“You’ve Got To Make Sure That It Counts!” Bonobo Interviewed

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Bonobo’s journey from electronic music’s left-field to become a bona fide festival headliner has been a rewarding one to watch.

From those early trip-hop indebted recordings through to his breakout ‘Black Sands’, the producer – real name Si Green – has sought to blend club tropes with soulful songwriting, pivoting between two bold axis points.

Bonobo’s ascent continued with projects such as ‘The North Borders’, while a seemingly never-ending world tour saw the musician loosely based in New York for a time.

But then came the pandemic. Having relocated to Los Angeles shortly before the first lockdown, Bonobo had plenty of time to immerse himself in the city; in between lengthy hikes and modular synth explorations, he began to piece together something new.

Out now, ‘Fragments’ is a bold return, a work of quiet evolution that nonetheless feels confidently distinct from his recent work. Collaborators range from Ninja Tune label mate Jordan Rakei to Jamila Woods via Irish artist O’Flynn, while Miguel Atwood-Ferguson handles the broader string arrangements.

Typically lush, ‘Fragments’ also has a distinctly personal feel, the work of an artist coming to peace with himself, and setting down roots for the first time in a decade.

Clash spoke to Bonobo about the subtle shifts within his work, exploring Los Angeles, and the meditative power of modular synths.

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Congratulations on another fantastic Bonobo record! You’ve amassed quite the catalogue now, are you conscious of reacting against past work?

Only in the sense that I feel I can’t do certain things anymore. I mean, I think there’s only so many versions of a thing that you can do. And every time you make something, then that eliminates some options for you for the next time round. So it’s trying to use the same palette of sounds to do something that perhaps hasn’t been said as kind of eloquently as it was on the last record. I’m not so reactive against it, it’s more a progression.

One of the strands that goes through your work is the way that you can use different vocals and different vocalists, you’re always drawn towards a certain soulful element. If you look at this record, Jamila Woods and Jordan Rakei have that in their music.

I guess that ties in with the last thing as well, like perhaps that’s the thread that gives a sense of progression and a sense of difference between each record as well, because it’s not the same voice. I think with a traditional band, it has this one personality at the front of the music, but I just find that there’s always an orbit of people that I’m interested in.

For example, with Jordan, we knew each other, we’ve toured together a little bit and he seemed like a fairly obvious choice for when I had this song. It started as this long, unedited Detroit-y shuffle-y thing and I was just thinking like, some sort of voice like Jordan would be perfect on it. And through him, we discovered there was a song structure in amongst it somewhere.

I think there’s a lot of people I’m interested in musically and I’m excited by. Kadhja Bonet was first on the list of people that I was going to approach this time around. She was also – and I was unaware of this – trying to get in touch with to see if I wanted to do something together. So it worked out in a really nice way.

Jordan is fantastic – a real multi-instrumentalist, and an electronic producer in his own right, too.

Exactly. When we collaborate, he’s like: do you want me to contribute instrumental parts as well? Which I hadn’t even thought of! I could have collaborated with him in many capacities, but I was only really interested vocally this time around… I’m sure there’s other opportunities to do some other stuff with him.

I’m very interested by that phrase about chipping away at it and discovering there was a song underneath. Do you find that editing is a key part of the process now?

Totally. And I found that this time around. It’s been interesting to try and make club sounding music but without letting it be this long form, eight-minute, not much happening format. I’ve been quite interested in seeing how much fat I can trim off something that’s essentially club music and make it into a cohesive four-minute song. It’s been interesting to work on my song structures, within the parameters of club music, this time around and makes club music sound a bit more coherent. Maybe that’s a reflection of my own attention span, but I feel like there are only certain dancefloors, that you can really get away with those long, 12 minute, unfolding tunes. It’s interesting to reverse engineer that a little bit.

That’s true, music is so open now, people are just plugging in and listening in all sorts of environments.

I think so. But if I think back to being a teenager, I was always trying to compile these little scrappy mixtapes, and I think that’s the same now. I have the same with the DSP playlists. I’ll Shazam something and then it will just go in my general playlist. It’s kind of like a junk playlist almost. It’s not something that’s particularly well curated or shared but I feel that I’ve always been quite scrappy in the way that I collect music and listen to it.

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The opener ‘Polyghost’ is such an effective introduction, it’s left a bell at the start of a meditation class.

It came by accident almost. There’s two elements that are woven into the whole record. And one of them is this harp, which was one of the earliest sessions I did. And likewise, the bookend of that process was with Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, he did all the string arrangements. So actually ‘Polyghost’ was originally quite a long, extended kind of techno-y thing that had both of those elements in it. Then I just was like, what if I just make it these two elements, which are kind of woven through the rest of the record? So it’s sort of like a statement of intent in a way, it’s just these two parts that are going to be the framework for the rest of this record.

I’ve spoken to a few musicians recently who remarked on the physical changes LA underwent during lockdown – the traffic smog lifted, for example. Did you notice a shift in your surroundings?

Yeah! Another thing that happened is all the traffic went away, so you could actually explore the city, which is something I did quite a lot as a means of getting out of this room. Trying to find some kind of external stimulation. It was really interesting to go and find all these little bits of the city that I’d never seen before and go out into San Gabriel Valley, and all these other little parts. I was also doing seasons of watching classic LA films, all the way from like, the 70s through to stuff like Heat, and Chinatown and all of these things. The kind of Michael Mann version of LA, and then just going and finding these locations.

So did you find the airport at the end of Heat then?

Yeah! That’s Burbank, I think.

Your collaboration with Jamila Woods is incredible, what was she like to work with?

Well, I had the tune. And again, with Jamila, we weren’t able to get in the room together – I still haven’t met her! We talk a lot and we’ve made plans to meet when we’re in the same city. I expressed to her that if there was any kind of theme developing it was about cycles and tides and the idea of nothing being still for too long and there being this transitory nature to people. So that was the starting point for her. I don’t want to give people too many parameters, because you want to work with people because of what they do rather than being too specific about what you require from them. So I just let her be her, really.

Those themes of tides and cycles that you’ve just mentioned, is that something that was prompted by lockdown or by your experiences?

I think just musically and maybe my experiences of the past five years really, feeling quite transitory before moving here. And I feel like a little more settled now and more established and I think maybe not moving for a couple years has been key to that.

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Does LA feel more like home now? It’s a very unique city.

It is. It’s very easy to feel a bit lost here but I feel that over the past few years I’ve really put some roots down, something that I didn’t really feel I had much since leaving London. I lived in New York for some years and then I sort of lived nowhere for a little bit and had sense of feeling a bit base-less. But I feel a lot more established here now.

How did you bring all these different ideas on the album into one, unified place?

I mean, I’m still looking at this board here and all the tracks that didn’t make it. There was probably the same amount, again, that didn’t make the record and things that… you never really know when something’s finished, because I assumed that I’ve got to finish all of these things. And these ideas that aren’t working, I need to know why they’re not working and I need to spend more energy on those. And I think there’s a moment when there’s enough momentum, and there’s a critical mass, you can stand back and think: maybe there is a record here after all. Just being able to let go and think: well, that’s fine. It’s fine if I don’t finish that, that idea didn’t work and I’m not going to get upset about it. Something else will come at a point.  

It’s balance as well. There was a period where I was just making faster, clubbier, techno-y kind of tunes. The balance came with the Jamila tunes and Joji, the more song-based bits.

Did that urge for club energy come from lockdown restrictions, do you think?

Possibly, yeah… maybe I wasn’t even making it with a club in mind. I don’t want to use the word deconstructed, but it’s using elements of club music and dance music to try and do something a little more structurally different. Trying to be more song-based in an instrumental way.

The use of modular synths is really marked on the album. Is there a meditative element to using these instruments? There’s an old Kraftwerk phrase: we don’t play the machines, the machines play us.

That’s exactly it. It’s how I would like to start my morning: making coffee, and I come in here and I just make a little patch. I thought of just recording a little 20 second loop every day for a year. That seemed a bit too much to commit to, but I kind of did it anyway. Just making some nice little noises for an hour or two in the morning as a little kind of musical meditation before getting going. Sometimes they will become something, sometimes they wouldn’t, but it’s a nice process.

You’re going back on the road, which must be an intense feeling. As a live act, you put so much into that 2014 – 2019 period.

I feel so removed from it now, because it’s been such a long time. It just feels like a distant thing that used to happen in the past, but it’s coming up again soon. I think it’s just gonna be weird, maybe in a really nice way. I’ve been DJing this year since the summer, which has been really fun. There’s been some really life affirming moments and there’s been a few weird ones as well, which is interesting. Because, if anything, the gratitude to be able to have these experiences again should be relished.

I mean, mostly it’s been excellent. I just feel like you’ve got to make account now, even if you’re going out, I think people can afford to be a lot more selective and experiences and not just doing stuff for the sake of doing it. You’ve got to make sure that it counts.

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‘Fragments’ is out now.

Words: Robin Murray
Photo Credit: Grant Spanier
 

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