SBTRKT on his comeback and the mask coming off: “A lot of people thought I was voiceless”

The influential UK artist and producer returned in 2022 after six years away – but, as his brilliant new album ‘The Rat Road’ proves, he’s more determined than ever to play by his own rules

You might think that you’ve never met Aaron Jerome before, but you almost certainly have. The British musician, producer and DJ has likely been on heavy rotation on your streaming service of choice, record player and even your iPod since 2010. Furthermore, he’s worked with a plethora of big names over the years: Drake, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, Sampha, Jessie Ware, Caroline Polachek and Little Dragon have all nestled their way into Jerome’s contact book since his SBTRKT project took off nearly 15 years ago.

After dropping two acclaimed and guest-heavy studio albums (2011’s ‘SBTRKT’ and 2014’s ‘Wonder Where We Land’), Jerome, who was also known then for donning his mysterious SBTRKT mask, decided to take control of his narrative. Opting to go independent before dropping his 2016 project ‘SAVE YOURSELF’, Jerome then retreated from the limelight for over half a decade – a period during which, he estimates, he made over 1500 songs. “I sent 400 tracks to the label!” he tells NME from his London home. “They were like, ‘We think you’ve got to decipher for yourself what you want to put out’. As I’m my own manager and A&R, I then had to be like, ‘OK, I’m going to try [and make an album]’. I got it down to 22 in the end.”

Those 22 tracks comprise ‘The Rat Road’, the richly ambitious and wonderfully accomplished third SBTRKT studio album, which arrives today (May 5). Featuring guest turns from the likes of Toro Y Moi, Teezo Touchdown (“his voice reminds me of André 3000 thanks to its Southern vibe”) and “legend” D Double E, Jerome is cautiously optimistic that this record will be enough to put SBTRKT firmly back on the map.

As well as the extensive journey to this new record, Jerome tells NME about the struggles of breaking even as an independent touring artist, DMing Drake and a missed opportunity to work with Tame Impala.


How does this pre-album feeling compare to when you made your comeback with your single ‘Bodmin Moor’ last summer?

“I’m excited, especially at the fact that I’ve managed to complete an album! There were definitely points where I was wondering whether I’d ever get to an end point, or what I was making was valid enough to bother releasing. I’m always challenging myself musically: with ‘Bodmin Moor’, I wasn’t naturally going for a people-pleasing song where I was like, ‘Hey everyone, I’m back!’. I was ultimately going, ‘I don’t really follow rules, and I want to challenge myself and do things that I find interesting’. I liked seeing how people reacted, [and] whether they would continue to follow my music and be excited to see what I come up with next.”

Do you think you could have released ‘The Rat Road’ any earlier than now?

“I definitely couldn’t have. I feel that I’ve grown as a musician, artist and songwriter in that time away, sitting in the studio learning different skills that I didn’t have before. You don’t necessarily have the skills to do everything that’s in your head unless you literally grind, or use other people to do it for you. But I’m very much an introvert who sits in my studio plodding away on my own until I finish something. I rarely sample: I’ve only ever really sat there with all my synthesisers and keyboards. If I like a sound, I’ll spend three years trying to work out how to create it! It takes time, that process.”

You’ve drawn up another strong guest list for ‘The Rat Road’. What was the process of selecting your collaborators for this album?

“I’m always scouting for vocalists and new people, be it on Spotify’s Release Radar, YouTube, SoundCloud or a random DJ mix. I don’t just go for big artists: it’s specific voices I’m more attracted to. I had a two-pronged approach: at one point I was working with established artists like Feist, Steve Lacy and Toro Y Moi, but on the flipside I met Leilah, a newcomer who is on a lot of songs on the new record. The latter was more me putting my faith in someone who I really believed in from hearing one demo, and then spending three years songwriting with her with no real end goal. But the main thing I like to do is work with people who are as ambitious and able to get outside of their own box as I am. The one thing I always hate is doing a collaboration with someone who only wants to make a song that sounds like something they’ve already done, because then it’s like you’re a producer for hire. I want [my collaborators] to be like, ‘No, let’s make something fresh’.”


Sampha has appeared on every SBTRKT project to date. What’s the secret behind your creative partnership?

“I don’t think there is a secret. It’s testament to Sampha’s own skills that he’s very adaptable to being on records, as you can tell from his other collaborations: he can go into studios, lay something down and people will like it. In respect of my music, it’s more that it’s quite fluid and it always has been since we started working together. There’s never been a point where a track’s been difficult to make. I think sometimes when he collaborates with other people it’s very much like he’s written a song and then it gets put into that context, whether it’s ‘Too Much’ with Drake or ‘Saint Pablo’ with Kanye West. Mine are much more intertwined, I suppose: our parts would fall apart without the other, you know?”

Speaking of Drake, he previewed your recent song ‘Forward’ in the video for his and 21 Savage’s ‘Jimmy Cooks’ back in October after you DM’d him the track. What happened there?

“I heard [about it] after the fact from their team. The thought was that it would then be on their album, but it didn’t appear on there so I was like, ‘Oh, so this opportunity’s now disappeared!’ I still talk with Drake on DMs, so potentially there may be something down the line, you never know. The music industry is a funny beast in terms of how things work. There was a very positive side, though, with the amount of new followers who heard ‘Forward’ through that context. There were loads of people finding out about [my music] through YouTube comments or on TikTok. Fingers crossed that one day, something does appear as a finished version.”

Since going independent, you’ve shed the anonymity behind your SBTRKT persona. How do you look back on your journey to this point as an artist?

“The funny thing for me is there isn’t really much difference between then and now. I always say that you don’t ever get into the positions you’re in unless you’re doing all the work yourself anyway. Back then, being anonymous had a real message for me, in that I was focusing on the music and not allowing the need to have a personality or some sort of face as the thing which sells what you do.

“In this day and age, especially the way that social media is, I feel that I need to bring the ownership of my own identity to the front, and having a mask or an anonymous persona was only hindering that. A lot of people thought I was voiceless, you know? As a mixed race South Asian musician, I didn’t really see anyone like me when I was starting out. This isn’t some sad tale of woe, but since I’ve been kind of ‘revealed’ as such, I’ve seen some people taking pride in the fact that there’s someone they know who’s doing quite well at something, or being involved in a place that they would love to be. I feel like there being more visibility is always important, and it encourages people to be doing things that I’ve achieved myself through being hidden.”

You tweeted recently that you’re “looking at losing money” with your upcoming shows in LA and New York City. How difficult are you finding it to tour in the current climate?

“We’re in a very difficult place. We were in a place where music could possibly earn you money, and I think that, it doesn’t matter what era you’re from, you have some expectation that it definitely gets worse as time goes on. With touring, in terms of the cost of living crisis and everything else, the fees aren’t getting any better. No-one’s willing to pay any more to go to a gig, but unless you’re Beyoncé and people pay upwards of £100 for your shows, anyone at my level is like, ‘Well, £20 is about the going rate’. Even at that you can’t scale up, so it’s tough to make it work. When you’re in 800-to-1500-capacity venues on a tour like mine, you’re in loss-making [territory] – you can get quite close to being in quite large trouble if you’re not very careful about those margins.

“All I can hope for is that this record takes off and my fans really engage with it, and therefore it helps me be able to tour to a larger scale. The touring costs don’t change depending on where you play, it just means that you don’t earn as much.”

Despite those difficulties, are you still looking forward to playing live?

“I’m excited! I used to be super-nervous about doing a live show, because it’s such a major challenge to get right. A lot of producer peers of mine will just go on stage and literally play back their songs, maybe hitting the odd snare drum on a sample pad. That’s one way of getting away with it, especially if you have a big screen behind you.

“But the flip side of that is either doing something like The Chemical Brothers, where there’s so many masses of synths and it’s very electronic-based, or you can go down the semi-live route, which suits what I do because it’s what I do in the studio. For me, it was like, ‘Can I translate that and have fun with it on stage?’ I also wanted the fear that if I stop playing on stage then nothing happens, there’s silence: that’s what a band is. The one issue is that because I’m not a band – I’m a bit like Kevin Parker and Tame Impala – I have people who play with me. But we haven’t played together for like seven or eight years, so I’ve got to rebuild that rapport.”

Speaking of Kevin Parker, could there ever be a SBTRKT and Tame Impala collaboration?

“I did hit Kevin up actually on this campaign, but he was very, very busy. I love his work, and he’s got that new track with Thundercat, which is really sick.”

What does the future hold for SBTRKT and Aaron Jerome?

“My first album was made in two years when no-one was paying attention, while my second, like all second albums, was made under pressure after finishing two years of touring the first record. I was like, ‘Agh, I need to put something out within three years or it’s getting late!’ This album has been a much longer process, and I’ve got way more material to work with going forward than I’ve ever had at any other point, even before my first album. I’m definitely feeling the pressure of having to rebuild a little bit to get back to even having people know that I exist, but hopefully I can deliver good, quality stuff at a slightly quicker rate than before.”

SBTRKT’s new album ‘The Rat Road’ is out now


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