Exclusive Interview: The Manor – “Every time we pick up a fan, we pick up a proper fan”
A word with the South Londoners on making music for the weekend, finding their second wind and shutting down Camden High Street...
Camden’s lively enough on a regular Friday night, but it was a more surreal sight than usual for anyone along the High Street on November 4th. Stood atop a flatbed lorry loaded with speakers, driving at hearse’s pace as several hundred people followed on foot in the road, were Danny Graft, Jonny Dutch & Scotty Stacks, better known as The Manor. They had just finished a sold out show at nearby KOKO – capacity of 1400 – and not content with ending the night there the group hired the lorry to perform an encore live on Camden High Street. It only lasted a few minutes before police arrived to halt proceedings, but the brief street takeover was still enough to make the national newspapers, so not only did those in attendance have a unique experience but now a whole lot more people have heard of The Manor, the lads that don’t do half measures.
It’s an exciting time for this South East London trio, who represent the British everyman in a way no rap act from these shores has done since The Streets, although it’s not been a rapid ascendancy. Debut mixtape Welcome To The Manor won the acclaim of Jamal Edwards, Mistajam & more upon its release in Christmas 2011, but after another two tapes in as many years, including the almost too self-aware Free Mixtapes Don’t Pay The Rent, the group hadn’t really made progress in the way they’d hoped. The potential was obvious, but their style meant traditional UK rap platforms weren’t where this group was going to win new support. Patience is easier said than done, and this along with a suffocating management deal at the time soon saw that music wasn’t as enjoyable as it should be anymore.
It was in 2014 that the group announced their retirement, to the dismay of their loyal support, and following a farewell show in Ladywell they felt they owed it to themselves and their fans to release a first & final album as they rode off into the sunset. When Don’t Do What We Did arrived in Spring last year, they suddenly began to get the wider attention they thought they had long missed out on. Lead single ‘Brixton to Bow‘ caught the ear of Sian Anderson, who invited them onto her 1Xtra show – their Armand van Helden freestyle becoming a fan favourite – and Charlie Sloth made album track ‘Don’t Like Going Places’ his Record of the Week. They were on to something, and the fire was back.
The label interest experienced after their first mixtape returned, but it was their headline show at O2 Islington in April that really turned tyre kickers into real offers. Here was a group with then fewer than 4000 Twitter followers selling out a 800 capacity venue (racking up the building’s 3rd highest ever beer takings on the till in the process), the kind of engagement that artists can only dream of, not least in hip-hop. The industry’s imagination will have ran wild with the possibility of how big an earner The Manor can be if put before bigger audiences. In the end, it was Parlophone Records that the group settled on. Home to Tinie Tempah, Parlophone know how to push British rappers into the mainstream, while also showing with Kano’s ‘Made In The Manor’ that they can keep things a bit more credible too.
This year has seen festival performances – Wireless bringing great closure to Danny Graft, who was pulled from a SBTV showcase at the festival three years ago just as he was about to go on stage – and a lot of studio time as they ready their next album. First, though, comes the Weak Days, Strong Nights EP to hold their fans down. Beginning with a Fraser T Smith remix of ‘Don’t Like Going Places’, the EP is about living for the weekend, chronicling from Thursday night hype to the Sunday comedown. Released a week after their KOKO show, it was soon followed by the news that The Manor will be performing in Brixton next April [click here for tickets] for what will be the first performance in their South London home since that ‘farewell’ two years ago. Who’s to bet against another roadblock?
Why do you guys think you have the level of engagement and connection with supporters that you do?
Scotty Stacks: I think it’s because of what we talk about. There’s nobody else really talking about normal life. We’re the only act really about at the minute speaking for the everyday man, and there’s something about our music that makes people wanna come and be a part of it.
Jonny Dutch: I think the platforms that get those people followings, they won’t buy into us straight away. We need to do something that isn’t us to win them over. That’s what does generate fans – when you do a Fire in The Booth or a Daily Duppy, you can gain 20,000 fans overnight but for us it was about sticking true to ourselves and not try to be like everyone else and do the general thing that gets you fans, and we’ve done that for six years. We haven’t had the exposure, we’ve stayed away from trying to get the exposure by keeping it real, so we’ve had to do it a different way.
Danny Graft: It’s a slow burner ain’t it? Also I think one of the important things, when they come to a show, or you tweet or message us, we’re gonna give you an honest answer. It’s like we’re mates. It genuinely feels like a level where, because we talk about the things they talk about, it feels like one of their pals is going on stage.
Jonny: There’s a thing if you’re a rap star…
Scotty & Danny: Rap star yeah? [laughing]
Jonny: I’m not saying we are! But there’s a lot of people in the game right now, where if you’re that sort of person you want to separate yourself. I think we’re the opposite. I don’t think we want to separate ourselves from the people that listen to our music because we feel one and the same. We’re maybe the spokesperson for a wider audience, and hopefully that comes across in later songs.
How do you get those new fans when, as you say, they’re not necessarily on the platforms you’re expected to go on?
Jonny: If you do music like this, you have to create your own lane. Simple as that, and it’s not us being like ‘we’re unique’.
Scotty: It’s taken us long enough to do that. We were plugging away. We retired!
Danny: Every platform we go on, there’s gonna be a few people that are gonna really buy into it, and a load that don’t get it, so obviously it’s gonna take longer but every time we pick up a fan we pick up a proper fan.
How real was that retirement, in hindsight?
Jonny: At the time, it was.
Scotty: In the back of our minds, there was a part of us that said ‘if something comes out of this [Don’t Do What We Did], then happy days’ but if it didn’t, that was going to be it.
Danny: The three of us, as a collective, that was the point we were least chatting about music. We all had madness going on, and that was the lowest point we’ve ever had. We were obviously still sweet, but we weren’t talking about music so we essentially had given up at that point.
Jonny: It goes back to that point where if you’re creating your own lane and you’re not getting the response you expect…at the time, everyone that heard us loved it so we’re thinking to ourselves ‘why ain’t it growing?’
Scotty: We turned down a Ministry of Sound deal back then, and there was that element of regret that we might have missed our chance.
Danny: We had a big buzz in like 2012, and then we had bad management and fell out of love. When you lose your ‘buzz’ it’s very hard to get it back. It was only the retirement, which was almost like pressing Reset, and everyone was gassed again.
Jonny: At that point, you stop doing it to try to impress the platforms that weren’t putting you on, and you start doing it for the people that actually love your music.
Scotty: There were kids that came down to the [farewell] show from Bolton, who had never been to London before, and that’s when you realise that what we were doing meant something to people.
Danny: When we were on that stage, all arms round each other together singing ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’, our takings from the door were in a pot at the back of the stage and nobody touched it. We were among friends.
Jonny: You change your focus from trying to smash a Fire In The Booth and getting a million views to just trying to make music. Someone came up to me that night said they’d been kicked out of their house and it was only Free Mixtapes Don’t Pay The Rent that got him through it. I thought to myself really and truly if it’s affecting something that much, it’s worth doing.
Danny: You lose sight of it very quickly. As you go through, you start making it about numbers, followers, views and getting this feature. It’s very easy to get in that mindset.
Jonny : And that’s what we’ve got to stay away from. We have to keep that focus rather than going for this hit, and we’ve been saying this for the album, we keep making music true to yourself. If you ain’t proud of it, don’t come out of the studio. Our focus is purely on relating to people.
Scotty: That’s why we’re doing this EP, because it bridges the gap between doing something that is very niche and true to ourselves – music we think is cool – and doing something which the label is going to really buy into. Plus, it gives an opportunity to release something we believe in, see the response and be able to say to the label it’s gone down well and we know how to market to our fanbase. All of our production is Joe La, Yanaku, Drifta. We’ve been working with Donae’O, Zdot, Bless Beats, Conducta, Wilkinson, but for that for EP we’ve kept it in-house. We wanted to do a project in that environment, that is just us.
Danny: This EP, even though it’s five tracks, is the most we’ve worked on in every aspect. There was no disconnect between the studio and the mixing, we analysed everything. Scotty put 35 verses down for a five-track EP!
Jonny: The album is the big deal. I do want people to focus on what’s coming, without putting pressure on ourselves, but this EP was from us. We can genuinely say it’s a Manor product. That’s what I’m weary of going forward, making sure every single song is.
Danny: We’re gonna have to do what we did now, but three times as long. In terms of what we actually did on Don’t Do What We Did, this took probably in terms of actual hours, ten times as long.
Scotty: We’ve got songs put away, but they’re not for right now.
Let’s look back to the recent KOKO show. Whose idea was the street parade?
Jonny: Everyone does a KOKO show, and we’ve never released a project without having a concept or more to it than just a project coming out.
Scotty: We were struggling to find an after party. Fabric had just shut down. We thought fuck it, it we can’t find nowhere, we’ll have a party in the street.
Danny: We rang through. Everywhere in East London had a late license problem. Even the afterparty itself, we couldn’t announce.
Jonny: So basically it was born out of the fact the London rave scene is dying, and everything we do has to have a bit more substance to what it is. Pairing those things together, there was a perfect opportunity. Who else does that? It’s good thing that our fans are good people!
Scotty: We anticipated it’d get locked off, and we were worried it could get naughty but I pushed it through and put my bollocks on it.
Danny: And we had a fucking laugh from it, didn’t we?
The lack of trouble is worth noting, because with the football contingent among your fans I think there’s an expectation from outsiders that it wouldn’t be welcoming when it’s definitely the opposite.
Scotty: It’s like an England game. As people were walking out of KOKO, they’re singing ‘Don’t Take Me Home’, which was a song from the EUROs. We’ve had Millwall & Charlton fans meet at our gigs and become friends. It’s why we sell tickets, because everyone’s there for the same reasons. We’ve never had a sniff of trouble at our gigs, touch wood.
Jonny: It helps with the lyrics being as literal as they are, because it transcends what team you support. It’s unified. There is music and there is life. We try to give people a soundtrack for their normal daily life. All these people that should not get along, have found common ground.
Would you say those people on the terraces every Saturday are your prototype fan?
Jonny: Not necessarily.
Danny: A lot of people do try to push it that way, but it ain’t like that.
Jonny: It’s geezers that need excitement. Plumbers and electricians that earn good money, and afford a Stoney. If they’re not buying Manor tickets, they’re gonna be spending their money on football, gear and clothes. More importantly though, it’s music you can put on at a pre-drink to get yourself going for a night. What we’ve done with the EP, we’re releasing every video on a Friday so people know we’re a weekend band. In Britain it can be shit, but it ain’t that shit and if you get bored of life you can forget it all on the weekend. That Mike Skinner quote summed it up: Geezers need excitement.
Danny: Birds do as well, and we’re there for that.
You mentioned Mike Skinner there. It’s a comparison that is made a lot, is it one you embrace?
Danny: 100%. You can’t not. Loads of sick artists inspired us, but he’s the closest our music comes to.
Jonny: Out of every celebrity and influence that we’ve had, the first person to shout us when we released Welcome To The Manor, in 2011, was Mike Skinner.
Scotty: He relates to the same people we do, do you know what I mean? We talk about the same things. He was the voice of the normal man, which is what we’re trying to be. Apart from indie bands, that kind of person hasn’t had a voice. Grime’s blown because all these kids in middle England love it and use their slang, but they’re not talking about their life, do you know what I mean?
Jonny: One of my favourites on the EP is ‘Sex, Drugs & On the Dole’, which sums it up. As Mistajam said to us, it’s the rise of the normal man and they don’t feel they have a voice. ‘Sex, Drugs & On The Dole’ was made for that. We do moan, while at the same time you go back to ‘Don’t Like Going Places’ and you have to celebrate normality because we ain’t in Syria. It ain’t that bad, but we moan a lot and that needs to be vocalised. It’s very British. A lot of music doesn’t really address that.
Finally, it’s been a great year of progress for you guys. What constitutes a good year in 2017?
Scotty: We wanna perform in Ibiza. We’re going on Soccer AM, which is bucket list.
Jonny: Also, to make a timeless album. We think the EP is good, but the album’s gonna be unbelievable. I wanna make an album I can listen to in 20 years, and we’re working towards that now.