"Two days of boundary-burning music and art performance, Neon Lights brings to mind the muddy banks of Glastonbury" - Timeout Singapore
It’s three years since SBTRKT first came to wider attention with his debut self-titled album. Since then, he’s toured the world, and received global acclaim for his soulful, textured take on electronic music. Although we didn’t know the face behind SBTRKT – he preferred to obscure his identity behind a mask - we always knew the heart. Now he’s back with a new LP, and its title is perfect. Wonder Where We Land is an experimental, inquisitive, magical record, the result of off-the-cuff inspiration and surprise collaboration.
This time around, SBTRKT has expanded his palette, creating an album inspired by classic LPs of the past, by the Beatles, Pink Floyd or Radiohead. As ever, he’s looking to go beyond the usual categories and trends of electronic music. To this end, while composing and producing the entire album himself, he’s also called on an even bigger roster of collaborators; not to create a sequence of “featured” tracks, but to keep pushing the envelope as far as possible. So alongside returning artists like Sampha and Jessie Ware, the album features contributions from Ezra Koenig, Caroline Polachek, Koreless and A$AP Ferg, plus exciting new voices like Raury and Denai Moore. “The essence of collaboration is to build something stronger than you can individually,” he reasons. “That has always been my goal.”
The album highlights SBTRKT’s improved confidence in all areas of music-making, from composition to mixing and mastering. As ever, analogue instrumentation is mixed with digital sounds, with SBTRKT making little distinction between the two. The recording process was “all about not being a slave to the sequencer,” he explains. “It was about making it more freeform, then reining it back in afterwards.” So - is there a SBTRKT “sound”? “I’ve never really wanted that - any SBTRKT ‘brand’ has always been made up more of the aesthetic of it, than the production sound of it”.
What we are left with is a layered and powerful record, filled with sonic invention and leftfield storytelling. It veers from the eeriness of Look Away, laced with Polachek’s keening vocals, to Koenig’s irrepressible, bouncy rap on “NEW DORP. NEW YORK”, to the soulful leanings of “Temporary View” - another classic Sampha collaboration. But Wonder Where We Land is still remarkably cohesive. And with good reason: the album first took shape during fixed, intensive recording sessions, first on Osea Island, off the Essex coast, and later in Los Angeles, and then downtown New York.
“I was toying with finding a studio in London,” he says. “And the more I thought about it, it just felt like I’d be in a cold, dark, soulless box”. He has no desire to be just a laptop musician - an artist who uses only digital sounds, or fires off instrumentals by email. Live instruments, and live collaboration, are vital. “I was watching documentaries of the Police recording in Montserrat in the early 1980s, in George Martin’s studio - they were creating a certain distinct palette of sound, just because they were in that space,” remembers SBTRKT now. His models were artists who insisted on a sense of place, so that this place permeated the music.
Which takes us to Osea Island - the perfect starting point for the album. Located off the British east coast, it’s barely inhabited, and only accessible when the tide is out, with SBTRKT first arriving there in the dead of night. It’s here that he created the album’s title track, a moody, minimal affair with Sampha on vocals. It was composed at 3am, in total darkness, while Jerome’s mini-projector screened clips from Rene Laloux’s cult animated films, across the glass walls. No wonder Sampha wrote that key line: ‘I wonder where we land?’ Spontaneity and surprise are the essence of each collaboration. “Every track I ever create with a collaborator is done on the spot - it’s never pre-written,” he reminds us.
If each collaborator is given total freedom to write whichever lyrics they like, they’re inevitably guided by the music SBTRKT makes, and the context they record in. Composed at a time of huge emotional upheaval, the result is a rich, heartfelt music. SBTRKT may be a fine producer, but he didn’t want the album to sound too slick or knowing. “Generally, the stuff I like the most is the stuff I feel like I haven’t ‘written’; it feels like it just happened. That, for me, feels like I’ve succeeded - because if I feel like I remember every part of it, it probably sounds a bit too produced.”
Osea Island’s weird atmospherics also played a part in “Look Away”. The tone was set when Polachek missed her window for getting across to the island - and had to go find a sailor in the local pub who might be able to row her over to the island - by fishing boat. The off-kilter tune she and SBTRKT then created, may be surprising (“it sounds like something you’d hear in The Ring”) but it’s typical now of a SBTRKT track. “When you listen back to it, you realise how many genres and spaces fit into the space of those five minutes. It goes from something sounding very techno, to something that sounds a bit contemporary hip-hop, to something which is more esoteric. It’s that combination of things which I feel makes up SBTRKT.”
Over in America, he carried on in the same vein. A pitstop in Los Angeles, jamming with Warpaint, bred the riff for album closer “Voices In My Head”. He’d first come up with it on Osea, when he was trying to write something with “a sombre, iconic piano hook”. In LA, Stella from Warpaint helped add some drums, and then in New York, A$AP Ferg laid down his own paranoid, hypnotic verses.
At the other end of the spectrum is Koenig’s cheeky rap on “NEW DORP. NEW YORK”. The song evolved from a conversation the pair had about making a track with an early 80’s, spoken-word, New York feel. So when they hooked up in the studio, Koenig ended up using a lyric he’d had in his head for a while; a cheerily eccentric skit about the Big Apple, and New Dorp (which does exist - it’s a town on Staten Island), involving “gargoyles garglin’ oil”.
Wonder Where We Land also sees a shift in SBTRKT’s visual identity. While the mask remains on the producer himself, there’s a new visual emphasis with the introduction of the spirit animal that, on the album’s cover, sits calmly in the palm of an open hand. And during the ever-expanding SBTRKT live experience, the same creature provides a dramatic focal point, towering over the performers and crowd alike. This beast is inspired by the Alebrijes, sculptures from Mexico which were born of an artist’s mad, hallucinogenic dream in the 1930s. It invokes the tribal theme of SBTRKT’s previous artwork, and captures the same paradox: something colourful and vivid and demanding attention, but also mysterious, hard to pin down - “keeping away from having to be known, or named”, as he puts it.
And so, here we have Wonder Where We Land; a kaleidoscopic and experimental record that features the whole spectrum of sound and emotion. Unlike many of his peers on the electronic music scene, “I’m not someone who’s trying to improve one single formula”, says SBTRKT. As this album proves, that’s some understatement.
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