Ahead of his headline appearance at Electronic Beats Festival in Prague this Friday, Ninja Tune’s understated star and genre-shunning producer Bonobo talks success, saxophone solos and, um, tumble dryers.
There’s few more surprised at the success of Bonobo than Bonobo himself. Simon Green’s last two LPs, the slow-burning success Black Sands and its more energized, UK bass-informed follow-up The North Borders have seen him hit a remarkable sweet spot. He won over the heads sure, but, judging from the large venues he frequently sells out, a hell of a lot more besides. When we put a call through to Green, he’s at soundcheck, but not quite sure where—although he’s certain it’s somewhere in Germany. A hefty touring schedule is par for the course when you’re the star of Ninja Tune’s roster—the evergreen independent label has been his home since the beginning, when ‘downtempo’ was the adjective that journalists reached for to describe his then-hip-hop and jazz-inflected electronica. The truth is, Bonobo’s music luxuriates in detail and betrays a deep-rooted love of sound, texture and atmosphere, whether it be of unusual or mundane provenance doesn’t matter. Green’s organic rise, rural background and lush, emotive productions are, in their own quiet way, revolutionary in a mainstream musical landscape in thrall to instant gratification, buzz cycles and click-friendly spin. For it is unquestionably the mainstream which, in typical Bonobo-style, is both a part of and, somehow, apart from.
Bonobo will be playing Electronic Beats Festival in Prague on March 28th 2014, alongside Moderat, Diamond Version and DJ Felix.
I recently saw you play at the Columbiahalle in Berlin. It’s a big venue and it was completely full, so it really rammed home how huge the Bonobo project is. However, it’s an understated, slow-building success, it seems.
I think there was almost four-and-a-half thousand people at the show. We’re playing Wiesbaden and places that I haven’t heard of and we’re still having sold out shows. No, there was no point where anything blew up, there was never any hype, it’s been this very steady slope for the last twelve years. But it’s been very genuine and underground…
Why do you think the Bonobo project has connected with people so much?
I can’t really tell, it surprises me as well! Every album, of the last three albums, I thought would be the peak until the next one comes along and it communicates even further than the last one. I don’t know why people are liking it all the time, that sounds terrible but I really don’t know.
Your music occupies a space between worlds, it’s not aligned with any particular sound or scene—it’s something apart. People can come to your music and take what they want away from it.
I was thinking that as well. It exists in a space between lots of genres. It kind of references the UK bass sound and then there’s also elements from all over the place: very leftfield beats and, obviously, there’s vocals. I think the vocal tracks appeal to a different group of people than the instrumental beat stuff. You look out into the crowd and you see different demographics reacting in different ways.
What do you mean exactly?
The young girls really identify with the songs, the heads are more into the instrumental stuff. Not everybody’s into all of it.
Going right back, you started out in a punk band right?
Not really, when I was a teenager I was a little skater punk and I liked alternative rock bands. Then I moved to Brighton when I was a student and I got a sampler. The idea of not being in a band, of just making music by playing things in layers, is when all these other ideas suddenly opened up to me. I think there’s a misconception that it is a band because of the live shows, people think that what they see onstage is how the music is made which isn’t the case.
You work completely autonomously?
Totally. A lot of the time is if I’m having to get musicians on the record I’m getting them to replay what I’ve already done or replay the sample. That part happens in three hours in the studio, it’s me on my own in a room for two years before that.
One of the most extraordinary moments of your gig at the Columbiahalle was during “El Toro”. I’ve never heard an audience attempt to clap along with what is essentially a sax solo before, but they gave it a shot. Was jazz, with its emphasis on improvisation and collaboration, a fundamental aspect of the live performance?
It was something that grew and grew over the years of touring. It used to be a four bar drum break and it’s since become this seven minute epic drum-sax solo battle—it’s a very thrilling part of the set. I think collaboration is important, yes, I tell everyone what to play in the band but I also want to let their own sound come through as well, because that’s where things are going to sound interesting. You might as well have a laptop playing everything if you’re going to be very specific about what people play.
Did you grow up with jazz? Are your parents musical?
My parents are musical, they came from the British folk scene. Especially my dad, he was involved in that whole Cecil Sharpe House scene in the seventies and eighties, so I grew up with a lot of people jamming around me.
Did your father play in any well known bands from that world?
He played with a lot of people, he moved around a lot—I can’t name them all now but he was involved with lots of stuff. There were lots of records played in the house, too, Pentangle, Fairport Convention—he had connections with those guys as well. My mum was more psychedelic, more psych rock, so there was all kinds of stuff going on.
You moved to Brighton to go to art school, did that have an affect on how you approached your music-making?
I don’t think it had a bearing on the music I made but art school is a fertile ground for a lot of musicians. If you look at the London colleges like Camberwell and Saint Martin’s, it’s the amount of music that comes out of these colleges rather than art that’s noticeable. Art school is just a good three years—with a safety net—where you make mistakes and meet people who have similar ideas. I grew up in the country, I grew up on a farm pretty much so maybe not growing up in an urban environment had a bigger impact on me as an artist. Brighton, too, is a very calm place, you’ve got the sea, and where I grew up is very rural so you have a different mind space. But again, I think there was always this romanticism about the city; I used to go up to London and it was always very big and alienating, the idea of different environments possibly had an influence on my music.
And now you’re based in New York! Why did you decide to move there?
Exactly, I’ve gone in completely the other direction! I made the decision just because it’s New York. I just found that I was spending time in the US touring, hanging out in New York. I had the opportunity to live anywhere in the world and I didn’t want to look back in years and think “I didn’t have to stay in Brighton, I could have gone anywhere”. And it’s great, I love it, although technically I’m never home.
And yet The North Borders, of all your records, really sounded like it was steeped in the spirit of London. Did having this distance from the UK afford you a greater overview of what was happening within UK music?
Well I think, firstly, music isn’t as geographically specific as it used to be. Now, with Soundcloud or Boiler Room, music is instant and global. Still, I was very aware that I wasn’t in London anymore and I felt like I needed to keep one ear on London the whole time, so I was probably paying more attention to what was happening in London than when I was actually living there. Just through fear of missing out! I was on the blogs and listening to radio shows more than I ever was when I was in it. That’s probably why I made a very London record in New York.
Returning to your formative years, what prompted you to buy a sampler and turn your back on rock?
Brighton at that time was pretty exciting. I’d come up through school listening to largely American alternative rock: Pixies, Sebadoh, Dinosaur Junior, shit like that. By the time I got to Brighton I’d really started on the idea of beats, like early nineties hip-hop, but stuff that Ninja Tune was doing and Portishead… Also DJ Shadow was a big influence. The idea that hip-hop could be emotive was exciting to me, the idea of beautiful hip-hop. That was what really interested me, I felt I could do something like that. I was always scouring the B-sides and the instrumentals, and there are all these little moments that happen within hip-hop which are never really up front. Hiding in the background were all these beautiful instrumental breaks and I was really into exploring that and where I was heading with it. The first DJ Shadow album is a great example of that, there were certain things on Dorando records that were happening, almost that dub aspect.
It’s interesting that you mention dub. I’ve always found your records to encourage a kind of reflective, ruminatory headspace; your music is about creating mood first and foremost it seems.
I always want to concentrate on the human aspect of music, I want to make my music sound human without resorting to emo tactics. I think the reappropriated sounds and recontextualising stuff really gives it that familiarity perhaps?
In the beginning you used samples a lot more, was there a reason why you moved away from that?
It’s not a hundred percent sample based like it used to be. I still use a lot of samples but I sample differently now. I’m not looking for big breaks or big chunks of music, I’m sampling more abstract sounds and doing it in a micro way. The sampler is still my main tool for making music, whether it’s sampling myself or found audio. My source material is different nowadays. Especially recently I’ve been using a lot of field recordings. I have a recorder but I also have my phone on me all the time, when some interesting sound is happening you’re not always there with your field recorder. I was in an airport in Hong Kong and an escalator was making this insane clicking sound, anything vaguely rhythmical. Some of the most interesting sounds come from the most boring sources, like there was a really tumble dryer backstage in Boston, it was making this very rhythmic, rolling sound. I used it as the basis of a loop of a kick drum. I don’t subscribe to the idea of recording things because they’re an interesting thing to record, rather that they’re an interesting sound. “I hiked up a mountain in Tibet and recorded the chanting of these monks”—No. I recorded a washing machine because it made a better sound. ~
Catch Bonobo live at Electronic Beats Festival in Prague on March 28th 2014. Watch Bonobo live at EBF Prague 2014, below.