The Darker the Shadow, the Brighter the Light: Creative conversations on The Streets’ Film-Noir murder mystery

No one else has so aptly managed to illustrate UK culture like Mike Skinner. In 2002, a time when U.S. Rnb dominated the UK charts, The Streets captured the zeitgeist of early-noughties British living with their first album Original Pirate Material. The Streets are now known for their ability to sonically and lyrically put you “right there” in the moment, which, depending on song choice, could be anywhere from feeling euphoric on a dance floor to heartbroken at a bus stop. With a career spanning over twenty years; five albums, a mixtape crammed with collaborations and a handful of distinguished side projects, Mike Skinner has been more than generous with his craft. What better way to keep the fire burning than to self-fund your own movie? Not to mention appointing yourself to do every production role. Finally, ten years after the idea’s conception, along with the recurring question, “Am I ever going to finish this?” The Darker the Shadow, the Brighter the Light is here, with a shiny new Streets album by its side.

The Darker the Shadow, the Brighter the Light can be best described as a Film Noir-style murder mystery, set in the shady corners of London’s clubland. Mike plays the protagonist, a struggling DJ trying to claw his way out of a predicament with some bad people. At the same time, his new love interest has her club threatened with closure when someone is found dead on the premises. The real hook here is that the music from the album serves to carry along the narrative, which, with an added dash of SFX, makes for a rather psychedelic viewing experience; All the twists and turns of a whodunnit, with some hefty bass lines. Although this project is arguably the first of its kind and in some ways brand new, the trademark observations, urban wisdom and essence of The Streets is very much alive here, now it just exists in a few more dimensions.

KALTBLUT: We’re here to talk about The Darker the Shadow, the Brighter the Light, the title of the new film and album by the Streets. I’m keen to know about the initial conception of the film and its execution. How did it start, with a story idea or was it a result of separate ideas which merged?

Mike: I started with the story (similar to my second album, A Grand Don’t Come For Free). I wrote that as a story first and then turned it into music, the same as this album. Even though the songs don’t tell you what the plot is, it was still a process of developing the story and then creating the music to follow it. Then to write the script around the music and the story idea.

KALTBLUT: This film has been 10 years in the making. I read something you said about Everything is Borrowed, the fourth Streets album. ‘I’ve pretty much kept my promise that I made to myself, not to reference modern life on any of it, which is hard to do and keep things personal at the same time’. Do you often make these “promises” when creating?

Mike: I’ve always worked best when I’ve got a set of limitations. There’s nothing worse than a blank page. I think that’s where you might end up getting writer’s block. I think I’ve always known that it should feel like the song’s writing itself. If you make some big decisions, let’s say with Everything is Borrowed. My big decision was to write an album, but not mention Modern Life. The songs on the album ended up feeling like parables, almost like Bible stories. And with this album, I didn’t need to come up with any limitations or mad concepts because the mad concept was the film itself.

KALTBLUT: On the subject of mad concepts, you wrote, directed, acted in, produced, edited, soundtracked and sound-designed the whole film. It seems you had to become an absolute beginner in some ways and learn some brand-new skills from scratch.

Mike: Ultimately, you’ve got to learn what you like and stand by your decisions, because there are a lot of decisions to make on a film. Thankfully, I knew what I already liked visually because I’d made so many music videos. I know where I like the lights to be, where I like the shadow to be. I felt fairly confident with that stuff. You do have to know yourself though, so that you don’t end up going around in circles. And the music would go: How would a Streets song sound if it was in this type of nightclub? Or how would a Streets song sound if we’d just arrived at this setting? So it’s more fun because you are trying to fit a certain vibe rather than having a blank page. The reality of staring at a blank page is that you’re just going to end up doing the same as before.

KALTBLUT: What did studying these other disciplines teach you about your craft?

Mike: The most amount of learning I did on this film, ironically, was sound. Sound in a movie was something I hadn’t done before. Where do you put the music? How loud is the music? Where do you put the sound effects? Thankfully, I’m a sound person. That’s how I started. So I forced myself to start noticing things. If you put a film on and turn the TV off so just the sound remains, It’s really interesting how little you understand about the narrative. The sound is a significant way of telling the story.

KALTBLUT: Nice. So if I may very quickly talk about the beginning. Original Pirate Material. A monumental album for my generation. Listening back to it now reminds me just how culturally dense it is; the slang, the references. It’s very British. It was released in 2002, which means over 20 years of taking The Streets to the world. What has that felt like?

Mike: I went to Australia quite randomly just before I did The Streets, and I learned a lot about the things we do that no one else does. Being a touring musician in your early twenties is very strange and very exciting. When I was making that album, I didn’t know that anybody would like it that much. Your experience of Original Pirate Material is different from mine. My experience is me sitting around in flats writing, trying to do something that was a bit like Rap Music, but over Garage-type stuff. And that was it, without any other perspective. I think the artist knows the least about the art. Apart from the weird things that they went through making the art, which usually has nothing to do with how people experience it. Perspective is the hardest thing to have for your own work.

KALTBLUT: Moving on to The Streets (DJ Set). You’re well-versed in performing live with The Streets. You’re no stranger to the Club. Now you’ve been DJing for about 10 years. Have you got any thoughts on what I see as a bit of a “DJ boom” in recent times? With the status of the DJ becoming almost akin to that of a Pop Star. Everybody wants to be a DJ, and the focus of a night out has shifted more to the DJ and away from the dance floor.

Mike: I think when you say DJ, most of the time you mean Producer/DJ. Most DJs make music as well, more than ever. It’s a straightforward, cheap way of getting into that world. Obviously, it’s not about money, but it is really easy to do new things with Electronic Music. It’s still coming out with new sounds, so it remains exciting musically. It’s really hard to be a touring band, almost impossible. If you look at someone like Fredagain, he’s a very traditional musician. He’s a percussionist, pretty much. But he does that with MPCs and has turned that into a very entertaining form of Dance Music. So I think Dance Music will become more like that, more live. Carl Cox is using drum machines now and not just playing records, this is getting much easier to do and much more reliable. So I don’t think it’s a big surprise that DJing is bigger than it’s ever been.

Photos by Ben Cannon
Interview by Mikey Stephenson @mikey_yeahnice

The Darker the Shadow, the Brighter the Light is out now: