The Streets: “I’m heartened by stories of other people pretty much going mad doing this”

Mike Skinner has been busier than you think since he originally ended The Streets in 2011. Next month, he’s not just returning with the project’s first album in 12 years, but a debut feature film that he’s made pretty much by himself over the past decade. As he tells Stuart Stubbs in the final days of the movie’s completion, it’s been a lot, and he’s not sure how he’s going to feel once it’s over

On the day that Trump was elected, Mike Skinner came to the Loud And Quiet office to record an episode of our podcast, Midnight Chats. Talk of The Streets was off the table, because The Streets was over, and had been for five years. “I genuinely never want to rap again,” Skinner had written in the closing pages of his 2012 memoir, The Story Of The Streets, and there’s only so many times you can talk about a project you started at the age of 20, however genre-defining that project instantly became.

Just as Skinner knew The Streets had to end when it originally did, fans accepted the decision partly because of how neat a parcel it was – 5 albums over 10 years, spanning the entirety of Mike Skinner’s raging 20s: a perfect arc of a young man who’d been going to the same regional clubs as the rest of us, who went from kebab shop shit-chat to Top of The Pops and the Brit Awards, to having perhaps too good a time, to running himself into the ground, to a soft landing by the time music trends had moved on and he’d turned 30. “There’s no margin in being the Liberace of geezer garage,” he wrote in his book.

Podcast gold, you could call stories from that decade, but it wasn’t as if Skinner – the definition of a workaholic – hadn’t generated just as many talking points in his fledgling post-Streets career. On the table, then, were: Tonga, his green-balloon-themed bassline club night, then hosted in London, Birmingham, Berlin, Copenhagen and Glasgow, with singer and friend Murkage Dave; the hip-hop documentaries he’d made for Vice; his own rap/news podcast, Peak Times; a new record label called Mike Skinner Ltd, and the artists he was producing for it; and the bags of cash he’d made from writing the music for The Inbetweeners Movie, on which he took a percentage of the film’s profits, only for it to become the highest grossing British comedy of all time. He had started rapping again too, under the name The Darker The Shadow The Brighter The Light, dropping standalone tracks online whenever he felt like it. And he’d begun writing a movie, set in Britain’s clubland.

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The songs as The Darker The Shadow The Brighter The Light momentarily dropped offline around the time Skinner announced a surprise Streets reunion tour in 2017, which sold out at a rate that proved that the tidiness of The Streets’ lifespan was no substitute for The Streets itself. A new mixtape, None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive, was released in 2020’s lockdown, featuring Tame Impala, IDLES, Greentea Peng and others. Next month we’ll get the first Streets album in 12 years, along with Mike Skinner’s debut feature film – the one he spoke about on the podcast, which he’s written, directed, starred in, edited, and done everything else for. Funded, even. Both the album and the film have taken the name The Darker The Shadow The Brighter The Light.

I’ve wanted to ask him what changed in that year between us meeting, when The Streets was something he was so completely done with, and the sudden resurrection of it all, ever since. And over lunch, in a pub across the road from where The Streets live band were rehearsing for a tour that started earlier this month, Skinner needed no time to contemplate my question: “I mean, I’ve said this before, but the reason I stopped doing The Streets was to make a film. And the reason I started it again was to make a film.” It’s like when he was younger, when he was back home in Birmingham, straight out of college and going to house nights that played garage, at clubs like The Steering Wheel, where ‘Weak Become Heroes’ and ‘Blinded By The Lights’ were set in his mind. His plan was to get a £1500 grant from The Prince’s Trust and start his own record label. To qualify he had to be unemployed, so he duly complied, signing on for 6 months and writing the business plan they’d asked for. “And at the end of it they were like, ‘Nah, sorry’.” In that moment he realised that he could have taken all of the available shifts at his previous Burger King job and raised the money he needed himself.

“With the film, I’ve always understood that you either do the film thing,” he says, “taking a short [movie] to festivals and all of that, and I think I’m probably a bit too old to go around putting a short through. Because I’ve done so many shorts and so many music videos, the idea of making a short and taking around festivals to get 2 million quid to make a British film… It sort of became obvious that if I just did The Streets again it wouldn’t necessarily fund it, but certainly help it.”

At the time of our lunch, Skinner is three weeks away from the biggest deadline of his life. After 10 years of working on The Darker The Shadow The Brighter The Light, it’s nearly, finally finished. Next to the band’s rehearsal studio he’s taken over an office in order to edit and colour grade the film whilst practising for the live tour that starts the day the film is due. And then he’ll continue editing and grading once he gets home. “It’s a nightmare,” he says as we sit down. “Yeah. I bit off way more than I can chew.”

Two million quid became three million for the film’s proposed budget, and before Covid, Skinner worked with a production company in order to develop his script and seek funding. When the money didn’t materialise he decided to foot the bill and make it himself, taking on every conceivable role in a film production team. “And it’s been dirt cheap,” he says. “I think it’s only cost something like a hundred and something thousand pounds, rather than three million. It’s literally broken me in the process, but there it is.”

Skinner has a history of this kind of industriousness, reaching back to when he started making Original Pirate Material in a cupboard in his bedroom, wrapped in a duvet, in 2001. It’s what’s always made The Streets such a singular project, with Skinner working alone and without compromise, fuelled by bloody-mindedness and obsession. Along the way, he’s educated himself in the necessary fields to ensure that The Streets remains completely in his image, reading countless theory books on songwriting to improve his craft and attending a screenwriting course by Hollywood storytelling consultant Robert McKee in one dedicated move that led directly to what many consider his masterpiece, second album, the very British rap soap opera A Grand Don’t Come For Free. He started directing his own music videos around his third album, learning by doing – “That was my film school” – and spent some his short time living in New York in 2005, at the height of his fame, sitting in on A&R meetings at Atlantic Records in order to more fully understand how the hip hop industry he’d loved since hearing De La Soul and Wu Tang operated.

Perhaps he gets his appetite for self-motivated learning from his father, whose advice was never to choose one career and lock it in for life, but to try something out, see if you like it, and if you don’t, give something else a go, for as many times as you want or need to. Although Skinner says: “I guess it’s a control thing. And it’s also a fear thing. But there is a logic to it – we got to the end of the film and we needed Foley [the rerecording of hundreds of overdubbed sounds that practically all movies need]. 30 grand!? I think I’ll do it myself.”

Needless to say, Skinner is as exhausted and stressed as you’d almost hope him to be, but also self-deprecating and still in possession of his sense of humour. “I’m currently at the stage where it doesn’t feel worth it,” he says, which sounds like it isn’t a joke. “Definitely. But I’m also heartened by stories of other people pretty much going mad doing this.

“Because of the music video thing [making a lot of them and working with others who also make them], I got to know quite a few directors. And all of the directors I know that have made a film, when you see them at the screening or whatever, they’re just completely ruined. ‘Don’t do it! It’s not worth it!’. That’s where I am at the moment.” He says this with a big laugh, and recalls the documentary about Quadrophenia he was watching on YouTube in the early hours of this morning (he’s not been sleeping much recently): “They were all fucked up making that, so that made me feel a bit better.”

When I ask him how he found the acting side of things (he plays a version of himself in the movie – a small-time club DJ called Mike who gets mixed up in a drug deal gone wrong and a dancefloor murder), he says: “I literally couldn’t give a fuck. I’ve got so much to think about I couldn’t give a fuck. At the point of me having to say something, it was like, ‘Right, what’s the line? Let’s move on.’ I’m not expecting to win any awards for that. But it had to be me,” he reasons, “because the music is the voiceover. When the music plays in the film, that’s the voiceover.”

It’s easy to forget that there’s a new Streets album too, despite it being the first since 2011’s Computers and Blues. Skinner’s perhaps forgotten himself, considering “the music has been sat around for 10 years.” At one point he tells me: “Because the film is so hideous and difficult – like unrelenting – actually, the music, I found really nice. Like, if you’ve got a headache, snap your ankle. That’s the joke, but I’m realising that it’s really true – I feel like all of your emotions are only in comparison to your other ones. Some of the most unhappy times I’ve had in my life were when absolutely everything was perfect. And it’s not because ‘Actually it’s really bad’ – it’s not really bad. Having loads of money when you’re young is amazing, but you just get used to it. You know, you’re that person who’s like, ‘Where are my grapes?’ sort of thing. And it creeps in. ‘There’s a white sofa on the rider, why isn’t it here!? I can’t possibly go on stage!’ Thankfully, it never got that bad, but because your emotions are only comparative to other ones, it’s a bit like an addiction, where you need more of it to get high.” So all Mike Skinner needs to do to continue to enjoy making music is make a feature film to accompany each album, I say, which he laughs at even though it deserves a punch in the face.

But even if the enormity of the movie does overshadow the album for Skinner right now, it’s a big deal for Streets fans, whose most common reaction to his social media posts – be it a preview of a new track, show announcements or holiday photos with his wife and children – is the goat emoji. It’s hard to argue against its sentiment in this instance, and you’d do just as well to overstate the importance and rarity of The Streets – not just its influence on British music, which can be heard more in Arctic Monkeys than it can the grime MCs who consider Skinner something of a cultural father figure, but in how unique the project has always sounded, from ‘Has It Come To This?’ to new single ‘Too Much Yayo’.

When The Streets arrived in 2001, nobody could believe that there was a guy rapping in a British accent. Was it even rapping? And why had he laced his garage beats with samples of orchestras? We were still a year away from the birth of grime and Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner, and as huge as UK garage had become, its MCs were more respected for getting a party going in a basement club in Southend than for what they were saying on the mic. Mike Skinner largely slowed down the beat and put more emphasis on lyrics, mixing garage and hip hop and telling stories that people actually cared about, however frivolous tales of drinking, drugging and dancing may now seem from a distance. It was, after all, what inner city Brits were doing, and most of us could relate to it a lot more than we could to Jay-Z when, in the same year, he rapped: “I was raised in the projects, roaches and rats / Smokers out back selling their mama’s sofa… Me under a lamppost, why I got my hand closed? Crack’s in my palm, watching the long arm of the law.” The best part of a night out was often talking about it the morning after, and that’s exactly what The Streets did, with an unfiltered wit that allowed for lines like, “Er, hello, my name’s Tim and I’m a criminal / In the eyes of society, I need to be in jail / For the choice of herbs I inhale” (‘The Irony Of It All’), and, soon after, “What do I give a fuck? I’ve got a girlfriend anyway” (‘Fit But You Know It’). Each track on The Streets’ debut felt like it belonged to a different hour of the day, and Skinner had a particular skill for a loading a hazy late-nighter like ‘Weak Become Heroes’ with an almost scientific dose of melancholy and euphoria, that distilled the feeling of walking home half cut into a five-minute pop song.

The Streets progressed more than it’s often given credit for, even if Original Pirate Material and A Grand Don’t Come For Free proved to be an impossible standard to maintain. People struggled with The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living – Skinner’s first album as a famous, rich man, which was about exactly that (as Drake repeated on his third album, Nothing Was The Same) – but at least he was trying something new and continuing to make music about the life he was genuinely living. And the beats (dub reggae, rock, garage, jazz) remained as esoteric throughout; as wholly Mike Skinner as his unmistakeable spoken rap vocal. The same goes for Everything Is Borrowed, which purposefully made no reference to modern life, eschewed self-indulgence and sounded more like Skinner fronting an upbeat live band – The Streets’ anti-donk record, even if Skinner would soon remix Susan Boyle’s ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ to hilarious and devastating effect, which the Guardian expertly tagged ‘I Dreamed A Donk’.

The album of The Darker The Shadow The Brighter The Light follows suit, as a record that sounds like it could only be The Streets, and one that captures how Skinner was living when he made it – touring as a DJ. He says that new single ‘Too Much Yayo’, which opens the record and the movie, “encompasses everything in one song,” starting with a down tempo, head-nodding verse before it opens out into a whomping bassline. “It sounds very similar to when I DJ because when I DJ I’ll play a Travis Scott record and then a bassline record from Stoke,” he says. “The album was written to sound like me DJing.”

As Skinner says, the record is the movie’s voiceover, but it’s not as similar to A Grand Don’t Come For Free as that sounds, even though it was that narrative concept album that sowed the initial seed of Mike Skinner wanting to make a feature film, 20 years ago.

“Obviously, I went back to A Grand Don’t Come For Free, for the first time since I wrote it,” he says in the pub. “In my head, when I was writing the film, before I did the music, it was going to be a bit like that. Because what I did with that album was talk about all the stuff I was doing, but I dramatise it a bit. And it’s the same now – I’m DJing and hanging around, and I’ve dramatised it a bit. So I kind of thought it would be the same. But if you take A Grand Don’t Come For Free and drop that onto a stage, it becomes very on the nose. So what I decided very early on with the record is that I’m only ever commenting on what is going on, rather than describing what’s going on, so you’ve got no idea what’s going to happen in the film just from listening to the album.”

The title track is a case in point. A rickety curveball that hangs on a Roaring ’20s jazz trumpet sample, it speaks mainly in metaphors similar to its title and gives nothing away. “That’s in a casino scene,” Skinner tells me before pausing.

“I’m used to being able to control everything,” he then says. “With music you can literally get exactly what you imagine when you’ve got infinite time to work on it. So I’m used to being able to control everything. But with a film… like, if I read the script now, I can access two different films. The film I saw in my head and the film that we’ve got. And they’re different.”

“Are you ok with them being different?” I ask.

“Yeah. I’m learning all the time. It’s all new. I definitely went into this thinking, ‘well, it’s 90 minutes. That’s basically 30 music videos, and I’ve certainly done 30 music videos in the last six years, so it’s just that.’ But the thing that’s difficult about a film is maintaining the story. Music videos you have an idea but you build it in the edit; it’s not like that with film. If you go through that door in a red t-shirt, you better arrive on the other side of that door in a red t-shirt, and you better not have shaved your head. And those scenes might have been filmed months apart.” He says he currently has a problem in the edit with a character who has blonde hair in one scene and not in the next. “That’s the stuff that keeps you awake at night.”

The next time I see Skinner is at our photo shoot, at the Everyman cinema in Muswell Hill. The chain will host a national screening tour of The Darker The Shadow The Brighter The Light in two weeks’ time. We’re now five days away from his deadline. “I’m quite stressed,” he says when I ask him how he’s doing, but once again it doesn’t appear to have affected his mood, as he proceeds to school our photographer in his own gear, clocking the lights he’s using and discussing the development of photographic film, keen to pick up more knowledge from someone who might be able to teach him something. When he nerds out about the fixtures on the light stands, comparing them to the cheaper ones he used on the film so he could jump on and off train with them, his wife Claire, who’s come with him, suggests that he’d be just as happy living life as a photographer’s assistant. He fully agrees.

For now, he’s been combatting stress by becoming obsessed with cruises, and in particular a cruising review YouTube channel called ‘Cruising with Ben and David’, which he instantly sells me on. He says he can’t quite imagine what he’s going to do once the film is finished, so he’d been thinking he might go on a cruise, and he’s been researching the subject exhaustively.

A couple of days later he sent me the opening 25 minutes of the movie, which has already been described as a tripped-out noir murder mystery. A big influence has been the novels of Raymond Chandler, where bourbon-drinking private eye Philip Marlowe cracks cases the cops are too clean for, by straight-talking LA lowlifes and their businessmen bosses, operating just inside the law and getting involved with women who he suspects might get him killed. You know the type of story even if you haven’t read The Big Sleep or watched D.O.A. (another influence) – they typically start with a voiceover that goes something like: “I knew she was trouble the moment she stepped in from the rain.”

The Darker The Shadow The Brighter The Light isn’t set in 1940s Los Angeles, though; it takes place in modern day Britain, in the clubbing world that Skinner has gotten to know very well since The Streets originally ended. But I can instantly see how Chandler and classic noir movies have left their mark; particularly in the dialogue, which sings like the words of Philip Marlowe; how fans of the genre (myself included) wish we all spoke now – cooler, more lyrical and with absolute purpose. “I don’t usually like compliments, but that’s clinging to the things I tell myself,” says Skinner’s lead character shortly after meeting his femme fatale. “It poured itself really, I just held on to keep up appearances,” he says when she thanks him for the whiskey he just poured, itself a trait of the boozy, smoky genre.

I can see what Skinner means about the music narrating the film, and how it comments on the action rather than describes it like A Grand Don’t Come For Free did. It makes those moments feel like abstract music videos, while the straight dialogue in between has the offbeat strangeness of an art house movie that borders on the surreal – at different points in just 25 minutes I get The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, Mark Jenkin’s 2019 overdubbed masterpiece Bait and, on one occasion in Skinner’s delivery, Wayne’s World. Which can only be a good thing.

“I never enjoy anything I’ve made,” Skinner told me when we were in the pub. “What I’ve learned is to trust myself. All of the time, I’m working to my tastes. I’m tailor-making stuff to my own taste, so I’ve learned over the years that it’s always to my taste, exactly, if I spend enough time on it.

“I think when I was younger I was aiming for this objective thing. And it’s really not that. It’s completely subjective. You’re just relying on there being enough people out there who have the same taste as you, who appreciate the work you put into making something to your taste. Actually, the worst thing you can do is stop doing it to your taste and stop being so selfish.”

When I asked him how he thinks it’s going to feel releasing a film that he’s spent so long working on, his response was: “I think it’s probably quite shit. But I’m just so looking forward to not having this feeling. Because this feeling has been years and years and years. And it’s a mental health thing. It’s like I’ve got this condition and it’s the film. And no amount of therapy can help me, until I finish the film. Sadly. So all I can think about is that diagnosable disorder being cured by putting it out. Thankfully people seem to like the music. Or they don’t hate the music. I mean, it would be nice if it doesn’t sink and die after two weeks, because I’ve had that happen, where you work hard on stuff and then it just sinks. But that’s the dominant feeling of a creative really.”

“You don’t really think it’s shit though, do you?” I asked.

“No, the film is exactly – and I’m not joking – it’s exactly the way I want it. Exactly. And I think what I’m probably trying to say is that I really know that. Most albums, I think they’re going to take a year and they take two, and this has been ten years, and it’s a completely different thing.

“I think one of the gifts of this is that it’s been so hard that I’m genuinely going to be over the moon when it’s done. And I don’t think anyone will be able to take that away from me. But you can’t not want people to like stuff – that’s ridiculous. But it is what it is. And also, there isn’t any pressure really. If we’d taken 3 million quid, I think we would have been in a different position and doing a lot of interviews with film people.”

From what I know of Mike Skinner, I can’t imagine him ever working like that, with a committee looking over his shoulder and asking where their money’s been spent. He admits he can’t imagine that either.

I’ve also always had a vision of him as a romantic optimist beneath the branded lighters and Stella-lobbing crowds. It’s the way his albums end, in particular: ‘Stay Positive’, the happy version of ‘Empty Cans’ coming after the unhappy, the gospel spirituality of ‘The Escapist’. Even his new album closes with a track called ‘Good Old Daze’. Skinner’s not so sure on this one. “I don’t know the answer to that,” he says, “but I remember when we did The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living everyone was saying that it was heavy and that it needed to be nicer. I think it would have been even more depressing had I done that alone.

“But I’ve never really thought about it. Am I an optimist? I just take things incredibly slowly. I’m really impatient but I take ages to do something. Maybe what you’re getting though – it’s not me, it’s the fact that I do endings. Because I think stories have endings, but albums don’t.”

I ask if that’s also why he ended The Streets in 2011 – because he wanted it to have a constructed ending?

“No,” he says. “It was because I’d been doing the same thing and I ran out of ideas. It was obvious really. I wanted to make a film, and I didn’t write any lyrics for six or seven years. And it was mad, I had no desire to write lyrics – I was DJing and producing stuff and directing. I had absolutely no desire, and then it was really organic. Something in my mind made me really miss it. I hadn’t stopped for ten years, and I think my brain was just exhausted. But it was quite weird. Because I write songs, I perform them, I DJ, I direct. Every different one scratches a different itch, and there’s a certain thing with words that nothing else really does. Words are really cool, and you can’t scratch that itch by DJing.”

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Mike Skinner: “The actual album that’s coming out – I’ve had that for a while, years really, and the film and music kind of wrap around each other. I also knew I needed other music to score it out and to fill in some of the gaps once the filming started, so I made some more music and we put it out there to plant some seeds, really. I called that ‘extra’ album “The Streets” by “The Darker The Shadow The Brighter The Light” [released digitally in 2021] – the polar opposite of the album that’s coming out with the film, but it’s all part of the same thing, really.

“The song ‘Don’t Judge The Book’ – it’s quite literal, honestly: sometimes a film can let down the original text, sometimes it’s the other way round. My film – the music, the film, it’s all so interwoven, but I would hope either can be enjoyed separately. It’s been a lifelong ambition and project, and it’s been over a decade-long obsession. Everything has geared towards this so everything I made – even the mixtape we did – was testing some film ideas and buying time when the pandemic came; everything has led up to this moment.  A lot of the songs from that album (The Streets by TDTSTBTL) have made it into the film – and I hope that makes it all make more sense now.”

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