It’s been a staggering eight years since the enigmatic SBTRKT, or Aaron Jerome, last graced an Australian stage.
Fond memories linger of energetic DJ sets and headline performances at Laneway and Falls Festival – the mysterious tribal mask, the sun-soaked crowds, and the sonic magic he conjured alongside his frequent collaborator, Sampha.
Now, with excitement, the UK electronic trailblazer looks forward to returning this month.
“It’s without a doubt one of my favourite places to play,” Jerome says over Zoom from his London home. “It’s crazy how much time passed in between. I’ve been writing, obviously, but the pandemic created an even bigger gap between things. I’ve been raring to get back, perform new music, and evolve my show a bit as well.”
He’s hitting the road with his eagerly awaited third album, The Rat Road, released in May, marking a big comeback after a substantial break.
Following the success of two acclaimed albums—2011’s self-titled debut and 2014’s Wonder Where We Land—loaded with remixes and heavyweight collaborations—Jerome independently dropped his 2016 project, SAVE YOURSELF, before stepping back from the spotlight for over half a decade.
But, as they say, good things take time. During those behind-the-scenes years, the methodical musician and producer immersed himself in the studio, refining skills, and advancing his production. Self-taught, he estimates that he created over 1500 songs during this prolific creative period.
“The end goal was always to try and create something that I felt had real value to put out into the world,” he reflects. “I didn’t want to drop a record that felt like I was repeating myself or didn’t say enough about myself as an artist.”
Jerome’s gift for discovering vocal talent has long been a hallmark, with early triumphs like Sampha and Jessie Ware in 2011. But, in the beginning stages of his soon-to-be third record, he felt disconnected from the UK scene.
Spending more time in Los Angeles, encounters with artists like Steve Lacy ensued, but nothing concrete materialised. Once the pandemic hit, forcing the music industry to a standstill, Jerome found himself reevaluating his work.
“I had lots of demos and things, but when the pandemic hit, a lot of it just ended up on the cutting room floor because I couldn’t finish things. Going back to them felt weird; they had passed their working point,” he admits.
During that global pause, he took time to reassess his material, reintroducing a London framework back into the mix. “It might not be the most obvious thing in my music, but a lot of my influence comes from growing up and being in London,” he reveals.
Rediscovering his London roots notably shaped the rhythmic aspects of his music, infusing lively beats from genres such as jungle, UK garage, and the experimental sounds of early post-dubstep and dubstep.
In the process, he unearthed talents like LEILAH, and George Riley, as well as Grime legend D Double E, injecting freshness into his evolving sound.
Jerome also had casual meet-ups with California-based musician Toro Y Moi in London and Paris, just jamming and “messing around, geeking out with sequences, and trying ideas.”
Spontaneous studio sessions with Texas rap-rocker Teezo Touchdown added a layer of unpredictability. The only remote recording involved Yukimi Nagano from Little Dragon, who is based in Sweden.
“The whole process was more about having fun and seeing where things go, as opposed to the end goal of just creating a final product. It felt really liberating,” he says.
“It’s quite informative just messing around in the studio. Sometimes someone might sing or have an idea, and we build around that in the moment. It sounds silly, because that’s what bands do, but in electronic music, it’s often a beat, someone sings on it, and then it’s done. Whereas my process is a bit different; it’s about seeing how things come together in a more collaborative way, I suppose.”
Enter his highly anticipated 2023 offering, The Rat Road. Over 22 expansive tracks, Jerome showcases his refined sonic ambitions, spanning techno, drum ‘n’ bass, garage, jazz piano, synth-pop, and more – a real cinematic odyssey.
LEILAH’s stunning vocals on “FORWARD” and “L.F.O.”, along with the lead single, “WAITING,” featuring Teezo Touchdown, stood out as high points. The album’s emotional depth, conveyed through introspective narrative, is deepened by spoken word deliveries from poet Kai Isaiah Jamal and D Double E, tying societal frustration with the album’s title – a take on ‘the rat race’.
This return to the spotlight marks a major personal shift, too. Shedding the anonymity of the SBTRKT persona, initially designed to keep the focus on the music, Jerome now stands unmasked and nearly uninhibited. “I’m still a very introverted person,” he says, but now he’s trying to share more of his perspective and voice in order to make a stronger connection with his audience.
“It definitely feels like a much easier way to exist as an artist, where I don’t feel like I’m playing a character as such. When I first put out music, I wanted it to speak for itself. I didn’t want to be a personality that people had to like or fit within a marketable scene for it to work. But it now feels more natural to say, ‘Yeah, this is my music, this is what I created,’ without having to have or be a persona to convey it.”
Unmasking himself, Jerome has also embraced his South Asian identity. Adopting the anonymous persona partly due to challenges at the start of his career in a gate-kept industry, he aligns himself with pioneering British South Asian musicians like M.I.A. and Jai Paul, experiencing a stronger sense of community and pride.
“At that time, I didn’t feel like I was the right fit for the scene I was in – I could only navigate it through invisibility or anonymity,” he insists. “I never really saw others in my scene who were like me, but now, it feels more important to engage with fellow artists, showcase our work, and make other people be proud of having peers in these spaces.”
“I’ve also felt like the doors have opened a bit, and I think social media, especially, has empowered a younger generation to be themselves. There’s more freedom to control your own message, and present your music how you want. I’ve definitely drawn inspiration from younger artists who are doing that.”
On the live front, a revamped setup featuring four band members brings SBTRKT’s new era to life on a larger scale. At Jerome’s upcoming headline show at Sydney’s Metro Theatre, Aussie fans can expect a full band setup with intricate layers from his innovative catalogue, both old and new, played over dozens of keyboards, drums, and more instruments.
“It has given me space to perform a larger number of songs and showcase more parts of each track. Between the albums, there are about 50 different synths and keyboards, and so many vocals. Presenting that without relying on a playback rig is a very different thing, and I’ve been excited to build the set up for this tour.”
Wrapping up his album cycle and world tour, SBTRKT is undeniably back. With a fresh “ability and motivation,” he’s eager to explore different spaces – producing for others, delving into dance and club sounds, and feeling “more liberated” in releasing music without lengthy waits.
“With streaming and social media, there’s more freedom in sharing music; not everything needs to be so neatly packaged or come with a big marketing campaign,” he’s keen to emphasise.
And in the midst of this newfound freedom, the next SBTRKT release won’t be rushed; quality remains Jerome’s focus. “It’s not about celebrity or fame; it can vanish if the creative output isn’t good. I just want to be happy, knowing what I created is the best I could possibly put out.”
SBTRKT’s The Rat Road is out now.
SBTRKT is performing at Sydney’s Metro Theatre on Friday, December 29th. Catch him also at Hobart’s HAYDAYS Festival, Heaps Good Festival Melbourne and Heaps Good Festival Adelaide, and for a DJ set in Perth at The Rechabite Hall. Tickets and more information can be found here.