SBTRKT is perhaps best known for his 2020 EP, which blurred the lines between deep house, funky techno, broken beat and UK funky over four tracks, but he first appeared with a white label future garage mash-up of Goldie's "Timeless" and "Inner City Life." Basement Jaxx were early fans, commissioning him to remix the Kelis-fronted "Scars" into a skippily hyperactive bass-heavy banger, and he's since gone on to rerub the likes of Jose James, Modeselektor, Fantastic Mr Fox and even UK pop grime artist Tinie Tempah.
"A lot of other producers' remixes sound like they are thrown together rather than treated like an original track," says the producer. "With remixes I go for the experimental approach production-wise but [make sure they] still can be played out in DJ sets. Also it's the chance to have some fun with the parts in the tracks that I normally wouldn't use on my own. My original material is more song-based experiments rather than club-friendly instrumentals."
The big question on everyone's mind, though, is...well...just who is SBTRKT? Anonymity in dance music is hardly a new thing. When someone decides to remove their musical persona from their own personal background, the intriguing thing for many fans is not the fact that they're anonymous, but the reasoning behind their decision. Is SBTRKT trying to hide his musical past and start afresh, ala Redshape, or is he attempting to cultivate a distinct image that supplements his musical direction like Burial?
When I approach the subject, his response is curt and to the point, explaining that he would rather "people base their opinions on if they love, like or dislike the music that I make. Not on me." Unfortunately for him, it may be a little too late for that, as numerous sources have already outed him as Aaron Jerome, who up until a couple of years ago was active in the nu-jazz and broken beat scene. Aaron got his first break in 2002 via drum & bass don LTJ Bukem, who selected the breezy, shuffling beats of "Overeasy" for his Soul Obsession compilation, before fellow Westminster University student and friend Kevin Mark Trail helped him to secure a high profile remix for Nitin Sawhney.
Trail had written a track for Sawhney's Human album, and managed to persuade his V2 paymasters to bring Aaron on board to craft a version of "The River" from the same record, leading to a steady stream of remix offers and an album deal from BBE. Largely eschewing the laidback but groove-heavy style that he brought to his interpretations of others' work, 2007's Time to Rearrange saw Aaron go for a more downtempo and soulful sound, bringing in eight different vocalists to flesh out his lush orchestration and organic percussion.
His debut album was met by critical and commercial ambivalence, with the continually shrinking popularity of nu-jazz and the rise of illegal downloading combining to derail his attempt to cross over to a wider audience. The more cynical readers out there may be of the opinion that Aaron's rebirth as SBTRKT is nothing more than an attempt to jump on the latest trends in UK dance music, but as he explains, his penchant for swung house and UK garage goes back much further than the past few years.
"I first got into electronic music mainly through listening to mixtapes. I used to pick up ones by Masters At Work, Andrew Weatherall and Tuff Jam, as well as the classic albums by Leftfield, Xpress-2, Daft Punk and Bjork," he explains. It was UK garage that had the greatest effect on him as a bedroom producer and DJ during the late '90s, however. "That was my first love in terms of a sound I felt could blend the divide between electronic stuff and soulful stuff. That skip, bass, and off kilter-ness of it. I was big into things like MJ Cole, D.E.A. and Groove Chronicles."
That skip, bass and off kilter-ness..."
As he became more and more consumed by the future jazz direction that his solo productions were taking, Aaron lost touch with his garage roots, instead spending his clubbing hours at Plastic People's Co-Op, CD-R and the Blueprint Sessions. It was here that he first met and spent time with Graeme Sinden, who in a strange twist of fate, would end up giving Aaron his first booking as SBTRKT. "At the time he didn't know it was me. I'd been sending him tracks anonymously for his radio show via MySpace, and he only realised on the night we already knew each other! That gig was in Fabric's room 1, so some pretty big speakers to fill."
After getting reacquainted at the Get Familiar party, the pair decided that the time was right to step into the studio together. "Graeme has more experience of bass club records, and I bring production techniques and some other musical vibes to the mix. It balances well on the tracks we've been working on." From listening to the results, you can tell that both producers have made compromises and shaped each other's sound; "Midnight Marauder" takes Sinden's fidgety electro house and adds more of a percussive skip, while "Kind Of Familiar" sees SBTRKT's UK funky-inspired beats get twisted up with his collaborator's plinky riffs and grubby basslines. The pair are currently working on a follow-up single, which will also come out on Sinden's fledgling Grizzly imprint.
As well as forthcoming singles for both Tempa and Ramp, there's also an album in the works. "It's a work in progress at the minute, but the main thing is that the album contains music that after I made it, it still continues to excite me to listen to it. It's also more rewarding to write songs that I hope will last longer than stuff that hits club sets for a month then disappears. I haven't settled on a label home for it as yet. That's to decide once it's finished in the autumn." What drew him to move from producing nu-jazz to this broken, melodic and bass-heavy house? "Beats with a double time gives the music so much more energy. I love artists like Zinc, Ramadanman, Redlight, Lil Silva, Roska and the myriad of other artists exploring the 128-138 bracket. I'm still well into the atmospheric and experimental attitude that dubstep brings though."
Those clubs have been just as unexpected as his music: SBTRKT recently went on tour with his live show to support experimental electro rockers Holy Fuck. "I've been mixing vinyl since I was about ten, but Ableton gives me the freedom to play around with tracks as I would in the studio. Performing live shows is a lot harder work than DJing though. [There are] four times as many things to think of. It was definitely different to the clubs I'm used to playing at; more so playing such early sets rather than two in the morning, but Holy Fuck seem to have a fairly open-minded fan base. I just did my thing, playing the tracks I feel represented me best and are playable in a live environment. Overall it was a positive reaction, and I learned a lot about playing in indie live venues, and giving more energy rather than just head down in your laptop or mixing tunes."