Mike Skinner: ‘You can go too far with honesty’
Back with a new mixtape, the man behind The Streets reflects on his career and mental health struggles
Mike Skinner: ‘I was absolutely sure that I was never going to make any more Streets music.’ Photograph: Universal
Don’t call it a comeback. No really, don’t – while it’s true that Mike Skinner is firing up a project that he retired almost a decade ago, he has never gone away. Not really.
The Streets – the pseudonym for the Birmingham man’s era-defining musical affair that embodied both laddish swagger on songs like Don’t Mug Yourself, and vulnerability on mega-hit Dry Your Eyes – are back. A new mixtape, None of Us Are Getting Out of This Life Alive, is en route. Yet after declaring that 2011’s Computers and Blues was the final Streets record and spending most of the last nine years dabbling in other projects, collaborations, production and DJ work, Skinner found himself unexpectedly pulled back into the fray.
“I was definitely, absolutely sure that I was never going to make any more Streets music,” he insists, on a Zoom call from his home in London. “And I never missed it; never consciously missed it. I can’t tell you about my subconscious. I didn’t stop making music, but it was mainly either doing stuff for other people, or basically making beats to play when I DJ’d.
“Actually, I think what really got it all going was the film that we have still yet to make. The reason I stopped doing The Streets was to make a film, and the reason I started doing The Streets again was to make a film: that sums it up as best as anything,” he laughs. “And I also started making music that was ‘good’, in the sense that it worked in a nightclub.”
None of Us Are Getting Out of This Life Alive is actually the second Streets record that Skinner has made since 2011; it was preceded by an album that is also the soundtrack to the aforementioned film. The Darker the Shadow, the Brighter the Light (he also released music under this moniker a few years ago) was written by Skinner, will be directed by him and will see him play the lead role. Having secured funding after a long delay, he plans to start shooting it in blocks later this year.
“It’s about a DJ, played by me,” he explains. “It’s a musical, and the songs are the voiceover – so it’s not like La La Land; it’s a bit more of a meat-and-potatoes version of Tommy.”
He has certainly come a long way from Original Pirate Material, the 2002 debut that pioneered a blend of garage, rap and electronica.
“I did Tim’s Twitter Listening Party, and that was the first time I’d heard it pretty much since I made it,” he says. “It felt like a different person – but at the same time, making this mixtape reminded me of making Original Pirate Material probably more than any of the others, because I wasn’t really planning anything. I would just sort of do stuff, and then keep it if I liked it and throw it away if I didn’t like it.
“So there was a sort of freedom to that – but it also can make it a bit rough around the edges, I guess. That isn’t to say that I didn’t feel a pressure when I made Original Pirate Material – but at the time, my only motivation was to not have to work in Burger King. So that’s a different type of pressure to having made six or seven albums, and making another one; it gets harder the longer you do it.”
Always a deep thinker, Skinner is an engaging conversationalist, but he has had plenty of time to evaluate his own material over the past decade. He recently described his third album, The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living (2006), as his “pop star meltdown album”.
“It’s a cliche because it’s true,” he shrugs. “I thought that honesty was the thing that I could do, and that album taught me that it’s about the audience; it’s not about you. It’s a big challenge, because you have to be honest – because people can tell [if you’re not]. But actually, you can go too far with honesty; that’s what I learned. Does that make sense? There’s only so far that honesty can get you. But that’s what I do for a living: work out the bits of my life that are important and talk about those, rather than just talk about everything.”
The new album does just that, albeit filtered through Skinner’s trademark wry take on the world; even the song titles, from I Wish You Loved You As Much As You Love Him, to Conspiracy Theory Freestyle, are a mix of truthfulness and tongue-in-cheek wit. The motley crew of collaborators, meanwhile, keep the musical side of things stimulating.
Some of them are more obvious choices than others. Skinner crossed paths with Kevin Parker of Tame Impala on the festival circuit last year and the pair struck up a friendship that led to Call My Phone Thinking I’m Doing Nothing Better. His track with Ms Banks, meanwhile, ensued as a result of his work as a DJ.
“It was always one degree of separation – but musically, it wasn’t straightforward because every time someone did something, it sent the song in a new direction,” he explains. “I wouldn’t say the music was easy, but it was actually quite easy working out who should be on the album because I feel like I have something in common, musically, with all of them. I know a lot of rappers, but I don’t think it really works when a rapper is rapping about the hustle; it’s difficult to imagine what sort of song we can make together.
“And the same with people who sing more ‘glamorous’ songs; it’s difficult to imagine a song that we could be on together. So it’s pretty straightforward. I mean, I did a few sessions with Slowthai as well, and that’s not on the album. But it’s pretty obvious to everyone, I think, that me and Slowthai – or me and Jimothy Lacoste, even – would sound good together.”
It’s funny that he mentions an artist like Slowthai, considering how easy it is to see how Skinner’s work might have been an influence on him.
“Well, I think there is a generational thing in music that almost operates behind the scenes,” he says. “Because when you buy an album by someone, you only see the artist; that’s all you’re allowed to see. But if you write songs with people and produce for people, you realise that a lot of the artists that have gone before end up working with the new artists, anyway.
“And music is a very youth-orientated art form; it’s dominated by people at the beginning of their careers, but there’s a connection that runs all the way from the very youngest musicians to the oldest. I mean, if you think about someone like Stormzy and Fraser T Smith; they’ve worked together on a lot of songs, but Fraser T was Craig David’s guitarist. In the studio, that’s really obvious – whereas if you buy a Stormzy album, you don’t know that.”
Skinner has his own children now, but Amelia (10) and George (8) aren’t that interested in what Dad does for a living yet.
“They haven’t really reached a music place yet, really,” he smiles ruefully. “If you came to my house, I don’t think you’d have any idea what I did for a living, really. But the boys in my daughter’s class are starting to really all like rap. I think the best thing I can do is probably bring some really tough guys to school one day . . . and just make sure my son doesn’t get bullied.”
All in all, it sounds like Skinner (41) is in a good place right now. “I think if I’m honest, my 30s were a bit of a shock to me; I didn’t know why, or have any justification for it,” he admits. “I spent my 30s working out what it is that I need to be doing, creatively; but in the last three or four years, I’ve known what it is that I need to be doing.”
He has been open about his mental-health struggles – he has been in therapy for the past few years – but is particularly reflective when he considers how potentially damaging his rapid rise to fame was in his early 20s.
“It’s a bit like being a footballer, really,” he nods. “All musicians have their best years in their 20s, and almost no musicians have a better time after that. So really, you are kind of mostly retired in your 30s. I think if musicians are able to make a living at it, they have less problems, added up, than anyone else. So I think that musicians should not get into the habit of complaining, because if you can make a living making music, it is a beautiful thing.
“But it’s a bit like winning the lottery, y’know? People that win the lottery often become depressed, because they realise that they’ve won the lottery and they don’t feel spiritually happier – they just have nice toys that become boring after a while.”
This newfound wisdom may have inadvertently found its way into the new EP, I suggest – particularly given its philosophical title.
“I mean, it’s philosophical . . . ,” he trails off. “That’s what I love: really simply, sort of punky songs that are quite obvious, that aren’t difficult to understand – but that have bits that are quite thought-provoking. That’s what I’ve always liked, and you just end up doing what you like. So in a way, you just spend your whole career writing the same song over and over again.”
Skinner shrugs and smiles. “To me, the ideal is saying something that’s quite complicated in a very simple way. I can’t stop trying to do that.”
None of Us Are Getting Out of This Life Alive is released on July 10th