Scuba is a DJ, producer, label head, and podcaster from London, UK. In addition to operating Hotflush Recordings, he’s best known for his SUB:STANCE residency at Berghain, as well as his 2010 album Triangulation and 2011 DJ-Kicks mix. This interview took place shortly before his SUB:STANCE set performed at Denver’s Black Box this past week.
I’m curious about the origins of a SUB:STANCE-specific tour in 2022 - is it revival, nostalgia, or something more like a museum exhibition?
I wouldn’t call it nostalgia, or revival really. To be honest, the show that I played in London, it was as part of a dubstep lineup - SUB:STANCE was always to one side of dubstep, you see what I mean? So it was a thing that I started when I moved to Berlin, and it was kind of a reaction to what was going on in London, I suppose. We made a conscious effort to make it a bit different - we didn’t have emcees, we didn’t encourage rewinds, so it was much more a kind of European-inflected take on the whole thing. But with the show that I played the other week, they just asked me ages ago to do it. And I’d actually completely forgotten about it - suddenly it was like “oh, you’re playing a SUB:STANCE set in a few weeks” and it was like “oh, shit, ok” - think about what that actually means in 2022. It was just quite refreshing to do it - what’s happened with techno the last couple years is that it’s sped up a lot. The problem I always had back then is that I wanted to play techno, and I wanted to play this slightly left-of-dubstep stuff, but the techno of 2008, 2012 was all much slower. I had to really pitch up the techno records that I was playing to fit them in. And now it’s already up, 138, 140, so the landscape, in terms of constructing a set of that type, has changed. So it’s certainly nostalgic - I’m playing some of the old records from back then - but I’m also playing some new stuff on the sort of bass-y side, which totally fits. And then as I mentioned, the new techno kind of fits as well. It’s a good time to be doing it, really.
So it’s part throwback, part the continued development of other styles that have caught up to the tempo you were operating at.
Yeah, I guess it’s sort of coalesced, you know, kind of in a convenient way. It wasn’t a completely easy fit, do you see what I mean, back then, and I guess that was part of what made it fun. So I’m not suggesting that it was incompatible in any way. But you were trying to smash these things together - obviously there were common influences, and Berlin has quite a strong history of dub-influenced music, so it made a bit of sense then and continues to make sense now. What’s happened with the dubstep scene, as much as it is, in the past couple years, is a revival of the more eyes-down type stuff, which was obviously what I liked a bit more. But the era that I really like the most of that whole thing was the quote, un-quote “post-dubstep” era. There were lots of genres being thrown into it, as well as the dubstep thing. I was talking to, for example, Roska about this on my podcast - I’ll just plug that, as well, for a moment. About that kind of period, being able to have lineups with lots of different genres on the bill. Having dBridge playing the kind of autonomic style for a set, and then Roska playing UK Funky - it all kind of made sense together, and that was the era that I really liked the most. So SUB:STANCE has always an element of that too, as well as being that kind of dubstep / techno thing.
I’ve always appreciated, maybe from more of a Hotflush perspective, your dedication to the archive. Do you find it difficult to be curating your own legacy?
I’ve always felt that the way dubstep was being covered in the press, and by observers, has always been - really, since very early on - quite one-sided. There were quite a few things that I consider to be significant which never quite got the attention they deserved. If I was to write the history of dubstep, I think it would be very different, have some elements which are not typically included in the record as it tends to be. Just to plug my podcast again [laughs], part of the reason I wanted to do a podcast was to, over time, get some of those different perspectives to it. But on the label, we’ve released a lot of music. So it’s not that hard, on an afternoon, to listen back to tracks from any given period of the label, kind of remind myself of what I was thinking at the time.
The whole 2010s was such a transient space, sonically - how, if at all, do you think that gets imprinted upon the public memory?
I think there’s a lot of good books about dance music scenes, but there are very few that I would consider to be definitive on any one issue. There are some good attempts - Simon Reynolds is obviously great, but the stuff I like most of his is stuff that I didn’t experience personally. His punk work, his book about acid house, which I was a little bit too young to experience myself, and also the Altered States book on acid house; I read it when I was a kid, just a few years after it happened, but I wasn’t there, so I don’t know what’s missed out. When you write something, obviously you bring your baggage to it. The problem with dubstep coverage is that it was such a small scene when it started - it was such a small scene, really, until 2006, 2007. But within that, there were a lot of… not cliques, but different factions. Everyone got on fine, but there were definitely different factions - there was a faction which came out on top, and that was the faction which is most storied, understandably. Zooming out a little bit, to cover all the other stuff that sprang out of that, I have no idea who would be able to give a complete account of it.
There’s another tricky part, which is that even if you’re trying to assemble a canon there’s a large portion of it that never saw release. So not only is the live experience difficult to translate, the music itself may not even exist as a point of reference.
That’s the thing about nightlife, generally, is that it’s usually subjective. Any one person’s experience of a DJ set can depend on all sorts of things. Probably chiefly among them what drugs you’ve taken on that particular evening [laughs]. It’s not an easy thing at all, the concept of putting it into one place. Have you read the Der Klang der Familie book about the German techno scene? This is a really good example of how to do it well. Basically, the construction is that it’s all excerpts from interviews - the whole thing is quotes. So they interview, I don’t know, a hundred people, maybe two hundred people, about the Berlin club scene from the mid-80s until the late-90s. The majority of it covering from when the wall came down until a few years after, when, you know, Tresor started and they started to bring over the Detroit guys. It’s all told through differing experiential descriptions of it, and then the different kinds of people make different contributions. There’s interviews with people who were running clubs, people who were just in the crowd, DJs, producers - a pretty wide spectrum of contributions. It really builds up what appears to be a pretty accurate overall perspective.
I don’t think I can quite convey to you how up my alley that is - I’ll certainly check it out. Dealing heavily in in-person scenes yourself with SUB:STANCE and the Hotflush night that preceded the label, were you cognizant of a sort of ambassadorial, exporter role for the sounds you were immersed in?
Probably not SUB:STANCE - if it was ownership or representation that I felt at the time, it was probably more to do with that dubstep thing. I started going to FWD>> in - I went to the very first one, in 2001. I went to most of them, until early 2007. There really weren’t very many people who were that committed to it - you’ve probably heard of most of them. So at that point, I thought I was really part of the development of that thing, and therefore felt some kind of responsibility towards it. So I was really not happy with the way the sound developed, obviously, and me moving to Berlin and messing around with the different influences that we did was kind of a reaction to that. By the time of the DJ-Kicks, I had kind of moved on a bit in my mind. I reached a point after my Triangulation album where I found the whole thing quite oppressive, just how big the mid-range sub-genre had become. I also found that having become quite a successful DJ, the kind of parties I was playing didn’t really make sense to me. There weren’t really any other nights that were featuring dubstep DJs, so I was still having to play pretty short sets, getting told to pull up tunes six or seven times an hour - I just didn’t find that fun, it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. So by the time the DJ-Kicks came out, the “Adrenalin” track was really me kind of saying “fuck you” to the expectation that I found placed upon myself. We continued doing SUB:STANCE for a couple of years after that, but by the end it was quite a lot different to how it was during what I consider to be the proper SUB:STANCE era, 2008, until maybe the end of 2011.
Creatively, what sort of distinction were you drawing between your objectives with a mix like that versus, for example, Triangulation?
It’s funny, I actually listened to DJ-Kicks yesterday for the first time in ages; I occasionally set myself these kinds of high-form sets to execute, and DJ-Kicks was that, absolutely. Every track slows down a bit, and I made a point of mixing it live - there’s a mistake in the first three mixes, which I’m pretty sure I left in so that it was obvious to everyone that I was mixing it live. Which is a ridiculous mindset, but that’s the kind of bullshit I would come out to myself in those days. Just go back and re-record it man, so that it sounds right!
I definitely always saw DJ mixes as being different to how I approached albums, that’s for sure. Even though when you step back and look at it, there is quite a high degree of consistency in terms of what those two things are. Triangulation, again, I listened to for the first time in ages recently, and what struck me was that I paid quite a lot of attention to the transitions between tracks, in a way that was obviously not dissimilar to DJing at all. So, to answer the question - what was the question, in fact?
Just how you approached mixes and records differently, if at all.
Right, so I was still just about on topic then [laughs]. They’re all a bit different, is the short answer. Triangulation, like I said, was definitely made to be listened to all the way through. The SUB:STANCE CD was just a mix, in that I hit “record” and did a mix with the tunes that I’d picked, in a way that I hoped was gonna be not too dissimilar to what I might play in a club set. Thinking about it now, the reason why I did the slowing-down thing was that that’s what I’d been doing during my closing sets at SUB:STANCE. We’d have a lot of people show up for the bass music, lots of people would come over from the UK - there were definitely less British people that were living in Berlin then, but a fair few would come over, and obviously British people are much more used to getting into a club by midnight, getting a majority of the raving done by 4 or 5am, and Berlin was very much not like that at all. People would go out to get to a club at 2, and then not much happens until 3. What we found at the SUB:STANCE party was that we would be unusually full, for a Berlin club, early on, and then there would be a second wave of people that would show up. We used to stop at, I think, 10ish, or 11am? What would happen is that the bass music people would get tired and go home, maybe 5 or 6, and then by 7, 8, 9, you’d have a much more typical Berlin crowd in the club. So when I was closing, which was quite often, those people would want to hear a slower tempo and more 4/4, basically, which was the stuff I was becoming more interested in anyways, as a DJ. So my first two hours would be playing the 138bpm post-dubstep, with some techno pitched-up, and then it would gradually slow down to adjust to the crowd. So that was the thinking behind slowing down the DJ-Kicks, obviously in a much shorter timescale, and setting myself the kind of ostentatious technical challenge in the process. It does work, I think - I was a bit worried after listening to it for ten minutes yesterday, but it does work ok.
I know these were just quarterly parties, but did you have to convert to the full nocturnal Berlin DJ experience to keep the whole lifestyle going?
The dangerous thing about living in Berlin as a DJ is that you come back from the shows on a Sunday and Berghain is still open until Monday morning, so often you end up going for a drink Sunday night and then not arriving home until way too late. But adjusting to the mindset of going out on the Berlin timetable does take some getting used to, for sure. I think I prefer it, generally; I think the UK thing of going to the pub, then when the pub shuts, you go to the club. Get as wasted as you possibly can - the latest the club is gonna shut is 6, probably more like 4, so you get smashed by 3. It’s just a bit, uh - don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking the UK club scene at all. It’s great, and it’s extremely diverse, musically; it’s much more exciting, in some ways, than the German club scene. But I feel like Berlin is the best party city in the world, and it’s largely because of that mindset - going out late and staying out late, so there isn’t that kind of “sprint” mentality to get as wasted as possible. These things are kind of deeply ingrained in the culture of a city, really, and they change very slowly, if at all.
On a related note, do you think there’s a point at which club culture can become too centered on specific spaces? Not even Berlin, necessarily, but something like Berghain - the notion that a culture isn’t authentic unless located at hyper-specific spots.
I’ll make a kind of wider observation - I’m not sure how accurate this is, but I’m gonna say it anyway - which is that in the last ten years, I’m not sure there’s been much of a development anywhere in new stuff in electronic music. So, I would classify Berghain as something that came to prominence in the previous decade, the 2000s. Obviously it became ubiquitous in the last decade, but it hasn’t changed since I started going there. I haven’t noticed much new come out of London, really, so I think maybe what you’re referring to is people trying to make up for that, that there’s not really been a lot to develop out of the kind of ether. I don’t think there’s really been anything equivalent to those things to happen, so people look at Berlin, look at London, to a lesser extent look at New York, and kind of trying to hang their ideals on those places. But maybe I’m wrong, maybe there is some great stuff which I’m missing.
I think you make a good point about the music itself - in contemporary techno, the two biggest inflections that I can think of seem to be trance and jungle. I wonder if it’s not the same thing where it isn’t that Berghain’s existence is an issue so much as that it’s so overbearing in shaping someone’s vision for a club that it stifles the development of regionalized cultures.
Exactly, yeah. The way people consume media has definitely gotta be significant in that happening. Berghain, really, has become as ubiquitous as it is because of Instagram, I would argue. How distinctive that it look, and much more so than the Berghain sound… one of the key things when it was really becoming very popular was that kind of reverbed kick drum, quite slow, instantly recognizable Berghain music. And that’s no longer a key part of it, in terms of the way people think about it. I think it’s much more to do with the image surrounding the whole thing - that’s the kind of general gripe that I have now, that identity is more important than music in the way the whole industry works. While some of that is understandable, and positive to an extent, it has almost exclusively taken over. I think what we were saying about the lack of new stuff happening musically, there’s probably a push-and-pull factor there. But I think Berghain in particular, it’s a bit of a Death Star, you know what I mean, it just sucks everything else in.
How did you make your entrance to the club scene, growing up?
I started going out as a fifteen-year-old in, uh, 1995. You could do that then, fairly easily, through the procurement of a fake ID. There wasn’t too stringent security on the doors, back in those days. I just got the bug, really - I went out to a few things in London and was like “this is great,” and then I took some ecstasy and that was game over [laughs]. I immersed myself in that mid-90s London scene, which was really, really wide-ranging. So much interesting stuff happening from, obviously, jungle and drum & bass, which were really big for me, but really big into techno and house. All kinds of clubs, all kinds of raves, kind of immersing myself at a really young age. By the time I was eighteen, by the time I went to study, I was already three years deep in that whole thing, and so, you know, it gave me quite a bad attitude at university, to be honest. I kind of considered myself to be, like, superior to all these kids going out for the first time [laughs]. Hotflush started as a night I was doing at university, and then after I finished I went back to London and it became a record label. You really do sound like an old man when you hop back to the 90s, but the reality is that it was just very, very open, just an enormous amount of different things happening. It was a great thing to be a part of, really, and I’m grateful to have participated, even just as a kid.
Prior to that, what was the music that was capturing your attention?
I was always a guitar player, so I was super into… 1991 was arguably the greatest year for guitar albums, or albums generally, arguably. Nirvana Nevermind, Use Your Illusion, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and a zillion other albums. Metallica as well, The Black Album which was obviously key. I went to see Metallica a couple times when I was super young, I was really into grunge. I saw Smashing Pumpkins in ‘93, and that totally blew my mind. You know, Soundgarden… but before that I was really into Pet Shop Boys, Fleetwood Mac, as well. I’d always been interested in music because I had been kind of coerced into learning music by my mother, which I didn’t always appreciate [laughs]. It was always a big thing in my life, just through necessity, because my parents were very much into classical music. I had gotten really into electro-pop and all that stuff, into guitar stuff, and that was the transition, really - took an E and then was going raving.
What was your mother’s interest in music? My next question was going to be about whether you’d had musicians in the family.
Well, my mom came from a working-class family in Liverpool, and her parents - they’re Irish, that side of the family, and so I sort of see myself as being Irish - and they took music very seriously. They had five kids, and they were all having music lessons. My uncle was actually a music teacher at one point, her sister was a very good pianist, and it was just seen as being a key part of education by the whole family. So both me and my sister were packed off to piano lessons at the age of five. Which, honestly, I did not appreciate at all until years later. The first time I really liked playing music was when I picked up guitar - it was the first time it just made sense to me. Quite early on, I was just able to improvise, in a way that I was never really able to do on the piano. So I was able to jam around and just make up riffs, and that’s what always motivated me much more than learning pieces. Being able to write just made much more sense to me, I guess. As soon as I was able to sit down and jam, I just did it the whole time. Before, it was just like a constant battle - “do your piano practice!” “Ah, come on, man” - it’s the longest fifteen minutes of your day. But then as soon as I was able to jam, that was just what I wanted to do anyway. As soon as I picked up a sequencer, it was exactly the same thing - fuck, I’ll just do this forever, you know?
Speaking of your time at university, I was wondering if you could explain Bristol a bit? It was such a locus of the 2010-2012 period that I was following from afar and I’ve got no sense of it as a place.
Yeah, so Bristol is one of the cities which had the highest number of West Indian immigrants settle in the 1960s, so that’s the cultural background to how people think about Bristol now. It’s a really, really big Black community, Caribbean culture is a huge thing in the city in a similar way that it is in London. So obviously, that brings its musical influence in a big way. Bristol kind of had its golden age in the late 80s, early 90s - the Massive Attacks, Portisheads, the whole trip-hop thing really put it on the map. But it was also super significant in early jungle - V Recordings, Krust, Roni Size, and all that, those guys were there from day one. So it very much has its own identity as a city; you’re right that it’s not as storied as Manchester, and I guess there’s a couple reasons for that. The contribution of Manchester bands goes back further in terms of having big, successful acts - The Smiths, The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, and all that. The contribution that particularly those last two bands made to acid house really made it relevant in terms of electronic music, as well as the Hacienda and the rave scene. Bristol started happening a little bit later. And going back to what you said about writing, chronicling, there really hasn’t been a seminal book about the Bristol music scene, to my knowledge. So maybe it’s just unfair that it’s not seen as being quite on the same level.
But in terms of what it was like when I got there, I didn’t know it very well. It was quite eye-opening, going to - obviously you turn up as a student, and you get herded towards the student nights and stuff. But as I mentioned, I had a terrible attitude going in and saw myself as being superior to the freshers going to their fresher nights. I wanted to see what was going on in the drum & bass scene, and actually what was happening in Bristol in 1998 when I got there was UK garage was becoming really big. Garage was always a London thing, very much, but it had become quite big in Bristol, and also Manchester actually. It was very different, actually, to my experience of London - for a start, the jungle, drum & bass nights were a lot rougher than they were in London. I never saw fights in London, ever, inside parties. There were some shenanigans that were going outside, but once you got into a rave in London it was always completely fine. But I remember I saw some really unsavory incidents go down at drum & bass raves in Bristol, the first few months that I was there [laughs]. There’s a really good infrastructure of small clubs - that’s probably still true now, but really even more so back in the late 90s. Lots of little parties going on, and record shops… people keeping up musically.
Regarding Manchester, I think one of the issues might be that if you’re writing the history of a place the charts are an invaluable primary source… but only if the music you’re looking to study is eligible to appear.
Yeah, and having those kinds of figureheads really makes a difference. But also, I think it’s important to point out that the charts in the 80s were very different to how the charts are now. You had very defined musical scenes, it was far less fragmented than music is now. If you had a big underground scene that had one standout act, they could get in the charts, because everyone who was in that scene would buy the single. So Top of the Pops on BBC One wouldn’t just be pop acts at all - you’d have rock bands and whoever made it into the Top 40 that week. Stone Roses are a good example, because they really just caught the imagination and crossed over in a real way. But I guess you were referring to the way things were written about - particularly when it’s someone writing from decades hence, trying to make sense of the landscape… it’s very difficult, I think, trying to do that. Particularly club records, records that live in clubs. It’s one thing listening to a tune and thinking “yeah that’s a big tune, that must’ve been huge,” but if you hadn’t seen people’s reactions to it at the time, sometimes it’s quite counterintuitive. Particularly in clubs where the reaction to a tune can depend on what people are used to, and used to listening to, which really changes over time. Things that become cliches, the first time it’s heard it’s like “fucking hell, that’s amazing,” and then fifteen years later, used a zillion times, it’s like “oh god, really?”
It doesn’t really deliver the full experience so much as emphasize the gap, but there are some videos on Youtube like that one of the first Todd Edwards show in, I assume, London, where the crowd’s just going crazy.
It’s not even in London - I’m pretty sure it’s at Time & Envy or somewhere in Romford, which is in Essex, which is outside London [laughs]. One of the spiritual homes of garage I guess, those dodgy parties in the outskirts of northeast London. And to be honest, he was only seen as how he was because of the contribution of, largely, DJ EZ, just hammering his tunes sped way up. So again it’s all about context, all about the mental preparation for something that defines the way you react in the club.
You mentioned the podcast a couple times - I liked it a lot, not just to get some insight into you as an interviewer, but because of the half industry insider, half music-historical angle. Do you find that that limits the audience at all?
It’s still early on, so I don’t really know how much appeal it really has. One of the things I try to do on it, and I don’t always remember to, is that I try to step back and give a little bit of context when the minutiae of things are being discussed. Because I don’t want it to be completely impenetrable, I want people to be able to… obviously it’ll be people interested in the subject matter, but I don’t want it to be a thing where you have to be an insider for it to make any sense. To be honest, one of my main motivations for doing it was that I find that when journalists interview musicians, it’s inherently not a level playing field, right? And whilst there are examples of really great interviewers, and I have to say you’ve done a pretty good job mate, so I’m not criticizing you [laughs], but I very rarely read an interview with a musician where they’re asking the questions I want to ask myself. I think as a whole, we tend to view the music press corps in a fairly dim light. But I think there’s a space for the kind of stuff that I’m doing on that show, and I do think it is - well, I hope that it is accessible for more than just the heads.
You’re occupying what I think of as a very contemporary musical or artistic role - you’ve got the label, you’ve got a Discord, the podcast - do you worry at some point about over-saturation? It seems like a lot, and at the same time the primary characteristic of the modern audience seems to be insatiability.
Yeah, if anything it’s the other way around. I’m worried that I’m not doing enough, frankly. It’s very difficult to know what the best way is to split your time. Because obviously there’s a limit. You feel like whenever a new development comes up, you’ve got to be in it, but you can’t do that every time. The whole Web3 / NFT thing is a good example of this - I’ve been kind of crypto speculator since 2017, just interested in the whole thing, but then when the NFT thing began to kick off in late 2020 it was like “fuck, this is super cool and super interesting - I should be doing this,” but it changes everyday. You could be doing this, could be doing that, and you become paralyzed by indecision. And then in that example, it turned into this distasteful free-for-all. And then that subsides, and it’s like you might as well do it now. And you might as well have just done it eighteen months earlier [laughs]. It’s very difficult to know where to deploy your resources, as it were. I think it’s tough - it’s tough for anyone trying to make a living in any creative area. When you’ve been doing it for a long time, as obviously I have, there’s a kind of trade-off between recognizing what’s been successful in the past and also kind of moving with the times, staying relevant for want of a better term.
But yeah, it’s hard man. I stepped way back from touring just before the pandemic, well at the end of 2018, so I was very fortunate that I had already adjusted my business model, as it were, to not rely on live income quite so much. But it’s challenging, I’ll put it that way. The reason I started the podcast, really, was that I liked podcasts and thought I’d be good at doing one. It wasn’t something that I felt was necessarily going to support my music too much. I’m lucky in the sense that I’ve done ok over the years, and the pressure isn’t really on to do any particular thing. But at the same time, everyone likes being relevant, you know [laughs]. It’s an ongoing issue for everyone, me included. Streaming numbers, it might mean something in terms of raw money, but the wider implications are not always clear.