INTERVIEW WITH BONOBO
One of the biggest challenges in any musician’s career is to rise above the pigeon-holes of their era to be recognised as truly outstanding musicians. Like many other electronica artists of the last decade, creating atmospheric music that wasn’t easily defined, Bonobo’s music has often been unhelpfully labelled as ‘Lounge’, which doesn’t do credit to the artistry behind it. Fans love his rich sonic landscapes, richer in melody and lighter on the beats than some of his contemporaries like Amon Tobin, Matthew Herbert or Aphex Twin.
I’ve always loved the fact that in Bonobo’s music the hook is as likely to be a repetitive riff on a keyboard or stringed instrument, as a vocal thing. Drawing from the rich pool of real and sampled synths and instruments, he places sounds together that have never sat alongside one another before. Thirty years ago musicians were somewhat limited in the palette of sound available to them, so they got on and made the best with what they had. Now, however the choice is almost limitless. For many aspiring bedroom producers that sheer abundance of choice has been a confusing mire that swamped them and dragged them down. Simon Green aka Bonobo, is a musician who has always seemed to thrive on the abundance of range of sounds on offer and has always managed to control the sound rather than letting the sound control him. Like a visual artist who knows that a red will seem even redder on a green background, he derives additional colour from sounds by placing them in complimentary soundscapes.
After the widespread acclaim heaped onto Bonobo’s third album ‘Day’s to Come’ there has been a three year wait for the fourth. Bonobo’s latest album ‘Black Sands’ displays his full range of talents from lush folky instrumentals, songs with Ninja Tunes’ rising star Andreya Triana, and upbeat abstract electronica. Griff from Jelly Jazz caught up with Bonobo for 247 Magazine whilst promoting the new album in the US.
So what are you up to right now?
We’re out here in Boston at the moment. There’s ten of us out in the States doing the live show with a tour bus. We just did two nights in New York, started in Chicago and now we are headed down towards Asheville.
Tell us about the latest LP then. I read somewhere that you’d gone back to a more solo based way of working to get it done? Is that a fair way of describing it?
Well no I think it’s the same as it’s always been. ‘Days to Come’ was still a solo record really. They all are. The process has been the same since I started out. It’s always just been me sat in a small studio with a few machines. I think there’s a misconception that it’s a more collaborative collective thing. I play pretty much all of the instruments on all of the records.
Solo electronic artists have often been under pressure over the last twenty years to do it live when their natural environment is the studio? Is performing some thing that you do naturally or are you more comfortable in the studio?
I like both. Right now I’m happy to be spending the next two months on a tour bus because it’s been a long time making this record and I sort of feel like now I want to get out and play it. It almost feels like a sort of reward for having spent so much time in the studio. But there will come a time by the end of the year I’ll be thinking ‘Right, stop! No more tour buses or airports’. It comes around in cycles.
Do you think it’s possible for a producer /artist to make a living just in the studio these days without coming out and performing live?
They don’t have to no. I know people who are far more happy in the studio and hate touring but personally I love the idea that making music is a free ticket to see the world. I’ve always liked playing so it’s been a natural part of the music process for me to perform and play.
Do you find new facets of your songs when other people come and play the parts that you yourself recorded?
Yeah they kind of develop and get given an extra dimension on stage because obviously we work to structures but I allow embellishment within that so when people start playing them live they take on an extra dimension and some of them develop further.
How do you generally write songs? I picture you as a kind of sonic painter. What comes first…beat, melody, chord sequences, or just sounds?
There’s no regimented way of starting. It’s usually just a process of experimentation. I’ll usually just try and find melody and rhythm within an abstract sound, especially in a track like ‘Kiara’ off the new album. The main body of that tune is just sort of processed abstract noise, and then just playing it and finding harmony and a baseline. I guess it’s the same way that you look at anything. You can see a sort of rough shape of something…everything has got a tune and a pitch and a rhythm so it’s sort of applying harmony.
Are you quite visual with sound? You mentioned seeing it as a shape?
Yeah what’s that called when people do that? Synesthesia? When you start something, your mind is always in a certain place. And you have to sort of use that moment to get as much done as you can.
So it is almost like a painter trying to capture particular light conditions or a mood or something like that?
Yeah because you’ve got these certain things in your headspace, things you’re referencing at that exact time. So I try to get as much done as I can and try to do a tune in one session, even if that means staying up till 7am. You’re only going to be in that place once so you have to capture it when you can.
Do you find it difficult to know when they are finished?
Sometimes. Some tunes are a real pleasure. They just fall out of you and they’re done. And they sort of raise their own questions and you know what you need to do to them.
‘Days to Come’ was pretty much the first time you had worked with a singer, namely the delectable Bajka. What prompted the switch from being predominantly instrumental?
I had just never found the right vocalist before but I was always open to the idea. I think with Bajka her voice is just so unique in the texture and tone of it that I just sort of thought, ‘Right, I have got to do something with this girl.’ I’ve always been more interested in vocals not as a narrative or a song structure but as another texture…another colour to the pallet.
And now with Andreya Triana on this LP how does that process work? Did she come and add her own words to your tunes or do they do melody as well?
I leave space. You know some tunes begin to lend themselves to vocals and so I leave space. With the Andreya stuff I would kind of be working on something and I had been producing her record as well so we’d just be playing what I had worked on. She might say ‘I’ve got an idea for this.’ That’s how one of them started…with another, ‘Eyesdown’ I knew specifically that it was going to be a vocal tune or it needed a slight bit of vocal phrasing. So it’s a question of finding where it fits. This album ended up not having so much of a vocal presence on it but that’s just the way things turned out. I don’t want to make a vocal record for the sake of it.
There are a lot of exotic sweet sounding stringed instruments in your music…harps, guitars, kotos, etc. Where does that fetish come from?
I’ve no idea. I just like the sound that they make. The simple melody. There’s a tone that those instruments have that you can harmonise in a particular way. A lot of the time it’s not so much using worldy instruments it’s just finding particular sounds that are interesting. Sometimes it sounds like a Koto but it’s actually a Fender Jazz guitar being played upside down or something. I just like to have a broad palette of tones and timbres when I do stuff. I’ve got things like autoharps, mandolins, thumb pianos and whatever funny objects I can find to stick a microphone in front of.
You play stringed instruments, keyboards and drums. Anything you still want to learn musically?
I’d like to get good at cello. I play double bass. Maybe I’d just like to get better at bowing.
I was just listening to the track ‘Black Sands’ and it gets pretty epic with full orchestral involvement. Do you ever do a big track in the studio and then think, ‘Shit! How are we going to do that live?’
No, I’ve never compromised the music for the sake of not being able to perform it or never let the live show inform how the studio production is going to sound. I like that epic-ness. But you can do that anyway. We played that Black Sands tune last night in Boston.
You mentioned in your Solid Steel interview that you were really excited about some of the new electronic music emerging but didn’t say what it was? What excites you musically at the moment?
OK well some of the stuff coming out of London I guess. People like Bullion, Paul White, Floating Points, and Joy Orbison. That was my main point I think. electronic music in the UK had become a little bit boring and stale. I had kind of almost abandoned it until about a year ago when all of a sudden it got really good fun again. Where I was at that time was making a semi-live record until I sort of rediscovered the love of beat-making about a year ago and went fully electronic with the last home stretch of Black Sands when I was making it.
I was surprised to see one of your early influences as Meat Beat Manifesto as it’s sound was ‘menacing’ and yet I associate that feeling more with Drum & bass and dubstep. Most of your work I associate with joyful tranquillity and a dash of melancholy. Have you been tempted to wander into the darker arts like some of your label mates?
Oh yeah I do that. You know Barakas on Tru Thoughts. That’s me. Which is all that bassline, dubstep, murky dancefloor music. There’s a tune on one of their compilations called Spitfire that’s the filthiest bit of dubstep Tru Thoughts have ever put out. That was something I did about a year ago.
My apologies for not knowing you had an alter-ego! (laughs) I thought I heard a touch of Lalo Schifrin in El Toro’ and perhaps David Axelrod at times. Who are your primary influences?
Well Axelrod is obviously a big one. In fact all of those old soundtrack boys. Schifrin, Axelrod. Obviously Bernard Herrmann he’s really good. He was a big film soundtrack guy. Oh and that Brazilian Arthur Verocai as well who has just been working with Quantic’s latest album.
What about Jazz? Who do you listen to?
I listen to a lot of the spiritual stuff like John Coltrane and Sun Ra. There’s a good little label called Enja which has more of a kind of free jazz stuff. (Impulse?) Yeah that’s more my kind of area. The psychedelic spiritual end of jazz. I’m not much of a trad jazz fan. But then again I like people like Donald Byrd and the soul-crossovers like Ray Bryant and Roy Budd and people like that.
A couple for the audio nerds. What Digital audio Software are you working with mostly these days?
It’s all in Logic. I make stuff on an SP12 sampler. I make the beats there and then transfer them over to Logic.
What is your most treasured bit of hardware kit?
Probably my Wurlitzer electric piano. Or my 1965 jazz bass.
Any particular microphones that you are fond of?
My Neumann U87…that’s what I use for pretty much everything these days. It’s amazing for any acoustic or wooden instruments.
Where do you see your music going in future? Have you got your sights fixed on any particular projects or collaborations?
Well I’ve just finished producing Andreya Triana’s album so that’s going to be out later in the year. It’s difficult because at the moment my head’s just on the road. So when the time’s right I’m going to know what to do. I mean I’m doing some remixes as well…I’m doing something for the ‘Portico Quartet’ and ‘The Invisible’. But yeah when I get back off the road I’m going to sit down and sort of crack my knuckles and work out what’s next.
Bonobo’s new album ‘Black Sands’ is now available on Ninja Tune Records. If you want to check out Bonobo playing live in the South West he plays the Hippo in Plymouth on 21 May and at the Bristol O2 Academy on 22 May.
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