After a barnstorming mainstage performance at the second iteration of Bristol’s FORWARDS festival, supporting the likes of Leftfield and Aphex Twin, SCALPING have played their final show.
Fans of brash, electronic delights needn’t worry, however. The Bristol four-piece remain very much intact and, as the newly rebranded SCALER, they’re fervently looking to the future.
Comprising bandmates Alex Hill (electronics), Isaac Jones (drums), James Rushforth (bass) and Nick Berthoud (guitar), with all important visual support from Jason Baker, SCALER have established a reputation for their off-kilter, often euphorically confrontational live shows.
Having signed to fabric’s Houndstooth imprint in late 2020 the group have toured extensively since, including support slots for Squarepusher. Last year saw them release their long awaited debut LP, ‘Void’, an intoxicating blend of techno, industrial metal, post-punk and everything else in between.
New single Loam, their first under the SCALER name, sees them teaming with techno maestro Daniel Avery for the first of two exciting collaborations.
Having swapped emails with the band for the release of the Flood EP in 2021, Paul Weedon finally caught up with Alex, James, Nick and Jason in person at FORWARDS Festival, just prior to their final outing as SCALPING.
The last minute withdrawal of Viagra Boys saw them being promoted to the main stage, which would serve as both a fitting hometown farewell and the dawn of a bold new chapter.
Big week for you guys. First the mainstage at FORWARDS, then the name change and a new single. Why the name change and why now?
Alex: Yeah, this is the last SCALPING gig. It’s been a long time coming, really. We’ve felt kind of uncomfortable with the name for a little while. We’ve never had any kind of formal backlash, I suppose, but that’s probably just because of this circle that we’re in maybe? I don’t know.
Nick: And just the size of the band. Because it’s largely America and Australia.
James: But obviously, those things have highlighted to us the reasons why we should change it.
It’s a weird one, isn’t it? Because until you’re out there, you don’t really know how it’s going to be received.
James: It’s very much, it’s very much a grey area.
Alex: I mean, obviously, we didn’t realise when naming the band. I just think we hadn’t fully focused on the wider context of it until America was on the cards. When the band started, we were never really thinking, “When we go to tour America…” But now that that conversation is happening, it just seems clear. And even from our point of view, when we tell people the name of the band, in the back of my head, I’m like, it’s not a nice name, is it?
No, but that kind of made sense for the genre of music you guys play.
Alex: Totally. Well, hopefully with the new name, we can kind of pour that same meaning into it regardless, and make it feel the same. The music’s gonna be the same, the branding’s the same, the show’s the same. It’ll come to feel the same,
James: We’re fortunate enough that, because of the nature of the fan base that we have, which is basically sort of an underground cult fan base at this point, I hope that people value it and trust us and I hope people understand the reasons why. And I think it’s fairly obvious. I think it’s the right thing to do.
Nick: It should be quite easy to understand why it needed to happen to everyone, external to us, as well.
You guys have been back in the studio working with Daniel Avery. Loam sounds incredible.
Alex: Oh, great. Thank you. You’re probably the first person outside of our friends that has spoken to us about it, so that’s cool.
I think I ended up being the 17th play on YouTube, or something. It felt like I was part of the inner circle. To work with Dan must have been really exciting.
Alex: Yeah. Surreal. Wild. We’ve been massive fans of his for over ten years.
James: Yeah, I think the maddest thing about it, especially for us, is that it was kind of Dan’s idea. He came to a fabric show just after the record came out and, needless to say, when you get a call like that…
Alex: And we hadn’t had any contact with him.
James: No, we didn’t have any contact prior. He was at the show and then came to say hi, and it was like, “Okay, cool. Dan’s here. That’s great.”
Because it’s not like he’s a labelmate, right? He’s on Phantasy.
Alex: He’s a friend of Rob, who runs the label and runs fabric. He knows him, so it was easier to kind of connect with him through that. But yeah, we’ve spoken a bit on Twitter and Instagram and stuff, but very passively. And then we asked him to do a remix, actually, and I think he’d done a fair few recently and was like, “I’m a fan of you guys, let’s just make some music together.” So we had the starting point of these two tunes – and then went back and forth with him a bit. Him and Manni Dee, who he works with in the studio a lot, both came to Bristol for two full days, went out for dinner and then we were done.
Nick: Big curry.
Alex: But yeah, he’s a big reason why we started listening to electronic music – Dan’s first record. He’s obviously from a band background and grew up listening to Nine Inch Nails and Deftones and Mogwai.
Nick: We all had quite formative experiences years ago listening to Dan. I remember one of the first big parties in London I ever went to was him all night long at Village Underground.
James: I went to fabric all night by myself, the first time I ever went, before we even got signed to fabric and it was Dan Avery all night long. I haven’t told him that.
Nick: I have told him that.
Alex: When we put our first ever song out, we went to see him in Bath and forced a record on him over the barrier.
Was that the ‘Chamber’ EP?
James: Yeah, it was. I mean, maybe unless he put it in the bin instantly, which I did think he might. It was weird. I saw it on the way out of the venue. I thought he must have just left it there to pick up the next day.
The first time I saw you guys was Simple Things at SWX in 2019. I think you guys had just put out Chamber then.
James: That’s still one of the best shows we’ve ever played.
Alex: And then had to leave Simple Things, which is our favourite thing that ever happens in Bristol. We’ve seen so many life-changing things there. We had to leave to go to Oxford to play the after party at this festival, which on paper should have been great, and it was the worst gig we’ve ever done. It was like the proper ups and downs of being “a rock star”. The highest highs and the lowest lows.
James: And then we all got in the car and we were all so stressed and so tired. We’d done two gigs. And we were like, “Can you smell dog shit?” And in the car park, we’d all trodden in dog shit.
Alex: We’d dragged our cases through it. It was awful
James: It was on everything. So, basically, don’t start playing music, because that’s the perfect analogy for the reality of it.
I guess the only way it was up from there.
James: I suppose so. I had an argument onstage with the sound tech. That was good.
Alex: Yeah, they’d done like a 16 hour day and clearly just couldn’t be arsed. And everything was broken and a mess. It wasn’t their fault, but it was fucking mental.
Jason: But, weirdly, somebody from Stranger Things was in the audience.
Alex: Yeah, which none of us knew about.
Jason: The older brother. English guy.
Charlie Heaton? How did you find that out?
Jason: I literally just saw him and I was like, it’s that fucking guy.
Jason, the visual component plays a huge part in the show. Back in the early days, the sets were quite heavily improvised. I take it the visuals were too?
Jason: Yeah, because the music was quite out there and quite extreme, so you didn’t have to really hold back in terms of coming up with the visuals.
James: It’s the reason why he sticks around.
Alex: We just let him do what he wants.
Jason: With other acts and stuff you have to fit it. It has to be quite nice or enjoyable, but with SCALPING…
It can be enjoyable, but it’s abrasive.
If I remember correctly, there was a lot of stuff involving faces.
Jason: Yeah, the visuals at the moment are 60% new, as of this year. But I’m still sticking with the human body and wobbly men.
Also, you guys get to play the mainstage now.
Nick: Fucking big screen for him.
Jason: Yeah, I just hope the HDMI doesn’t come out.
James: After festival season, you’re aware that you can fulfil these stages. Coming here is kind of like, “Oh, we’re at home. We have got this.” So it’s really nice that FORWARDS trusted us to do it, because I’ve felt that we are capable of doing that.
It’s a bit of a trite question, but it’s a homecoming show for you guys. How does it feel?
Alex: We’ve never played anything like this. There’s never been anything like this in Bristol that we would have played.
James: We weren’t here last year, so we didn’t even get to see it. We saw the Massive Attack shows here, but we weren’t here last year, so it’s not like we were aching to play it.
Alex: It feels great. It’s the last festival show of the summer, the last SCALPING show. We’ve had a great run over the summer with some really big shows. It’s nice that it’s in Bristol. I mean, it literally took us 10 minutes to get here. And next weekend we’re driving 13 hours to play in the Netherlands.
James: After two years of not being able to do it, to be at the end of festival season in Bristol in front of all your mates is kind of all you can really ask for.
Alex: And Aphex Twin is fucking playing.
‘Void’ was a really interesting progression for you guys in terms of incorporating vocals. Can we expect more of that on album two?
James: In theory, definitely. But, sadly, it’s not up to us because, obviously, an element of collaboration is waiting for people and there’s a lot of that.
Alex: The process is longer than you’d think.
James: Especially when the actual process of making our music isn’t us getting together in a room and jamming. It’s months of gruelling, replacing sounds. Then, in between that, you have to hit up completely random people out of the blue who you don’t have a link with and be like, “Hey, do you want to be involved with this? I know you might be busy.” They are busy. Also, what I’m providing them with isn’t finished. It’s not like I’m a dance music producer. We’re making band music, so you have to hope that this person is on board for the whole process.
Alex: Conversations are happening and people are interested and the songs are there. It’s just slow. It was amazing when we did that song with Grove, but just because they are our mate, they live in Bristol. They are so prolific and hard working, it just happened overnight, almost. We just met up with them, had a drink, next week they came to the studio with a fully finished vocal and recorded it there. But yeah, those other ones take a lot longer, or they just fizzle out into nothing and then you’re left with a song that’s supposed to have vocals.
James: It’s also sometimes a bit insulting, because nearly every time, we’ve specifically gone out of our way to make a track for a person – and that’s fine, they don’t owe us anything at that point – but once they say yes, it becomes quite disheartening. It’s sort of like, we want to make something beautiful that lasts forever. And when you get aired, it’s just a bit exhausting.
It’s an interesting distinction. With dance music, it’s a very polished thing. There’s an expectation from a collaborator that they’re getting a finished product, essentially. You guys have never lost sight of the fact that you are a band making this kind of music.
Alex: That even came up when we first signed to Houndstooth. They hadn’t ever really worked with the idea of demos before. Being a dance music producer, you make the song and you’re finished producing or finished mixing, or working on it, but it’ll be the same project. With us it’s like, here’s kind of an idea of the song, then we’d figure out how to record it.
James: And then we record the drums, then we process the drums after that to make another layer and then we’ll learn how to play that version of it. We’re still working out the best way to do this. And I don’t know what we need next.
Alex: It’s just time. Everything just takes a lot longer than you’d expect. And therefore money. But yeah, in theory, more vocals for the next record. We like working on that. We like that type of music. It’s exciting to think of a tune with the context of someone to work on it as well.
It completely changes the dynamic of it, doesn’t it?
James: Yeah, and also we have total licence to completely warp whatever a vocal is. It doesn’t even need to exist in a traditional format. You don’t even really need to be able to understand it. There’s so many different ways you can approach it.
Alex: I mean, even on Loam, those vocals came from Dan and Manni, but I don’t think it’s something we would ever have come up with. And it’s definitely a direction that isn’t really us, but that’s kind of the point of collaboration.
Recording it is one thing, but configuring it for a live show given the sound you guys produce – how complicated is the process of unpicking that?
Alex: It’s fucking mental. I don’t think any other band would go through the same process we have to go through. It took us years to figure out how to do it and we’re still figuring it out. But it’s just about translating everything onto machines, because we don’t use any laptops live. It’s not like backing tracks and stuff just running, it’s all samples and loops and sequences. And we play live as much as we can.
Nick: I think it’s something we really enjoy, effectively re-mixing our own tunes for live. Loam will sound really quite different in some ways on stage. In the studio, for these two tracks with Dan particularly, we were like, “Okay, we really want to focus on showing the dance music side of the band.” And then when you translate that into a show that needs to work with everything else, there wasn’t a lot of guitar in and then we were like, we actually need a big guitar moment and more live drums and everything. So It’s like re-mixing our own tunes back into the show to then work as a whole body.
Alex: It’s crazy. It takes ages, but hopefully it’s worth it.
James: What’s really funny is that in silence we’ll spend about half an hour with everyone – mainly me just airdropping things to Alex and then lsaac will be on his phone just waiting and then we’ll play the tune. There’ll be another half an hour of silence, basically just adjusting things and then we play the tune. That’s what our whole practice is. It’s not even like you’re there like shredding it out and going, “Oh yeah, it was great.” No, I’m playing the same note for four and a half minutes.
Alex: There are a lot of spreadsheets, planning stuff, working out what machines are doing what job and how loud we need to be.
It’s not often you hear about bands using spreadsheets.
James: Unfortunately, early on we made it quite a big part of our brand, but I do want to move away from that.
Alex: We said it in one NME interview and since then it’s just cropped up loads. It’s just another tool. It’s how we organise everything. There’s just so much going on.
So the future of music is in Microsoft Excel?
Alex: Just ask Aphex Twin.
Catch SCALER at the following shows:
22 London 9294
23 Manchester White Hotel
24 Edinburgh Sneaky Petes
25 Newcastle Cobalt Studios
8 Bristol Strange Brew
8 Bristol Strange Brew late show with Daniel Avery
Words: Paul Weedon
Photo Credit: Sandra Ebert