Seated against a cozy backdrop of more vinyl records than he can count, Mr. Scruff looks right at home surrounded by his sounds.
The veteran Manchester disc jockey – born Andy Carthy – has earned the smile that sits well framed by his namesake beard. His freewheeling “Keep It Unreal” DJ residency will celebrate 15 years of eclectic music marathons this year, and his new album “Friendly Bacteria” is set for release on Ninja Tune May 19.
“I've been working on this album for quite a while, and some of the tunes on there are probably five years old,” he says. “But I tend to work on stuff for a long time. I love being able to leave a tune for a year and go back and listen to it as if it's someone else’s.”
While some of its songs find roots in his past work, Scruff took a decidedly different approach on the new record by employing more live instrumentation in lieu of sampling. “Friendly Bacteria” boasts four songs on which British singer/songwriter Denis Jones provides featured vocals, including sultry lead single “Render Me,” as well as notable contributions from bassist Phil France and vocalists Robert Owens and Vanessa Freeman. Scruff worked with a range of collaborators both in-studio and remotely, exploring the advantages inherent to each cooperative approach.
“I think a collaboration should be a conversation,” he says. “If I come up with a drum loop or a groove, whoever I’m working with will get to hear that straightaway, rather than me embellishing on it too much. It’s important that your partner have as much influence on a tune’s direction as you do.”
While Scruff’s MPC sampler may have collected a bit more dust, his discerning artist’s ear certainly has not.
“With samples, you’re grabbing sounds from different continents and putting them together, so of course there’s going to be some beauty and friction,” he says. “With live musicians, I generally get a first take and keep it as whole as possible, because I love capturing someone getting their head around a tune. Sometimes the first parts are quite tentative and you suddenly hear it click.”
After wrapping up recording, Scruff employed many of the same studio techniques that first caught Ninja Tune’s attention in the mid-'90s, when he was just a rising Manchester resident with a penchant for playing six-plus hours of a staggering diversity of musical styles.
“I still love the restriction of working with something that’s been recorded and using technology to repeat or manipulate it,” he says. “It’s like building an image of an imaginary band playing, which is how I always visualized creating music with sequencers or computers to maintain some human element. Like I think the bass player looks like that, and the drummer's pulling that face, and you get out of that purely technical sphere of rearranging blocks on a computer screen.”
Scruff’s emphasis on the human element is evident in nearly every aspect of his quirky artist brand. A former art student, he draws all of his album art himself to provide a “friendly and approachable” cartoon face to the music. He also began selling tea at his gigs 15 years ago in order to “disarm” attendees with playful humor, and then opened his own tea company and shop when the idea proved popular.
“I think that open attitude is quite important, especially since specialist music scenes can be unwelcoming or off-putting to people who are not already knowledgeable,” Scruff says. “To me, that’s quite selfish.”
While his “Keep It Unreal” residency’s venue has changed over the years, Scruff’s meticulous attention to club environment detail and love for long-form mixing remain the same.
“I like that if I’m excited about a piece of music, I can play it and there will be a point in the night that suits that piece of music,” he says. “When you're playing all night, you have no excuse to be lazy or just play a bunch of pop tunes. You have to keep it dynamic for six hours.”
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Scruff has mostly kind words for the new crop of digital-era DJs. While acknowledging that shorter sets are at odds with his “old school” approach, he praises young artists, like Max Graef and Ben UFO, who are keeping the modern marathon set alive. He also rejects the notion that the current climate makes it more difficult for artists to defy classification as he has, pointing to the ease of attaining a diversity of new music instantaneously online.
Rather than criticism, Scruff offers a bit of poignant advice for younger artists who feel trapped within a specific sound.
“If you do the same thing over and over a few times, that’s how people will classify you,” he cautions. “You place your own restrictions on yourself or avoid them. I managed to avoid it with my DJ sets and by always putting a variety of music on my albums, which attracts different people into different things, and hopefully brings them into the bigger picture no matter which door they entered through.”