"I had to force and kick-start creative momentum a little bit this time around" - hmv.com talks to Bonobo
Long a favourite of dedicated clubbers and dance music afficionados everywhere, British producer and DJ Simon Green - better known to most as Bonobo - delieverd his most successful album to date with 2017's Migrations, a record that saw Bonobo scoring his first Top 5 album in the UK and earning tow Grammy nominations for his efforts.
The tour that followed saw him take a large and energetic live show to venues across the world, one of the biggest voyages yet for an artist and DJ who is certainly no stranger to globetrotting.
The last couple of years though have, as with so many other artists, forced Green to curtail the travel and slow down, settling in his new Los Angeles home that formed part of the inspiration for the themes that emerged on Migrations.
His new album Fragments emerges this week, almost five years to the day since Migrations arrived, and ahead of its release we spoke to Green about why staying in one place has made this album a very different one to make than his others...
How are you finding life in LA, compared to New York?
"I’ve kind of stopped comparing it now really, because I’ve been out here for such a long time I don’t really think about much anymore. But it’s good, and it has been good not travelling as much in the last couple of years because I feel a little more established here now. I’ve got a good bunch of people around me and I feel like living here is not as conditional on leaving as it used to be. Before I kind of felt like ‘well, I can live in LA as long as I get to go to other places, but now I’m quite happy here, I can stay put and it’s not a problem any more."
When did you begin sketching out tracks for this new album?
"It was kind of immediately after the previous one, I mean there’s no real timeframe where I’m going ‘OK, I’ll start the record now’, I guess I just carried on writing tunes, but I think 2019 was when I started really getting my teeth into it properly. But I had a few sketches of things ready before that."
Were there any particular musical reference points for what you wanted to do?
"I think there always is, it just depends on where my head is at musically at the time. I’ve been listening to a lot of stuff that’s happening currently, but also looking back to the sort of stuff I was into when I was quite young as well. I was listening to early / mid-90s rave music, and I know there’s a lot of people referencing that stuff at this point, but my head was definitely in that sort of era, going back to some of those tunes."
Was there any one track that kicked things off, or set the direction for the rest of the album?
"One of the first ones was the track with Jordan Rakei, ‘Shadows’. That was in place quite early on, so I had that as a kind of starting point. I don’t think that was a huge reference point for the rest of it, but it’s certainly one of the early ones that I was happy with. The rest came in various stages of stalled creativity, stuff happening, then stuff not happening again! There’s definitely been several phases with this record."
We understand that you tend to write a lot when you’re on the move / on tour, how have the events of the last couple of years impacted the way you put this album together?
"It’s been very different. Previously I’ve written stuff on the road mainly because that’s where I was most of the time. I’d always finish stuff in a studio. But it’s different having that sort of mind space. I think all experiences are valid, even if they’re not the most fun ones, even if you’re a little bit tired in an airport, or waiting around. Being under-rested and waiting for stuff is kind of what touring is, and in those states there’s a lot of time to make music, with the club from the night before still ringing in your ears. Without those kind of experiences, it was just very different. It was this irony of having a lot of time to do the thing you want to do, but not really having much to say about it. So I had to force and kick-start creative momentum a little bit this time around."
But things started spark a bit when you began working on the track ‘Tides’ with Jamila Woods?
“Yeah, I think so. I’d just been nudging a kick drum around in Ableton for days on end without really feeling that much was happening, and then when she sent me that vocal I’d quickly got that tune in the bag. After that I was like ‘Alright, I think this is starting to sound like an actual album now.’"
How did that connection come about?
"It’s different with each vocalist, but with Jamila I was just a fan, I really liked her record so I wondered whether she might be down to do a collaboration. I just approached her, and she was into it but then I didn’t really hear back from her for a while, until I suddenly got his text message saying ‘I’m going into the studio, I’ll send you something tonight. And she did. There was no demo, she delivered the thing already done. It was a big moment and a turning point for getting the rest of it finished, really.”
What about the other guests on the album?
"With Khadja Bonet I was just really into her records and she was one of the first people I approached, she lives quite close by in Orange County, so she was also one of the few people I actually managed to get in a room with, because everything was pretty remote this time around. We sent a few demos back and forth and eventually we were able to get together. It’s a nice closer, that one, it’s got a nice optimism to it and it’s this moment at the end of the record where you feel like it’s going to be OK.
Joji is American-Japanese and he’s part of this collective called 88 Rising, which is a lot of Asian-American producers, rappers and songwriters. He actually had a past as a Youtube person. Do you remember the Harlem Shake?"
How could we forget…
“Yeah, so he started that, in his Youtube persona. And then he just pivoted and starting making all this really cerebral R&B type stuff, and people like Clams Casino and Schlomo were collaborators on his first record. I just think he’s a really interesting voice. I guess it was kind of a curveball for me, but I like that, I think it’s more interesting to do stuff with people who are maybe not the most obvious choice. He’s a bit of an enigma as well, I had to really find a way to get this idea across to him, but he was into it."
One of the tracks was co-produced with O’Flynn this time too, how did he get involved?
"I really like what he does, his sort of dynamic thing that he does between loud and quiet, and I had this track that needed that, or something like it. I was just asking him for some input initially, like ‘can you listen to this tune for me, I’m a bit stuck with it’. But I sent him the parts and he was able to give a fresh perspective on it, to realise that it needed this whole other section and have this back-and-forth between the two things, which is what he does really well. It’s been going down really well in the dance, that one."
Have you been able to road-test much of the new material yet?
“A little bit, yeah. I started DJing again in the summer, I think the first one back was the July 4th weekend in New York, which obviously a big thing out here. It was this f***ing mega-rave techno thing in Brooklyn. Packed, 6,000 people, flame-throwers and all this s**t. It would have been nice to just start out with a house party after two years of not DJing! But you know, I’m not complaining. And there was a period in the summer where I was back in the clubs again. It’s just been really nice to reconnect with that and remember that parts that I loved about it, and perhaps attenuate some of the parts that I didn’t, so it’s nice to be able to have some perspective of how I can maybe do things a little bit differently. It’s been positive."
Without being able to do that before, had it been more difficult to gauge how the new tracks will work live or on a dancefloor?
“Absolutely, yeah. You never really know when a thing is finished, but you can really tell when something is working or not by having someone in the room with it, it’s enough even if it’s just a friend. I mean, people come over and you play them stuff, and obviously everyone is going to say ‘yeah, this is good, I like this’, but you know when they actually really like it rather than them just being polite. You can tell, there’s a sense of a physical reaction and it’s the same when you’re playing something out in the club. Sometimes it’s not the ones you think that are going to get a reaction and it’s nice to be surprised sometimes. But on the counter side of that, it can sometimes be disappointing if you think you’ve got a club banger and it sort of falls flat a little bit.”
Have you had any of those surprises with the new stuff?
"I haven’t really had much of a chance yet, although fortunately ‘Otomo’ went off the first time I played it, which is exactly what I was hoping would happen. And I’ve been able to play ‘Age of Phase’ a couple of times and that’s been really nice moment, it’s a very joyful, cleansing sort of tune to play at peak time, because it has this very lush, melodic breakdown which people respond to, especially if it’s played at the right moment next to quite aggy music that’s adjacent to it, it’s quite a nice sort of reprieve."
"Lush" is a good way to describe it. It feels like there are more orchestral texture on this album, maybe?
“Yeah, I suppose I’ve definitely been exploring those sort of sonics a lot more on this one, I guess in a more abstracted way, it’s more using the tones of orchestral instrumentation. I mean obviously there are some big string arrangements on there, but otherwise it was using woodwinds and long passes of cellos as a sort of sonic motif. I’m drawn to polyphonic synths that sound like woodwind, or bowed instruments. It’s the textural thing of having things always moving and never standing still."
You’ve got some Spring dates booked in the UK - pandemic permitting, where else are you taking it?
"I think everywhere. Although yes, ‘pandemic permitting’ is the phrase that’s everyone’s having to use, isn’t it? I actually have COVID right now…"
Oh. Sorry to hear that…
"I’m fine, don’t feel anything, just a bit congested. Anyway that’s going to give me a pass for a few months at least."
It was very much a live band experience on the Migration tour – are you planning more of the same this time?
“I am, yeah, even though that probably seems quite ambitious, because you have to keep everybody safe. The plan is to do it all again, but it’s uncharted waters now I guess because certain countries are going to have issues. But as it stands it’s full steam ahead, starting quite soon actually, in February."
Fragments is available in hmv stores now - you can also find it here in our online store.