With a prodigious 15 year career behind him, Andy Carthy’s music still eludes easy categorisation: breaks that span funk, soul, hip hop, and everything lumped under the hopelessly broad labels ‘avant-garde’ and ‘roots’. Mr Scruff (apropos his scratchy freehand artwork and Mancunian Louis C.K. look) is bringing his mammoth music collection on an Australian tour, hitting the Chevron Festival Gardens on Saturday, February 14. ZOE KILBOURN reports.
“It’s something that’s always been in the back of my mind, but I’ve got a family now,” he explains. “If I come to Australia, I’ve got to come for at least three weeks. I think it was just the stars aligning, the magic combination of some really good gigs and plenty of time to relax and meet up with friends, explore, that sort of thing. It was too good an opportunity to miss – playing outdoors in great weather is not really something you can take for granted in the UK.”
Carthy certainly knows how to pace himself. It’s the DJ, producer and vinyl enthusiast’s first Australian visit in seven years; 2014’s Friendly Bacteria was his first album in six. Hooked into classic Scruff breaks, Rhodes, and soul samples, the album explored completely original composition and sample-building far more than in Carthy’s previous work.
“I’ve always used synths, I suppose, but every album I’ve moved away from sampling,” he says. “A lot of it comes from all these record labels who are like, ‘We don’t get out of bed unless we have all the writing’. After a few of those, where you’re really pleased with a tune and you can’t release it due to mostly major labels being quite stubborn about what they expect from the use of the sample, I just go, ‘I can do it on my own, then’. I can still record and create, I can even write a tune – a couple of times I’ve done an entire tune and then sampled a tiny little bit of it to build something else. It’s all playful.
“Depending on how you set up the mics on your real instruments, you can really develop your own sound, and then, depending on compression and how you treat the sounds, it’s still about having fun with objects and making them sound as odd as possible. Kind of twisting reality, which is a big thing for me. I try to get it half-robotic, half-human, and through that tension you can really give a tune an edge, which I’m always striving for.”
For Carthy, much of that human side comes from sampling existing esoteric records, as in early hit and Moondog reimagining Get A Move On.
“One of the things I like about sampling is the same as DJing,” he says. “You’re restricted by using what’s already a finished piece of music. I like to have something that’s difficult to manipulate or get the different sounds out. It gives you something to push against. When you’re using limited equipment or samples, the way you chop it up to make it your own – that’s quite character-building.”
Now more than ever, Carthy the producer has had to build not just drum loops but entire songs, extensively working with guest instrumentalists and vocalists on Friendly Bacteria. One standout example of his human-robot synthesis is floormelter What, an astonishing arrangement of raw register-breaking sax into a tight mesh of loops, underpinned by the album’s trademark synth bass.
“The guy who played sax on that – a guy called Jim Nye – he’s a proper mad character,” Carthy says. “He’s only got a tiny little sax, but he makes it sound like a whale. It’s enormous. It was quite nice to have that combination of something quite fat and electronic and this really rude, obnoxious sax over the top that just kind of elbows its way into the tune. I love that energy that comes out, and you can definitely see that when you play it – it’s quite fiery, quite elemental.
Although Carthy’s musical method is all about exploration and surprise – “I’ll bring in people I’ve never met before, friends of friends, and we’ll do three or four tunes in a day” – he’s self-described as “fussy” when it comes to equipment. He’s risking a heap of vinyl on the plane to Australia, but he’ll spend days transferring boxes more into high quality, 24-bit wav files. He’s also bring his custom EQ and mixer set to ensure it all works smoothly. “I find that when it sounds better, you can get away with playing a lot more weird and wonderful music as well,” he says. “That goes for any DJ – if it sounds good, there’s a really clear line of communication and people get it straight away. If it sounds a bit rubbish, it’s almost a little abrasive and pushes you away, whereas a good sound kind of pulls you in and gives you a cuddle.”
He’s beyond comfortable with his very individual set-up, but Scruff’s schtick is the absence of schtick – he’s constantly moving boundaries, defying his own and his audience’s expectations while delivering consistently excellent sets.
“The main thing is, as a DJ and as an artist – probably more so as a DJ – I’ve got myself in a position where people expect me to play anything and everything, which is great,” he says. “I don’t feel hemmed in by previous creations, and I’m really careful to push what I’m comfortable playing with every gig. You’ve got to push yourself at every opportunity so you’re not rolling your eyes going, ‘Oh, no, this just feels really constricting’. With the music, I never know what’s going to happen, that’s half the fun. That’s all the fun, really.”