“I don’t think the face you’re born with has to be the face you perform with,” says SBTRKT, summing up his music philosophy— which involves wearing a handcrafted modern twist on a tribal mask to maintain anonymity. Born Aaron Jerome, he’s the latest producer to emerge from the U.K. post-dubstep scene amid a flurry of worldwide press and publicity, and he’s done so by taking a back seat to his music.
Here in the U.S., where his sound—rooted in bass-heavy dubstep, but taken in fresh directions—is still a somewhat foreign concept, he’s often compared to post-dubstep poster child James Blake. But aside from their initial inspirations, there’s very little to connect their sounds. “James seems much more into folk and traditional gospel, whereas I’m much more into my electronic and strictly U.K.-based genres,” Jerome says over Skype from his London flat on a rare day off from his ongoing world tour, which brings him to Chicago on Friday 4. “We come from different schools of thinking.”
While a hefty low-end does serve as a common denominator between the two, Jerome’s music as SBTRKT deploys more quintessentially British urban sounds. Pulling from dubstep, 2-step and U.K. funky, and injected with heavy doses of soul, his self-titled debut is an effervescent brew made from the oohs and aahs of layer upon layer of synths, the boom-clack-boom-boom-clack of syncopated percussion and the steady twinkling of cosmic atmospherics.
“Electronic music is about creating make-believe worlds with all these crazy synths, weird switches and everything else,” the masked musician says. “It’s not really about the reality of sitting in front of an acoustic instrument and playing it with emotion and soul.”
This idea of existing in a fantasy land helps explain Jerome’s use of the tribal mask. “Near the outset, there was this idea of when I create music it was just about putting music out and not having to promote myself to make the music be heard. I thought the easiest way there was keeping some anonymity,” Jerome explains. “I think my favorite artists are people that have whole visions of everything. They’re people that seem to have a larger persona than just the music they create, and it all seems to fit together and intertwine.”
In this way, the mask has given SBTRKT that anonymity and helped the hype machine rev up around him. Even rapper Drake took notice, adding a guest verse to a remix for Jerome’s single “Wildfire.” A celebrity endorsement never hurts. “It seems to open up people’s ears to not hear things in genre-fied ways and actually realize that regardless of where music is made or where it comes from, it can be appreciated by a lot of different people,” Jerome says.
Hearing Drake rapping over Jerome’s beats, you do sense that his music is as fitting for soulful album frequenter Sampha as it could be for an Usher or a Justin Timberlake. Many critics have said as much, most notably the BBC, which said “what we have here is the promise of this decade’s Timbaland” in its album review.
“Working on other people’s records or producing other artists seems an exciting way of creating new material and furthering my own ambitions as an artist,” Jerome says of the possibility of taking on that type of a production role. But, if he does it won’t be to rack up chart toppers. “It’s not about making tracks to get hit records as a producer; for me it’s just about creating exciting material.”