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This time last year, Mike Skinner of The Streets was a complete unknown. 12 months later, he reflects on being nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, shrugging off the attentions of Damon Albarn, turning down a stack of film roles and partying in Dublin. “There’s been a lot of mad moments,” he acknowledges
Paul Nolan, 08 Jan 2003
Original Pirate Material was unquestionably one of the landmark albums of 2002. Marrying hip-hop style MC-ing with garage beats, 22 year-old Birmingham native Mike Skinner masterfully wove together a series of ultra-vivid snapshots of suburban Britain, capturing the big black truth of his generation (or a sizeable portion of it). Equal parts desolate and celebratory, the album practically invented a new genre, sold in bucket-loads and transformed Skinner from an obscure figure toiling fruitlessly on the fringes of the Birmingham indie scene, into the latest “voice of a generation.” Not a bad year, all told.
“There’s been a lot of mad moments,” croaks Skinner, over the line from London. “I couldn’t have imagined this level of success this time last year. It’s just generally been an amazing twelve months.”
How have you coped with your new-found fame, getting recognised in the street etc?
“Well, I think I was quite naïve before I did it,” considers Skinner. “I didn’t really ever expect that it would get to that. I always just envisaged making an album that people would listen to, and getting away without all the other stuff that happens. I suppose it’s a part of being successful, but I don’t get off on it, that’s for sure.”
Indeed, one suspects that Skinner isn’t exactly enamoured of Groucho Club-style celebrity back-scratching either, as he has admitted to being somewhat underwhelmed by a certain D. Albarn.
“I just think he’s a different kind of person to me,” he says. “I mean, I was having some beers after a show, relaxing or whatever, and he approached me…I didn’t even recognise who he was at first. I wouldn’t be the biggest Blur fan, to be honest. Those sorts of encounters are not really my scene.”
Although the Streets only spent a cumulative total of about two months on tour this year, one place they did manage to visit, of course, was Dublin. It’s a trip Skinner has fond memories of.
“That was a totally mad night,” he recalls. “We’d done warm-up gigs beforehand, but that was the first proper show. Afterwards, we ended up in some pub I can’t even remember the name of, but we actually got into some difficulty before the show even began. Literally, it got to about five o’clock and we realised we’d forgot the sampler, and we couldn’t do the show. So my mate Dara, from Dublin, had to get a Ryanair flight back to England and bring the gear. He made it back about twenty minutes before the show began. Then at the party afterwards, it seemed like all of Dublin was there…it was crazy.”
Surprisingly, Skinner claims to be unimpressed with the touring lifesyle. “Live shows are not really the important part of The Streets,” he insists. “It’s just something I feel I owe to people to try and do as well as I can. It’s definitely good fun when it happens, but I couldn’t have a career in live music. I just… get pissed and fuck around. I suppose that’s what kills off a lot rock ‘n’ roll bands, isn’t it? They just keep doing it! Also, I don’t like going onstage and doing the show to a plan. I like it to be unpredictable and exciting.”
In August, The Streets were nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. Despite almost universal expectation that the group would win, the award eventually went to Miss Dynamite. What was Skinner’s initial reaction upon making the shortlist?
“It kind of passed me by up until the last few days, when everyone seemed to be talking about it. Then everyone was saying, ‘You’re gonna win! You’re gonna win!’ It was more about the people around me than me, ‘cos I was getting on with other things at the time. Like my manager, he was telling me it was important to win and sell lots of records. (In the background, Skinner’s manager shouts, ‘Bollocks!’) Can you hear him in the background? He’s a really bad manager. It’s a shoddy operation.”
If ever proof were needed of the increasing homogeneity of global youth culture, it’s to be found in Original Pirate Material. Although written by a kid from Birmingham, and delivered in a faux-Cockney accent, the album has translated equally as well in places as a far afield as Scandinavia and Australia. Did this surprise Skinner?
“It just makes you realise how similar everyone really is,” he replies. “I suppose it helps that there are references to McDonalds, KFC, Coca Cola, these institutions that you see on every street corner in every city in the world. But I have to say the fact that it took off in certain countries, like France and Norway, places where English isn’t really spoken – that did surprise me.”
The NME website recently ran a story to the effect that Skinner’s next move was going to be into the world of movie-making, and that he was currently picking through a stack of film scripts. However, Mike is quick to dispel the rumours.
“I did get sent a few scripts,” he explains. “To be honest, they’ve been coming in for ages, since the album came out. And I never said anything about it, until I was chatting to the guy who’d interviewed me for the NME. But this was after the tape recorder had been turned off. Anyway, I just mentioned this little film role I’d been offered, nothing major. We were talking about it for maybe a minute, at most. Next thing I know, there’s a story in the NME that I’m moving into films.”
However, Skinner is smart enough to realise that when a performer has reached the level of success he has, the press will routinely seize on rumours and half truths for their own ends (read: filler copy).
“I’ve just come to realise that that’s the nature of the beast,” he sighs. “It’s not about reality, it’s about a story that’s entertaining for someone to read. But in a way, I’m glad I’ve recognised that the media image of me is something else. Because it could actually send you mad, if you didn’t appreciate that you do kind of become a different person. It’s almost like you have a separate identity, y’know?”
Finally, having put paid to the plans for movie stardom, what is going to be the next phase of the Streets in 2003 and beyond?
“I’m just gonna try and keep it creative,” says Mike. “I think it’s very easy to get caught up in the record label rat race – you know, album, promo, another album, managers taking 25 per cent (laughs). You’ve gotta stay away from the rats and the sharks!”