Hitting The Highway With Submorphics

A listen through Submorphics’ brand new North Quarter EP will have you longing to take a summer road trip across the picturesque Verona Highway that it was named after. But you can’t physically go there – it’s an imaginary journey. A state of mind. An insight into Greg Submorphics’ rose-tinted memories and feelings of nostalgia.

With his fourth output on The North Quarter, Submorphics returns with his signature sound of soulful, lo-fi but tightly produced liquid drum & bass. The US native draws on influences from his upbringing – from keeping things steady with a Detroit techno-style, to experimenting with some Chicago footwork, and of course using elements of hip-hop, soul, and jazz, backbones of the NQ sound. 

This all comes together for a listening journey filled with emotion, likely eliciting your own feelings of nostalgia – whether you’re reminiscing on actual memories, or dreaming of a familiar time and place that you never experienced. 

The Verona Highway EP also represents an output that was partly worked on through the hard knocks of lockdown in the Netherlands, as Greg had only moved over in 2019. It feels fitting to now have it released in the summer of freedom, with a variety of feel-good sounds, as well as some more deeper and emotive tracks that may provide a rear-view look at the pandemic. 

In this interview we chatted through all these influences in-depth. We also discussed the US drum & bass scene, Greg’s approach to production, and where he thinks his sound will go in the future. 

I wanted to start by asking about where you grew up, and what were you listening to?

I grew up in Michigan, in the suburbs outside of Detroit. The first music I was listening to was late-80s hip-hop like Run DMC, Biz Markie, and stuff like that. 

In the 90s I was into alternative rock, indie rock, and grunge. But by the end of the decade, when I was in high school, I was really into a wide range of electronic music. Not any one genre either – it was Aphex Twin, Boards Of Canada, Photek, Omni Trio, early Metalheadz stuff…

Then in university I got really into drum & bass through artists like Calibre, High Contrast, LTJ Bukem, and Marcus Intalex. 

A few phases you went through there it sounds like. Do you have a musical background?

Yeah – I was in piano and guitar lessons, and I was in a band in high school. But once my band broke up I realised I didn’t want to play with other people anymore, I just wanted to make music on my own. Also, because I was getting really into electronic music, I sort of gave up the guitar world and transitioned into being a beat-maker. But these days I’m getting back into guitar and incorporating it into my music. More with a jazzy, soulful angle, rather than the indie rock stuf I was doing.

Being able to strum out melodies and things must make production a little more enjoyable too.  

Yeah, during covid it was a hobby that I was getting into. I also bought all these floor pedals, and I’m running my synths through them as well now. I’ve never really used hardware in my entire recording career, but during covid I had a bit of extra time. Plus, I’ve got a bigger apartment here in the Netherlands, so I’ve got all this space to experiment with these little toys and synths – and you can hear some of that on the EP. 

When we last spoke to you, you were about to sort your visa to move over. You seem pretty well-settled in the Netherlands now. How’s it been?

Yeah it’s great! Unfortunately I came here about a year before covid, so a lot of the time here has been during that period. So I want to stay here longer because I didn’t get the full experience of living here as an artist. They were really strict here and everything was very locked-down. 

But in the last 6 months I’ve gotten back into gigging. I’ve done 9 or 10 shows now and it’s surreal to be back out there. Getting to play all the music that was made during covid that I never got to hear in the clubs – a lot of it is all very emotional, vocal stuff too, so getting to play those out, and hear people sing along in clubs has been amazing for me. 

I bet! So the move to the Netherlands was originally to get closer to the scene and the label? 

Yeah, I signed with ESP booking agency, and I was playing a lot. But I wanted to play 12 months a year rather than just 1 or 2.

The North Quarter is taking off too: we’re all collabing together, I’ve got the radio show with Lenzman, we’ve got our label nights at Phonox in London. There’s so much happening. I can always go back to America when the time is right, but I was in the position to move here, and I took advantage of it. Kind of stepping out of my comfort zone – but sometimes, you’ve gotta do that!

Your music is very US influenced – from Detroit techno, to hip-hop, to jazz. Are you getting any inspiration from the Dutch way of life?

Haha, over here it’s all about gabber – I’m not influenced by that at all to be honest! But living near to the UK and experiencing the Manchester soul scene with Children of Zeus and all that stuff, that’s been an influence on me. Also just being closer to my fellow artists on TNQ, we all inspire each-other. 

But to answer your question, no matter where I am in the world, I’m always going back to those early inspirations. It’s like, I’m here in The Hague, but I’m always thinking about Detroit-style music. But on this new EP I’m trying to explore some more experimental Detroit techno influences, and also 90’s Warp Records type stuff. I’m trying to dive into some more experimental, but still melodic territory. 

I guess almost all drum & bass can be traced back to those US origins in one way or another. You recently got back from a North American tour didn’t you? 

Yeah I had 8 shows. I visited some friends and family, some I haven’t seen in two years. And I got to play at Locus festival in Tulum, which was sort of like a mini-Sun & Bass type vibe – very intimate, beautiful paradise.

Beyond friends and family, is there anything you miss about home – the food perhaps? 

I miss Mexican food. The Mexican food in Holland is garbage! But some things are better here – Chocolate, cheese and bread are all much better over here. A lot of American food is very processed, sugary, and salty. But then again, I was indulging in Pizza, Burgers, Tacos and all that good stuff when I visited! 

What’s the scene like in the US? How has it progressed? 

I feel like it’s ebbed and flowed. I’ve been in it since the 2000s, so I’ve seen it go up and down. But the thing about it is, it’s such a big country that there isn’t a lot of connection between the micro-scenes. So it’s hard for me to talk about the scene in America as a whole. But to me, the best scenes are in LA, San Francisco, Denver – the west coast seems to be where it’s at. 

I would say that it’s evolved a lot too – in the past all they really wanted was bangers, but on this last tour I just did, I was able to play deeper and more meaningful vocal stuff. Previously, people might have gone out for a smoke or a drink during those tunes, but now it seems like they get the best response. 

You’ve touched on it a little already, but specifically for this EP – where were you drawing influence from?

I was going back to 90s and 2000s Detroit techno like Kevin Saunderson and Carl Craig, as well as Chicago footwork, like DJ Rashad. I also did the vocals on two of the tunes, sort of inspired by these early Detroit techno and electro tunes, where I used a vocoder and made my voice sound like a robot.

But yeah, even when I’m channelling techno, I’m still trying to do it in my own voice. I have a really specific melodic style that I keep going back to, and I think I still do that, even when I’m channelling other influences. 

I feel like your tracks really seem to capture that nostalgic vibe too. 

Yeah, thanks! I guess I’m just a nostalgic person. I listen to a lot of music that came out even before I was born.  There’s just something about a nostalgic melody or sound that reminds you of a long-gone era that has passed… it channels emotions for me thinking about a time that is no-longer with us. Even when I’m doing more modern sound design and stuff, melodically, I’m still going back to these early influences of mine. 

Do you think you achieve this more through sampling, or designing it yourself?

I go back and forth between sampling a lot, and then making all the sounds myself. When I get sick of sampling, I make it myself. But when I’m uninspired by my own music I go back to samples. 

Historically, I’m known for digging through 60s and 70s soul, funk and jazz – finding obscure ones that people wouldn’t recognise in the first place, and then flipping them and chopping them up – making them my own. I hate it when people recognise one of my samples, so I’m always trying to find the left-field ones.

But on this new EP I barely used any samples. I think there’s something really rewarding about doing it all yourself and not stealing from anyone else. I do like both though, I’m not going to act like one is better than the other, because there’s some things you can achieve with a sample that you’ll never achieve on your own. 

Touching back on that techno-influenced sound – Satl’s another one who really nails it. What was it like to work with him on ‘Dawn of the Rebirth’? 

It’s always nice to work with him. We’re both the same way, we’ll write a tune in an hour, and if we’re happy with it, we leave it and move on. If I go stay at his apartment for 2 or 3 days, we can get like a dozen ideas in. In this most recent case we wrote a lot of soulful stuff, but then to switch it up we always write a few of these darker, weirder, more experimental tunes. Satl’s able to channel this experimental vibe better than any of us, so I leaned on him for a bit of that. 

But yeah, from the 9 or 10 tunes we made when I visited him in Poland last summer, the one that Lenzman took was the weirdest, most experimental one. So that was a surprise, but it fits really well on this EP. 

And what about the other tracks – can you recall any memories about putting those together? 

Lucinda started as an old-school jungle thing and Lenzman thought it was good musically, but he wasn’t sold on it. So I added this Chicago footwork vibe – some steppy-ness, different drum patterns, and threw in these chopped up vocals – and all of a sudden it sounded like something I’d never done before. So that was super exciting, I don’t know if that’s going to be people’s favourite, but the fact that it sounded different than anything I’d done, I thought it was a fresh-take. 

I also want to point out this tune called Electric Winter Sky, which was the first tune that got signed to the EP. For me, this is a blatant tribute to Marcus Intalex. When he was still with us, I used to send him a lot of music and he was always giving great feedback and playing it out. I never got a change to sign anything to Soul:r, because I had commitments with Friction at the time. But he’s still a massive influence for me, and when I listen to this tune, I think I wish he was still here because I would’ve loved to play this one for him. So big up Marcus Intalex and big up his whole family. 

For sure – his influence is super strong across the scene.  So four TNQ releases in, does it feel like you’ve totally found your sound? Or do you have more areas that you’d like to explore?

I feel both of those things. I do feel like I have summed up my sound, and I feel like I’ve done that sound to death to a certain extent. If I do a soulful tune in my own style that I think is really strong, I’m still going to release it, but moving forward I want to try some things that I’ve never done before.

I think when I collaborate with people it gives a fresh take on my sound, it gets me out of my comfort zone and we’re able to share our strengths. Looking ahead, I would like to go further down this road of the styles I’ve done on the Verona Highway EP. 

Whose music are you really enjoying? Are there any American names to watch for?

Yeah Echo Brown in North Carolina of course – obviously I’m shouting out my label mate there. And then I’ve got a homie in San Francisco, Flaco, he’s got an album coming out. Random Movement in Florida has always been doing great stuff. And my friends Quadrant & Iris in Seattle are doing cool things. Winslow in Kansas City has also been making big waves. 

It seems like in the time that I’ve been away from America, there’s been some new talent coming through, and that’s inspiring. For years I was just jaded as hell – I was in love with drum & bass, but it is so underground there. I would go to the UK where it’s so much more prevalent and it would just make me upset that I would have to go back to America. So it’s really refreshing to see all these talented people coming through, and they’re ambitious and working really hard. 

What’s coming up next for you? 

So I’ve got more stuff with Satl. And me and FD were able to write some tunes as well, which are still in the works.  In terms of gigs, there are some festivals I’m about to announce, and we’ve got Phonox in London on 13th August.  I’m also going to South America for the first time at the end of the year, to Santiago and Buenos Aires. I’ve never been to South America and I’m super looking forward to that, that’s a bucket list thing for me. 

Nice one, lots to look forward to. My final question for you is about Verona Highway. Where is it? Google wasn’t giving me much…

It’s imaginary. Basically, the Verona was a car that Ford built in the late 80s and early 90s. My family was heavily involved with the Ford Motor Company, and I was trying to channel this road-trip vibe so I made up this imaginary highway. And because the Verona was made in the era I was channelling, that’s where the name comes from.  

Submorphics – Verona Highway is out now on The North Quarter

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