Drum ’n’ bass's brightest spark, Sub Focus, headlined Time Out Live's latest Nite Sessions club night at East Village last Friday. Needless to say, he tore the Shoreditch club a new earhole – albeit a very blokey, very bolshy earhole.
Since Ram Records boss Andy C tracked him down after being handed a demo tape with a phone number etched badly into the side, 27-year-old London native Sub Focus (né Nick Douwma) has trembled the Top 40 via solo work and productions for new pop talent, released a debut album last year to critical acclaim and headlined some of London’s biggest sell-out bashes with his epic sounding eclectic drum ’n’ bass hybrids. To top it all, he’s playing an incredibly intimate set at our next Nite Sessions club night at East Village on Friday with Burns, Emalkay and special guests, just before he jets off to the White Isle to close the Ibiza Rocks season.
But that’s not before he tells us about pouring wine over Goldie, what it's like to be part of the Ram Records family and, erm, making music with (whisper it) Sting’s offspring.
I interviewed him ahead of his set, a shorter version of which appeared in Issue 2089 of Time Out. Read on, you may as well, he's an alright chap n' all.
Interview with Sub Focus
Hello Sub Focus. What has life been like since you released your debut album? ‘Things have gone into overdrive! I’ve been touring a lot and helping with productions for other artists, like Example’s latest single, ‘Kickstarts’. I’ve also been working on a live show with an audiovisual element, a bit like Daft Punk and Deadmau5. I wanted to do it on a computer rather than get a band to play so I’ve been using a motion sensor, which is linked up to different synthesisers. I can just move my hands in the air to control the show. I don’t know if you remember Jean-Michel Jarre, a [French] composer, but he used to have a laser harp, which he controlled with his hands, and I’m quite keen to explore performing like that in a futuristic way.’
Can we expect any space-age outfits too? ‘I was looking at another controller that’s like a glove and you use it by opening and closing your fist, but at the moment I’m not wearing anything ‘spacey’ – pretty much just my normal clothes. But I was on tour with Pendulum recently and they’ve got this roadie that travels with them. He’s a real character, and he had these incredible light-up glasses, so I thought it would be amazing to have a pair of Wayfarers that light up in different colours – that would be incredible.’
You must have some crazy tour stories. I read that you once poured wine into Goldie’s pocket for a joke? ‘That was quite amusing! It was the first time I’d ever met him and we were touring Australia together. He was pouring vodka into people’s pockets, so I poured vodka into his pocket. Then he took it upon himself to pour orange juice into mine, which had my wages in it for the entire tour. Luckily, money’s made of plastic in Australia, so it was fine in the end. There’s a fair few stories like that…’
How has your sound changed since you signed to Ram? ‘It’s great working with [the Ram Records] guys, but more recently I’ve tried to show people that I’m not just all about D&B. I find D&B purism quite uninspiring. If you look on the Internet and on forums and took all the criticism to heart then you’d probably just make tunes that sound like they were made in 1997, because a lot of those D&B listeners are quite conservative. I’m really enjoying the new, more ‘eclectic sound’, because [it allows me to] play all kinds of stuff like house, dubstep and drum ’n’ bass. For me, though, it’s all one thing: it’s all dance music united by basslines. Before my album I felt a little bit wary of making other sorts of stuff because I wasn’t sure what my fans would think of it and a lot of producers worry about branching out and away from their underground credentials, but it’s really important to keep pushing to do something different so that things move forward.’
At the core of it all, though, you have this huge, stadium-filling sound. ‘Yeah, it felt like, back in 2005, guys like me and Pendulum really started a sound that very big and ‘in yer face’ and it had a certain crossover with the rock stuff as well. The first music I was into was rock and I played bass in a band, so I got into dance music through some of the acts that breached that gap, like Chemical Brothers and Prodigy. Pendulum are very much like that now – I think they’re a reason why a lot of people are into dance music, who were into rock music before.’
How have you seen the D&B scene develop over the past five years? ‘It has definitely gained a new popularity, which is [down to] the strength and depth of producers. Pendulum really helped to raise the bar and now D&B music stands up to the production standards of pop music. When I first started listening to drum ’n’ bass, it seemed very closed off, but now it has really opened up in terms of artists from other countries becoming popular and in terms of being able to really break into the DJ game by writing good music. There’s a lot of strong artists out there now whereas before there would only be a few artists, like Roni Size or Ed Rush and Optical, who carried the scene a bit. I certainly think that Radio 1 supporting D&B a lot has really helped to bring it forward. It feels less like something that’s unknown and underground now. D&B has been around for so long that people have grown up with it and it’s no longer considered ‘strange’ music.’
What was it like working with Coco Sumner on your new single, ‘Splash’? ‘It was good. I really like her voice. In my experience, a lot of singers sound quite generic, but she’s got a real sense of individuality. Her label approached me to do a remix of one of her tracks, but I was also into her voice so I approached her to see if she wanted to collaborate on a song. It was good too because it came together quickly. If you’re working on something together that takes ages it’s almost like you’re trying to force it, but we wrote the vocals and recorded it within a week. She’s a really nice girl as well, so hopefully we’ll work on some more stuff together.’
Is dubstep an area you’d like to move into a bit more? ‘Maybe, yeah. There’s one track on my album and a jungle track as well, which has got a lot of plays from the dubstep guys like Skream. There’s a lot of really good dubstep available at the moment, especially, guys like Benga and a lot of the Magnetic Man stuff as well is really strong. It’s really nice to see it doing well, especially now tracks like ‘I Need Air’ getting into the top 10. It’s great that what is essentially underground music getting into the charts without having to compromise too much of its style, so it’s definitely something I’d like to move into more.’
When you sit down to produce is it like the dancefloor is always at the forefront of your mind or is it consciously making tracks for the dancefloor? ‘It is to an extent. I’m trying to find a balance stuff to be detailed enough for home listening and to be effective enough for in a club. I really love tracks that work on those two levels, like "Coma Cat" by Tensnake, which works in all environments. I’m trying to aim for music that, while it’s heavy, has a lot of melody and stuff.’
What can we expect from your set at East Village? ‘A whole mix of stuff really: D&B, a whole load of dubstep, a bunch of house tunes – I really like to mix it up. I tend to try and keep it new stuff, maybe I’ll draw some stuff from old D&B tunes and maybe some old jungle, but it’s mostly contemporary music of different styles. I always write music for my sets that are special so that no one else has them, so there’ll no doubt be some special mixes of my tracks in there.’
You’re closing Ibiza Rocks next week – did you ever think that Ibiza would welcome D&B? ‘No, not at all. I’d been going there on holiday and listening to other types of music there for years and this summer’s the first time I’ve been to play. I’ve already been to play at Space and Eden this summer and both nights have been really good. Some of the more established nights have really taken it on and it’s really starting to work. Nights like Ibiza Rocks and Reclaim the Dancefloor, its sister club night, started as the alternatives to that stuff and there are plenty of people who go to Ibiza now that are into that more bassline-orientated music.’