Feature – An Interview with Skream
Oliver Jones, aka Skream, has become one of the UK’s best-loved DJs.
You might associate the name with the earth-shattering bass line wobble of UK dubstep, the scene brought to the masses by the Croydon local in the mid-noughties, along with close friends Benga and Artwork. Remember super group Magnetic Man? That was them.
But Ollie famously quit dubstep in 2013, opening up to the media about how the scene ceased to inspire him, it had become “all about drops” and he planned instead to enter the realm of 4/4. That really is as loosely as you can classify his DJing and production though. Nowadays he’s Mr Versatility, and if you’ve seen him play at one of the mega events he frequently headlines, you’ll know to leave your expectations at the door. There might be pounding deep house, maybe throwback UK garage, or even moody techno. He plays and produces what he feels like in the moment, in a career evolving completely on his own terms.
So first thing’s first, how’s the Open to Close tour going?
It’s going unbelievably. Every time I get to a show I’m like ‘wow that’s the best one so far’. I played in Birmingham on Saturday, 10 til 6 and it was just amazing, the vibe in there from the get-go, I couldn’t ask for any more. The good thing for me is that they’re all totally different, so I play totally differently at each one, it’s really fun, really really enjoyable.
If you’re playing mammoth 8-hour long sets are you planning the music in advance?
No I can’t really. On my USB key I save the sets I played the night before but generally nowhere’s the same. For instance I was in Rotterdam on Friday, so I know I can’t play any UK garage there, so I kept it more discoey and house and then obviously techno, but then I played a lot more garage in Birmingham on Saturday. Obviously there are songs getting played the same each night but it’s not all the same.
So the description of this tour says it’s your favourite venues. Obviously we’re here in Leeds, so can you tell me about your fondest memories of the city?
I’ve been going to Leeds since I was about 17 / 18. I used to play dubstep at the West Indian Centre. I’ve been going up there a long time. The last time I was at Mint Club was mad! There’s a few standout moments that I can’t really talk about, they happened at after-parties. But it’s a place I’ve always had fun and always had a good following.
Did you enjoy Mint Fest this year?
I had an amazing time at Mint Fest but unfortunately I had to leave pretty early. It was actually one of the first gigs I’d done on both my feet for a while because I broke my leg at the start of the summer. So it was the first gig since May where I actually wore a pair of trainers and I wasn’t on crutches. There’s a video doing the rounds at the moment from my set which is. But yeah I’m really looking forward to Mint Club.
What do your favourite shows consist of now as compared to when you were first starting out? I don’t want to talk about dubstep etc too much because I’m sure you’re a bit sick of talking about it!
No not at all, it’s all part of where I’m from. Well, when I was playing dubstep the main reaction you were trying to get was causing an absolute raucous, rewinding tracks etc. It was a lot more ADHD filled, a lot more in your face. Whereas now, [it’s about] going out and having a full dance floor. Especially with the Open to Close sets watching people, the feeling of making people dance all night long to just you on your own is a really satisfying feeling. And still the same as before one of the best feelings is playing one of my records and it getting a great reaction.
And do you have any kind of preference between smaller and bigger shows?
To be fair I’ve always liked smaller shows, more intimate. But then don’t get me wrong playing at a festival or on a massive stage is still a great feeling. But I’ve always preferred as a raver and as a DJ playing at the smaller venues.
You’ve talked before about being frustrated that people would come up to the decks and complain that you weren’t playing your old stuff. Does that still happen or have you reached a point where people finally accept what you’re doing?!
No it doesn’t happen any more! I mean every now and then there’s the odd one but it’s expected. It used to happen all the time and it felt like people would do it because they knew I wouldn’t play it which was pretty irritating. And then people would get almost aggressive about it which used to do my nut in really.
Given what’s happened to your career in the past ten years, do you see yourself in another five or ten years shifting in style again?
Maybe, or maybe in two or three years. There’s no set grid I just kind of go with what makes me happy really.
I think keeping it varied, keeping it unexpected is what gives people longevity anyway.
Well I mean it always gives people something to talk about doesn’t it?!
Yeah exactly! Even though you always seem un-phased by being talked about, is there anything you really don’t like about being in the public eye?
I guess people always saying that you look fucked! I mean everybody knows I like to party right but most people only see me when I’m in a club, they don’t really see me on a day-to-day basis so it’s just quite annoying when sort of no matter what state I’m in, every comment on the photo or clip it’s like ‘I bet is fucked’. Really to be fair, 6 – 7 times out of 10 they’re wrong. I mean to be fair when I was a lot younger I could do that but obviously now I’ve got a child and it’s sort of different, you know what I mean.
Do you pay really close attention to everything that’s being said about you on social media?
Well I mean you kind of have to nowadays don’t you. There are people on social media whilst they’re in a club so yeah I just keep an eye on it and keep it ticking over.
A bit more of a serious question. Since Benga spoke out to the media (he retired suddenly from the industry in 2014 and has since opened up about dealing with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia), have you personally seen any change in attitudes towards mental health in dance music?
Yeah definitely. Since he came out and talked about it I think there’s been a positive effect on people because it’s made other people feel like they’re not going through it on their own. It’s taken away the idea that you’re completely bonkers if you have a mental health issue. I think people are looking more closely especially at artists and people in the nightlife industry, because it’s a job that makes you burn the candle at both ends. And also it’s a world where it’s easily missed. Like you can just think ‘ah, they’re just being nutty, just acting mad partying’ or whatever. It’s good that there’s more of an awareness.
Do you think mental health issues are always going to be inevitable in dance music, given the lifestyle it entails?
No, not at all, because it doesn’t just stem from stress. There’s loads of things it can stem from. It’s already there. But it’s not come out yet, it’s just something that’s enhanced. But it shouldn’t be something that’s stuck to nightlife, because it relates to all walks of life you know.
Absolutely agreed, that’s an important message. So, back to light-hearted stuff: your latest release. It sounds very garage influenced and back to your old roots. Is it a clue for the album that’s supposedly in the works?!
No no no it’s not haha. No the album isn’t something I’m talking about much because to be honest, it’s barely even started. The track to be honest reminds me of one off my 2nd album, called ‘I love the way’. It’s kind of just a throwback, something that I would’ve done years ago. It’s really surprised me that it’s been doing so well over the summer and it’s doing so well now. It’s a bit of nostalgia. I’ve been playing it at every show since February / March and at every show it goes fucking insane. It doesn’t seem to be slowing down either.
When you go into the studio now, what’s your attitude? Is your production very spontaneous, or do you sit on ideas for a while?
It’s just whatever. I just listen to loads and loads of music and if I feel inspired I’ll just hit the studio. If you listen to the last six song files they’re all completely different. They can range between like 110bpm to 130. Whatever’s in my head at the time really.
And how do you discover new music?
Bandcamp. I’m a Bandcamp junkie. I spend at least £100 on it a week.
They should give you a discount.
Hah yeah they should.
And then the label Of Unsound Mind, what’s the latest with that?
I had a release come out last week from Christian Nielsen. I think we might be done for the rest of the year. I’ve just signed a new EP from Billy Turner which is really really good and an artist called Pegoland and Polygon – a bit of a mouthful. And that should be out sort of end of January. It’s a lot darker and techno. I’m just signing another EP from Eli Brown who released a couple of weeks ago. A few big club records there. Hopefully end of February start of March it’ll all start brightening up again.
And any plans to tour with J.E.S.u.S. any time soon?
Er not really, we’re doing Annie Mac’s Lost & Found, headlining that. I don’t really know. It sort of pops up over festival season so hopefully a couple of slots will pop up next year.
Remaining tickets for the Open to Close show at Mint Club available here.
(Images: supplied by The Rest is Noise Communications, contentdope.com)