INTERVIEW: Scientific Funk

Scientific Funk, aka James Harrison, is a veteran underground house DJ and producer who has been unleashing irresisitible grooves onto dancefloors since the early 90s. We caught up with him recently to chat about his early years, why he ‘retired’ from the scene, his latest musical offerings on Cubism and Something Different Music and a whole load more.

What are your earliest memories of music?

Oh God, here goes what little street cred I may have had. Albums by Pinky and Perky, the Smurf’s Christmas record and me singing nursery rhymes on tape, but singing the wrong words to Teddy Bears Picnic “Watch them, catch them underwears (instead of unawares). My dad played the piano so there was always music on in my house as a kid. I grew up with him and he had a wide taste in music from classical through to ABBA. I was exposed to Johnny Cash, Jean Michel Jarre, The Beatles and 70s/80s chart music.

How did you get into DJing?

At 16, in early 1989, before the Second Summer of Love kicked off, I was regularly buying 12″. I found a couple of other specialist record stores in Portsmouth, Jelly Jam, run by Luke Slater, and Aubrey had a little shop in the back of a clothes store called Razzles. A kid in the year below me at school, Robbie Long, had a set of Technics and could mix and scratch really well. I went round his a few times to try to get the hang of it. I’m pretty sure it sounded terrible! By my second year in 6th Form I’d bought my own Technics and managed to get a few local gigs, either through college nights or a couple of local DJ competitions. I was playing very heavy techno by then. Mainly US and Belgian stuff under the name DJ Homicide (cringe!!). I’m sure I clattered my way through those early gigs too. It was at one college gig that I experienced my first annoying request. Mid 140bpm pounding techno set a girl asked me for Ce Ce Peniston – ‘No love, next door for that’. There were many more like that to come over the following years.

What do you look for on the dance floor to know you’ve made that connection with the crowd?

There is really only one thing: the floor is full of people with smiling faces and they are really dancing; not just gently swaying from side to side as I see all too often these days. A floor full of fully engaged people is when the party starts to happen. Sadly, it’s a rare sight these days, mainly due to too many people who can only play music – they cant actually DJ. I summed it up recently in “the more I go clubbing, the less DJs I hear”. If you only play one very narrow band of music, you cant be a DJ. You dont have the scope to take people anywhere. You start at A, go to A and finish at A – that is not DJing. A set has to include, something funky, something soulful, some vocals, light tracks, dark tracks, rollers, a well timed breakdown or two. Most clubbers, even at an underground night, are not that into the music; not like the DJ. So you have to play a broad spectrum in order to firstly draw them in and then keep them there.

What tracks are rocking your sets of late?

Shades of Gray – “Tonight Is The Night” (Smash TV rmx)
Mercelo Cura – N’side
Scientific Funk – South Coast Dub
Peter Dutch – Blakes Acid

As well as DJing, you produce your own music. How did you get into that?

Like most DJs it was just a natural progression. Way back, I spent a couple of days in a studio and made two tracks but I don’t actually remember doing anything with them. One sampled Madness, repeating ‘Move Your Feet’ over a naggy piano riff with some acidy sounds. The uni I went to had a proper studio and I learnt a bit there. In my second year I spunked a chunk of my student loan on some kit: a Soundcraft Studio desk; Yamaha SY35; Emu Vintage Keys; a cheap ART fx unit; Akai SO1 sampler and a Boss DR660 drum machine. I picked up a second hand Kawai K4r too. I took a couple of those early productions in a proper studio to mix them, but, again, never did anything with them (thankfully).

What type of tracks were you making during your first forays into music production?

In those early days it was pre-Sasha/Digweed progressive house and some US style house. Something with a groove, energetic percussion and then some interesting sounds or catchy riff over the top. I still pretty much make that, just (hopefully) a lot better than I did back then. There are key things that work on the dancefloor and I try to stick to them. My tracks aren’t overly ‘fussy’ so you can get into them easily.

How has your production style evolved over the years?

Ha ha I don’t think it evolved at all. I stopped producing in 2001, I think it was, and at that point I had a full analogue studio. 32ch Soundcraft Desk, two 6ft racks of synths and outboard all midi’d up to my Atari 1040ST running Cubase. I sold all that. Had a brief dabble with ProTools, then did nothing for 10 or so years. Then I started fiddling with Reason and now I just use that. No outboard, no external synths, just a powerful PC and a little Korg NanoKontrol 2. I don’t even have a keyboard. Haha!

I kind of miss doing it ‘properly’, but there’s no way I’d have the amount of tools I do with Reason. I certainly wouldn’t have an SSL desk! It does all I need to do and, because it kind of works like a hardware studio, it’s all familiar. The total recall means I can work easily on a number of tracks at the same time. No patch dumps or anything like that. I think hardware is redundant when it comes to making dance music. You can be all anal about your analogue knob box, but the punters in a club cant tell the difference between a soft synth and a Minimoog.

You eventually moved to London and were heavily involved in the infamous Swag Records and nights like Wiggle and Subterrain. What was this period like for you? Are there any moments in particular that stand out when you look back?

The only thing heavily involved with Swag was my wallet on a weekly basis. Swag was about 20 minutes from my house and I was in there most Saturdays and got to know Liz Edwards, Dave Mothersole, the infamous Homer and just about knew Terry Francis to say hi too without looking a cock. My job involved driving all over London, but mostly in and around Soho, so I was always nipping in and out of all the record shops, creaming off the best deep house, tech-house and techno. I went to a number of Wiggle and Subterrain parties in that time and various warehouse parties. I was immersed in that music and scene. I got to know the likes of Terry Francis, Nathan Coles, Murf, Richard Grey, Richard Summerhayes and Nils Hess from Eukatech and Mark Collings from Tag. I say ‘know’ mostly to say hi, or ask if they liked the track I did. I’m not one to force myself on people or kiss too much arse, although the Portsmouth Techno Police would have you think otherwise.

You did a series of remixes appeared on the likes of Billy Nasty’s Electrix label and Surreal Recordings, before essentially disappearing for eleven years. Why did you end up taking such a prolonged break from the scene when it appeared from the outside looking in that you were at the top of your game?

There were a number of factors really. I was never in to the drugs side of the club scene back then. I think up until a couple of years ago I’d smoked about 5 joints and had a drink spiked with speed – that was the sum total of my drug taking. Because I wasn’t in to it, when I went back to after-parties and everyone was getting fucked I felt I didn’t fit in and found it difficult to relate to people. I wasn’t high enough up in those social circles to be the one on the decks, so I was kind of stuck in a smokey corner.

Another strand to my ‘retirement’ came through helping a friend out with their release and rent. He was part of a well-known UK electro outfit and was always skint. Anyway, I lent him over £1000, like I said to cover his rent and get his next release out. He was going to pay me back with an advance he was getting from a big label at the time. Needless to say a few weeks passed and then, one day, I went round to see him and he had a whole new studio. His excuse was he needed the kit to complete the album and that he’d pay me out of the album sales. I got a few hundred back at some point, but to this day he still owes me. That really put a dampener on the whole music thing at the time. Yeah, you expect to get shafted in this game, but not by a mate who you helped keep a roof over their head.

The final strand to this tale was I wasn’t happy at my day job and my long term relationship was coming to an end. So the combination of these pushed me away from music and out of London.

What did you do with yourself during this time away?

I worked with fishing magazines as a photo-journalist and consultant. I also went out to Spain for 18 months to work as an angling guide. It was while I was out there that I started listening to house music again. Business was very slow. I got a copy of Mixmeister and started buying a few mp3s and making mixes. That was about 6 years ago now. I also started messing about with Reason again, and so here we are today.

You then reappeared on Nathan Coles’ ‘Is This?’ label in 2013 as Cactus Jack, a collaboration between yourself, Merle and Pointblank FM’s Richie Collins. What is it that eventually drew you out of your ‘early retirement’?

I was already out by then. I’d done a couple of EPs for friends labels. The Cactus Jack thing came about after getting drunk in a pub with Richie and Merle. Somehow we decided to go back to Merle’s house and ‘make a track’. ‘Pictures’ came from that first session. I took the rough draft away and cleaned it up and finished it over the next few weeks. We got together again and that resulted in ‘Desumba’. Pretty chuffed with our efforts Richie, who had a show on Pointblank FM and was the only one of us actively in contact with anyone, sent them to Nathan Coles. We were hoping to get on Wiggle but were still over the moon when Nathan said he wanted them for his Is This? label. We did a couple more tracks and Nathan took one of those to complete the EP.

Soon after that you released the ‘Crotchless Onesie’ EP on the legendary Wiggle label. Were you surprised by just how well received and popular that EP was?

I think the fact that it was on Wiggle meant it was bound to be well received. With Nathan, Terry and Eddie all acting as A&R there’s not really any shit on that label. I really was just in shock at finally being on there. ‘This Sound’ off that EP was my no1 track for over a year ago until very recently. It just continues to sell and sell. I still hear it crop in mixes now. It was featured last summer in Just Be/Bushwacka’s Birthday party set from Ibiza.

You’ve just had your debut release on Cubism, the ‘South Coast’ EP. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Out the blue I got a message from Saytek via Facebook to say he and Mark Gwinnett were really in to my stuff and would I like to do an EP for them. I couldn’t believe it, and jumped at the chance. Cubism has definitely been a consistent label for me as a DJ so it felt great to be asked to appear on it. I think I had a few tracks done, or nearly done, and sent them over. They got back pretty quick, taking “Supernova” and a track I’d done as a bit of an experiment, “South Coast Dubs”. I wanted to do something more ‘modern’ sounding and minimal. I wasnt even sure I liked it at the time and was quite surprised Cubism took it. Needless to say the feedback reactions to both tracks were amazing, and the icing on the cake was seeing “Richie Hawtin is now playing Scientific Funk – South Coast Dub” on Twitter twice in one week (and again a couple of weeks later). The grass roots support was amazing too, and as I write this, that track is sitting at no7 in Traxsource’s Tech House Top 100, and is my biggest selling track on Beatport.

You’ve also had a number of releases, both original tracks and remixes, with Something Different Music Group. How has it been working with that label?

Yeah, this has opened all sorts of doors for me. My initial EP for Something Different Again didn’t sell loads on release. Both myself and the label were still in our infancies as far as exposure was concerned. However, as people have got in to the label and/or my sound it has been selling consistently on back catalogue and two tracks appear in my Beatport Top 10 best sellers. It’s really good to think that people are coming and checking out my back catalogue and picking up various bits. You tend to only do that if you really like an artist. I had a second remix for Ales Andru on SDA just after Christmas, and that went to no8 in the Traxsource Techno Chart.

You’ve said that you’ve got some “very exciting things occurring in early 2015”. Can you let us in on any of those yet? Go on, give us a sneaky peak?

Well, all this press is very exciting when you’re a ‘nobody’. But yes, after 20 years I’m finally going to play at Wiggle (date TBC). The Beatsworkin’ Off Sonar Party is always a messy affair. A US tour is currently in planning along with the possibility of playing in Brazil, Ibiza, South Africa and Japan. Itchy Pig have taken on my DJ bookings too, so I’m really looking forward to getting out and playing a lot more than I have recently.