I’m talking to the man in the mask. The man who is making the world a better place with bass, beats electrified hooks and on-point vocals. From the early days of Brain Math and Ramp Recordings to his self-titled debut album with those Young Turks, SBTRKT (pronounced subtract) has never failed to do anything but deliver the goods. In the last 12 months he has been on fire – the bounce and sway of each of his 12”s inspired by his roots in nu-jazz and working with pioneers like LTJ Bukem and remixing for the likes of Goldie and Basement Jaxx. He has done some eerie tunes too; his mix for Annie Mac last year is laced with sinister undertones whilst his film soundtracks have a touch of the occult to them. Either way, fidgety funk or deep, dark and electronic SBTRKT and his astonishing work rate have certainly captured the hearts and minds. We caught up with him to discuss his transition through the musical landscape, and explore the motivations for his debut album.
So what made you step up to an album?
It is something that I have always had in mind – something that you do as an artist – singles are those in between projects that perhaps build up to an EP or exist as a club tune or a vibe mix. The album is more of a broad sense of my personal direction and ambition. My earlier stuff was very instrumental and then the vocals came, so the album represents that development.
Are you happier with your sound today?
Yes, absolutely. The way in which releases work today is really quick. Very rapid. We moved from initial idea to release very quickly, so to me it’s still relevant, it’s still really exciting. The live shows, like Abbey Road really add to the feel.
How would you describe your sound?
I don’t see myself in a genre; the scenes are so transient. Bass music? Future garage? It is more about the atmosphere and the vibe. It is not that I’m fearful of being contextualised. What is the big problem? I find it funny. Journalists use genres as a reference point giving people something to relate to. I like to explore and experiment with various tempos through a coherent sound.
Who influenced this coherent sound?
The usual – dance classics. Michael Jackson. Bobby Brown. Following on into Massive Attack, the list could go on! The UK dance strands are very much in my heart from jungle, drum & bass to trip hop, UK garage and broken beat. They have certainly influenced me.
What made you want to make music?
I don’t know. Massive Attack’s ‘Unfinished Symphony’. Goldie’s ‘Inner City Life’. You can see I really like that epic sound. They have that spine-tickling element, where you can zone-out and really focus on the music. In a way wearing a mask encourages people to listen to the sound, it’s me subtracted from what you can hear. FWD>> has the beauty of a dark dance floor and a good sound system to make you really see the music.
Can you name a tune you wish you’d written?
Stevie Wonder – ‘Do I Do’. It’s a different relationship with contemporaries. A contemporary that I really like is Machinedrum. He is really technical, I can identify all the key elements but the production goes some way beyond that. Other musical heroes include Bjork and Thom Yorke but I don’t imagine that collaborations with them wouldn’t bring anything new to the scene. Though with vocals that might just work.
Where do you find your vocalists?
I love music and am an avid vinyl collector. I’ve always been a fan of Yukimi. Some really random London label put out her first track. I really love their (Little Dragon) production, their live shows, everything. They are the epitome of an artist with a strong identity. The main collaborator I work with is Sampha, I met him through Young Turks. One day he came round my house, we were just hanging out and then he played me a tune and I was like wow, it had the soul and vibe I was really looking for. The last track we have done ‘Never, Never’, which is on the album is for me exciting in terms of the journey we have taken since our 2-step origins. The same with Jessie Ware, met her through Young Turks, she is also on the album. I hate to work with people on just one track; I like to see the relationship develop.
What would you be doing if you weren’t being SBTRKT?
Dunno. I’d been really unhappy! Another creative career? Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been excited about making things, rather than learning facts like a science class. Though I read Wikipedia a lot – especially news on rave magazines, which I was looking at this morning.
What was the last show you saw?
The last show I saw was Friendly Fires. I don’t go to gigs very often. We supported them but I’m madly into them anyway. I try to only do shows with people I really respect or want to learn from. Last year, I did a tour with Modeselektor. Every night I stayed until the end to see them perform and each night their set was different, never boring.
And finally, what motivates you?
To challenge myself to make the bigger and better track. Once you’ve built up a fan base, you are faced with audience expectation – you can’t please everyone. It’s quite selfish but I get excited about making music. I enjoy DJ’ing, it is a buzz to play music for people but it’s an even greater buzz to write the music in the first place.
Published July 04, 2011.