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World famous downtempo wizard, Bonobo, shares secrets with Beatnik
words Ali Raymond / photography Bonobo
Preparing to interview one of your all time favourite artists invokes all sorts of anxieties. Are your own questions on point; is the location selection going to crumble; will he be remotely interesting? Or will doomsday jump schedule and happen right as we sit down?
Thankfully the legend that is Bonobo, born Simon Green, or ‘Si’ as he amiably let me call him, turned out to be everything you could expect of one of your greats. Laidback, easy going and oozing with musical knowledge, he let the interview become an ad hoc venture of its own. Doomsday didn’t exactly rear its head either, although it was pissing it down.
Taking shelter at London’s tucked-away treasure Rayman Eastern Music, an instrument shop on Chalk Farm housing the strangest and most exotic instruments known to man, Beatnik’s Paul Bence set up shop for the afternoon shoot. We were guided through the tight corridors and small rooms of the super dope store by its owner, Sun, stopping frequently as Green marveled at the various instruments hanging around him, plucking and strumming many of them before making it to the reserved back room. Our inkling that Green, a man who is known to have a slight obsession for any box or trinket that makes a noise, would feel at home at Rayman’s was proven right.
For those who are new to the sounds of Bonobo, here’s a little history. Born and bred in rural Hampshire, Green escaped to Brighton at eighteen, immersing himself into the area’s vibrant jazz/hip-hop/funk/soul scene. Inspired by his surroundings, he began producing his own tracks, recreating the templates he’d experienced in the sweaty little venues studding the lanes of the city.
His first release came in 1999 on the Tru Thoughts compilation When Shapes Join Together, with his striking debut Animal Magic following the next year on the same label. It was an album that hailed him as a new down-tempo pioneer, and its underground success landed him a deal with Ninja Tune, who released his second full-length Dial M For Monkey in 2003. The epic Days to Come followed in 2006, and in 2010 he dropped the sensational Black Sands.
You wouldn’t be wrong in classifying Bonobo as down-tempo, trip-hop or chillout, but with his latest release he has shown that ambient and electronic tags wouldn’t go a miss either. With his recent release fresh in our minds, we began talking about Black Sands and why it took three years to make.
“It wasn’t a conscious thing,” Simon explains, sipping precariously on his takeaway coffee. “It takes me a long time to getting round to doing stuff [laughs]. The main thing was the touring we did after Days to Come. It was the first time we had built the live thing with the band and I suppose the other ting was that I had a half a record ready to go but wasn’t really happy with it.”
He pauses before giving the real reason. “I think actually a lot of it was I didn’t know what I wanted to do for about two years [laughs].”
His last comment also hints at how much of Simon’s energy is drained by his own creativity. No wonder there is a lengthy gap between his releases.
Before Black Sands, of course, there was the hugely successful Days To Come. Opting for a lusher, more live sound than on his earlier, beat-produced records, Green soon found the formula to his most successful album to date, one that generated over fifteen million plays on Last.fm and placed him as Ninja Tunes’s biggest artist worldwide. The release was also voted Album of the Year in the 2006 Worldwide Awards on Gilles Peterson’s BBC Radio 1 show and catapulted him into a new league of live extraganza, selling out venues all over Europe, including London’s Roundhouse and Forum.
On the back of such a huge success, you’d think the obvious choice for a producer would be to follow with music of the same string. But Black Sands was refreshingly defiant, sounding nothing like Days To Come.
“Exactly!” Green exclaims, enthusiastically wanting to make this point clear. “I didn’t want to do the same thing again. I don’t think anyone should repeat themselves.”
So where did the idea for Black Sands come from?
“I knew what I didn’t want to do, I just needed to find out what I did want to do. I basically wanted to strip all elements that were jazzy and down-tempo and see what was left.”
“I think I started Black Sands as one thing and it became something else. I started the record in the studio with just a drummer and bass player and built it as a live record. At that time I think I was bored of beat production . That scene was getting a bit stale, a bit too insular. The ‘J Dilla saved my life’-culture had become a bit too introspective, clique. So I wanted to go off and do something in a different direction. In essence I was picking up where I left off in Days To Come with a lot more strings and live drums.”
Yet Black Sands illustrated a new excitement for beat production. Ironically, it was working with live instruments during the recording process that reignited this old love affair.
“It was at that point I suddenly got back into beats again. When Bullion, Floating Points, Joy Orbison and those guys came alone and their sound was a bit more fun yet still progressive and interesting. It wasn’t this kind of boom clak, abstract hip-hop thing anymore. It was more celebratory and forward thinking music. That’s why I feel back in love with making beats again.”
In its differences to Days To Come, Bonobo’s 2010 release won him a stream of new fans without cheating on the loyal army either. ‘El Toro’ and the title track lean on past goodness while progressive wonders like ‘Eyes Down’ and ‘Kiara’ show a changing mindset.
“I’m still really proud of ‘Black Sands’,” Green says about the title track itself. “I remember sitting in the kitchen and coming up with that repeating tune, then the melody fell in. I had it mapped out in like a day on a melodica and then it was pretty much like painting by numbers, replacing parts with instruments.
“With ‘Eyes Down’ I was trying to do something out of my comfort zone. I was inspired by people like Jamie from the XX and that 2-step, retro approach rather then harking back to the original. This scene that has been coming out of London.”
It’s nice to hear that you’re still influenced by sounds around you.
“People always seem surprised when I DJ because it’s usually this heavy electronic dance floor stuff, things I was brought up on — so these genres have always been in the background.”
The conversation steers towards Kieran ‘Four Tet’ Hebden and Prefuse 73, two of Bonobo’s other notable contemporaries.
“They are known for their sounds but that’s just a small aspect of what music they are into. I know Prefuse for example was bought up on American metal, so hip-hop is only one part of what he does. The same with Kieran.”
“It would be quite boring for a producer to listen to the same music he was making and I rarely do. When I was making Days To Come I would rarely listen to down tempo-whatever-you-want-to-call it music. I was more into the broken beat and the folk thing.”
“At the minute I’m still really getting into all these cats from London – Mount Kimbie, James Blake, Joy Orbison and Floating Points. And that post-crunk disco sound, ha!”
Following the worldwide success of his music in recent years, Bonobo is currently orchestrating a move from the turf he has called home for so long to pursue a life-changing opportunity in New York. Dismantling his studio, he’s been left with nothing more than the basics of a laptop, a mini keyboard and his imagination to accompany him.
“It’s really refreshing, like starting a again with your first Atari and sampler. Far away from when I usually reach for a piano and a stack of records to draw samples from or amps and mics to make noises with. It’s great.”
“The whole thing about America was when I started out it was never really an option. But after Days To Come and having not gone there for ages, I didn’t realise it was all bubbling under. I had got an agent in Chicago and they had thought to put me out on the road for a little two week DJ run and it sold out straight away! Then of course we did another tour [with] bigger venues and that sold out too! Eventually we got the band out. It was insane! I was going out to these theatres in the middle of nowhere! It took my agent and myself by surprise,” Green tells us about his 2006–07 tour while rearranging his seating on the wooden foldout chair. We are both surrounded by huge drums, ancient gongs and Chinense lion heads that look more like dragons than anything else.
“So by the time this record came around we did a month on the tour bus and totally sold out two nights at The Bowery Ballroom in New York right through to like the Mezzanine in San Fran and every show up the west coast, LA, and Seattle’s Showbox, which is a huge place. 2000 people in Montreal and then Denvor. We did 27 shows and about 24 of those sold out…it was mental.”
Will you miss the UK I wonder?
“It’s always the case you don’t know what you miss until you’re out there. Humour is probably one of them haha. Self-depreciating humour doesn’t go well out there. You’ll just get a blank expression if you try to take the piss out of yourself.”
Giving his music at times that needed vocalisation, Green has worked with some excellent solo artists in his time, such as Fink and Bajka. The collaborations are always carefully thought out.
“I don’t like the idea of doing loads of features on a record because then it loses its identity and coherence. I think if you have one voice then the record has coherence.”
That one voice on Black Sands was the magnificent Andreya Triana. Having returned the favour by producing all of her debut album, Lost Where I Belong, Andreya is a vocalist he is notably very proud to work with.
“Her incredible work ethic aside, vocally her tone fits really well. She isn’t one of these ballsy loud singers that belts it out to the back of the room, you don’t necessarily want that. Some singers are like a Eddie Van Halen guitar solo — technically very impressive, but something you might not want all the time. Andreya is from the other school the kind of Nick Drake with her style. She is very versatile.”
There’s a pause before everyone laughs at the said comparison. But it does neatly personify the range Andreya can bring to a record. Whether it be on Flying Lotus’ epic ‘Tea Leaf Dancer’ or on Homecut’s debut album, Bonobo has found a labelmate he is sure to continue working with.
“Everyone was expecting a very clean, electronic-produced soul record,” Green says about Triana’s debut Lost Where I Belong. “Her voice is so sweat so if you were to then do meticulous tight production behind it the whole thing might come off too syrupy. I wanted to do something a little more low-fi, rough around the edges with the odd guitar and drums. To balance her voice with her songs.”
The pair are already talking about working together on Andreya’s second album, and although nothing is set in stone, Bonobo assures me that if it did happen it wouldn’t be the same as the first. And that’s why we look forward to a future. As more people are exposed to the sounds of this great producer/composer — whether in the UK, stateside or elsewhere around the world — we can rest assured that quality and innovation will always prevail.