Ladies and Gentlemen, the wait is over. The self-titled debut album release from d&b’s hottest property Sub Focus is finally upon us. As he unleashes one of the most keenly anticipated records of the past couple of years, Knowledge took the opportunity to visit him at his brand new studio…
“I’m just really getting stuck into working in the new studio,” says a relaxed looking Nick Douwma, aka Sub Focus, as he settles down into a comfy looking chair in his plush new surroundings. “It’s nice to be in a new set up, I’m going to be concentrating on a few different things. It’s great to bring people somewhere a bit more professional because I’ve been working in my bedroom so long! I’m really excited to get the album out and I’ve been working with Chase & Status recently which has been fun. I’ve known them for quite a long time and we came through at a similar time but we’ve only dabbled in the studio together before.”
In fact his new Central London base is rather handily positioned next door to the aforementioned Chase & Status with none other than Shy FX located on the other side, which could lead to some seriously dangerous future collaborations. Back to the present however and we have the small matter of the Sub Focus debut album to get excited about and Nick is visibly chuffed with the results.
“I’m happy because I didn’t want to release an album which was just dancefloor d&b, I didn’t think it would be varied enough. My sound has developed a lot and I’ve found a bit more of an identity, a more clear cut direction. When I made a lot of the tunes for this record, especially the first few tracks I did for it, like Timewarp and Follow The Light, I was listening to a lot of techno and electro, so that’s a really strong thread running through it. I love all those old synth guys like Vangelis and [Giorgio] Moroder and there’s also an old skool thing going on which is a classic vibe to draw on, so I tried to make it a mixture of those sounds but still keep it hanging together.”
The album switches effortlessly between tempos with a couple of old skool influenced tunes nestling amongst the trademark high octane, dancefloor-destroying d&b, not forgetting a dubstep collaboration with Chase & Status and a couple of bassline house tracks thrown in for good measure.
“It’s been interesting with the house stuff,” Nick reveals. “I’ve been trying to work out what I should be doing at a slower tempo, there’s so much choice when you write a techno or a dubstep track. Some of the slower tunes that I’ve done would probably weird a lot of people out! But I’ve been doing lots of different stuff over the last couple of years and trying to keep a bit of an identity.
“One of the ways I get ideas for songs is that I’ll hear a sound I like and remake it. With Rock It, I really like the Daft Punk Robot Rock track so I found the original sample and recreated a lot of the parts from it to create my own take on the track. I’m really into sample recreation, but it is massively time consuming! With the album I wanted to bring some light and shade and make it a good listening experience, rather than being straight dancefloor tunes.
“If I didn’t have Andy C involved I think it would be really easy for me to go off on some mad tangents and forget that a lot of people that are into this music want to rave to something fairly simplistic. Tracks have to be fairly simple to work in a club context, you can’t add in weird four bar bridges! I guess that’s one of the criteria that I set, the tunes have be interesting but also work on a dancefloor as well.”
Rewinding to his youth, Nick recalls getting the music bug for the first time: “I got into music in a big way when I was about 11. I discovered rock music and it was just a whole new exciting thing for me. I hadn’t really been into music at all up until that time. I got really into bands like Nirvana, that was my starting point. I was in a band for a few years playing bass and that really got me into early music software.
“I had a really crummy old Acorn computer with this program called Notate on it. Then when I was about 13, somebody in my class played me ‘Incredible’ by M-Beat and General Levy and it just sounded so weird to me, so completely different. I started recording tapes off Kool FM and got into a lot of the old Ram stuff. I started DJing about ’97 when I bought some belt drive decks for £50 quid and just really got into it from there.
“I used to live in London when I was younger, then my parents moved down to Kent. My mate started a small night at Surrey University so I kind of cut my teeth playing there. I eventually bought a proper production set up and from then on I started taking it more seriously. It was around 2001 when I started thinking about properly finishing some tunes and getting some demos out.
“A friend of mine sent some tracks to a few people and there was some interest but nothing ended up coming of it. It was quite lucky in a way because a friend of mine gave a CD to Andy C at a gig and out of the blue I got a call from him. I didn’t actually realise that he’d received the tracks so that was a really wicked moment. Those first few tunes ended up coming out on Frequency Recordings.”
He swiftly made the step up from the Ram sister imprint to the main label itself and announced himself to the greater d&b public at large when he unleashed the massive X-Ray. “That was a real breakthrough track,” Nick explains. “Once that came out I started to get a lot of DJ work. Before that I was working the odd weekend but that really opened a lot of doors for me. I was surprised how well it did. Off the back of that, I got offered the Prodigy remix [Smack My Bitch Up], which was obviously a big thing. At that point I was just trying to get the tracks played by everyone. I’ve been really surprised by the support from Radio 1.
“During 2005 I had a really creative period and wrote the start of a lot of the tracks that came out between then and 2007. It was a really mad creative time, I wrote Swamp Thing, Airplane, Special Place, and Flamenco. They were all written within the space of a few months and I think the label’s vibe initially was to do an album straight away. I elected not to because I felt that it wasn’t a rounded project, they were all dancefloor tracks and there wasn’t a dynamic to it.
“I didn’t want to do an album like that so we decided to wait and put them out as singles. I just always try and do a different thing every time I sit down to write a tune. I hate it when I feel like I’m writing something that’s repeating myself too much. I think I’ve found it hard to write an album because I can be happy with two tracks at once but I’ll still spend the whole night tweaking them. To do that with twelve whole tracks!”
Nick has also become well known for his thrilling DJ sets, coming with a tight, quick mix style that keeps things moving on the dancefloor. “I love writing tracks for my sets,” he reveals. “I think that’s what I really love about doing this, making a beat and thinking about where it’s going to go in my set. Also the reaction when you first play a tune when you’ve just made it, and seeing it hopefully being positive.
“I put a lot into my sets, I think because I’ve got the experience, I was doing random nights years ago and I do a lot of in key mixing. Saul from Chase & Status was laughing at me about how meticulous I am but I’ve got a section in G and a section in C at the moment which is cool, I think about mixing in key quite a lot. It sounds great when you mix tunes with vocals that combine with other chords. I definitely tried to do that on the Essential Mix I did for Radio 1.
“I think the next thing I want to do is play different genres in my sets,” he continues. “I think that would be easier once I’ve released other types of music. I see music as becoming much more eclectic at the moment in terms of peoples tastes, I think there aren’t so many staunch purists of each genre. You meet people at raves who are into not only d&b but dubstep and house as well and I love all that. I love playing at nights where there’s lots of different sorts of music on.
“It’s made me feel more relaxed about getting into producing other genres, people are more open to it. Noisia play their own stuff, sort of electro breaks and I’ve definitely been inspired by what they are doing with their sets. I like it when you go and see a producer play their own material which is tailor made for their sets. I think that’s a really cool thing. When I used to go to raves before I had tunes out, the people that I liked were all producers. I remember seeing Fresh play out when he’d done a bunch of tunes like Signal and Floodlight and it was wicked because he was playing all the stuff that he’d made.”
When discussing the current state of the d&b scene, Nick is quite positive: “I was quite lucky with the timing of my Essential Mix because there was quite a lot of music that I just had to play and that’s how I rate how healthy the scene is. The next six months are looking exciting. Chase & Status, Culture Shock and Lomax have all got some great tunes coming out. I’m feeling what Fresh is doing, I believe he’s working on an album at the moment and Brookes Brothers are doing really well.
“I also really like what Instra:mental and dBridge are doing at the moment, I’m a massive fan of that. It’s got that soundtracky Vangelis sort of vibe, really wicked production, really original. I tend to like any music that feels new. The nights have been quite good as well despite there being a financial crisis at the moment! I think there’s almost been more people at the nights. I was worried when The End closed and Ram moved to Matter, because it’s such a big venue, unless its really busy there’s not going to be much vibe, but it’s been sold out every month!”
As for his future plans, Nick is keeping as busy as ever: “After promoting the album I’m going to keep on going off in more directions, it would be fun to do something with techno. I also want to concentrate on doing more live recording now I’m here in the new studio which is something I neglected when I was coming through. I’m really excited about getting the album out and working on some fresh music, because I’ve been working on the album for a long time, a couple of years.”
As Knowledge can testify, it’s been well worth the wait.