Chart-topping Dutch DJ/producer Jesse Houk, A.K.A The Scumfrog, has been a leader in dance music for decades. From his early hits like We Love You & Loving The Alien featuring David Bowie, to his later successes remixing Sting, his prominent association with Burning Man, or his popular event series Most Below The Surface, Jesse has always had a keen ear for that balance between the underground and the accessible. In between gigs in Los Angeles and London, Jesse graciously took the time to answer some questions for 5 Magazine.
You can hear and download The Scumfrog’s latest album, Bootlegged & Unreleased, at his new website, themaven.net/thescumfrog/
What was playing in your home when you were growing up?
I was raised by my mother who listened primarily to jazz and classical music. Her brother however worked in several bars across Amsterdam and was big into disco and the Stones. It wasn’t until I was old enough to go to second-hand record shops during the weekends that I discovered all kinds of musical magic. When it came to general music knowledge, I was definitely a late bloomer. It wasn’t until I was 13/14 that I discovered the artists that would become my biggest influences – Prince, Pink Floyd, Donald Fagen, James Brown…
You’ve discussed in another interview how Shem McCauley was a great inspiration, friend, and mentor to you, showing you the viability of a career in music and spurring you to start making remixes. If he hadn’t shown you that you could have a real career in music, what do you think you would have gone in to?
Who knows? I would like to think that if he had not shown me that being a DJ and producer could actually be a viable profession, someone else would have. But it helped that it was him (and Norman Cook) because they were operating outside Holland, making me aware at a young age that the DJ scene is international.
Around the time you made “The Watersong” you were working under a few different aliases, making a more diverse sound with a production partner, Jacques Sperwer, having your first releases and a first full album under the name “Resonance.” Are there any big things you learned from that creation period? How did your early collaborative experiences and releases shape your mindset going forward?
Collaboration has always been difficult for me, although I am gradually getting better at it. I guess it’s an only-child thing. My years with Jacques were the formative ones. I knew absolutely nothing about music production when we met each other. He was an engineer and he owned a small studio. He knew how to operate gear, but not what a dance record should sound like to be effective in a club. That’s where my value as a club DJ came in handy. We learned a lot from each other. It was possibly not all that great that we got signed with BMG so early on, because we had a seriously underdeveloped sound. We learned about music production through watching our records flop one by one. At the time I had already moved to NYC, so our collaboration had become long-distance. I eventually was confident enough to make music by myself, which I did on a PC in the kitchen of my one bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. “The Watersong” was made there.
Most Below The Surface, your roving party series in which you play open to close at various NYC venues, showcases your eclectic taste with diverse wide-ranging sets. At times you’ve had a weekly radio show, with the pressure of finding twelve songs that meet your standards per week. How do you find your music? What’s your process?
The reason why I stopped doing the radio show was because it took me too much time to find twelve amazing new records. At the time I was only looking for House and Techno (and their derivative sub-sub-sub genres) between 120 and 128 BPM, and with the rise of EDM it became increasingly more difficult to find cool new stuff. A few years ago, audiences became more open to hearing a wider tempo range. These days I maintain the same formula for bringing energy levels up and taking them down, but across many more genres. That’s what MBTS represents; a departure from the implicit law that you can only play one genre during a set. The great thing for me is that I have been DJing long enough to remember this DJ style from before House Music became popular. In the ’80s a DJ was supposed to play every style throughout a night, and your “set times” were from when the bar opened until when it closed. I am very comfortable in that dynamic. I love setting up the right mood in a room, and picking the exact right moment to step things up or bring it down.
This is where we are now in DJ culture. It is completely comprised of recycled trends. EDM hasn’t changed in years, and the underground is bringing back ’90s basslines, speed garage, drum & bass, deep house going back to its roots, and shamanic house pretending that computers aren’t even part of the process.
You’re very particular about the DJ setup you use, going so far as bringing your gear from home when the venue didn’t have what you wanted in one case. Can you share what you need to use or what’s in your rider and why?
It is pretty straightforward. I use three CDJ2000s and a DJM900. Most clubs facilitate that setup, even when they don’t have it. The instance you refer to was a bar in Brooklyn that I wanted to try out for an MBTS session. It was a cool bar, but they didn’t have the gear. I lived five minutes away from the bar, so I just offered to bring my own gear. I pride myself in being able to play on any setup, but I simply get much more out of my music selection when I use CDJ2000s, because I am so familiar with their browsing and search structure.
Around the time you were involved with “DJ’s Are Alive,” you spoke about the difficulties of mixing musicianship with DJ culture, partly because of the rhythms of club music, and the sheer volume of equipment. With changes in technology, do you think anything has changed since that time in terms of combining musicianship and club music?
Absolutely. And that is why I am once again working with live musicians. This time however they are classical musicians, but the goal is the same; creating credible dance music using live musicians. The biggest challenge has remained the same though, and that is to keep people dancing. Generally, the more of a show you put on a stage, the more likely that people will stop dancing and start watching. The challenge is to showcase talent on stage, whilst not removing the audience’s incentive to dance, occasionally close their eyes and simply get lost in the sound.
In a previous interview, you’ve said, “If you want to be in the music business, be aware that each year there will be less ‘business.'” Can you expand on that? How do you think the music industry has changed over the years you’ve been involved?
So many people complain that there is less money to be made for artists and musicians due to music streaming, sharing, the democratization and inherent devaluation of music culture in general, but I am appreciative of the silver lining around this trend, which is that the people who make music today, are doing so despite the lack of financial incentive. So much music today is made out of love, by people who simply can’t help themselves but to make music, rather than by people who want to make money.
When I entered the music business twenty years ago, a large part of the challenge was to create a viable business model for yourself as an artist. These days people enter the scene despite the knowledge that nobody will give them a check just for making a record. It makes music more interesting.
Considering what you’ve seen of the world, and your reasons for moving to New Mexico years ago, what inspired you to come back to New York and do your event series here as opposed to another major city?
I moved back to NYC because of many circumstances, and I had no idea if my return would result in any DJ opportunities. I was very fortunate to receive such a warm welcome back, and I am still very grateful for everyone who immediately reached out to book me. MBTS came from that spontaneous response; initially at Pravda with James Huddleston. When James closed Pravda to transform it into Gospel, I roamed around for a while through different venues, and eventually landed the best home imaginable at Output. On May 18th I am launching MBTS in London as well, and hopefully Barcelona later in the season.
Now that this is a somewhat post-EDM world, what’s your take on the musical landscape with regards to trends or innovations?
I try to spot new trends in DJ culture but it is difficult these days. There used to be so much evolution and change in DJ culture. Up until about 10 years ago, the sound of Electronic Music changed with every season. DJs were in constant competition for introducing new sounds, and technology and rapidly evolving processing speeds gave producers new possibilities in making “phatter” sounds, all the way up until dubstep and EDM, which is pretty much the loudest and “phattest” sound you can create in the digital spectrum. It is compressed to death, and has zero dynamic range left in it. And with that, the evolution of “music-phatness” plateaued. It is almost like reaching the end of a really long multi-level computer game. You played all the levels and you get a screen that says “Congratulations! You have reached the end.”
But because there were so many players in the game, and because there was so much at stake in keeping the game going, we pretended that nothing had changed, and we just started to revisit previous levels of the game that we enjoyed, or that some players may have missed or overlooked.
That is where we are now in DJ culture. It is completely comprised of recycled trends. EDM hasn’t changed in years, and the underground is bringing back ’90s basslines, speed garage, drum & bass, deep house going back to its roots, and shamanic house pretending that computers aren’t even part of the process. Even though there is so much new music out there these days that I absolutely love, it is difficult for me personally to be excited about DJ culture in general, because we’re no longer in uncharted territory, the way we were for so many years. I left rock for DJ culture because rock had stopped evolving (pretty much after Rage Against The Machine). To me, music and innovation have to go hand in hand.
And that is the main reason why I started reaching out to classical musicians. There is a lot of interesting stuff happening in classical music today, especially with technology. I love focusing on this, partially because it has so many new elements to me personally, and partially because it re-introduces musicianship into the picture.
Are there any artists coming up that have got you excited production-wise, any producers or songwriters making music that’s inspiring you?
In the electronic world I really like what Upercent is doing. Also, Daniele Baldelli (a veteran DJ from Italy) is going really strong in producing retro sounding dance music. And then there are the classical musicians I work with, like Claire Chase, who is simply a Goddess of music. I have not been inspired by anyone the way she has inspired me these past two years since we started working together.
What are some of your favorite instruments or plug-ins in the studio right now?
I really wish I had some cool tips on this, but with my travel schedule, I don’t have a physical recording studio anymore. I do everything in my laptop. I can list the plugins I use, but they are probably not that exciting.
What upcoming projects are you excited about?
The project with the classical musicians is named Orche/Strada. Keep an eye out for that name. Much more about this project coming soon!
One of my favorite songs of yours is your collaboration with Crystal Waters, “My Time,” that you made under the name “Dutch.” What was it like to work with her?
She was cool. I think we made that tune in a day. I was super proud of that riff, which I thought I had come up with myself, until ten years later I heard that riff in an old record and I realized I had ripped it off without knowing it. Originality is a mirage.