SBTRKT Talks American Dubstep, Post-Dubstep, and Ultra Music Festival

SBTRKT_DanWilton.jpg
Photo by Dan Wilton
SBTRKT isn't shy, just humble.
When we mentioned SBTRKT (pronounced subtract) in our list of of ten most exciting acts at Ultra Music Festival, we were being dead serious.

The British musician is often pigeonholed as post-dubstep. But in reality, he carefully navigates EDM genres, splicing disparate styles and influences like a human supercomputer.

That formula (although SBTRKT says there really isn't one) has quickly earned him the respect of peers and critics. In its Best of British poll, DJ Mag picked self-titled debut, SBTRKT, as the Best Artist Album of 2011 while Pitchfork picked it as the 46th best album of the past year, saying, "No album better captured this world's sense of possibility than the self-titled debut album from SBTRKT."

And as if press accolades weren't enough, he's become so in demand that artists like Radiohead, M.I.A., Basement Jaxx, and Modeselektor have already asked for his remix services. Did we mention he's only really been producing music since 2009?

Nevertheless, SBTRKT (AKA Aaron Jerome) remains incredibly humble about his success, seeming entirely devoted to making music he enjoys. We also spoke with Jerome about his mask, American dubstep, and whether he might pop up at any parties outside of his performance at Ultra Music Festival.

Crossfade: What you do you think the post-dubstep label given to you? Does it mean anything?
SBTRKT: I don't really know, because when I'm making [music] I don't really think of a particular sound or scene that it fits. I guess the music, being part of the time we are in, you kind of get boxed in with other artists with similar things and imprints at the same time. But I think the artists put into that category are quite different anyway.

I think a lot of music critics use the term post-dubstep as a reaction to the current American version of dubstep, AKA brostep, which is very different from the British original. Do you have opinion about the whole brostep phenomenon?
It's just a different scene and sound. A lot of these musical genres seem to have come out of dubstep and UK sounds that happened in the last four, five, six years. But they are kind of worlds apart in terms of the music being made.



Your breakthrough, "Wildfire", seems so different from the dubstep currently out there. It's so much more serene -- and I mean that in a good way. Is that sort of the style you go for?
Yeah, I approach writing music as a sort of listening experience, I suppose, versus approaching it more for a big drop in the record, or you know kind of a club experience. A lot of those songs are alright. But I'm song-based and not necessarily made for DJs to try to get the biggest reaction in the club. I approach things more melodically in trying to build up a chorus and that kind of thing, versus just going for a big bass line and a single hook.

A lot of DJs aren't necessarily composers. But do you compose songs in the traditional sense?
Pretty much. I play the keys and sing the parts before I get to the drums or that kind of thing. I traditionally sort of sit down and play things. It's different for every process or every song. There isn't one technique I use the whole time. There are always new sounds, new techniques, and new effects. I don't have one sound palette that I stick with and try to make it, like, a formulaic SBTRKT sound. It's just not for me. I think creating something new and fresh every time is kind of exciting, pushing myself as a songwriter and an artist and a producer for a remix or whatever.

You are always donning an African mask. How important is the imagery for you as it relates to your sound?
I want to create music and not necessarily be stuck in the whole world of having to promote it in a way where I have to talk about the records before anyone's even heard them. And you know, a lot of stuff that is popular has that expectation. The artists are going to go out there and do so much press and promotion for it and speak out about the record and all that kind of thing. Whereas I kind of feel like if the record speaks for itself, then you shouldn't have to put a lot of time into promoting it.

So the mask came out of your desire to let the music speak for you?
Yeah, it's not that I don't want to be out there performing in front of people -- I do and it's sort of a different thing and that's separate from the promoting and talking about music.

It seems like music journalists want to paint you as being a shy and a reclusive, but I can see your point on letting the music speak for itself, especially in an industry that can be so image based.
Exactly. It's kind of a refreshing thing for me, having been doing it for two years, that I can still turn up at live shows and have the freedom of not being recognized and deliver music to fresh ears and not get hung up on the celebrity-ness. Unfortunately, after a while, you can start to believe that the more feedback you are getting the more popular you are and the better your music is, I suppose. I just want to progress and make better music for myself, rather than what other people react and think.

You're performing here at Ultra Music Festival. Is that going to be a live show?
Yes, it's a live show. First time in Miami, actually. I've never DJed there either.

Are you bringing Sampha with you as well?
The live band is essentially myself on drums and all the electronic stuff and then Sampha on keys and vocals. Between us, we kind of play everything, like all the album stuff and all the tracks. We've been performing like that for about a year now on the road, and this is our second main U.S. tour.

We're really happy with the way we're playing and it's been pretty exciting. You know, every show builds and we add new ideas, new tracks, new instruments every time. It's like creating music in a studio. Every time is different, you know. It's not necessarily the same thing.

A lot of electronic artists use Abelton and controllers. It's very much a static type of set. You hear the same thing every time. There is not a lot of variation. With our show, we're trying to have some of that audience reaction and develop that. It'll never be the same twice. We use a lot of analog synths and things like that now.

A lot of people think electronic artists aren't really doing anything during live sets other than just pushing buttons. Your set sounds more complicated than the average DJ.
You know, the whole thing for me was bringing that balance of live acoustic sounds as well as electronic ones. But in the same instance, the electronic sounds are still triggered in a way with instruments where you can actually see it happening, rather than just pressing buttons, which [the audience] can't really see. Whether it's loud or quiet, there's no real difference in the motion. The way we play is very much for everyone to see what's being played  and how the sound is being built up.

Ultra is sold out. And so far, you're only scheduled to be at the festival. Is there any way you would do a surprise set?
Well, a lot of people ask me. But the thing is we're on a little tour. We're starting in SXSW this week. We're literally on the tour bus. So we won't have a lot of time there. If there is anything else that night, you never know. But I'm not too sure at the moment.

What else can we expect from you in 2012? Are you working on a new album?
Not so much, I've got this touring thing going on for quite a while. I'm quite excited about writing new music. I've been getting new and fresh ideas. I'm getting into the start of that process now, collecting new ideas and the sounds.

After a year of [SBTRKT] being out, it's now about focusing on where my head is at the moment. I don't know how long that process will take. I'm kind of looking into collaborating with other artists on their albums and other production and stuff like that. Just trying to get some new ideas and make some really interesting music.

Ultra Music Festival 2012. Sunday, March 25, to Sunday, March 25. Bayfront Park, 301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Tickets are sold out. Visit ultramusicfestival.com.

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Bayfront Park

301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, FL

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