Towards the end of his last tour of North and South America with The xx, the pop trio’s sonic and rhythmic heartbeat Jamie was pinged a YouTube clip from a friend in London. He was suffering a bout of homesickness. Intermittently, it can get to him. So when he eventually got round to clicking on Mark Leckey’s Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, it was as if a hand was wrapping around his shoulder, reminding him of everything he holds dear and romantic about the margins of the national dancefloor that interest him most, back home. “I became obsessed with it,” he says.
Leckey’s 14.45m video montage from 1999 cuts directly at the intersection between the flippancy and seriousness, the beauty and lunacy of British dance music culture, its timeline travelling from the working class theatrics of Northern Soul through the wide-eyed euphoria of acid house. There is an intermittent stopover to peer at depressed parochial 80’s shopping centres, providing a perfect counterbalance for the functionality of disco in all its myriad forms through the British psyche.
The piece connected directly, magically with the material Jamie had been working on while fashioning his first solo record, In Colour. If Hardcore looks like our mirrorball past and future, wrapped into one stop-start curiosity kaleidoscope, In Colour sounds like it. Jamie’s music is blessed with the same streamlined polarity of looking back to enable moving forward. This is his major gift to the British dance music conversation.
In January this year, Jamie xx stepped aside from the mixing desk of his solitary studio bunker space in Old Street and decided that In Colour was finished. It had been three years since he had began work on the first cut that suggested he had a solo record in him, Girl. Both the title and carefully calibrated, vibrant accompanying graphic design imagery for the album are a deliberate delineation away from the chic monochromes that have marked his work with The xx. “I wouldn’t have called it In Colour if the record had sounded dark”, he notes. When he began the project, not even knowing where it would take him, he was well aware of that possibility. “That could have happened.” Yet in his time in the band, Jamie has touched if not exact extroversion, at least moments of private joy. This was the record, it seemed, to spell those out.
On deciding that work was at a natural conclusion, he hung up his headphones for a week and invited everyone that would be working on the record to listen to it. The garrulous nature of the songs surprised him. Suggestions were made for a running order. When he finally found one that made him happy, a fully realised record sprang out, that ran with something of the quietly climactic urgency of his DJ sets. It was a record that spoke in rangy textures of soul, gospel, hip-hop and every mutation of the purity of house music that has twisted its way into a new sub-genre since 1986. Yet it sounded exactly like him. “It wasn’t just a series of unconnected ideas anymore”, he says. “It was an album. It felt… positive.” This was an important blossoming moment in Jamie’s musical time frame.
In Colour mirrors the special skill-set that has turned Jamie into one of the major DJ draws at the sophisticated end of the global nightlife spectrum. Beginning with the bold, insistent rush of Gosh the record sets out its magnificent stall early. Traces of break-beat and clipped techno can he heard in his countenance of its rhythm track. “It was supposed to be the final track on the record, in my head.” It was the last to be finished. “It was much faster. Then I slowed it down by 20-30% and the beat sounded harder, grittier somehow. The massive synth line began to kick against it and I started to feel that moment of euphoria I’m always looking for when I’m making music. That is the end goal.” He says it doesn’t happen often. But when it does, he knows. Within the grand, reedy melody that builds midway through the track, Jamie seems to hit a tangent somewhere between rave’s blaring air-horns, a riff from an old, dusted-off New Romantic curiosity and the sweep and ballast of a classical string solo.
Jamie has a fastidious, perfectionist’s approach to making music. “I work and work and work until I drive myself mad trying to find something that makes sense to me.” He is his own fiercest critic. “It never sounds good enough. I was pulling my hair out trying to make all this fit together when Gosh happened and pulled it all into one place.” A suite was born.
Jamie says that he didn’t have to have a specific conversation with his band-mates asking for a day release permission pass to work on a solo album. There was, furthermore, never any question that Romy and Oliver from The xx would be involved with vocals on the record. “We owe everything to one another. I couldn’t have made it without them. We know each other so well that we understand we have to do other things.” They operate on agreed telepathy. As early as the finishing of their first album, Jamie had taken side-projects, fashioning a radical reworking of Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here album, remixing for Florence and The Machine and Adele and then as an unlikely baton passing America’s commercial R&B fraternity into new waters with productions for Rihanna, Alicia Keys and Drake.
Romy provides two vocals, first on the breakout single, Loud Places, which manages to weave a simple pop verse delivered at a melancholy angle with a chorus sample Jamie has always tried to make work in one of his own songs, from Idris Muhammed’s crate-digger’s classic, Could Heaven Ever Feel Like This? “The sample was a last attempt to make Romy’s beautiful words make sense. When it slotted into place it was the album’s eureka moment.” Since Loud Places was first aired, Jamie has played two DJ gigs, at Knoxville and Athens, Georgia. “At both, people were shouting for me to play it.” For her second contribution, Jamie reworked his collaboration with Four Tet, SeeSaw, then asked Romy to sing along to herself in the studio.
When it came to recording Oliver on the rousing intimacies of Stranger In A Room, things were less experimental. “He works differently. It’s not about trying things out with Oliver. It’s about waiting until the right thing happens. But when it does, you know it will be perfect.”
Other guest stars joined the party. When The xx played their feted shows at the Manhattan Armory, an aggrandised extension of the tiny shows they’d fashioned for the Manchester International Festival, Jamie spent two months living in Brooklyn. “I’d travel into the city every day across the bridge, watching the skyline listening to Hot 97 FM and it made me fall in love with hip hop again.” His reaction to this is I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times), in which he deploys the skills of Young Thug, whose Lifestyle had become a perennial favourite, alongside Jamaican dancehall star Popcaan. “With rappers, you always know there will be a positive response, but Young Thug sent back a perfect finished lyric within two days. So I knew he really liked the track.”
The resulting album is Jamie’s calling card: his surprise to himself and all those who thought they knew exactly what The xx are and what they do. There are no limitations. This is a brand new horizon, one that is playing delightfully back into the fashioning of their third record. “The best music I make,” says Jamie, “is when I lock myself away and feel like I exist in a space that is close to nowhere. Where nothing else matters but sound.” It is his dream state. On In Colour, that state is realised.
It was the arrival of a Studer A80 master recorder at the front door of Sam Shepherd – otherwise known as Floating Points – that caused him to begin building the studio that led to the creation of his debut album, Elaenia (due out via Pluto in the UK and Luaka Bop in the US on 6 November). After a slight miscalculation meant that he could not physically get the thing inside his home, what happened next can only be described as a beautiful example of the butterfly effect. Breaking away from making electronic music on his laptop, the DJ, producer and composer spent the next five years engineering Elaenia, all the while deejaying in cities across the globe and working towards his PhD in neuroscience. An incredibly special album that draws inspiration from classical, jazz, electronic music, soul and even Brazilian popular music, Elaenia – named after the bird of the same name – is the epitome of the forward-thinking Floating Points vision in 2015.
From an early age, Shepherd’s mind has always been musically inclined. As a chorister at Manchester Cathedral, he developed his musicianship through performing up to six services a week whilst at the same time studying piano and composition at Chetham’s School of Music. There, he undertook lessons which not only improved his technical knowledge but developed his love of electronic and jazz music too. “That time was crazy – I was listening to Bill Evans and Morton Subotnick, Kenny Wheeler and Toru Takemitsu amongst many others all on the same day,” Shepherd recalls. “These inspirations have stuck with me all the way through to making this record.”
Growing up in Manchester, Shepherd was constantly upheaving his parents’ house, turning it into a makeshift studio that allowed his highly curious mind to do as it pleased. There would be a drum kit in the living room – a cello in the kitchen – wires trailing every nook and cranny all the way up to his bedroom. When he eventually moved to London to attend university, he lost that creative freedom, yet refused to let the ensuing years of limitation affect his work by making idiosyncratic electronic music on his computer – a move that put him firmly on the radar with records like ‘Vacuum’ and ’Shadows’. “The first stuff I put out was around that time,” he explains. “All this time, I wanted to be sharing my other, live music – but recording was prohibitively expensive.”
It was these prohibitions (and a lack of space for his ever-growing collection of equipment) that led Shepherd to relocate to a London-based studio. Having more room allowed Shepherd’s music to reach much grander and ambitious heights, his work with the Floating Points Ensemble paving the way for things to come. Shepherd’s collection of equipment continued to bloom, and on Elaenia, the range of instruments he played himself is astounding: the Oberheim OB8, Arp Odyssey, piano, Fender Rhodes, vibraphone, marimba, Rhodes Chroma, Buchla 101, 200e and100 series modular synthesizers were all performed by him, resulting in a distinct and personable sound that echoes throughout the whole record. “I was lucky enough to spend some time in Vancouver with Richard Smith, who has the most formidable early origin Buchla setup,” he says, ‘For Marmish’ came from there, but a lot of the noises that came out of the sessions ultimately bent my mind and served to refresh my use of electronics. The Mood Hut guys introduced us – spending a few days at his recording studio was a dream.”
The more time he spent in London and DJing around the world, the more friends Shepherd made and recruited for the current incarnation of his band. On Elaenia, Tom Skinner and Leo Taylor contributed drums (Skinner playing on ‘Silhouettes I’, ‘II’ & ‘III’), with Susumu Mukai taking up bass, Qian Wu and Edward Benton sporting violins, Matthew Kettle on the viola and Joe Zeitlin on the cello. Help was also on hand for vocals, with Rahel Debebe-Dessalegne and Layla Rutherford both lending their voices alongside Shepherd’s own. Every moment on Elaenia is intricately and meticulously executed – every noise finely tweaked and tuned to perfection. “I got the Rhodes Chroma in the middle of recording,” he remembers. “It’s a funny machine, since it only works properly for thirty minutes every six months. When it’s working though, it’s phenomenal! I had bits on the record I was waiting months to record just because there was a particular sound I wanted from the Chroma.”
Like his contemporaries and good friends Caribou and Four Tet, Shepherd has nurtured the Floating Points name into one renowned for ambitious and forward-thinking DJ sets, having performed all over the world at events and clubs such as Output NYC, Trouw, Sonar, Unit Tokyo, Panorama Bar and, of course, Nuits Sonores (which lent its name to his seminal track from summer 2014); as well as the much-missed Plastic People, where he held his monthly residency for five years. His love for digging through recordings from around the world is just as huge as the venues themselves – Shepherd has an ear for everything from Brazilian legends such as Jose Mauro, Gal Costa and Hareton Salvagnini right through to the 1970’s Embryo Records band Air. Overall, influences on Elaenia run wide and deep and are charmingly eclectic – Shepherd names Laughing Stock by Talk Talk as a critical influence in the making of the record, for example, as well as the leftfield leanings of Circles by William S. Fischer.
For the past ten years, all roads Shepherd has followed have slowly been leading to Elaenia – an album with roots deep in his formative years that draw upon everything Shepherd has done to date. His debut album proper, Elaenia is the culmination of all things Sam Shepherd: the Eglo label boss, the ensemblist, the producer, scientist and visual artist – and that’s only scraping the surface. He created the artwork for Elaenia himself by making a harmonograph from scratch, and set it to various light sources that responded to the album track ‘For Marmish’. “I saw a harmonograph on display at the science museum in London a few years ago, as well as a couple of drawings produced by the machine,” he explains. “The shame of it though was that you didn’t get to see it actually in action. So I built one” Like much of Elaenia itself, the artwork is meticulously crafted – Shepherd used fibre optic cables, photograph paper, even a modular synthesizer to generate light pulses. He gave the same attention to detail to the artwork as he did every moment Elaenia, an album that is almost a hundred percent hand-crafted from compositions right down to its instruments.
The mesmerising ebbs and flows of Elaenia span moments of light and dark; rigidity and freedom; elegance and chaos. There is the lush, euphoric enlightenment of ‘Silhouettes’’, a three-part composition that acts as a testament to those early days Shepherd spent playing in various ensembles – complete with an immensely tight rhythm section that ends up providing a cathartic, blissful release. Elsewhere, Shepherd’s knack for masterful late night sets bare fruition to the hypnotic, electronic pulse of ‘Argenté’, a welcome change of pace. “I certainly like pauses in DJing,” he explains. “Especially in all night sets where I assume dancers would welcome moments of calm… why not! Plastic People taught me that. When I think of the forty or so minutes of this album, there are moments of dance, and moments of utter stillness. I’ve found that with my dancefloor productions, patience with build ups can make that release all the sweeter.” Elaenia draws upon the many parts of Sam’s life, from DJ to artist to inventor, and provides the clearest context of his musical skills to date – it’s the end result of the direction he has always been moving in.
By the time the final track ‘Peroration Six’ comes around, that release is sweet indeed. Building euphoria upon layers of driving basslines, untamed drums and soaring electronics, the result is one of the biggest tension-and-release moments in music this year – a skyrocketing end to a mammoth five-year journey that sees Shepherd play all of his cards at once; eschewing spiritual 3am electronics with the jubilation of his previous dancefloor-ready singles and the intricate and highly ambitious essence of his DJ sets. Elaenia is a series of suites designed to be devoured in one sitting that has its own unique voice, with only one track – the title track – speaking a direct and tangible story, relating to a dream Shepherd had about a migrating elaenia’s life being absorbed by a forest.
Ultimately, Elaenia packs performances that are at times delicate and intense – the first full-bodied, complete Floating Points work so far, and provides context to the music that Shepherd has been making to date. Every DJ set he’s performed, every talent he has produced, every composition he has written are thought of as precursors to Elaenia – a dazzling score which puts Shepherd in the spotlight as a composer who has produced an album that bridges the gap between his rapturous dance music and formative classical roots.
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