Taking A Step Back: Exploring New Paths With Scuba

Taking A Step Back: Exploring New Paths With Scuba

Paul Rose aka Scuba has been traversing the landscape of electronic dance music since the early 2000s, from playing a key role in the dubstep movement with his Hotflush label, which is still releasing cutting edge electronic music, to uniting the dub and techno scenes in Berlin with his influential SUB:STANCE residency at Berghain.

Paul’s newest release as Scuba sees him break away from what he’s traditionally known for, combining with singer DOMiNii to make something that’s not so centred around the needs of a dance floor.

Clash spoke with Paul over zoom and discussed his changing musical career, influences of the new project, the challenges of the full-time DJ lifestyle, the government’s insufficient help for the live music industry, as well as how the pandemic is affecting the music industry in general.

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You’ve been working in the music industry for 18 years or so, how did you start and how did you end up where you are now? What changes have you been through in those 18 years?

I started by DJing on pirate radio basically, that was kind of like the first step. I did the usual thing of playing at friends parties and doing stuff at uni, and then radio became available to me just from meeting people and getting involved in the scene, so those opportunities began to come up. I started on Rinse in 2003, which was the same year we started the label, and when I say started the label I mean we pressed up a white label and tried to sell it ourselves in shops, that was the extent of the launch of Hotflush. It was a complete DIY thing, had absolutely no idea what I was doing. It was me and one other person who left in 2005, so I’m kind of the last remaining founding member as it were.  

I started off playing garage – I’d been into all kinds of different styles when I was like going out to clubs, and just getting into electronic music I had a stage when I was really into drum and bass, I had a stage where I was super into house and techno, but garage was the thing that kind of got me started as a DJ getting gigs and getting paid. it was at the very tail end of that era of UKG where it was sort of gradually turning into grime on one hand, and the breakbeat garage thing was happening with DJ Zinc, and the nu school breaks guys were kind of crossing over into it, so it was splintering away from that commercial garage sound. So me beginning to get a start in it sort of coincided with that splintering of the whole garage sound, and dubstep emerged out of that splintering process.

No one really heard of dubstep until I guess 2006, so there was a long sort of incubation process of that sound, which was centred around the FWD club night which then was just once a month on a Thursday at Plastic People. The early Hotflush releases were very much in that proto-dubstep kind of scene, which was tiny. There was a reason that no one had heard of it – it was because there was hardly any people doing it. So that was the start, and it gradually over the course of three or four years got to the point where people just became more and more interested in that sound generally, and then in 2006 the Mary Anne Hobbs / dubstep warz thing happened and suddenly everyone wanted to get involved with dubstep. For it to suddenly get that momentum almost overnight really was a complete shock to me frankly, and I think a shock to everyone else who had been doing it for that long, and then it suddenly became a thing that you could do, y’know?

I had a day job until I guess 2007, and that was the point which I moved to Berlin and started doing all that stuff. So yeah that was my early period really, and then after that, things developed, dubstep did what it did and I got pretty bored with it, largely because of the way the music went, y’know when the kind of more ravey side of it took over, that wasn’t really for me, as a career move it wasn’t a good one, but as soon as the money started flooding into it I was like: no I don’t want any of that I’ll do something else now. And since then, every few years I get bored and wanna do something else. The cycle has just kind of repeated a few times now.

So your new project, ‘Diivorce’, sounds completely different from anything I’ve ever heard from you before, what prompted you to go in this direction?

As I said, every few years I kind of get bored and want to do something else. It’s a cycle that happens every few years and resolves itself in a slightly different way every time. It’s an itch that I’ve wanted to scratch for many years, and never felt able to for many different reasons.

A big part of the trap of having a degree of success in one area means that you are incentivised to stay in that lane to an extent, particularly when it becomes your living, then it’s a really powerful incentive to just keep doing the same thing to keep paying the bills and all the rest of it, and lots of people get caught in that. I’ve always tried to ignore that as much as possible, but inevitably there are those pressures. A lot of it is subconscious, and a lot of it is fear of doing something different, and the fear of putting yourself out there in a different way and being subjected to people’s opinions, and then everyone wants to hear that their work is good, so there are many factors keeping people in the same lane in that respect.

I stepped back from the full time DJ circuit three years ago now, and part of the reason for doing that was to kind of give myself a bit of space in terms of what I was writing. I didn’t have a particular idea about what I wanted to do, but I definitely felt that I’d become a little bit kind of trapped by the lifestyle of writing music to play every week, it’s an all encompassing mindset that you have when you’re touring a lot. I played 100 shows a year for 10 years and it’s a thing that goes round in your head for 24 hours a day, so yeah I wanted to do something completely different, and I took a long while messing around.

The reason that I’m trying to avoid calling this an album is because it’s not what I would see an album as being. I mean I’m kind of quite old fashioned in thinking that an album should be something which is a coherent whole, which is not just musically coherent but hopefully thematically coherent and all the rest of it, and really, this is a result of me messing around in the studio for two years. This’ll be the first step, and there’ll be what I would see more as an album project coming probably next year. But yeah, it’s the result of me basically trying to challenge myself I guess to do something different really, in a nutshell. 

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How did you find collaborating with the singer DOMiNii?

I’ve found it difficult, traditionally, to collaborate with people – I haven’t done a lot of it before, I’m not really sure why that is to be honest, but this time it was significantly easier I have to say, it was a very straightforward writing process. I find that I’m a bit defensive some of the time when I’m in the studio with someone else, it’s a combination of being defensive, and also trying to control everything which is not a good combo at all, but with this it was fine.

I’d spent quite a while working on a different project with a female singer, during which time I’d learnt a huge amount about recording vocals, which is something I hadn’t done a lot of before, so the engineering I did a lot of turned into basically preparatory work for this project, which was super useful. Again, that’s one of the great things about not touring all the time is that you have time to do those sorts of projects, and spend a few weeks doing sessions that don’t necessarily have to go anywhere, and are just the process of learning how to do new shit, which is just always useful.

So yeah, I learnt a huge amount doing that project but then doing this as well I also learnt a lot about engineering. The term producer I think means a slightly different thing to people these days, but traditionally, the producer’s job was to get people playing well on the record, and a big part of recording vocals is getting the vocalist to perform well, a lot of that is trying to put them at ease and giving them confidence, and it’s a completely different set of skills to, y’know, programming a drum machine. It was a really interesting process, I have to say, really interesting, and yeah, as I said, I learnt a lot doing it.

I was having a look at your influences playlist on Spotify and I noticed that it was fulI of 80s stuff. Is this project where the different branches of your influence intersect?

As I mentioned, this is very much a collection of different things put together without too much thought. You’re absolutely right that those influences have gone into this quite heavily, and I’m influenced by, as you can see from that influences playlist, lots of 80s stuff, lots of 90s stuff, and that’s just a function of the music that I was listening to when I grew up really, so the way this music has come out really is just a natural result of that. and as I said, having really just messed around and not really tried to do anything specific, I think that’s when your influences maybe come out most… There are only seven tracks on there, but there’s at least 100 that could have been on there, and the range of styles was just completely all over the place. Instead of trying to pare it down into one specific direction, I was like: okay fuck it let’s just cover some bases, and see what people’s reaction is, and then, maybe down the line there’ll be space to do something a little bit more focused.

But yeah I mean I fucking love 80s music man, it’s a little bit before my time I’m not quite that old. But for me, 1984 was the best year ever for music, maybe. It’s mad like you can put on pretty much any record from 1984 and it’s just like “yeah, this is good”. I think it’s just the way the records are put together rather than the actual songs are being written, just the way things sound. It just makes complete sense to me.

What are some classics from 1984?

Okay so, you’re putting me on the spot here, but the one that I went back to the most making this was ‘Hats’ by The Blue Nile. Yeah, The Blue Nile, who, until relatively recently I wasn’t familiar with at all. I don’t know if you know them, but they’re a Scottish band, who don’t sound like they should be Scottish, they sound like they should be from LA definitely, just in terms of the way the records sound. But they’re just amazing, and their way of doing things and putting things together just really resonated with me on this. I’m blanking now on all my other favourite 1984 albums…

Actually, I’ll tell you what, and this is bad, and it’s a really obvious answer, but ‘Born In The USA’ by Bruce Springsteen, like I was played that when I was a baby or something so it’s just deep in there, and again it’s the drum sounds, it’s the big gated snares. It’s kind of ironic lyrics, and it makes sense to me.

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So you mentioned taking a break from DJing, when was your last gig?

So I didn’t stop completely I just cut down significantly. The last show I played, I mean obviously it has been a while now, but the last show I played in front of people was in February 2020. What I basically did was go down from playing 100 shows a year to about 25, which is still some shows. But as I said, it’s more everything that goes along with playing the shows, so just the endless airports, the endless travelling, the two days of recovery every week which is required.

It was less not wanting to play because a good show is a good show, it was much more a case of trying to just get out of that kind of conveyor belt aspect of it – like putting yourself in on Friday, and then churned out on Sunday night, and especially when I was living in Berlin, you get back on Sunday and then just go to Panorama Bar for the rest of the night and wake up again on Tuesday, so I’m still playing but nowhere near that much.

Do you feel ready to get back to it now? Or are you gonna stick with 25 a year a bit longer?

I have no desire to play 100 again, to be honest. I do miss the kind of ritual of it, getting your tunes together, getting to the club and playing the show, and hanging out afterwards, and like everyone else I completely took it for granted and then having it taken away – I do miss it absolutely, and I will definitely go back to playing, but yeah not 100.

How did doing 100 shows a year and the lifestyle that comes with it affect you?

The lifestyle that goes along with it is fun for a bit, and I think different people deal with it in different ways. I threw myself into it for a good few years and did the whole thing – did the partying, and everything around it. And I have no regrets for doing that, it was fun, and I would recommend that if you have the opportunity to do that then do it for a bit, but also, realise that it’s not really sustainable for a long period. You need to have one eye on the exit door at all times I think. I’m circumspect about it now. But as I said it was an enjoyable period for a bit, but I think there are different aspects of it that are detrimental, and everyone is different in their reaction to those detrimental parts.

For example for me, I had to stop drinking, that was really what fucked me up the most. I could handle the drugs, I could handle the lack of sleep, but the drinking was just like: no. So the last couple of years I did of touring I did sober, and that made it much easier, but like I said you have to find your way of doing it.

I think a really important thing in life anyway is to identify the feelings that you do have, and learn to manage them as best you can, and I think that’s true regardless of what walk of life you’re in. Because you can use them to your advantage to a certain extent. I was reading an article, an interview with Stephen Fry actually, who was talking about his bipolar, which was being suggested to him might be helped by practising mindfulness, and his reaction was that actually the negative aspects of his Bipolar he found extremely motivating for his artistic side. It’s an interesting way of thinking about it, but negativity can stimulate positivity in a way, often it’s kind of a high wire act and you have to be extremely careful.

A lot of people aren’t able to deal with it well and do get themselves into difficulties of varying degrees, but as I said, understanding that in yourself, and learning to cope, and learning to potentially use it to your advantage, I think can be a really valuable lesson to learn. But doing the heavy DJ circuit is doing it the hard way, certainly trying to learn about yourself, and doing it via that particular lifestyle definitely is doing it on hard mode.

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So how can DJs create and perform while still maintaining their mental health?

What you have to remember is that partying as a pursuit is something that people do to let off steam, it’s something which can be necessary to be healthy and to have a balanced life. But when you’re a DJ, it’s not just letting off steam, it’s your job, which is the reason why people find it tricky, because it’s fun – of course its fun, that’s why people do it! – but you can have too much of everything, right? So I don’t know if the two things are even compatible, in terms of healthy lifestyle and DJing, certainly in that kind of “rock n’ roll” DJ way. The rock n’ roll lifestyle per se, is something which I guess is like falling out of fashion a little bit in many ways, certainly the things that people used to do, you just can’t do now because you would find yourself cancelled quite quickly. In terms of the way people look after themselves mentally, I think it has changed quite a lot, and I think people are much more aware generally now of the need to take that stuff seriously.

I mean I have to say I think like, the healthcare profession has got quite a long way, or certainly the healthcare provision, the way healthcare is provided to people, has got a long way to catch up, particularly in the UK, where we have the NHS, which is great, but mental health provision on the NHS is very far from being great. So I think it would be extremely helpful if that side of things was taken a lot more seriously at a professional level.

One of the things that helped me the most, was actually mindfulness, meditation, but the typical help that you will get from a psychiatrist will probably be some pills, or maybe some cognitive behavioural therapy, but they’re not gonna tell you to sit down and meditate for half an hour a day, which in my case was by far the most beneficial thing that I’ve ever done. I think a big part of the problem is that this stuff just isn’t very well understood by anyone, there is just a long way to go in medicine essentially for it to be properly understood really, so I think we’re at the early stages. But it is a big positive for people to think about it now in a different way and take it more seriously because obviously, that’s the first step.

In terms of support for live venues and artists in general, the feeling is that it’s been quite limited, how do you feel about how the government has treated the live music industry and the music industry in general over the course of the pandemic.

 I think it’s extraordinarily bad, frankly, compared to my friends who live in Germany, who’ve received multiple four figure payments from the government, it’s crazy to me. The contribution that the music industry makes to the economy as a whole is enormous. The whole point of a tory government is that they’re supposed to take business seriously, and it’s just not been taken seriously at all.

I have a degree of sympathy for all governments around the world trying to deal with the whole thing, I think it is unprecedented, certainly in post-war in the West anyway. It’s no surprise that countries in Asia who’ve dealt with more recent pandemics were able to do it much better, but I read the other day that in the UK they kind of did a war game scenario of a pandemic, recently in the last two or three years, but they didn’t do one in which the virus was transmitted asymptomatically, so all the work they did was a complete waste of time because none of it matched up to what the actual situation was at all, so I kind of think that there has been some blame given to the government which is a bit unfair, but they definitely should have taken the support of creative industries vastly more seriously.

I mean there have been industries that have been essentially bailed out, and we’re in an industry where loads of people are freelance, loads of people are self employed, the structure of companies can be different, and we’ve basically been hung out to dry, and it’s… fucking shit, for want of a better term.

I personally have been extremely lucky because I was already at the point where I wasn’t relying on performance money to live, it was a complete fluke that I’d already changed the way I run my life so for me personally it hasn’t been that bad. But there’s been many people, who I know, and many hundreds, probably thousands of people who do similar sort of stuff, who have not been lucky at all and have been in real genuine financial hardship, which is totally avoidable.

Especially when you consider the way – I don’t wanna get into government policy too deeply here – but the way that money has been literally printed to finance spending in the last 18 months off the back of 10 years of austerity, the whole thing is incoherent let’s just say. I think that’s probably the biggest criticism that you could have of the British government, just how disorganised, and just the lack of strategy that has characterised the whole response really.

The pandemic will have had, and has had a massive impact on live music and the music industry, from your perspective what kind of changes can you feel and can you see, and also what kind of changes would you like to see?

So I think whenever there’s a big disruption like this, there’s always big opportunities for change, and I think definitely the music industry as a whole, as a business model, has definitely got a bit lazy and a bit flabby, and also quite complacent; reliant on live music as a cash cow, and high ticket prices, and sponsorship deals, the idea of the festival as this thing which is just guaranteed to generate a certain amount of money every year, and the consolidation of that side of the industry through live nation and other big companies.

So I think there was an overdue reckoning to be had, I mean it was unfortunate that it had to happen like this, but I think there was something overdue. I also think there’s a lot of untapped opportunity in the online space, and I think that’s begun to happen, obviously in the initial lockdown there were a billion live streams and everyone was doing that. When a new technology emerges there’s always a kind of frenzy around it, and it takes a while to shake out what the best way of doing something is, and then it gradually embeds its way into the overall landscape. I think that’s something that will happen gradually over the next two to three years, is that there will be an online addition to the live music experience, which I think could potentially, especially with the addition of stuff like virtual reality, could be really interesting and really useful, and you could add a lot to people’s experience of live music through that sort of technology.

I guess those are potentially positive things, but then there’s a huge risk of a lot of the infrastructure being lost by this, because of the financial issues, and all the stuff that’s going on around that, so, like I said there are potential opportunities, but also the potential for a lot of things to be lost now, so I think there needs to be an approach of protecting the real valuable stuff which is vulnerable. Because let’s be honest not everything there is valuable like there are certain things which could go and it would be absolutely fine, but the stuff which definitely needs protecting should be protected, and then y’know there’s real potential for new interesting shit to come out of this, which would be a big positive.

What else have you got the in the works at the moment, what are you looking forward to?

Well, myself and DOMiNii are making what is gonna be the “proper album”, so that’s happening. I’ve made some “Scuba music”, so there’s a couple of releases that are scheduled for the autumn, can’t tell you labels yet but not on Hotflush, and gradually I guess getting back into DJing and getting back into the swing of things.

This whole 18 month period or so, my heads just not been in it at all DJing wise… I’ve been making music, but I haven’t thought about dance music really too much at all, and the whole process of listening to new music and thinking about a DJ set and thinking about playing live, I just haven’t done it! So for me, the main change in the next six months or so is gonna be getting back into doing that, because it is fun y’know, it doesn’t have to be a chore, which it definitely has felt to me at some points in my musical journey, but like I’m definitely looking forward to getting into it again.

I mean I haven’t opened a promo email for over a year, so I’m looking forward to listening to some new music of that sort and getting back into working out mixes, I haven’t worked out a mix for ages, and I love that process, where you’re practising on the decks, and you drop it and it smashes it, I’ve never got bored of that particular process.

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‘Diivorce’ is out on July 16th – order it HERE.

Words: Gabriel Hynes

Photo Credit: Rui Augustus

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