Scuba deep dive interview: “There’s more to life than money and adulation. Probably not that much more, but a bit more”
Hotflush man and prismatic innovator tells all
As the founder of Hotflush Recordings – together with his looming presence in the dance music scene, from the early days of dubstep and grime through to his more recent techno outings – Scuba is a prismatic force, whose tastemaking and production trajectories over the years have been enviably erratic.
A master at defying expectations, he’s done just that, yet again. Scuba’s new project ‘Diivorce’ – made with the mysterious singer DOMiNii – is unlike anything we’ve heard before from him. It’s an intensely sunny yet curt electronic pop record, with unabashedly bright vocals, and myriad production styles ranging from upbeat dance to stripped-back folk.
In light of this new passion project, we caught up with Scuba about his 3-year hiatus from DJing, Brexit, tech house snobbery, and what it takes to stand out as a musician in 2021. Read on for the juicy bits…
When I think of Scuba and Hotflush, the first word that pops into my head is ‘versatile’. Over the years you’ve transitioned out from straight dubstep to more off-kilter, progressive UK bass, and now everything from techno to this album, which is more of an indie pop and electronic fusion. What in your life usually motivates each stylistic change?
It’s usually down to boredom, which I realise is a slightly reductive way of trying to characterise it. The truth is, I’m very much of the opinion that most music is bad, but that there is still good music in every style. So I’m very small-C catholic in my musical taste generally, whether thinking of it in a label way or a producing way.
I also want to be challenged continually, both in terms of the music I make, as well as in terms of my understanding of different styles and the way things fit together, and parts of the industry. Doing this record has been completely different to anything else we’ve done before, in terms of the way the pop/indie side of the market, for want of a better term, works. And that fits with me wanting to move around. I’m very much of the opinion that you should always try to keep learning, fundamentally. I find that a very motivating factor in itself.
I can’t really nail it down, but there’s probably some slightly more negative readings of it… it’s not necessarily the path I’d advise people new to making music to take. I was speaking with someone on Twitter recently about whether they felt being versatile as a DJ was a good thing, and I just had to answer in the negative… and with a really heavy heart. It’s a really positive thing, but in terms of how people’s perceptions of musicians and DJs are formed and held in their minds, it really is the lack of versatility that’s rewarded commercially. Which sucks, but it’s just the reality of life.
Isn’t there a niche for eclecticism, though? Among young music heads today, the fact that there aren’t many examples of ‘the eclectic DJ’ left is often lamented, and for the producers and DJ that are still out there doing wacky stuff, there is a sort of quizzical interest in what they’re doing. No?
Yeah, sure, there are exceptions to the rule. There is a corner of the scene whereby those traits are seen as positive, and I think in isolation, if you ask the question to anyone who goes out, they’d say, “yeah, it is a good thing”. But the audience in aggregate does not seem to like it. It’s like the age-old question in politics, over whether a policy in isolation is popular or not. To pluck an example out of the air, let’s consider the renationalistion of the railways. Everyone backs it, but it’s part of an idealistic manifesto, and in practise that manifesto always loses.
I think it is regrettable, and there are exceptions. Gilles Peterson is the classic example. He’s made a career from a relatively wide-ranging style.
But Gilles Peterson still has his definable focus. I think audiences nowadays are after something you can latch onto, even if it is kind of quite broad.
There is certainly no John Peel, that’s for sure. He’s the only example I can think of where it could have been literally anything playing on his show. There’s no equivalent nowadays, no-one as high profile as him.
He was the first DJ to play any of my music on the radio. I was familiar with him, a bit, but mostly because of listening to Peel Sessions of bands I liked, so I never really listened to the show much. But I was aware of a lot of context that came out of that show, still. I remember sitting there knowing he was going to play something of mine, because I knew the producer, and I remember waiting for the tune to be played. And meanwhile, I had my mind blown by all this crazy Afghan folk music and early grime playing in between.
I mean, you have his son, who’s still around, but it’s not like he’s got the same sort of gravitas.
Well it’s not quite the same, because John Peel built up his gravitas over 30 years. Tom Ravenscroft is great, but he’s not playing any Afghan folk music, that’s for sure.
So let’s go into the album. DOMiNii is a rather mysterious figure. Who is DOMiNii, and how did you first link up with him?
Well he’s a mysterious figure, as you said. He doesn’t want to do any publicity for this.
I noticed his main front-facing ‘image’ is a drawing of a young man, which I assume is a stylized picture of him.
The artwork is done is done by a French artist called Virginie Kypriotis. It’s kind of an open question as to whether the character in the artwork is an avatar of DOMiNii or not. He’s obviously using it on his socials, but we never really talked about that.
Basically the timeline for this project is that in 2018, I stepped back from touring to a large extent, basically because I wanted to get away from the mindset of DJing. I threw myself into recording vocalists, and there was a project I worked on for a while with a female singer which didn’t really go anywhere. But it did get me into the right frame of mind.
I’ve found it difficult to collaborate with people in the past, for a variety of reasons. It’s something I’ve tried to do, but as a producer I find it difficult because I have a tendency to be controlling and insecure, which is the worst combination of traits to have in that environment. But when I’m working someone who wants to just come and sing, that’s quite a lot easier to manage. In that scenario, I’m able to exert those megalomaniacal tendencies without too much fallout.
With DOMiNii I was taking in a lot of demos from people, and he’s the one that stuck. We did a lot of writing and back-and-forths, but the majority of it was me, I suppose. That tends to be the case when you’re a control freak. It blended in a little bit with the former project I was doing with the other singer.
We ended up with mountains of material – almost too much stuff – and we were trying to pick out bits that worked as a proper album. It wasnt really happening, though. My view on albums is that they should be proper albums. Long-form, as opposed to just 13 tracks or whatever. I realise that’s more of an antiquated view. The reason people nowadays do seven track albums is because that’s the cutoff for the album category on streaming platforms, but they’re really EPs. So yeah, there wasnt really a quote-unquote ‘proper album’ there, so I figured we do the seven track thing. And so, in preparation for doing something more substantial in a more focused way – this was a two year process – this is what I’m working on now, which is something a bit more focused and coherent.
‘Diivorce’ was created in your time away from the club, which you found to be a crippling environment. What kind of events and venues were you playing at before, and which aspects of those parties did you find stifling? Do any particular experiences stand out?
It was more the cumulative effect of the lifestyle as a whole, really, rather than any individual parties or anything like that. There was a point going back a lot further, though, where a big part of my motivation to stop doing dubstep and bass music was that I wasn’t enjoying those shows.
A good show is a good show, don’t get me wrong. There are few things in life better than being onstage and people appreciating what you’re doing, and at a base level that is a good thing regardless of the context. But at those shows, I found myself in a funny space. The stereotypical bass music likes to rewind a lot, and has big drops and gets in your face. But house and techno events – where I saw DJs play for four hours – felt a lot more low-key and meditative. And I wanted to experience and learn, which motivated me to stop making bass music and to make music that would allow me to play those kind of shows.
But regardless of which parties you’re doing, or whether you’re playing live, just the frequency of going out and DJing causes you just lose a lot of the mental space in which creativity comes. Having that kind of freedom, I find to be really important. My process means having the time to get lots of things done – most of them being bad. I need to be able to throw a lot of things at the wall, basically. And in order for some of those ideas to stick, I just found the touring schedule didn’t work for it. It became a never-ending cycle that only yielded diminishing returns. When you’re done, you’re done.
Given how open-minded the venue is known to be, did your residency at Berghain influence the sound on this album at all?
We started SUB:STANCE in 2008 and finished in 2013. Berghain was extremely influential on me in lots of different ways. SUB:STANCE was initially the inspiration in terms of the dubstep-slash-techno thing, which happened for a bit, and the first three years of the party was chatacteristed by that. And then I became more interested in house, and playing longer sets, and being more laid back and less into that hypeman-type approach.
But more generally, as you said, it’s a very open-minded place musically, and the people who work there are very generous in giving people who don’t have a big track record a chance to express themselves musically. Obviously, the venue is known for the techno saturday night, and for good reason. I continued to play there after 2013, and in fact, one of my last shows was at Panorama Bar in the upstairs room in February 2020. It’s known for that night, and fair enough, because it’s the best techno club in the world, and the best club in the world. If I was going to pay for a club show, I wouldn’t go anywhere else other than there. In terms of their willingness to do different things – mid-pandemic, they opened it up as an art gallery very early on – and in terms of the cultural life in Berlin, it reflects really well as an institution.
Can you hear Berghain on this record? I don’t know about that. A bit. But being able to play there, and to do what I love there, gave me a lot of confidence to do what I wanted musically, in ways I wouldn’t have done before.
Your teenage years were a strong influence on this project, especially the band music you used to listen to. Bridging the gap between ‘band music’ and dance music is in vogue at the moment. There are lots of indie bands active in London who like to fuse their stuff with electronics, and to them, the electronic bit is the novelty element. But you’re approaching it from the opposite angle; you’re an electronic producer first. Have you noticed this trend, and does what you’re doing feel part it of or separate to it?
No, I hadn’t noticed that trend, but it’s not surprising. Music is so fragmented now. There’s so many little things going on, it’s impossible to keep up with it all. It’s largely a fluke whether you come across it or not. None of this is new, though. Generally speaking, over the years, there’s been better music made going from electronic towards indie, rather than the other way around. That is a broad statement, but going back to the bands I was into in the ‘90s, I was primarily into rock and metal, before that I was able to go to clubs. In the kind of early-to-mid ‘90s there was definitely a tendency for a subculture of rock and metal to concern itself with electronic stuff.
There was a Swedish band I remember – I can’t remember their name – who did all their records with a drum machine. In a way, they were trying to make it sound like a drum kit, but they didn’t hide it, which was a strange approach. And then there were bands like Senser and various others, for whom a lot of the electronic element felt tacked-on, gimmicky. Nowadays, I often find that when there’s a band which is, like, drums and bass and guitar and a singer, plus a little bit of electronics, I often find that the electronic side is what they use to give themselves a slightly different sound or whatever.
But then there’s some really great stuff coming from the other direction, LCD Soundsystem being the obvious one you could pluck from the air. You could include Caribou in that too. But they are two very different ways of thinking about it. Playing to a click in a concert setting is fundamentally different to just jamming away. Asking any drummer to follow a click is asking for trouble. Either they do it perfectly or they sound terrible. And there’s different styles of drumming: if you ask your average genius jazz drummer to play to a click, they’ll probably not be happy and probably find it quite difficult to start with.
I kind of think, though – having said there’s better music being made going from electronic to rock – it is the other way around on the live side. I’ve definitely seen great live shows of bands who have been indie bands, and have still been able to add some quite interesting stuff to their live show. I remember one story DJ Distance told me when we first met, when we first got into UK garage. We were both into metal and he’d been to a Korn show, and the drummer had a drum pad with an 808 kick on it, and he was just smacking it every now and then. In rock and metal you don’t tend to get sub bass of that sort. They tune down the guitars, but that’s different to having a massive 808 smacking away on every first beat of the bar. And that was a real life-changing experience for him. Korn weren’t an electronic band.
Despite being a project of ‘songs’, ‘Diivorce’ doesn’t skimp on digital processing. In your view, what’s the crucial difference between a ‘song’ and a ‘track’ and why does this distinction matter?
A song, in my opinion, is just a reference to the structure of the track. As I see it, a song is verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle 8-chorus, and obviously there’s variations to that. But you can boil it down to something fairly recognisable. Everything else is a tune.
In a previous interview, you brought up a Billy Corgan quote from the late ‘90s about rock bands having to jump through hoops in order for their music to be considered ‘rock’, and you said the same could apply to DJ and dance music culture. You said music made for clubs is often utilitarian, like a tool. A lot of producer-DJs I know will talk about making short DJ tools and edits completely separately from their main EP material, to jump through certain hoops and satisfy expectations. What’s your overall opinion on ‘DJ tool’ culture? Do you think it’s a problem for the dance scene (i.e. it’s objectively too widespread), or are you irked by it on a purely personal level?
I would refer to my previous statement that most music is bad, but there’s good music in every style. I don’t think anyone should be snobbish about club music or DJ tools generally. There are plenty of examples of music made over decades and centures for a very specific purpose, catching some inspiration that nevertheless turns into a work of some profound beauty. Hymns, for example, were just songs written by monks to get people to sing the lyrics they wanted them to sing. It definitely shouldn’t be a thing that something is written off because it’s of some particular style. And I happily include the much-derided tech house in that. I will go that far!
It is what it is, to use a hackneyed phrase. For me, personally, my disillusionment with DJing was just a case of the conveyor-belt nature of my own situation, which drove me to the position I found myself in, rather than the creative aspect of it itself. I look pretty fondly upon club music, generally. Let’s face it, every style has its boxes to tick in order to make it music of that style – whether it’s a kind of guitar riff with a distorted tone to make it a rock track, or a big bang at the end of a tune, or a perfect cadence at the end of a Bach piece. Or a snare roll in a tech house tune. There are always these tings in music. They’re put there for the reason, which is that people need frames of reference to make sense of what’s going on. The art happens around them.
I count myself as a snob in some respects, but not musically. Everything can be good. I have a problem with the idea that X genre of music isn’t good. It’s the worst way to approach music and art of every sort. It’s the same thing with genres of movies. It’s ridiculous to say, “I don’t like this ‘cause it’s this”, without having experienced it fully.
That’s in a similar vein to just of saying you don’t like something because it’s a vogue to say it, when you havent actually thought about why it’s bad content-wise. Or you might ask a person who derides a certain genre why they don’t like, but they won’t be able to explain why that is, other than because a certain kind of person or subculture they don’t identify with usually listens to it.
Right! And that’s tech house in a nutshell. Most of the criticism thrown at it is basically just class prejudice, dressed up as legitimate musical criticism. That’s not true for everyone who slates it, but it is for a lot of people.
In the scenes you’ve worked in before (dubstep, techno, UK bass etc.), strands of it have been very snobbish. Were you kind of apprehensive at first – that the people who are inevitably going to be left over from your earlier days, might have turned their nose up at this project?
Oh, I knew they would. Certain people, anyway.
I actually look back on some of my public communications with quite a lot of shame and embarrassment. Probably one of the stupidest things I’ve ever said in an interview was around the time Adrenalin came out, and I made this big statement. It was something along the lines of, “I’m doing house now, and as for dubstep, whatever, fuck dubstep.” Then, in a later interview, I said that by saying that, I was “intentionally trying to weed the idiots out of my fanbase.” And I’m saying now… if any other musicians are reading this interview, here’s some advice. Don’t ever say that in an interview.
So yeah, I guess you’re right. Dubstep, bass music – or any music which conspicuously takes itself seriously – has and will have a snobbish fanbase. Techno has an unbelievably snobbish fanbase. In certain strands of rock, too, if you’re deemed insufficiently ‘pure’, then you will be ostracised forever because of it. And there are lots of scenes like that.
So with this project, I just guess my attitude was, “I’m not going to be constrained by this, and if that means a certain percentage of people who have liked my music before aren’t going to give me the benefit of the doubt, and are going hate me for it, then I can live with it”. And that’s just a decision you have to make. If you achieve a degree of success in music and the arts generally, doing one thing, then you’re expected to do that thing again if you want to continue to be successful. And for the vast majority who achieve sustained success, that’s what they do. It’s pretty rare for people to be able to jump around in big creative leaps, and I’ve no doubt my own career has suffered because of the changes i’ve made.
But there’s more to life than money and adulation. Probably not that much more, but a bit more.
This is DOMiNii’s debut. He’s a ‘new’ artist, and in working with him you’re showing a willingness to work with people who aren’t necessarily established. As someone who has a good view of the way underground music works now compared to 20-odd years ago, especially in the era of clout, what would you say new artists like DOMiNii should do today in order to be heard – especially given the lack of infrastructure for artists?
Well, that’s an interesting way of putting it, because in some ways the infrastructure is better than its ever been. The ability for people to mass-communicate is much higher than it was when I started. The problems for new artists today is less to do with that and more to do with the volume of stuff out there. There are more and more people doing it, and with that comes less and less opportunity to command attention. And, as I said in answer to your previous question, there’s such a degree of fragmentation in music now that there’s basically nothing in the way of real ubiquitous musical experiences. There are obviously huge acts like the Ed Sheerans and the Adeles of this world. But even they aren’t really on the same level, in terms of public consciousness, than – I don’t know, let’s pluck a name out iof the air – Oasis were, in 1995. Or, if you want to think globally, Michael Jackson in 1988.
I dont think that really exists anymore. Which is in a way both good and bad, for someone trying to start out. The top of the mountain is lower, but it’s probably steeper to get there. The term ‘clout’ is instructive. Just look at the Spotify Top 100… there are very few records in there that just consist of one artist. It’s the mashing together of people’s followings – a marketing strategy in order to generate as much attention and clicks and eyeballs as possible, to sell something.
Now, people do look down on the current model of streaming, and to me it doesn’t actually look that much different to back in the day, in some ways. I think it has more similarities to the old-school days of commercial radio than is commonly acknowledged. Compare, for example, the way playlisting works to how commercial radio used to work: now you pitch to editors to get playlisted, and previously your radio plugger had to call the radio station in quite a similar way.
I think, basically, you just have to be different in some way. But that was always the case. I don’t think there’s been a fundamental change in what it’s like to launch a career as a musician. You still have to stand out, and say something that resonates with the people, and be engaging. And a big part of that engagement is being at the right place at the right time, and capturing the essence of the moment. If you do those things, you have a good chance of getting noticed.
Certain acts just resonate inexplicably with people. The best example I have of that is Joy Orbison. As soon as Pete started putting out music, people just, immediately… something went off in people’s heads. His very first single, people went crazy for. Hyph Mngo. Imagine if Hyph Mngo was your first release ever. It’s just crazy, just an era-defining track.
I prefer ‘Wet Look’.
Yeah, so do I actually. But a couple of years after that, Hyph Mngo was the one that still just worked in people’s minds. And speaking as a DJ, the tunes were great, but it wasn’t like those tunes were exponentially better than some other producer who wasn’t getting that much attention. But for some reason, it just worked in people’s heads.
And you can see this stuff happening. It’s easy to be cynical about how marketing campaigns work, and also about the way TikTok works now. But there’s a hundred marketing campaigns out there that fail, for every one that blows to the level that, for example, Olivia Rodrigo has done recently. For everyone that does well, there’s a zillion that fail on their face. It’s easy to be daunted starting off, and the default assumption is that you will fail. Personally, I’ve found that assumption to be a good motivator. People will normally advise you to assume you’ll succeed, with the idea that you’ll continue to work until you do succeed – but hey, people have different ways of going about things. But yeah, I just don’t think the climate is fundamentally different.
Volume is a huge issue, and it just contributes to the fragmentation thing. It makes music discovery that much more difficult, and I think a lot of people find it demotivating in their efforts to find new music. But it’s funny, because it’s resulted in fewer acts that are bigger. And as an aside, people are counter-intuitively congregating much more around the artists that were around way back when – the Oasises and Michael Jacksons – because their names still carry that weight.
Let’s go back to the album. Is there a distinct narrative or message to ‘Diivorce’ or, given the nature of the project as not a ‘proper album’, is its story more fragmented?
I wouldn’t say there’s any consistent theme, really. Well, actually… to complerely contradict what I just said, the songs are all about separation in a way. There’s one about the UK leaving the EU, there’s one about my parents, and one about climate change. Yes and no.
I assume these are all things you feel strongly about? What are your thoughts on Brexit?
Well, I obviously voted remain, and I feel a lot more ambivalent about it than I did at the time. I mean, I’ve lived in Europe for the majority of my life since 2007. I’m an Irish citizen, so I don’t really have as much skin in this game as others do, but at the time I was really cognizant of the way Europe dealt with the Greek debt crisis and the financial crisis more generally. I thought that was awful. I was also pretty appalled by the way the Lisbon Treaty was rammed through; very undemocratic. So I had my doubts about the institution. But equally, it seemed pretty obvious to me that economically, leaving it would be stupid, and on a personal level I thought it would be bad, bottom line.
So on the one hand, we have the political forces unleashed by the whole thing on the right, but they’ve also come out to an extent on the left, and it’s just all very unsavoury. But still, a lot of the bad stuff that was supposed to happen definitely hasn’t happened. And I think the EU as a whole continues to be pretty ugly in a lot of ways. So I’m kind of, like, hmm.
But it’s easy to sit here with an Irish passport and say that, because – I’m living in Spain at the moment – if I was in a position where I had to come and go every 3 months to get my passport stamped, I’d be a little bit more annoyed about the whole thing. The whole of the Western world is in crisis – yes, I’m going to delve in to geopolitics now – and I think we’re just at the start of it. There’s a lot more to come. But these things do tend to occur in cycles, and there’s probably a need for more stuff to go wrong before things can improve. For me, the biggest question now is economic inequality across the Western world, which is the most pressing concern, and which is what will lead to the most bad stuff to happen than can potentially happen.
And yet, that inqeuality isn’t taken seriously by anyone, as far as I can see. Not by people on the left – which is mindblowing to me – and the right obviously doesn’t care. So yeah, I don’t know. On the Brexit issue, it’s funny how one’s attitudes towards it change, but also stay the same.
Can I ask which tune on ‘Diivorce’ deals with Brexit?
‘Fish’, of course.
So are you going to return to this project – this isn’t a one-off?
Yeah, I’m in the middle of it at the moment, kind of passing stuff back and forth. I’ve been in Spain all year, but I’m also doing some ‘proper’ Scuba music coming in the Autumn. So it’s not like I’m not doing dance music anymore. The DOMiNii project is at the stage where I feel its potential has only just been tapped into. We’ll find out the extent of that potential over the coming month or two, or three.
There’ll also be other stuff too, with half an eye on returning to the DJ circuit, so we’ll see how that goes too.
Ah! Are you looking forward to returning to DJing?
Someone Tweeted recently – it was a journalist whose name I can’t remember – asking for DJs who feel anxious about returning to DJing. I was like, “yep, that’s me!”
It’s the longest period by far in which I haven’t engaged in any way with it. I havent thought about what I’d play if I were to DJ. I haven’t gone through new music, and I don’t know how I feel about being in a club or a festival. I’m sure a lot of epople are feeling the same. I’m also sure there’s a lot of bravado and posturing and people seemingly taking it in their stride. And I’m sure there will be a moment when it feels like there’s something that’s been missed. There was a hint of that at the Euros, the football. The postive side of it was the feeling of people being together again, which there will be traces of, sure. We’ve just got to get on with it now.
I went from a full schedule of about 100 shows a year, down to about 20-ish. So it’s not like I’ve forgotten what it’s like. At the end of it, I was still playing at least once or twice a month, and lots of people are now in the same boat. And it’s also true of the people going out, too. The audience. There’ll be emotional moments for everyone.
In your view, how has DJing changed globally in the time you’ve had off?
There’s definitely much more attention paid to the diversity aspect of lineups, which I think is positive. Obviously, I think it’s more complicated than people realise, and it’s had some effects on on the overall market, that are maybe not discussed. But overall, it’s great to see so many more women and people of colour on lineups. And the more of that, the better.
In terms of music, I don’t think dance music has gone anywhere in 10 years. I think there’s definitely room for cool shit, and certainly, new cool shit has been lacking a bit. Certainly, looking back on the ‘90s and the 2000s, with the amount of new things that were going on in those decades, the last decade was pretty weak by comparison. Periods of great adversity are known to yield great creativity, so we might be entering a golden age.
It would probably be a post-pandemic renaissance at this stage though. From our end it doesn’t seem like this past year has been particularly great for creatives.
No, not really. Lots of bad ambient.
Once things open up again, do you have plans to perform with DOMiNii?
I’ve not played a guitar on stage since i was about 18, and that’s a long time ago now. We need more material for it to happen, so once this second record is done, we may be able to make it happen.
We did a live show for Scuba in 2012-ish, and we took it round festivals. It’s just a nightmare logistically to keep it going. Compared to DJing, you’re lugging this big installation and crazy lights around, and that’s a killer. With DJing I could just turn up with a USB; compare that to trailing literally two tonnes of metal fucking rods everywhere you go. I’m not particularly keen to return to that. Economics take over at some stage. But playing live in a band setting would be an interesting thing to do. I mean, I’ve played in bands when I was younger, but not big shows or anything. It could be cool.
Jude Iago James
- Diivorce is out now on digital platforms with a vinyl release scheduled for September 24