Bonobo interview: music for the heart — and feet

Simon Green — stage name Bonobo — in functionality © Jason Kempin/Getty Photos

From Kraftwerk to Daft Punk, electronic artists have frequently operated on a far more mysterious level than their rock counterparts, satisfied to exist as shadowy characters behind the machines they develop their music on. The British producer and DJ Simon Green has had a 15-year career as the artist Bonobo, however you’d be unlikely to recognise him walking down the street.

“People don’t necessarily know who I am,” he tells me on the phone from his present residence in LA. “Some individuals feel Bonobo is a band. I don’t make character-driven music. Personality stagnates, individuals turn into tired of it. When it is purely about the music, that is what provides it longevity.”

Not that the 40-year-old is a studio hermit. Functioning at the forefront of electronic acts blurring the distinctions among digital and live instrumentation, he has acquired a expanding reputation over the course of five acclaimed albums as his sound has evolved and blossomed from languid hip-hop-influenced instrumentals to a lot more complex compositions, mixing vocally charged, beat-driven dance music with precisely layered, brooding soundscapes. His relentless international touring and DJ schedule has noticed him play everywhere from sellout shows at Sydney Opera Property and Glastonbury festival to six-hour sessions in New York clubs. Without having a mainstream chart hit or Mercury Prize nomination, Green has established himself as an artist who creates intricate electronica that taps into deep, human feelings but also tends to make you want to dance, and has racked up half a million record sales and 150m streams on Spotify.

Look up Bonobo performances on YouTube and you can see the two sides to this quietly spoken man. On his groundbreaking North Borders tour, where he played to more than 2m individuals at 175 shows in 30 nations, you can see him onstage with his 12-piece band at London’s Alexandra Spot in 2014, flitting in between instruments and triggering samples. But you can also discover videos of Green DJing in sweaty clubs, whipping up a celebration with a deftly sequenced set of underground dance records.

His upcoming sixth album, Migration, mixes both these sides. “There is not this polarised issue of electronic music versus acoustic music any a lot more. I use electronic strategies to make non-electronic music. It is basically editing and compiling sound in a human way and utilizing the gear to collage the sound. If you believe of electronic music in the traditional sense, like Detroit techno or Kraftwerk, it is actually sound generated by machines. What I am undertaking is collaging sound from acoustic sources. Rather than music made by machines, it is music made with machines.”

Green grew up in rural Hampshire to folk-loving parents. “My parents and two sisters were wonderful musicians but my family’s approach to music was constantly way more academic than mine. They were virtuoso players. But they have been all impressed that I could sit down at a piano and discover a melody. We had a different strategy, we had mutual envy.”

As a teenager he turned to rock music: “When I was 16 I was in a neo hardcore band referred to as Finger Charge. I played the drums with my shirt off.” But a move to Brighton to study at art school in the late 1990s introduced him to the south coast town’s burgeoning beats scene, centred on neighborhood label Tru Thoughts. “It was a quite informative time. We have been coming out of the rave and trip-hop era, making use of primitive samplers for the first time and playing with cut-and-paste loops from old records.”

Taking his stage name from Will Self’s 1997 novel Wonderful Apes, he released two instrumental albums, Animal Magic and Dial ‘M’ for Monkey, the second on the influential label Ninja Tunes. But it was his third record, 2006’s Days to Come, that saw him moving away from the chill-out, downtempo, sampling scene and incorporating far more organic soul and jazz grooves and the vocals of the Indian-born singer Bajka. As a outcome, Green began to change the way he performed his personal music. “I had been playing clubs in Europe but when I went to America they scheduled me in live music venues. I felt like: ‘This is actually weird. Cease watching me!’ The audience had been staring at me as if I was performing a piano recital when I was playing club music in the middle of a genuinely brightly lit stage.”

In response, he assembled a band to try and replicate the sound of the records: “There was adequate instrumentation that I could break it down to drums and keyboards with me playing bass — similar to the bands I was in at college. But it wasn’t actually operating. So we turned off the backing track and we just locked in and had this eureka moment.”

After his fourth album, Black Sands, Green started spending escalating amounts of time in the US and moved to New York in 2010 five years later he moved west to Los Angeles.

In LA, Green has located himself component of a neighborhood of like-minded musicians, such as British electronic producer and Coldplay collaborator Jon Hopkins: “There is a extremely inventive mindset in LA proper now and everyone is truly prepared to connect and collaborate, a lot more so than I discovered in New York or London. People like Jon moved out and there are bands on my street like Grizzly Bear and Vampire Weekend. It feels like an incubating moment for creativity out right here proper now.”

Migration reflects this change in Green’s life. Elemental in scope, it utilizes voices, including samples of R’n’B star Brandy and folk legend Pete Seeger as alien textures, rubbing alongside identified sounds and hypnotic beats. “I road-tested a single half of the album DJing. Some of it was developed in a transitory state, at 7am in a departure lounge at an airport with the club nonetheless ringing in my ears. The other half came when I stopped and the dust settled. I identified myself living alone in this new city. My dad passed away last year, and I turned 40. So I have been assessing where I was and who I was. I was going by means of these waves of weirdness, and the far more sombre components of the record are from that period.”

It is a beguiling mix, and a single that few other electronic artists pull off.

‘Migration’ is released on Ninja Tune on January 13. For reside dates see bonobomusic.com

For a ‘Best of Bonobo’ Spotify playlist compiled by the FT, click right here

Section: Arts

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