If there is any charm about Zoom calls these days, it lies in the opportunity to invest in your chat partner’s life at home. Are they clean? Do they read? Are their kids annoying them? Do they have a bad internet connection? After getting the offer to call Mike Skinner in his London home via Zoom, I hoped for these kinds of personal insights into the daily life of the UK’s underground godfather. However, I was quickly disappointed. He set up a proper studio in his London apartment, being able to do professional calls with great video quality and well, not much epiphany from my side (which is quite unfair if you can just afford a single bedroom in a flatshare and not dozens of rooms).
However, I managed to lower my high expectations and was quite happy when I sensed something personal in this strictly anonymous setting. As our interview took place at 9 am – which must be pretty early for a rapper – Skinner was just beginning to have breakfast during our call. He was chewing on what seemed to be a croissant and drinking from a coffee mug. Naturally, I had to ask what a typical Mike Skinner morning routine looks like. Breakfast is just coffee, whatever is leftover from last night, he told me.
While most people – at least in Western Europe – try to enjoy and even escalate the perks of easing pandemic restrictions, the British rapper still seems to live in total lockdown. The lifestyle of staying home and online suits him very well though, he explains:
“It’s all down here after this one, back to lockdown. To be honest, everyday of lockdown is really different, kind of. For a while, I was making a video which involved just basically sitting at the computer for literally the whole time I was awake.. That lasted six weeks, but maybe four weeks intensively. When I’m doing promo, I’m doing a couple of days where I’m talking to people like yourself, and I’ll be making music as well. Mostly it involves being at home, but I think I am a lockdown type person. I don’t think, I really like leaving my house anyway.”
The reason for calling Skinner is of course the release of his The Streets comeback with None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive. It’s his first full-length release under his famous moniker since Computer And Blues 9 years ago. However, the Birmingham-born artist was never fully gone. He released two albums with the rather overlooked project The D.O.T. in 2012 and 2013 and build up a DJ career. More notably though, he concentrated on his life as a family father.
Since 2017, Skinner made his comeback with The Streets with multiple live shows and single releases. For None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive, he chose a mixtape format rather than an album format. Of course, the question of why to brand your album-length project as a mixtape (or in some cases even as a ‘playlist’) is a far more interesting question for music journalists, than it is for fans. And according to Skinner, sometimes the artists themselves don’t fully understand the whole concept:
“I don’t think, it’s that important really. Only in the sense that people are listening more to different people’s music. The reason this is a mixtape is probably more for me than it is for you, because it really really guided the writing of the songs, in a really powerful way because you’re always telling yourself that you mustn’t overcomplicate it. Collaborations are a mixtape thing for me, thats the reason there’s a collaboration on every song. It really told me to keep things simple and every time I might show off about how much of a good musician I was, it stopped me from doing that. The mixtape thing is probably more for my benefit than your benefit. I don’t know, what a mixtape is. Certainly not now. I know less, than I did before.”
For the collaboration process, Skinner chose an outstanding mixture of both more established and upcoming artists. Call My Phone, Thinking I’m Doing Nothing Better features vocals by Tame Impala‘s Kevin Parker, title track None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive featuring Joe Talbot from IDLES. The whole process of choosing the artists came quite naturally, he tells me:
“All we’ve been trying to do in the last year or two since I started The Streets again, was to do what I’ve been good at in the past. I was really proud of all the MCs we got an, that were new at the time. The shows were always good. It felt fairly straight forward, actually, it felt like my first album in a way. There’s been enough time, where the world’s changed and the artists changed. It felt like really just doing a Streets album in the way that you do, felt new. Nothing’s really been overthought too much. It felt quite obvious to me, which artists to choose, we were very lucky to have them. People like IDLES were really straight forward to me. Joe has very specific lyrics about real things and that’s what I’ve always done. We needed our venn diagrams to meet in the middle so we could come up with a nice song.”
Alongside these established artists, there are obviously promising British artists such as Jimothy Lacoste, Ms Banks and Greentea Peng featured on the mixtape. When Skinner released his debut Original Pirate Material in 2002, some of the artists feature on None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive weren’t even in Kindergarten (Lacoste is 21 years old). Under these circumstances, working together with one of the oldest and most prolific British MCs, must have been a musical knighthood. Considering his new mentor role, I asked Skinner, what advice he’d give his younger self starting out in the Original Pirate Material Days phase:
“My dad gave me the best advice. I was a kid and loved Jimi Hendrix. I didn’t play the guitar for very long, but I used to tell my dad that I want to be like Jimi Hendrix and he said, you can be like Jimi Hendrix but you’ve got to work as hard as he does. It sounds like the sort of thing your dad says, but he said it in a way I believed. He was right. In music, it’s all luck and you’re basically playing poker in Las Vegas. Sometimes you win and sometimes you won’t. The advice I’d give myself would give is make good decisions and work harder than everyone else. You can pretty much guarantee success if you do that. It’s a guaranteed success but I don’t think a lot of people believe that.”
Obviously, the circumstances under which young artists start their career and build their audience have changed drastically since the early 2000s:
“I always dreamed of being able to talk to my audience directly. I remember we had a website. All the technologies that become popular are, because they make our life better. Absolutely or we wouldn’t do it. It’s better, but I think probably two things are that people might take a bit longer to get into one artist these days because there’s so much choice and it’s pretty brutal. I think it’s more brutal now to build an audience more than to sell the songs. I think, getting addicted to things like Twitter and Instagram, you’re pinning your mood on what people say about you and plenty of things have been written about that. But you could just always turn off your phone.”
‘I’m used to being a control freak’
The charming thing about the whole project is, that Skinner isn’t using the whole attention for himself or his comeback. None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive is rather aimed to give young voices a platform within the whole context of The Streets. Even though Skinner has always collaborated with upcoming artists in the past, the whole process taught him something new about his own project:
“It always, always went in a direction I wasn’t expecting. With The Streets, I’m really used to being a control freak, just spending a lot of time. I’ve been around a lot of people in studios and I’ve seen it happen a lot. One thing I’ve noticed is that I write songs at a geological pace. It’s very, very slow. Working with other people, I can’t just go into a studio and do a feature. It’s painful. One of the amazing things about the mixtape is having to work with other people and their ideas changing where the song I’ve started has gone. It’s forced me, to be creative, which is never a bad thing.”
What’s astonishing about the lyrical context of this comeback mixtape is, that although Skinner is now a 41-year-old family father instead of a drug-induced lad, his texts still sound like two decades ago. He mixes the mundanity of British day to day life with the philosophic questions of life (and swearwords, eventually). After all, writing lyrics have just been another learning process that he adjusted to with age:
“When you’re young, you’re more selfish. It’s easy, when you’re young and lots of people are listening to your music, it’s very easy to think that it’s about you, when it actually isn’t. It’s about them. They see themselves in your music and it reminds them about something about themselves. When you’re 25, like I was, it’s very easy to think it’s about yourself. I made it about me for a while, which is interesting but since then, I’ve been trying to find the things I’ve got in common with people. That’s the best way of describing it. There’s almost a gap between honesty and entertaining people. When you’re trying to entertain people or trying to write about them, you’re guessing, what they’re like. A lot of music is like that and it often doesn’t work or feels a bit hollow. When you write about yourself, you can just go down a hole and people probably won’t come with you. I try to write about things that I have in common with people. What are those things? Love, loss, anger, jealousy and mobile phones.”
After just 15 minutes, Skinner’s manager asks me to address my last question. Of course, Mike Skinner isn’t the kind of artist that is suitable for a 15-minute slot. There would have been dozens of more questions I could have asked him, starting from the on-going success story of Grime, political questions, his upcoming Streets documentary and so on. But ultimately, None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive isn’t primarily about himself, but about the future of British underground itself. While other artists try to gain a fortune out of comeback tours and albums, Skinner is doing, what he already did with his debut 17 years ago: Soundtracking the present for future generations to come. What a lad!
None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive is out right now via Universal.