When you listen to Mick Harris’ long-running dub-industrial/dark ambient project Scorn, it’s easy to imagine a parallel world where it’s typical for young listeners to go from extreme metal to cutting-edge jazz to experimental electronic music to alternative hip-hop (or any variation thereof) rather than falling into musical camps. Harris’ story certainly suggests that any trajectory is possible as long as one keeps an open mind. Famously starting out as the drummer in three crucial lineups in the early history of the seminal grindcore outfit Napalm Death, Harris—who coined the term “grindcore”—went on to work with avant-garde legends John Zorn and Bill Laswell in the improv trio Painkiller before forming Scorn with Napalm Death founder Nik Bullen in 1992.
Although he is still regarded as one of the giants of grindcore Harris was, in retrospect, bound to follow a zig-zagging path, acquiring a taste for post-punk, dub, bebop, and hip-hop even as a budding metalhead. He describes himself as a crude, almost Neanderthal-like musician who is only capable of bashing away at the drums. He talks about Scorn as an extension of his never-ending search for new modes of extremity. His actual body of work, however, tells a different tale. Yes, Harris is nothing if not a product of a DIY, gutter-punk ethic, and much of his catalog is indeed characterized by harshness.
But by 1994, with Painkiller’s Execution Ground and Scorn’s Evanescence, Harris achieved the inconceivable by introducing space to his music. In a review of Execution Ground, for example, AllMusic contributor Maurice Rickard lauded Harris’ “astonishingly inventive” playing. The new Scorn full-length, The Only Place, continues to build on the unique foundation Harris constructed 30 years ago. Unsurprisingly, he is still able to craft throbbing soundscapes that are somehow forceful, claustrophobic, grooving, and spacious—even meditative—at the same time. But after 11 albums’ worth of working in a similar vein, Scorn’s sound can still be hard to place, a testament to Harris’ drive to keep pushing forward.
Though Scorn mostly reflects Harris’ insular way of working, he had a little help this time. “Distortion” was released ahead of the album as an EP maxi-single this past April. It features guest appearances from none other than rap icon Kool Keith, one of hip-hop’s all-time eccentrics, and bassist/programmer Submerged, AKA Kurt Glück-Aeg. A one-time Bill Laswell protogé who is formally trained on clarinet, bass clarinet, piano, and upright bass, Glück-Aeg was a fan of both Harris’ and Keith’s prior to co-founding his label Ohm Resistance, which has been putting out Scorn titles since 2007. Naturally, Glück-Aeg’s maximalist approach to composition complements Harris’ spare, intuitive style.
Meanwhile, Keith (Keith Thornton) proved to be more of a kindred spirit with Harris and Glück-Aeg than listeners might initially expect. As a member of the legendary hip-hop outfit Ultramagnetic MCs, Keith forever put his stamp on the art form during its crucial mid-’80s formative era with his quirky rhyming style. But with his 1996 solo effort Dr. Octagon, Keith started on a madly prolific creative streak that continues to this day. Keith may be most widely recognized as a rapper, but much like Glück-Aeg and Harris, he is dedicated to forging his own sonic universe.
PopMatters spoke with all three artists about how their respective universes collided.
What was it about Kurt’s bassline and Kool Keith’s vocal performance that grabbed you?
The whole thing came about because I decided that I wanted a vocal on another track of mine. I’m not great at reaching out to people—it’s probably a confidence thing—and I was hoping to get Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods on another track of mine. He’s a good friend, and when I first heard him back in 2013 before Sleafords blew up, I instantly liked him as a character, and I certainly liked his attack and his approach. I thought, “Wow, can you imagine working with Jason?”
It was real simple: I sent him a track; he sent me the vocals back; I put ‘em in, and I mixed it down. [The finished track was released as “Talk Whiff” on Scorn’s 2019 LP Cafe Mor—Ed.] I don’t like to mess about with the recording process—it either happens, or it doesn’t. That happened, and I was really happy, so I said, “Could we work again together?” And he said, “I’d love to, Mick.”
So, maybe about halfway through making this new album, the track came about that I’d written with Jason in mind. I contacted him, and he said, “Yeah, Mick, I’m just a bit busy at the moment sorting a few things, but I’m up for it.” A week became two weeks, which became a month, and I just didn’t want to pester the guy. I thought, “I can’t ask him again. I’d feel really bad.” He’s busy with a family and everything besides what he’s doing musically.
Kurt saw that I was a little bit down about it because it was like, “Oh man, I’ve written this track that was perfect for a voice and perfect for Jason.” Kurt said, “Look, Mick, I know we talked years ago about you working with Kool Keith.” Kurt wanted me to do a whole album with Kool Keith in 2006. That never happened. It just didn’t come together as I wish it had. It was just one of those things.
This time Kurt said, “How about Keith doing a vocal?” I said, “Think he’ll do it?” He said, “Yeah—plus I’ve got this bassline I’ve been working on.” I said, “Okay, but rather than one, send me a few basses I can cut up.” Kurt got on the job, sent me the bassline, and I did four versions of it. It totally fit into the track that I’d written. I felt it needed this live, dirty, punky bass. Kurt knows I like the distortion and overdrive. I didn’t have to do much to it. I just re-chopped it a little bit. I threw it in, threw the track over to Keith over in Brooklyn, and he nailed it. He delivered a killer vocal and sent me a few extra parts to put in there, some with effects and some without effects, so I could add my own. It’s done and I’m happy with it. [Laughs.]
How much did you prompt him on the subject matter?
As anyone who knows me will tell you, lyrics aren’t my thing. You can’t say, “They don’t mean anything,” but if the voice fits, that’s what’s important. I think Keith’s a killer lyricist, so it’s not something I’m going to debate or ask him, “Can you talk about this?” That’s totally up to him. He got a feel for a track. I knew that he’d nail something, and it’s as simple as that. The lyrics have nothing to do with me whatsoever, but he came up with some interesting ones for sure.
Right, with people like Keith and Jason, they don’t need any prompting. Their whole art is the way they spin images.
It’s what they do. For me, they [each embody] a sound. What do I mean by “a sound”? What Jason has got, what Keith has got… there’s just something there. For example, I’d loved to have worked with Mark E. Smith. I could really imagine him on a Scorn track. There’s a sound, there’s a dynamic there. He wasn’t just a “vocalist.” That’s what I want. And Keith has got that. Jason has got that. John Cooper Clarke has got that. I’d love to have him on a Scorn track. I think it could work!
But it wasn’t like Kurt saying, “Well, let me find a vocalist.” It’s not as simple as that. I don’t want to just find a vocalist. It’s got to be someone who can add to that dynamic because Scorn has got such a space. It can get claustrophobic, but there’s still that space there. That’s why I’ve been wanting to work a little more with voice in there. So now, after working with Keith and Jason, it’s lit a little fuse with me.
I was going to say that those two are like effects pedals, the way their brains work, but each of them is more like a whole rig with an instrument, an amp and a bunch of pedals that they designed and built themselves.
They’re unique. I’m happy that I’ve gotten to work with them because it’s given me that taste where I want to do more. I’d always said in the past that I’d love to work with someone like Elizabeth Fraser. Everyone knows I love her voice. I mean, that’s not going to happen, is it? But that type of voice really appeals to me. Or Liz Harris from Grouper. I’m not going to approach her, but I could totally imagine that haunted type of voice working within Scorn.
I was lucky to work with Jason and Keith, and maybe I could work with them on future tracks. Jason said he was sorry, and I said, “Don’t worry about it. Can we do it in the future?” and he said, “Of course we can, Mick”. It’s good enough for me that Jason would even say that.
But what’s to stop you from working with Grouper—or anybody?
[I don’t like to] approach people. I’m not very good at that. It’s just not part of Mick Harris. I’ve sort of always kept myself to myself. That’s how I grew up as a child, and it’s reflected [ever since]. While I was in Napalm, I was part of something, a unit—you have to be when you’re in a band. But then moving from that to Scorn becoming solo, I’m not a recluse, but I do my thing.