After getting 'Lost In Space' on their last album, the Leeds dub-ska-jazz fusionists go back to basics on their latest offering. Or do they?
Tomorrow (Friday 19 March) will see the release of Down To Earth, the latest long-player from Leeds eight-piece Gentleman's Dub Club. But then you knew what, because we told you it was on its way when they released the trailer single Honey, featuring Hollie Cook on vocal duties, back in January.
Known for their fusions of dub, reggae and ska, often served up with an electronic twist and a hint of jazz here, a soupcon of hip-hop there, Gentleman's Dub Club have been firm festival faves for well over a decade. Work with the likes of Dynamite MC, The Next Men, The Streets and Roots Manuva – not to mention a tour supporting UB40 – has also helped to spread their reputation wide across different musical communities.
So much so, in fact, that the plan for Down To Earth was to go back to basics, after their last album Lost In Space had seen them exploring broader musical territories than ever before. But then lockdown happened, forcing the band to find new ways of working.
That, plus a then-recent relationship breakdown for singer and primary songwriter Johnny Scratchley, meant the album didn't turn out quite as they'd expected, as Johnny explains below…
Let's start with Down To Earth – which is what, your sixth or seventh album? I lose count, and the first couple were really just EPs anyway…
“Yeah, the first proper album was really FOURtyFOUR, which represented the house that we started jamming in. Then The Big Smoke, which was when we moved to London. Then Dubtopia, which was when we started getting a bit more atmospheric. Then Lost In Space, which is when we really pinged ourselves into the stratoshere, and now Down To Earth. So this is our fifth proper album.”
That's not counting the Nextmen collab, of course… and there was a dub version of that too, wasn't there?
“Yeah, and actually there's a couple of dub versions of the other albums. It's quite amazing to look back on it like that actually, it feels quite good!”
Okay, so that makes at least seven or eight albums in about 15 years, which is fairly prolific. Especially for a band that's best known as a live act, which Gentleman's Dub Club arguably are…
“Well, that's where we started for sure. We got together in the first place through a mutual love of dub, doing these marathon 10-hour jam sessions and delving deep into the echos and delays… then we started playing house parties and a few club shows the same way. Well, I say a few but we probably did 50 club shows or support slots before we even had a full set of songs! Jamming was what we enjoyed, because the connection to the crowd… the audience is as much a part of the performance as the musicians are, then. There's no one really running the show, it's more just an abstract, energetic thing, and we as musicians would just enjoy ourselves. It's a beautiful exchange.
"It wasn't until about 3.5 years in that we really recorded anything we were happy with. Because when we played live, we'd reach these climactic points in our sets that were amazing, creating memorable experiences every time we played. But then we went in the studio, we'd always listen back and say 'we can't release that' because it was nowhere near the advanced stage our live shows were at. So we just went through reels of just trying things and not being happy with them, really. With the songwriting process, with the recording process… as a singer, I remember being almost scared of the recorded sound because it felt like it was too revealing, compared to this epic live experience that we were having every week at a house party or at a club.
“But then, somehow, after four or five years, it changed. We still have that freestyle element in everything we do – writing, recording, performing. Interviews, ha ha! But it's formed and it's within a safe space – if you wrote it down it might say “improvise for 128 bars” or “dub to the end of the tune”. No-one knows what's going to happen during those two to five minutes, so it's still in there, but we just had to get to a point with our recorded sound where we were happy with it.”
So what changed – was it just getting better as musicians, getting better at recording, or was there some kind of light bulb moment?
“I think for me personally, I realised that I just had to be me. That's quite a big thing… for one thing, I obviously wasn't unaware of the fact that we were playing reggae and dub, which is black music and black culture.
“I've loved reggae and dub since my teens – Israel Vibration, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer were some of the people I connected to as a teenager. So when I first picked up a microphone to sing, I went with what felt natural to me at that stage, which probably was to put on a bit of an accent rather than singing in my own voice. Whether that be a Jamaican accent or more of an American accent, or even a stereotypical UK ska kinda voice. But whatever it was, it was all picking up from what had gone before.
“So for me that was a big step. I had to be able to own my expression and feel like it's really ME, because that's where the honest connection with the audience comes from.”
On which note… I'm guessing you, like me, must have done a fair bit of soul-searching since #BLM, as a white guy making/writing about black music?
“Definitely. It's all internal: it's not like anyone's had a go at us for doing what we do. The odd YouTube comment, maybe. But I've thought about it a lot. But for me, I've been listening to this music since I was a kid, and we've been embraced as a band by the UK dub world, so it feels like something I'm part of, not something I'm separate from.
“I started out going to jungle nights, and yeah it was black DJs and black MCs and like a modern version of dancehall, but it wasn't about black and white, it was about the music. And it feels to me like that's part of our culture: that it's not about black and white, it's about who YOU are.”
Coming back to Down To Earth… how would you say this album differs from what's gone before?
“Partly it was dictated by our environment. We made it a couple of months into the first lockdown. We'd decided we were gonna make a record, and we'd booked a house in the middle of nowhere to go away for a week and just explore. But that had to be cancelled because of the coronavirus madness.
“Our idea had been to bring it back home a little bit anyway, and of course lockdown exacerbated that massively, because it was forced on us. We were literally at home, and it changed the way we wrote, because we couldn't all be together, finding our way around ideas. We were separate. We did do a few online jamming and writing sessions and stuff, but ultimately, those of us who are songwriters mostly wrote this one on our own.
“And that's changed the record too. I think it's got a few more musical directions: we've put strings on it, for example. I'd say we've probably spent more time on this record than the others, purely because we didn't have anything else to do. So it's a bit more developed, structurally and musically.
“And for me personally, the story I was telling was quite unique to that time, because I'd been living overseas with my girlfriend and we'd just broken up. So it was quite an emotional time, and there's a lot of that comes through. It's a very personal album for me, and I like that, because it was almost like there was a personal healing process involved in writing it.
“So yeah, to me it's totally unique, which makes it hard to say how it stacks up next to the others.”
So it's kind of back to basics AND a development at the same time?
“Yeah, it's interesting because when we put that title on it, like I said, it was about landing back on Earth after being in space. But then when I was there making it, locked in a room for three months, I realised that when I'm on my own I go inwards. So there's almost more wonder and exploration than there was when we were lost in space!”
Can we talk about the image, with the suits and ties – was that a way of acknowledging the “white band playing black music” thing, perhaps? A knowing, ironic nod to Kraftwerk? Because it's not a typical look for a reggae band…
“Not for a reggae band, no. But for a ska band it is! So no, not really. It wasn't that thought out, to be honest… it was just that we looked like a bunch of scruffy no-hopers! So for our first show we thought what are we gonna wear? And all sticking suits on was just the easiest to look like an actual band.
“It does actually make a difference, though, to how you feel onstage as a performer. It's like you've gone into a certain mode of being. And that didn't feel strange to me, because I had a background in classical music, and I always wore a suit for that – the same suit I wear now, actually!”
Has having that strong image helped in your success, I think?
“A bit, yeah. But I think a more important thing has been that we've always had our own sound engineer. A lot of bands don't bother, when they're starting out – they see it as an extra, unnecessary expense. But then you turn up for a gig and you're at the mercy of the local sound crew, who can be brilliant or terrible. Whereas if you bring your own sound engineer, you'll always sound the same – and if you're sharing a bill with three or four other bands you'll come across better than the rest, too.
“But yes, the image thing as well. I don't know why more bands don't do it, really – I look at other bands on stage sometimes and it's like I've just wandered into a rehearsal. Looking 'like a band' can make a big difference.”
Now the album's out, what comes next? As a band that tours a lot, a year-long lockdown must have been quite a blow, so is the plan to get back out there ASAP?
“Well, that feels like it's gonna happen. We do want to get back into it as soon as possible, without a doubt. It's uprooted all our lives: not just our lives but the lives of everyone in the music industry and all the other industries around it. And everything's changed, or disappeared! So it's been a period of forced personal development for everyone, really. Which is perhaps a good thing in a way, but it can't go on much longer.
“Luckily, we're old enough and we'be been doing this long enough and we all have enough other things going on to ride it out. But yeah, I'm looking forward to getting out there again.”
Anything else iDJ readers need to know before we sign off?
“We're due to tour in March 2022 – it's basically the tour we were supposed to be doing around now, but pushed back a year. And we'll be doing a livestream very soon to tie in with the release of the album, too. It'll be a proper live show, but we'll be playing a lot of the tracks from the new album, which we don't always do normally.”
Words: Russell Deeks
Down To Earth is out on 19 March on Easy Star Records – buy/stream it here.