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Mike Skinner is all grown up and living for the moment

23 July 2020, 14:50

“Ultimately, we are all destined to – mentally – give up and die. We are all going to do that. At some point, you will give up and die. So … the idea that that can’t happen doesn’t make any sense.”

Mike Skinner talks about suicide with the same alarming casualness we’ve come to expect on record. Speaking to The Guardian just before the release of the new Streets mixtape, None of Us Are Getting Out of this Life Alive, he’d mentioned he had seen a psychiatrist. Under normal circumstances, it would have felt gauche to enquire about a stranger’s mental health support – but I was encouraged by Skinner’s off-handedness. Now I’m feeling a little shook.

“Personally, I don’t think I’ve really struggled with facing up to this kind of stuff,” he says, softening. “In my music, I’ve never really talked about things that are really uncomfortable – I mean, I’m not trying to break down walls, I’ve never been particularly taboo.” I remind Skinner that he was, at least in his youth, the poster boy for avoidance, with “Dry Your Eyes” instructing heartbroken lads to suck up both their pints and their feelings. Is this still his coping mechanism?

“When it comes to things like PTSD, studies have shown that the more you think about it, and the more you talk about it, the more you can heal it. And I think that we’ve taken that theory and we’ve started applying it to everything. And I personally think… from depression down to day-to-day sadness, you get to the point where avoidance is also important.”

“So yes, for any pattern of thinking that won’t go away until you address it – like violent things, or just when something becomes such a cycle that it’s only going to go down, [talk about it]. But in my life, I kinda just ignore things. I think that what you think about kinda becomes who you are.”

At 41, and despite his distrust of talking therapies, Skinner is somewhat of a woke dad. In particular, he’s been a vocal supporter of Black Lives Matter, recently expressing regret that he’d continued to play Colston Hall – a venue whose founder was involved in the Atlantic slave trade – when others had boycotted it. Keen-eyed fans will also spot the references to anti-racism in his recent video for “I Wish You Loved You as Much as You Love Him.”

“Black Lives Matter changed me,” admits Skinner. “Because even though I did think about race a lot, I think I probably held a lot of stereotypes. They were perhaps a bit more nuanced that the ones most people hold, but they were still stereotypes.”

“But I’ve witnessed racism so many times. I remember once, we’d been in a hotel drinking and we went into this pub and it was quite late. The pub had people in it, and I was with two Black friends, and the guy on the door was just like, “No.” They basically just told us to go away. And I know I’ve been in exactly the same situation with white people before, where you stumble into a pub and just sit down and there’s no problem.”

Skinner references Twitter countless times during our conversation – with a degree of ambivalence. I can’t figure out whether he thinks it’s a crucial platform for thrashing out these behemoth social justice issues, or a potentially perilous portal to navel-gazing. I’m not sure he knows either.

“Twitter enables togetherness. And Twitter is enabling these conversations [about racism and sexism] to happen, and they do change the world for the better...” He pauses. “But focusing on the little things – on the single stories – I think we have to try not to, because they can be frustrating.”

“Twitter is very skewed towards young people's opinions. And young people by definition haven't lived as long as old people.” I ask Skinner to elaborate on that one. “Well, people definitely become more conservative as they get older – because they have less energy to try and change the world. And I think … being at my point in life, literally between being young and old, you start to see both sides. [We should] thank young people for trying to save the world. But also, know young people think people can change, and old people know they can't. There's that phrase: 'Young people think old people are stupid, but old people know that young people are stupid’.”

Skinner says the platform will age though – and hopes that we'll see some tolerance for the nuances of human nature. "The singular selfish mind is interesting, because it's responsible for so much in the world. Like, there's an argument to be said that chemical fertiser has enabled humanity to flourish more than any other invention. Well, the guy that invented that also invented mustard gas. And he did it to win."

“So it’s about accepting that push and pull between the selfish, egotistical people who sometimes invent things that all of humanity can benefit from… and all the while, keeping that in check, so that those people don’t end up destroying us all.”

Back in 2011, Skinner famously dipped out of the music industry, saying that he’d reached a point where he had nothing more to say. The last ten years have been spent working on a film, organising raucous parties with his Tonga collective, and doing “probably too much DJing”. What changed? “Well...the world has, a lot, obviously,” he replies. “Writing a Streets song in 2020, you’ve got the same stories happening in different ways.” He admits his relationship to creativity is somewhat mysterious, and that it’s pretty impossible for him to force it.

“Back then, I was definitely, in some way, exhausted by writing songs… writing lyrics. And you can get a good night sleep, you can get rested and still feel tired. I think something inside me didn’t want it any more. You can’t fake that stuff.”

“I used to believe that if I thought about [writing] hard enough, I’d understand it. But ultimately, songs are like dreams.” Skinner says he tried the method of just writing narratives that seemed universal – “the songs about a guy letting down a girl yet again… there’s a reason why those songs are popular, because those stories is common to everyone.” He laments that, ultimately, "you don’t arrive at truth. You can only arrive at truth, and honesty, if you let the songs write themselves.”

This said, None of Us… is full of stories. Stand-out single “I Wish You Loved You as Much as You Love Him” – featuring psych-reggae golden child Greentea Peng – is addressed to a woman stuck in a relationship with someone who doesn't know her worth (“I know he says he’ll change, but maybe you should know, that people never change – they’re just exposed,” spits Skinner). The inclusion of this cut, alongside “You Can’t Afford Me” featuring the ever-brilliant Ms Banks, gives corners of the record a female empowerment tip. Has Skinner’s perspective on the fairer sex shifted since the “Fit But You Know It” days?

“I mean.. I think when the #metoo stuff happened, that changed me a lot. The things that I read, it really did change who I am. I’m thankful for that.” Skinner says he now feels like an adult – “only just, though” – and has started to realise how lucky he has been.

“I think maybe adulthood is to do with empathy – not thinking about yourself totally. And I think maybe men get to that a bit later. Recently, I’ve just become a lot more understanding. I think every person has a Hollywood movie running in their head all the time, and they are “The Good Person” in that movie, the goodie. [I like to] find all of these people – like say, on Twitter – and ask myself, what makes them the Good Person?”

“For example, if you’re a working class white person who thinks… well actually, [what’s happening now with Black Lives Matter] is a class thing, not a Black and white thing.. I can understand that. If you’re poor and white right now, you are probably less equipped to deal with [your situation] than someone in a big community like the Black community. And likewise, if you’re in a situation where you’ve been manipulated by girls, when you had good intentions. and you’ve had rings run around you, socially, and you’re in your basement… you might end up being sexist.”

“Often you’re looking at a person and you’re thinking, ‘Oh god, how can they think like that?’ But whether they’re ring wing, or they seem racist or sexist, they all are the goodies in their own head.”

The sounds on None of Us… – the shifty dubstep of “Eskimo Ice”, the shimmering rave strings of “The Poison I Take Hoping you Will Suffer” – still hark back to The Streets' formative habitat, the dancefloor. It's a sometimes jarring listen in the current climate: a record made of bangers that beg to be blasted out of a soundsystem. The only pending opportunity for such a blowout will come on August 6, when Skinner will take to Hackney's EartH for a one-off livstreamed gig. But, as Skinner recently imortalised in his “Difficult Times” freestyle a few weeks ago, there are silver linings to this new-found silence. “I think the lockdown has been good. It's nice to have a routine. I definitely didn't have a routine before – you tend to just be tired all the time, getting in at 5am, because you're basically working nights for half of the week, and then working days the rest.”

“So I have not missed nightclubs. In the same way that when I stopped doing The Streets, I didn’t miss The Streets. Not one moment, not once – until I started doing it again. And then I loved it.” Skinner says he’s even stopped listening to club music, instead opting for sound tracks and country music. “The idea of listening to drums and beats just felt so alien to the lockdown stuff.”

Skinner is also conscious that he’ll emerge changed from all of this. He’s expecting regress eventually, but it’ll be a gradual slide rather than a sudden return to normal. “It’s not so much ‘Can we do all the things we used to do?’ and more ‘Do we even want to?” Skinner reflects that he was the kind of person, pre-lockdown, to peruse the windows of clothes shops, paring imaginary outfits together. “And after 16 weeks without that, it doesn’t interest me.”

Reassuringly, there is one constant – as soon as the pubs opened, Skinner went and had a pint. Well, sort of. "We went to a restaurant, which was nice. We had fish… and just, erm... looked at everyone? And then I came home feeling really tired,” he laughs. Here’s hoping one of the UK’s chief clubbing figureheads will be ready to take to the decks when all of this blows over.

None of Us Are Getting Out of this Life Alive is out now.
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