After an impressive 15 years in the industry, Skream’s earned a reputation as a constant innovator. Oliver Payne called him to discuss his marathon sets, fatherhood and why he’s only just getting started.
Skream’s Open-To-Close tour is well under-way, selling out major venues both at home and overseas. He has had something to prove, some might say, after having made the shift from pioneering dubstep to playing more 4/4 orientated stuff several years ago. It’s fair to say, though, that the producer and DJ is now firmly entrenched in the UK’s house, disco and techno scene.
A vibrant innovator, Skream can’t be pinned down to just one style or just one hour in the booth. Over the years, he has established his brand as one of the most respected in the industry matching artistry with passion, a genuine good-natured personality and the proven ability to morph, grow and develop his performances. His Open-To-Close tours have seen him champion the all-night set which has been well received by the dance music community. As a platform, it has provided the perfect means for him to spread his message and there appears to be no appetite for slowing down. We were able to get his attention recently to see how the tour is going, how he has changed over his career and why marathon sets are his calling.
“It was just fucking unbelievable!” Skream, aka Oliver Jones, is excited over the phone, retelling the events of the first Open-To-Close date, which booted things off in Scotland just two days before. “It was insane. I normally end the tour in Glasgow. It sold out: 1,100 people. There’s a reason I ended the tour in Glasgow (last time). The vibes are mental.
“Everyone liked what I played when I played it. I was bouncing between 105 bpm African records and these disco edits into sort of just drum edits and it just worked,” he says, “I spent all year buying records for this tour.” A serious tone takes over in that last part and Jones goes on to reveal how he can often spend up to £500 a week on records. It’s no surprise then that the man who’s gone from genre to genre to genre hops from one to the next on the night. The tour is a blank canvas for him to branch out and share a wide breadth of musical knowledge with his crowd. Here, there’s no limiting himself to a short headline slot. He can take the position of warm-up DJ, main act and even take the place of ‘cool down’ DJ, too. When winter arrives and the tour starts up again he can finally play more avant-garde sounds that fans might not be able to hear any other time.
“Honestly I feel like it’s my calling, and I know that sounds stupid considering some of the stuff I’ve done in the past, but I’ve always loved all types of music. Even when I worked in the record shop at Big Apple. I’d spend my lunch break in Beano, the 2nd largest 2nd hand record store in Europe. So I’d go there and listen to mad Indian stuff.”
“But everything seems to make sense now,” he exclaims optimistically. “Selling 1,100 tickets in Glasgow, it’s not an easy thing for someone to do on their own so it nice to know that people are confident that they’ll enjoy themselves regardless of what I’m going to play. It means people are on my wavelength.
“Sometimes my sets become a little bit frantic,” he admits humbly. “When the tour finishes I get mad anxiety, ‘cause by the time this is done you have to start preparing for 2-hour sets again. And it’s not the crowd you’ve been playing to for the last 3 months who are open for anything. It always takes me a couple months to get back into ‘festival mode’. I’ll still be in that ‘open/close mode’, so sometimes the sets can seem a bit erratic and they don’t flow. BPM-wise you have to keep it on the same level as the last. Sometimes I try and move around as much as possible then it becomes frantic and as a listener, in the crowd, I probably wouldn’t enjoy it. We’re there to entertain people”.
There’s nothing worse than playing after someone you have absolutely no musical connection with.
“With these (Open-To-Close) it’s pure comforting. I feel they’re the best sets I ever play and the best technically and musically and just, well… enjoyable”
It’s not however like all night sets are anything new to the world. Thirty years ago legends like Larry Levan and Nicky Siano were dishing out hot offerings at Paradise Garage to a floor of ecstatic and sweaty dancers from the very start to the very end of the night/morning and this has served as an inspiration to Skream. In more recent times, artists such as Mark Knight have also championed all night sets on his own tour ‘Up all Knight’. However, for the most part line-ups have become congested, leaving more DJs in the UK warming to the idea of demanding longer sets and sculpting a night single-handedly.
“We know it’s all down to promoters and down to money,” he says. “I’ve seen some really bad curated billings recently, like I don’t want to mention!” Skream’s also taken to social media to express his concerns on shorter sets and how they’re turning the scene into something it isn’t, and he’s right to voice his concerns. “There was a time when one DJ would soundtrack a whole night and they’d have room to breathe; room to relax. It’s all too common now that we see nights with a bucket-load of DJs being emptied onto the bill, much like a festival, playing a one hour set each. These nights are fun and I don’t mind entertaining a crowd with a big headliner set but there’s just something missing overall.
See when I’m playing Ibiza and stuff I feel like I’m the only person who is a bit of a curveball and doesn’t play the same style all night, it sort of makes you feel a bit alien but then at the same time I get messages from people afterwards who fucking loved it, so I stick to my guns now cause it seems to have worked for this long.
There’s nothing worse than playing after someone you have absolutely no musical connection with. I’m used to it cause I’ve spent the majority of my career playing festivals so I kind of get it. It’s easy to smash a festival, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s enjoyable.”
Now a proud father, it’s not just his DJ sets that have matured. With the responsibility of fatherhood, Skream continues to joke about how ‘being an adult’ has finally hit him and the party life no longer takes priority.
“I’m not a carefree 16 year old anymore. I’ve never done anything for money but I do have a house to pay for; a child to support. I do have a real life as well, if that makes sense? I say ‘real life’ because nightlife ain’t real life, is it?” he laughs. “Nightclubs: that’s not real life. It’s real life for me ‘cause that’s what I do, but I do have to come back to being an adult.”
He’s certainly grown since the fresh-faced sweaty ‘boy in the corner of the party’: the iconic photo that features on the front of his debut ‘Skream!’ album. He jests about how that image still haunts him like a staring Mona Lisa. I remind him that soon it will be a massive 16 years since his very first release with Benga and he needs no reminding.
“It’s fucking mad. It’s over half my life,” exclaims a genuinely shocked Skream. “I feel blessed to still be here and to be able to sell out shows. It’s very humbling. I’ve seen a lot since I’ve been about, since I think FWD when they were at Velvet Rooms and I was like 14/15. So I’ve seen a lot of people come and go. It is easy to come and go. I’ve had my peaks in a sense. I’ve had tracks that have been bigger than I’d ever dreamed.”
Having stayed relevant for so long, how has he been so successful for so long? And what must have been a constant theme throughout his career?
I’m obsessed with people and this world, for me, has been perfect. I’ve come across so many different people. I like people, I guess. I like seeing how people work.
“I just try and be a sound c*** basically,” a Croydon giggle seeps through the phone.
“I’m obsessed with people and this world, for me, has been perfect. I’ve come across so many different people. I like people, I guess. I like seeing how people work.” Find Skream backstage at an event and you’re bound to have an informative conversation about the scene as well as a good laugh.
Is that why he’s still in favour? “It can’t just be because I’m nice to people,” he continues, “but I feel like people have built a trust with me over the years ‘cause I’ve grown up with everyone, ‘cause there’s a lot of people who are now 32 who were 15 when I was 15 who were into me then and are into me now. I’ve been about for a long time.” Certainly the level of trust his audience allow him, gives him the freedom to keep pusing the boundaries.
Skream is more than a ‘sound c***’, as he puts it. Through his label, Of Unsound Mind, he’s not been scared to push lesser known artists and groups like Melody’s Enemy and Solardo have him to thank for being one of their initial supporters: “I get a buzz off it and always have done. I gave a younger artist the other day my entire hard drive from about 6 years and I buzzed off it cause it’s just sharing, just sharing knowledge.”
As our conversation comes to a close, he reflects further on the time when he really began to solely think about himself as Skream: “That was the biggest change, like when I left school, realising you don’t have to put up with anything anymore. You can pick and choose who you’re around. I’ve genuinely made some best mates over the last 15 years. When you’re 17/18 you think you know who your best friends are and then there’s this whole new world of growing up and I love it. I feel really content at the moment. Look, my life’s not perfect. It’s far from it. I’ve got stresses the same as everyone else has, but as a person and as an artist, I feel very content with where I’m at. I’m just gonna carry on doing that, I guess.”
Catch Skream’s Open-To-Close tour. For full dates and tickets click here.