Though anonymity in electronica is common in the underground, what it rarely leads to is a threshold on mainstream stardom. Flying below the horizon proved to land the cagey act known as SBTRKT in a very opposite space of operation, who by virtue of keeping masked has garnered the attention of everyone from Radiohead to Drake. Though touted as dubstep, producer Aaron Jerome is quick to retract the appointment. In fact, he’s quick to eschew any generic affiliation, sell-in to hype and is short on words to describe his style.
Put shortly, SBTRKT is mainly two men (he is largely accompanied by vocalist Sampha), signed to Young Turks/XL, who spend their studio time in a dirty room under the railroads in London’s Clapham Junction. Though Jerome has a reputation as in-demand remixer, the two have now managed to sell out shows around the world in a couple-year span. Magnetic had a chance to catch up with Jerome to discuss whatever it is that dubstep’s become, performing live in a new age of electronic music and what happens in your green room when a Canadian rap star takes over.
We do our setup more like what our studio sessions are like, rather than by clicking a mouse. Bands like Little Dragon, real bands, are just so much more interesting to watch. You can see the dynamics and the changes in the instruments and the people getting more involved in their playing.
You’re labeled as a dubstep artist, though that seems like a bit of a reach. Wait, why are we even still discussing dubstep five years later?
There are a lot of albums appearing from the artists who established themselves from that scene over the past four or five years. There was that exciting time where the wobbly dubstep peaked and then the more techno and garage-infused sounds came in. There are so many pockets of it all over the world now. In terms of the big artists, you have the Magnetic Man vibe and then you have Skrillex in the US, which is very much that overblown dubstep. They’ve stuck to their thing, but then chucked a lot of pop vocals onto a dubstep sound.
It’s funny though. I’m not really a dubstep artist at all. I just come from an electronic scene that’s around now. So that means unfortunately, you just get tagged with the sound of now, which is dubstep. I’ve got a couple of tracks that are at 140 [BPM], which [is not dubstep] to be honest. It’s not techno either though.
What would you call yourself then?
I was in Toronto, a [publication] there referred to SBTRKT as “electronic R&B outfit.” That’s a really funny way of explaining us to a North American audience, I suppose. We’re a little more soulful than dubstep, but... I’m happy to ride off whatever people want to call it, really. I’m not really concerned with genre names. I know my stuff is so far removed from everything. For me, explaining the music is such an upward battle. I have no idea how describe it.
Your live shows involve live drums what appears to be a lot of mayhem on stage that isn’t typically aligned with electronic music. Is Sampha SBTRKT too, or a part of the show’s live element?
He’s on seven out of eleven tracks on the album, so there would definitely be no live show without him! We use the electronic [equipment] as tools to loop and make effects. Every show hopefully sounds different, as nothing is really pre-sequenced. As soon as I get behind a drum kit, people go nuts. I don’t think they expect it. The minute you get labeled as an electronic act, people think you’re just DJs but that’s not necessarily it. We do our setup more like what our studio sessions are like, rather than by clicking a mouse. Bands like Little Dragon, real bands, are just so much more interesting to watch. You can see the dynamics and the changes in the instruments and the people getting more involved in their playing. So that’s essentially what I was trying to achieve, without trying to lose the electronic appeal of the music.
Your vocalists are quite diverse, ranging from Sampha’s off-kilter love songs to Little Dragon. What are you looking for in a vocalist?
Well, if you think about Little Dragon themselves, what are they exactly? You may as well call them dubstep too, considering what’s been going on lately! I love them as a band and having a part of their sound. They go their own way, without any regard to scene or genre. I suppose you could call them an “electro R&B artist!” [Laughing].
But my main vocalist is Sampha. He’s my main collaborator. I found him through label connections. He was introduced to me as a producer, [but] he then played me something he had done vocals on. It was so unique and mad. He’s completely untrained and it was something he was just trying out. Lyrically, he has this really unique way of coming up with stuff. I don’t really know where it comes from, to be honest, but it always seems to come from and fit in the right place and way. It’s not just generic love songs. There’s always an interesting twist to it. Whenever I work with an artist, I want any artist to fit with me both stylistically and lyrically in that way. Finding him was really amazing.
What was it like sharing a stage with a pop hip-hop star, and how on earth did you get in touch with Drake in the first place?
He decided he liked my stuff and put it on his blog. That was it, basically. I only knew he was at our gig two minutes before we went on stage. He stood by the stage the entire time we were playing. It’s amusing how we sort of took this right out of the bedroom… and now it’s supported by a superstar rapper.
How planned was your ascension from remixer to where you are now?
It was an idea to keep some anonymity from the style. The hype thing really annoys me, but it’s funny. Everywhere I go, all across the world the shows are beyond sold out. I don’t really enjoy having to explain my music, or interact personally with people to try and get my music played or heard by people. My initial aim was to send stuff out on Soundcloud, the Internet and to DJs to see what the reaction would be. As it turned out, not knowing who I was as an artistic identity worked really well. I just figured I’d carry on with the anonymity.
SBTRKT is currently on tour and will be heading back Stateside this fall for a US Tour.