Sub Focus and Wilkinson discuss journey to debut LP, ‘Portals’ [Interview]
While drum ‘n’ bass has captured fans for decades, the resurgence of its presence in 2020 was matched by none. A mass of landmark activities dominated the electronic landscape: Pendulum broke their decade long hiatus, Flume and Toro y Moi took on drum ‘n’ bass, Netsky delivered his fourth studio album, and Noisia‘s Thys made his solo debut. Inevitably so, when news broke that drum ‘n’ bass titans Sub Focus and Wilkinson would bring forth a collaborative full-length project, the announcement only further solidified the year’s insurmountable buy-in to the beloved genre, adding yet another milestone celebration to the table.
Although both UK producers have operated in similar spaces within the scene, their paths never fully crossed until recently. Their 2018 joint release “Take It Up” would serve as the initial precursor for the larger partnership, eventually opening doors to Portals. With the exploration of a collaborative relationship, Sub Focus and Wilkinson drew intentions to create not just a drum ‘n’ bass record, but a body of work that superseded the known territories of the sound. In the process, the pair discover inspiration in live instruments as they embrace themselves simultaneously as musicians and producers, illustrating trans-dimensional depth across their 11-track debut.
Sub Focus and Wilkinson discuss the significance of live instrumentation, shared downtempo inspiration, and the journey behind “Just Hold On” with Dancing Astronaut. Read the full interview and stream Portals below.
How did the idea for Portals first come about?
Sub Focus & Wilkinson: “We first linked up to make a track called ‘Take It Up’ in 2018 and we were really encouraged by the response. We headlined a big festival in the UK together and really saw the potential of us extending the partnership. We then got talking about making something more long form together—having worked on our own for ages it was refreshing to collab and we had a shared appreciation for some of the same downtempo electronic music albums by the likes of people like Jon Hopkins, Bonobo, and more—we just didn’t feel like anything that ambitious in terms of albums was being made in drum ‘n’ bass at the time and that became our mission for this record.”
What mutual visions did you have for this collaboration?
Sub Focus & Wilkinson: “We both wanted to start with an organic sound palette, to record a lot of real instruments and to lock ourselves away for a bit to write without the distraction of DJing. So we decided to do a studio retreat at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios near Bath in the UK. It’s an amazing studio that’s hosted the likes of Kanye and Jay-Z among others and we basically lived there for a full month to create the bones of the record.”
Has the current drum ‘n’ bass landscape in the UK and other areas played a role in shaping the album’s expansive approach to the genre?
Sub Focus & Wilkinson: “I’m not sure if the genre’s expansion directly influenced the record, but it’s been really inspiring to see it continually grow as a genre after so many years!
There’s a wealth of new talent in different areas of the world at the moment from Justin Hawkes (FKA Flite) in the States, Kanine and Pola & Bryson in the UK, Ekko & Sidetrack in Australia, Mountain in Japan, and many more people who are constantly featuring in our sets.”
Which track are you the most proud to have seen come together?
Sub Focus & Wilkinson: “We are really proud of the whole album but the way the track ‘Just Hold On’ came together was one of the most exciting. In the space of a day at Real World we recorded Mark (Wilkinson) playing drums, sampled them, and made a backing track with them with the producers Icarus. We then recorded my modular synth on it to make the lead, then we met a cellist in the evening who recorded all the live string parts. Was amazing for a track like that to come together so quickly—I think we even wrote the vocal the same day!”
Was live instrumentation an important aspect of the record? How did you go about writing and recording those components?
Sub Focus & Wilkinson: “Yeah this was a huge part of what we wanted to do with this album. When we did the studio retreat we brought in a bunch of collaborators to work with who were talented players and vocalists so that we could make the most of the incredible recording setup at Real World. We worked with Tom Havelock, who wrote ‘Generate’ with Eric Prydz, John Calvert who has worked with Mura Masa, and house producers Icarus who we really rate. Mark is a talented drummer and I play the bass and brought my modular synths down so we had a huge palette of sounds to work with. Vocalist Iiola and guitarist Tom Varrall who often collaborate with Mark also worked on the sessions. There’s a ton of quite unusual instruments down at Real World that we tried to incorporate, such as the Marxophone that we used on ‘Enter Night’ for example.”
What would you say are the strengths of the other person? How did your combined synergy play into the creative and production process?
Sub Focus & Wilkinson: “We are both all-rounders I’d say really as we have produced music on our own for so long. We’d swap projects all the way through the process to keep the inspiration flowing. It was really nice and kind of therapeutic for both of us to share in the excitement and occasional frustrations of the music making process.”
Any upcoming plans for the album or in general?
Sub Focus & Wilkinson: “We are just concentrating on the album for the moment, we just did an Essential Mix for Radio 1 and a live stream from Corfe Castle in the UK to launch the album. We’d also love to do some more shows together IRL when nightlife starts to get back to normal. We’ve had some really nice feedback on the album so far and are excited for more people to discover it.”
Featured image: Sam Neill