Submotion Orchestra’s Ruby Wood on the band’s fluid sound, how sleepless nights help her prepare for touring, and what she’s planning to pass on to new daughter, Amber
Submotion Orchestra fans know the oft-told story of how the band formed. Its retelling at this point in their career sounds a lot like a bad dad joke: the one about the arts council commissioning a live dubstep piece in York Minster spurring musical luminaries to form Submotion Orchestra – despite them not being dubstep at all!
That’s only partly true, though, says Ruby Wood with a gusty laugh. “It was always the plan to incorporate different styles,” she says. “We were keen not to be pigeonholed by any specific genre, plus it allowed us to cross over to different types of audiences who perhaps might have been put off by the terms jazz, dubstep, or electronica.”
For Ruby, being synonymous with just one style of music is a curse: “There have been a lot of ‘dubstep police’ who write comments on our YouTube page saying that we’re not dubstep and things like that…”
And, in fact, one of her favourite reviews saw the band labelled as “lift music.” Ouch; that would hurt most but not Ruby. That the conversation about where they fall ignites debate and invites both criticism and praise is why, over the course of seven years, Submotion Orchestra have defined their stance of steadfastly refusing to be categorised in any one genre.
From the Giles Peterson-approved 2011 avant garde-cum-drum’n’bass record, Finest Hour, to this year’s front-loaded electronic album, Colour Theory, the band have steadily risen to become a regular feature in best-of-year lists. It also presumably keeps the band redefining their sound and approach, and pushing their boundaries. In short, it keeps them on their toes.
Ruby Wood, self-described “hippy of the band”, has just returned from running around a park with her Buggy Fit group in a bid to get rid of her “post-pregnancy belly” when TGA catches up with her.
“The run was cut short when it started to rain and the babies began crying,” she laughs. She recently gave birth to her daughter Amber and is adjusting to being a mum, which means “not sleeping”, although she readily admits that “being a touring musician has definitely helped make the waking up in the middle of the night a little bit easier.”
While the band get labelled with the ‘Sade fronting Massive Attack’ tag the most, they have their own distinct charisma. Neither too experimental like Bonobo nor besotted with hipster posturing like London Grammar, Submotion Orchestra are chameleons, or snakes, even — shedding their skin from album to album in order to start afresh, reinventing their sound and writing a new set of fantastic songs in the process.
This is the Submotion Orchestra experience in all its kaleidoscopic glory. They’ve altered the sound of music by offering a mass audience something not necessarily radical, but authentically different. Thanks to them, the conservative mainstream is now exposed to an entire substrata of UK culture, one that pedals intimate introspective electronica: layered, intelligent and alluring.
When the band formed, the ever-evolving shift in musical styles was already starting to take shape. As teenagers during the Napster music-streaming services in the early noughties, the band came to the fore having grown-up downloading different types of music at the click of a mouse. This was the first generation of musicians that always had a wide-ranging catalogue of music, and all the bands around Leeds, where they were formed, at this time were central to this musical immersion.
“The Leeds music scene was brilliant, there were so many different events going on all round the city,” says Ruby. “I think the fact that Leeds has a lot of students residing in it helps with the diversity of the music available, plus the Leeds College of Music brings in a lot of forward thinkers, musically.”
While it laid claim to bands like Hawk Eyes, Dinosaur Pile-Up, The Pidgeon Detectives, Kaiser Chiefs, ¡Forward, Russia!, The Sunshine Underground and more, it was Submotion Orchestra’s capability of — and insistence on — constantly and consistently shifting and experimenting with music that magnified their notoriety.
First album Finest Hour was a laid-back, mild toe-dip into trip-hop hued swoons, replete with wailing sax solos and skittering beats; while Ruby’s serene vocals suffused the tracks at every turn. Produced by Dom ‘Ruckspin’ Howard across Soho Recording Studios in London and Ruckspin Studios and Ata Studios in Leeds, the album could have been an unfortunate hybrid. But the sonic strength meant the dozen songs are deftly swirled into a thoroughly entertaining programme. While accomplished, it’s final track Perfection that unfurls into a taste of what was to follow for the band, mixing trumpet-led highs and dub lows.
One year later and Fragments was a more confident beast, building on the bare bones of Finest Hour and traversing across relaxed dubstep and jazz passages. This time, the band incorporated spoken word elements from Rider Shafiq and further layered the album with trumpets to boost the trip-hop rhythms and cement the sound, in a likeable, unfailingly seamless blend of emotions. Less fastidiously discreet than its predecessor’s slow-burn, this time round Fragments glowed seductively.
But it was 2014’s Alium that was the crown in the jewel for the band. Here, they made a conscious decision to disappear to rural Wales to record, taking the time to isolate themselves in order to get the rustic sounds that characterise the album.
On Alium, Ruby’s vocals moved between Red Ghost’s blues- and jazz-infused vocal stylings that are there on the 2009 Soulsavers album, Broken, and a sweeter but more lyrically mature direction. There was a bigger emphasis on classical instrumentation (Bring Back The Wolf) and the album had added soul, with a few years’ life experience crystallising the band’s gift for songwriting. Rust and The Hounds gives us sax, careworn piano, and lots of subtle detail — this last deepening the listeners’ relationship with the excellent, lyrically elusive songs. Overall the album is a night-time, rain-soaked waltz with added sub-bass grooves.
It was surprising, then, when 2016’s Colour Theory totally changed pace for the band, moving away from the whisky-soaked Alium and pushing forward in a more electronic direction, aping the cooler moments of The XX.
Recorded in Hackney Wick by Dom at their manager’s house, this is their most diverse album to date. While Ruby’s vocals are still present on the album – including standout track Red Dress – Andrew Ashong picks up some of the vocal duties on Needs and Ed Thomas holds the reigns on Empty Love, counterbalancing vocal viewpoints.
“I love my duet with Ed Thomas on Empty Love. He’s a brilliant artist and I love his voice. Needs and More Than This featuring Andrew Ashong and Billy Boothroyd are also lovely,” adds Ruby. “We explored a few more contemporary styles with the latest album, included more housey four-to-the-floor stuff. It changes with every album; we’ve explored writing together, or one or two people being the main writers, or getting in outside writers, and also just allowing Dom to be the main person who says what goes — which is what happened on Colour Theory.
“It’s in our nature to explore different sounds and genres, so hopefully we’ll carry on doing more of that. It keeps it fresh for us too.”
Despite the ease of changing direction sonically, the airy voice behind tracks Thinking and Time Will Wait explains that as she gets older, it is more difficult to lay herself bare when writing lyrics and much prefers to not discuss the meaning behind individual songs. Something that’s harder when you’re the band’s frontperson.
“I think more now, and I’m more aware of the impact of songs — so I think that holds me back a little,” she considers. “I know Tommy writes a lot from personal experience and I guess as he’s not singing, it may be easier for him to express himself through the lyrics.”
Rather than discussing the dramatic contours of their songwriting career to date, one that has seen them rise above popular-folk and indie-pop trends, to become – go on, let’s say it – one of Britain’s best experimental bands, today, Ruby is coming to terms with success and longevity.
“We always hoped the project would be successful, but we’ve definitely been pleasantly surprised by everything the band has achieved throughout the years. I think even managing to stay together for seven years is a big achievement in itself – that’s longer than some marriages,” she laughs.
Thanks to their scintillating, sensuous records, the band stride headlong into their future, continuing to accelerate their own rise. But looking back, it was in 2014 that Ruby truly felt the band was taking off — a good year even by their standards.
“We played Secret Garden Party, right before Public Enemy who were headlining,” recalls Ruby. “It was a really great gig, beautiful weather, amazing crowd. You really can’t ask for much more.”
But more came. This year alone, Submotion Orchestra have played or are set to play Parklife, El Dorado Festival, Latitude Festival, Citadel Festival, Secret Garden Party, LeeFest, Locus Festival, Fieldview Festival, Boomtown Fair, Koktebel Jazz Festival and Boundary Brighton — all within a period of around seven weeks — playing alongside Sigur Ros, Caribou, Gogo Penguin and dozens of other fantastic acts.
“There have been so many wonderful experiences during our time in Submotion, the most recent was closing the EFG London Jazz festival at The Barbican last November,” says Ruby. “We performed with an extended line-up consisting of strings, extra brass, horns and backing vocalists. It was a dream come true for me as we’ve never really had backing vocalists before.”
The world can lay claim to many virtuoso artists and numerous great songwriters, but it’s rare to find a band that can justly lay claim to both. Which is exactly what makes Submotion Orchestra so unique. A series of individual artists, with an equally elusive gift for moving seamlessly between genres, as comfortable playing a trumpet as a searing riff and adept at both. Their success is now worldwide.
“The Ukraine is always an amazing gig,” Ruby says. “We get a lot of love out there, and the Czech Republic also seems to love us. It’s made us very grateful that we’re able to travel and perform our music to lots of different people. It’s definitely made me appreciate my job and not take it for granted. With every album we write and release its a proud moment to see your hard work in physical copies on shelves or in people’s collections.”
While many resting musicians take a sabbatical to recharge their creative batteries, there will be no rest for Ruby. For the next few months, at least, she will be balancing the band with “crafting” and working on some of her own music. When asked what life lessons she inherited from her parents which she can pass on to Amber, Ruby’s answer is simple: “My parents, thankfully, brought me up on a healthy selection of music ranging from jazz, to classical, world music, reggae and dub, hip-hop and soul. I’m very grateful for being exposed to all that music from a young age and I’m trying to do the same for my daughter now too.”
Catch Submotion Orchestra live in the UK on 17 September at Boundary Brighton