When you see Sub Focus & Wilkinson are teaming up on an album, you’d be forgiven for expecting to hear the club-driven, dancefloor music they’ve become renowned for. Let’s face it, they’ve made their fair share of big hitters. But this is the direction the duo did not want to take their Portals project.
Inspired by the more down tempo side of electronic music and keen to recreate this in a D&B context, Sub Focus & Wilkinson set out to create a project centred around a home listening experience – rather than one designed to provoke reactions in the club. That’s not to say this album doesn’t pack some serious dancefloor heaters though…
It all comes as a result of the duo reflecting on the music they really want to be making. Music that truly represents their inspirations. It’s this desire that led them to undertake a month long studio retreat where they formed the basis of Portals using real instruments in an organic recording environment, away from the computer screen.
This is the escapism Portals is built around. Not only an escape to a creatively rich space for Sub Focus & Wilkinson, but also one allowing listeners to delve into an immersive musical journey and escape from the shambles that is life right now.
It’s fair to say this is Sub Focus & Wilkinson like we’ve never heard them before. A new side of two artists who have done just about everything possible in their careers. UKF had a chat with the duo to delve into the story behind Portals, and uncover why it is the truest album they could have created.
Well 2020 has been a write off… But at least you’ve both got an album to celebrate!
Sub Focus: It’s all pretty mad. We started the album way before all of this happened, but when we were finishing it we were doing everything remotely, including vocal sessions. We met up the other day for the first time in six or seven months… It has been a super tough time for everybody, especially in the music & events industries, but we are thankful it has given us the time to finish this project.
Wilkinson: Although the circumstances are bad, I did feel like I was due a break from touring. It’s taken its toll on me mentally and physically, I think a few of us felt like that. Six months have passed though now and I’m dying to get back to touring again, it’s getting annoying now.
Amen to that. So when did Portals start to take shape?
Sub Focus: It was after we made Take it Up in 2018. We’d both been working on our own a lot, so it was refreshing doing something together. We decided we wanted to do a longer collaborative project after being influenced by some of the same deeper electronic music albums. There were a lot of albums we were enjoying, but we weren’t hearing that feel or scope so much in albums in D&B at the time. We were referencing people like Jon Hopkins, Bonobo, Four Tet & Moderat. So we set out to do something with that level of ambition but within the genre we love – D&B.
Wilkinson: With both of us doing it, we had the confidence to take it in a new direction a little out of our comfort zones. For me it was important to keep the project within the style that we’re known for, but draw influence from the artists we’re both inspired by outside of D&B. When I was younger, getting into D&B, all I was inspired by was D&B. But nowadays, the more downtempo electronic music inspires me.
Sub Focus: Because it wasn’t our own solo project we felt a certain amount of creative freedom. We wanted to do something slightly less focused on the club and more focused on a home listening journey. The timings turned out really well in some ways with everything going on currently as we are all are more home listening oriented at the moment.
It’s a very different direction to the dancefloor style most people would expect from you!
Sub Focus: Definitely. We’ve both noticed a change in our music making this year and we wanted to explore that. I think it’s good for everybody to refocus on making music for music’s sake, rather than making it to bang in a club. Sometimes as touring DJs you can focus on that too much. We wanted to show people a range of the styles that we can make.
Wilkinson: With a single there is that pressure. It’s difficult to please everyone and expect them to understand the concept we’re going for. I feel like this album in its entirety tells a story and brings an understanding to the singles we’ve already released from it. I feel like we’ve maintained the style we’re known for but developed it in a way that can be listened to outside of the club, in those more relaxing environments, at home or outside in nature.
Sub Focus: Even tracks like Illuminate, which was one of the first we wrote. Even though it’s got the riffs and synths, we recorded layers of guitar to try and bring the track into more of an organic sound palette.
That was one of the main things I took away from the album. Every track has a very organic, flowing sound.
Wilkinson: That’s the theme of Portals. It’s that whole idea of a listening journey where you feel like you’re listening to a story. That was really important to us. When making an album you have the ability to do something special. I don’t think a collaborative album like this has really been done before in D&B. It’s been amazing being on this journey and having such a story attached to the album.
Sub Focus: We were definitely mindful about the journey between tracks. The whole concept of the Portals is escapism. We like the idea of music transporting you somewhere else. We were very inspired by the artwork and the idea of doorways to different dimensions. The possibility to create an immersive musical environment really excited me.
As fun as it is making club tracks, it must be a satisfying challenge turning a D&B album into one that resonates with people outside of the clubs.
Wilkinson: That’s key! Especially at the moment when we can’t all get together to experience music in a club. We wanted everyone listening to get that same feeling from their homes. Not just listening to the album track by track, but listening to it in its entirety and understanding the story we’re telling.
The album has a wicked story behind it, considering you went on a studio retreat to Real World Studios to write it.
Sub Focus: It was such a good way to start off the process! We wanted to push the palettes of sounds we use by including real instruments, and working at Real World Studios allowed us to do that. We invited along instrumentalists and vocalists to jam with and basically created track starting points for most of the songs on the album.
Wilkinson: It is such a creatively rich studio. It has every instrument you could want, as Peter Gabriel is renowned for world music. It wasn’t like being in the studio. When we arrived we were like – we could sit here and get our laptops out, but considering we’ve got all these instruments around us we need to utilise them.
Sub Focus: The main room at Real World is a big circular space which we set up with different stations around us. Mark’s a drummer, so we set up a drum kit at the back of the room. I also brought my modular kit down, which we recorded for Just Hold On. Mark actually plays the drums on that track.
That’s awesome. You were there for a month, weren’t you?
Wilkinson: Yeah we literally lived there temporarily, and that fed us this new musical inspiration. It’s such a beautiful spot. Even Kanye and Jay-Z have recorded there.
Sub Focus: It has got quite a pedigree. We also worked with a number of producers, instrumentalists and vocalists there like: Icarus, John Calvert – who has worked with Mura Masa – and Tom Havelock, who we wrote the vocals on Illuminate, Time and Just Hold On with. Mark did Half Light with him previously.
I’ve heard of producers going on trips away to find inspiration for their music, but I imagine it was particularly productive doing it in such a practical setting.
Sub Focus: Definitely. I was always quite against the idea of studio retreats… I felt it added pressure to the creative process. But actually, the pressure was good as it pushed us.
Wilkinson: It helped having each other and including other prolific songwriters in that space, because if ever someone was having a dry spell creatively then they could draw inspiration from what someone else was doing. It fed this creative frenzy. I felt mentally drained by the end of it and a bit down because it was so intense. It was amazing to share that energy with each other though.
So when you retreated to the studio, did you already have an idea of what you wanted to write?
Sub Focus: We definitely knew the inspiration behind the project. We knew we wanted to record piano and get strings down, then we started using more unusual instruments we found there like the Marxophone, which was the lead instrument on Enter Night.
Wilkinson: It’s this weird sounding harpy metallic instrument and we were just jamming with it, haha!
Sub Focus: Most of the ideas resulted from jamming. Sometimes we would get some chords together and the other person would be playing a synth on the opposite side of the room.
Wilkinson: As the process went on we realised it was about collecting music, not so much the production element. After recording all of these amazing instruments, I’m sure I speak for Nick when I say we’re so proud of what we’ve created. It’s very easy to use a sample sometimes, but this album is real and true to us. I like the way the music we’ve created is in keeping with the natural soundscapes of the location we were in.
It’s hard to match the physical experience of creating music.
Sub Focus: There were a few serendipitous events that happened too. One was meeting a cellist down there, who was recording in the next door studio. We convinced him to record strings on Just Hold On and Time. That was a wicked moment as we were sitting in this amazing studio in the middle of the night with a guy playing this incredible cello… You don’t get that on a normal session!
That’s awesome! The variation of instruments you’ve used is definitely one of the album’s standout features.
Sub Focus: Yeah it is. We even used this crazy microphone shaped like a human head… Like a crash test dummy! It has microphones where the ears should be. You can use it to create more of a 3D binaural sound when recording. It really comes alive on headphones because your brain can tell where in space each element is coming from.
Wilkinson: We also recorded this amazing grand piano for Air I Breathe. It was the one Alicia Keys recorded for her album. All of these unique instruments created this album. We’re so proud of it.
That’s quite surreal. I remember hearing Air I Breathe for the first time at Rampage and thinking the piano sounded so hauntingly beautiful.
Sub Focus: We decided to include the piano from Air I Breathe on our intro for Rampage as a kind of Easter Egg as the track wasn’t finished yet. When we finally put out the track people were still mentioning that intro, which surprised us as we thought people had overlooked it!
Wilkinson: That was the beauty of it because the track took a while to get right. It’s great to see those reactions like at Rampage. It gives you the inspiration to finish a track.
Overall, it’s great this direction you’ve taken with the album. When you released Just Hold On there were a few critics asking why it wasn’t D&B, but now it’s evident the track is part of a wider picture.
Wilkinson: That’s exactly it. We were anticipating some negativity, but we felt like we needed to take this direction. Just Hold On is one of our proudest songs.
Sub Focus: It’s probably my favourite track on the album. The thing is, we’re musicians at the end of the day and it’s mad to think you’d be content with making music at one tempo forever. I do really feel the track connects with the others on the album. We wanted all the slower tracks to fit stylistically so we used D&B & Breakbeat drum patterns on them too. With any album, you want to have changes in key and tempo to keep it flowing I think.
Over the years you’ve both never shied away from experimenting with your sounds, so it felt unfair people were criticising you for Just Hold On not being D&B.
Sub Focus: We’ve both got the point in our careers where we know what music we want to be making, so we’re pretty confident in our decisions. We know Just Hold On is a record we are proud of so it didn’t bother or sway us.
Wilkinson: You’ve just got to go with your heart and believe in your music. The feeling I get around that record with the combination of the story, the strings and working with Icarus is something special.
Sub Focus: You have to be quite single-minded as a producer because fans may have disagreements about your direction at times. If you react to that too much then you could end up making the same music all the time.
It’s clear you’ve been able to let go of any expectations with this project and make an album that truly represents you both.
Wilkinson: Definitely. This is the truest album we could‘ve created. For us it was an escape, and no one can take that away from us. We really wanted to try and give people that same feeling of escapism we had when we were in the studio feeling like we were in nature.
Sub Focus: It has definitely left me with some long-term resolutions in a way. I think it’s so important to try and not think about the club too much when writing music and to create time away from touring to write.
Wilkinson: Absolutely. We could have quite easily replicated the instruments on a software synth, but when you’ve gone to the effort of recording them in a real environment you can’t help falling in love with the sound. We both felt such an attachment to the music and were constantly inspiring each other throughout the project. That’s one of the reasons I’m so proud of what we’ve created. We took the tracks to the best place they could be.
Sub Focus: Between us we’ve probably got 50 or more songs that are at 80%, working together made it easier to finish all the songs here and get them to the 100% mark. It was a real tag team effort.
Wilkinson: It feels like we truly embodied that process of escaping from our studios to be together with other artists. It’s nice for Portals to come out in a time when everyone is in need of some escapism. Hopefully we can provide people with some.
We can look forward to an immersive album launch live stream too?
Sub Focus: Yes! We wanted to find an ancient ruin site so that the setting would tie in with our artwork for the project. We came across Corfe Castle and recorded a live DJ set there, which will be broadcasting next week.
Wilkinson: It was an unbelievable location. The first artwork we did for Illuminate is based on Durdle Door, which is just down the road, so it felt like a fitting place to launch the project.
Sub Focus & Wilkinson – Portals it out October 9: Pre-Order it now