Scalping: Body Language
There’s nothing new about guitar and club music crossovers. The two spheres have long enjoyed a rich, messy and occasionally regrettable exchange of influences: even before the second summer of love, there were the post-punk acts lifting rhythms, tropes and techniques from disco and dub, and the krautrock groups whose approach to texture and use of repetition would contribute to the development of techno. With all this in mind, what makes Bristol’s Scalping – praise for whom has fixated on a supposedly unlikely love for both big riffs and big breaks – anything special?
Perhaps it’s the fact that fellow Bristol producer Bruce can seamlessly drop 2019 single Chamber into a Dekmantel set, and quickly find himself mobbed by dancers. In other words, we’re not talking about slapping some power chords on top of an 808 and hoping for the best. Formed in 2017, Scalping tracks oscillate with the same ebb and flow of a rager in the basement: the tooth-grinding highs, the moments of weightlessness, the sensation of the body being pulled in all directions at once. Few have managed to successfully infuse these with the air of panic and action more readily associated with noise rock.
“What’s surprising to us is that while there are industrial-techno crossovers who’ll borrow from punk and other genres, it’s quite rare to find one with something like live drums at the centre of their sound,” says Alex Hill, who handles the electronic elements of the group’s sound. “The goal has been to bring a live band’s energy to that world.”
The opening passage of Monolithium, taken from new EP Flood, drops listeners straight into the chaos. Shrill bursts of up-the-neck guitar punctuate harsh washes of ear-ringing synth and fuzzed-up low-end, lending immediacy and raw power to the sound. Speaking over Zoom, the band, plus visual collaborator Jason Baker, agree that if Flood departs from previous work in any sense, it is only to push things as far as they’ll go, to strike out into wilder territory.
“The guitar doesn’t need to fit into the pocket of dance music at all times,” says guitarist Jamie Thomas. “There are other extremities I want to explore, and more opportunities to be playful.” Among the guitarists he admires most are Stephen O’Malley, the force behind drone-lords Sunn O))), and Deftones’ Stephen Carpenter, whose discordant, slow-handed work soundtracked sufficient bedroom angst for Scalping’s members growing up.
Bassist James Rushforth singles out two later-life encounters that have informed the new EP, and the LP now set to follow on Fabric-run label Houndstooth. The first involved A Place to Bury Strangers: strung out after a sleepless night between festival slots in Slovakia and London, Rushforth found himself watching the psych-noise trio in a damp Hackney warehouse. “What I really loved was the pop music buried beneath the walls of noise, and the hidden structures in place,” he reveals. The Brooklyn outfit’s live shows are known to be unforgiving experiences, yet somehow, says Rushforth, something comfortable remains.
The second experience was with Kevin Martin, aka The Bug. The industro-dancehall auteur is infamous among promoters for the size (and cost) of his technical rider, which according to a 2018 RBMA interview, once required an Istanbul venue to source all available bass-bins in the city. Martin understands that on a fundamental level, all sound is pressure waves, and that enough speakers can create physical experiences.
It’s easy to see how this might appeal to Scalping, who consider their live show their most important undertaking. Rushforth also recalls his first trip to Bristol suburb St Pauls in 2014 to see the Lionpulse Soundsystem, a hand-built 20kW reggae rig, and trips to the Trinity Centre to see artists like Mala. Having witnessed the sheer depth and volume these systems can deliver, he half-jokingly concludes: “The ten-grand Kevin Martin tech rider is where we want to be.”
Hill affirms that “the live show and the energy it generates has always been, and will always be, the priority”. For that reason, he says, Scalping have become particular about where they can play, not least to ensure that Baker and his feverish visuals can accompany the group to shows. More control could help avoid repeats of experiences that haven’t gone to plan: favourites to date include a set for a room of disinterested 6 Music dads, and a hangar party in Nantes where drummer Isaac Jones was inexplicably made to play behind plexiglass.
“The ten-grand Kevin Martin tech rider is where we want to be”
The benchmark for greatness was a 2019 Simple Things performance, a much-needed buzz after a tepid night in Paris: “the trope we hear among DJ friends is that French crowds just want 130 BPM, four-on-the-floor,” says Rushforth. “We played Empty Cascade, which is basically a steppers tune, and people had no idea what to do with it. To get home to Bristol and play a 140 track on a big rig, and to see a sold-out crowd of local heads getting on it; all I could say was, ‘I’m home.’”
Hill nods, speculating that Scalping’s success would not likely have been possible anywhere else. An early influence on the group were fearless Bristol promoters like Howling Owl Records. On paper, they favoured some seriously mixed grills: “You’d get a punk band followed by a DJ,” says Hill, “and then a spoken word act followed by live electronics. It didn’t matter: there was always cohesion to things. Somehow, it felt like these people all came from the same world.”
How events like New Year New Noise managed to combine local heroes like the almighty Giant Swan, the no-wave of Spectres and improv mainstay Dali de Saint Paul without appearing contrived is a difficult question. For Hill, size plays a role. Bristol isn’t big enough to forge a friendship circle dedicated exclusively to techno. Those friends might all make music, he explains, but while one might be an MC, another might be a classical pianist, and another might be a modular synth geek. “It doesn’t matter,” he explains. “We’re all friends, and we’re all going to each other’s shows, if not playing at each other’s shows.”
Other big influences have included Bristol art-punk contemporaries Lice, one member of which – Alastair Shuttleworth – is the creator of the Bristol Germ, a modern-day manifesto series. It champions the fiercely weird names in Bristol’s contemporary underground – Scalping, Kinlaw & Franco Franco, Avon Terror Corps and Bokeh Versions to name a few – while railing against the ‘pernicious disease of bad music journalists’, venue closures and ‘dirty, inaccurate terms such as scene’ (as opposed to community).
Of course, much of this has been temporarily derailed by Covid-19. For a band like Scalping, which thrives on live performance and conviviality, lockdowns have been tough. The group have stoically resisted any suggestion of sit-down gigs or live streams, with Hill unimpressed at the thought of someone consuming the group’s show on their sofa, on their phone. The timing hasn’t been all bad, he says, having made space for work on material for their future Houndstooth releases, but memories of a February 2020 headline show at The Island, an old Bristol police station-turned-sweatbox, are beginning to ache.
There is optimism for the months ahead. “I think things will be quick to recover,” says Jones. “The fact is, everyone is still here, and everyone is incredibly up for it. The question is how this period will end up influencing the next.” There are already signs of recuperation with the opening of Mickey Zoggs, the café, bar and home of online station Noods Radio which recently managed to host a live event for the poet and sound artist Max Kelan.
“The fact is, everyone is still here, and everyone is incredibly up for it. The question is how this period will end up influencing the next”
But then there is the world outside of Bristol, where it is fair to say Scalping were on the verge of making major waves. Being robbed of such momentum was surely a bitter experience, but after a year in the stalls, the band are confident they’ve grown as a creative force: Hill hints at plans for further immersion at shows moving forward, mentioning lasers, smoke screens and 3D goggles. “How that’ll work with the moshers, I don’t know,” Baker laughs. With any luck, we’ll find out sooner rather than later.
Flood is out now on Houndstooth