Listening to Skinny Pelembe is like peeling back different layers of musical heritage. From UK drum 'n' bass and contemporary jazz, to classic US hip-hop and surf guitar bands, his collage-like approach speaks to an absolute love of music, and disregard of genre.
Looking to shoegazers My Bloody Valentine as much as broken beat pioneer IG Culture, the Johannesburg-born, Doncaster-raised artist’s musical journey has taken him to the aptly diverse musical home of Brownswood Recordings, and has seen him make waves with his experimental beats and sound.
Skinny has also collaborated with the likes of Yazmin Lacey, Hejira and Emma-Jean Thackray, and garnered attention from legendary producer and label boss James Lavelle (Mo’Wax), who hit him up to join UNKLE on stage at Royal Festival Hall in April. His eagerly-anticipated debut LP – ‘Dreaming Is Dead Now’ – was co-produced by Malcolm Catto (The Heliocentrics), while on lead single he worked with a duo of foundational drum 'n' bass producers (working under the mysterious alias of The Bleeding Edge) who he’s long looked up to.
In March Skinny released the defiant ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’ – written on the day he moved to London, about the racism and prejudice still so prevalent in British society – and his deeply personal upcoming album looks set to deepen the mark he’s already made on UK music. Clash caught up with him to find out more about the record, his journey getting to it, and his creative process.
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Listening back to everything you’ve made over the last few years, it feels like there are so many different influences coming through. What do you draw on, musically?
I try never to put a genre on it, but I've also tried to be in bands and in all different things, everything at some point or another. Like, I wanted to be in a surf band, then at uni in Leeds I wanted to make drum 'n' bass, then this and that, then at one point I thought I'd try and bring them all into one thing.
Did moving from up North to London change things for you creatively?
I moved down about five years ago. I think I’m a bit of a mardy arse, and when everyone's doing one thing I just want to go and do the opposite thing. I moved down and everyone was doing the cool jazz thing, and I was like 'I don’t want to do that at all", but now I'm on the same label as all of those people. And as much as I want to do the opposite and say, 'You can stay in Manchester or Leeds, you don't need London' it actually does help. I moved down, joined Future Bubblers [a Gilles Peterson-linked musical talent incubation project] and it just sped everything up a million times.
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Future Bubblers is everything. The whole reason I sound like I do – partly – is through listening to Gilles' show, and he literally plays everything. The guy who was my first band's manager (and runs a studio in Doncaster that I still record at), he put me onto that show when I was like 15. I remember the time that I most liked listening to his show, Gilles was going through a punky phase and playing Bauhaus' 'Bela Lugosi's Dead' and I was like “This is great, who the f*** is this?!” My brother had been telling me about Bauhaus and I didn’t want to listen to him – he was a trendy hipster – but then Gilles played it...
Listening to his show put me on to so much stuff.
Then being associated with Brownswood and Worldwide FM and that whole crew was great. Alex Patchwork at Ninja Tune was my mentor on Future Bubblers, just a really sound guy, and all those people are people I really looked up to. Then all of a sudden there was that feeling of, "Oh, I could be proper. These guys are proper, I'm talking to them…maybe I could be proper."
I think I feel slightly proper, a quarter proper.
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It sound like it’s been a really personal journey, not just in the connections you’ve made in music but in your lyrics too – you talk about racism and xenophobia, the death of your father…why do you reach for the personal?
This record is completely personal. It's nice in one sense, but its going to be nice to be able to move on and write in a different kind of way or from a different perspective. But for this one, it was kind of unavoidable. I've been trying to say this for years.
It all kind of feels cathartic, for me it's nice to get that over with and done. It's something I've always had in my head and always been a bit obsessed with death so it was good to get it all out. Have one moody album, then get onto the next one – which is just going be all bangers.
I read that you had used a dream journal to write some of the lyics?
I got a book off my brother by Erich Fromm called 'Beyond the Chains of Illusion' – basically a book about Freud and Marx from his perspective, and not that I'm a Freud fanboy or anything but it is interesting. I posted a picture of it online and some random woman in Germany said I should keep a dream journal and gave me load of other recommendations for books. So I just did.
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Then I realised it's a really easy way to write lyrics, I'm doing them while I’m sleeping. Literally just wake up, write down the dream and it’s there.
When it comes to production, how do you find your samples?
I can't collect stuff. You know that thing about having everything you own fit into a suitcase? I've managed to get down to the suitcase (apart from the guitar, and a couple of jackets…well, lot of jackets), because I like the feeling of being able to go at any point, I don’t like being settled in one place ever.
So I don’t collect records unless someone gives them to me and they have a nice meaning, or it has a certain memory associated with it. I sample either from stuff people have given me, or from charity shops. I don’t like going to record stores for digging, because everybody's gonna get the same stuff, you’re gonna sound the same. So it’s usually shit soundtracks and stuff like that from charity shops, stuff from from Western films.
The Yazmin Lacey record [‘Not Your Friend, Not Your Enemy’] has samples from a record that’s literally just a 12inch full of the sound of switches and clicks – switches being turned on and off – so there's loads of that in the percussion. It must have been made by someone with way too much time on their hands and way too much budget!
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The guy that I co-wrote it with brought that, and I brought a record full of bird sounds, and we put the two together.
We didn’t put anything over Yazmin’s vocals. The thing I really love about her voice when that there’s hardly any reverb - she's perfect. I didn’t need to put anything on it, It just kind of falls out of her.
Are you less confident about your own voice? It seems to be coming through more now than on earlier work?
On the earlier stuff it's way more buried in the mix – I just didn’t think I could sing at that point. With the new stuff it’s slightly higher in the mix because listening back to older stuff it felt really quiet.
And also now I think I can sing a bit.
You definitely can! Talking of the work with Yazmin Lacey, you’ve collaborated with a lot of people over the past few years – does it help your creative process?
No I don't think it helps! I'm a bit of a control freak.
With Yaz that was fine, we're mates and we met through Future Bubblers and she's absolutely great. Emma-Jean Thackray was the only person I hadn’t met before I worked with her, but she's from Leeds, so, I thought she'd be sound – turns out she is! That's the rule of thumb: if you're from Yorkshire, you're usually sound.
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I can already hear what I want songs to sound like – the hard bit is getting it to record. The fewer chefs involved the better. Here, the chefs we did have – the producers - I didn’t mind touching it, because I really rate them.
And with then the band – we sampled them way more than I ever have before. I gave them a lot more of a free rein. Remi [Graves]'s drumming is all over ‘No Blacks No Dogs’, And Chloe [Smith} our keyboard player played a lot of the bass parts.
But I literally thought I was going to crack up finishing it [the album]. Then we finished and I just went to a mountain in France for a week, away from everything. It was really nice.
It sounds like an exciting project to work on, despite feeling like you were going to crack towards the end. Now that part’s over, what are you looking forward to?
We're playing with UNKLE on Friday [Clash sat down with Skinny in April] and I've literally never been more excited. UNKLE's albums were the ones that I got when I went to uni, and took them home and thought 'F***ing hell this is amazing' – so to open for him is mint.
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Amazing! How did that come about?
I think he got in touch because I was listening to ‘Natural Selection’ – the remix by Tom Furse from The Horrors, and posted on social media: “This is literally one of the best tracks ever” and tagged them. About a month later he phoned up and asked if I wanted to play this gig.
The track that I was on about – fingers crossed – is the one I'm going to sing on at the Royal Albert Hall. With UNKLE. I get to sing one of my favourite songs, with one of my favourite bands. So, forget all the other stuff - that's gonna be the most exciting thing ever.
Then I'll be filling up my 'proper' tank a little bit.
‘Dreaming Is Dead Now’ is out on 24 May via Brownswood Recordings
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Photography: Casey Moore
Words: Emma Finamore
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