Sat on a sofa in the Ninja Tune offices, somewhere in Kennington, South London, Simon Green, aka Bonobo, is pondering the question of why his music resonates with so many people. “I think maybe because it comes from a very personal place,” he says. “It’s an emotional response from me, I guess.”
Incorporating elements of UK garage, ambient, breakbeat, house, jazz and R&B, the music that Bonobo makes has an experimental edge — yet his sound crosses over to all kinds of audiences. He has a massive following, selling out huge venues like London’s Alexandra Palace or Denver’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre, and performs everywhere from Glastonbury to Coachella and Japan’s Fuji Rock festival. His last album, 2017’s ‘Migration’, was No.1 on the US Billboard Dance Chart and made the top 5 in the UK, while his 2010 record ‘Black Sands’ is widely hailed as a modern classic. There’s something about his music that strikes a universal chord.
“When I put out my first record, ‘Terrapin’, it was a really weird little thing I did on an Akai sampler, it was just like a couple of guitar lines and a sitar,” he recalls. “I thought it was so silly, because it was just this thing I made that was really lo-fi. Then loads of people loved it; they found it very personal, and connected with it that way. That sort of very honest, emotional content is possibly the thing that people connect with. If you feel there’s a familiarity, or there’s a sense of nostalgia. Maybe that’s what it is?”
Green has just flown back to the UK from his home in Los Angeles for the first time in a few years. Wearing a black T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up and army fatigue trousers, his hair is swept to the side, the temples greying a little. With his salt-and-pepper stubble and pale blue eyes, he exudes a sense of calm. A friendly interviewee, he’s softly spoken, but becomes more animated when he hits upon a subject that sparks his imagination. Sat in Ninja’s meeting room, the wall behind him is plastered with posters, flyers and ephemera charting the label’s long and illustrious history. Green has been releasing music since 1999, and has been signed to Ninja Tune for most of that time. He’s part of that epic story, and his own shift from downtempo beats to lively dancefloor sounds in 2010 was one mirrored by the label.
“It’s like a permanent museum,” Green says, glancing back at the vibrant art on the back wall. “This is the only room they didn’t renovate in the office. They kept it as a time capsule of the old Ninja. I like the spirit of the label, it’s a very independent thing that’s not beholden to hype, or clinging on to specific genre-hopping ideas. It’s just doing what feels right at the time.”