SBTRKT: Stardom Through Anonymity | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Stardom Through Anonymity

Aug 18, 2011 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

SBTRKT's songs are nearly as cryptic as the persona he's adopted, often mixing dark, digital beats over soulful-yet-haunting R&B grooves. The mysterious London-based producer keeps his face covered by colorful masks, and his real name separate from his growing body of work. He chooses to let the music speak for itself, and that sound's been carried loud and far: His self-titled debut album met wide critical acclaim upon its release, and reached an audience well beyond the club music scene in which he'd first made his mark.

Under the Radar caught up with SBTRKT (pronounced "subtract") at the beginning of a lengthy international tour that will take him across four continents. He got on the phone to talk about the transience of electronic music, why he keeps his identity hidden behind, and his rapid rise to stardom over the past year.

Austin Trunick: Your level fame has really skyrocketed in 2011. You've gone from being known for a few big remixes and instrumental tracks here and there, to having a widely praised debut album and launching a high-profile world tour. Have the last few months been crazy for you? 

SBTRKT: Yeah, I guess so, since the album dropped just about a month ago. It's been really good since it came out; the reactions have gotten stronger and stronger in terms of feedback. People have heard it and listened to the record in its entirety. That's kind of new to me, I suppose, because previous to that I just had EPs and singles, and had been remixing things. Obviously they're very much more specific to certain scenes, for DJs to play them, and have a shorter shelf life. When you put out 11 tracks on an album, people tend to listen to it as a whole and see it as a kind of statement. For me, yeah, it's been kind of crazy. This summer we've been playing a lot more festival shows. It's been positive, really, on the whole.

You mentioned music having a shelf life. Your aim with the album was to create songs that weren't as disposable as a lot of club music tends to be. What different approach did you take to the songwriting to see that the music lived beyond a few weeks' worth of spinning on the dance floor?

A lot of electronic music's kind of transient, in that you follow a lot of what's going on at the moment and it's very much about trying to be on the cutting edge and on the cusp of what's new this week. Generally, that gets played in the club and then a week later there's something fresh and new. I think when people appreciate songs with depth and emotion on a record they're more willing to play it over and over again. I don't mean electronic music is devoid of that. I just think that putting together a body of work that has more meaning when it's put together, it has more of a longer-term effect.

I think you've succeeded on that level, since the album's met so much praise and gotten the attention of a lot of people who aren't normally interested in the club scene. Did you ever guess the album might have had this much crossover appeal?

I don't know. I guess that was always my intention. My ideals in writing music are that people will appreciate whatever emotion they can find in the song, it doesn't matter what genre or idea that it stems from. I've always approached writing music in such that even if it's got some kind of crazy dubstep bass line or something that someone [who] normally wouldn't know about that scene or genre, they can still hear the element that would bring them in a different way, I suppose. The emotional quality or virtue will come beyond the traits of what genre or sound it fits in. It transcends it being kind of a U.K. genre, bass thing, whatever; it becomes more universal than that. A lot more people can understand it on a different level, I suppose.

You tend to put a different spin on your songs when playing them out live. What differences can your listeners expect from hearing your songs on tour as opposed to listening to the album at home?

The main thing, obviously, is that when I do things in the studio it's very produced. I think about things for months on end and try to work out the exact kind of build-up and layers of sound I want to use in the arrangements of the songs. In the live performance it's different in that it's about engaging with the audience. A lot of electronic producers go out and play and it's basically pressing buttons and performing that way. It doesn't have that interaction with the audience; it's very much more about them doing a performance of their songs in a different environment. I prefer bands and artists where you can see something that translates to the live environment. What I do is play a live drum kit and loop electronic beats live through the drums. My main collaborator on the record is singing vocals and playing keyboards, and looping up live vocals as well. Between the two of us we translate those songs into more of a live context. It's slightly different and more engaging with the audience, I suppose. And really, the songs roll and change depending on where we're playing, extending or lengthening them translates more into a space versus it being something you'd listen to on headphones at home.

Visually, of course, the first thing people will notice about you is the mask. When did the idea of remaining anonymous and creating this other persona become important to you?

Since the beginning, I've always felt that writing electronic music is not necessarily doing something that's very personal, like writing about your life experience. I think it's much more imaginary in the sense that you're using these sounds that don't really exist in the real world and turning that into an imaginary soundscape or emotion. For me, making music under the alias SBTRKT is kind of like taking my own personal thing away from it, and SBTRKT being its own kind of persona. The mask is an extension of that, putting a new face on it. An illustrative way of describing who SBTRKT is, I suppose, rather than my face. It's a way of changing and interacting in a different, creative way.

Now that this SBTRKT persona is out there and has its own body of music attached to it, do you feel that audiences approached it differently than had it been released under a more personal identity? 

For me, it's a distance that lets you look at in a different way, rather than in a direct way where you'd think it's all about yourself. I don't think people project the fact that there's some sort of personal mission or statement. It's more about building something that's based on the music, and that was the main thing for me, I suppose. It's very much more about the music than it is about the person behind it.

The tribal masks are certainly very visually striking. Was there another reason behind why, specifically, you chose to go with tribal masks, other than the looks? 

The tribal masks work in that in some tribal cultures they're part of a dance or some tribal ceremony. When they put them on, [it's] like they've got the spirit of an ancestor in them. They have this meaning that when you wore the mask, when you put them on you could become that persona and without it you go back to normal. For me it's about doubling up; being SBTRKT with the mask on, and not SBTRKT without it.

Looking at your tour schedule, you're playing in dozens of cities around the world over the next three months. Have global audiences been as receptive to your music as they have in the U.S. and U.K.?

I would have to say, 'Yeah.' It's been amazing, to be honest. We toured the U.S. about a month ago, we played New York and then we went to Canada, to Toronto. They were really excited, I suppose. They were all sold out sort of shows. It's amazing seeing that sort of reaction. In Europe it seems kind of similar. We've played in Germany and the Netherlands and they've been very receptive to the album and the music, really. Countries like Australia, where we haven't been, seem really, really excited by the record.

It seems like you've put the same amount of thought into the SBTRKT name as you have into the masks, the stage presence and the music. Where did the SBTRKT name come from and how does it relate to the music you're recording under that moniker?

It was more about the identity than anything. The subtraction being myself, I suppose, that was where it came from. The letters thing, that was a way of shortening it, a way of taking out letters and subtracting that way, as well. It wasn't anything specific about vowels, or anything like that. There seem to be a lot of copycat artists now doing similar things, which I find kind of funny since I didn't really think it out that much when I did it. I think in terms of music, it really doesn't have a direct reference to what I produce or how I produce. It's more of an identity.

And finally, now that you've gotten so much attention for your original music, have you been receiving even more requests for remix work?

I have been, for sure. I really haven't taken any on, to be honest, for the last six or seven months. [Laughs]

You've been very busy.

They don't really interest me as much. I just like really exciting music, and if something comes along that excites me to remix then I'll do it. I just completed one for Radiohead, the track "Lotus Flower," which will be [out] very shortly. Another one I did for someone whose music I'm really into is Machinedrum, who's on Planet Mu Records now. I'm just excited by his production, he's from New York. But nothing else at this point!




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