In Depth: The Last Skeptik

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It’s safe to say that The Last Skeptik’s been grafting for what seems like forever. You’ve probably listened to him laying down the backdrop for Verb T’s brilliant Broken Window LP. More recently, you may have clocked his solo EPs and collaborative offerings alongside both some of the UK’s most promising and most revered talents. You may even have heard chatting fraff in his living room with a whole host of musicians and celebrities in various stages of inebriation (don’t panic – it’s just the podcast!) Amongst all of this, he’s somehow managed to find the time to follow up 2013’s debut full-length Thanks For Trying with his frankly beautiful new album, This Is Where It Gets Good. Ahead of it’s release this Friday, we caught up with the man in question to discuss the journey he’s been on and the thought process behind his latest offering.  

So for those that might not be familiar, let’s take it back a bit. When did you first start dabbling with music?

I guess I was probably first aware of it around 8 or 9. There was alway music around the house; my dad listening to Prog Rock records and my mum playing Chopin on the piano. My brother was listening to people like The Pharcyde; mostly West-Coast Hip Hop. Going to school in Finsbury Park and growing up with people like Sway; it was that that really got me into making music. I knew he was always rapping and making beats and so he sort of showed me the ropes. He introduced me to how to put it all together and we used to do it in the school music room. At that point, my beats were fucking awful but he stuck by me!

At what point did you decide to take it seriously?

I know it’s cheesy to say but as soon as I started, I knew that was it. It was therapy; I knew straight away that was all I was wanted to do, day and night. Even at that early age it provided meaning to everything. I just wanted to work at it and get better; at least to a point where I could play it to Sway and he wouldn’t take the piss!

Having that dedication so early on – has it made it easier?

Sometimes! But at the same time, it’s added to the stress – like “this is it now!”. I’m too far down the road to quit or be a fisherman or something! I can’t learn a new skill. It can be a thin line but as long as you’ve got the love for it, it’s always going to work out.

Have you always been behind the buttons or are there some Skeptik verses in the vaults?

I actually started out as a rapper. I made a track with Sway and there’s bits of me rapping with the little crew I had then; of course I hope no-one ever, ever hears that! I wouldn’t put that on my worst enemy! There is a verse on the album that I did with Verb T and projects I’ve done with other people; Trim, Nico Lindsay etc. I never credit it but people who know my voice always reach out like “Oi – was that you?!”

I think the problem is my brain’s not big enough to remember all the words! That was my biggest issue with not wanting to become a rapper. I always looked at people that could recite an entire back catalogue with such envy like “how the fuck can you remember all of that!”. I’ve DJ’d multiple times a week for ten years plus and I still can’t remember lyrics in my favourite songs that I play all of the time. I remember every part of the beat; every instrument, dropout or snare drum but have no idea of the words! It’s a different mental pattern I guess!

You kind of emerged through that classic UK Hip Hop background but more recently have worked with people that are traditionally from a very different sound. What’s been the attraction?

I’ve always been making really weird shit so I’ve always had those sort of beats around me. I think now there are a lot of rappers that are very open-minded, probably because fans are more open to what they listen to and want to hear a variety of these sounds. It’s also because I put it all out myself so I don’t really give a shit what I release; I just want to make as much of the weird electronic stuff that I can. Some of it does come through changing production processes and through want of pushing myself forward as much as I can just to keep it interesting.

That being said, there’s nothing better in the world than making a straight up rap beat. I can make the maddest shit with classically-trained musicians and it’ll sound amazing but at the end of the session, I’ll take a violinist to one side and get them to play it again and sample it so I can lay some drums on it. There’s no greater feeling than that!

Whilst your music is Hip Hop at heart, you really don’t fit into any set genre! Have you always tried to keep it so expansive?

It’s never been super intentional! I used to be told it would hinder me and to stick to one lane but I’ve always wanted to make whatever comes out. I try to not stop myself within the weirdness. There’s always a feeling that goes through making a tune and my friends say they can always tell when it’s one of my beats. I think that’s because it always comes from something emotional. Even if it’s a dumb beat, it’s always quite cinematic or at least something that you could stick on your headphones and just imagine a certain scenario. I think that’s something I always go for, no matter the genre. You can do whatever you want in music. Put belief into it, put your soul into it and don’t listen to anyone else!

I suppose we’d better talk about your new album! First and foremost, it’s flipping  incredible! Whilst there is that Skeptik ‘vibe’ to it, it sounds very different to what you’ve previously released. How did you approach this album compared to others?

It’s a record I’ve been making for a couple of years but it was a sound that I’ve been toying with for a lot longer. When it came to putting it together, it was birthed through an idea of putting down my journey through anxiety and living as an anxious musician. I wanted to do it from a positive standpoint where I can help people understand that suffering with anxiety and depression isn’t a permanent state; it’s something that you can live with, manage and come through the other side still surviving. That’s definitely where the title came from. I wanted it to be a journey with a beginning and end.

Did having that outlet help you?

Definitely. It’s hugely cathartic. It’s also a huge cause of anxiety too! Not being vain (although I totally am!), there’s a lot of songs on there that I could listen to in a therapeutic way. To an extent, it’s a diary. For all musicians, you can make a song at a certain epoch in your life and you put everything into it; every thought or feeling you’re dealing with a the time. To be able to listen back to it, it’s a guidebook and a reminder of how to deal with that thing later on. That was a thing with my first ‘album’ Thanks For Trying, a lot of people would tell me they’d listen to that and would drift off and help them through different situations they were dealing with. That’s what I really want people to take from this album as that’s exactly how I made it.

You’ve opted for more features on this album. Did you approach certain tracks with the intention of them being vocalled?

There’s songs that I made that I definitely knew that they needed vocals. Keep It Simple started out as a beat but I knew that there wasn’t a great deal more I could do with it as it did everything I wanted it to. I got an incredible violinist called John Garner to play exactly what I thought was missing and it sounded beautiful. I was working at the time with Matt Wills and I knew he had to be on it; it wouldn’t have worked with anyone else. The same with Death. When I took it home to edit it, I was working with verses and spaces in it and build it with the intention of having this etherial voice cut through it and I knew Caragh would deliver exactly what the track needed. It would have been equally powerful as an instrumental but I wanted to take it to a different place with this record.

How did you decide on who features where? To me, you could’ve easily put verses on the instrumentals and vice versa.

There was that option but in certain cases, I really wanted the instruments and musicians to breathe. I also didn’t want people to get too bogged down with voices.  I liked the idea of having these intervals and breaks between the tracks; it makes it more like a journey with peaks and troughs. It give your ears a rest and allows you to zone in. It’s like where you read a book and you really envision the character and then see the movie and it’s completely wrong; I love the idea that with an instrumental you’re free to let your mind wander.

Most of the people that do feature are people you’ve worked with before. Were these the people you knew could help you deliver your vision?

I love working with people that I get on with. They come round and we hang out. The only point to making music is if you love the process. The people that understand that process are on there and they’ve been part of it all along. I did three songs with Trim for it; loads with Reader as well. Caragh Campbell’s got another two songs. I did like five with Scrufizzer that are incredible but just weren’t quite right for the album. Everyone I worked with are on the album because I’m close with them and they fully understand the process.

There was a massive visual campaign with the last album. Should we expect any more Alpaca cameos?!

Ha ha! I fully went in with the visuals last time but I’ve scaled it back this time. I’ve done just one video for Trouble with Kojey and Takura which is just as insane and I’m really excited for everyone to see it. It’s pretty ridiculous; we get a Jaguar (the car, not the animal!) and smash it up so it’s pretty intense! I did briefly think about the amazing contacts I have and what videos I could make but it took nearly a year last time so I decided to focus my energies elsewhere this time around!

You’ve put the album out on your own Thanks For Trying imprint this time. Does that ease the pressure?

There’s loads more creative freedom. Plus more OCD freedom which is fucking fantastic! I love that I can control everything; the release dates, the artwork, the PR. I love that I can just say – “I’m releasing this track today!” Yeah it’s stressful but there’s something weirdly nice about doing the admin side of it. Sat in your living room. In your pants. What other job can you do that?

I see that you released Reader’s single Icicle through the label. Do you have any other artists on board?

We’ve just finished her EP actually and it sounds fucking amazing! Trim’s on there as well and that should be coming out in a couple of months. Me and Doc Brown have a joint EP that I’m going to put out at some point. I’ve been working with a new Grime artist from Wolverhampton called Reload. He’s incredible. There’s going to be a little joint record. I’m just going to see how it goes and continue working with all the incredible people that come round and just do it on a whim. I think that’s the beauty of having the label. You can plan a little bit but then have loads of things incubating and just see which thing kind of hatches in the right way first. If I think something’s sick, I can just put it out.

So I’m guessing the next few weeks are just all about pushing the new album?

Definitely. This is the most horrible time and you’re just like “Fuck! I hope people like it!” It’s exciting to get it out to the world and after being pregnant with it for this long, it’s a weird feeling for it to finally see the light of day.

This Is Where It Gets Good is out this Friday, 29th September. Do yourself a favour and pre-order it here

If you fancy joining the man himself at the launch party, alongside a full live band and loads of guests, grab yourself a ticket here

Interview – Mike Pattemore

Photo – Ian Kiffin