Ten years in the making, Skinny Pelembe’s debut album is a collage of the places he’s been, and the people’s met along the way – in dreams and real life
- TextMike Vinti
The more you find out about Skinny Pelembe, the harder it becomes to sum up who he is and what he does. A unique figure in the extended family of musicians that surround Giles Peterson and his record label Brownswood, Pelembe isn’t part of any one scene or a creator of any one sound. His work is equally the result of devotion to drum and bass and UK garage as it is a product of years spent studying The Beatles and The Beach Boys, and shifts between those two poles fluidly. Similarly, not anchored by geography and having been born in Johannesburg, raised in Doncaster and found musical success in London, Pelembe doesn’t really feel like he belongs to any one place either.
Instead, he floats through both the physical and musical world, picking up people and experiences on the way and later combining them into ethereal, deceptively complex and deeply personal works. His music is diaristic but often without narrative; talk to him about his upcoming debut album Dreaming is Dead Now and it’s clear there’s a story or two behind each track, though their precise details often escape fans and critics. He’s also a multi-instrumentalist, producer and singer who flirts with the odd moment of MCing, so his sound is set free from the chains that bind many musicians to one instrument and its associated palette.
It should come as no surprise then that his debut is a truly unique proposition. Recorded in Doncaster – in the same studio and with the same engineer with whom Pelembe cut his teeth as a teenager, and including songs written across the decade between then and now – it’s at once sprawling and intimate, formless and precise, with the closest attention paid to minute motifs over committee-crafted hooks. It’s also the product of time spent with musical heroes including production from Malcolm Catto of the Heliocentrics, some words of advice from king beatmaker Madlib and contributions from two anonymous but assuredly legendary drum and bass producers credited only as ‘The Bleeding Edge’. The result is an album as stark as it is surreal, with Pelembe somehow both totally exposed in his lyrics and safely guarded by the diverse influences that shape his sound.
Here, Pelembe delves into the people, places and sounds that run through his debut album.
“Making the album took four months but a lot of the songs started nine years ago. Loads of ideas that have finally come to fruition, it’s nice to put a bookend on a big chunk of my life and get on with other stuff. All the songs have got the theme of that period of time after my dad died. But also, after the Sleep More, Make More Friends EP they’ve all got that thing of writing lyrics through dreaming. Hence the name. It’s about that whole period of time; how your family dynamics change after that; meeting people, losing people.
“Any art is going to be a reflection of where we are society-wise. I think I’m political in some sense, but I’m not one to try and shoehorn a political agenda into my music. The single’s called No Blacks No Dogs No Irish but its more personal than anything else. It was on Steve Lamacq’s roundtable yesterday, and they were talking about Akala’s book and the song and saying it was ‘so important to have a song like that out’ right now – and I’m glad people can take that from it – but it wasn’t written for that, it’s just personal.
“That song was written when a soldier, I’m not going to say his name because it feels disrespectful, was beheaded in the street. I was living in Leeds and working in Doncaster so I had to get this slow train through all the small towns in that area and that week and the week after, everyone on the way to work was like ‘go back to this country’ or ‘go back to that country’; no one’s got the country right yet. But it’s not just about that, it’s also about being too black or too white, but to be honest, that’s not really an issue because I don’t get the worst of societal racism. I’m light, it’s alright.
“I moved back to Donny to do the record, my engineer Paul is up there and the studio I’ve been in since I was 14. It’s a nice environment to be in. I guess through the accent there’s some, but there’s not a huge nostalgia for Doncaster on the album. It’s just home, I don’t feel particularly attached to it, but I’ve never felt particularly attached to anywhere that I’ve lived. Sam Batley features on the last track on the album, he’s a great poet and a fantastic drinker – really a great drinker, top 50 in the UK – and I saw him outside the Roundhouse after a jam. He was battered and started reeling off about ten minutes of poetry at me. About six minutes in, I realised I should probably record it. Then I was finishing off the album and found an old phone, so Blood Relations, which is probably the most personal track on the album is that. I chopped it up and fucked it up and put it on top, so if there’s any Doncaster nostalgia there it’s having Paul working on it and having Sam on it, he’s just an old mate who made it kind of perfect.
“Any art is going to be a reflection of where we are society-wise. I think I’m political in some sense, but I’m not one to try and shoehorn a political agenda into my music” – Skinny Pelembe
“Dreaming is Dead Now is kind of like a really wicked little party island at the beginning and then it gets really sad. By the time you get to Ten-Four, Good Friend you feel as shit as I do, then we land you softly after that with a few beats; it gets sunnier again.
“The day I met Madlib was the third time I’d ever drunk coffee. I’m trying to get into it, but it tastes shit, anyway, I was really jittery, and I was wearing these light blue trousers, and Malcolm asked me if I wanted to meet him. I just freaked out and spilt coffee all over myself. I was trying to keep a calm head, and the door knocks and Madlib and Egon [the founder of NowAgain records] walk in. I didn’t want to run in and blow my cool, so I just stood at the mixer pushing things up and down, pretending to work and tried to play it cool like ‘hey guys, how’s it going?’ Malcolm ended up playing one of my tunes to Madlib which I was really against because it wasn’t finished and it’s seven minutes long, but in the end it was great. He was doing dabs all through the track, he really liked it. It was the greatest day of my life. I’ve got Neil Young on the list for the next one.
“My mum’s from Mozambique, and my dad’s from Birmingham, but I was born in South Africa. He moved out of England when the world cup was on because he hated footy. All the unions were taking days off during the matches, and he just wanted to work, so he decided to move. He moved to Iran and then South Africa, my mum was working there because of the civil war in Mozambique. She walked to South Africa with my two younger brothers. Hid in bushes, could have been killed by the border patrol or snakes. Then she met my dad. I was born there, that’s the only real link I have.
“Mozambique has more of an impact on the album than South Africa, it’s home. Musically, family-wise, it’s the next place I know better than Doncaster. I guess also there’s a contrast to South Africa. There’s still racial tension there today, but you go over the border into Mozambique, and your shoulders just drop, and you can relax. It’s wonderful. Fernando Luis, who was a singer and guitarist, knew my aunt. When I was there, he took me to guitar lessons and TV recording sessions, and we’d hang out on the beach with his backing singers and have jams, that was a big thing for me to see people living like that.”
Dreaming is Dead Now is out on May 24, 2019 via Brownswood Records.