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He’s the rising super-star of bass music, a production obsessive whose attention to detail is matched only by the raw spectacle of his incredible live show. Meet Nick Douwma, aka Sub Focus.
Words: Damien Morris
Photos: Carsten Windhorst
“There was a club that burned down after I played in it,” Nick ‘Sub Focus’ Douwma muses almost absent-mindedly, as if recalling the time he stubbed a toe. “Sometimes, when you go to Russia it doesn’t feel like the safest experience. We were in Ekaterinburg a few years ago. I was DJing in this ridiculously hot club, sweat dripping off every possible area, dancers doing pyro and stuff. And it started to fill with smoke.” There weren’t many English speakers around, just a couple of fellow DJs, Concord Dawn and Dieselboy.
“We kind of worked out there was something... amiss,” he says. “At some point the club, this big three thousand-people warehouse, had caught fire. We got out straight away, but it was mental. I don’t think anyone was hurt, but it was razed to the ground. I got paid, though. Always get paid in advance!”
Insert joke about Sub Focus being on fire/setting the floor alight/burning the house down. But that wouldn’t be quite right. In reality, Nick’s career has been a long, slow burn. A match was struck when he was discovered by Andy C nearly 10 years ago, but the blue touchpaper wasn’t lit until 2005 with the release of Nick’s sixth single, ‘X-Ray’, which took that Ram sound of constant excitement and perpetual motion and added a Sub Focus spin. He went from having a couple of small gigs a month to being booked every weekend, employing an agent and realising he could make a living out of doing the thing he loved.
It was another three years, though, before tracks like ‘Timewarp’ took him out of the clubs and on to the radio, making of him that most valued of dance artists: someone who could keep one foot in the underground and still have credible radio hits. His 2009 debut album showed that he was ready to expand beyond drum ’n’ bass, just as dubstep went global and dragged other forms of bass music along with it. This year, latest single ‘Out The Blue’ charted at number 23 in the UK, and free tune ‘Falling Down’ smashed the 100,000 download mark, was played all over Radio 1 and got a release on Skrillex’s label in the US, proving there’s massive potential in places like America for acts like Nick’s, where his remix of Rusko’s ‘Hold On’ was also huge. So last year he decided to gamble on investing in a new live show. “Normally I’m quite risk averse with my money,” he admits. “But with this I didn’t hesitate at all.”
Scotland’s getting a first look at the show tonight – and some of those new songs – in the 2800-capacity Transmission tent at T In The Park. The sky is greyer than the windows of a hotboxed car, and as we turn off the M90 and speed towards the site even the clouds seem to disappear, replaced by a giant grey sponge being slowly squeezed over us and everything we can see. At T itself, the 50 shades of green that is Scotland in summer has turned into an endless watery brown. It’s not the ideal location for the 10th gig Nick’s played in the last 10 days, but it is the most important: a headline live slot.
We head backstage with his girlfriend Alex, his regular MC Chris ‘ID’ Hall and the rest of the team. ID admits he usually begins shaking with adrenaline as Team Sub Focus gets ready to go on stage. Nick, 30, resembles a footballer on his summer holidays: unassumingly dressed, clean-cut, tall, athletic, but with a studio rather than beach-bar tan. He’s friendly, if a little reserved, well spoken and even tempered, and has a habit of alighting on one point in a conversation and worrying away at it until he’s satisfied. ‘Focus’ is an appropriate word.
He’s wearing what looks like a single dark, fingerless glove on his right hand, which Mixmag initially assumes must be a horrendous fashion affectation, a Michael Jackson tribute or something to do with the show’s motion control sensors. But when we bump into Calvin Harris grabbing some food before his own headline set, Nick explains to the towering Scottish superstar that after Lovebox he got drunk at a friend’s house and managed to break a glass tumbler in his hand.
“I went to hospital naively thinking they’d stitch me up and send me on my way,” recalls Nick, “but I had to have an operation under general anaesthetic...” He’d severed a nerve and lost feeling in one finger (hence the splint) but he was determined not to miss any work. The next day he flew to Ibiza and played at the first date of this summer’s Together residency at Amnesia. “It wasn’t that much fun,” he says ruefully. “I was in quite a lot of pain, dosed up on codeine.”
How did a south London kid who attended Westminster, one of the best and most expensive public schools in the country, end up here? In fact,
it was one fateful school day in 1994 that would change Nick’s life. Someone brought in an old-skool mix tape, ‘Jungle Mania 2’, to play between classes at school. Hearing the digital ragga sound-storm of General Levy’s ‘Incredible’ turned Nick from a rock kid, playing bass in a band influenced by Metallica, Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana, to a breakbeat obsessive who wore out Bukem’s ‘Logical Progression’ album and listened to Prodigy and The Chemicals.
He got some rudimentary production software and listened to pirate, local and national radio – anywhere a hungry teenager could feed on breakbeats. “For my Music GCSE I submitted a d’n’b tune,” he smiles. “I think I got an A!” As soon as he could fake an ID he started going to clubs – his first clubbing memory is sneaking in, still underage, to the last ever night of the legendary Metalheadz Sunday Session in London, a weekly outing for d’n’b’s major players to test out freshly lathed dubplates.
“I went to a good school, but my parents weren’t particularly well-off,” says Nick. “I didn’t have much money as a teenager, but I had quite a lot of freedom early on.” He would spend weekends on friends’ sofas and buy white labels from London’s Black Market record shop, although they rarely sounded quite as good at home as on the shop’s monstrous system.
Aged 16, nick’s first public gigs were at Surrey University, playing to anything from a dozen to a hundred people. A lot of his memories of those days have disappeared in a smoky haze, but they were a crucial grounding and his parents, a creative, arty couple, were always supportive. By 2000 he was living near Shoreditch, just as it was becoming London’s party district, studying sound engineering at London Met. He was temping to raise cash– everything from stuffing envelopes in post rooms to putting up lights for a travelling waxwork museum. If music hadn’t worked out he would probably have ended up doing art or design. He only went to uni to get his hands on the student loan that would pay for him to write beats all the time. He could easily have become one of those guys with loads of sound files on his computer of half-finished tunes, someone who once had a song played in a club by someone who knew Grooverider.
Fortunately, his friend and fellow DJ, Jack, got a bit drunk and pressed Nick’s demo CD into Andy C’s hand after a gig. The Ram boss got in touch to sign as many of the tunes as he could, and everything began to happen. Now, Nick’s tunes impress DJs for their ability to fill the floor, and amaze producers for his attention to detail. “His music is really precise, but not too clinical,” says James ‘Breakage’ Boyle, who works in the studio next door to Nick; they bonded in the States five years ago during a booze and sausage McMuffin binge. “‘Timewarp’ has one of the cleverest details – Benga pointed it out to me,” he says. “When that ‘time is changing’ sample comes in, he changes all the time signatures. It’s genius.”
Although there’s something of the loner about Nick – he gave up smoking weed around 10 years ago, when it began to make him feel introverted and paranoid – he’s always been sociable, too, and recognises the value of a good support system of friends around him. It’s guys working in the same studio like Breakage, Nero, Caspa and Chase & Status who can now help him when he gets writer’s block, or isn’t sure if a tune is finished.
“I can go through phases of being sociable and others of being shy or just liking being on my own,” he says. “When I first started I’d play a gig and go to an afterparty and stay up all night. You want to let off some steam. It’s a big adrenaline thing, you’re trying to match that excitement of being on stage. I’ve been through stages of partying a lot, but now I’m a bit more sensible.”
He’s pretty far from his first Glastonbury, when he stayed up for three days and woke up with his head nestling in the ashes of a campfire. These days when he’s not slept it’s due to a punishing schedule. A few years ago he played in New Zealand on New Year’s Eve, flew to DJ in Australia on New Year’s Day and then went to two afterparties. “I was seeing things,” he recalls blithely. “It was amazing.”
His girlfriend comes to as many gigs as she can – otherwise she’d hardly ever see him at weekends, especially when he’s in as much demand as he has been this summer – and his mum saw him supporting Pendulum at Wembley. “People who don’t know what it’s like might envy my lifestyle, but people I’ve lived with don’t,” smiles Nick. “They see what hard work it is.”
Breakage is similarly nocturnal, but reckons Nick’s just a touch worse. “We see each other loitering around outside the studio at three in the morning.
If Nick had the choice he’d get up at 10pm every night!” When they’re not geeking out about music it’s fashion – which they share the same taste in. The previous week, they turned up at the studio wearing almost identical clothes; another time, James decided to buy a new watch, only to turn up at the studio to find Nick had just bought the same one.
“I was like, ‘I hate you!'" cackles Breakage. “He’s all, ‘Calm down, James’. He’s one of the most relaxed people I’ve ever met. It’s scary. I’ve heard him saying he’s got annoyed at something, but I’ve never actually seen it.” The pair discussed collaborating once, but they’re both so meticulous about their songwriting that it would take about five years. ““We’d be there going, ‘Maybe another millisecond shorter on the reverb?’” says James. “And he’s probably worse than me, judging from his tunes! We’d have to clear our schedules for at least a decade.”
Being meticulous is clearly working, though. At T, as soon as the seismic ‘Rock It’ (a drum ’n’ bass deconstruction of Daft Punk’s ‘Robot Rock’) kicks in, the trickle of passing punters becomes an increasing stream. Some are drawn like muddy moths to the dramatic visuals, which pulse and shine like a raver’s lighthouse amid an ocean of mud; others press up to the big bins in the hope of a good earfucking. “Immense! Immense...” croaks one guy next to me. He doesn’t get to finish that thought before being swept away on a tidal wave of bass.
Gravel-voiced MC ID controls the crowd effortlessly and lets the music breathe, which explains why Nick now won’t work with any other hype man. “When the music’s quite noisy,” ID explains after the show, “you can get a lot more impact with when you say something rather than just what you say.” The ravey pianos of ‘Could This Be Real’ mingle with heavier steppers like ‘Timewarp’ and ‘Falling Down’s bassy skank, the new songs seamlessly blending with the old. There are endless highlights.
The new Sub Focus live experience is a complete overhaul of the 2011 show. Yes, it’s still Nick Douwma’s ‘iris’ logo made flesh, from the centre of which he produces an hour of bowel-troubling bass music. But the new set reveals more of what Nick’s actually doing on stage, and makes unprecedented use of motion sensors and touchpads to trigger musical effects which in turn drive or affect the visuals. When Deadmau5 grumped about dance acts who turn up, press ‘play’ at the start and ‘stop’ at the end, he hadn’t seen Sub Focus 2012.
This show simply wouldn’t have been feasible five years ago. It would have cost four times as much just for the equipment, and the recently released AI media server that’s the visual processing and control system of the show didn’t exist. LED displays are usually straight-lined – hence so many triangular or cube-based shows – and it was a huge, unique, technical and practical challenge to configure and programme for a circular structure.
Nick’s determination not to use any of the equipment that had been in the 2011 show didn’t help. “I wanted a big bespoke machine that no-one else had,” he admits. Like its predecessor, the rig was designed by Nick and his production manager and artistic director Giani Fabricio (Italian for ‘craftsman’, appropriately), working with cutting-edge design house Immersive Ltd. “Giani’s always searching for new kit,” says Nick. “He’s just found this brain sensor stuff which lets you navigate computers just by thinking and moving your hands, like in Minority Report!”
Nick has a theory that live dance music’s greatest disadvantage compared to rock is its dearth of instruments that face the audience, forcing acts to either hide behind laptops, tout gruesome keytars or form a ‘proper’ band – which means you lose out on “those super-fat quantized beats” he loves so much. With this new set-up,he’s effectively remixing his best tunes as he likes, changing their structure, playing with their main elements (vocals, leads, chords, effects, drums and bass) and garnishing it all with live synths, drums and other new rhythmic patterns, changing speed and pitch in order to control the crowd.
Nick’s show is set up to allow for mistakes; proof that it’s not just a programme being switched on and off. “It gives the performance an element of suspense,” says Giani. Rig design began in spring 2011 with “random circles on cigarette packets on a table”, after a couple of days without sleep touring in Puerto Rico. The budget (“the price of a small house,” notes Nick ruefully) wasn’t signed off until January, so a construction and testing schedule which would have normally taken several months was crammed into three stressful weeks, both for Immersive Ltd, who produced the show, developing the design and its contents, and LED Poison Ltd, who developed the unique bespoke LED panels and circles.
Big shows like this are children of the Daft Punk Pyramid, but Nick’s also fond of the Jean Michel Jarre era of stadium electronic music shows. Giani also namechecks festival outfits like Arcadia, OZORA and Burning Man as inspirations. The company he works with, Immersive, has designed sets for Pendulum, Eric Prydz, Swedish House Mafia and even The X Factor, but this was the hardest yet.
It takes the seven-strong touring crew eight hours to unload and set up the six tonnes of kit, and they only had three days to practise before its debut appearance at bass music specialists UKF’s Brixton show in March. UKF had booked it sight unseen, trusting Sub Focus to deliver an epic production of comparable intensity to fellow headliners like Andy C, Fresh and Chase & Status. The minute Nick was due on stage, some of the cables failed.
Giani and his team spent 15 worrying minutes trying to fix it, with the promoters and venue staff urging them to get on stage regardless. “I was becoming delirious,” sighs Giani; “I’d had just a handful of hours’ sleep in the week leading up to the event, and I don’t even remember what we did to fix it in the end – but suddenly, like magic, it started working.”
“It was a bloody brilliant gig. It was a proud moment seeing Nick in his giant neon Polo mint,” smiles UKF’s Halina Wielogorska, who befriended Nick in 2008 when he was playing at Moscow’s astonishing 25,000-strong d’n’b circus rave, Pirate Station. “It’s great to see more showmanship, more va-va-voom, because the people who come for the music will always come – but shows like Nick’s nab the people who want to dress up, see incredible light shows and be entertained by a performance.”