"An expression of personality": Scratchy Sounds

Legendary DJ Scratchy Sounds will be making the opening of Sound Ports Festival tonight in Arkaoda. We had a chance to talk with the DJ who is celebrating the 40th year of his career about his residency in Dingwalls Dancehall, his touring days with The Clash and more!

Interview by Busen Dostgül

As the technology become everybody’s best friend, the definition of the “DJ” has changed as well. What’s the main difference in your musical habits from 90’s to today?

The contrast between what I did pre-90s and today is more about a development in musical content rather than an actual change in style. You are right that technology has altered what many people understand by the word “DJ”. Nowadays it tends to imply the technical skills of turntabalism and beat matching. I’m proudly old school, don’t deal with electronic beats and my approach isn’t really any different to when I began to DJ professionally over 40 years ago. The biggest impact technology has had on me is the increased access it has provided to a wealth of music from all over the world, both from different times and spaces. DJing has always has been, first and foremost, about the music. I’ve also never abandoned the music I played when I started. I just supplemented it with what I’ve found along the way. Emphasis may shift from gig to gig. But it all comes out of the same pot that I keep adding fresh sounds to. My role is that of a curator, to bring together all the wide range of music that I am passionate about. Therefore, for me, these days, the venerable reggae term “Selecta” is a far better description for what I actually do.

Could you please tell us some details about your resident DJ days at Dingwalls Dancehall? Which artists you saw live were among your favorites?

I was at Dingwalls for two years, throughout 1976 and ’77, during which time I also began to link the bands at concerts and toured twice with Dr.Feelgood. Dingwalls full title was Dingwalls Dancehall. Such places that had bands and DJs were often referred to, back then, as Rock Discos. Dingwalls was one of the main venues of this kind in London. Many of the bands who played the pub rock circuit also played Dingwalls. But it was a club that stayed open later, was a great hangout and, over the years booked many impressive acts on the rock’n’roll and rhythm’n’blues axis. As the resident I was initially working 6 or 7 nights a week there, before I started to branch out a bit more. They even gave me a weekly budget to buy records for the club’s music library. The Heartbreakers featuring Johnny & Jerry of The New York Dolls played a lot in the couple of years I was there. We had most of the UK reggae bands like Aswad and Black Slate. One of the last shows I did there, in that era, was alongside Blondie. But the night that everything really came together for me was relatively early in my two-year residency, in July 1976, when we had The Ramones. They were unbelievable and changed many people’s lives, mine included. The variety of music that I mixed together that night really laid the foundations of what I’ve been doing ever since.

How did you meet with The Clash and became their tour DJ? How was your tour DJ set selection? What was the weirdest moment of your tour days? 

The Clash used to rehearse not far from Dingwalls in Camden. The Roundhouse was just a little further up the road. I began spinning at the Sunday shows there from 1977 that featured a lot of the punk acts, both UK & American. I guess my reputation as a roots’n’culture DJ was growing and I ended up doing a few gigs with the band in 1978, which lead to being asked to join them on the road in the UK  and then I became part of the team with the three first American tours and one more Brit one, working solidly over a two year period. The Clash were my favourite band and I ended up as their tour DJ because I not only played the punky sounds of the time, but also the kind of music that had influenced them, like rockabilly, ska, 60s soul, beat and garage punk, as well as the three ‘R’s of rock’n’roll, rhythm’n’blues and roots reggae. As far as weird is concerned, there is a Joe Strummer interview backstage in Toronto. Right at the end there’s a sequence of some of the gang walking down a corridor. One of them looks like a much younger me. But I have zero recollection of it, even though I can see quite clearly that it definitely is me. That should tell you something!

With the population of the vinyls, reissues become popular in the music industry as well. As one of a kind vinyl digger in the UK, what are your thoughts about this trend of reissues?

I’m not a vinyl purist. When I got going on the decks again, after a break, at the start of the new millenium, a friend convinced me of the adaptability and versatility of the CD. I’m convinced The Rock and The Roll of The World would not have taken shape without me being able to access and carry so much global music, both new bands who weren’t releasing vinyl records and older music that would most probably be virtually impossible to find in that format. It’s incredibly convenient to be able to personally carry so many tunes that I’d most probably need a huge truck or private jet and an entire crew to transport the vinyl eqivalent around the world with me, even if I could find and afford it all on vinyl. Have CDs will travel! I do believe that the message is more important than the message. That said, I’ve considered laptops but it doesn’t feel right to me. CDs at least have a physical aspect to them that I can relate to. But vinyl is special. It has a feel, sound, aesthetic, even a smell that sets it apart. I didn’t stop buying it. In fact another aspect of the technological advancements I’d found very useful, had been the ability to digitize vinyl tracks that weren’t otherwise available on CD. But in the last 5 years I have started doing some vinyl gigs again. The balance of my buying habits has shifted far more back towards vinyl rather than CD and I have to admit, I’ve fallen in love with it all over again. So I can only be happy that it is finding a new audience as well, whether through reissue, the second-hand world or first time release.

You play punk, rock, ska, gypsy, reggae and various genres in your sets. What’s the common thing of all these genres? 

The spirit and essence of the blues is at the heart of a lot of what moves me. I also need a certain amount of grit in the sound. My background is garage rock’n’roll and rhythm’n’blues and I look for that energy and edge in whatever kind of music that attracts me, whether it’s roots music from decades ago or brand new off the press. But it’s not really something I want to put into words. It’s about feeling and the common link is my own taste. It doesn’t mean that everything I like works in every situation. The gig is about trying to judge that in the moment. But I definitely don’t play what I don’t like. A DJ’s set should be an expression of their personality.

Have you ever been in Istanbul or did you heard anything about our musical heritage? Are you planning to do some record digging here?

This is my first visit and I’m looking forward to it. I’m excited that I’m going to be gigging on both sides of the Bosphorous. I’m already familiar with some Turkish music whether contemporary like Baba Zula or some of the older anatolian psych folk and I do like a bit of ciftetelli. I have a few days to explore Istanbul and I would love to find some of the music I already know on vinyl as well digging deeper than the surface I’ve only so far scratched.