Artist of the Month: Sub Focus and Wilkinson

The mighty drum & bass duo Sub Focus & Wilkinson have returned with the Portals LP. Ben Hunter learns more about the dynamic force behind this production dream team.

Sub Focus & Wilkinson have just released their collaborative album, Portals. It’s the latest stop on a decades-long journey for each artist, the contours of which are strikingly similar. Both came through on Ram and released hugely successful debut albums — Sub Focus’ Sub Focus and Wilkinson’s Lazers Not Included — before they each separately migrated onto Virgin’s EMI and further critical commercial success. Having been borne out of drum & bass’ murky underworld, Sub Focus & Wilkinson are poster children for a new breed of 170 sonics grounded not in the sweat-soaked walls of the UK’s clubs, but in the slick and international touring circuit of electronic music’s age of boom. With a dual focus of vibrant instrumentation and synthetic, club-friendly sounds, Portals is both an evolution in their music and in their collaborative relationship. One which is now, in their words, a healthy and mutually stimulating partnership.

It’s surprising, then, that neither can remember the first time they met. But their first definitive memory comes from Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, where Sub Focus recalls they “hung out properly for the first time, and really hit it off.” That was followed by a studio session in 2017 where they “didn’t even come up with anything great in the first session, but it was a nice precursor,” Wilkinson admits. 

Their shared past has influenced their creative present, and both artists have fond memories of Andy C’s artist management, something Wilkinson remembers often involving Andy calling to scream, “that tune is big!” For Wilkinson, it’s a process that evolved his sound by pushing him in a more dancefloor-focused direction; a stylistic shift influenced by the history of Ram as well as his now-collaborator’s previous success. Sub Focus believes that during the album process, they’ve “provided that role for each other, in that we’ve both gotten buzzed-about individual tunes and helped each other through the creative highs and lows of making records.”

This creative support is all the more important now that the pair are releasing through Virgin’s EMI, where they “just make the music and give it to the label,” Sub Focus says. It’s a significant contrast to Andy’s hands-on approach, and Wilkinson believes Virgin understands it’s “an underground genre,” and therefore place more stock in the artists’ creative decisions than they perhaps might with a pop music act. But the biggest benefit for the pair lies in Virgin’s ability to finance virtually anything. For Sub Focus, “there were visual artists and designers I wanted to work with but that I didn’t have access to. I wanted to be able to do more ambitious music videos, that kind of thing.” The downside, especially for underground artists, is that such expansion can come with enforced dilution. It’s a devil’s bargain that, for many, separates their music from its history. 

“It’s super important that whilst we’re making tunes with vocal elements and things like that, we want to keep one foot in that club world too, to make weird club music as well, I think we’re both really mindful to do that,” Sub Focus says of this dilemma. And it’s crucial to Wilkinson that “the music comes from a place that we’re both into.” 

“It’s why we both wanted to work with each other,” Wilkinson continues. “Neither of us have compromised ourselves in any way to generate fame or success, it’s been gradual stepping stones to get to this point.” 

There are lots of drum & bass heads who don’t believe it’s possible to reach the top of the charts without changing your style. But one listen through each respective artists’ early back catalogues is enough to convince otherwise. Wilkinson’s first-ever release, “Hypnosis”, a feature on Hospital Records’ Sick Music 2 compilation, carries the same bubbling, synthetic energy present on all of his music. Sub Focus’ first big hit, “X-Ray”, released in 2005, is built around big-room synth chords and furious dancefloor energy. It’s an instantly recognisable trait audible from 2009’s “Let The Story Begin” to 2018’s “Desire”, featuring Dimension. 

Even so, it’s been a combined total of 10 years since we heard a new album from the pair. This is partly due to the changing nature of the music industry and the advent of streaming.  “It didn’t feel like albums were being made,” he says. Sub Focus agreed, telling himself “there’s no point in doing an album anymore.” It was a managerial and marketing consideration that came into conflict with his belief that “in every area of dance music, there’s a danger of being too focused on singles and club bangers.”

With that in mind, perhaps it’s unsurprising that the inspiration behind Portals came from outside the world of drum & bass. Following that initial studio session in 2017, Sub Focus remembers the pair developed a “shared thing of really enjoying deeper electronic music albums and wanting to do something like that within our own music.” The inspirations were artists like “Bonobo or John Hopkins, people that are using electronics but with live instrumentation mixed in. We were both inspired by that and wanted to take it as a starting point for a longer-form project.”

Wilkinson describes Portals as a “listening album” and it’s certainly diverse, moving from the dancefloor treamours of “Turn The Lights Off” to the ambient soundscapes of ”Stratus.” Sub Focus knew they wanted to explore multiple tempos, saying “any album has to have a mixture of tempos in the same way that it needs to have a mixture of keys, to give it that feeling of variation and for it to evolve over the course of itself.” The album’s frequent use of breakbeats, most memorably on “Just Hold On,” can therefore be seen as a fusion of their existing sound with the influences of Bonobo and others. Wilkinson feels like “the palette is all the same, but the tempos and format are just slightly different, it’s definitely a nod to who we’re inspired by.” 

The breakbeats on “Just Hold On” were played live by Wilkinson at Real World Studios, a sprawling facility owned by Peter Gabriel nestled in the Wiltshire countryside near Bath. The pair recorded there for several weeks, creating the album’s core, which is reflected in the pair’s desire to “make the process very different to our normal recording experience,” Sub Focus explains. The duo strived to work with more than their laptops, exploring nearly every instrument and sound available at the studio. “It’s in the middle of the countryside so you’ve got these beautiful views and we really wanted to absorb that into the music,” Wilkinson says.   

On “Just Hold On,” Wilkinson played the drums, but the string section was played by a random cellist who happened to be recording next door, and was recruited after the pair “accosted him at dinner,” Wilkinson says. This live instrumentation contrasts with the album’s acidic feel, a feature derived from the modular synthesiser Sub Focus brought to the studio, which he used to record long takes, while messing around with the settings. “Like reversing the order of the notes, randomising the order of the notes, all that type of stuff,” he says. They then “basically sped it up in a tape machine,” Wilkinson remembers. “It really represents how much we utilised that studio,” he adds. 

The pair’s departure from their usual creative process is apparent in the album’s organic feel, a textural quality reflected in the serendipitous stories which lie behind tracks like “Just Hold On.” Sub Focus mentions the benefits of “jamming” on multiple occasions; that randomness and spontaneity which often gets left out in the clinical precision of modern drum & bass. It’s a tangible weakness to working in the box that the pair specifically attempted to avoid.

“I think this album comes from a really pure place,” Wilkinson says. “We’re both pretty confident in the positions that we’re in within the scene at the moment and in our music careers. It feels like a confident album.” Their own personal and creative relationship seems to have played a key part in that sense of confidence, and because they’ve worked on it together, “we’ve been able to talk a lot about honouring the underground side whilst exploring other things as well,” Sub Focus says. “I feel really confident about how we walk the line between the two.” 

Whether it will be received in this way is obviously still up in the air, and the drum & bass underground core has, in the last few years, moved towards sounds that are rougher than the distinctly polished palette found on Portals. With the underground now dominated by the jump-up infused work of Souped Up and Critical Music’s urban-edged minimal exploits, a quick survey of the landscape suggests Portals belongs to a different category; the mainstream end of UKF rather than the dirtier underbelly of Skankandbass, a promotional channel and underground stalwart founded by Sub Focus manager Seb Weingartshofer. 

Although their album might not be received in underground circles the way they’d prefer, it’s an observation that, in a sense, misses the point. It is, after all, somewhat wrongheaded to try and define music by what it is not. Most importantly of all, it’s not the overriding concern of either artist and, when asked what feelings they hope to have looking back on the album in a year’s time, both just stressed how proud they are to have made it. For Wilkinson, nothing can “take away how proud I am because it was such a journey to make it, such a learning process. All the memories of making it in that beautiful setting and the people that we worked with. That’s what I’m proud of.”

Although the coronavirus puts a fist-sized asterisk over any discussions regarding the future, some things have already become clear. Sub Focus feels like he’s “a lot more aware of what I want to be making and what I should be making, I don’t feel any confusion over that,” and the whole process behind Portals has made him “want to do more ambitious projects moving forward”. He sees Portals‘ clear sonic theme as “something that I’d love to do again, I’d love to make some more records with distinctive themes behind them.” 

Right now, Wilkinson is jamming in the studio, “enjoying writing with no end goal,” and both artists say they’re enjoying the pressureless period of post-album bliss. Especially since they both tend to create a lot of self-imposed pressure. But after the rest period, it’ll be time to “put the pressure back on,” Sub Focus says, and a revamped live show, postponed earlier this year due to the lockdown, might be one of the first targets. 

In all, the pair seem likely to continue down their shared trajectory, creating a history which, as it has been thus far, is characterised by highly infectious dance music and equivalent commercial success. Portals is the next chapter in that story. And whilst it may not be their most underground work, it certainly seems the most honest. 

Sub & Wilkinson’s ‘Portals’ is out now via EMI. Buy it here.   

Ben Hunter is a freelance journalist living in London. Find him on Twitter.  



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