June 12, 2024

Written by Callum.

In our latest feature interview, UK veteran Scuba talks with Editor Callum Martinez about his latest offering on live shows, the fragmentation of the industry, and the future of electronic music.

Scuba divers are explorers by nature, and few have explored the vast sea of electronic music in the same way Paul Rose aka Scuba has. The seminal British producer is about as active as one can get in this industry, and despite being in the game for 20 years he’s showing no efforts to slow down. From playing a key role in the emergence of Dubstep to unpacking the inner workings of the dance music industry through his popular Not A Diving Podcast, Scuba has honoured his namesake by diving headfirst into every nook and cranny this industry contains. Because of this, he still stands as one of the most interesting artists to date.

This month, the Hotflush label head will play his first run of live shows in 11 years. Centred around the music of his latest Digital Underground [D:U] series, Scuba’s one-hour live show is a fun, high energy masterclass of UK electronic music. Despite his lengthy stint, the thrill of it all still seems to excite him as it did when he started.

During our conversation, we covered many topics. We spoke about his frustration with the abundance of sub-standard music but his optimism in discovering the good stuff that’s still out there. We spoke about his nerves as he tried to piece together his upcoming string of live shows celebrating the sounds that got him hooked two decades prior. We also spoke about his podcast and how it has given him new perspectives on an industry he has existed in for so long.

James Cameron once said: “Every time you dive, you hope you will see something new.” Throughout our conversation, I realised why Scuba has maintained such a strong passion for this scene after all this time. It’s because he never stopped diving.  

Scuba · Scuba – Sorry (Digital Underground)

How are things going with the podcast? I guess it’s another side of electronic music you’ve probably not experienced as a DJ.

Yeah, it’s gone great! It’s exceeded expectations for all of us. I think there was a bit of a gap for something like that, you know. I mean, there are already various podcasts out there such as the RA one for example, but at the time that we launched it there wasn’t what I would describe as a proper podcast for that kind of stuff.

I kept telling myself that you’ve got to do it for a minimum of a hundred episodes, and it’s got to be every week. You kind of have to commit to doing it weekly because that’s the format, so it was a commitment.

We are on episode 107 now so yeah, it’s good. I’m happy with it. It’s great that people actually listen to it because that’s obviously the most important thing. But honestly, the best part of it for me is having the opportunity to have those conversations with people you see kind of backstage.

Usually, you have a kind of two-second handshake, or maybe it’s like a five-minute catch-up at a show or whatever, but being able to talk to these kinds of people over time makes you realise that there’s actually quite a lot of cool people in music. Who knew?

I suppose it’s interesting to see people outside of that setting. You can’t have a real conversation with someone and understand them in the middle of a club.

I’m interested to know what some of your takeaways are from the podcast so far.

That’s what’s good about it actually. It’s been useful in the fact that it’s forcing me to think about the broader issues in the scene in a kind of structured way. When you’re involved in something like this, it’s easy to be quite heads down. When you’re busy making your tunes, or playing shows or whatever, you sort of get lost in the details of it.

But when you’re having these bird’s eye view conversations, or tackling issues over several weeks, you start to get different people’s opinions, experiences, and viewpoints on the state of things and how it’s all progressing. It’s interesting to have to think about it in a more detailed way, and through doing so, you can actually make a meaningful contribution to those kinds of conversations.

When creating the podcast, I decided to keep it strictly musicians, and that’s been almost entirely kept to. The interesting part about this is that you can get quite a wide range in how musicians actually think about these kinds of things. Some are more prepared than others and will have detailed answers to those kinds of questions. One question I like asking is: What are the biggest challenges facing dance pieces today? Whenever I fire that question at people, I always get a different response. Some people make comments about social media and how it’s bad. But then others give really detailed critiques on wider issues. The whole thing has been a rewarding and fascinating experience for sure.

You have been in the industry for a while now. What does electronic music look like to you in 2024?

I think there are two sides to it. First, I think it’s more – and this is true for creative culture generally – it’s extremely fragmented. There are loads of little things going on and it’s almost impossible to keep up with everything. You can kind of guarantee at any given moment, there’s going to be some amazing shit going on that no one’s paying attention to, that has some significant audience still. When you’re running a label, that’s extremely frustrating, because trying to A&R a label is much more difficult than it used to be due to the sheer amount of stuff that’s going on all the time.

The flip side of that, however, is that most of the stuff that’s going on is, in my opinion, quite shit. There’s just a lot of average cookie-cutter nonsense, which I think is enabled by two things. First, with regard to music in particular, the developments in music tech over the last 20 years have largely been about making it easier to make music. In the previous three or four decades (probably up to about 2000), pretty much all the developments in music technology were about making new sounds. It was about making things sound different, making them sound distinctive. Whether it’s from distorted guitar amplifiers to the 808, up to sampling, and then sampling was the kind of cut-off.

It’s like, how can this possibly go any further? And I think that was borne out by the fact that, as I said, in the last 20 years, it’s been things like Ableton and different DJ controllers making it much easier to DJ and produce music. I feel that it was inevitable that we would arrive at our current destination – a global music scene with not very good or imaginative stuff happening. Despite that, there’s still an unbelievable amount of great music being made, you just have to look a lot harder for it. Another big difference is that the good tunes that are being made are often made by individuals without much of a scene around them. You’re not really getting these little clusters of producers making music together and kind of vibing off each other and competing, which then turn into new genres.

It’s just not happening in the same way anymore, and there are loads of reasons for that. It’s not just music technology, it’s also to do with the way everything’s online now, and the fact that small clubs are struggling so much. All the events are ticketed, which means that there’s much more pressure on promoters to sell out, which means they can’t take a risk on new forms of music. I came up through the dubstep scene and dubstep was nowhere for literally years until it took off. I just don’t think that could happen now because in question, FWD, wouldn’t have been able to carry on.

There’s loads and loads of different inputs into this and it’s easy to sound negative about it, despite that, I’m broadly optimistic that there’s enough good stuff happening for it to still be exciting and worth doing. It’s just, I think there needs to be another turn of the wheel to get back to a genuinely healthy music scene where you’re getting real new shit. Like, where’s the new jungle, you know? where’s the new dubstep? That can happen again for sure, I just think there needs to be a change of overall circumstances, not just the music. As I said, it will take all kinds of stuff for that excitement to return, but it can happen. I’m not completely pessimistic about it.

Those are interesting points that you make. For me, the club situation is probably the single worst thing. It’s a real killer for the scene. It’s frustrating when you see places like Berlin or Amsterdam that have a more forward-thinking approach and much more support for it.

Yeah. It’s tough over here at the minute. I think you’re right about their forward-thinking approach to venues, and there’s much more done to support them, but those cities have never been forward-thinking music cities. That’s the difference. The UK, London in particular, also Manchester, Bristol, those cities have – in Europe anyway – given birth to more musical styles, and more cutting-edge stuff than anywhere else. That can happen again for sure. Maybe we need a change in government or something. It’s long overdue.

You have your first run of live shows in 11 years coming up. What’s motivated you to get back out and do this?

The live show is focused on the kind of music that I’ve been making recently. I’m not sure how to explain what it is, to be honest, but it’s pretty close to old-school hardcore/early jungle I would say.

The reason I wanted to do it live is because I’m still basically a techno DJ and I can push some of that stuff into it. I really like that kind of music that lends itself to a one-hour set of going as hard as you possibly can in that window. You can’t really do that with a Techno set, so it made sense to do it live.

Like you said, I haven’t done one for a while, so maybe that’s another reason to do it again. It’s funny because it all sounds great when you’re having the meeting, and then you actually sit down and try and do it and your like, fuck! There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.

Hotflush · Scuba – Hardcore Heaven III snippets

It’s a lot of prep, isn’t it?

It is, and that’s the thing. I’ve been DJing for so long now and I never really get nervous DJing, but I’m already nervous about this live set and it’s a month away [haha].

But nerves are good though, right? It means that you care. Keeps you sharp.

My whole life, the way I’ve always got over my nerves was to convince myself that I didn’t care about the outcome. “Whatever, just go ahead and do it, it’ll be good. Just do your best. Who gives a shit if you fail?” That sort of thing, you know?

Have you made a final decision on what the setup is going to be?

We did an early run at Fabric which was a kind of test with a very straightforward setup. All it had was Abelton, a DJ mixer, and some extra bits to get my head in it. That was about a month ago and I’ve spent the last month tweaking the setup, trying to figure out a system that’s a bit more fun and challenging. I mean making it harder sounds stupid when you think about it, but that’s where we are.

I’ve got a different mixer now (not a DJ one), and I’ve got this SSL thing and a couple of extra synths. It’s still based broadly around Ableton, but I think that’s how everyone does it. There’s not really a lot of choice on that one. Now it’s just a question of figuring out how best to do the performance side of it. It’s still a work in flux, which is probably why I’m still nervous about it. There are still changes required.

Like you say, it’s a work in progress. It’s okay to change things later. I guess it just depends on how hard you want to be on yourself about it.

Absolutely! The big difference compared to the last live set I did 11 years ago is that the previous one was almost an audio-visual thing. We built this huge installation which had to be programmed in a certain way, so I couldn’t really change the set at all on the fly. Because of how the visuals were programmed, it didn’t allow for improvisation. That wasn’t fun at all because you’re there just hitting the buttons and playing the chords at the right time. The great thing about electronic music, and club music generally, is that sense of improvisation. So, with this, I really want to build in the ability to change it quite significantly on the fly. It’s really important.

But there will be changes because you never really know until you do something in front of an audience. I mean, you can play it in front of your mates or whatever, but they’re probably going to say it’s great. You might have one brutally honest friend, but when you’re in front of a room full of people, that reaction can’t be faked. Is it going to be impactful enough? Is there a danger of doing too much too soon? Until you’ve performed in front of people across the whole hour, you can’t really get a feel for that stuff. It’s a totally different thing to DJing.

11 years is quite a long time. How do you think you’ve changed from then, and how will this translate through the set?

The music is a lot different, and this show is focused very squarely on that. There’s a ton of material to use, but it’s all new material, and it’s all in that direction. The previous live show was quite varied musically and in hindsight, that was probably a mistake. With that set, we did some pretty big headline shows and festivals to huge crowds, but looking back it was a bit all over the place musically.

It was a bit too experimental. I was playing some of the deep stuff from the first couple of albums, and then the kind of big house stuff I was doing around the time. It was just a bit messy, and I sort of realised that at the time. It’s one of the reasons why I’m so scared by the whole not being able to change it on the fly thing. We didn’t include the opportunity to do that before.

There have been some pretty big shifts musically since then, and I’ve done so much different stuff which, depending on who you talk to, is a good or a bad thing. There are people who love my old dubstep stuff, and then there are those who love my house stuff. Those things don’t overlap too much so it’s a kind of juggling job. This one however is very focused musically, and I’m making sure that it’s going to be a laser focus.

You’ve got the second Digital Underground mixtape coming [D:U:2]. What’s your plan for the series? How do you aim to expand on it?

It’s a funny one because honestly, I didn’t at all intend for it to be a mixtape. Two years ago, I spent almost six months doing a film score which became the first one I did. It was really intense and a huge amount of work. I had a few, let’s say, creative differences with the director which made the process tough. The whole experience forced me to rethink my relationship with music production. I knew I loved making music, but I was so burned out from this experience.

I sat down in the studio one day, about a week after I’d finished that project, and asked myself what I could do that was going to be fun. I ended up making a hardcore tune and had such a blast doing it I just kept going. There will no doubt be a point in which this becomes boring to me because that’s my history. I always get sucked into a certain type of music and then get bored with it and want to do something else. But honestly, this style has been surprisingly enduring for me, and I’m still having fun with it. As long as you’re having fun, then it’s fine. As soon as you’re not, you should probably do something else.

We’ve got Digital Underground II then Hardcore Heaven 3, a vinyl-only piece, coming out just before the shows. After that, I don’t know. I do intend to make another ‘proper’ album at some stage. Maybe that will be the next thing after this project, but I don’t know. I think I’ll do whatever’s the most fun. That’s honestly what’s driving this. It’s the need to enjoy myself in the studio.

This topic of doing things for fun is an interesting one because of how multi-faceted being a DJ is now. You need to be more than just a musician to make a living. You have to be a businessperson, whereas in the 90s when there weren’t millions of pounds to be made, DJs would be playing gigs in clubs for barely any money. They were doing it for the fun. You need to keep a bit of that spirit, or you will just burn out, I think. 

Doing the podcast has really helped with that whole side of things. It gives you a break. It can be hard for sure, but you just have to be willing to do it because like you say, you kind of have to now, and it’s really not cool when you think about it.

It should just be about making music. I mean, there has always been the marketing aspect to it, and I don’t think it’s ever been as simple as making tunes. There may be the occasional example of that happening, but for the most part, marketing has always been important to some degree anyway.

The thought of having to deliver videos and talk directly to a camera every few days however hasn’t. It’s fucking absurd really. Having said that though, doing a podcast has really got me used to that kind of stuff, so I don’t resent it quite as much as I used to, but it’s understandable why people resent it. It’s not really what we’re all here for, is it?

Follow Scuba here

Pre-order [D:U:2] here