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The man like SBTRKT, unmasked and clutching a Domino’s pizza box, strolls out of the Russian Club Studios on Kingsland Road in east London following his second photoshoot of the day (he spent the morning out west, at Kew Gardens). He’s a little subdued but is happy enough to be led up to the roof of a nearby apartment block for our shoot. He’s come prepared, revealing a bag full of African cloth should we wish to use it for a backdrop, as well as his famous mask, which is packed in bubble wrap in an old kit box. There’s a slightly awkward moment involving an abandoned sofa that he reluctantly poses on for some warm-up shots (he later vetoes these), but he warms to photographer Gabriel’s idea of something more abstract behind a metal grill, as the texture appeals.
It would be easy to mistake his fastidiousness as fussiness but that would be doing him a disservice because, like all good storytellers, Kenyan-born, London-raised Aaron Jerome knows detail is everything. This is a man who spent four months working out the order of ‘SBTRKT’, his very recent album on London label Young Turks, getting the flow just right. A 10-strong collection of club-channelled pop songs and seamless jams featuring vocal collaborations with Sampha, Jessie Ware, Yukimi from Little Dragon and Roses Gabor, it’s the result of two years of hard graft that’s finally starting to pay off. The night before, at his debut headline live gig at Hoxton Bar & Kitchen, the cheek-to-armpit audience stretched far out the heavy wooden doors. It’s the first in a string of massive gigs, which go on to include Toronto (with Canadian R&B star Drake, who recently dropped a few lines over Wildfire) and New York’s MoMA PS1.
Photos done and dusted, we wander along to find somewhere to do the interview. As we approach The Victory pub, he recalls a gig there with indie band Esben and the Witch a year or so ago. It’s rainy and getting on so we duck in, sitting down in front of a giant pencil drawing of a bulldog. Aaron leans over the dictaphone as he talks, half politely to help my ears later as it’s a little noisy, and half because, well, he just can’t help it. The words tumble out of him; he speaks quickly yet eloquently, barely pausing between answers, or for questions. With all the excitement, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was fresh out the blocks but actually SBTRKT is not the beginning of Aaron’s musical story. That began back in the mid-2000s when he was recording music of a more broken beat-y nature under his own name for jazz/funk labels Wah Wah 45s and BBE, the latter of whom he released an album with, ‘Time To Rearrange’, in 2008. It was also under his own name that he began his prolific remixing career, with reworks for Nitin Sawhney, DJ Vadim, William Orbit and Little Dragon amongst others. Then in 2009 he reinvented himself as SBTRKT, which marked not just a change in direction to a grittier, bass-driven sound but also to a more considered, crafted identity. That mask, again. Why does he wear it?
“It’s building a bigger picture.” SBTRKT
“Yesterday my brother was saying that I was standing down the front of my own gig and no-one knew who I was until I went on stage. I kind of like that. I’ve been playing for so long but no one recognises me and I can be as I am. There’s no pretence that you’re the artist and you’re more special than anyone else because in real life that’s not true. In a musical world I create what I want to do under a musical identity, as essentially I do in the real world. They are very separate things for me. The mask thing comes out of that, as does the name and everything else. It’s building a bigger picture.”
Aaron sent out his first SBTRKT tracks to DJs and producers anonymously because “if they played it, that meant they appreciated it for what it was.” Radio 1/Xfm’s Mary Anne Hobbs and DJ/producer Sinden were early supporters, and things snowballed pretty quickly. He released a series of 12”s – a collab with Sinden on his Grizzly label, one on Ramp with Sampha, and Soundboy Shift on Young Turks – and also cemented his go-to remixer status with turns for Underworld, Basement Jaxx, Tinie Tempah, Mark Ronson, These Young Puritans and M.I.A. Not that he jumped at everything going: “I hate it when labels come to me with requests for a certain type of vibe – “can you do something a bit like that song what you once wrote?” No. I had a request from Kelis to do a rock kind of sound, yeah whatever – when have I ever written a rock song? That’s not going to work, is it? I’ve had numerous remix requests I’ve turned down from big acts.”
It’s not a boast, but there is pride there – in his work and his way of working. Aaron is not about the ride; it’s the end result that matters. While a casual listen to early SBTRKT productions like Right Place and Soundboy Shift might seem a little at odds with this song-based album, a closer lean-in reveals a growing pattern of, quite literally, subtraction – of getting down to the essence of the song, the bones of the story.
“A lot of the production on this album is about trying to limit myself in a way – I feel like I can quite easily over-complicate things and put in too much.” SBTRKT
“For me, there’s not really been any change since I kinda started creating records as SBTRKT. Things have gradually developed. The way I write music and the way I like creating is I never want to repeat myself. A lot of the production on this album is about trying to limit myself in a way – I feel like I can quite easily over-complicate things and put in too much or arrange things too much. It was really about stripping things out – and no more so than Hold On: it’s literally a kick and a marimba line and that’s about it. Each one of those sounds is so essential, without any of them it would be lost.”
While doing more with less is his approach, when it comes to writing he gets most excited about collaboration, seeing it as a means “just to really push yourself, to go beyond your realms and limits of what you’d normally be comfortable doing.” And that works both ways: “With someone like Sampha, he’s got a really soulful melody style. He could quite easily do R&B or soulful house if you were going to stick him in a genre but I try to pull him a bit left of that, and do something that takes him out of the comfort zone a little bit – then that also brings out something so fresh and new that even he couldn’t see that before.” How do they work together?
“My wall is covered in masks.” SBTRKT
“For Trials Of The Past, I wrote out a melodic song for it, then Sampha scatted along the whole idea – lyrically out-there words. And then out of this 10 minutes he’s done he has some really magical moments, where’s he picked out some sort of lyrical line of chorus or verse, which I just grab from the middle. Generally, he’s kind of unfocused on it because he’s in a kind of a trance where he’s come up with this thing. I’m the person who cuts and edits this out and says, ‘listen to that – I’m taking this and putting it in this context’. It’s this thing where we’re playing off each other and rearranging stuff in that way. That’s how Trials Of The Past came together – his lyrical thing about ‘gloomiest entities’ – that’s basically because we’re in my living room and my wall is covered in masks, so he’s just looking at these masks staring down at him. But in his trance-like state, he didn’t know that until he listened back to it.”
It takes a pretty close working relationship for that level of trust, which is why questions about dream big-time collaborations are shrugged off: there’d never be the time, or potentially the inclination, to develop that bond.
“If I work with anyone, it’s got to be someone who I feel comfortable with – and it’s got to be a relationship. It’s got to be building and invigorating and fresh so that something special can happen. I don’t ever want to go, ‘because I’m bigger now and this person likes my record, I want to collab with them.’ That is the death of any artist to be honest – when they think two big people makes a bigger record. I hate that kind of attitude.”
Instead, once again, it’s the details he’s interested in, that you can get to when you work so closely together. It allows a sensitivity to flourish. The last 20 seconds of Trials Of The Past, for example, fade out to bring in an echoing loop of Right Thing To Do, then a clean pause, so when the song actually starts, Jessie Ware is right there, her voice hush in your ear. That little touch, over in a couple of seconds, is at the heart of what SBTRKT does best: angling each moment of a song to shed the most light; building a space in which each element is essential to the chemistry. It goes back to that subtraction thing: any excess has been trimmed away. The result is clean and simple – each song lives and breathes a single emotion, whether it’s the heartache of Hold On, the confusion of Right Thing To Do or the regret of Never Never. It feels raw, it feels honest and it feels human. It’s very relatable and, because of that, it also feels very pop – the fresher, 21st century reincarnation of which that counts The xx, James Blake and Jamie Woon in its number: artists leaning away from the centre yet still reaching mainstream ears.
“If I work with anyone, it’s got to be someone I feel comfortable with – and it’s got to be a relationship.” SBTRKT
Aaron gets what I’m getting at but remains unconvinced by the pop tag, perhaps because his feet – and the album – are still so grounded in the club world that birthed SBTRKT. He’s got more collaborations coming up with Sinden and also with Modeselektor, so it’s not that he’s leaving that world behind. But the world he’s creating with ‘SBTRKT’ is fuelled by a desire to tell stories that will still resonate in years to come. While he remains philosophical about whether he’ll achieve that (“I’ve set them a few levels of problems – the name, the mask and the weird music.”), all I know is that I can’t stop pressing play.