Sub Focus spoke with Marko Kutlesa about the importance of albums, his relationship with RAM Records, collaborations and much more.
Date published: 22nd Mar 2018
Nick Douwma aka Sub Focus has come a long way since he first emerged on RAM Records in 2005. With each of his artist albums since then, Sub Focus (2009) and Torus (2013), he has diversified into areas outside a strict drum n' bass sound including dubstep, EDM and house, all of which he now incorporates into a visually spectacular live show which tours some of the world's biggest festivals.
Your surname isn't a traditional British one. Where does your family name come from and what brought your family to the UK?
I'm half Dutch and half English, so my surname's from Holland. My dad came over here to work, he used to sell art. I've always lived in the UK, but I do have strong connections to Holland.
Convenient, as there's a good drum n' bass scene there
Yeah, I've got some friends from Holland who are expert drum n' bass producers, like Noisia.
You've just released a single 'Take It Up' with Wilkinson. How did that come about and is that collaboration a one off?
I wouldn't necessarily say it's a one off. In general, I've been doing more collaborations recently. I've worked on my own for years and it's sometimes more vibey to get other people in the studio. It increases the fun factor. I even do it with a lot of friends who don't produce music. Before this I did the one with Rudimental and then there are a few more that I've been working on more recently but I can't let them out of the bag just yet.
That's your first release on RAM Records for a while. What kind of communication and relationship do you still have with them?
I still have a strong affiliation. Both Mark (Wilkinson) and I started on RAM Records and we're both now with Virgin/EMI. We were both mentored by Andy C. Having played a lot for RAM over the years, Mark and I have done a lot of shows together, so we have a strong connection.
I still really enjoy going back to play for RAM. Me and Andy C still speak a lot. I love to play him new music. He's one of the most enthusiastic people to play new tunes to, you get a lot of excitement from him if he's hyped about playing a track.
When you made the tracks that first got you signed to RAM Records, what were your ambitions back then?
My first ambition was just to release a track on a vinyl record. Since then my goals have shifted quite a lot, first to write an album, then to writing multiple genre stuff, then, more recently, to putting on big audio visual shows. I guess the scale of my ambitions has changed massively over the years.
Although you're something more diverse now, back then did you feel like you were a drum n' bass artist?
Yeah, I did. When I started I was more into the scene. Things have since shifted in the sense of what I think I should be doing and also in other people's listening habits. When I started with dance music you had to buy records if you wanted to hear the most upfront stuff. I think that made people more tribal about the kinds of things they listened to. The internet has broken down those barriers and now people are more open with which genres they affiliate with.
I've always tried to take inspiration from other music, house, ambient or whatever. I've felt that sometimes drum n' bass has been too self referential, in regards to what people have been inspired by. Now, I guess I see myself more as a general electronic producer. That said, I've made lots of drum n' bass recently and I'm still really enjoying making that genre.
Before you were a producer you liked rock music and in your early days of discovery of dance music you were into The Prodigy and Chemical Brothers, two acts who have mixed elements of guitar and rock music into their sound. You now have managed to put a lot of different musics into your sound, but perhaps surprisingly guitar and rock music elements aren't ones that you're known for. Why is that?
Over the years I have dabbled with elements like that but if I've used guitars I always wanted to do it more in an electronic way. It's not a conscious decision, but I think other people were already doing that kind of sound. I came up alongside the likes of Pendulum and that was very much their sound so I maybe wanted to differentiate myself. But also I think it's because I just have a deep love of electronic music. It's a sound I naturally gravitated towards.
In 2010, after the release of your debut album, the production work you did on Example’s ‘Kickstarts' succeeded in becoming your biggest chart hit to date. Did its success cause you to consider how you might proceed in the future?
Well, I'm always keen to stress that was something that I ghost wrote for him, it wasn't a Sub Focus production. I've got mixed feelings about working on more commercial music. It's something I've dabbled with, I've done other tracks for different people. But when you're writing for someone else, their agenda is more important than yours.
I'm used to doing stuff where I have creative control, the final say. That's important to me. And it just feels more exciting to be releasing my own music. It's something that, as a dance music producer, you could go into, but I think I'd be more interested in exploring different areas of electronic music, soundtracks, things like that, rather than go that route
In a 2016 interview you said that a new album would be coming in 2017. Where are you up to with that? Have you had a change of plans?
No. I'm quite keen to try and not mention that I'm working on albums. I've alluded to working on a larger body of work a few times, but it's just a case of waiting until it's something that I'm really happy with.
Are albums still an essential part of a music producer's expression?
I personally think they are. I think the music industry as a whole doesn't so much. When they're consumed on streaming platforms they can be dissected, people pick and choose single tracks for their playlists, so maybe some people think that the relevance has passed for releasing a body of music all at once? But as an artistic statement, I think albums are still the thing I get most excited by. musically. It's a lot harder to write an album than a single, it's much more ambitious.
Like you say, an album is a big undertaking, a long project. Isn't there an argument for releasing a single as quickly as possible once it is finished, while it is musically relevant to the time period in which it was inspired, written and recorded?
Yeah, yeah, there's an argument for that. I think some music ages quicker than others. I think I've done tracks in the past that have felt like a reaction to what's going on at the time, but others I can listen back to and they still sound relevant now. It's hard to tell at the time. But I think that if you only did that you'd end up never making a bigger statement. It would be a bit like saying, why not release short films all the time or one level computer games. I think people can become more engrossed in more long form projects and you can see that across many mediums.
In the past you've worked with quite a few featured vocalists, but in doing so that often restricts artists to using only playbacks in your live show. Has that been a consideration when either planning new music or when putting together a new live show?
I've never really let the featured vocals on my records dictate the strategy of the live shows. I've been aware of this as an issue for a while because you realistically you just can't tour with the people who feature on your records. I've very rarely done performances with singers.
I've been more inspired by people like Daft Punk and The Chemical Brothers where it's a purely electronic experience, so if you're using vocals then you take them and manipulate them, rather than it being some hybrid live band experience. I made that decision quite early on.
You like to listen to older music as well as new releases. What older music have you recently been digging?
I've been listening to quite a lot of ambient music, some Brian Eno. I've also been listening to some old Italo house. I'm always really interested in the origins of different electronic music. In the last few years there's been a big resurgence of pianos in house music and you can trace that back to the late 80s and early 90s.
I love going back into dance music history. All kinds of early electronic music is something that I'm interested in, even looking at the equipment they used and seeing how that gave the sound its character. That's the kind of thing that really fascinates me.