[Mighty Oak Label artwork – Joseph Robertson]
Having finished setting up the sound and munched down on a solid portion of chips, Joe and Ben very kindly sat down with me to have a quick chat about the origins of Mighty Oak Sound System and Label.
I guess first of all, how did Mighty Oak start?
Ben: well, we originally started playing out without a sound system, and we were called something else back then.
What were you called back then?
Ben: We were called ‘Itchy Soul HiFi’. We did that for a while, collecting records, and then…
Joe: Well we both left Edinburgh for a while, so there was a break.
When was that?
Joe: I was like 22 or something
Ben: Yeah, around 2001, 2002.
Joe: 16 – 17 years ago yeah.
Ben: And then we were in different places for a while, and then we started to acquire a few speaker boxes here and there and experimenting with sound system set ups. Joe also had kept busy with his music making.
Joe: Yeah at that same time we released our first record, the Alpha and Omega Remix of the Eagle the Dragon and The Bear. That was when we were still both living in the Borders.
And it was at that time that got more serious about our project, about getting some sort of proper rig together, and start playing out a lot more.
Ben: We did our first few nights at the Mash House with a very small rig. That was pretty much when we started as Mighty Oak… was that seven-eight years ago?
Joe: Yeah around 2010.
Ben: But it’s only really four years ago when we starting playing out on a regular basis with a sound system.
So it’s relatively recent?
Joe: Yeah, since we’ve established ourselves as Mighty Oak, started putting on nights as Mighty Oak… It doesn’t feel like it was only four years ago, it feels like it was a lot longer.
Ben: I think it’s because we have been collecting records for years…
How did you get into reggae at first or what was the scene like in Edinburgh when you started, and that made you want to focus on reggae?
Joe: Just Messenger (Sound System) basically at that time.
Ben: Pretty much yeah. We had some friends down south with a sound system called Desta*Nation Sound System, they put on a lot of free parties. And I think before I had ever been to a Messenger night I had been to a few Desta*Nation events
Was that down in England?
Joe: Yeah in Oxford. That was the first time I heard reggae and fell in love with it. Before that I was into Jungle and Hip Hop and stuff.
Ben: And then when we were both in Edinburgh, obviously Messenger (Sound System) was putting on his nights. At that time Messenger was once a fortnight.
And this is in the early 2000?
Joe: yeah, that was at the original Bongo [club], it was the main event there. Well it still is now I guess. That was a wicked venue, that sort of changed my life, working there. It got me properly into music.
Ben: In fact, I think when we started playing out with the sound it felt like it was around that time that new things started to happen and were developing in Scotland. Before that there was very little, there was Messenger and Mungo’s Hifi, and that was pretty much it.
Was there anyone else in Edinburgh putting on reggae events, or even just playing records.
Joe: Well there was Robbie (Robigan).
Ben: There was a guy called Paul.
Joe: Oh yeah, he used to play in the back room at the Messenger nights.
Ben: There was also a guy called Cliffe, with Blueberry Sound System. It was very infrequent events. He didn’t have a regular night or anything. And Tongue & Groove Sound System as well.
How would you describe Mighty Oak Sound System – as in what does Mighty Oak Sound System represent or try to promote?
Ben: For me I think we try to bring the beautiful aspect of the music rather than necessarily how heavy it is. A lot of the kind of stuff I personally like has more depth and melodic quality to it than just bass. I think that’s what I want to try to bring out.
Joe: Yeah it’s not just stepping your head off, it’s trying to get people to listen in a bit deeper to the music.
Ben: And you know, we’ve spent quite a lot of time and thought on the top section [of the sound system] because we want to try and get all the frequencies represented really well.
It’s true that when you hear Mighty Oak System it has a clarity to it which is very impressive.
[Photograph by Graham Wynne]
Would you say there is a distinction about how the scene is developing in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK?
Ben: I think it’s quite a unique thing going on here. It’s really nice at the moment, there are so many different sound systems working together, even though they are all quite distinct. It seems like it’s becoming a proper scene now.
Joe: I don’t think I know the scene well enough to be honest, I don’t get out much to be able to compare it to other places.
Did you live in England for a bit?
Joe: yeah I lived down there a few times for a year or two at the time, and have been down several times, but not enough to really experience the scene down there. I’ve been to some gigs in Bristol but nothing really to be able to comment on it.
Did you find it quite hard to develop the sound system in Scotland, in comparison with the English scene where there may be lots more sound systems around and more help available?
Ben: well we very much learnt as we went along. There hasn’t been anyone really giving any advice. Occasionally someone would give us a tip here and there.
Joe: Kenny [Bass Warrior Sound System] was really helpful.
Ben: Yeah we used to phone him if we sometimes had a technical issue. He was great for that. But apart from that it’s just been us on our own.
Trial and error really?
Ben: yeah, and very little money. So you end up going slowly.
Despite that it does seem like you have managed to build it up really well and relatively fast.
Joe: Yeah I guess we have. It’s strange to think it’s only been six or so years really.
Ben: Well it helps to have my storage yard where it is, because I have access to a workshop there. And so I can just build boxes quite easily, I have the space to store them and the tools for it. I’ve also got a lot of experience with woodworking, so that helps.
You can really see you woodworking skills on the new scoop grids. They’re lovely.
Ben: I think that’s really us trying to show that sound system is a beautiful thing. We are just trying to bring that out.
Joe: It also gives a particular character to the sound system and the equipment.
[Photograph by Ben Young]
There is an idea that the look of a sound system is the identity of the crew and can sort of inform you on what kind of music they will play or the vibes they will push.
Joe: Yeah I guess it’s earthy, quite organic looking sound … Well it kind of represent where we’re from and what we are about. We are both woodsmen. Although I’m not literally a woodsman anymore (Laugh)
Joe: I used to work in the woods a lot with Ben, back where we used to live.
Did you guys discover reggae when you came to Edinburgh, or had you heard reggae when you were kids?
Ben: I think we were listening to it before that. It was a lot of old classic albums you know, like the Upsetters, and King Tubbys albums, Mad Professor. Things like that.
Joe: So many dub albums (laugh). It’s really frustrating having all these dubs without the vocals.
Ben: It was really hard to get tunes back then, especially in Scotland.
Were there no good record shops in Edinburgh back then?
Joe: There were a couple, but you had to spend hours digging through crates and crates, and hundreds of records in order to find some reggae. But then you could find a few gems. But mainly it was stuff out of Fopp, they did compilations or represses of classic albums.
Ben: There was a place also called Professor Plastic’s Vinyl Frontier. It was a nice little place, we would hang around in there and just flick through records.
Joe: I’d go to London sometimes. But it was quite tough. So we mostly ended up buying lots of albums, because that’s what was available. You couldn’t really get singles.
Ben: But then it all changed when the internet became widespread.
Joe: I used to play some pretty ropey tunes back in the days (laugh). Barely acceptable! Just because we didn’t have enough records to play. Sort of slightly sketchy dancehall-y sort of things… Never anything really terrible. I think we always tried to mix it up quite a lot. I think that’s something else we do. We aren’t too worried about always playing heavy dub at the end, and always classic roots at the beginning. We much prefer to not have rules, just play according to how we feel.
Regarding the Mighty Oak releases, was it something you had been working on for a long time, or was it just something that happened once you began building the sound?
Joe: I had been making music since I was 15, so like almost 20 years. But I only had a Commodore Amiga, so it’s pretty hard to make decent stuff. It was mainly really rough 8-bit, experimental stuff. I did make one sort of dub tune with it and my four track, and we played a few times at our gigs. But it was pretty ropey, and mostly I was just making more electronica until I went to uni really in my late 20s, and learned how to produce properly. I think that really helped me make dub that I was satisfied with.
And yeah, my newest record is actually one of the first dub track I made. I made it at uni.
But the first record, it was maybe my second track that I had ever really been happy with. And it was sort of by chance that I ended up putting that vocal over it and it worked. I asked Alpha and Omega and they were like: “yeah this is really cool you should put it out”. And I was really surprised, but they said: “there are so many Alpha and Omega heads who will buy it, because they will by anything we put out, so it will almost definitely sell” (laugh).
So yeah, it was cool of them. They were really honest about it.
And then there was the horns tune, that has now become a really sought-after tune.
Joe: You mean the “Makating Horns”. Yeah, that was mental! It’s been a big help for promoting our sound, getting us known around the world. And hopefully we can start taking our sound around the world too. We had hopes to go to France this year, but it’s turned out to be a bit tricky.
Ben: Yeah the financing was quite hard, it proved to be more difficult than we thought. I really want to get a trip to France, but I think we need more time to organise gigs and get people to promote us.
Was the Mash House the first venue you played in?
Joe: It was our first venue with the sound system.
Ben: We’ve played in a lot of places without the sound, but that was the first place we sort of took a chance really. The sound wasn’t really developed at that point. But we really wanted to play out, and get back in the scene and see what was happening. And really it was around that time that loads of other people also started to come into the reggae scene and we started meeting different people.
Joe: We did that party, that free party in the Squat…
I remember that one. In the squat, with Riddim Tuffa and everyone?
Joe: Yeah, that’s where we met you, and Phil (Decades of Dub), Laurie (Crucial Roots). And then Phil invited us to play at Doune the Rabbit Hole that summer. And that’s where we really met all the Glasgow crew. It was great.
Is there much interaction between the Edinburgh crews?
Ben: it’s very dispersed. There were quite a few intentions to link up with people. But in terms of sound systems in Edinburgh, of actual crews with speakers, there aren’t that many. There is Messenger Sound System, Edinburgh Roots Collective… I’ve actually just finished building some tops for the ERC sound system. I think at the moment there is more of a growing, active scene in Glasgow. Well, that’s how it seems to me.
Joe: Yeah. I mean in Edinburgh, you’ve got the standard bearer of Messenger Sound, which is clearly a well-established night with a beautiful sound system.
It seems that even between Edinburgh and Glasgow there wasn’t much of a connection until fairly recently. Would that be accurate from your perspective? Were you aware of the Glasgow scene back when you were starting?
Joe: I wasn’t really aware of anything (laugh).
Ben: Not really. Occasionally I would come over to see Mungo’s Hifi.
Joe: Oh well yeah Mungo’s Hifi of course.
Ben: But I mean they played a lot more roots and things like that at the time before they began releasing their own productions. And we knew Dougie and Tom, and we came through here once and played on a radio show they were doing.
Joe: yeah, on a Glasgow radio station, I can’t remember which one.
Did you ever play out with them?
Ben: We did actually, we started a night at Cabaret Voltaire in Edinburgh, and a few other people were involved as well. They [Mungo’s Hifi] came across to Edinburgh and played at that night.
Was that before you had your sound system?
Ben: Yeah, we were just playing on the house PA.
Joe: it was a fucking expensive venue as well…
Ben: we did also bring Desta*Nation from down south to play at that night, with their sound system.
Joe: That was epic. It was quite an ambitious thing for us at the time, to bring them up from Oxford. They had a lot of speakers!
Ben: Two of the members have passed away now, but at the time they were quite a vibrant sound system, playing out a lot.
Joe: Yeah they were really well known in the Oxford free party scene, which was quite a big scene at the time.
So have you had many connections with further down south, in terms of bringing people up or playing down there?
Ben: There are connections, but the main problem is paying people. And even paying people quite small amounts of money is not that easy. At the moment we don’t attract that big a crowd, and it’s a relatively small scene in Edinburgh.
I guess people like Messenger have the added value of the being well established sound and the good location of the dances.
Joe: Yeah, he has quite a lot of walk-in just from playing in the Bongo Club.
Ben: I think the main thing is that he’s been established for so long, and the other is that the Bongo Club is a famous venue in Edinburgh. We play in the Mash House which is technically just around the corner, but it’s a small club hidden away, sort of out of range. It makes a big difference I think.
You do get quite a lot of reggae events in Edinburgh for such a small scene. Things like Wee Dub Festival attract quite a big crowd.
Joe: It’s more about the roots genre that doesn’t attract as many people, it isn’t as ‘commercial’ if one could say that.
Ben: I think it’s also that most of the stuff we play generally has some sort of spiritual aspect to it. Some people maybe do not want to engage with that on a night out.
Joe: I think the vibe at our night is good, even if there are only a few people, those people will be really into it. I don’t know what you’d call people like that, who are really into it…
Joe: yeah, dub heads, roots heads…
And is there a particular way you set up? Is there a particular way you guys define the Mighty Oak setup i.e. two turntables, two stacks…?
Ben: We go backwards and forwards a bit. Sometimes I quite like having two turntables, and then we might play on one and never use the second one. it depends really. We do have guests sometimes, and we try and provide two turntables because some people prefer it that way. I’m happy either way.
Joe: yeah, I like both.
[Photograph by Mighty Oak Sound System]
Ben: Part of what got me into reggae, and what was quite striking for me when I started listening to reggae, was that people would play only on one deck. I thought that would really take the emphasis off the DJ, and that was something that I had noticed and thought was quite interesting.
Joe: Yeah it seems specific to reggae. It gives a bit more respect to the tune somehow, by having a pause in between each tune, rather than mixing them into one another.
But then there is often an MC chatting in between.
Joe: Yeah but even when there isn’t I still quite like it. And even when there’s no sound at all coming from out of the system, and you can turn to your friend and have a quick chat or talk about the tune… I like that. But it seems to scare some people. Some people who were dancing will just look really surprised, like “what’s going on?”, or shout at you “Oi DJ! Where are the tunes!” because they think something’s wrong.
And would you be comfortable chatting on the mic yourself?
Joe: God no (laugh). I like to say a few words if I can, but not more than that.
Ben: Usually we will have somebody else.
Joe: But again, there aren’t that many MCs around in Edinburgh.
You seem to play out with Ista-Lion quite a lot.
Joe: Yeah we do, but again we haven’t the chance to really pay him every time he comes to play with us. I think he’s a fucking brilliant MC, and in the last year or two he seems to have gotten much better. He keeps telling us he’s been practicing at home and stuff.
I was outside the Mash House recently with him and he just started singing this song – I think he said he wrote it quite a long a time ago, and maybe someone else ended up releasing it? – but he sang it to me there, acapella, and it was brilliant!
Have you ever thought about getting him on one of your productions?
Joe: I’d love to but I need to have a chat with him. It’s quite hard to get a session organised. Maybe it would help if I take my studio to him, just bring my mic and my laptop.
I’ve had issues in the past when I’ve sent a tune away to be voiced – I’m sure it will be fine with Ista – but sometime you send a tune to be voiced and it won’t come back as expected.
Or you work with a singer or a musician, you try something out do something which they then think should be released and you don’t. And that’s always a bit of a tricky situation. There comes a point where you have to think, like, do we need to make an agreement about this?
That’s a bit of an issue for producers, and I know I’ve brought this up with other people too. Because the system is: you contact a singer you like, ask how much it will cost but you don’t really know what you are going to get, unless you’re actually there with them. And even then it might not be what you want.
Ben, have you been involved in making some of the Mighty Oak productions?
Ben: Me? No that’s always been Joe’s remit.
You have quite set roles it seems within Mighty Oak.
Joe: Yeah definitely. It’s almost entirely Ben who deals with the sound system side of things, I’ll help pick up a couple of boxes (laugh). But he’s the one who’s really behind the speakers.
What direction are you hoping Mighty Oak will go from here?
Joe: To the stars!
Ben: I’m really interested in what’s happening here in Scotland. It’s such a positive thing, the scene seems to be gathering a really good momentum. I just really want to see where that goes, with us being a part of it.
I mean there are other things I want to do as well with our sound system. We have a couple of gigs this summer, that will be interesting […].
But yeah, I think we’re particularly interested in the scene at home, and curious about how it will develop…
[Photograph by Mighty Oak Sound System]
Thank you to Joe and Ben
Words by AF