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Floating Points: The ecology of sound

Sam Shepherd, aka Floating Points, is returning with a new album — ‘Crush’, out this month — and a vital live show that he’ll be debuting this autumn. Born out of live jams with his Buchla synthesiser and Roland drum machine, it swings from the most out there jazz to garage and hybrid techno, sometimes overlain with a melancholic tinge or peppered with intricate IDM stylings. DJ Mag hooks up with Floating Points at his East London studio to talk about the genesis of his sound, the state of the world, his production methods, and why he wants his live show to be somewhat unhinged

In late summer, the rain falls in great sheets, and DJ Mag dives under the cover of shop awnings in Shoreditch, East London. On a day that feels like we might be swept away by a biblical tide, we’re on our way to meet an artist whose name sounds suitably aquatic: Floating Points. In a complex of studios and offices nearby, we’re ushered out of the downpour and descend the steps into a dimly-lit basement bolthole.

Suddenly, we’re in another world: a veritable treasure hoard of synthesisers, drum machines and sequencers. It’s a tech nerd’s dream, where vintage keyboards are racked on each wall, synth modules cover every surface and familiar manufacturers Roland, Yamaha and ARP are ubiquitous. Lights blink and flash, as the vast array of machines co-ordinate with each like a robot orchestra, and conducting it all is Sam Shepherd, Floating Points himself, feverishly twisting, patching, punching buttons and dials to summon extraordinary rhythms — the kind only he could make.

Bouncing around like a crazed scientist who’s finally struck on that secret formula, he’s excited, in the moment, creating something brand-new that sounds like some kind of twisted 2-step garage mutation, part glitched-out braindance weirdness, part bump ‘n’ flex rudeness. Feeding drum machine beats through his beloved Buchla synth modules, the sounds are mangled, delayed, crunched up, becoming pinging, metallic ballbearings of sound. We’re bearing witness to a mini impromptu live performance.

“I want my real live show to be more unhinged,” he says, as he spins a dial and a pulsing sound cranks up into a distorted, dark noise. “At times, for the audience to be like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ — that could be quite exciting.”

"More than ever I’ve had my ear to the ground with the news, thinking it might offer me some hope. I think I’ve been pretty angry. I think the music I’m making has been, too"

It’s fitting that we’ve caught the London-based artist, originally from Bolton, Greater Manchester, on the hop getting in some gig practice. His new album, ‘Crush’, was born in the realm of improvised live performance. Shepherd is known for wearing multiple hats, from festival-headlining, crate-digging DJ to boss of the funk-driven Melodies International label; he’s a maverick electronic music producer and even a scientist (he holds a PhD in neuropharmacology).

As a DJ, Floating Points is famed for crossing stylistic borders, blending ‘80s boogie with classic house one minute, before reaching for a garage gem or jazz dance rarity the next. Similarly, his 12” singles, geared to the dancefloor, have drawn from all over, with early classics such as ‘Vacuum Boogie’ or ‘Love Me Like This’ blending low-slung disco and brightly hued electronics, and the deep, lush ‘Nuits Sonores’ offering a distinctively UK take on the Detroit beats he’d hear Theo Parrish play at Plastic People. ‘King Bromeliad’ was house at its most fractured and loose-limbed, like a fever dream collaboration between Matthew Herbert and Bugz In The Attic, hoovering up the best elements of dance and arranging them in his playful and uniquely colourful way.

While his more recent records, 2015’s debut album ‘Elaenia’ and 2017 follow-up EP ‘Reflections — Mojave Desert’, tended to experimentation with synth-suffused jazz, post-rock and Brazilian tropicalia, this time around Shepherd wanted to get back to those impulsive electronic dance sounds that made his name — and his latest, solo live shows encouraged him to do just that. “I’d made ‘Elaenia’ and it was electronic, but it had lots of live drums, guitar and things like that,” Shepherd says as we sit down to talk, traces of his Manchester upbringing occasionally detectable in his accent. “It was quite a restrained album, and in order to play it live, it was like, ‘Let’s form a band’. We went on tour, and over two years it morphed into a situation where the music that I was actually making was with the band.

“Afterwards, I was on the road again, solo, supporting The xx, doing these enormo domes of 20,000 people. The xx were like, ‘Just do your thing, whatever you want’. I was thinking I would go in and play arpeggios, really mellow, and set the scene for them, but I actually ended up making some of the most aggressive and obtuse music. It was really heavy. I took the Roland TR-8S [drum machine], and the Buchla synth. It was half an hour, and it was strange — very rhythm-heavy and fast. I was having a lot of fun on stage, and it was chaotic. Before, I’d put out a lot of dance records and I realised I was kind of missing it. So after that, I wanted to do something more for the dancefloor again.”

BITTERSWEET

‘Crush’ is the most immediate and club-focused material that Floating Points has produced for several years, with a strong flavour of the UK garage and bass music rhythms that provided Shepherd with some of his formative influences. ‘Last Bloom’ has the vibrant daubs of Buchla bleep that have become a signature, though they’re attached to crisp 2-step drums and bittersweet melodies. ‘Anasickmodular’ is all funked-out clicks and pops, a reverb echo chamber of chattering, swung garage breaks and disconsolate keys, like something Burial might make in a particularly downbeat mood.

Yet what may come as a surprise to fans is just how glitchy and, in places, abstract ‘Crush’ is. The album is freighted with the kind of strange percussion and outlandish effects you’d be more likely to hear on braindance/IDM labels such as Aphex Twin and Grant Wilson-Claridge’s Rephlex Records, or modern equivalents such as Analogical Force; an oddball energy fizzing through its more familiar club-oriented beats. While many associate Floating Points with the warm disco grooves he’s apt to play in DJ sets, one of his very first releases was 2009’s wonderful ‘J&W Beat’ on arch abstract electronic label Planet Mu and, Shepherd says, the weirder end of electronic music has long been an influence.

“When I first moved to London, I went to [leftfield rave event] Bang Face with my flatmates,” he says. “I was hooked — I thought it was the greatest party, down at Electrowerkz. It was Bang Face one week and then a Sounds Of The Universe night another week, so there was dub, and then Ceephax Acid Crew playing the week after. I was seeing people on stage with one of those 11-inch Mac laptops, running software that I was using at the time, making the most exciting music, and people losing their minds. That music’s definitely influenced me, and to put a record out on Planet Mu when I was young, I don’t think they knew quite what that meant to me, because I was such a fan of that world. The μ-Ziq album, with a brown cover [‘Lunatic Harness’], that was what I listened to all the time, it was melodic and aggressive. I love that idea.”

The new album was made in only five weeks, fired by Shepherd’s reconnection to making music with just machines. He set out to create tracks he could perform, while drawing from the sounds — jungle, garage, house, IDM — that got him into electronic beats in the first place. “It just started happening, the tempos were getting faster and faster with everything I was making,” he says. “I was recording aggressive drums with light melodies over the top. That was becoming really enjoyable.”

Perhaps the biggest influences on ‘Crush’’s composition are Plastic People — the now-closed but much mythologised club in a Curtain Road basement in London’s Shoreditch area — and the inspiring Deviation club-night at Gramaphone, nearby on Commercial Street. 

In the late 2000s, Plastic People was a locus that enabled a variety of dance scenes to flourish. Each of these scenes and genres would merge into what would become the Floating Points sound. There was the dubstep night FWD>>, which would test the club’s notoriously powerful speakers to the limit with its emphasis on bass weight and future-facing experimental beats, and Detroit DJ and producer Theo Parrish’s residency, which would span everything from techno to disco. Up the road, at Benji B’s Deviation event, Shepherd would hear the leftfield, lolloping hip-hop of J Dilla, among others. It was a thrilling time in which genres were breaking down, scenes were mixing, and there was a spirit of hybridisation that still informs Floating Points’ music today.

“These were three very different aesthetics, and all were mega exciting to me, all very welcoming,” Shepherd says. “I was there as a consumer to check it out, but the music I was making sat in all three places at once. I remember in one week hearing Theo playing one of my tunes in Plastic People, and then the same week hearing another tune at FWD>>, thinking, ‘Hang on, where do I sit here?’ They’re all massive influences on me.” 

It was during this period, at the end of 2008, that Shepherd helped set up Eglo Records with like-minded DJ Alexander Nut, an outlet that would release many of his first singles.

Another event in Plastic People gave Shepherd the confidence to road-test his early beats: Tony Nwachukwu’s CDR event (Create, Define, Release), where budding producers could bring a CD burnt with their latest creations, and play them on the club’s crushing system for all to hear. “I was a religious attendee,” Shepherd says. “That was hugely important for me, to be able to go there and hear my music on the system, very loud. That’s what we brought down to the club, CD-Rs. I had to dig this out the other day [motions to a CD recorder], have you seen one of these before? They’re so difficult to find when you’ve got to burn a CD now. I’d take them down to Plastic, and it was a bunch of mates, everyone knew everyone. You’d hear immediately if your tune wasn’t punishingly loud enough, but the system was also quite forgiving of bad production.”

In places, ‘Crush’ sounds familiar. The lead single, ‘LesAlpx’, is a hybrid techno number of a piece with previous cuts such as ‘Nuit Sonores’, and was made in a moment of inspiration — moments, says Shepherd, that come fleetingly and which he needs to capture right away.

“I was in here and I’d just got a sound up on the Arp 2600,” he says. “I was just playing it by hand, and it’s a very simple bassline. I was recording it in, and this always happens very rapidly. There’ll be moments of nothing happening, and once a month maybe, within an hour it’s like, ‘Hang on, I just made a tune’. It’s very difficult for me to even recall these things.”

It’s often the way he makes music, which is why his studio is now set up to be in constant recording mode; this means he’ll never lose the vital bit of improvisation or jamming that could form the basis of his next big track. “I’ll capture some tiny idea, and then run with it. A lot of the time my tunes have a specific sound ’cause I can’t do anything about it, it’s set in stone.”

On the track ‘Bias’, one of the album’s high points, the moody introductory synths seem to echo and rebound in natural space — there’s a sense of air, as if you can sense the room it was recorded in. It’s a very different sound to the digital reverb effects that are present in so much pristine electronic music. This was deliberate, Shepherd says: an attempt to give synths the same treatment and care that acoustic instruments like a guitar or piano get. “We re-amped the synth, a Chroma, with guitar amps, which makes it live sounding,” he says. “It blows my mind that the first time you hear these complex synthesisers is out of speakers, so to give them a sense of space in a mix especially is not only fun, it’s a really cool thing to do.”

This drive to place electronic sounds in the ‘real world’, give them a living, organic sound is an on-going preoccupation, and was the motivation behind Shepherd’s last EP, ‘Reflections – Mojave Desert’, a project that found him recording live in the vast American wilderness of its title. “There, more so than anywhere, the space became an instrument, a member of the band,” Shepherd says. “Everything was recorded outside. There was a bit where I was swinging a Telinga, which is a microphone with a parabolic dish on it. It can focus in on sound. Because it’s such a complex landscape, you get reverb over there, and it gets phasey, delayed, with the rocks together. You can phase between them… it was the most magical thing to do.”

MELANCHOLY

In addition to its weirder edges, ‘Crush’ is largely darker in tone than anything Floating Points has made before. Though a melancholy touch has been a feature of some of his previous work, there’s a sense of foreboding to a decent chunk of the record. Its title is a reference to the current state of unease across the world, from the dangerous politicians in power to the creeping climate disaster, and how things appear to be getting worse slowly and inexorably, in a way we can’t stop.

“I thought about ‘crush’ in an oxymoronic way, as it being quite a sweet term of endearment,” Shepherd says, “but at the same time it’s really the opposite of that as well. The word kept coming back, like the slow turning of a screw.

“More than ever I’ve had my ear to the ground with the news, thinking it might offer me some hope. It’s a very weird time, right? I think I’ve been pretty angry. I think the music I’m making has been, too. I’ll start watching House Of Commons debates, trying to be on top of any political developments. I’ll think, ‘What am I doing?’ and I’ll go over there [motions to the studio], and start bashing something out. It’s probably something to do with all this political turmoil we’re experiencing, and meanwhile the planet’s melting and none of this shit matters.”

Talking to Shepherd, you get the sense that he’s passionately invested in everything he does. Music motivates him, and he talks with great zeal about it. But quizzed on the subject of ecology, he’s just as thoughtful, choosing his words carefully when DJ Mag asks him about how he thinks the dance music industry, with its air-mile accumulating DJs and the plastic used to manufacture vinyl records, is contributing to the climate emergency.

“Everything we do is,” he admits. “Sitting in the studio right now, my desk is on. Pressing records… but I understand there’s a case for physical media having a pass, ’cause it doesn’t require any server power. I think you’d have to listen to the album many, many times for it to be the equivalent of getting your MP3 off Spotify. The saving grace is that records are non-destructive if they’re looked after. I think festivals have a huge task ahead of them to lighten the load on the planet. Glastonbury this year was a great example [of doing something positive]. I’m hoping over the next few years there’s going to be some very rapid changes in terms of the things that festivals can do, and I hope me travelling a lot can be ameliorated somehow.

“I think the most powerful thing I can do with my voice is lobby the government,” he continues, “because everything we do should be through the prism of better governance. If everyone’s behaviour was brought collectively in line through a much bigger programme… governments need to be more involved. But while I apply some thought to it, I am constantly battling with my hypocrisy. I think we all are. For me to say anything about it, well I’m flying here and there, and using a valve amplifier to get that sound. It’s very delicate for me to talk about.”

One definite glimmer of positivity is alluded to by the beautiful album track ‘Sea-Watch’. A diaphanous beatless piece on Wurlitzer and ARP, it evokes a sense of being adrift on the ocean, and its title, says Shepherd, is something close to his heart.

“I have been quite moved by the heroism of people like Carola Rackete, who takes a ship called Sea-Watch out into the Mediterranean and rescues refugees who are in trouble, and brings them back into Italian ports. She and many people, a lot of them work for that organisation, they’re heroes. They’re going into very difficult situations, physically, and saving thousands of lives. They’re a charity who are doing real work.”

Sam Shepherd grew up between Bolton, Timperley and Moss Side. He had piano lessons from a young age (which he disliked), and later joined the Manchester Cathedral choir as a choirboy. Attending the next-door Chetham’s School Of Music, he finally began to appreciate the broad variety of music — especially of the electronic kind.

“I was fairly unusual [at Chetham’s], in that most people played an instrument and I was focused on composition,” he says. “They let me use one of the studios there almost exclusively. With electronic music, I was hooked, because it felt like I was learning something completely from scratch. With the piano, I was not getting better and really slogging away at it. In the studio I felt I was learning something new, learning how to sample, and really enjoying that. People who were helping me and teaching me were playing me Stockhausen.”

At the same time, Shepherd began to take an interest in the local record shops, and started hanging out at Manchester institutions Fat City, Piccadilly and Vinyl Exchange on his school lunch-break. Tunes by the likes of Carl Craig caught his ear, and soon he was buying 12"s and building a collection. “The point when I found electronic music was when I was hooked on all music,” he says. “Until then I wasn’t really finding a lot of it fun, but electronics opened a door to me that I found really thrilling.”

"There’s instruments I interact with and think, ‘This is made by a CAD modelling circuit program’. Taming those things and making them sound human is the entire process for me."

DJing was something that happened pretty much by accident. He had a load of tunes and a turntable, a mate had another one, and they started doing parties together. It became more serious when Shepherd moved to London at 18 to study science, and started playing gigs at Rhythm Factory, before his Plastic People appearances became more commonplace. But DJing was never a career move or long-held aim; it was always driven by a passion for music. “I never considered myself a DJ back then, like, ‘This is what I want to do’,” he says. “It’s just I love hearing my tunes really loud when I want. That was the reason. It was pretty selfish, maybe. But I love sharing it too, like, ‘You need to hear this Gary Bartz tune right now’.”

"Floating Points has been one of my favourite DJs for years,” says Mafalda, who previously co-ran the Melodies International label with him. “I think he plays the most beautiful music. He’s really brave in what he plays, it’s inspiring.” 

FEARLESSNESS

Nowadays, Shepherd’s gig diary is packed with appearances all round the world, but his philosophy remains similar when it comes to playing records, and all it takes is to hear one special track to ignite his devotion to DJing all over again.

“It doesn’t need to be a new record, it just needs to be new to me,” Shepherd says. “I don’t really differentiate between new music that’s made now and music that’s new to me. A few weeks ago, I had the Melchior Productions album out, on Playhouse, and there was a track on it called ‘The Party’. I never listened to it before, and put it on at home and thought, ‘I need to DJ’. That process of digging in my own record collection is so important as well.”

“There are lots of things that make Sam a great DJ, but the quality I’m most envious of is his fearlessness,” says Dan Snaith, aka Daphni/Caribou, who’s played many times alongside him. “Some of my favourite moments in his sets when we’ve played together have been when it’s peaktime and everything’s kicking off, and he plays something super mellow (and often long). Instead of it killing the vibe in the room, it just builds the anticipation much more for whatever follows it. I know very few DJs that would have the guts or the judgement to be able to win over the room playing exactly what they want in the way they want to, like Sam does.”

As Snaith suggests, Shepherd gets a kick out of making connections between tunes that others might not have realised, and takes great pleasure in creating pleasing juxtapositions between very different records. “I have a habit of playing all over the place,” Shepherd says. “I get a bit bored of playing one thing. If you’re at home listening to music, you’re not necessarily going to listen to techno for 12 hours, you might put something else on. Sometimes, the excitement of wanting to hear that record hits me and I think I’m going to have to go from a Leroy Burgess tune into an acid thing, some L.I.E.S. record. Let’s see how this goes! There’s a definite jump in energy and excitement, and it’s fun. There are times when I’m like, ‘This is great’, and times when I feel, ‘I won’t do that again’.”

Floating Points’ broad tastes in music inform the discography of his record label Melodies International. What started small is now a fully-fledged operation, employing three people, and with an increasingly prolific release schedule. Dedicated to uncovering rare and out-of-print gems, it’s revealed many classics and made them available again. Though it started putting out mostly jazz and disco cuts, its most recent records have included the ‘80s electro-funk diamond ‘Just Can’t Stay Away’ by Don Blackman and a melancholy-tinged, overlooked remix by US house dons Mood II Swing of Bristol group Crustation. Beautifully packaged, the releases sometimes come with posters, while there’s also a Melodies International ‘zine featuring interviews with the bands and artists.

Part of Shepherd’s motivation in starting the label was to make these records affordable, and keep them from the greedy mitts of the Discogs sharks, charging exorbitant amounts for original pressings.

“I realised I was part of a problem in the Discogs world,” he says. “I’d do an NTS show and suddenly the record I play has become unattainable. It’s all about sharing music, I don’t want to be causing trouble for people here. They hear it on the radio and go, ‘That’s great’, and they find that there’s one copy available for $700. That’s not cool. I want them to be as available as possible so people can have them if they want them.”

There are plans to expand the label’s remit soon, with five more releases planned in 2019, and excursions into techno among other genres.

In addition to all his other musical pursuits, Shepherd has been building his own soundsystem. Made in collaboration with Cosmic Tom, and currently in Leeds, he has grand ideas for what he’s going to do with it. “It’s ginormous,” he says. “I’m waiting on the right place. We’ve got everything virtually ready to go, we just need a couple more amps. I want to do a club — to have a room that’s 300 or 400 capacity, that’s punishingly loud and clear, and beautiful, and sounds great. That’s what I want to do in a few years maybe. Kind of do a Plastic People thing again. I need help looking for a space, so if anyone has any places!”

With the new album in the bag and Shepherd’s various other activities proceeding as planned, the next task is preparing for the live shows, which we found him practicing for when we arrived. He’ll be backed live by the arresting visuals of Hamill Industries, a Barcelona-based team who specialise in extraordinary, natural world-inspired imagery.

The equipoise between the synthetic and organic, between machines and humans, is a key feature of Floating Points’ work, and something that drives the music he makes. “I hear instruments that I interact with as a human and feel that, ‘This is made by a human’,” he says. “There’s instruments I interact with and think, ‘This is made by a CAD modelling circuit program’. Taming those things and making them sound human is the entire process for me. The whole point is to get it sounding nice. To mess with it and experiment until it sounds human.”

In the process of preparing for the next gigs, Floating Points reckons he might even come up with some new stuff, like the dazzling impromptu creation we heard when we came in.

“Preparing for the live show and practicing with the gear, being really familiar with it, I want to make some new music as well,” he says. “The mad thing is that, through this process, when you came in we were listening to some new thing — that’s kind of cool.”

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