Veteran deep house DJ/producer Jesse Houk, notably known by his alias ‘The Scumfrog,’ is anything but conventional. At least in reference to the typical frames of EDM artists today. There’s no spastically demanding airs of self-worth! He’s amiable and frank-tongued, and his remarks can be straight and biting (depends from which side you approach him.)
Grammy nominated in 2009 for his collaboration with Cyndi Lauper on “High and Mighty” for the “The Best Dance Album”, he recently dropped a new artist album on the Armada label, titled, “In Case We’re All Still Here,” featuring collaborations with Vince Elliott, Vassy, Static Revengers, and Christian Burns on vocals.
The Scumfrog lets the cat out on his collaboration with Sting, his new album, opinionated rants on the current EDM scene and his peaceful hermitage at the foothills of New Mexico.
Sting nods to ‘In Case We’re All Still Here’
So Sting called you?
“Sting had recorded an album in my old studio in NYC, and my former recording partner Dave Darlington, who engineered many of my records was also engineering Sting’s album. So all of a sudden Sting is in my studio, playing on some of my guitars. I asked Dave if it’d be weird if I asked him to do a project with me since I was already working on a remake of his song, ‘If I ever lose my faith in you.’ I basically wanted to steal the chord progression from the song and use it for a different song.Sting himself came along and I wondered if it was a coincidence that I’m working on one of his songs and now I’m actually talking to the artist I’m about to rip off. I thought maybe I should ask the artist himself if he’d like to be involved in it.”
“Sting couldn’t blatantly refuse in the face of my friend Dave, so he gave the standard reply of ‘sure, send it to my management.’ And I did that. I expected to hear nothing from him, but within 48 hours I got an e-mail back from his manager and she said, ‘Yeah, he told me about you. He listened to it and said he would love to actually do this project.’ So that was when all of a sudden it became real.”
Armada has a new sound: deep house/tech
His new artist album ‘In Case We’re All Still Here,’ featuring the collaboration with Sting was released early April under Armada, predominantly known as a trance-driven label.
What was the factor in terms of artistic understanding that allowed Armada to take chances with a sound entirely alien to the label?
“I’ve known Maykel Piron and Armin Van Buuren at Armada for a very long time, with us being from Holland. Armada is pretty much a trance label and they were very aware of that. Even though my sound isn’t trance, Maykel was very intrigued, and must have thought, ‘How did Jesse my old friend from Holland all of a sudden get a record with Sting?’ Maykel and my manager are good friends, and they had drinks in NY and out of that meeting came… ‘He has this whole thing going on with Sting, so why doesn’t Jesse make a whole album?’ There definitely were a few times in the process of making the album that I could sense Armada was internally slightly worried about because they knew that they would probably have issues communicating that sound to their fan base, but they’ve been very resourceful and innovative.”
“Yeah, because when the Armada thing happened, I was like, ‘okay, this probably is 10 percent for my fans and 90 percent for an audience that has never heard of me. So it was definitely a lot of pressure to make something that would…not suck! I say that because I don’t want to cater to other people’s likes. I really wanted to do my own thing, but at the same time you do take into account the fact that it needs to adhere to certain standards.”
The Mayan connection
The title of the album, ‘In Case We’re All Still Here,’ emerged as an off-shoot of the hullabaloo surrounding the “End-of-the-world” Mayan predictions in 2012, while the album was still in progress.
Were you feeling particularly emotional?
“No it was more ironic. The idea was two-fold. Yes, it had to do with the Mayan thing and that’s where it came from, but the underlying thing was more personal in the sense that I was taking so long to do this album, and nobody is really taking time out at least in the EDM scene to put out a whole album, well…very few are. So there was a slight concern in it that if I take so much time off and when it comes out everybody will go like, ‘Scumfrog, who?’”
Running away from The Big Apple
The Scumfrog also suffers from a slight case of “identity crisis.” This Dutch/American DJ who grew up traveling with his mother, moved to New York in the early 90s, but recently “retired” himself off from the glamor of the EDM scene to adopt modern-day hermitage at the foothills of New Mexico, surrounded by, hopefully, slightly domesticated jungle animals.
It’s interesting you moved from New York after having lived there so long. The transition must have been fairly difficult, no?
“It’s funny that you say retired because it definitely felt like that the first six months when I came here after having lived in NYC for 11 years. I realized that we now live in an era where if you’re surrounded by Wi-Fi spots, you can literally live with a duffel bag and a laptop. I can do exactly the same work, I’m in touch with exactly the same people in businesses and the same record labels, I can make exactly the same music because it’s in my laptop and every now and then I’ll just rent a studio space somewhere near me and see if it sounds proper.”
“I realized that NY is ridiculously expensive, and I’m not really getting anything out of the place more than I need. You know when I came here, it was for networking and for relationships, and to find out who I am and what I want from life; once you have found all these things out and you’ve laid that groundwork for a career, you can go anywhere.”
There must have been influences on the new album from your new environment.
“Oh absolutely. The creative process was definitely inspired by it. I’d go out often to the mountains with my laptop to make tracks, and compose melodies and harmonies. My everyday life in New Mexico is pretty inspiring. It’s sunny everyday. I have a beautiful back-porch, and the ski slopes are ten minutes away. So it’s pretty amazing.”
But you don’t feel isolated from the industry?
“Yeah but I enjoy that tremendously. Because I don’t think there’s a lot of…how do I put this without sounding negative…? I don’t think there’s a lot of progress in EDM these days. The huge generic, ‘let’s sound like everybody else’ trend, that’s not something that I like. And it’s very easy to get caught up in that. NY is so much a rat race and there’s this huge element of, ‘you have to keep up with the trend,’ which also means that you have to sound like everybody else.”
“When Eric Prydz was the fresh guy, I was like ‘Oh my god, I gotta sound like him.’ Two years later I thought, ‘no, I don’t want to sound like him. I should really go to a place where I can clear my head and make something that is inherently ‘me’ because the very reason why I became popular in the first place is because I did something nobody else did. Maybe I should go back to that point rather than run around like a chicken with its head cut off, trying to imitate other people.’ Being in New Mexico allowed me to be inspired by artists that I chose rather than be influenced by peer pressure.”
EDM: the jungle that is
Comparing the many operational elements that have lashed the EDM industry to something in the likes of corporate puppetry, The Scumfrog continues to be a ball-game changer evident in his association with Armada, despite having remained faithful to his most defining underground sound in techno and deep house.
The trance sound in itself is working very hard to retain its essence. What do you think will happen to the future of deep house?
“I’m not hopeful for genres because as soon as you label something, it’s for commercial purposes. And I think deep house is the biggest example of a form of labeling that is also going horribly wrong right now. Deep house ten years ago stood for a slightly laid back form of house music that you play at after-parties. It was soul-driven without big drops and builds, whereas now, deep house is much more of a culture where everybody who hates commercial EDM is taking shelter. Everybody who hates AVICCII and Swedish House Mafia is now wearing a scarf and growing facial hair and saying ‘I like deep house,’ but it doesn’t really have anything to do with the style of music. It’s just a statement that says, ‘I like my music slower than the next guy.’
The Big Room Sound
You’ve always preferred to play smaller arenas. Do you think you’ve changed your stance on that today?
“There are always two criteria for me where I see that it changes. One, is how far away are you from people. If you can technically still touch fingers with the first row of people, then that translates into a whole different connection. If you’re half a mile away, with first a row of bouncers, a twenty foot stage and being overpowered by a huge LED screen, that is the size that makes me feel slightly less comfortable.”
“Now there’s nothing wrong with it. I watched ULTRA fest in awe a few weeks ago and it was an amazing production. These organizers have really found the formula to make something absolutely perfect but at the same time the perfection comes with the inability for the individual artist or DJ to actually contribute something that is uniquely theirs. I still have that naïve, old-school artist mentality that I would bring something personal to the table. Maybe that is completely outdated, I don’t know.”
If you were approached to do a big venue gig, would you change your mind?
“I would change my mind if the philosophy of the venue is very close to my philosophy. ULTRA was a very big lesson for me because I had to seriously think that if I were to work really hard on getting to that mainstage level, again, would that be something that I want? And I just couldn’t see it. I would love to do… like the small tent where people go to take a little break from the big spaceship craziness, but I don’t know what I would do on a big stage like that.”
You’re very unapologetic on proclaiming on your radio show, Glam Scum International, that your sound is “not for everyone.” Who is this album meant for?
“It kind of goes back to the fact that EDM in the past two years has been trying too hard--to be for everyone. Because that’s how you appeal to the most people and that’s how you can grow into the biggest business and have bigger appeal. The album is for people who are like-minded, who haven’t forgotten where it all came from— from a love of culture that is not for everyone.”
But then you’re catering to such a small market that’s almost non-existential in the larger scheme of EDM. Where does that leave you?
“Oh I don’t know where that leaves me. I have absolutely no idea and maybe it leaves me absolutely nowhere. But I’ve been in this scene for so long now, and I’ve had my success, I’ve done my big stages, I’ve been around the world. My goal is not to repeat that and say, ‘oh let’s do that whole thing all over again.’ And I think my move to New Mexico has really helped me in figuring out what it actually is that I want from life itself without getting too philosophical.
I’m 41 now. Do I want to play big raves with poppy songs for 17 year-olds who could be my daughters, or do I want to create music that appeals to people at least slightly my own age who have been in music for a long time?”
• The Scumfrog’s new album, ‘In Case We’re All Still Here,’ released on Armada Music is available on iTunes.