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Finely Drawn Boy

Producer/DJ/Illustrator Andy Carthy Keeps it Unreal as Mr. Scruff

By Tony Ware | Posted 11/20/2002

Speaking from his home in Manchester, England, Ninja Tune recording artist and illustrator Andy "Mr. Scruff" Carthy is letting someone out the door as he describes what it's like to be let in. "My surroundings are semiorganized but also chaotic," he reveals. While not sounding quite Cribs worthy, Carthy's setting is worth noting because it's where he made his latest album, Trouser Jazz, and parallels to his playful Mr. Scruff recordings can easily be drawn. "My home is similar to how I work, somewhat organized but allowing happy accidents to happen as well."

Partial chaos and happy accidents have long had a place in 30-year-old Carthy's life, beginning with his introduction to music through Radio 1's John Peel. "I'd always listen to the radio late at night when I shouldn't have been," he recalls. "I'd turn on the radio at 11 p.m. just to see what was there. [Peel] used to play so much different stuff, I was brought up to think it was normal to listen to loads of mad stuff. He'd play a ska tune, a reggae tune, a mad funk tune, a punk tune, a real mixture, no real logic. It was a real good education without realizing it."

Carthy would be exposed to the various flavors of Manchester, from Northern Soul to Jamaican sound systems, New Order to the Smiths. But it was after a late-'70s ska/Two Tone period that a happy accident eventually led Carthy into DJing. "I began making tapes around 1983 after happening to hear a mate play an electro mix album," he says. "It didn't sound so difficult, and I figured I'd have a go at that."

In the years since, Carthy has become more interested in sharing all he's seen, rather than sharing in just any one scene. As a DJ and producer, Carthy has become widely known for genre-defiant DJ sets and quirky, swinging recordings, as well as simplistic scrawls (samples of which animate www.mrscruff.com). In some regards, the three reflect one another, and they all reflect Carthy.

"I've been drawing since I was old enough to hold a pencil," Carthy says. "The music came later, but eventually I was doing art more to put off getting a proper job than because it was as engaging a passion as the music has become.

"But a lot of the time my music and my DJing incorporates juxtapositions you might not necessarily hear on a record or in a nightclub, and when I'm drawing, the text in my cartoons is usually about someone doing something in an odd circumstance. I suppose it's that British/Monty Python humor, showing, say, an animal doing something an animal usually wouldn't do. But as much as I like to mess things about, I also like to keep them simple.

"I've got a Mac, but I really use it just to record," he continues. "I don't use plug-ins or anything. I'm not a big fan of clean digital sounds. I like to keep the grime in music and I find that 12-bit mono samples don't cut out the vinyl crackle and the sound of the room the drums were recorded in. I try to not constantly tweak things, but I also try to keep my palette as varied as possible."

Indeed, Trouser Jazz, the sequel to 1999's Keep It Unreal, has elements of jazz, funk, hip-hop, house, and drum 'n' bass, as well as squawk, scat, squelch, and cheeky single-note stretches. But it's all presented in fluid repetitions of balanced bounce and optimistic melancholy, as suitable for those chilling out as those going out.

Carthy is able to keep his sounds fresh thanks to his voracious appetite for vinyl, and nowhere is this more exhibited than during one of his four- to six-hour DJ sets, which combine everything from soul, funk, hip-hop, and house to electro, disco, downtempo, dub, lounge, and the kitchen sink in a mix that leaves people talking, gawking, and rocking.

"I do tours by myself and DJ all night because I don't feel comfortable being put in any one bag," Carthy says. "I am a hoarder of music, but one of the things I get out of DJing is sharing as well. I'm lucky that if I get a buzz off of music, I can share it with seven or eight hundred people at a time. Occasionally when I'm DJing, I'll play a disco tune and someone might say I'm selling out, it's not hip-hop. But I mean, come on, what were hip-hop DJs playing before hip-hop?"

Though he doesn't take such claims too seriously, Carthy does take both negative and (most often) positive reactions from the crowds to heart when he goes back in the studio. "DJing all night, I get to see how a night develops and I get to see how certain records have certain moods for certain times," he says. "I don't prepare sequences. I just pull from my memory of tempos and melodies and breaks and bridges, and I learn a lot about the music I have and how it interacts with other music and people. And that knowledge will effect how I create music as well."

Carthy's ultimate goal is a "fat, tight compressed sound with odd angles and a human feel to it, relaxed but solid, like reggae." It's a sound he swears is still there, if you're willing to look to feed it.

"So much, in the U.K. at least, has been so dumbed down by the continuous commercial branding and expanding of clubs," he laments. "The so-called 'superclubs' are the aural equivalent of McDonald's. You bring people up on McDonald's and they won't appreciate finer cuisine, some real soul food. Drum 'n' bass, the U.K.garage thing, U.K. hip-hop, the broken-beat phenomenon. All of this developed not so much as a reaction to all the rubbish, but because the 'superclubs' just weren't relevant to some people. But then there are the thousand and thousands they are relevant to--the result [is that] so many clubs are just pick-up joints that play immediate tunes with no risk.

"Part of the appeal of clubbing is the risk of both going somewhere new and hearing something a bit edgy--experiencing a scene and social codes you're not used to. That's a spirit I try to infuse in my music."

Mr. Scruff spins a four-hour set at Sonar Lounge (407 E. Saratoga St.) Nov. 24 with Fluid and VJ Kaboom. For information, call (410) 327-8333 or visit www.sonarlounge.com.

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