Magazine \ Features \ Features

Submotion Orchestra

Times are a-changin' for this prolific outfit

2016 Jan 26     
2 Bit Thugs

With new album 'Colour Theory', Submotion Orchestra deliver the goods yet again - despite the reduced role of vocalist Ruby Wood

Here's a question: if an act delivers their debut album in November 2011, how many albums do you think they're likely to have released by February 2016?

The Prodigy and Chemical Brothers, for example, have released one album each during this time. Disclosure and Flying Lotus have released two. Four Tet has released three. Skream hasn’t released any at all.

On 19 February, Submotion Orchestra will have released four. For fans, this is an incredible and rare consistency - a fresh bundle of newness, on average, every 16 months. Not bad considering the heavy rehearsing and touring schedute each album entails. Not bad considering all seven members of the Leeds-based outfit also have their own, separate projects.

Most importantly, not bad considering these albums are genuinely beautiful bodies of work. Ful of bold dramatic instrumentals and evocative smouldering songs, all laced with emotion and evergreen instrumentation, their rich soulful, jazzy, dubby cauldron bubbles without so much as a whiff of filler, as those who’ve been following the band since their debut album Finest Hour will already know.

Last year, though, this seemingly endless writing process (in the past they’ve been known to start writing the next album before the new one is even out) was posed with an abrupt challenge. Their singer Ruby Wood became pregnant and wanted to take a sabbatical as she settled into her newfound family dynamic. With her delicate, often disarming voice such a distinctive ingredient in the Submo recipe book, this could have brought the band into disarray.

But no. Thanks to their collective nature, and the fact that both their live shows and albums are a strong balance of vocal and instrumental tracks andthey’ve never exploited Ruby as the sole postergirl of the band, they used the opportunity to explore new directions, ideas and creative techniques.

Colour Theory is the result: a softer-focused, deeper, more electronic-based album featuring more collaborations than any of their previous work. While Ruby still has a strong presence – notably on opener Red Dress and the swooning string dreamfest In Gold– the band are also joined by in-demand soul man Andrew Ashong, hazy wave/acoustic fusionist Catching Flies and electronic songwriter Ed Thomas.

This new multi-faceted blend could have cost the band their unique style, but instead it’s added to an already impressively broad repertoire, thanks to the way they’ve approached the whole project. While previous albums were written together in remote studios in the middle of nowhere (read: Wales), all the songs here were written (and elements recorded) in isolation and sent to the band’s core knob-twiddler Dom Howard (also known as bass meddler Ruckspin) who pieced the whole project together like some crazy, 10,000-piece jazzy jigsaw. We called him to find out more...

You're definitely 'an albums band', aren't you?

"Ha! We do enjoy the album format, yes. It’s nice to keep things moving. Whenever we write an album, we always think we can try something different on the next one. Every time you make something you’re learning, and you’re always improving. Or at least you feel you are. Plus we’re in a very fortunate position... we’ve never had that one big tune that we can ride off for the rest of our lives. That one big track we haveto play or that creates expectations for everything else we ever write." 

You wouldn’t want that, would you?

"Our accountant would argue otherwise but no, we don’t. It’s nice to have a grassroots fanbase who appreciate everything we do. We feel like we’re growing with our fans. We haven’t come out of nowhere with a big single but no one knows the rest of our stuff."

The people who are listening are really listening...

"Yeah. It’s how we digest music as well: stick an album on and experience it from start to finish. If we were a pop act, then it’s all about that hit song and albums are largely irrelevant with lots of filler. For us it’s more of a listening experience."

I seriously can’t think of any 'filler' Submotion Orchestra tunes... any fillers for you?

"Sure, there are tracks I personally don’t like as much as others. Some you can grow tired of playing every night on a tour. I’m proud of everything we’ve ever released, but I always want to improve and develop, so I’m excited to see what people think of the next album. It’s very different, but I think people appreciate our development and how we’ve adapted to Ruby taking time off." 

She’s still got a strong presence on the album, though...

"Yeah, she’s still there, but we’ve always wanted to have more featured singers on the albums in the past anyway. It’s forced us to do this now, so we’re all on the same page. We’re really lucky that the band has always been very strong. We play a lot of instrumentals, so Ruby can go and do her thing for a while and the band won’t stop. A lot of bands don’t have that. She’s integral, but she’s not 'the band', full stop."

As Colour Theory proves! So take us through the writing process for the album...

"We tore up the non-existent rule book. Everyone wrote their ideas on their own, sent them to me and I took on the executive producer role. People sent me stuff over the summer and I put it all together, chopped bits out and arranged stuff and asked the band to record other elements. We had 50 demos by June. Then I mixed and arranged them and whittled it down to the strongest 15. It was very different from previous albums, where we’d decide what we were doing before we recorded everyone’s bits week by week. This was a lot more fluid. They’d record ideas, I’d feed back and then we’d send it round to each other."

Surely working like that's a risk, though, when it comes to consistency?

"Oh, definitely, but that’s why we had clear roles. Everyone agreed to trust my ideas and decisions from the start of the process. I picked the ideas that sat together nicely in the first place, so consistency was always a key focus."

The new direction is immediately clear. Your last albums all kick off with big classical-sounding intros but this one has much more of a slow-burn ignition...

"Definitely. In the past we’ve enjoyed having that opening statement: this is a live band, this is an impact type of opening, but Red Dress had enough of a smouldering intro that we didn’t need a separate intro to set it up. Actually Red Dress is really special in lots of ways. It’s one of Ruby’s few tracks on the album and it was written with Royce Wood Junior, who’s the reason I got into producing. He taught me so much when we were both based in Leeds. The stuff he made with Jamie Woon was so funky and glitchy and weird: he’d smash in random samples, glitch them up, and end up with something amazing. It was great to be working with him again."

I love the cyclical nature of that. Is that any relation to the title?

"It could be, but it isn’t. I think the general idea behind the title was to do with texture and form; the relationship between music and abstract art. I did a university thesis on Kandinsky, which I won’t bore you with, but that could have had something to do with it. So yeah, possibly a little self-indulgent but I felt it made sense with this album being more of an electronic textural exploration than our previous albums."

One big evolution is the lack of horn solos...

"Yeah, that was a key mission for all of us: to treat the horns as a texture. I think Bobby was getting frustrated with the inevitable ‘I’m the trumpet player, so I do the solo’ role on a lot of the tracks. I think he was wary of becoming that device all the time. The whole band is comprised of trained jazz musicians, so a horn solo is a go-to jazz thing that we have to be aware of not doing too much. In this sense the whole album has less of an obvious ‘jazz’ sound."

It's less obviously dubstep, too...

"That’s a label we feel we’ve grown out of over the years. The first EP was essentially covers of my dubstep tracks. But every album goes further and further out around the styles and tempos. We’ve taken as much influence from dubstep as we have soul or jazz or house. But we’ve still found in reviews or in press we’ve been described as a ‘live dubstep act’, which is a shame." 

"We play real instruments. Seven of us playing live instruments... well, six and me engineering it all! It seems if you have any association with any electronic genre, to some people it means you’re not really a 'live' live act. It’s more associated with button-pressing and staring into laptops. Or you just play in nightclubs and not proper concert halls. Hopefully with the recent Barbican show, we've challenged that assumption."

Totally. So, final question... when you return from your next run of concert halls, will you be diving straight into another album? Or will we have to wait a little longer than 16 months?

"Ha! I’m afraid so. Before now we were just solidly writing without considering the consequences. But with this one we want to see what happens, what people enjoy and what the reaction is. It’s a really exciting time to see what people think of us. If it works out, then our creative options are endless and we can collaborate and experiment even more. But don’t worry, I have no doubt we’ll be writing again before the end of the year."

Colour Theory is out on 19 February on Counter Records. You can pre-order it here.

Follow Submotion Orchestra: Facebook Twitter Website

Submotion Orchestra pic: Chris Hargreaves





Tags: Submotion Orchestra, live electronica, dubstep, jazz, Ruby Wood