Dance music icons and more specifically drum and bass pioneers: Sub Focus and Wilkinson just released their collaborative album Portals. The 11 track project is an incredible journey though the duo’s production prowess, showing their depth and overall talent for drum and bass. Portals includes three previously released singles; ‘Illuminate’, ‘Just Hold On’ and ‘Air I Breathe’ which racked up over 15 million streams on Spotify, before the album release. We expect the album to follow in the singles’ footsteps and deservedly so.
To celebrate the release of their album, we talked with both Sub Focus and Wilkinson. Naturally we chat about the album and what inspired its creation and process. We also delve into their roots and the drum and bass scene.
Can you tell us about your album Portals? How did the idea of the album come to be?
Wilkinson: Myself and Nick did a record together called ‘Take It Up’ a few years ago. We’d been talking about getting into the studio for a while and finally got some time in between shows to make it happen. After that we started chatting about the idea of doing a bigger project together as musically we’re influenced by a lot of the same artists and both felt like we’d like to try something new. We worked out the only way we were going to get the ball rolling was to book some time out of touring and go somewhere remote to record undisturbed.
Sub Focus: We liked the idea of doing a collaborative project as we have both worked on our own for many years and we were listening to a lot of the same artists like Bonobo, Jon Hopkins and Moderat. We wanted to make an album that was more of a listening experience rather than a collection of bangers – influenced by what those guys and more are doing – making more ambitious electronic LPs but in our corner of the music landscape.
You mentioned that Portals is a take on the more experimental side of your work. What does that entail, and what sound should we expect from the project?
Sub Focus: We wanted to incorporate more live instrumentation and organic instruments into our work and fuse that with the more electronic sounds we are known for. So we decided to do a studio retreat with the view to record a lot of raw materials we wanted to work with.
Wilkinson: To do this we actually hired out Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios to make the bulk of this album and that’s where it all started to really come together. We drafted in some really incredible people to work with on this album down there. The likes of John Calvert (who’s done a lot of work with Nao and Ghost Poet), Tom Cane (who’s worked with Eric Prydz and both of us in the past), Tom Varrell (from the Sub Motion Orchestra) and Icarus. So their input was really refreshing, plus having all the outboard equipment and instruments available to us at Real World, isolated out in the countryside just seeped through the soundscape of the album. It was lovely to do something different and approach an album in a new way.
How does working in a collaborative setting impact the work itself? Is it easier having ideas bounce off each other?
Wilkinson: Yeah it’s been great. There’s always the process of compromise, tweaking, revisiting etc but that’s all part and parcel of working with someone. It’s just lucky we are mates, we get on really well and above all we respect each other’s ear and vision. When I first came into the scene Nick was one of the producers I really looked up to. I was a big fan basically. So now 10 years later to be making a record with him is a bit crazy when I sit back and take it all in.
How does Portals compare to your guys’ previous collaborative work like ‘Take It Up’ or ‘Illuminate’?
Wilkinson: ‘Take It Up’ was written with the dance floor in mind. ‘Illuminate’ was the first of the tracks we made for this album and brings in live instrumentation into our electronic style that we’re both known for. I’m really proud of the journey that the album takes you on and all the different styles we’ve included on there. We both pushed each other to move out of our comfort zones and thats what I think makes this album stand out and differ from our solo music.
How influential was growing up in England on shaping your drum & bass careers?
Sub Focus: It was huge! I grew up in London and got into D&B in the mid nineties in my early teens. Being able to go to Notting Hill Carnival, Metalheadz at the Blue Note and Bagleys Warehouse was a huge influence on me getting more into the music, not forgetting Pirate Radio stations like Kool FM and going record shopping at Black Market records. The pre-internet era was pretty magical looking back and relied more on actually travelling to the places where the music was being played so it was a perfect place to be for a young fan of this music.
Wilkinson: Not been asked this question before! But I guess it’s all we know. To grow up in London in particular is hugely inspiring. Taking in all the genres, new sounds, the cross-pollination of different music from across the world. I guess we probably take it all for granted! London was rich with Drum & Bass nights when I was a teenager so sneaking into Hospitality @ Heaven, Herbal and Ram @ Matter and seeing the fans react to the music was what got me hooked on D&B.
What are your thoughts of modern drum and bass making a big breakthrough in the U.S.?
Sub Focus: I really hope that it continues to progress and for more people to get into it. I’ve been lucky to have a decent following in the States through some of my crossover tracks there. Me, Dimension, Culture Shock and 1991 have a collective called Worship and toured the States just before the world went into Corona shutdown. We really made it our mission to do D&B properly there and involve some of the great new D&B artists coming from there like Justin Hawkes, Reaper & Zeal.
Wilkinson: It’s great to see so many new D&B artists coming out of the U.S at the moment. I have no idea if D&B will make a huge breakthrough in the U.S, but its great to see labels like Monster Cat supporting the genre. I’ve never tried to make music to breakthrough in the U.S. It’s down to the individual scenes in all the different states to make that happen I think.
You feature many talented vocalists on your tracks. How do you find these artists to be featured on each song?
Wilkinson: It’s a mixture really of myself and Nick reaching out directly to people who we are into and working with our managers to track people down. It’s been a real privilege to work with the vocalists on this album, they’ve all smashed it.
Do either of you have any inspiration you draw from when co-working on Portals, whether it be a specific musician, environment, or idea?
Wilkinson: I think the entire process is inspirational. We both have a similar taste in music which helped but Real World itself was incredibly inspiring, being in nature, having some amazing song writers and musicians meant that ideas were constantly flowing.
Sub Focus: I’ve always shied away from the idea of a studio retreat as I felt it might put too much pressure on the creative process but it was actually brilliant. Not having too much time and working with each other and the other artists meant there was lots of inspiration and ideas when we were at Real World. Afterwards we could alternate working on tracks so we never got stuck on an idea for long.
How do you think the pandemic has shaped your way of creating music? What do you anticipate drum and bass will form into in the next year or so?
Sub Focus: I’m enjoying having more routine and time to make music – It’s made me realise how productive you can be with time not spent travelling DJ-ing. I think that electronic music in general might get more experimental as people don’t have to think about catering to what is wanted in clubs so much. That said we are all missing dancing in a field a lot right now.
Wilkinson: Personally it’s given me more time without touring to really fine tune things and also to experiment. I miss touring big time, but its been amazing to just have a routine, go to the studio in the week and then spend weekends with my family and close friends. Just the structure has been nice, but at the same time I’ve really missed festivals and my Ibiza residency. I’ve got no idea how it will influence the general sounds of D&B. I’m not sure it will. But I know a lot of us are sitting on big dancefloor records, waiting for the clubs to reopen!
Are there any upcoming artists that you think we should keep an eye on?
Wilkinson: Lots. I think the scene is in great shape music wise at the moment. People like Ekko & Sidetrack, Pola & Bryson, Krakota, Justin Hawkes (previously Flite) are really coming through. Too many names to mention but it’s an exciting time at the moment for our music!
Take a listen below through Sub Focus and Wilkinson’s incredible 11 track drum and bass journey.
The album is available digitally, on CD and as a very special gatefold double vinyl LP.