Gentleman’s Dub Club are a staple dub eight-piece outfit based in London who produced their debut album Open Your Eyes in 2012. No celebration of Jamaican music and its diaspora would be complete without a couple of GDC anthems blasting through the sound system. I spoke to singer Johnny Scratchley ahead of the band’s latest visit to London culminated with a sold-outshow at The Electric Brixton.
Reggae, ska and dub are an integral sound for the band. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about what Jamaican music and sound system culture means to you personally and within the band?
“Most of it, to be honest, did come from specifically within those genres and most of it came from us discovering the music together, and like I said, that was sort of through ‘Subdub’ to begin with; a dub sound system evening hosted by Iration Steppas who brought in these big dub rigs from around the country and got others to clash their sound system. Also, through the artists that they brought up at these nights, people like Jah Tubby and Nucleus Roots, and then they’d be playing tunes from people like The Twinkle Brothers playing live and Lee Scratch Perry… He came over and played live. So they had a mixture of Jamaican artists coming over to play, and in the UK more sort of underground sounds and through that, we just explored more and just enjoyed listening to those sorts of styles.
“Our influences aren’t really just in those styles though, that’s what we are you, know; that’s the umbrella we all huddled under, but the personal sort of fascination goes really vast, and a long way beyond any borders. We all listened to a lot of hip-hop when we were younger. Certainly, we’re all into a bit of drum and bass in various sorts of ways, but then we also went to see jazz and rock and heavy metal music, and classical music. So really that’s where the sound comes from — our appreciation of it is slightly different to the stuff that we put out there. Our appreciation is vast, as any musicianis because it’s fascinating, you know. You don’t want to stop: you don’t wanna stop the ear from having the opportunity to enjoy something, and so you’ve got to explore that stuff. But then with the band, you know, we’ve never really made any conscious decisions in terms of what we’re going to make and how we’re going to make it — we just kind of jam, come together and see what happens.”
Can you talk me through the musical make-up of the band? As though we were in the recording studio: who would lay the first track down and in what order?
“Well we have eight people on stage, and then we all play on the records, and so the rhythm section in the reggae band is always the beats (drums) and the chords and the bass. That’s generally like the bedding of all of the tracks, and so on this last album (Lost In Space) which is fairly unique, it was quite an interesting process for us to go through, and we’re pretty happy with the output. The whole concept of the album started when I wrote a story.
“The story was about wanting to go in search of the ultimate bass line in the far reaches of the galaxy. So we got someone to build us a spaceship, and we went up into space. We went through this process of leaving earth and leaving loads of things behind us, and you know, looking beyond to who knows where…
“We kept on travelling and went past Mars and then ended up getting dragged into Saturn and then flipped up in one of its storms. Then we got flipped onto this other planet… Uropa, which is like a moon, and then that’s where we crash landed. As we got out of the spaceship we could hear this distant sort of rumble and it was the sound of this bass line that we had been in search of. So we had to go on foot to try and find it and we ultimately found it being played by this guy called King Jabba – the omnipresent bass dictator – who was playing it in a volcano he inhabited. Once we got there, we couldn’t stop moving, so we knew what our path was, and it all made sense suddenly…
“So I wrote that story and then we came together, five of us, and we would look at the story, see how it had developed, and then jam at the same time. So we would just sort of play around and then I’d sing on the mic, and Tommy would be on drums, and Toby on bass and Nick on the guitar and Luke on the keys and we’d just find the rhythms and find the melodies. We already had these visuals from the story in mind – these pictures – and so it was quite easy to then just, you know, allow the tracks to appear.”
I guess the next question should be, have you found the perfect bass line, and where was it?
“Yeah oh yeah, King Jabba had it…he’s got a 23-stringed bass guitar that’s attached to the underside of his belly. He just goes really long.”
‘Stardust’ (a single from the upcoming album) has an amazingly creative and image provoking video. For me, the impression was that it was a representation of what’s going on in these crazy, space exploring imaginations. What was the focus or aim for this video?
“Without wanting to put a too fine a point on it, the process of writing that tune was sort of spacey, and not thinking about it. We were really exploring: it was really late at night, like three, four in the morning, we just started when this tune came out. The sun just came out, some low lighting, mad lighting, you know, and it’s all sort of psychedelic in a sense and so we wanted to follow that through as a theme. We just thought, let’s have a crack and see how it goes. A lot of it was developed in the process of doing it rather than conceived at the start, so it was more of a concept we ran with. We had all just met a really great video team and they helped us develop this nugget.”
I see that you also played in Tunisia this year. How do the audiences compare to European and British audiences on the opposite side of the planet? Does everyone have the same skank (dance) in the world?
“Hell yeah… They’re all wicked! We actually played in Morocco a year and a half ago, and there was a different type of skanking that they do. It was a lot less knees… it was more sort of like a sea of people doing the pencil: sort of bobbing up and down, jumping up and down as high as they could. Yeah, they have a different vibe; a full central square of pogo sticks, and so it’s a different vibe… But, you know, that’s got to be the most captivating element of being in this band – performing live – you create a point with every audience.
“It’s just so easy, the music, it’s like, we enjoy laying it, and so it seems that sort of filters through to an audience. So wherever they are, if you’re playing to a mixed crowd early in the afternoon at a festival set with, you know, six-year-old to sixty-year-old, with families – Bestival, say – that’s really nice. It’s just like, you create that connection with an audience, and they’re all unique. I don’t think it makes much of a massive difference at all, location.
“The major difference is if the audience knows your tunes’ verses not knowing your tunes, because, at the start of the set, they’re in from the off, they’re kind of singing along, they’re excited; you can sort of feel the energy straight away. Then, other times, you’ll have to step up and sort of really bring that energy – prove yourself – because they don’t know what they’re going to get.”
For me, ska and reggae and dub, it’s a community music, and I think part of the pleasure of seeing bands play live is that you see that connection between the band on stage that is shared with the audience through the skanking (dancing) and such. But do you guys have songs that you feel obliged to always play live, or that you definitely wouldn’t play live anymore?
“It all just happens as it goes. We’ll add new songs as we write new tunes, and if we like them and we think they’re good enough to go in the set, then we’ll put them in, and then you’ve got to make a hard decision with what comes out. So yeah, it’s not easy. We do get quite a few people coming up to us asking us to play old tunes, you know, there’s a few that you can’t get away without playing, and it’s not really up to us to a certain degree.”
I think that’s a great debate: people buying tickets to go see bands they love, then feeling disappointed in the act if they don’t play “the classics”.
“I’m kind of on both sides of that: as a musician, I believe in your freedom to express whatever comes, or whatever moves you – that has to be the point of it. That’s why being too closely managed in that outlook can really water down a project: you’ve got to be able to do what you feel like doing. At the same time, you’ve got to understand why people are buying tickets, so in a way, if you lose your audience, then you’ve lost your audience. You have to be able to work with what’s there.”
Is there somewhere you guys feel at home when you play in that area?
“We’re playing in Leeds on this tour, where we’ve played loads at the uni up there, so that will be a bit of a homecoming. But yeah, London kind of feels like our real home. I mean, Leeds is a transient student based audience, so it’s the venue rather than the people that remain the same, but in London, you can always really feel an energy.
“It wasn’t like that when we first started. I remember when we first went to London, the audiences were the hardest. When we first started playing, like seven, eight years ago in London, they were always a really hard audience. I’m not sure why, I think it was sort of a case of people standing back and saying, “Come on, you’ve got to impress me,” rather than knowing what they’re going to get and being up for it. Now, however, when you come in and it’s like a really powerful sense in the room, so when you walk on stage, you just bang, into the moment.”
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