SBTRKT: Unmasked Elation

“We’re SBTRKT and we’re from London!” Aaron Jerome aka SBTRKT (pronounced “subtract”) hollered excitedly as violet light glowed from the Neptune Theatre’s stage. He slipped behind his drum-kit while his right-hand man and vocalist Sampha shone soul into his mic and pressed fields of gadget buttons as SBTRKT started his Seattle debut with “Heatwave,” the opening track on his self-titled first album, released in June.

Dressed in black t-shirts (Sampha’s with the SBTRKT tiki mask logo), the duo wore half-head versions of SBTRKT’s trademark ceremonial mask (minus the scraggly, shipwrecked Santa Claus grass beard that usually features at the bottom) atop their foreheads. You could still clearly see both of their smiling faces and they weren’t precious about concealing their identities like the perpetually Guy Fawkes-masked Zomby when he came to town for Decibel Festival last month.

Jerome impressed with his live drumming and multi-tasking skills and pounded out dubstep and breakbeat rhythms on his kit while still managing to tweak knobs and trigger switches without missing a beat. He could probably drive a car while simultaneously changing its right front tire and making a tuna sandwich. Sampha didn’t let up singing in the impassioned tones of Chicago house and ’97-era U.K. garage vocals while playing two separate keyboards and occasionally turning around to bash drums behind him and agogo bells in front of him. Between them they performed the duties of a seven-piece band while incessantly nodding and jerking to the beat. The crowd was cheery and buoyant, reflecting the mood on stage. Energetic kids at the front fanned Sampha with their hands when he sang “Living Like I Do.”

“Thanks so much, guys!” SBTRKT laughed before playing “Something Goes Right.” He is definitely not your average moodier-than-thou DJ. “Pharoahs” and “Trials of the Past” followed as Sampha shouted “We’re really enjoying this!”

The encore saw Jerome return to the stage, saying “We can’t let you go without playing one more tune! I guess you know which one this is” as the familiar bass-line to current hit “Wildfire” kicked in, sounding like the gurgling of an alien sink backing up in George Jetson’s bathroom. Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano’s sampled vocals played and Sampha sang along off-mic.

Pre-gig rumors proved to be true when hometown hero, Shabazz Palaces’ Ish then strolled onstage to rap a verse or three over the astro-weird of “Wildfire” after recently featuring on a remix of the track. Rocking expensive shades and a leather jacket, he wore a pastel purple shirt with matching trousers, which on anyone else would look like pyjamas or nurse scrubs. He stood stage right, rap fingers conducting the beat, joining the musical dots between Seattle and London as SBTRKT’s outer-space sounds made us all feel like we really were on Neptune.

In support were ’80s New Wave throwback duo New Look. Canadians-in-NYC Sarah Ruba and Adam Pavao time-warped both the sound and the look from three decades ago in music.

Square blocks and circles of color swum around on the screen above as Ruba danced from side to side in high-waisted pants and a buttoned-up white blouse while playing a synthesizer on a strap around her neck.

Pavao stood behind keyboards and machines and also wore a buttoned-up white shirt and large red-rimmed glasses like a Hogwarts prefect.


The twosome’s warm synths and cold, programmed beats were as perfectly yesteryear as Ruba’s ironic exclamations of “Hot Jamz!” in between songs.

Photos by Nate Watters.