photo: Carl Noone, Jr.
photo: Carl Noone, Jr.
Written by Carl
Jesse Houk is The Scumfrog. With a superhero-like
name (and frame) he has taken his talents as a world-renowned
remixer and international jet-setting DJ to a whole
new "Justice League" level with the recent
release of his stunning full-length artist debut,
aptly entitled Simmer.
And cook it does, bringing "the slime" of the dancefloor to a searing sizzle with his signature melding of guitar-driven hard rock underbellies and punchy progressive techno beats. All the while, he expertly layers his own trippy vocals over the top, to create a pseudo-pop song structure that might just be the "great white hope" that alternative radio has been looking for.
Born in Amsterdam and raised on the sounds of the Beatles, the young "tadpole" received formal training in Jazz and Classical guitar, bass and piano, which is evidenced by his fluidity. Eventually influenced by everyone from Duran Duran to Frank Zappa, Jesse DJ'd around Amsterdam for almost 10 years before moving to New York City, where he recorded his first single, "The Watersong", in 1997.
Three years later, the floaty, soulful jam "Learning to Fly" caught
the attention of Roger Sanchez, and Jesse soon found
himself signed to Roger's R-Senal Recordings, and
entrenched in a world tour side by side with the "Release
Yourself" founder. That same year, his version
of the Rolling Stones' "We Love You" became
his first #1 hit in the UK, and he has never looked
Many may know him from his remarkable re-workings of such notable talents as Missy Elliott, David Bowie, Kylie Minogue, Annie Lennox, or Britney Spears. Even George Michael and Enrique Englesias have received The Scumfrog "once-over", but you may best know him from the 2002 WMC stormer, "Music Revolution" and the quirky "Scumfrog for President" T-shirts, with their funky web-footed American Flag logo, that made their way from one pool party to the next just a few years ago in Miami.
Either way, The Scumfrog is here to stay.
(Can I get a "Ribbit", people?!!)
I had the opportunity to chat with Jesse over the course of a few days during the Billboard Dance Summit in NYC, as we had the chance to mingle and schmooze together, with heels kicked up and elbows back, in Crobar's VIP lounge during the NARAS/Grammy showcase in New York back in September. The completely engaging, ex-Crobar monthly resident is not your typical "superstar" DJ, and if not for his 6'4" stature, bleached white hair, and Bono-ish bug eye sunglasses, I might never have assumed that such intense music came from such a down-to-earth, friendly individual.
Q: With the release of your single "Music Revolution" over two years ago, I heard, for the first time, what people are now describing as "Dance/Rock". Was there a conscious effort on your part to release a disc with more of a "rock" sound than your typical "dance" record?
A: Yeah, yeah, definitely. From the beginning, that was always a goal of mine. I am a guitar player, so the guitar is always there in the studio. A lot of times, mostly out of frustration when I can't find the right synth sound I'm looking for, I will pick up the guitar, because I know in two seconds I can get the sound I need. I'm familiar with it, and all the effects. And a lot of times, you can't even tell on the record that it's a guitar and not a synthesizer.
Q: Much has been said lately about the new Grammy Award category for Best DJ/Electronic Album, and now, with your new full length, you could be in contention. Any comments?
A: To be quite honest, I never follow the Grammys. It has been more about Pop music than anything to me. Over the past year, there were a couple times when people would say to me Žyou are going to be up for Remixer of the Year for this', but I never thought about it as something phenomenal because when I think of the Grammys, I think of Pop music, and Hip-Hop, and Rock.
It's great that we are finally getting the recognition, but I don't know if it will ever get to the point where the winner of the Best Electronic Album category will even be seen on stage or on TV at home. It will probably be one of those categories that you see when they say "In a previous ceremony, awards were given to÷." when the credits roll or something like that.
It's definitely a great start for the industry as a whole, and it's raising the bar for those albums in that category significantly. I think the best, most positive thing I can say for sure about the whole thing, is that more electronic artist will be working that much harder on their albums when there is an award like this on the table.
Q: Do you feel that video is a viable medium to help bring dance music to FM radio?
A: First, let me say that I think music videos in general are completely pase'. MTV doesn't even play music videos anymore, let alone the fact they are so expensive to make. The sales in the record industry right now are so horrible, that it would take years and years and years to recoup that money. And especially in our genre', it definitely does not pay to make a music video, unless, of course, you have a sponsor, like a car commercial, or something to tie it into, which is great.
I don't think, for me personally, if I went out and made a music video, that it would turn around into more Scumfrog records being sold. When would MTV play it? Maybe if MTV said they were going to play more dance videos, and play them in prime time, then sure. But right now, who do you make a video FOR?
Q: Do you think something like the A3 Video Network (all dance video channel started by Miami, FL's 93.1 Party FM on-air talent, Buster, which plans to go national in 2005) would be good for the scene?
A: All of those things would change the situation. But I am not a supporter of all this "let's blow it up big" kind of talk. I like that it's underground. I don't care that it's underground. If I wanted to be part of the boy-band craze, I could have, but I like the underground dance scene, and I don't care that the downside is you sell less albums.
Q: I noticed that Simmer is distributed by Caroline Distribution, which, historically, is more of an underground, hard-edge, alternative-type of company. Was there a conscious effort on your or the label's part to use them specifically?
A: Honestly, I can't answer that because I don't know. It started out of necessity between me and my manager, which is the worst time in the history of the recording industry to start your own label. We had a lot of records last year and the year before that we licensed out to major labels in the U.K. We had the Scumfrog project on EMI, and this project called Dutch between Crystal Waters and I on Sony. We basically needed a random platform to release those projects here in the U.S., but they were too underground for a major label here. At the time, we already had a distribution deal with Ryko, so we said, "why don't we do it ourselves?'
The whole thing ended up as Effin Records, and we put "Music Revolution" out, then we put Crystal waters out, and then we stumbled across this track by my friend Steffan Luke from Miami who had this great track called "Waterfall", (also a big hit at last year's conference) so we put that out. We don't have a set schedule releases, like once every month, and it could be mine or it could be anyone else that may have a good track out there.
Then, last year, we switched from Ryko to Caroline, but why exactly, I couldn't tell you.
Q: In my travels, I have had friends in Orlando and elsewhere, that landed a remix job by first bootlegging the song, then presenting it to the actual artist and impressing them so much that they release it. Has that ever happened with you?
A: Of course, that's how my whole career as a remixer began, but bootlegging is a BIG word. I don't think you need to bootleg anything to make someone aware, to get people's attention. What I did was remix a record totally unsolicited, and then give it out to every single DJ I know.
A bootleg implies you're making money off of it, so I say "unsolicited remix".
Q: What is your choice of gear in the studio?
A: A Mac with Pro-Tools. I use Reason for sound designing, but not for sequencing, because it's really, really fast. Then I have a lot of outboards, like compressors and things like that.
Q: Who did the vocals on Simmer?
A: All the vocals, believe it or not, are my own, except number five, "Bacon", which is a duet with Lucy Woodward, and number ten is a spoken word thing with an artist from Miami named May Barkley. That's it, the rest is all me.
Q: Who would your dream collaboration be with?
A: Ummm. (pauses) Well, I really don't know. (pauses)
I'd really like to÷.yeah, I'd like to produce a record with÷.
I think I'd like to produce a record with Trevor Horn. That would probably be my top choice. I could learn SO MUCH from him, more so than any artist I can think of. David Bowie would definitely come in second because I could pick his brain about songwriting.
Q: Well, I just had to ask you that, because someone had asked Giorgio Moroder that same question during the Billboard Dance Summit. He answered by reflecting on a story where a journalist interviewing him in the early 1980's had asked him that very same question. He gave the writer his answer, and within two weeks of the article being published, David Bowie was on the phone to Moroder and the outcome was "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" for the Roman Polanski film of the same name.
Trevor Horn÷ are you reading this???
(Editor's note: The Scumfrog single "8 Days, 7 Hours" is a remix of the David Bowie single "Loving the Alien" and not a collaborative effort. Both tracks can be found on the Nettwerk USA vinyl release of the Scumfrog single)