Inside the Imaginarium: Tea with Mr. Scruff

He may enjoy a good slipper and term himself an "old fart", but Mr. Scruff is still innovating, with a new album and the 15th anniversary of clubnight Keep It Unreal on the way. He gives us an insight into his world of tea, tunes and potato men

Feature by Daniel Jones | 29 Apr 2014

Mr. Scruff is an out-and-out teahead, and a splash of milk into an accurately timed brew is most certainly his bag. He’s even got his very own cafe, Teacup, nestled in the heart of Thomas Street, Manchester, on the site of ex-record shop Vox Pop Music. It’s a quaint little place that serves up a host of loose leaf concoctions and scrumptious cakey things. It’s also where we manage to sit down with Scruff – who goes by the name of Andy Carthy by day – to pour over [woah! – Ed] the thinking behind new LP Friendly Bacteria, and to catch a glimpse of the unreal world that both he and his cartoons inhabit.

“I enjoy the simple enjoyment of life,” says Carthy, flipping the multi-coloured sand timer that accompanies our teapots. “There’ll always be nerds and trainspotters, but you don’t need to have a massive knowledge of all the internal workings to enjoy tea, or music. This place is great to have a chat with your mates and get a bit of cake, and it performs that simple function well. We’ve got loads of different flavours because selection, like with music, depends entirely on the mood you’re in. In the morning you might want something really strong to get the gears going; in the evening, you might go for something a bit mellower, or something nourishing that you can feel is good for you. It all depends on mood."

So what mood has Mr. Scruff been in recently? Early samples from Friendly Bacteria mark a shift from the carefree glee of 2008’s Ninja Tuna, with a wealth of collaborations and more serious song titles than ever before. “The ingredients are different this time,” Carthy explains. “It’s got a different mood, lots of long sustained notes and interesting textures. There’s definitely a bit of a fog to this one.

“The benefit of working with other people is that you can bounce ideas off them. There are quite a few songs with a chap called Denis Jones, for instance. He’s a good mate of mine who plays guitar and keys with loop pedals, and melds feedback with his vocals to create these cracking, scuzzy harmonies, in a way that I know I never could. He has a completely different set of musical references to me, but that’s just it: when I collaborate with somebody, I want the end result to be something that I couldn’t have achieved by myself."

The end result is that, compared to his previous efforts, Friendly Bacteria has a tough electronic edge all its own. It’s darker, moodier, and not as spritely in places, and captures Carthy’s inclination to create something “less daft” this time around. “You have to force yourself out of your comfort zone all the time,” he reasons. “I mean, what’s the point in trying to replicate your successes?”

The hip hop approach is still there, but instead of stealing from a funk or soul record, Scruff has upped the ante on sampling himself playing percussion, or another musician playing an instrument: “I’ve stepped away from using too many obvious samples and started chopping up more session material in Logic. What I suppose that means is” – he takes a slurp from his cup – “I’m looking for a sound that has the toughness and reliability of sequenced music and the unpredictability and vibrancy of live music. Somewhere in the middle.”

"The combined knowledge of music on any dancefloor, in any venue, far exceeds any DJ" – Mr. Scruff

Most of the material was recorded in bits and pieces at Carthy’s home studio, Jones’ house and the Manchester School of Sound Recording: “I’ve been pottering on it for about five years or so, and I think that’s because I’ve been doing slightly too many gigs. I also had a daughter three years ago, which is a big factor. I get up at seven with her, get to the venue to set up in the afternoon and not getting home 'til about four in the morning. Then do it again the next day!” he chuckles. “I’m an old fart now. In the end, Ninja Tune tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘So, about this new album…’ which made me think, ‘Oh yeah, I forgot I was signed to you!’

“It’s odd because I’m really technical when it comes to DJing but a lot more free and easy in the studio. If I’m excited about something in my head, I need to get it down quickly, even if it’s on a crap mic. The most important thing for me is capturing a performance there and then, and getting the mood right. You have to capture the energy that inspires a performance because it gives the music a context and an attitude. That’s also why I always try to record from the first take. If you over-think stuff, it can box people in; so, instead of describing exactly what I want musicians to do, I’d much rather let them feel their way into a tune and do what comes naturally to them.”

It’s comforting to know that, given the vast range of intricate material found in his back catalogue, Carthy has always made a conscious effort not to strive for perfection, or to second guess himself: “I like bad notes,” he explains further. “I like stuff being a bit out of time, or out of tune. In the world of electronic production it is far too easy to make everything perfectly sequenced. A lot of those intricacies are actually based around something unexpected that happened very quickly. I’m more concerned with producing a song that feels as if it’s moving forwards, whether that’s a robotic, sci-fi, alien movement, or whether it’s some guy strumming a guitar and getting a bit more excited and as he moves through the tune. Either way, you have to be very wary not to neaten things up too much.”

Outside of the studio, it’s less than a month until the 15th birthday of Keep It Unreal, a night that spawned from the launch party for Scruff’s 1999 debut album of the same name. Before that, Carthy earned his stripes playing all over Manchester: at various Electric Chair nights, Atlas on Deansgate and a weekly residency at Collider (formerly PJ Bells, now Matt & Phreds) playing with a live band. Once his ten-year tenure at the Music Box came to an end, Carthy decamped to Band on the Wall, where he’s continued a monthly residency for the past four years or so.

“We used to have quite a few guests too, more than now,” he admits. “Roots Manuva, Idjut Boys, Andrew Weatherall all played early on, but after a while I decided that it’d be fun to play all night myself. I like the progression involved in playing for six hours, and it’s not too bad on the legs. Usually, all I need is a nice bit of carpet and some comfy slippers and I’m good to go. Birthdays are an excuse to socialise a bit more than you would normally, but we won’t be wearing hats or anything. I don’t tend to jump around on stage, waving my arms in the air; my cartoons can do that for me.”

Carthy explains that the potato men first appeared in doodling sessions during his time at high school: “The surreal, Python-esque humour has always been there. It’s nice to be able to create an imaginary world where you look up and something freaky is happening. I spend a lot of time in my own little bubble anyway, so I think they live in that universe with me. There’s a humour and mischievous side to the drawings that provides a perfect illustration for my music, so it’s a great visual identity to have live.”

Of course, MC Kwasi will also be on hand to ensure everybody is kept in good spirits: “I’ve known Kwasi for a good 15 years now,” Carthy remembers, “I really dig his demeanour as a host; he’s a Master of Ceremonies rather than an emcee. He doesn’t have a massive fat book of lyrics, but he makes people smile. Sometimes you go to a gig and there’s not a lot of conversational stimuli, other than the weather. Honestly, if it’s pouring down outside and people walk into the club absolutely sodden, Kwasi is the antidote.”

The prospect of business as usual means we can expect a veritable smorgasbord of jazz, soul, funk, disco, reggae, hip hop and house, along with plentiful smatterings of miscellaneous. “I don’t have a massive amount of rock stuff,” Carthy reveals, when pressed on what he isn’t likely to play. “Not too much punk, and the whole white noise-y new wave scene and all that. Of course, I have bought rock records in the past because, when it comes to sampling, the common element is drums. If it’s got drums in it, I’ll buy it: country records, folk records, soundtracks, kids' records, you name it. You end up with a really weird, wacky and wonderful record collection, almost by default.

“But, no matter how adventurous you are, you’re always going to be nervous about playing new things. You might play something when the doors open one month, next time you play it an hour later, and then three months later you’re playing it at peak time and wondering why you were so worried in the first place. Also, a lot of regulars will have far more knowledge about records outside of my periphery, which is why I’ve always had a problem with DJs who refuse to take requests. The combined knowledge of music on any dancefloor, in any venue, far exceeds any DJ. And, if something has triggered a connection in somebody’s head, I want to know why they made the link.”

It’s that curiosity which has kept Keep It Unreal alive and kicking for 15 years. Carthy cites a 1937 record from electronic music pioneer Raymond Scott as the oldest tune he’s managed to slip into a set – “reissue, of course” – and talks keenly on the topic of Scott’s think factory, Manhattan Research. “Old jazz tunes have a certain quality that modern music doesn’t have, so they give you another texture to play with,” he says, pouring the last drop of tea into his cup. “If a tune doesn’t have much low-end or high-end, great; the next song is going to sound twice as good because people forget all about those frequencies once they’ve been cut for a few minutes. All records can be made to sound different, or enhanced, when you play it next to something else, especially old records.”

Whether in the studio or the club, Carthy’s signature sound is undeniable, but it has always been nigh on impossible to pin down. Perhaps most intriguing is how Carthy is able to arrive at that sound through different means. There is no stock synth, agenda or method of doing things; instead, Mr. Scruff is a channel for music that contradicts itself, rendering mellow and aggressive styles together to incredibly versatile effect. Manchester owes so much to his unrelenting musical diversity: if nothing else, there are very few musicians who have succeeded in bridging the gap between hip hop, good humour and slippers.

Friendly Bacteria is out 19 May via Ninja Tune. The album launch party is at Band on the Wall, Manchester, 3 May, with Denis Jones and MC Kwasi, from 9pm

The 15th anniversary of Keep It Unreal is at Band on the Wall on 7 Jun

Mr. Scruff also plays: Southport Weekender, 10 May; Blackpool Cricket Club, 25 May; Beatherder festival, 20 Jul; Kendal Calling, 1 Aug