Neatly sidestepping hype and deflecting expectations, SBTRKT – the masked face with a fetish for bass – has delivered a surprisingly soulful debut.
Speaking of masks, let’s get this out of the way: SBTRKT wears one. Initially to remain anonymous and let his music be judged on its own merits, SBTRKT’s identity may have been revealed long ago – as nu-jazz producer and DJ Aaron Jerome – but he continues to sport his trademark tribal masks and penchant for anonymity.
“I’d rather not talk about myself as a person, and let the music speak for itself. The name SBTRKT is me taking myself away from that whole process”, explains Jerome. “I’m not the most social person, so having to talk to DJs to make them play a record is not something I want to do. It’s more about giving them a record as an anonymous person and seeing whether they like it or not. If they play it, they play it.”
And play it they did, with DJs and hacks everywhere lapping up SBTRKT’s first batch of singles and EPs. Tracks like ‘Soundboy Shift’ – with its fusion of bouncy dub and jittery garage – and the sinister, string-laden club air of ‘Hide And Seek’ quickly caused said media-types to dub Jerome the next big thing in UK bass culture – a tag he clearly felt uncomfortable with.
“I never felt like that kind of artist. A lot of being in a certain electronic scene means you consistently put out singles with a singular sound or trademark – a snare pattern or synth bassline you always use – but for me it was more about being really happy with songs and breaking new ground. I never want to write something which is genrefied or fits the standard club template.”
Luckily, then, SBTRKT’s self-titled debut album is neither of those things, and nor is it the continuation of Jerome’s urban club-sound that many expected. Instead, the record is filled with experimental electronic soul, featuring an array of vocal collaborators. Bright synth riffs and crisp production – all set to a highly percussive pulse – characterise the record, particularly on tracks like ‘Heatwave’, where jittery electronic drums and melodic keys wash over the listener, as do vocal harmonies from Sampha, a producer and singer who appears throughout the album. Other vocalists on the record include Jessie Ware, from Jack Peñate’s band, and Yukimi Nagano of electro-pop act Little Dragon.
“Most of the EPs and singles I’ve done were club-related, things that DJs are going to play, whereas the songs I wrote for the album are more varied,” says Jerome of the differing direction of the album. “The stuff I make for clubs tends to be stuff you can mix in and mix out in a certain way, so it has to keep to a certain structure or BPM. I tended to be less experimental on singles and EPs than I did on the album tracks.”
Having said that, there are certainly hints of SBTRKT’s clubbier side on the album, perhaps best displayed on ‘Right Thing To Do’ (a highlight of the record), which cleverly twists future garage into a refined, minimal ballad.
The record also oozes musicality, demonstrated in two purely instrumental tracks (often throwaway additions on most vocal-led albums), which hold as much weight as anything else other on album; the layered, bubbling synths of ‘Go Bang’ give off a nice Aphex-y vibe while ‘Ready Set Loop’ builds into deliciously analogue space-disco.
These tracks provide a nice counterpart to the other numbers, yet still slot in nicely to the overall structure – an achievement which Jerome seems to have worked hard at: “The album was more of a consistent process of trying to make a very individual SBTRKT sound, to try and make a coherent bunch of songs that I thought really showcased what I wanted to put across as an artist.
Has he achieved this? It’s a big ask – though by no means impossible – to define yourself as an artist through one album, but although it’s hard to put your finger on at first, there are definitely the beginnings of a SBTRKT sound. And deliberate or not, he’s also achieved a nifty bit of branding via the mask-wearing.
Critics may argue that this forced anonymity actually has the opposite effect to the one Jerome intended, causing people to focus less on the music itself and more on who resides under the mask. But, he argues, this is more an inevitable consequence of both music and artist becoming more well-known. You can’t have it both ways, it seems.
“People pick up on it after a while and judge you because they think you’re trying to create hype by being anonymous, but that’s not what I’m doing. It’s more the fact that I can just get on with writing music and not spend my life talking about it.”
Ok, chitchat over. Time to let the music do the talking.
Words by Tristan Parker
This interview appears in the current issue of Clash Magazine, out now. Read more about the new issue HERE.