SBTRKT was one of the electronic scene’s most crucial architects—then he disappeared for seven years. Now he talks about his new album, working with Drake and more.
Garage, jungle, and house music are more mainstream globally than ever before, thanks to artists like PinkPantheress, Shygirl, and Mura Masa. But it was British producer-songwriter-DJ SBTRKT who helped seed the U.K. electronic music explosion in the early 2010s as a prolific remixer and, with the release of 2011’s self-titled debut, artist. He went on to work with artists like Sampha and Little Dragon, released a popular Drake remix, and become known for this live performances. After he released his last LP, 2016’s SAVE YOURSELF, the plan was to then release music “more frequently,” he says now. Unfortunately, it took seven years for the musician, born Aaron Jerome, to return. But his new album, The Rat Road, is his best since first one.
Jerome spent the last five years expanding past dance floor escapism and catharsis. The Rat Road is lush and warm, but also tense and anxious. And while his early post-dubstep music was widely covered by the music blogs that were then plentiful, he has always kept his personal profile low, making him feel at once known and unknown—a perfect avatar for today’s uncertain times.
“The music industry itself has become something where you look at your peers around you and there’s no comparison or goals that you could share and say, ‘What works for you works for me,’” Jerome says. “I think there’s a level of unknowns and everyone is fighting for the scraps of how it could piece together.”
GQ spoke with SBTRKT about his new album, how one of his tracks ended up in Drake and 21 Savage’s “Jimmy Cooks” video, and whether an artist can be anonymous in 2023.
As someone who really fell in love with music during the blog era, you’ve always been an important artist to me.
My career is owed to the blog era, that’s for sure. One of my big things about now is that we don’t have that culture anymore of supporting the underdogs, per se. It’s all about the bigger stats. That time was so important for me, the post-vinyl club era stuff, but then pre-complete DSP social control. There was a magic point where people’s personal opinions mattered [laughs].
One of the things I always pick up when I’m working with collaborators is that people gravitate toward whatever the biggest things are happening, whether it’s something on Netflix that everyone has to watch or it’s [someone like] Kendrick dropping an album. Everyone has to have an opinion on that very much immediately, whereas back in the day, it just felt like you would go to the record shop for the point of discovering something you’d never seen or heard of. I’m one to champion that, possibly for the fact that you paid for it, so you felt you needed to put some more time into the ownership of it.
The financial investment today feels so much smaller, that you don’t feel as compelled to spend time with a specific body of work.
In a secondary way, the DSPs [digital service providers, like Spotify] are controlling almost all the stuff which does get prevalence. What stuff gets discovered, picked out, or put in playlists is generally what fits within the system, essentially. That’s where music is. If you’re gonna make a certain type of alternative dance track, you’ve got to be in a certain genre space or tempo range or a certain feeling to be getting the exposure. You change those rules and you’re basically making yourself disappear, essentially. It’s a lot harder to be found or discovered in that sense.
Could you establish the timeframe of when the album came together?
[From 2016 onward], I’ve probably written around 1500 tracks. Compared to previous time I spent on music, this was a lot more intense in terms of experimenting and teaching myself more things than I’d done in the past musically. My first album was written over a period of two years in the bedroom of a flat I had in South London. I had this grand vision from all the years before of experimenting then I found the collaborators I wanted to bring into that mix and was working with Sampha once a week for a period of two years, gelling and creating the momentum for a finished record.
My second album was born off my live touring of the first. I got really into that whole sense of spontaneity, having lots of keyboards and just messing about, nothing too pre-planned.
And then, fast forward to the SAVEYOURSELF period, which was almost reactionary to both the previous ones. I was kind of in the position of being independent, thinking, “How and what do I want to say as SBTRKT going forward? What is the element that makes a SBTRKT record a SBTRKT one?” Was that production? Was it the vocalists? Was it my ability to morph between genres?And I felt like I really needed to hone in on what I wanted to say within that mix and individually bring across, I suppose. And so like, that process was more me sitting in my studio going “I’m going to write every track myself until the point I feel comfortable to bring someone else in and at that point have a much stronger vision of what I wanted collaborators to do in that mix than be like ‘Well I’m just open to whatever happens.’
You seek out a tremendous amount of music, but I’m curious what for you takes a new artist from “I dig what they’re making” to “I want to make music with them=”?
There’s always a point when something turns into a new language for me. So, for example, the first single [off The Rat Road] is a track “Waiting,” which features Teezo Touchdown. I was aware of him because I’d seen him on the Call Me If You Get Lost tracklist with Tyler [the Creator], and heard him in that context as something very unique to that record. But then he dropped this song called “I’m Just a Fan.” I was blown away by his lyrical content, but also his ability to songwrite and the uniqueness of the way he was presenting his voice. So [he] was like, a complete outlier to most people that London artists work with. I hit him up and he was coming to London, so we hung out and created a few things.