Despite a near decade-long recording career, you’re forgiven for hearing SBTRKT‘s (pronounced “Subtract”) name for the first time in recent months. The London dance producer’s released a series of acclaimed remixes over the years that have made him a figurehead in the UK dance music scene, yet it’s his recent eponymous album on UK label Young Turks — which utilizes dubstep as a foundation to explore myriad sounds and textures — that broadened SBTRKT’s appeal to a much wider audience.
“Wildfire,” the producer’s collaboration with Little Dragon‘s Yukimi Nagano which spawned an unplanned remix from, of all people, Drake, was a cross-genre hit, and brought SBTRKT new levels of recognition … and work. “I got an e-mail recently from Thom Yorke via the label and he had heard some of my album and said, ‘Can you perpetuate that vibe on one of our songs?’” SBTRKT told Hive, confirming a future Radiohead remix (but couldn’t say which track).
The producer’s strong aversion to the media and use of a face-obscuring tribal mask during live performances may strike SBTRKT as an awkward or curmudgeonly figure. Yet in his hour-long talk with Hive, the DJ/producer is genial, eloquent and enthusiastic, waxing on his love and hate of electronic music, and expounding on why the product always trumps the producer.
Your new album is equally suited for club and home listening. Do you have a specific setting in mind when creating music?
I don’t really have preconceptions on what I’m creating. The only thing I know is sonically, I like things rounded and crisp, and I love music where you can pick out every sound in the mix. Doing stuff that is just bass-centric for me is quite hard to write anyway because I write most of my stuff in my living room. I don’t sit there with some massive subwoofers trying to write some club hit. It’s much more pleasant to write stuff that is well-arranged and sonically well-matched in sound. I have a laptop and lots of synths at home, and it’s just messing about really. I can still record lots of live sounds in my living room without it being any sort of hindrance.
Your album’s conciseness and song structure feels more like a rock record than the traditional dance album. How conscious are you of trying to avoid the ephemerality that accompanies so many dance producers?
I’ve never been good at writing singles or had the ability to just sit there and write a club classic. To become a classic at that moment, you have to stipulate certain rules, like whatever fits into certain themes of the time. For me, I’ve always put the song in a kind of mood and emotiveness before trying to fit a certain groove or pattern. The album is a selection of songs which really builds an identity versus trying to make one song spell it all out, and now you know what everything else I do sounds like. I don’t think you could listen to “Wildfire” and say what the other 11 tracks on the album sound like. Classic albums I’ve always loved from dance producers have always straddled different genres and have different moods and elements. It’s not a “DJ culture” type of album. There’s so many artists like Massive Attack and Björk that have put out those classic albums.
Leftfield‘s Leftism changed the way I thought a dance album could sound like.
Exactly. Amusingly, I just did a remix for them for “Afro-Left” from that album. The funny thing is, my dad had it before I ever heard that record. He was very open-minded when it came to music and would see just what’s recommended on shelves of record stores. We had similar musical tastes and it definitely influenced my taste; the good taste, at least.
Is that what inspired you to pursue a career in music?
Not really. I’ve always played instruments as a kid and was messing about on drum kits and things when I was young and making songs up on piano. It was just something easy, fun and creative to do. Then I found dance culture through my cousin, who was a DJ at the time, and I used to see him and his friends spinning on his Technics. I was about 10, looking at their serious faces spinning early Chicago house, and fascinated by the whole thing. That was something I wanted to be part of even though I didn’t really understand it at the time. I’ve never had any sort of technical training. It took me quite a long time to figure it out myself. When I started out, in terms of production, it was basically about emulating your idols. I spent a long time trying to be Goldie before I even knew what a sampler was. I had no idea how he made these pitched-up high hats.
Most DJs and musicians relish the ability to command a crowd, yet you’ve purposely perpetuated a mystique. You don’t want to be the center of attention.
Yeah, that’s where it all gets kind of confused; people who think they have to perpetuate this kind of performance to be the person at the front. For me, the music has to do everything and if I can’t make music that sounds like people want to hear it, then I don’t want to be doing it at all. I don’t ever feel like I have to be on stage and be this outblown performer because the music should be enough. I never wanted to be someone who’s genre-specific and always putting out the same type of tracks with the same tempo every time. I’d rather just play around, have fun and keep trying to improve what I do, and become better at making songs.
You haven’t really given a lot of interviews or put yourself out there relative to other artists.
No, I don’t really like doing interviews. Without enough music out there, people want more explanation and for me, it’s never been about explanation. If you’ve heard a body of work — and I think the album has given people that — they don’t need to ask that many questions about it ’cause you understand it through listening to the record. Now people understand it and I don’t have to answer those banal questions like, “Tell us about the record.”
Is any of that a reaction to the overexposure of so many artists?
Totally. I started out in such a way where I got most of my interest through the Internet. I was approached by DJs who supported my music through taking stuff off my SoundCloud page. The flipside of that, though, is if there’s so much information out there, people will just judge you by what information they know, which is not really reflective of what you’re doing. I don’t want to ever be put in a box where people are saying, “My sound is what my last single is.” That’s never been my aim. Music should just be judged on its merits. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, you don’t.
But artists that keep a low profile and try to maintain anonymity are often derided as a gimmick, yet go the other way and you’re a media whore. Where do you see yourself on that line? I assume the name SBTRKT means somehow taking yourself out of the equation, right?
Essentially, that’s it. I just find that sometimes, interviewers can ask the most stupid questions about superficial stuff that has nothing to do with anything. I don’t mind talking enthusiastically about how I create music. But I’m not out to get mass coverage because then, people just see your face and don’t even listen to anything. It’s just trying to get people who understand and who are enthusiastic about the record.
Your music has been embraced as much by the indie scene as it has the electronic music crowd. Was this a conscious plan on your part or just a result of how the music has been received?
I appreciate indie music as much as I do electronic. I just find live electronic music really boring and tedious. It’s essentially something that fits well in a club environment when no one is looking at them, but they’re making something sonically really interesting. But in a live venue, you’re going, “What the hell is this?” For my live show, I thought about it and didn’t want a 4-piece band like an indie group. That’s not the point. It’s still electronic music. But using live drums, synths and vocals – although it’s quite hectic – we can still perpetuate that indie vibe, and adjust between electronic music and playing live.
“Wildfire” — both the original version and the Drake remix — blew up. Are you going to hang up on me if I tell you the first time I heard it, I thought it sounded like Ginuwine‘s “Pony”?
[Laughs] That’s funny. I originally wrote the track with live drums, and right at the end, when I was about to master it, I thought, “I don’t like this anymore. I want to strip it down.” So I just put in some basic 808 hits. The minute I put in some very simplified drums, it just pushed out Yukimo’s vocals and suddenly made her become the front of the track. For me, that was much more important. Writing music is as much about improving it as doing it in one take and that’s it.
You’ve been quoted as saying “I’ve always sat more comfortably in an artist’s identity than as a producer.” What did you mean by that?
I just think there are certain rules, being a producer. People set these boundaries of what you’re supposed to do and you’re always differentiated from writing songs because that’s what vocalists and songwriters do; it’s not something that’s your job. I’ve never actually approached being that. I want to be an artist, and I’ve always wanted to write songs and fulfill a whole product. Not necessarily be that person who can only do one angle like, “I only make the beats.” It’s that colloquial thing, like, “So have you written any new beats recently?” That’s not really what I do anyway.
Have you read any reviews about the new album?
I try not to pay too much attention to what other people project onto it. Once an album comes out, all the critics come out and people try to explain back to you what your album is or where it fits in a certain genre. For me, it’s more about accepting it as what it was when I made it, not where other people think it fits in a scene. One person said I’d probably appreciate that once you listen to the album, you’ll forget about it. I was like, “Really? That’s why I created it? I wanted people to forget about my record?” This whole thing’s a bit weird.