Thankfully, when Dom Howard (who you may also know as Ruckspin and one half of Author) and Tommy Evans (of Gentleman’s Dub Club) had the vision of forming a band to create a Dubstep sound live on stage back in 2008, it didn’t include electronic devices in blenders, Robots imploding and lazers burning the eyes of kittens. Rather, a jazzy, dub infused, natural sound that was no doubt the result of Dom and Tommy’s love for and prowess in the deeper, more organic side of the genre. The resulting Submotion Orchestra outfit is definitely far removed from the mid range screeches that have since soared to the greatest heights of electronic music and then fallen so dramatically, unfortunately becoming the defining sound of Dubstep to those not in the know along the way.
Today, two albums deep and with another forthcoming, the band have morphed into a seven piece medley of influences that have nudged their sound in different directions over the years, evolving from a more orchestral style on their debut Finest Hour to a slightly more electronic influenced, moody sound on Fragments.
When Dom, who acts as their producer and live engineer, answers my phone call he’s on route back from Leeds, the city where the band formed after collaborating on a project run by Yorkshire Arts Council to compose a live show featuring a massive array of musicians from an African Gospel Choir to a full size Organ in York Minster Cathedral. They’re split between London and Leeds now, and although he’s not returned to the city on Submotion business (he also co-runs d&b night Central Beatz in the city), he tells me that they do still record up there occasionally to save on London’s soaring studio prices.
When I ask about the influence of Leeds on the band, he’s quick to refer to the York Minster gig as their main catalyst.
“That was a key moment, the York Minster cathedral. It was an amazing moment, but also a struggle in many ways. We didn’t really know what to expect and the guy who commissioned us to do it didn’t seem to know what he wanted either so if was definitely hard. There were several points where I even thought it was all hot air, but somehow we scrambled it all together and it worked.
It was a unique opportunity and it’s a shame we didn’t have more time for it, that’s why me and Tommy decided to keep some sort of live thing going.”
The formula they’ve since created, drafting in an incredibly talented array of jazz musicians to bring to life Dom and Tommy’s studio productions, has since taken them around the world and earned them critical acclaim by the bucket load. Having just finished the festival season, he enthuses about highlights such as Koktebel Jazz Festival in Ukraine and Outlook in Croatia with an attitude that’s obviously grateful for the opportunities he’s earned. His favourite though: Audio River in Poland.
“There was 15,000 people on a beach, or rather a big river on the banks, so the crowd were stretched up around us. It’s great to play a massive crowd. As much as we’re at home in an intimate environment, we have a sound that can translate to larger venues, it’s amazing how much music can change live.
One of the reviews of the Author album was that it sounds great on headphones but isn’t club music. It might not sound like what everyone else is playing on a club system but I’ve toured with it and I can guarantee it works. Submotion’s the same idea, its just good music you can play anywhere.
I find the European festivals a lot more interesting, especially in terms of location. There was one in an abandoned steel mill just outside Prague for example, there were steel pipes everywhere and even people in hard hats!
The travel’s always a downside though, they managed to break my mixer case on the way back” he groans, obviously well versed in the downfalls of airports.
A broken mixer case hasn’t always been the biggest of the bands hardships though. When they originally formed they were reworking covers of Ruckspin tracks (Sunshine, All Night, It’s Not Me It’s You and Time’s Strange are all originals by Dom for example) and tracks Tommy had previously written (such as Finest Hour and All Yours) which created some difficulty.
“It was a struggle for me to begin with because I had a definite idea of what I wanted but you have to make sacrifices.
When we started, the rest of the band were coming from an outside perspective as jazz musicians. They had heard the radio Dubstep, but I wasn’t talking about that.
A lot of the time it was maybe too song based for me but I think over time I’ve learnt to appreciate that and the band have become more happy with the produced side of things.
We’ve developed more of an appreciation of where everyone’s coming from. After two albums, we’re now a lot more comfortable with where everyone is at and, unlike initially, we’re beginning to know what the ‘Submotion sound’ is.”
He tells me that while to begin with there was much more direction from himself and Tommy, now that everyone knows the sound there’s much more room for experimentation, something that’s a key factor in their creative process.
“Our process isn’t really set in stone, sometimes we write our parts separately and at others we might all be in the studio together jamming on an idea. Different people in the band always bring their own style to each part.
We actually went to Wales to write for our forthcoming EP, but that was without Ruby. It was definitely productive but I think it’s better for us to work alongside Ruby more, and maybe approach the session with more pre written material to ensure we get the most out of it. We managed to get twenty five instrumentals done, but a lot of them just weren’t hard hitting enough for a small release”
With many members of Submotion Orchestra also having side projects, solo aliases or other bands they’re part of, the idea of hiding away for a week or so in rural Wales certainly sounds like a good way to ensure material get’s made. I ask if how busy they all are with everything else ever puts a strain on the band.
“It’s just a necessary part of what we do as musicians” Dom replies. It’s impossible to be tied to one project, we’d all become too restless, and everyone wants to express themselves in different ways. It also allows us to flex different muscles outside of Submotion that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to exercise, so that prevents us becoming too side tracked when we actually come to working on Submotion material.
I’ve got Ruckspin and Author to showcase a slightly darker sound for example, while Tommy has Gentleman’s Dub Club and Ruby’s got the Sugar Sisters, a three piece harmonics group accompanied by a ukelele, and has just released a single with Linden Jay (here)”
Speaking of Ruby, the bands lead vocalist, we get onto the subject of how she came into the fold and the dynamics of having what could be looked at as a front for in the band.
“I wasn’t sure at first”, admits Dom.
“Originally I had ideas of something like Cinematic Orchestra and Bonobo in my head, so I wanted an intro band with guest vocalists. In the end though, it’s worked to our favour having Ruby, as she’s happy to step back and let the band have their instrumental moments.
There’s the worry that everyone naturally focuses on the singer. Whenever I play the tracks to people for example the first thing anyone says is ‘She’s got such a great voice’ and I find myself thinking ‘Of course, but what about how amazing that saxophone is etc’. It’s only natural, that’s what people listen to, but I think to a certain extent we’ve managed to, not play it down as such, but put the focus on the band as a whole”.
I mention Times Strange, a track on Fragments that features the guest vocals of Rider Shafique as an example of how she’s obviously happy to step back at times.
“Exactly, I worked with Rider on the Author album and thought he was so great to work with so I just had to get him involved.
Working with guest artists is something Ruby’s happy with, which is the main thing as it could put her out of joint. We’re definitely looking at collaborating with other artists for the third album. We have a lot of people we can draw in so it’s more natural.
The problem with that though is that we come into our own when we play live, so there’s a reluctance to bring in too many guest artists as they’re unlikely to be with us for all the shows”
After having the pleasure of seeing Submotion live a few times over the years, most recently kicking off the Saturday night under starry skies at Croatia’s Outlook festival, I would definitely tend to agree with the fact that the band truly flourish in a live environment. Their show is so crisp and professional, but still with a healthy element of freedom about it, that when on a big rig it completely engulfs you with its warm textures and ethereal melodies. What’s more, their full band outfit allows them to bring mellow and serene dub influenced music to a big festival stage with a success that a DJ simply couldn’t replicate. With a gig forthcoming for Soundcrash at Camden’s Koko on the 15th November, we breach the subject of what people can expect from the live show.
“Particularly from my point of view as a producer and engineer, we try to deliver something as close to the actual album tracks as possible. One of the reviews for the last Koko gig said the sound was too perfect and they wanted something a bit more raw which I don’t really understand.
If you see an indie band you might want it raw, but with us the more crisp the more successful we’ve been. That was partly the initial goal, to replicate what we do in the studio live.”
But does this completely negate the element of improvisation that’s always been key to Jazz music? Dom feels there’s definitely still an element of it in their shows, comparing it to his DJ sets as Ruckspin.
It comes through differently. When I’m DJing I don’t plan my sets so that I can judge the vibe and see how I fit into the lineup and can progress the night in an appropriate way. With a full band though, that’s logistically not really possible so you have to go into it with a set plan.
Also, as opposed to DJing a club night where you might be one of eight DJs on the bill, with Submotion almost everyone’s there to see us do our thing so we don’t have to change our sound.
Occasionally if it’s a jazz festival we’ll jam a bit more and things like that, but that’s something we decide before rather than on the night so the set list is always structured. Where the improv comes through though is within the tunes, Bobby’s trumpet solo is often completely different to what’s on the record for example.
With a full UK and Europe tour coming up (entitled ’1968′), there’s plenty of opportunity to see Submotion Orchestra, something I would fully recommend, and the busy schedule created by their success shows no sign of letting up. Before we say our goodbyes, Tom assures me the EP, five tracks long, should be out in time for the tour and mentions their new website (here) before ending on a cryptic note, “I can’t reveal much but there’s some very interesting developments that migyht raise a few eyebrows”.
It seems then that there’s much to look forward to for fans of Submotion Orchestra’s transcendent and engulfing soundscape. A project that initially started with no real end goal in sight other than the idea of ‘live dubstep’, it seems that, despite their past successes, it’s taken the band up to now to truly be happy that they’ve settled on a sound they can really call their own. Dom mentions that they’re more sure of what it is they’re trying to achieve and more comfortable with what they’re doing, so it will be interesting to see how the third album and the preceding EP develop. In the meantime though, my ears certainly aren’t outgrowing their back catalogue in a hurry.
Also watch out for the forthcoming Author tour of America and stay up to date on that through the Author Facebook.