Bonobo’s ambient sounds take audiences to places both strange and familiar, his brooding and seductive tracks evoking feelings that flitter from inspired to introspective to enthralled. I spoke with Bonobo about his latest album, The North Borders, and how new technology has changed the way we listen.
It’s dusk and what’s left of the sun bounces off a canyon of glass skyscrapers, setting a stunning scene for Sunday Sessions held on The Lawn at The Upper House. Champagne glasses in hand, people look up and wave as a flying GoPro drone whizzes over to capture what is essentially a playpen for adults here in the heart of Admiralty.
They’re all here for Bonobo who, behind the decks, seems somewhat oblivious to the heaving crowds surrounding him, only raising his head occasionally to let out a smile – acknowledging he’s doing something right, that he’s getting the crowd off, and then he disappears back into the zone.
“It was a different vibe to my usual kind of gig. It wasn’t a loud sweaty club, it felt a bit more formal,” recalls Bonobo, real name Simon Green. “I guess, because it was a more laidback atmosphere, I was trying to keep the vibe more sedated than usual. It was a nice opportunity to play some music I wouldn’t usually play at a club. There wasn’t much dancing apart from a girl down the front. She was really feeling it (laughs).”
I meet with Green at Café Gray a few days after the show. He’s been enjoying the rare luxury of having a couple of days off to catch up with friends – “I’ve eaten so
much dim sum,” he says between sips of Hendricks and tonic – and sightseeing before hitting the road for a dizzying lineup of Summer festivals around the world.
“We have Sonar festival in Reykjavik, Iceland in a couple of weeks, then straight after that I’m off to Sonar in Stockholm and Finland, and then we’re into a big European tour before Coachella, Glastonbury, a big Central Park show in the summer in New York, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The big one is going to be Ally Pally in London at the end of the year. It’s going to be sort of the last North Borders tour.”
Green’s latest album The North Borders moves away from the jazzy penchants of his past works, making way for a more electronic aesthetic with heavier bass lines, and presenting Green’s musical genius through a myriad of samples and sounds that have been chopped and screwed into a rich, intoxicating soundscape.
If you had a song for every time you walked into a room, what would it be?
Ooh… That’s a good one actually. Because every time I have a live show, we actually do this with our team if we have a piano in the dressing room. Everyone has a different tune; I think my one was pretty jazzy. It would actually be a tune by Bill Conti. It’s not a big rock & roll thing, it’s the end theme from Rocky; I think it was called You Traitor. It’s a big tune, very brassy. I actually played this for a friend when he walked down the aisle at his wedding.
The North Borders is more electronic compared to stuff you’ve previously done, which has more live, jazzy elements…
I feel like it’s a sort of evolutionary thing. I think in 2013 I wanted to move away from that jazzy down-tempo thing. I wanted to represent what I’m excited about at the minute which is music more informed by the London and UK scene. When I moved from London to Brooklyn I felt a kind of fear of missing out. So I probably paid more attention to what was happening in London than I did when I was living there, you know, I was listening to Rinse FM every day rather than once a week. Basically, I made a London record in New York.
Do you think Brooklyn has influenced you in any way? Other than making you miss London?
I don’t think so because I don’t think music is as geographically specific as it used to be. Back in the day, you would take a bag of white labels to DJ in the US, play it to people on dub plates and they’d never heard it. But now because of Soundcloud, Boiler Room, the Internet, you can play a record in Berlin and reach everyone in San Francisco at the same time. It’s the same with music producers; there are people in California making the same kind of acid techno track as some kid in Romania.
The Internet has kind of shrunk the world. Nothing can thrive on an underground level anymore; people are so quick to jump on the hype of something before it’s had the chance to develop.
"It’s not what you listen to but how you listen to it"… care to elaborate?
The “what’s your influence” question comes up in every single interview, but it’s never as simple as just a list. It’s a constantly evolving aesthetic. Whatever music or cultural art is passing through your life is what you’re influenced by. It’s not like I’m striving to hit this one thing, your goal posts change all the time and what I was influenced by 3 years ago is completely different to what I’m listening to now.
And who are you listening to right now?
There’s Lapalux of Brainfeeder, and Cut Heads is really cool. There aren’t many people that can keep your attention consistently over 10 years, but Four Tet is one of them for me.
Aside from The North Borders, you also released a mix album, Late Night Tales, what do you like about making mixes versus albums and vice versa?
Late Night Tales is different to regular DJ mixes as it’s more of a reflection of what I’ve listened to in the last 15-20 years. Essentially it’s a curated selection of music from the entire spectrum of the past.
I wanted to have a few recurring points in there so one of them was solo piano music, it’s something that’s kind of key to a lot of my music. Bill Evans, Matthew Bourne, and a few others, then there’s a bit more psychedelic jazz and how that connects into beats music, a kind of join the dots from sample culture into groove and jazz, especially spiritual jazz like Dorothy Ashby, how that connects into now. The idea is just to tie all those things together which maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. But I’m really happy with it.
What was it like to work with Erykah Badu on the track “Heaven For The Sinner” on The North Borders? You’d think she’d be more fit for your jazzy sounds…
Yeah… the track I gave her, she went pretty nuts with it. She’s very deep into her experimental phase and wants to be as out there as possible. So it was more of a case of bringing her back to that classic Badu era. It was an interesting process and we’ve become really good friends through it, she’s come out on the road with me, done shows and we just hang out. She’s got the same ideas about music. She’s super cool. She came out to San Francisco with us and she absolutely killed it, she did our track together and we did bag lady but it was like a 15-minute version.
She does that doesn’t she; I saw her at a festival in Melbourne where she opened with The Healer…
Oh, that’s my favourite.
She did it for like, 10 minutes, it was hypnotic.
She’s got a real presence. You can understand why she is who she is. In one of our shows we did our tune and then we did bag lady, a track she’s been performing for like 15 years, and she had 4000 people just like that in her hand. I was standing there like “wow”.