Nobody knows what the vowel-less SBTRKT—pronounced “subtract”—looks like. The South London DJ/producer wears an African tribal mask whenever he performs, standing inside of a DJ booth hidden behind a stony face painted in striking colors and, depending on the mask, with long strands of taffeta streaming from the chin. It’s his way of distancing his personal identity from the melodic club-oriented music that he makes. “SBTRKT is not necessarily a single artist thing,” he says via Skype from his hotel room in Arkansas. “It’s more about trying to create an identity for a collective sound.” (The video function, for the record, was switched off.)
While SBTRKT’s self-titled debut album was only recently released via Young Turks (the U.K. label responsible for unearthing the xx), he has been making music for the past decade, collaborating with producers like Sinden on various side projects. He found his sound after using the screamingly British genre of garage as his starting point. “It’s just got so much energy and warmth and depth,” SBTRKT explains. “I just liked the space between the beats.” He saw a similar appeal in dubstep when it came along some years later, which he appreciated as an open musical grid to fill in as he pleased. “It kind of leaves more room for instrumentation or interpretation. And then when you write, you can make it musical, you can make it deep, you can make it happy, you can make it poppy, you can make it whatever. And I like that, where you’ve got room to move with the sound. So that’s how I kind of got to [where I am] now.”
SBTRKT is an 11-track LP that takes elements of darker bass-oriented electronic music, colors it with vocals and shapes these into standalone songs with sticky hooks. Tracks like “Wildfire,” featuring the lithe voice of Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano, push the bass wobble of dubstep into something a bit more widely palatable and use it to pad out a tune that ultimately goes pop. The song’s chart friendliness has already been recognized by Drake, the pride of Canada (after Bieber, of course), who dropped in a few verses on the remix.
Nagano isn’t the only one lending her humanness to the SBTRKT sound, as a number of London voices stitch together the debut album that is carried predominantly by his full-sounding production. Frequent collaborator Sampha, singer Jessie Ware and Gorillaz tour member Roses Gabor all assist in giving SBTRKT cohesiveness and longevity as a dance music album—characteristics that greatly concerned its creator. SBTRKT recounts with a laugh that the track order alone took six months of deliberation.
“Electronic music is based around this club culture and DJs who need exclusive dub plates and everything,” SBTRKT says. “Once the track comes out, within two weeks it’s not fresh anymore. No one wants to hear it. They need the next new thing that a producer does. And it speeds up to this pointless thing where writing music becomes just so throwaway in electronic music. I never felt music should be like that.”