An underground maven in its own right, 103 Harriet is one of San Francisco’s best music venues. Toting past acts like Flying Lotus, Four Tet, and Madlib, the scene is industrial, bleak, and altogether hip, characterized by a dimly lit center room with walls splintered by kaleidoscopic stage lights. On Thursday night, the crowd was dressed in the Halloween spirit, adorned in feathers and sequins, as they waited in anticipation for the UK’s latest electronic export: SBTRKT.
Photo by Marcus Gedai
SBTRKT started his career overseas, playing live shows at east London club Plastic People and collaborating on tracks with artists like M.I.A. and Radiohead. The release of SBTRKT’s self-titled debut LP in June sparked an increased flurry of interest, and he has since been touring throughout Europe and the United States. SBTRKT collaborates with Sampha, another UK musician, during his live shows, and the duo create an orchestrated assembly of live percussion, hybridized and generative synth, and echoing voice accents. Described as “post-dubstep”, SBTRKT is inspiring in his anonymity, in his conceptualization of both his music and his image. Ensconced behind his novelty masks, which are designed by Hidden Place, SBTRKT prefers to conceal his identity in an attempt to bring the focus back to the music he produces. The name “SBTRKT” itself is an attempt to “create a musical identity separate from a single person,” and this is reiterated in every song he constructs.
Starting his set on Thursday with the transcendent “Heatwave”, the mood was set: tribalism, funk, and experimental electronica intertwined, trailed lightly by SBTRKT and Sampha’s sighs. With “Hold On”, the crowd immediately started to pitch in, singing along with the words “Why don’t we turn the leaf?” A song about rejection and renewal, its performance live retained all of its personality and soul. SBTRKT’s music is a conjunction between R&B and electronica, and infused in every beat of his resonating drum solos is a glamorization of the tribal. SBTRKT wants to remove the gimmicks from his music, wants to make the listener realize that there is both a clarity and a hypocrisy within the music’s meaning. By globalizing his music, yet hiding his identity, SBTRKT is inherently a paradox. But it’s the reliance on the tribal, the call for bringing it back to simplicity while endeavoring to experiment, that makes SBTRKT altogether intriguing and inexplicable. The mask he wore while performing live, which resembled an owl, only makes you think that he means to confound, that he is indeed all-knowing and wise when it comes to the delivery of his sound. His anonymity means that the only thing he is accountable for is his music. Stripped of any public image, all you have to judge him on is his bountiful brand of synthesized hooks and his tantalizing, venerated style of vocalization.
Photo by Marcus Gedai
“Living Like I Do” was an animated track, taking its influences from a trance-hall style of music. It is different from his otherwise moody beats, but this is how SBTRKT works: He frames his music without convention, without any precedent. Why be limited to one style, to one way? Anonymity allows him to experiment fearlessly, to create music according to his own ingenuity and prevail. “Something Goes Right” was a concert highlight, with the crowd again singing along to SBTRKT’s treble and titillation. With only a few EPs and a debut LP behind him, his international fan base is impressive. “Ready Set Loop” lived up to its name, culminating in a blurred frenzy of synth and beats. “Wildfire” served as the evening’s climax, with confetti erupting at the cue of the first chorus.
Lights flashing, confetti raining overhead, each member of the crowd was suspended in the craze of youth and drink and laughter. And at this moment, SBTRKT’s mission was accomplished. We were united under the veil of the music’s spirit, no longer distinguished or isolated as individuals, but comprehensive of the way that music is interpreted and constructed differently and uniquely by all, making it infinitely more complex than even the artist can understand. SBTRKT’s live performance was more than a brilliant conception and manipulation of electronic music. It also showed the way in which from only a bed of dials and switches used to generate his synths, from Man, there comes Music.
Living Like I Do
Something Goes Right
Ready Set Loop
Trials of the Past
Right Thing To Do