Bonobo Transcends the Electronic Music Zeitgeist on ‘Migration’

Bonobo

Bonobo. Neil Krug

Buried in last week’s announcement of the Coachella lineup was the revelation that, for the first time in years, not one electronic act is headlining the music festival.

It’s a bold move for promoters Goldenvoice, who’ve long relied on the disposable income of trust-fund kids and communications majors with good molly connections to “turn up” in the presence of their new, LED overlords. If we accept that Coachella has long maintained its quality reputation as the bellwether of what’s next in music trends, this omission can only be a good thing.

But electronic artists have known for years they’ve had to step it up—acts like SBTRKT and Shigeto are drummers, first and foremost, so their actual musicianship features prominently in their performances. Meanwhile, Tycho and Floating Points both play with full bands.

As real instruments start appearing more and more in an electronic context, a tipping point is visible on the horizon: if forward-thinking electronic musicians see the value in garnishing their performances with live instrumentation, maybe they’ll soon delegate the electronics to being just another instrument, instead of the instrument.

What would happen if all of the live instrument samples were replaced with real players, the click track forgone in interest of a real-life, living, breathing groove?

Simon Green seeks to answer that question. Recording under the name Bonobo, the British musician has released six records over the last 15 years, honing his craft as one of U.K. downtempo’s most gifted producers while growing groovier and headier with each release.

For 2014’s tour in support of The North Borders, Green eschewed the trend of adding one or two live elements to his sets and opted for a full-on band, playing bass and electronics alongside a drummer, saxophonist, guitarist, and singer. Highlights of his back catalog suddenly came to life, too—his addition of a string quartet primarily to play the stately opening to 2010’s Black Sands arguably made space for ambitious producers like Floating Points to eventually realize their compositions and flourish live with equally grandiose arrangements.

“I think there’s this connection to new forms, but it’s not hype music, it’s not the micro-genre of the year.”—Simon Green

While some associate the downtempo sound with coffee shop muzak and easy-listening hipster lounge, Bonobo’s live shows lay to rest any such perceived ubiquities or background noise. Instead, his performances play host to a tribal love fest that no amount of day-glo warpaint or misappropriated Native American headdresses could possibly hope to encapsulate—an all-inclusive tribe that features less bros, and more old heads swaying alongside young tripsters.

I caught up with Green over the phone ahead of his new LP, Migration, out this Friday on Ninja Tune. While North Borders was immediate and concise, Migration ebbs and flows from the textured moods of more ambient sections into palpable bouts of sensual ass-shakery.

As Green explained how spending his time committing himself to DJ residencies and travel informed the vast worldy influences that soak into these songs, including his relationship to America’s hippie scene and his newfound appreciation for Moroccan Gnawa music, I couldn’t help but wish that younger, more impulse-driven producers would take a cue from the care and craft that he puts into these records. While mainstream electronic eats itself, Bonobo’s doing just fine, tasty though he may be.

I think you’re likely the only dude making music right now who could sample Pete Seeger in an electronic context.

Yeah…I dunno, man! For me that was kind of a textural thing.

Most producers don’t listen to Pete Seeger, let alone listen to Pete Seeger and hear his texture as something they can use. But you also sample Brandy on the lead single, and the album is called Migration. So what I’m really wondering is isn’t the act of playing electronic music and traveling around with it sort of a study in transience in of itself?

Yeah, it’s a kind of weird thing because I don’t define myself as an electronic musician. It’s certainly a part of it, and you know I have a band as well, and we go on a tour bus like other bands. But in terms of the DJing, there’s a lot of solitary time. And it kind of creeps up on you when you realize it.

I’ve been doing this for about 15 years now and it’s all the times…when I was living in London it was the same thing, you’re hopping on a short one- to two-hour flight to Barcelona or Paris, some corner of Germany or somewhere in Poland, and that’s kind of your life. You’re waking up on Sunday morning instead of being with your friends or hanging out with the people you’re close to. You’re in some kind of hotel on the side of a freeway in Poland, waiting.

And you’re portable, your creations are portable.

Yeah, yeah, everything is reduced now from what would’ve been a bag of records back in the day to just a USB key, a pair of headphones and a toothbrush.

But you recorded much more of this record on the road, too, right? You mentioned “living with the tracks as you were making them.” Can you unpack that a little?

It’s those frames of references from these times that I was talking about earlier. I never used to be able to work on the road, I was always strictly in the studio. But not everything’s gotten smaller—I have Ableton on the laptop now and a sample library, which means I can use that downtime to pour it into the music.

The ability to have that mobility of music right now, where you can be in an airport with a sample library, it means that you can channel that mind-space you’re in when you’re overly tired and in an unfamiliar place. It’s not necessarily the most comfortable place, but there are definitely frames of references in your mind that you can channel into music. You’re able to be in the same mind-space as [when] you’re comfortable at home in your own studio.

“That’s what I mean when I say I lived with the songs for a while. Especially with my residency in New York, they would live or die with how well they went over.”

Is that where the peaks and valleys of this record come from, too? North Borders felt a lot more immediate and percussive, the songs came and did their thing and left. But this one seems to move much more in waves and patterns and textures. Melodies creep in and out, and I imagine that was somewhat part in parcel with the theme?

The record’s kind of in two parts for a few reasons. I guess I wasn’t aware when I was starting this record. I was on this DJ tour across America in 2014, and in my mind-space at the time I was making music to play that night on the tour. So I was using that downtime on the back of the tour bus to make beats and I wasn’t aware that I was actually making the record.

So “Karela” was something that came out fairly quickly, just something I was tweaking on the tour. I was playing it out and it was getting a reaction. I was originally going to re-record that Brandy sample with something else, switch it out or replace it, but people were hitting me up after the show asking what the song was and specifically referring to that vocal. So it stuck, and that’s what I mean when I say I lived with the songs for a while. Especially with my residency in New York, they would live or die with how well they went over.

That was the Outlier residency at Output, but “Outliers” is a song on the record, too, yeah?

Yeah.

That word is very interesting to me in the context of your music, because you’re something of a sonic outlier. You do what some of your contemporaries with broader palettes do back home, like Floating Points or Giles Peterson or Four Tet, sampling sounds from all over the world and across genres. Like the Brooklyn via Morocco music of Innov Gnawa on Migration. It’s fire, but also interesting to me because there’s a fine line between making music by collecting sounds and appropriation, and you walk it. Where do you draw that line in the process?

That line is just down to taste, isn’t it? Just doing things in good taste. There’s no sort of rules for it, really. I made sure that the Gnawa band was 100 percent into the track, they’d heard the track before. It wasn’t really a sample so much as a piece of music that they wrote for this track, and we collaborated in a much more traditional sense.

We explained lyrically—I was talking about what the record was about, and they explained what Gnawa music was about. We sat down and talked about it a lot, then they adapted a traditional piece of Gnawa music for this track to make it non-secular and something that was not two cultures clashing in a way that was insensitive to anyone.

It’s just groovy.

That’s the thing, Gnawa music is so funky! It’s sort of party music—you’ll have a whole day, these things will go on all day and there are different parts of the day where certain traditional parts of Gnawa will start mellow. Then they’ll ramp up to real party music till the end, and at the end there’s a meditative piece they play. So these were taken from the party end of the spectrum, so it’s celebratory music. It’s about dance music.

I’d wager there are not a ton of producers who would care to contextually understand what’s informing the lifestyles of the music that they appreciate, and I think that’s what people respond to so much in your work and in your sets. Maybe that’s also why your audience crosses over from the high-vibe hippie burner community beyond just dance kids. There are lots of disparate sounds and communities that you bring together, and this record sounds like an audible document of that. What else did you learn about the world while making this record?

Well, to go back to the beginning, to Pete Seeger, we talked to his family about that. We understood that was a very important recording to him. The sample is an acapella called “One Grain of Sand.” The line I took was, “one grain of sand, one little you, one little me.”

Bonobo

Bonobo. Neil Krug

This is very much a personal homage, too, because you grew up as a little kid listening to folk music with your family?

Yeah, I came from that background.

Do you consider yourself to be embedded in the jam scene here at all?

Not really, not in the U.S. I wasn’t aware of the jam community out here until a few years ago, I didn’t know about the Grateful Dead or any of this. I came out here to play these after-parties in Colorado and people were explaining to me that there were these bands who played these massive arena shows, and this thing you’re playing is the after-party!

I’d never heard of any of these people. It’s so interesting that there’s this whole other universe you have no idea about. But in terms of a U.K. scene, my dad was very deep in the London folk scene. I’ve always felt very comfortable, like folk was a return to comfort music, that sort of thing.

You’ve taken that idea of comfort and warmth into your own career, too, the idea that people are all sitting around a fire together. I guess I’m trying to find the sonic connections between what you took from this first exposure to music as a kid up through to now.

It’s a hard thing to say, but the music is the document. If I could explain it I would’ve written a book instead of made a record. So it’s hard to vocalize even though I know what we’re trying to do here. A very subconscious thing.

Well when you think of “migration” in the abstract, and that you’ve taken on the name of this well-groomed, pleasure-seeking monkey part in parcel with the fact that there’s a very human sense of warmth to your music it feels like part of the same conversation. Your audience is full of different humans and different people—at a Bonobo show you’re likely to see everyone from an old West Village longhaired dude to a nerdy kid in college. What do you attribute that to, your music being a part of the tribal community?

It’s one of those things that always astounds me, when I make a record and it connects with people. I always think that the last one was as good as it was gonna get in terms of people’s response to it.

It always gets me that with each record, the front row is young kids. That’s kind of the order of how shows go—you get all the young kids on the rail and then all the older heads towards the back.

It’s been about three years between each record and there’s a new group of 21-year-olds on the rail. They weren’t there last time, and they certainly weren’t there 15 years ago. So I really kind of appreciate that it’s connecting with a new audience each time. You don’t see how that happens in the real world. I think there’s this connection to new forms, but it’s not hype music, it’s not the micro-genre of the year.

How do you reckon with that personal meaning underscoring the album? I understand you went through a period of mourning, and spent a good chunk of time feeling that your whole family was spread out all over the world. Where can we hear that on Migration?

That’s what I was saying earlier about the “Kerala” track, it was made in that sort of frenzied environment of being on tour. It was when I got back to L.A. about this time last year when all of the stuff sort of settled from the past two years of touring. I was able to process a bunch of shit, [and] I went through a load of stuff I didn’t have time to process in two years of touring.

Emotionally?

Yeah, yeah. When I stopped and settled it all caught up with me. Tracks like “Second Sun” and “Grains,” these moments were a reflection of those things.

How do you reverse engineer those intimate moments as a producer? I’m thinking of the times you play with a string section, too. When the production comes from such a personal and subtle place, how do you recreate that? How do you export those ideas to the players and the band, the energy and the vibe?

You just work with people who understand where you’re coming from with it and it all falls into place itself, really. We try different ideas. The band that I’m going out on tour with hasn’t heard the record yet. But they get it, and for the most part they’re fans of the music. But you’ve got to have that juxtaposition in there as well. Some of the band isn’t that familiar with the genre that the music exists in, so trying to have their interpretation as well kind of helps.

Based on this fairly recent American epidemic of ubiquitous EDM music festivals like Ultra with the same headliners playing the same sets and the same light show, there’s this prediction that EDM will soon go the way of disco in 10 years, that we’ll be hearing it in diners and party-supply stores, places like that. Where do you see the conversation going amongst yourself and your contemporaries like Sam Shephard and Kieran Hebdan? What does the future look like in the broadest of terms?

Well, the two things you described, Ultra Festival and Floating Points/Four Tet…commercial EDM and progressive, left-field electronica are two very different things. There’s some crossover, sure. But that’s an age thing, right? It’s also a geographical thing. America is its own biosphere of music, especially with dance music. The American dance music revolution has only just happened. The European one happened in the ‘90s, and it peaked with the Ibiza thing in the mid-‘90s.

So we’re still young, there’s still hope?

Yeah, the EDM bubble is bursting. We’d always say that these kids, when they get a bit older they’ll dig a bit deeper. They’re not gonna look back, though. They’re not gonna get into me and Four Tet. They’re gonna do their own thing, kind of like Odesza.

This is the wave of those people that sort of came up on the first wave of EDM. They were into Calvin Harris five years ago, and now they’re doing their own thing. But with the corporate nature of things like Ultra, people are gonna wanna take control of their own scene a bit more, start their own thing, bring it back into the warehouses. Not a corporate-sponsored line of being packed into a sports arena and told when to put their hands in the air.

Bonobo plays both weekends of Coachella music festival April 14 and April 21. He plays Terminal 5 in NYC on April 28