Secret Hiding Place: Clash Meets Skinny Pelembe

"All I'm going to ever ask of myself is that I write songs that sound cool and are honest..."

We’ve long since learned to expect the unexpected when Skinny Pelembe is around. 2019 album ‘Dreaming Is Dead Now’ was a pan-genre triumph, a mash-up of different sounds that served as an explicitly honest musical memoir.

Switching labels – from Brownswood to Partisan, both independent powerhouses in their own right – he returned at the start of 2023 with punchy new album ‘Hardly The Same Snake’. The sound of someone distilling their approach to its most vital essence, it was a ragged song cycle informed by Skinny’s electrifying live shows.

Hitting the road this summer, a trip to Glastonbury saw Skinny Pelembe cross paths with Beth Orton. The two hit it off immediately, and sketched out a fresh take on Leonard Cohen’s immortal classic ‘Who By Fire’ – “And who by brave assent, who by accident…”

Setting off around the UK this month, Skinny Pelembe kindly sat down with Clash for a quick catch-up.

‘Hardly The Same Snake’ has been out for a few months now, how do you feel about the material at this point? Have you been able to live in the record for a while? 

All I’m going to ever ask of myself is that I write songs that sound cool and are honest. 

I think it sounds pretty cool, and lyrically I’d say I’m pretty unflinchingly honest, with myself. Apart from ‘Deadman’. That song is just a list of fucking occupations! I mean, it’s not just that, but let’s not get too up our own arses, eh? 

I’ve read that you re-recorded the album due to not being completely satisfied – what was it you were looking for? When is a piece of music truly ‘finished’? 

God, who fucking knows? Songs are never finished are they? I only re-recorded it because my drumming wasn’t up to par, and when you have Malcolm Catto on speed-dial, why the fuck would you ever bother drumming yourself? 

There’s a huge range of influences on the record, do you feel this mirrors your own tastes? Did you purposefully try to broaden your sound on this record, or is it simply a consequence of your independence? 

I’m not signed to an old school major label, nobody tells me what to do. Between putting out records with Brownswood and Partisan I’ve had a lot of freedom. Probably too much freedom. Maybe someone SHOULD be reigning me in. I just do what turns me on. Does it sound fuzzy? Check. Does it remind me a little bit of RZA? Check. Does the piano sound a bit like Starlight-Express? Check. And so on… 

You’ve been able to tour more widely this year, have you enjoyed being able to play these songs live? What do you feel represents you better – Skinny Pelembe onstage, or in the studio? 

Not really been able to tour THAT widely, not as much as I’d like. I guess we’re still feeling the hangover of the pandemic and Brexit. It’s a bit of an arse ache to be honest, as I really love playing live. It really is a reason for living. I’m looking SO forward to playing this album out, this October. After making this cool, higgledy-piggledy album, I reckon I’m gonna start recording stuff as live as possible, cause I’m preeeetty good live. And I’m gonna grow some big fuck-off mutton chops and wear platform boots while doing it too.  

The production on the album is outstanding, do you have many influences in this sphere? I’ve read you’re a huge fan of GZA’s ‘Liquid Swords’ which makes sense – are you drawn to music with layers and complexity? 

Oddly enough, no, I’m not. I can’t stand listening to music where I can hear the artist thinking, just dicking about with their computer. ‘Hardly The Same Snake’ was a bit of an arse ache to make, because I tried my best to stay away from computers, while making something that really, would have been much easier to make mostly on a computer. You can’t even see the waveform on a MPC 500! Why do it to yourself?!? I like ‘Liquid Swords’ because it’s so immediate, there’s hardly really anything on it. It’s heavy cause it’s stark. The same way a Sabbath album is.  

What do you think ‘Hardly The Same Snake’ taught you, that you hadn’t learned on your debut? Was there a lesson or takeaway from those sessions? 

I’ve only learned that I really hate computers. I thought I hated them last time round. Fuck me, I really hate them now. Other than that, making this album, I’ve gotten better at guitar. Which really, is the important thing. God I fucking LOVE being able to play guitar. The complete opposite feeling to opening up a laptop.  

I reckon I could cure myself of the common cold, just by playing guitar.  

You recently linked with Beth Orton, having met at Glastonbury. Were you a fan of her work? What makes a good collaborator? 

I missed her main set, as she was on right after us and there is always a bunch of faffing to do once you’re off stage. BUT, I did catch her Crow’s Nest set, and that was very special. It was simultaneously raw as fuck and so lovely. She’s the real deal. 

What makes a good collaborator? I don’t really know. Trust? She sent me a bunch of vocals for our track, and didn’t tell me what to do. I guess she just trusted in her own talent enough to know it would sound great. 

The two of you recorded a version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Who By Fire’ – what drew you to this song? Are you a fan of Cohen’s work? 

I’m a massive fan! ‘Hardly The Same Snake’ – ‘New Skin For The Old Ceremony’.

I don’t know, I was raised pretty religiously, perhaps, I resonate with the grand, ancient, religious imagery he uses. Something about man, prone to being quite austere with himself, and his art, who is also quite stylish, and very romantic, though never hiding any of his darker thoughts at all. I think, I see him as a bit of a role model, in some ways. If not a role model, someone whose work I find quite a bit of comfort in. 

You’re about to head out on the road once again – do you have anything new / special to share? Are there cities you’re eager to return to? 

Well, we’ve got ‘Who By Fire’ and a whole new album. I might also have a special guest… 

Yeah man, Leeds is always great. Brudenell is the best venue in the UK and I used to live down the road from it. Bristol always seems to get it. Manchester’s just cool anyway. Glasgow and Edinburgh always feel special, I fell in love there. Birmingham is a great city, I did a bit of acting there this summer, I probably ruined the film, but I had a lovely time nonetheless…

What does the rest of the year hold? Have you been able to write / record once again? 

Next album’s written, pal. The platform boots have been ordered. Just waiting for the mutton chops to grow out… 

Catch Skinny Pelembe at the following shows:

8 Leeds Brudenell Social Club
10 Birmingham Hare & Hounds 2
11 London Scala
12 Bristol The Crofters Rights
13 Manchester YES
14 Edinburgh The Mash House
15 Glasgow Broadcast

Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Eleonora Collini

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