At first glance, Dan Stephens and David Meads seem like an unlikely duo.
Dan is an archetypal bedroom producer, with musical interests that stem from the stark electronic sounds of Squarepusher, Aphex Twin and Autechre. Meanwhile, David (or Pip as he is better known) grew up to the sounds of hip-hop and punk, eventually becoming one of the foremost orators on the burgeoning UK spoken word circuit. As the stage name suggests, their union is of two very different people who’s contradictions have combined to much success as dan le sac Vs Scroobius Pip.
However, it’s not simply by virtue of their different musical influences that the double act defies easy definition. Their debut album Angles, released in late 2007, was lauded in some quarters for it’s heady mixture of uncompromising issue-led lyrics and beat-fueled, dancefloor productions. Their unwillingness to shy away from difficult — and often overlooked — topics found the band in a musical hinterland as the media tried to classify their sound in increasingly muddled terms; from the inventive (rhyme and bass), to the stern (conscious hip-pop), and even the frankly ludicrous (lit-pop). If all these names seem confusing, it certainly hasn’t put off the duo, who have rekindled their collaboration this year with sophomore release The Logic of Chance.
PopMatters caught up with the guys on a day off between gigs on the European leg of their tour. They are somewhere between Austria and Switzerland when the phone connects to reveal the unassuming and softly spoken Essex accent of Pip. He is in good form, despite battling with a cold, and buoyed by the fact that they have stopped for lunch, in what he describes as “the greatest service station ever“. For both of them, this stop — gap seems to come as a welcome break from the cycle of hotel rooms and road travel.
With the Alps as their backdrop, the two talked about life on the road, the mechanics of musical snobbery and why social networks can be dangerous for your health.
You’re in the middle of quite an extensive tour right now — how important is the live experience to you both?
PIP: I think it’s on a par with making the album. I wrote a lot of the lyrics on the road, so it feels like most of the songs are best experienced live. It’s weird, through touring the new tracks we’re constantly improving them and getting them tighter. I think it’s really positive for an artist. I mean, after a few months of touring our first album, we would listen back to it and see how the live versions had altered the tracks for the better. Hopefully that will be the same with The Logic Of Chance, because if you are ever completely satisfied with where you are, or what level you’re at, then you’re either disillusioned or just lazy.
DAN: Personally, it’s just fantastic to be able to go out there and do this, it’s the live experience which makes it worthwhile. I mean, I enjoy writing and being in a band, but it doesn’t mean anything until we are on a stage in front of a crowd. Getting to tour anywhere feels like a privilege, so getting to travel around the world is incredible. It’s the only time it’s truly representative of how your music works. Record sales mean nothing when you are standing in front of a crowd of kids, because it’s their reaction which matters most.
Do you find that your experiences from performing live, and how the crowd reacts to certain elements of your act, went into influencing the structure of your writing on this new album?
DAN: Yeah, it certainly changed the way I approached the beats. The drums are bigger and the new album has a dance vibe which goes off really well. We don’t want to come off as overly pretentious because Pip can have a trendy vicar vibe about him, so it’s my way of moving away from that slightly. I don’t want to punctuate the mood when he’s preaching, but I try to offer a balance.
PIP: I think it influenced the production quite a bit; there are certainly some more up tempo tunes. This album leans more to the banging tracks and I think that it’s influenced by performing live. if you’ve done three or four nights on the trot and see the crowd going mental, you want to capitalize on that. Lyrically, I think coming back to my hometown after touring highlighted both the negatives and positives of the place. After traveling around the world, it made me notice the casual racism and drug use, which I wouldn’t have considered without leaving for a while.
So spending some time away from home seems to have opened your eyes to the place?
PIP: Yeah, some of the album is quite politically charged, because when we toured in the US when the election was reaching a fever pitch, then came back to England and saw an apathy for politics, which is a bit sad, especially when you’ve come from a country where that was the only thing in the news and everyone was talking about it with passion and excitement.
A lot of your lyrics deal with pretty tough issues, but obviously you don’t want to come across as sermonizing. Is there a pressure to strike that balance between getting your message across but also pleasing your audience?
PIP: It’s a tough act to balance, but it’s something that you can’t worry about on record, otherwise you’ll spend too much time dwelling on people’s perceptions of you when you should focus on what you are saying. There are more important things at work in these songs than my ego, so if certain people think I’m a pretentious bastard then it’s worth taking that hit to get a message out there. I just take it on the chin, because the positives are more important. Live it doesn’t matter at all, we’re just two blokes on stage doing what we love, so it removes any suggestion of pretension.
Your influences seem heavily rooted in British culture and language, this album almost more than the last. Do you find it ever loses something in the meaning or do you think that you translate well to a wider audience?
PIP: When I’m writing I don’t want to think like that because then I become a record executive, and that’s just not me. Writing should be about making something we are happy with, which hopefully translates, but if it fails then so be it. There’s this weird love/hate thing with everything British. So in a way, if this album feels more Anglo-centric than the last, then hopefully that will still translate worldwide. Some of the UK’s biggest musical exports are very British, but that’s all part of their appeal.
The Logic Of Chance certainly seems tighter, both lyrically and musically, than your debut, while not being a massive departure in style. Was this evolution, rather than revolution, an intentional move?
PIP: Yeah, I think that’s definitely the case. I don’t think that we’ve consciously changed our sound, but rather we’ve got to know one another’s style better and have both improved at what we do. “Thou Shalt Always Kill” was the first song we wrote together, so we were thrown in at the deep end, but with a few years of touring and getting to know one another we’ve polished our act a lot.
DAN: I agree with that totally. The new album is similar in tone to the last album, but with me knowing what I’m doing. I’ve learned so much about production since Angles, and it’s all those subtle techniques that have allowed this record to shine.
So when you’re writing, how does it happen? Do you sit down together and work through the tracks?
DAN: We never write together, either the beats go to Pip or the vocals come to me. It’s because we know our place creatively, so if we were to work in the same room it might just slow the process down too much. I’m not the most articulate person, so I might hear something in Pip’s vocal, or he might hear a snare and not like how it sounds, but neither of us will be able to constructively improve it. So the division of labour is set like this, because it’s the strongest way for us to work.
So when you are writing, do you find you have a specific audience in mind, or are you just trying to fulfill your own purpose?
PIP: When we’re writing it’s just between me and Dan. He’ll be hoping I like his beats and I’ll hope that he’s feeling what I’ve written, so in that way it’s a far more internal thing. Of course, as soon as we put the music out there the first things that we think about is how our existing fan base is going to react to it and if they’re feeling it — that’s really important to us as artists. But if you start to think too much outside of that when you are creating the tunes, you’ll start diluting your intent or muddying the waters of what you’re making.
Unlike your debut, The Logic of Chance introduces a few different voices and guest vocalists. Where did the decision to bring in new collaborators come from?
PIP: There have been tons of people who we’ve wanted to work with. On the track “Great Britain” we initially talked about having someone like Dizzee Rascal, but when we recorded the vocals it felt complete so we didn’t pursue it. Collaboration is important — as long as it feels natural — we don’t want to work with a big name just to say we’ve got a big name on a track. I mean, on the track “Cauliflower” we worked with a young American singer called Kid A. Initially when we wrote that track we had talked with Adele, but Dan asked Kid A to record a test vocal and it just fit perfectly with what we were looking for.
DAN: I produced Kid A’s EP back in 2007, so getting the opportunity to bring her on to our new album was fantastic. She has a beautiful voice and to get that sound onto record, but then take the production to a jarring, more hard edged direction was fantastic for me. It’s an opportunity to get things out there that are even more sonically exciting.
So you feel your sound is changing?
PIP: Yeah, but in a natural way. We’ve never set out to make one kind of music, so it’s hard to reinvent yourself. We set out to make the kind of music we enjoy and that allows us to not sit in any one genre. In fact, it’s let us get to that place where we can sit amongst many different styles.
You seem to straddle a number of genres. Do you find inspiration from the tension that comes with defying people’s perceptions of what should and shouldn’t be put together musically?
DAN: I enjoy that we are hard to place. Hip hop fans don’t always get it, dance fans don’t always get it, and I think the poetry scene would sometimes rather listen to a depressed bloke that doesn’t have banging drums for accompaniment. But it’s people who aren’t defined by a scene; it’s the people who like music and aren’t blinkered that get our sound. Music should be all encompassing.
PIP: I don’t think we’ve ever set out to defy genres. Again, it’s more of a natural thing because we come from a background of such varied musical influences and tastes. I mean, we’ve never had a discussion about what kind of music we are going to make, we’ve just made it.
You don’t seem to tick many boxes or come with an easy classification, and in an attempt to do so I’ve read a few articles where unusual terms get bandied around your name. Do you think the established music press find it hard to place your sound?
PIP: Yeah, I think that’s something we’ve suffered and benefited from. When we were first starting out talking to record labels, there wasn’t a template for them to plug us into so it was kind of restrictive, but in the same way, from day one we’ve got to play small independent gigs, hip hop gigs, poetry gigs and dance shows. There was one week where we played a literary festival, a big London club night and a support gig with Saul Williams. The next week we were on tour with Mark Ronson, playing to thousands. So it’s great to have that variation and also that acceptance.
One of your new tracks, “SNOB,” deals with people’s preconceived ideas about music and the snobbery which comes from challenging those ideals, Is that your reaction to sections of the music press that have tried to dismiss of you?
PIP: These days the music press stretches out to encompass all bloggers, and there are a lot out there who want music a certain way or on a certain label. Really, it’s stupid, because great music is there to be enjoyed by everyone. That snobbery can stretch to certain bands, who get dismissive over their fans or even other types of music. For an artist to have that attitude when someone is out there listening to you and allowing you to have this as your job, allowing you to make music, is unbelievable.
Obviously, I have to address the infamous Pitchfork review of your debut album. How did that affect you?
DAN: Personally, I like the Pitchfork review, because even though I thought it was a little bit aggressive, when it didn’t need to be. Giving us a score of 0.2 was more important than a 5.0 because it’s a nice talking point. So, while it seems like the guy was trying to assassinate us, no one would talk about it now if they’d just given us some mediocre review.
You are amongst a generation of artists who rose to prominence through MySpace and YouTube. Do you think that coming up in that way allowed you more creative freedom, because when you started out you never had to conform to anyone’s expectations but your own?
PIP: Yeah. We benefited from the fact that our earlier bigger hits weren’t pop structured and don’t cover normal subject matters for popular music. So when writing a second album, although there was a pressure to live up to our debut, there wasn’t that pressure to change the writing style. We had done it our own way the first time, so why should we change now? So we kept to a format, which means we won’t have to sell our souls to get on mainstream radio, but hopefully we’ll still connect with people.
DAN: In general, producers have more of an opportunity to listen to new music and it allows them to be more experimental. Although I think I’m becoming slightly less experimental, I’m hearing more pop stuff and more run-of-the-mill music and I’ve realized that I don’t need to be so aggressive and dark to get heard. Musically I was always quite abrasive, but now I’m in the industry. Maybe I’m softening.
You both seem to use social networks like Twitter quite a lot. Do you enjoy the interactive elements of that which allow you to keep you in touch with your fans?
PIP: Twitter is great for us because it can dispel a lot of preconceptions that we are preachy or serious, but that allows us to get a much more accurate impression across. On Twitter I tend to talk absolute shit and I think it gets across a broader representation of who I am.
If you can’t talk shit on Twitter, where can you?
PIP: Yeah, but it’s compressing that shit into one hundred and forty characters which is the pinnacle of writing skill and technique, to put something of meaning and worth, or not, into that context makes you a better writer and forces you to use language.
DAN: Personally, because I’m quite a base reactionary person, I think that it can be a bit dangerous, because I have the odd day were I’ll just be offensive to the world and sometimes I just want people to throw funny or offensive things back to me. I’ve said things on there which may not have been wise, but hopefully the police won’t be waiting for me at the airport when I get back.
So after this tour you head back to the UK for some dates, then after that what has the rest of the year got in store for you?
DAN: It’s going to encompass as many gigs as possible. We are back and forth throughout Europe all the way through the summer on the festival circuit.
Beyond the festivals, will you be touring the album further afield?
PIP: We would love to, but when you aren’t on a major label it costs a lot of money for a small band to get out touring worldwide. We’ve played the States and it would be great to get back there. I mean the first time we started to get noticed in America, we had a lot of people saying, “Come and play here because we’ve got nothing like you.” These were people who weren’t into hip hop, but really loved our music. The reason those kids aren’t into hip hop is because they haven’t heard the underground stuff that’s available and think there’s nothing beyond 50 Cent or Kanye West.
DAN: We will certainly try to get out to America and maybe Asia next year, even if that means playing to a room with a few a hundred people, in a small, big city venue. If they buy the album, they deserve to see us live and we’ll do our best to give them an amazing experience.