Underground Resistance: SBTRKT Interviewed
Since the release of his self-titled debut album, SBTRKT – real name Aaron Jerome – has languished in fathomless dusky realms, where shapeshifting compositions scored the exploits of drifters moving in the shadows of concrete jungles. Adorned with a mask – an insignia that came to define this London act as a remote, impish enigma – SBTRKT moved through trippy, arpeggiated neon palettes with a deftness of touch, and a disregard for functional modes of contemporary electronic production.
Arriving seven years after 2016 transitional project, ‘Save Yourself’, ‘The Rat Road‘ sees SBTRKT unmasked and unbridled. Just under an hour long, this 22-track collection is SBTRKT’s most live-feeling album to date: a panoptic listening experience, peals of cryptic interludes and fragments of code are relayed to the listener, who has to wade through maladjusted atmospherics, and a host of new and familiar voices.
‘The Rat Road’ further distorts SBTRKT’s placement as a post-genre dance artist; nothing here is in thrall to trends or commercial ambition. For the first time he delivers a more purposeful message of artistic metamorphosis, of tentative hope and freedom for the outlaws and Others.
On the eve of his new release, SBTRKT mused on the mutability and access of electronic music today, and how he reckoned with his identity on a body of work that is as much about reinvention as it is about recalling his past selves.
A feature of your work is seeing the world through nostalgic vignettes. You grew up on a farm in rural England as a mixed-race brown kid. Can you express how that cultural dissonance impacted you?
As you grow older you become more aware of diversity and how diverse subcultures are. Culturally, I saw myself ambiguously as an Other but my version of culture is different to the more common British South-Asian experience. My Mum’s from Goa, her family were Roman Catholics with Portuguese ancestry; there was a distinct colonial influence there. They grew up in Kenya so I was tied to Africa more so than India: Nairobi felt like the place of my ancestors. When I was growing up, I thought I’d be a farmer because my Dad’s ancestry goes to back to rural farmers in Scotland. That was my view of life. My South Asian side of the family lived in London, and my Mum was the only one who decided to live on a farm.
When did music go from being an interest to something to be pursued?
An early musical influence came from my cousins who grew up with influences I wasn’t hearing. I remember visiting my older cousin who was into house music. It was the first time I’d seen vinyls, The Face and Dazed magazine on the wall. My cousin treated his house records like they were gold; to be treated with care and precision. My entire way through school I was immersed in electronic music. I’d go into HMV and buy all these RnB records that had house B-sides and remixes; I’d play them to my school friends and they all thought I was an alien. That’s that rural, countryside influence!
It got mixed up with racist undertones and I definitely did feel like a strange outlier at times. It’s a cliché that when you’re on the edge of society you seek out ways to be more creative, but the older I get the more I believe that. When I got into music, I only had myself. Dance music was the perfect enterprise because I didn’t need a band and I became self-sufficient. It’s an ethos I have today.
An aspect of your debut album that appealed to me was was how you sourced these collaborators from fringe scenes and placed them into these nocturnal electronic experiments. Is your self-titled album something you look back at lovingly now that there’s some distance between you and it?
As a record, I was proud of it before anyone else was because I’d connected all the dots. I’d been following Little Dragon since 2005 and it was serendipitous that Yukimi (Nagano) delivered a vocal that was unlike their own material. With Sampha, we’d been hanging out for 2 years. He was introduced then as someone who needed mentorship as a producer – he was 17 at the time! I discovered he could sing, and we built a new relationship beyond the bleeps and arpeggiated instrumentals. With Jessie (Ware), she was heavily into classic RnB records, as was I and that was our common ground. The one thing I’ll say about my debut, was that I made it at a time when I didn’t give it much thought. You remember the emotion in certain periods but it’s all a bit of a blur. What is the feeling of SBTRKT versus what is the sound palette? Is it the synthesizers? What is that core thing? I questioned myself a lot after that and still do.
What is the common thread then?
Well, I don’t think it’s about specific features, sounds or genres. No one can call me a house artist, you know? I don’t want to feel tethered to a genre because it confines you. It’s all about a feeling.
SBTRKT for many of us was synonymous with that masked figure we saw in the artwork and on stage. Was anonymity the sole reason for wearing a mask? Since taking it off, do you feel a more palpable sense of freedom?
The reason I put on a mask and was anonymous was because I genuinely believed I wouldn’t get plays by anyone. I was blocked by so much gatekeeping going on at labels and on radios. The moment I put the mask on, I was getting played everywhere-
What is it with enigmatic personas in electronic music?
It’s the Jai Paul effect; it’s synonymous with faceless entities. For me, it worked well in the beginning because the music was the focus and I didn’t feel I had to sell anything. But I realised that I was giving people the licence to call me a faceless producer and project a simplistic take on what I created. A lot of what was attributed to me and my sonics was attributed to my collaborators also; these songs would not have existed without me, my heritage, my influences and my technical ability as a producer. I want to be able to explain my process for music and not have it be explained as something that is tangential or defined by my talented musical friends. I read something that Daft Punk said about their decision to retire: who wants to be a robot in 2023. Their commentary is similar to what I feel, that we’re in a time when facades and personas aren’t fashionable anymore.
When I realised you were South Asian I did feel an immediate kinship with you. Not that we’re in any way a homogenous group, just that there is someone visibly brown creating electronic music I have a natural affinity for…
That’s the more important part of why I took the mask off; I was feeling that I wasn’t representing myself or others like myself fully. I would go to America and people would assume I was black or white. I didn’t exist in this space because people didn’t see South Asian people in this space. There is a point where I felt I needed to be honest about it. You have to admire this younger generation who are taking ownership of who they are. You don’t need to fit in a box anymore. I’m visible now because we don’t need to be typecast. I don’t need to have tablas on my record. If it was a social experiment, ten years of being anonymous was a good gauge to seeing all these perspectives.
In 2016 you released ‘Save Yourself’, which wasn’t an album but a transitional project. Did you contend with feelings of disenchantment as a musician in this industry? Is that why it took you so long to release again?
Pharrell said something slightly prophetic: that if you don’t go to the studio and make an idea a reality, that idea will go to someone else. So I’m always working and creating in the background. What I battled with was the idea of saying what my purpose was; how I felt my music would resonate with audiences. ‘Wonder Where We Land’ didn’t translate the way I’d envisioned. I was questioning its value even though I was so invested in this body of work. The process itself is what matters; the time you spend creating it. I’d been writing so much music, I really could have gone on a different kind of detour. In the end I wanted to be true to what I felt the world needed, but also something that showed my evolution, and hit every facet of what I previously made.
Are you someone who reads and engages with reviews of your work?
I have mixed feelings about the critical side of things. As an artist you put your heart and soul into something over a long period of time, and someone can form an opinion in a flash. In the past, those opinions meant a lot more to other people. It would bug me in the past, when people were would be so dismissive. That was what Pitchfork was back in the day, I guess it still is but the metric has changed with social media. My second album had positive and negative reviews, and most people read the clickbait ones which is overly critical. It’s very black and white.
Well your new era is here! You didn’t rush it out: ‘Bodmin Moor’ was released last summer and you’ve been intentional about teasing the release in a more protracted way…
Some of that has to do with the album not being finished then and me pre-empting the release. Also, social media and these algorithms prevent a lot of people hearing stuff, so there was a process of returning and playing with what that meant. You have to mindful of what an era looks like, and not throw everything out on the first day.
You really honoured the holistic listening experience on this album that I feel will resonate with both listeners and critics. There’s cinematic grandeur to these songs and it’s a journey…
I was leaning into this idea of a cult film you’ve never seen, a kind of vision of how all these types of songs fit into one story and my musical DNA.
This is an interlude-heavy, collaborator-filled album. Is it a pivot point to veer between more sparse moments and more propulsive club-skewed songs?
I worked with D Double E, a real legend in the UK. I wanted to put him on an uplifting club banger but I felt that territory had already been explored. So we created something atmospheric, something you can guess it may allude to but you don’t get the entire story. I’m not just going to put a jungle beat on this, why not capture the feeling of time standing still that doesn’t point to an era or a place in time? When D Double E’s voice comes in it hits you unexpectedly. I also had Anna Wise provide vocals; she’s Kendrick Lamar’s frequent collaborator and I loved what they did together on ‘These Walls’. I’m incorporating these established singers not purely as a feature but to add texture to it.
‘Remnant’ is my 4Hero moment. I was also listening to Goldie’s ‘Timeless’. People fixate on the jungle side, but it was also soulful with a proto techno edge. These are my two fields! I’ve always aspired to have that energy in my songs. Being in London at night-time, that’s my vibe. I just stray from the definitions of what people think London to be. Me and Sampha are the most London kind of artist, but we’re not defining the space per se.
‘You, Love’ has that after-hours London feel. There’s no feature on this track. For fans wanting something SBTRKT-adjacent from a decade ago, this is the one for you!
One thing I’m proud about is that I’m anti-snobbery in music. Music should be accessible. There are major key songs that I probably wouldn’t listen to, but Stevie Wonder is accessible because you can’t deny his classic appeal. Not everything has to be obscure. I found with my first two albums was that it was an entry point to other forms of music. Sherelle very kindly said my work was influential in her coming into electronic music. That was shocking to me! I’m proud that my record was not unlistenable. ‘Mezzanine’ by Massive Attack, ‘Two Pages’ by 4Hero or Goldie’s ‘Timeless’ are left-leaning but listenable. None of them inaccessible.
Do you create with the listener in mind? Do you create a track thinking it might be better suited on an another artist’s project?
I don’t because it can be too polarising. Having presented myself as a producer first, I can morph with less expectation of what may come next than a vocalist could. In the 2010s, the industry was less reliant on social media, so I’ve had to engage with the change in landscape because it’s now such a dominant part of being an artist today.
Your work is a tastemaker’s dream. You’ve opted to collaborate with lesser-known singers like LEILAH. There’s this Y2K RnB producer-singer synergy permeating this record. Talk me through building a consistent collaborative space on this album...
I’ve always gravitated towards new music and new sounds – that goes for people I work with on a vocal level. When I’ve reached out to collaborators from the past, it’s about adding something new and textural to a song, not reliving what we created all those years ago.
Behind the scenes I’ve spent three years writing with LEILAH. I listened to a few of her demos and I liked the vibe of her voice. It hit home how comfortable she was working in a space outside of the pop sphere. She was open to listening to all of these classic soul references; the piano parts on these songs was partly inspired by these soul songs having flat piano stab sounds from a Korg, or a kind of emulation of that. I was also influenced by N.E.R.D and the drop-off in the second half is my emulation of Aaliyah records. How do we capture this feeling of London in 1989? The song ‘Drift’ is my homage to that feeling; part Sade, part Aaliyah and part Janet Jackson.
‘LFO’ with Sampha and George Riley is one of my favourites. Special mention goes to that piano-led house moment at the end. Yet it’s still glitchy and disarming like much of the album…
I started off messing around on some analogue synths and arpeggiated chords. Secondary to that was the introduction chords. Sometimes I just close my eyes and play. I’m not a classically-trained, technically-proficient instrumentalist. I just know where the keys are and I know in my head how to recapture a feeling. There is an awkward juxtaposition about what I’m feeling and what someone else is feeling. The song progresses into this breakdown and that’s something I wrestled with. I didn’t want drums initially; I didn’t want it to encroach on what someone could get from this song. I work with a less-is-more mindset. Eventually, I incorporated these drums because I love broken beat, and New York house.
‘The Rat Road’ visuals and the visual for ‘Bodmin Moor’ are ambiguous and mirrors the out-of-body experience you feel when you hear the album. How does the iconography illustrate the messaging on the album?
My now-wife Nila Mistry has been my co-partner on the visual side since I started out: we are a home team. With these videos, I wanted to incorporate characters that looked like me because in the past I was reliant on white characters and actors. I loved ET growing up, so I wanted to recreate something within that world that is more my vibe and representative of who I am. With ‘The Rat Road’ series, it runs alongside the album. It’s not narratively aligned but adds depth and emotional heft to the songs. Nila came up with the ‘Bodmin Moor’ concept with these art dealers, which communicates systems of exploitation, art versus commerce and ownership. I wanted to showcase a surreal side to this race of people who are hidden in the underground; there unseen and hidden, and that has synergy with me being an Other.
Finals words on the ways you’d like ‘The Rat Road’ to resonate with SBTRKT loyalists but also new listeners coming across your music for the first time…
The main thing is I hope people will be willing to listen to something that aids discovery. When I’ve listened to music I’ve grown to love, I’ve gained something significant because it’s taken me time. I’ve stayed with it and I’ve grown with it. ‘Forward’ got picked up by Drake; the positive of that is so many people who would never have listened to me have taken this track and heard it outside of the context through which it was created. Without that validation, they would never have listened.
I often think we bypass music too quickly in the streaming era: it’s here and then it’s gone. I hope people listen to this without validation from someone else. Seek something for yourself and make your own mind up. As a record, I want people to hear something that is actually quite specific to now, but also alludes to what I’ve been creating for over a decade.
‘The Rat Road’ is out now. Catch SBTRKT at London’s HERE At Outernet on May 25th.
Words: Shahzaib Hussain
Photography: El Hardwick