few to do some back-to-backs. As long as people are versatile you can have a good back-to-back, a musical conversation. I would say 4-6 hours, depending on the venue. With festivals you have to go a bit shorter, but because I’m so used to playing for a long time, three hours feels like a bit of a rush. I love the whole thing of playing for a long time, as you can build a relationship with the people in the venue, set your own scene.”

There are moments of the live experience that Andy finds genuinely odd. “I do find when the support DJ is on people are standing around until the headliner comes on, which I find really weird. I’ll just swan in and everyone’s cheering for me, but these local people who are here week in and week out, who have actually created the whole scene which is the reason I’m here, you’re not giving them any love or attention. That’s a bit of a disconnect in club culture because of their reliance on headliners, but it’s also down to promoters and the way they curate their nights. If you start relying on headliners you’re going to attract a crowd who have this expectation. People are setting the bar too high and spoiling their own enjoyment, saying, ‘I can’t enjoy this music unless it’s played by someone who is sufficiently well known’. Sometimes I’m queuing up a record that they’ve played, and then suddenly people are getting into it. I’ve not started yet, but you’re dancing, because you think I’m DJing! It’s really weird, and at that point I’ll grab a microphone and give this person some respect. You can’t stand still for them and dance to me!” That said, there are so many community-based nights where that isn’t a problem. That might be remedied in the current climate where you can’t have these massive events.”

We move on to discuss the impact of the pandemic had on Andy’s personal life. “I spend so much time with people and loud music, so I’ve not felt a mad urge to replace my personal life with a screen. That’s been quite nice, getting outside and chatting to people I happen to bump into in the park. I’m in the luxury of not having to worry about my venue or festival, so it is an opportunity to rethink – where my money’s going, where I shop, who I’m banking with. One thing that hasn’t really been a big debate is why are these viruses happening? We need to behave a bit more as a species, aside from votes and that kind of thing. You think, what can I do in my everyday life to improve relations with me and the people around me, and make sure that I’m not inadvertently treating people bad by virtue of the companies that I’m supporting with my money. In a barrage of information where e-mails are flying at you like the credits from Star Wars, it’s kind of nice to take stock for a bit. Most of us are like rabbits in the headlights most of the time!”

Mr Scruff’s contribution to the DJ Kicks series is on !K7, and can be purchased from their website here