In today’s digitally-enhanced times, the proliferation of new music means most artists are trying to shout louder, look better, or spend more money than anyone else to break through the pack, shmoozing with the most influential people, being photographed in the right magazines and entering into a Faustian pact from which there is no return. Then every so often, you get someone like SBTRKT who just lets the music do the talking.
Hiding his identity behind a rope-dreadlocked tribal mask, SBTRKT appeared during last year’s blizzard of post-genre ear-bending bass music, with Mary Anne-Hobbs soon labelling him ‘one of the freshest and most promising young players I’ve heard all year’, highlighting that fact with a mix of almost all exclusive dubplates. Appearances for Skream’s Rinse show and Gilles Peterson followed, while Basement Jaxx were amongst those clamouring for remixes after superb epic reworks of Radiohead’s ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ and Goldie’s undisputed drum & bass masterpiece ‘Timeless’. Not bad, for a producer who’s only released one 12” so far.
“I’ve only had a one-sided single out on Brainmath which was last week!” he laughs, when we call him at his South-London base to discuss the whirlwind of expectation surrounding this void of identity. Speaking with the same intelligence and depth as his music, SBTRKT’s steely determination to do it his own way is evident from the outset, as is a sense of humour about the ridiculousness of all the hype.
“The name is about subtracting my own life and existence from the music. Making music is an escapism beyond the everyday and I don’t feel a need to write about what or who I am. The problem with the internet is, as soon as you put anything out, people can track you down and find out more about you.”
While the internet might have fed society’s voracious appetite for dissecting the lives of celebrity, it’s also levelled the playing field for those like Burial or SBTRKT who don’t want to spend every waking hour ingratiating themselves in the right circles, preferring instead to actually make music.
“I’m not the kind of person who enjoys hanging round in clubs that much or meeting people to try and make a move in the industry,” he explains. “It seemed for a long time it was who you know but things have changed and you can be more direct with DJs. People like Mary Anne Hobbs are really good at being able to pick up on new artists.
“Initially I sent her files and she sent me ‘thanks’ messages, nothing more. Then after a few months she was like, ‘I really like this, I’m going to drop it tonight’. It happened from there, really.”
With a prolific work rate, the stash of tracks aired thus far are just the tip of SBTRKT’s estimated back catalogue of 400, and the drought of original material ends in March with a sudden flood of tracks. ‘Soundboy Shift/Rundown’ drops on Young Turks on 15th March with a collision of skittering two-step beats and deep, echoey dub sonics, while a second EP for Brainmath sees four tracks that venture into techno-garage territory on the 4/4 groove of ‘Jamlock’ and also includes early blog favourite, ‘2020’.
Happy to discuss his influences, it all began with “lots of house and US garage like Masters At Work. Then I went through lots of stages. I was really into Reinforced, everything from 4 Hero and Goldie to Domu’s early stuff. I followed that into broken beat and was keen on the whole IG, Bugz in the Attic, Co-Op thing so I guess that’s where it all ties in with Gilles [Peterson] and Benji B. I picked up that whole jazz fusion West London attitude,” he laughs. Try to pin a name on what he, and those he admires make, however, “Untold and Zomby, James Blake, Mount Kimbie and Pangaea, Ramadanman, Hot City and Joy Orbison obviously,” and he becomes understandably reticent.
“There’s always terms going round like future-garage and the whole wonky debate that went on last year. People try and stick names on things quite quickly to bring two tunes together.
“Producers hate to be bundled with a new name because as soon as you name a scene, the scene is over. I gathered it from Joker. Everyone started calling him ‘The Purple Sound’ and I think he saw it as the shortest way to end his career. He doesn’t have that obvious a sound but you could now say, I know what Joker is so I don’t have to listen to him anymore. He just started ignoring it and making his own names up in the end.”
Also pencilled for March is the release of ‘Break Off’, backed by ‘Evening Glow’, on Ramp. A perfect slice of dark electronic two-step soul, it’s the fruit of his collaborations with producer and vocalist Sampha, who SBTRKT performed with on Gilles Peterson’s Radio One show and at his Worldwide Awards, and which marks the first step towards plans for a live electronic band to perform with in the autumn.
“He’s a young South London kid who’s been producing tracks for four years on his own. It’s more experimental hip-hop electronica. Then one day he came out with some vocals and they were amazing,” says SBTRKT. “Nobody knew he could sing.
“It’s a one-take thing. He does it so quickly. There’s another track called ‘Colonise’ which shouldn’t even be played, it was a demo we did in five minutes, but somehow Annie Mac and Giles Peterson got it and played it on their shows! It’s funny how something we made so quickly can end up on Radio One.”
And just as you thought you had a handle on him, SBTRKT has another collaboration coming with DJmag global bass reviewer, Sinden, through the Kiss FM presenter’s new Grizzly label. Friends from hanging around Plastic People ‘back in the day’, SBTRKT was invited to play Sinden’s Fabric night on the strength of some demos he’d sent, only revealing their past connection afterwards. The renewed acquaintance led to them hitting the studio together.
“He knows what works in clubs, I’m up for producing and trying different things, so it’s in-between both our sounds. Straight 4/4 meets an off-kilter thing.”
As more tracks finally begin to see the light of day, with further singles coming from Young Turks and on-going talks with Planet Mu for an EP, SBTRKT’s masked adventures behind the decks are increasing, too, with a suitably diverse range of appearances, from playing at Annie Mac’s hyper-kinetic club to supporting math-rockers These New Puritans, who he has also remixed. But his proudest achievement so far, bar Radiohead’s Thom Yorke e-mailing Peterson to say how much he enjoyed SBTRKT’s live set, seems to be a one-sided etched vinyl release of his remix of Modeselektor’s ‘Art & Cash’.
“They’re my ultimate dream band, that balance between live performance and DJing, and they live in their own world. They create whatever they want without pandering to any scene and everyone loves them. They’re also respected in the indie field as much as they are in the electronic one, so they can do anything they want musically.”
Which, if we’re not very much mistaken, sounds just like SBTRKT, too.