Interview: Mungo’s Hi Fi talk Origins, Inspirations, and the charm of Leeds
The UK reggae and dub scene would be hard to imagine without Mungo’s Hi Fi. The collective formed in Glasgow in 2000 and has always championed collaboration. Over the years, they have grown to amass millions of listens on Spotify, and their bass-heavy sets are now well-established at festivals around the world. Earlier this year Mungo’s released their new album More Fyah with vocalist Eve Lazarus, and this Saturday they are gracing the Leeds Student Union with a set that will undoubtedly reflect the release’s name.
As that night draws nearer, we thought it would be the perfect time to catch up with Doug Paine, co-founder of Mungo’s Hi Fi and accompanying label Scotch Bonnet Records. We began our chat at the very beginning, by asking how Doug became involved with the group’s other co-founder Tom Tattersall. Here’s what he had to say:
So Doug, how did you originally meet Tom?
I met Tom originally in Glasgow through a mutual friend. We were both studying there when we started hanging out. We had mutual interests in music and cooking and I remember we cooked up some good meals together. He was working as a chef at the time. So, we started collecting records and that’s where we started DJing, at the pub where he worked. We carried this on for a couple of years until we started our own night: ‘Dub & Grub’, where we would cook food and play music every week. At first, we made pizzas! This place in town had a pizza oven that they weren’t using so we asked them if we could instead. So, that became a bit of an institution every Sunday and we were literally running back and forward between the decks and the kitchen to keep on top of the food.
The food and music came together as one experience, then?
Yeah! They always go hand in hand. I think that people who seek out good music always seem to be the same people that seek out good food.
And how did the later members of Mungo’s get involved?
Well, Craig came down to those nights and we got chatting. He told me he was a DJ as well, so we asked him to come and play some tunes with us. That was how he got involved. Also, he was at uni with Jerome, and it all went on from there.
What was the music scene like in Glasgow during these years?
Glasgow’s always had a really vibrant scene in a lot of ways. For a relatively small city I think it punches above its weight. There were free party systems that were pretty strong. They were collectives like Desert Storm who became quite famous and there were other groups, but they were generally working with techno. There was another sound system called Rampant, who are still going, and when they were setting up, we were helping them out. We would bring down bits and bobs of old crap equipment that we had, to piece it all together and try to create something with a bit more bass and loudness. But it was very minimal and small-scale.
So, Mungo’s Hi Fi as a collective seems to be based on this Jamaican sound system culture. What inspired you to approach making music in this way?
Tom was making music way before we even got into the reggae scene, but it was more electro and even some jazz. But then we got bitten by the reggae bug and then decided that it was what we wanted to do.
Although, in the 2000s, the music industry was in freefall and there was no way you were going to get a record deal. Distributors were panicking because it was all about file-sharing back then. What had been a sustainable business model (making vinyls) was going out the window. We were trying to find our own way in that world.
Did you have to adapt to that quite quickly?
Yeah, but we didn’t really know what we were doing. We were just trying our best. We had one early track that got picked out for a compilation by the label Ninja Tune, and another label at the time called Dub Head did the same for us. But then this all stopped, and we were left in a void. So, we had to it ourselves and in 2005 we set up Scotch Bonnet Records and that was when we put out our first release. There was a steep learning curve in manufacturing vinyl and distributing it from Glasgow with very few contacts. We started from scratch.
You guys are known for building your own speakers, can you tell me how you got in to that?
In Glasgow at the time there was no one around building speakers. So, if you wanted a speaker and didn’t have much money, you would have to build it yourself. I’d recommend the website speakerplans.com if anyone would like a build project. They have plans for builds that you can use for free as long you don’t go in to commercial production. A lot of the designs are by a guy called Rog Mogale, who has been in the business a long time. We actually met him whilst doing a panel talk at Outlook Festival. He designed the 18” Super Scooper on the website, so we built a couple of those. We took on the challenge and it is actually really hard!
We are now looking to upgrade and if we’re honest, there are other people who do it professionally who would probably do a better job than us. It’s not really worth our while to buy all of the expensive kit and then only make a few speakers.
You’ve collaborated with a lot of vocalists over the years. How much do they influence your beats, and do you ever have input in to the lyrics?
Generally, the beats get made first, and the vocalists will chat on top of them. Sometimes the vocals will come in and the tune will get made around it. Sometimes we even record vocals over one original beat and then rebuild the song with a different rhythm. It’s mainly that the vocalists work with the beats, but we sometimes get involved in the vocal creation. We might give some direction but mostly leave it up to them. We also find that if you don’t take time to hang out with someone and have a chat before collaborating, you usually end up with a worse result.
'Amsterdam' - Mungo's Hi Fi x Eva Lazarus
Over recent years you’ve had popular releases with Eve Lazarus, and you released the album More Fyah together earlier this year. What keeps bringing you guys together?
She likes working with us, and we like working with her. She’s an incredible talent, vocally, and her live shows are amazing. She has a real touch of class and the opportunity to work together in the studio was one that we were really excited about. She’s not so much on the reggae side of things, naturally. She will always want to dip in and out of different styles. At the same time, we’re quite similar in that way. Music is music at the end of the day and people can connect to that in all kinds of different ways.
Moving on from that topic, do you have a favourite city or venue to play in the UK?
Aha! They all have different charms. It’s mostly that the smaller a place, then the warmer the atmosphere. For the kinds of music we play, Leeds and Bristol have a special resonance. Leeds was more-so this way a few years ago, and hopefully it can come back again. The West Indian Centre in Leeds gave it a bit of an edge, but nowadays Bristol has really taken off and built a name for itself with bass music.
Leeds is looking forward to seeing you this weekend, but you’ve been touring around the UK recently. How is it going?
It’s going great! We never really stop touring to be honest, but happily we’re going from strength to strength. Pretty much every show is sold out. We get really nice crowds and everyone comes down for the right reasons. There is never any trouble, just people having a good time and I can’t ask for more than that.
When touring, are your sets strictly planned out, or do you ever improvise?
We do improvise, it all depends what you’re using. We went from using vinyl to laptops, and now we’re moving towards using rekordbox. We’ll plan each set but usually on the journey there we will go in to more detail and think about what we want to play. But at the same time, you have to have a bit of flexibility because you never know what’s going to happen on the night. We’ve also started bringing in visuals for certain songs. We have videos that need to be started at the same time as the accompanying song and it adds a technical element that makes it a different kind of DJing.
So, with that visual dimension, do you find that crowds respond well to that?
Yeah, generally. People love a screen don’t they!
One last question. Your ending this year with shows in New Zealand, have you had much interaction with the live scene there or will this be a new experience for you?
I was there in January. We actually go once every couple of years or so. The scene is huge over there, for such a small country, they love reggae. You’ve even got famous bands out of New Zealand like Fat Freddy’s Drop and The Black Seeds. It’s a really chilled out place, so Reggae really works there.
Get tickets for Mungo Hi-Fi's Leeds show HERE.