Although he may take his sweet time to churn out a full length, Nick Douwma - more commonly known as Sub Focus – certainly knows how to add them into the history books. His 2009 self-titled debut was nine years in the making, but four years down the line tracks such as the glitched out roller ‘Timewarp’ still create the same dancefloor decimation that they did on their original digital dubplate release.
With follow-up ‘Torus’ arriving on Monday 30th September after four years of the careful perfectionist treatment of Sub Focus, you can rest assured that this will be much the same affair.
Having taken inspiration from our favourite Balearic Island - following his residency at Together at Amnesia earlier this year - and a new found penchant for synthy six strings, it’s going to be anything but your standard d&b selection. DJ Mag caught up with Sub Focus pre album launch to talk surprising featuring guests, hands free mixing and just why it takes so damn long to make an album!
Torus is very nearly upon us after a four year wait. Has it been difficult trying to follow up the success of your debut?
“It hasn’t been a massively hard process. I had quite a difficult first album and I definitely learnt a lot from that. I took a long time writing my first one. With this one it has been four years since the last, but really it has been three because I spent a long time touring my first record. It has been quite an enjoyable process, I have definitely taken a lot of notes from when I finished my last record and there were things I wanted to do differently this time. I feel like I have achieved those things and I feel really good about the record. I think mainly I wanted to make this album less of a club album and more of a listening experience with a beginning, middle and end. I wanted to write more songs and use more singers, and so that is what I have done with this one. It has been quite an enjoyable experience, working with lots of different singers. I’ve always wanted to work with Kele Okererke, through to new talent and people like Foxes or MNEK.”
A lot of the featuring artists and samples used on this album come from the electronic indie scene. Has this been a big influence on you recently?
“That is something that definitely has, groups from Friendly Fires through to The xx. I am a big fan of bands that fuse their sound with electronics. The likes of Passion Pit, and lots of different bands in that sort of area, I am a big fan of. So that was definitely one of the elements that I wanted to introduce into my sound a bit more in this record, and I felt that it is quite an unusual combination combining that with the drum and bass that I am known for. It’s kind of a strange combination, so I like that. The record is just a combination of all of these different sounds that I like. Some of it has a retro dance feel to it, there is a bit of a deep house vibe in a few of the tracks and there is this electro indie sound in some of them. It is just a real melting pot of all of these different styles of music that I enjoy.”
What made you broaden your sound away from drum and bass?
“I have just been trying to do that since I started doing albums really. With my first album I was very keen to make sure that it wasn’t just seen as a drum and bass album; it had house music on there, jungle stuff and a bit of dubstep. One of my mission statements in terms of what I want to do is to make multiple different styles of dance music to a super high standard. I don’t think that many acts achieve that. I am really happy with the DJ support I have had with this record. I have had Skrillex playing the dubstep tunes from the album and obviously Andy C and Chase & Status playing the drum and bass, through to Avicii playing the house tunes. It’s been really cool to see different big names from different scenes get behind the tracks.”
You said earlier that it was a difficult process writing your first album. Why was that?
“I think it was trying to make it more eclectic than just a drum and bass album. I spent a lot of time working out what the other sorts of music that I was writing should be. Also, what you find as you write albums is that if you take a long time writing an album, some of the stuff that you wrote at the start becomes out of date by the time you finish it. So you are constantly up-dating songs as you go along and some of them become irrelevant as you finish it and you just scrap them. With both of my albums I have probably written about twice or three times the amount of music that has actually been on there. I have just tried to be as much of a perfectionist as possible with writing all the music, because I think that it is important to make the stuff on there count. I have thrown away a lot of music that I have written along the way as well.”
The album seems to be very prolific with featuring artists. Why did you want to get so many different vocalists involved with this album?
“I’m not necessarily a fan of using huge amounts of features, but there were just some people that I really wanted to work with. I really wanted to do a lot of songs and that was a way of doing it really. Some of the songs started with samples. One of the house tracks, ‘Turn Back Time’, was originally lots of different vocal samples stuck together, and then I decided to get vocalists in a recreate some of them. That’s one of the processes I went through when writing the record, but it was just through wanting to work with people and write with different people, and these are the songs that came out well. It is really nice to get to work with some of the people like MNEK who I think are super talented, as well as Foxes and Alpines. I am a big fan of them. It has been really nice to get a good mixture of different artists. I tried to pick people that weren’t perhaps the most obvious people for me to work with and make it quite interesting.”
As well as producing your own tracks you are also a prolific remixer taking on legendary tracks such as The Prodigy’s 'Smack My Bitch Up', 'Take Me To The Hospital' and Deadmau5’ 'Ghosts N Stuff'. Manipulating tracks with such cult statuses must come with great pressure?
“Yeah, it is quite a lot of pressure, especially with ‘Smack My Bitch Up’. When I did that it was quite mad because as the time I wasn’t particularly well known and The Prodigy commissioned lots of people to do remixes. We didn’t even have the song parts at the time, so a lot of the sounds we had to recreate, or find the original places they sampled stuff and then resample those things. It was quite a challenge and it almost ended up like a remix competition a select group of people, because I think they commissioned more stuff than they were actually going to release. So I was really happy that they liked mine and chose to release it. It has been awesome doing tracks and ‘Ghosts N Stuff’ I really enjoyed because it was a massive dance tune at the time. That one was cool because I sped it up to the right tempo and kept it quite faithful to the original in a way. That was one of the favourite ones I have done. I guess with some of them you end up completely changing the song beyond all recognition, but it’s whatever works. I haven’t done remixes in a while. I find that they can be quite stressful because a lot of the time you get approached by the label and they need it turned around within a week or two weeks. That is a much shorter period to how I work. The gestation period of one of my songs can be anything from two weeks to four months. But there is no doubt that I will be getting involved in some more.”
You have hold production credits on Example’s ‘Kickstarts’, a big step from the underground jungle debut of ‘Down The Drain’. What was it that made you decide you wanted to produce big budget music for the mainstream?
“Really, with that track I don’t really see it as a Sub Focus song at all, it’s just a song I made for someone else. It was fun doing that with Elliot, it was a way of dipping my toe into production for other people and I had already know Elliot from gigs and stuff. I got on with him and it was just a nice way to get into that stuff. I have put production for other artists on the back burner for now, because it is so time consuming. At the moment I prefer spending my time writing my own music or doing remixes. Recently I have been spending a lot of time on my live show, so I have got my hands full as it is. No doubt that is something that I will do more of in the future, but I have only done that one for now.”
Have you had anyone approached you recently to produce their songs?
“I have had a number of people approach me. I know that Tinie Temper was interested at one point and even people like Kylie wanted to do a track with me. which is quite funny. I have just been saying 'no' to things for now. There is some stuff I really wanted to do. I was talking to Ellie Goulding about doing some extra production on her last record and just didn’t get the time to because of finishing mine. There are bits and pieces that I will definitely get involved with in the future but for now I have been concentrating on my own artist stuff.”
You said earlier that you have been focusing a lot on your live performance. These have become an integral part of the Sub Focus experience. You have just announced a large UK tour, what can we expect from these sets?
“For those that haven’t seen it, it is a big production. I am really inspired by the likes of Daft Punk and The Chemical Brothers and the way they approach their live performance, and even more recently by the likes of Deadmau5 as well. I really like that format and this is my take on it. It has a big lighting production but we are really pushing technological boundaries with it and that is what is exciting. The people that created the lighting made a bunch of software that allows us to make the light audio reactive. Some of the stuff that I play during the set actually creates lighting patterns on the installation, which is a pretty new thing and quite hard from a technical standpoint to make that happen. So that was a really cool thing that we managed to do. The other thing is the audio equipment that I use is quite new and some of it is custom made as well. We had these motion sensors made for the show which are like a modern day theremin, it allows me to move my hands around in the air to control some sounds through the show. So it is really fun and futuristic and I just wanted to come up with ways of making an electronic performance more visual. I think, initially, electronic shows suffered from looking a bit boring with people just hunched over laptops. I designed the concept with the show designer so everything is very open, so that the crowd can see exactly what I am doing or as much of what I am doing as possible. We were trying to come up with the most visual method of performance as possible, with drum pads and keyboards but also these motion sensors where I can move my hands around and people can see me controlling the sounds. Sometimes I also use those to control the lights as well, so I move my hands down to turn all of the lights on and I move my hand up to turn all of the lights off.”
So do you prefer you live sets to DJ sets now?
“It is hard to say. Sometimes it is nice to play other peoples music in DJ sets, because in my live shows I just play all of my own stuff. Some of the stuff that I can do in the live sets is so much more than what I can do I the DJ set. In the live set I can take songs apart, change the beat or re-sequence a whole new section. The possibilities are quite exciting when I am doing that, but I really enjoy DJing as well and I try to balance the two. I’ve particularly been enjoying the shows that I have been doing with my residency at Amnesia in Ibiza.”
How do you feel the island receives bass music today?
“It’s nice to see it finally working there. I have been going there for years and I have got a lot of inspiration from going to house and techno nights because I am into a lot of that sort of music. Tracks like ‘Timewarp’, which I made a few years ago, they were inspired by trips to Cocoon and DC10 and hearing minimal and different styles of house and techno there, getting ideas from that sort of music and incorporating that into bass music. It has been nice to see it working, I went to the odd night back then that didn’t really work, which was five or six years ago when I was first going there. I remember going to a Hospitality night because some of my buddies were playing, I think Andy was playing and it just didn’t work, and it didn’t seem like it would. It is really nice that it has gradually infiltrated the island and I think that that style of music seems to be very popular. I have been reliably informed that the night we have been playing at Amnesia has been one of the most popular nights there, which is pretty amazing to hear. It's mind blowing, and kind of weird having been to that club loads of times as a punter to be playing there. It is very cool and I am inspired by it. Some of the tracks on the album like the one I did with Culture Shock and TC, ‘You Make It Better’, are songs that I was just thinking of playing in Amnesia. I have really been trying to adapt my style to playing in there. From having seen a lot of house and techno there, I didn’t really want to be playing five tunes in three minutes. I have been trying to play in a techno style, so much longer mixes and a lot of inky blends and just trying to give people a different set there. It has been really fun trying to change my style to adapt to there. I feel that certain types of songs really work well there and I have been pushing more of a housey, techno side to the stuff that I play, and it has been nice.”
So after the release of the album and your tour, how are you planning on developing Sub Focus further?
“Now my focus is shifting to developing the live show again, I am working on a brand new set for the live tour and putting a lot more of the album songs on there and just working on new technology for that. There is a company called Leap Motion who design these things that are vaguely similar to the motion sensors I already use. They are quite cool, you can use them to control your computer and it’s kind of like Minority Report where you can move your hands around to move windows and stuff. I have been testing those things over the last few weeks to see if I can incorporate them in some way, and then look to use them to replace the motion sensors that I currently use. I am constantly looking at new technology to incorporate into the live shows and make it interesting. I am going to be doing a lot of touring, I will be touring the UK in October, looking to tour the US later in the year and I am also going to be doing a tour of Australia next year with Future Music. It is a big travelling festival there so I am really looking forward to that. I am really trying to hit as many different places in the world as possible to tour the album, and just getting stuck into new music. I am already starting to think of new stuff that I want to do for the next album... my brain is buzzing with lots of different ideas so it is an exciting time right now.”
Words: DAVID SULLIVAN