Boston Globe, March 30, 2012
It’s never a bad idea to strip the clutter away. Valid from home upkeep to personal relations, the principle holds equally true in pop – particularly electronic music, where layers of effects and flurries of adornments threaten dissipating the signal into noise. This has been an issue of late, as the ramshackle genre called dubstep has colonized the club scene; apt music for anxious times, maybe, but lacking clarity and mostly lacking soul.
In England, though, dubstep has run its course and its decay has opened up space. That’s where SBTRKT comes in. The London producer’s self-titled LP, a pared-down gem with a rainbow shimmer, was one of last year’s notable releases. Song-driven, with vocalists on most tracks, it harks back to the time when dance music had lyrics. Attentive to quiet as much as to house and drum-n-bass fundamentals, it places SBTRKT in the genre-blurred UK stream of moody electronica that runs from Massive Attack to the xx.
SBTRKT, who plays the Paradise Wednesday, is on a minimalist mission down to his moniker, which is pronounced “subtract’’ and stands relieved of extraneous vowels. His tour band consists of just himself and singer Sampha. On stage, where he plays drums and manipulates a laptop and accessories, SBTRKT wears one of his collection of neo-tribal masks, which assert his anonymity as well as confer a sacramental vibe to the proceedings. The masks are made by a designer known only as A Hidden Place.
He’s speaking by phone from the SXSW festival in Austin, an earlier stop on his current American tour. “I’m always reluctant to even do phone interviews,’’ he says. “I wanted to create music and have freedom to just make it without having to talk about it too much.’’ But in fact he proves to be personable and quite open in conversation.
Of course, it only takes a quick search to turn up elements of SBTRKT’s back story. His given name is Aaron Jerome, and he had a solid record of productions and remixes under that name until a few years ago, including a 2007 album on the BBE label. The name SBTRKT and the mask ritual aren’t meant to obscure that past, but rather to assert some creative autonomy.
“It takes time to learn the skills and then to actually have a sound of your own,’’ SBTRKT says. There was a point three or four years ago where I came across where I felt my music was headed, and really put all my influences together. It fitted in with what else was surrounding at the time, at the tail end of the dubstep scene, it gave freedom to what I wanted to create.’’
Ingredients of a good song, for SBTRKT, include “that kind of weird texture, something emotive, some sort of soul in the record.’’ On the album he finds this in collaboration with singers Yukimi Nagano (from the band Little Dragon), Jessie Ware, Roses Gabor, and most of all Sampha, a London soul singer with a gloriously cracked, edge-of-tears quality. Their track “Hold On,’’ the album’s sparest, sets Sampha’s lament against an insistent, crystalline loop on the mbira, the southern African “thumb piano’’ that is one of SBTRKT’s favorite instruments.
“When you’re an electronic artist you can easily overdose things, whereas for me it was kind of the opposite, put in the minimum sounds to create something that has quite an effect,’’ SBTRKT says. “That’s how I approached that tune.’’ As is their habit, he and Sampha made the tune together, as opposed to the after-the-fact splicing of vocals and track that often happens in electronic music.
“We vibe together quite easily and songs just come out of us,’’ says Sampha by e-mail. “I feel he understands where I’m going with my ideas and vice versa.’’ And that same chemistry makes the two natural partners in bringing SBTRKT’s music out from the austerity of the studio and giving it life on stage.
“We try to be as expressive as possible physically,’’ Sampha says. “Also I think the writing process is ongoing because we’re re-creating and reorganizing those tracks when it comes to performing them live. Adding alternate top lines, acoustic drums and even lyrical information. It keeps us interested and excited.’’
The balance SBTRKT has achieved, making compact and accessible electronic music that feels neither compromised nor arcane, is tough to pull off. Fusing it with a visual esthetic that works, with the masks, is even harder. This successful tightrope walk has earned SBTRKT high-profile fans like Drake, who popped in on a Toronto gig last year in person, and a current tour that will culminate at this year’s Coachella festival.
In a sense, he’s demonstrating the constant renewal that he says has made him a fan of electronic music since he was a pre-teen hearing early house and UK dance tracks.
“There just seems to have been a never-ending freshness to something that you wouldn’t necessarily think could reinvent itself, you know?’’ SBTRKT says. “With electronic music there always seems to be a new style which really refreshes everything and takes it to a new point.’’