It’s been a busy few years for Submotion Orchestra. The group formed in 2009 off the back of a project commissioned by the Arts Council, tasked with composing a classical/dubstep piece for York Minister Cathedral, and haven’t looked back since. The seven-piece have released four studio albums, and have toured in just about every nook and cranny in the world, from the iconic Barbican to Croatian festival Outlook. This variety in venues is no coincidence, testament to their diverse sonic palette that blends a multitude of styles to create music that’s become increasingly hard to pigeonhole in recent years.
The band has just released Colour Theory via Counter Records, an offshoot of one of London’s most hailed imprints in Ninja Tune. The record comes with a more produced, electronic sound to some of their previous work, continuing to challenge any presumptions people may have about their music, something cited as important to the band. Colour Theory features a range of collaborations, from Catching Flies to Andrew Ashong to Billy Boothroyd, with the latter joining them on the group’s UK tour starting in March.
We caught up with co-founder and producer of the group Dom Howard aka Ruckspin – who’s also released music for a variety of projects on Deep Medi, Tectonic and Ranking Records – to talk us through the aims of the latest LP, the band’s upcoming tour and what’s catching his ear on Ninja Tune.
Hi Dom, can you describe Submotion Orchestra’s sound in a few words?
I think it’s easier to say what we are not. We are not dubstep, we are not house, we don’t feel comfortable sticking to any kind of exclusive genre. I guess we feel that we fit between a lot of different things.
There’s definitely a dubstep sound in your earlier work especially, would you cite this as a big influence?
Yeah, I mean, it definitely started off being quite dubstep orientated as our early material was based on my studio productions at the time. I was the only one listening to it, or engaged in the scene in any way. That was the roots of Submo but we have expanded way beyond that, I feel like even by the first album we weren’t just that.
What about the rest of the band’s influences?
The others were coming from jazz, hip-hop, reggae, soul – quite an eclectic mix of backgrounds.
It must be difficult for you all to agree on a decision when producing music with such a blend of personalities and influences.
Of course, with seven in the band everyone naturally tends to have different opinions on what tracks we should be including, what sounds good etc. Then you have the label or manager or friends who also have opinions. But at the end of the day it has to be decided or we would end up with 50 tracks on an album.
Let’s talk about your latest album, Colour Theory. What was the aim for your fourth studio album?
To change up the sound of the group. When we first recorded our last album Alium, we went off to an old farmhouse in Wales in the middle of nowhere and basically created the album live. This time round, we tried to go back to the drawing board a bit. At times people got frustrated because you came away from it feeling like you still didn’t know what we were doing exactly, but it was really good to put everyone in this mind-set that we were doing something different – we don’t know what it is right now but it’s going to be different.This led us to deciding that I needed to take the lead, so everyone would send me ideas and I worked them up a bit. I treated them more like a sample library, they’d record it at home and send it over, and if it’s not brilliantly recorded it didn’t matter, those happy accidents can make it great.
That’s interesting you say that, I was recently watching your ‘Meet The Band’ series featuring drummer Tommy. He was showing his collection of cymbals used for Colour Theory and many were broken or defected in some way, do you think these quirks often lead to something great?
Yeah, accidents that happen in the recording process can often produce something really unique and useful. I can hear one thing someone has done messing around and then that becomes the main thing of the track, there’s no rules to it. I think there’s less rigidity with this last album as well.
You were missing singer Ruby for a lot of the recording process, how did this affect it?
We saw it is a welcome challenge, not having just Ruby on all the tracks; it gives you more scope to make a more varied sonic palette. The group got to work with some great new musicians too.
Tell me a bit about how you came to work with the guest vocalists on Colour Theory.
Tommy hit up a lot of people on Twitter, he writes a lot of the material, so the vocalists would be mainly working with him. That was it really, just seeing if they were interested and available, then going from there.
Did they bring ideas or did you have a clear vision for each track with the artists?
Ed’s track was actually from an original demo he had done which I really liked and I thought would be good for the band. I then thought, how would it sound if he and Ruby sang it as a duet together? So we tried chopping and changing parts and it just seemed to work. ‘Red Dress’ was interesting; it was a track that my old friend Royce Wood Junior did. He wrote ‘Red Dress’ with singer Claire McGuire, the original vocals were hers but because she was so busy she wasn’t able to re-record with us for the final thing. I wrote a second verse, and then finished off the track with Ruby’s vocals.
We also did some work with a few people who didn’t quite make the final cut, Huxley was one of them. Ruby did a track with him, but it kind of felt like it was a Huxley track featuring Ruby, not a real Submotion tune. It was a good club tune but just didn’t tick the right boxes for us. Another one was started with Breakage but we just couldn’t seem to find the right vibe for it. He was in the middle of moving house and we were finding it difficult to make time to finish it.
There are definitely lots of great artists on Ninja and its sub-labels, anything caught your attention at the moment?
It’s one of those labels I always looked up to as a teenager, and it’s still doing such fresh music. To be a part of that is really exciting. The new Maribou State album is really interesting, then there’s the Howling album (Sacred Ground) that I’ve had on repeat for half a year. I’ve always loved harder stuff like The Bug and Amon Tobin, and of course the other end of the spectrum with people like Fink and The Cinematic Orchestra. There’s such a wide spectrum of stuff Ninja Tune release, you’re bound to find stuff you love.
Your tour starts soon, what’s it going to be like performing the latest record?
It’s going to be a whole lot more difficult! As I mentioned a lot of the stuff for the album I have been taking and editing, meaning the band will have to learn the final versions from scratch. Kimono for example now has a 4/4 beat; they are going to have to re-learn the part they created, a bit of a strange concept and something we haven’t had to deal with before when performing.
What about vocals, who is taking over from Ruby while she looks after her newborn?
Two singers are joining us on the tour. One is Alyusha, a great singer who we worked with on our NYE gig, and also Billy Boothroyd, who of course is on the latest record.
Sounds exciting! Finally, the Superbowl was on the other week featuring its usual crazy half-time show. If Submotion Orchestra had to perform covering a track, what would you pick?
I would have to say ‘Gabriel’ by Roy Davis JR. A real classic garage tune from the early ’90s I’ve always wanted Submo to cover!
Colour Theory is out now via Counter Records. Submotion Orchestra play Motion Bristol, March 25. More info here.
Featured image: Chris Hargreaves
Words: Natahan Diamond