The seven members of Leeds formed Submotion Orchestra have been waiting for their approaching UK tour for several years. Their trademark blend of dubstep, soul, ambient electronica, jazz and dub has proved to be a big hit with festival crowds since they formed in 2009, but audiences have been without that experience for quite a few years now.
Their last album Colour Theory (2016) was made without lead singer Ruby Wood, when she took some time off to have a baby. The accompanying tour was undertaken with alternate vocalists, but in 2018 Submotion Orchestra are back to their original line up with which they've just recorded a new album 'Kites'.
Prior to them unveiling its material on the aforementioned forthcoming tour, Marko Kutlesa sat down with the band's Taz Modi to ask him about Submotion Orchestra's favourite festivals and the inspiration behind the new album.
All the songs on your new album were inspired by pictures band members took on disposable cameras. What was the process of that actually happening and why did you decide to do that?
There are seven of us in the band and each of our albums has developed in a different way. This time I think we all wanted a fresh start, to approach this one from a new place. We wanted to use something different that would spur us on creatively and help us return in a way to how we made our earlier stuff, which came more from jamming together. Often the lyrics come first, so the photos gave us inspiration for lyric ideas.
We took photos of all kinds of things, some which were inspiring us, some just random photographs. Some of them were quite bad, because they were only these disposable cameras, which you don't often get good shots from. But there were enough to form a starting point for Tommy, who writes our lyrics. From all of the ones we submitted, he chose the photos which had an impact on him.
Many of your band members work on alternate music projects, yet you've managed to keep Submotion Orchestra together for around a decade now. Is there ever a danger that one of these alternate projects might begin to take precedence?
It'll be ten years next year. It's always a possibility that might happen, but as it's gone nothing else has achieved the level of success that Submotion Orchestra have. For the first three or four years we were all in Leeds and it was easy to work and play together. As people have started moving away, to London, or when they have kids, it's actually been easier to get a bit of structure. So, we'll tour every 12 or 18 months, do festivals in the summer and then an album every two years. That's helps decide exactly when you can fit in other projects. I don't think anyone would complain if something outside the band went incredibly well for one of the members, ten years is a long time to be in one thing.
Are you like a football club, where no one player is bigger than the team, or are you more like The Beatles or Led Zeppelin, where each member is irreplaceable?
Ahahaha. If we were a football team, certainly financially it would be very low league. Trying to sell original music is a different kettle of fish to earning £30K a week.
Tommy has written a lot more stuff than all of the other people, so if he left that would obviously have a big impact. And Ruby is kind of the face of the band, so that would too. Dom Ruckspin is also our producer and he's responsible for the sound of not only the albums but also the live gigs, so that would also have a big impact. But, you know, we did a tour without Ruby, when she went off on maternity leave and I think crowds accepted that. We couldn't replace her with one person that time so we ended up touring with two different singers and we're glad to have her back, but I think sometimes things just find their way. It's a collective and people respond to that, to the seven of us playing together.
As you say, for a short time you were without Ruby. Why did you make the decision to continue in that time and not wait for her?
It was just a question of timing, the momentum was there. It wasn't an easy decision to make but in the end it was one that everyone was happy with. Our releases come out at a certain point and to have not done it at that point in time would have delayed things too much. We thought that the identity of Submotion would still come across and people would respond to that, rather than coming to a show just to see Ruby. Although I can quite understand people wanting to come just to see Ruby!
Was it always a definite that she would return?
Now that you've had the experience of working with two other vocalists, is that something that maybe you're inspired to pursue, either within the studio or at live gigs?
Well, we had Andrew Ashong on a few gigs and other things, which I forgot to mention earlier. On the previous album we had some guest vocalists and tried it out there. It was nice to branch out, but following that I think we've been happy to get back to the original group. Seven people is really enough for one band! It's a pretty big undertaking for some promoters to fly and accommodate eight people and all our gear. Hopefully we make it worth it.
Yes, but although there is a lot to move logistically, you've nevertheless established yourselves as firm festival favourites, not just in the UK. I remember you making festivals a priority when you first started as a group. Why did you do that? How important have festival dates been to the life of the band? What are some of your favourite/most memorable festivals?
Well, at the beginning we were part of the Chai Wallahs collective who tour around a good ten to fifteen festivals each summer. We accompanied them quite a lot for the first three or four years and that had a really big effect. Yes, sometimes we'd drive all the way to south Wales to play for 20 people on a Friday afternoon, but even that was good because I think bands need to pay their dues. But the timing, I think, was right to be doing that live thing from a dubstep angle.
It had a huge impact on our following. People started talking about the band and we could see that at each event the numbers in the audience were increasing. Each year it got bigger and bigger and I guess we were lucky that it developed in the way we'd hoped it would. There were several reasons for it, but certainly I think that grass roots support and peer to peer recommendation was vital, because for a long time we just weren't being talked about in the music media.
What are your favourite or most memorable festivals?
Secret Garden Party, which I believe is not defunct. They had the final one last year. We kept coming back to play at it every other year and each time it was a bigger and bigger deal until we ended up playing before the headliners Public Enemy on the main stage. It was a really good festival in terms of the size and vibe. We've done so many it's hard to remember. We did Big Chill in our second year and that was a special one because we'd just started out.
A lot of the vocals and instruments on your recordings sound as though, at some points, they pass through some manner of filtering or electronic treatment. Is it just as easy to create those same effects when you play live?
Well, because Ruck produces the records and does the font of house sounds, he's able to do live effects. He's got a set up with his delays and reverbs where he can affect anything going on onstage. So, yeah, there's a definite continuation between the sound on record and the live sound. He even does a lot of those live when we're in the studio, in the same way he does when we're playing.
As long as the system we play on is capable, we can do it to the same level at which we record. I think that's why a lot of people appreciate our live shows so much.
You have the full UK tour coming up very soon. Are you going anywhere different or doing anything differently this time?
Well, there are a few places we're going that we haven't done before. Places like Plymouth, Milton Keynes, Bedford. It's nice to do a big show in London or in one of our strongholds like Manchester or Leeds, but sometimes it's nice to do such places as you're playing to crowds who probably haven't seen you before.
In regards to the show there's nothing massively different going on other than we're playing five or six tracks from the new album, but we'll also be mixing it up a bit. We have five albums to chose from now. In a couple of the sit down venues we might do a couple of the jazzier, more improv numbers. Where's it's more clubby we'll be focussing on the more uptempo numbers.