Well, he never actually went away. This summer has been one of the best times to catch the London artist in several years in fact. But it has been three years since Sub Focus last dropped brand new material upside our heads (September 2013, his second album Torus to be precise)
Until October when – out of the blue (no pun) – a brand new single track appeared…
Then exactly four weeks later, he followed it up with the slower, old school hat-tipping vibe workout Love Divine.
Both cuts instantly smack of classic Sub Focus while looking forward: big broad melodic brush strokes anchored with weight and unique tones, all culminating with a strong dancefloor focus. It goes us wondering… Is this the start of a new album? What’s next?
In his first interview in well over a year, in the run up to him headlining our debut event at Printworks, we had the chance to ask these very questions…
First Nobody Knows, now Love Divine… What’s happening here?
I’ve been working on a whole load of music since I last put anything out, some of which people might have heard me testing in my sets over the last year or so. I wanted to create a series for some of the more club-focussed tracks before I release my album next year – I always seem to get a lot of feedback online that people want to hear more of that kind of stuff from me, going back to my club roots. We kicked off with Nobody Knows, then Love Divine and there are more tracks in the series coming soon.
I’m building up a big batch of material and it’s nice to be able to just fire out underground tracks when I like. The climate has changed just in the last few years since I last released music – there’s less build up for releases, you can fling things out a lot quicker. I want to keep this series going alongside my album. I’ve just been really inspired lately.
Inspired by anyone in particular?
With this latest batch of club releases I’ve been drawing on a lot of the music I grew up with in the 90s – house, jungle, speed garage and old school rave music. It kind of stemmed from my DJ sets. I listen to a lot of house and techno DJs and when these guys play they always reference and bring up classics and older tracks, those genres have such an established and broad history to draw from.
I decided to do the same with drum & bass and started incorporating older tracks into my sets, tracking them down and getting in touch with the artists if I’m fortunate enough to know them. Guys like Jonny L and Optical. That translated into the studio, tracking down some of samples, instruments and techniques used in the records that inspired me when I first got into electronic music in the 90’s. Like the old time-stretching they did on the Akai samplers and finding the samples used on the Emu Emulator Keyboards. Also there have been artists like Special Request and Jamie xx referencing the same era who have been really inspiring. So there’s been all these things that have lead to me making some more nostalgia referencing tracks.
You’ve always had a slight tinge of rave/foundation-era nostalgia to your music anyway…
Yeah when I started working on this new batch of material it definitely felt like it fitted with earlier tracks from my first album like Could This Be Real with the pitched-up vocal element and Last Jungle. Especially with slower jungle tracks like Love Divine. I’ve become slightly addicted to sample-hunting through all this too. Do you know that bird call sample that’s on a lot of early jungle records like Bukem’s Demon’s Theme?
It’s on loads of acid house records too…
That’s the one. I was researching into where that came from and found out it’s the call of a bird called a Canadian loon and it’s a preset on the old Emu Emulator II keyboard. I love the history of electronic music and looking back in time to find the origin of sounds. For the last 10 years people have been trying to emulate analog synths but now people are emulating 90’s early digital kit, they are generally a lot easier to replicate than analog keyboards as they were based on digital technology to start with.
You can lose days/weeks on those missions. How much time can you justify on that as an artist?
You’re right – you can lose a lot of time doing this but it’s never wasted in my opinion. I like to spend a day every now and again amassing sounds and samples. I come across a lot of old samples that I want to repurpose or re-contextualise so I spent time tracking down the original on Discogs or online. I’ve also built a modular synth which is really easy to get lost in, too. So some days I’ll spend hours making sounds and experimenting on that. It’s cool to have some bespoke kit that no other artist has got.
Is this like the bespoke motion sensor instruments you made for your live show?
Not exactly, the motion sensors were built from scratch, with modular synths it’s a little different – they are mostly made using multiple pre-built modules that you assemble in your own combination. It can be totally unique though because there are thousands of modules out there so the ones you choose and the way you use isn’t likely to be the same as another artist. It opens your eyes to new levels of combinations of techniques, being more hands on and not just being stuck in a screen. There’s a lot more hardware in my studio now which refreshes things a lot more – manipulating stuff in real time tends to have more unpredictable and exciting results.
Was there anything that pushed you in the direction of hardware?
After my last album I had some time and a brand new studio space with lots more room and I was feeling like I wanted to shake up what I’m doing – how I make tunes, how I create sounds, how I go about everything. I kind of redesigned my studio much more like an old traditional studio – with a patch bay and multiple bits of hardware like guitar pedals, synths and hardware vocoders that I could interface with my original in the box setup.
It always takes me a while to write music. I never want to do the same thing again and there is a lot of self-imposed pressure. I’m very stringent on my quality control – I have been all along. I’ve never released loads of tracks at any period. I also like building up a batch of tracks so when I am ready to release music I have more to follow it up. Plus working like that helps you understand which direction you’re going in and how to develop that. It’s not been harder but it doest tend to take a long time. I also struggle with the balance of writing / DJing. I always feel I’m either DJing too much or not writing enough or vice versa.
Such a fine line!
It is. I love DJing but you can get sucked into that banger-making mentality which can be bad creatively. But when you do no shows there’s no urgency or excitement for the weekend to play something. There’s an ideal balance where you have enough shows to test material and get inspired but long enough periods to get your head down and write solidly. My best stuff comes through several weeks of total studio isolation. It’s like anything you need to practice at – like being an athlete – you have to build up to your best form. You’re not at that form when you’ve come off a two month tour. You need to get back into it and develop that speed of getting ideas down but that can take a while after a busy summer!
Are you in deep hibernation mode now?
Pretty much. This happens every year now – summer is always busy, winter for writing and the occasional show to break things up. So I’m currently deep in studio mode working on my album and in the meantime releasing tracks like the series I’m working on now.
What’s interesting is that this interview was called a come-back interview when your team organised it. Do you consider this a comeback? I don’t. You’ve still be there DJing etc.
Yeah, too early for a comeback tour, but it does feel like a return with new music. It’s been over two years since I put anything new out, which is a long time. And internally I’ve been sitting on this stuff and over-analysing how it will be received entirely. So to have it in circulation and to have good feedback on it is a nice feeling. Whether it’s a comeback or not.
Wasn’t there an Eric Prydz remix coming?
Yeah it was an unofficial remix I did as I loved the original, so I made something for my sets. I would love it to come out but I don’t think it will ever unfortunately.
A lot of artists during album writing phases will shut out the rest of the world, fearing it can corrupt their own influences. You also seem very in touch with the wider world of electronic music such as techno and house.
It’s a tricky balance to strike – you can definitely listen to too much music and get sucked into it but for me there’s a very clear divide of inspiration and enjoyment. So I’m loving a lot of music in D&B right now – tracks like Dimension’s UK, Rockwell’s Hoez To The Floor, a lot of Ivy Lab stuff, a lot of halftime and experimental stuff – but that doesn’t directly influence my music, it’s just stuff I love. I try not to get influenced by current things because there’s a danger of copying. I’m always trying to layer my influences in such a way that it would be very hard to decipher one particular sound or idea that has motivated me. The closest thing is the slight nostalgia feel to the club tracks in this current series. The actual album is sounding very different to that.
I guess you’re not ready to divulge too much about that?
No not yet. I don’t want to talk about it too much until the ideas are fully formed and I have a more complete idea of where it’s going.
Does that get harder every time?
Not really. There are always new territories to explore. That challenge is to change and develop but not sound too far away from what you’ve done. I suspect most artists would happily change a lot about their style and signature with every record but you risk alienating your audience doing that so it’s about building on what you’ve done before and getting people to hear the connections.
See Sub Focus @ Printworks, London, February 11 w/ Feed Me, Dimension, Netsky, Friction, Mollie Collins, Holy Goof, Taiki Nulight, Audio, Alix Perez, Technimatic, Fourward and many more. Tickets.