Everyone loves getaway with one of their best friends. Taking over Peter Gabriel’s iconic Real World studios in Bath probably beats a pub crawl or fishing in the Lake District. “We’d both worked on our own forever,” Nicolaas Douwma, aka Sub Focus, tells Apple Music of this much-anticipated collaboration album with Wilkinson. “Then we teamed up on a track in 2017 and it was refreshing having a partner in the studio.” Inspired by wide-ranging electronic albums by the likes of Four Tet, Jon Hopkins and Moderat, the drum and bass titans settled on the idea of some sort of writing retreat with the intention of making a similarly expansive body of work, but in “our corner of music,” as Douwma says.
“We thought it would be amazing to have time in a proper studio rather than making music on our laptops alone,” says Mark Wilkinson. “So we booked Real World, which is an amazing space, and had a roll-call of different contributors who came through, and spent loads of time recording different instruments and working a bit more like a band.” After the recording sessions in late 2018, the project ended up getting finished in a whirlwind of activity when lockdown came into play. “We made this like no other album I’ve recorded before,” explains Wilkinson. “The first half was recorded in this amazing studio and then the second stint was working with vocalists over Zoom.” Drum and bass heads worldwide will be thrilled the pair found a way to complete it. Intricate and effervescent melodies—coupled with soaring vocals from key collaborators like iiola and Empara Mi—light up Portals, alongside a robust dose of the club oomph to drive the whole thing forward. The duo talk us through their record below, track by track.
Air I Breathe Sub Focus: “This started with a piano line recorded on an incredible grand piano. We made this cinematic intro and then were like, ‘Right, we need to get a vocalist on this to help it progress to the next stage.’” Wilkinson: “We got Clementine Douglas to lay a vocal on it, who’s this amazing topliner—she sang on Nick and Dimension’s track ‘Desire’. She really enabled us to join the two parts of the track together.”
Enter Night W: “This started on an instrument called a marxophone. Peter Gabriel has these rooms full of random instruments from all over the world. The first day there we were like, ‘Right, let’s see what we can find’ and pulled this out.” SF: We finished it during lockdown and got Cameron Hayes—a new artist who’s worked with Dimension as well—to lay down vocals. It’s one of the more liquid moments on the album.”
Illuminate SF: “We wrote this with Tom Havelock who we’d both written with before. We wanted a really straight-ahead club song to begin the campaign.” W: “It’s the kind of thing people would expect from us but we wanted to tie it in with the theme of the project which is why we brought the guitars in and the sounds we use for the breakdowns are very organic.”
Freedom W: “We recorded this with a singer called Empara Mi who has a really operatic voice. We really wanted to find a singer who fitted with the epic feel of the track. It’s going to be great to hear out as her voice just fills a room.”
Turn The Lights Off SF: “For this we wanted to make something more at the savage end of the spectrum. We tested this at Warehouse Project last year and it went crazy!” W: “At Real World, we wanted to make use of all the amazing instruments there, so generally throughout the album you’ll find these amazing intros recorded there, and a lot of the drops came later as we didn’t want to waste time using our laptops there. But on this track we did use Real World to make some really extreme bass noises by distorting sounds using their outboard.”
Just Hold On SF: “Mark played drums on this and we basically recreated the process of sampling an old drum break, but with a new break played by Mark. Then I brought my modular set-up to the studio and we recorded a load of these randomised melodies and the track just flowed from there.” W: “The other interesting thing about this track is that every night at Real World, all the different artists recording there have dinner together. They have their own chef and one night we got chatting to a guy called Andrew Morgan, who was recording strings there for library music. We convinced him to come and play cello on ‘Just Hold On’ and it was amazing watching this guy recording an amazing cello solo. It adds a lot to the track.”
Ray of Sun SF: “The vocal on this is by a singer called Pawws who wrote ‘Be The One’ for Dua Lipa. She’s got this amazing voice and came to Real World with this top line and we developed the emotive chords underneath it.”
Alone SF: This was an idea I started and then we developed together. This is the first thing we recorded in lockdown so it has that flavour of everyone being stuck on their own basically. Mark recorded the vocals at home and then I chopped them up.”
W: “My girlfriend, iiola, is a singer and we have a little set-up at home so we recorded the vocal and it was the perfect thing for the record. There’s definitely a bit more of a melancholic and introspective feel to this track because of the circumstances it was made in.”
Time W: “This is another we recorded with Tom Havelock and he’s just such a great songwriter. The lyrics are inspired by mental illness and depression but there’s a lot of kindness in them, and the music is so uplifting. I played it to my girlfriend on the way home from recording and she just started to cry in the car.”
Stratus SF: “This was another track we tag-teamed on and we were really keen for the more down-tempo tracks like this and ‘Just Hold On’ to have great beats that tie them in with the more high-tempo stuff we do.”
In Bloom SF: “This came together really late in the process too. The melody came from my modular set-up again so evolved in a similar way to ‘Just Hold On’.” W: “iiola recorded the vocal at home but originally we had wanted a male vocal so we pitched it down a bit. We wanted unique and unusual vocal tones throughout so that’s something we did quite a lot.”