Melodic Chaos: Floating Points Interviewed

Following the release of his second album proper last month, Sam Shepherd discusses the support slots for The xx that provided the catalyst for the record, his longstanding connection with the Buchla synth and running out of records while supporting Andy C at The End

It’s fair to say that Elaenia, Floating Points’ debut album, may have come as a surprise to many of his fans when it arrived four years ago.

Having spent six years putting out richly melodic, largely dance floor-focused records, such as 2009’s ‘Vacuum Boogie’ and 2014’s 12-minute epic ‘Nuits Sonores’, by that point, Elaenia, with its prog affectations and live band slant, was a considerable left turn from what had come before. Sure, the signs may have been there in the jazz leanings that ran through much of the producer’s, real name Sam Shepherd, previous EPs, but having come up amongst the “post-dubsteppers,” as he jokingly refers to that era now, tracks like ‘For Marmish’ and the three-part odyssey of ‘Silhouettes’ signalled a potential shift.

“I never wasn’t making dark music throughout putting out Elaenia and touring it,” Shepherd tells me as we come onto the sounds that run through his second album proper, the recently-released Crush. A lot of that “dark music” won’t see the light of day, Shepherd simply viewing day-to-day studio practices as self-fulfilment in keeping his creative side engaged. In Crush though, it might be fair to say that Shepherd has circled slightly back on some of the club sounds he grew up with. Lead track ‘LesAlpx’, which arrived over the summer, is a driving combination of arpeggios, modular synth and thudding kicks. ‘Anasickmodular’ and ‘Bias’, two tracks that hover around the 140 BPM mark, take cues from 2-step UKG and rave breakbeats. Elsewhere, Shepherd centres gorgeous modular tones and piano on tracks like ‘Birth’ and ‘Sea-Watch’, which, you might say, share some headspace with Elaenia tracks ‘Argente’ and ‘Nespole’.

In stark contrast to Shepherd’s debut album, which was the product of a very gradual five-year writing and recording process, Crush came together in just five weeks. Its roots lay in a series of European shows Shepherd played supporting The xx on tour in 2017. Following two years of touring Elaenia alongside a live band, those solo shows gave him the chance to do what he wanted. Each night, he’d step out on stage in front of 20,000 people without a plan and fill the 30-minute support slot using a set-up primarily based around his Buchla synth.

Naturally, warming up for a band like The xx, he went into those shows expecting himself to create music that is “melodic and slow-building.” Instead, what came out, he says, was “some of the most obtuse and aggressive music I’ve ever made.” Inspired, he brought the set-up back to his studio and having built up a bank of sounds that he says formed the “palette” for the record, he got to work.

Meeting Shepherd at his East London studio last month, he was fresh from a stretch of travel that had taken him between Milan, Brussels, Manchester (to see his father be ordained) and Barcelona (to rehearse his new live show supporting Crush), often with little sleep between each stop. Touching on those support shows for The xx, his discovery of the Buchla and early DJ experiences (including warming up for Andy C at The End while still a student no less), we got to grips with the sense of immediacy that Shepherd wanted to recapture in his work on Crush.

A good starting point I guess is to discuss those shows that you did opening for The xx in 2017. You of course said that you expected to go out there and create this tender, melodic music, so did that expectation come from you just thinking that was what you had to do to adequately warm up for them?

Sam Shepherd: They encouraged me just to do my thing and do whatever I wanted. I was going out there thinking I would make this calmer, melodic music because I thought it would segue nicely into their show. Every show did start off like that, but I was improvising of course, so each night would naturally take this form where things would get increasingly frenetic and bananas.

Were you pushing yourself at points in the sense of ‘how far can I take this’?

SS: A little bit, yeah. Also, I was holding onto all of the gear in front of me on a tight leash and just gradually letting things bloom. I had all of these distortion units, so I guess a lot of it just came about naturally as a result of the gear I was using. I’ve got these distortion units by Roland that were produced when they were known as AceTone; they’ve got a particular sound to them. I was running them through two drum machines and had three delay pedals set up that would allow me to create these polyrhythms. I was trying to copy… well, not copy, but take influence from a recording by Harmonia called ‘Veteranissimo’ from their Live 1994 record. That was the basis for what I thought I’d do, and it did sound similar to that for the first 10 minutes or so – the sets were only 30 minutes long – and then it would just descend into madness. I brought all of that gear back from those shows and then set it up here [in the studio], and just set out making the record.

Did you go into those shows thinking that you wanted to get another full-length record recorded in the not-too-distant future?

SS: No, I brought everything back and set it up here. I was here for around a year, just flopping around and working on things, playing the piano a lot. There’s this synthesiser here, the Rhodes Chroma, that I’ve become pretty knowledgeable of because I took a month-long study of it. It’s a pain in the arse to programme, so myself and Tim, who does some work with me here, wrote some software to try to control it remotely to make using it a lot easier. I wiped all of the presets on the whole thing and started from scratch to make my own sounds. The sounds you get from it are wicked, really inspiring and beautiful, and I spent a lot of time working at that and building up this bank of sounds. That became the sound palette for the album I guess. I had the Buchla running as well as the drum machines, and a lot of the album just came out of that set-up. I felt like I was on a roll. I’d been having melodic and musical ideas all the time anyway, and this five-week period came about where I just banged it all out.

Was that liberating to be able to knock that out in five weeks, compared to, say, the more extended period that went into Elaenia?

SS: Yeah, Eleania had a five-year writing and recording process because I didn’t really have the time to do it. As a result, it was very considered and detailed. If you look at the Logic sessions for the tracks on that record – some of it’s on tape – but the Logic sessions have so many tiny details; it’s very controlled. With this record, it’s just stereo files. I used a Sound Devices audio recorder – just a multitrack recorder – and, as you can see, it’s just ticking along at the moment because it records everything all the time. A lot of the album was recorded on that. It’s this crazy digital converter that listens to everything, so I don’t have to go between things hitting record.

Usually if I’m just messing around with ideas, I’ll start playing piano on top of a beat and that would become something more fully-formed. In this case, I’d just be able to rewind the tape, splice it out and then put it to further use. That’s how ‘Apoptose’ from the album came about, I was just putting different ideas together. There are bits where there’s screaming feedback, but I’ve gone back and isolated that to compress it a little so it’s not too overwhelming. It’s in there though and it’s unapologetic and a lot more immediate than anything I’ve done before. Working that way felt refreshing, it has the melodic ideas and the progression – everything builds nicely. I had little bits of MIDI going on in Ableton – I don’t use Ableton too much just because I’m used to Logic – but that was triggering the Buchla and I was creating the beat in the Buchla.

I wanted to talk a little about the Buchla actually because obviously that was one of the key components in your set-up when playing those warm-up shows for The xx. Going out there just with that small set-up by yourself having spent years playing with a live band, was that nerve-wracking at all?

SS: Not at all, that’s something that has come over the years from DJing, that I feel comfortable with that. I’m confident DJing because I take comfort in the fact that I’m playing wicked records that I totally believe in. That is where it all comes from, I am absolutely obsessed with and passionate about these records. I know every lyric, every bit of the bassline, whatever. I’m more than happy to put my soul on the line and say this is my thing, so it doesn’t matter then if I’m playing to 20,000 people or 2 people. I will go out there and have a good time because there has to be an element of selfishness to it where you want to hear what it is that you’re playing on a loud system. That’s the reason I’m buying records all the time, because I want to hear them in that setting.

Playing live is different. It’s more edifying and a more important thing for me to do artistically I feel. This isn’t to belittle DJing because that is an art in itself, and it’s a great thing to be able to celebrate recorded music and share it in that way. Playing live has this incredibly exciting element to it and it’s a really important part of being creative for me. Playing live electronic music can be tricky because a lot of the builds and drops are so dependent on how well they’re engineered, and the actual process by which they’re produced, that doing it live can be really difficult to recreate, whereas with a band you can obviously all collectively build up and drop down together and control the energy that way.

Doing these shows for The xx was really nice in that it built and built and built to the point that the only logical thing to do was just turn the mixer up and create this huge splat of sound that would build up into chaos and then disintegrate into a sudden black hole at the end. It’s tricky to find a way out of that musically though.

How did your connection with the Buchla come about then? When did you first discover it as an instrument?

SS: I saw a photograph of one, maybe in a music magazine, and I thought, ‘that looks sick’. That was it, I hadn’t even researched what it sounded like. I just thought it looked incredible. I knew of records that used Buchla, like Morton Subotnick’s records. I didn’t know what it looked like having heard those records and then I saw the picture and just thought, ‘that, I want one of those’. I phoned up the number and Don Buchla picks up the phone. He sent me three modules off the back of that conversation after I gave him my details. The conversation kind of just ended at, ‘well, I’ll think about it’. He went ahead and sent them to me, and they arrived so I started playing with them. Then I received the invoice a few months later, like ‘do you want them or do you want to send them back?’ Of course I kept them. I think that was around 13 years ago, so I’d probably put out, maybe, one record by then.

There’s been a lot of renewed interest in the Buchla in recent years.

SS: Yeah, I think that was partly thanks to the Easel coming back which was billed as this ‘entry-level’ synth. I got one of those as well and I actually found it really hard to use despite, by that point, being very familiar with the architecture of the Buchla. Charles Cohen, who died a couple of years ago and was of course in jail for his last years, I saw him play at Cafe Oto a few times. That was incredibly important for me to hear because this instrument was something that he’d absolutely mastered. I think, seeing things like that, makes me remember that just because it’s got lots of buttons and things, and you can make sense of it on an academic level, doesn’t mean you can play it. It deserves the same level of respect as, I don’t know, a flute or whatever. It’s easy just to buy a synth and think, ‘that’s it’, but it pays dividends to learn that filter and its resonance.

Coming back to what you just said about Charles Cohen really mastering the Buchla, and having put the time and effort in to doing something like that, you mentioned the Chroma and how you’d erased its presets to start from scratch. Was that a similar thinking there in that you wanted to have full control of a machine?

SS: I actually did that by accident. I was so bummed because the sounds are really good in it, so it was a good starting point. I can predict its behaviour now from having done that, and that’s the same with the Buchla. I can predict the behaviour of a patch which is one of the lamest party tricks you could hope to have. It’s probably something that would only be useful at one of those synth convention things. I love the Buchla because it’s the one modular system that I’ve used a lot. The architecture of it is inherently musical, and it has this sense of playfulness to it. It all works so nicely as a system together, whereas the Eurorack stuff – which I’ve got some of over here – I find a lot more difficult to get to grips with, because nothing’s made by the same brand. The characteristics are so vastly different across each unit that it makes it quite hard to get a grasp on. People who’ve got really into Eurorack systems and know how to use them, I have a lot of respect for, because I’m just stuck with one brand and manufacturer. I still find new ways to be surprised by the Buchla. I’ve got lots of modules that I can just experiment with.

I started listening to a podcast about the Buchla – which is pretty lame – but it’s suggested various new things like how you can patch the outputs of something into another to create this one-dimensional sequencer, and I’d never thought about doing that. That’s what Suzanne Ciani does, and that is so interesting and sends me down a further rabbit hole of thinking about how I can apply another output to a different technique. Every time you figure something new out, and get a new idea about how you can operate it, you apply that to everything else you’ve done in the past. There might be a finite number of patches for the system, but that number, every time you add a module, adds a factor of 10 to it which can sometimes be overwhelming. That’s why this record was made with a fairly stripped-back system.

I probably didn’t have as much gear when I was making Elaenia either. Since then, everything bloomed in this crazy way and there’s been so much added to the set-up. There’s an ARP 2600 there and an ARP Odyssey there – they’re the same synth basically. You find yourself going between the two, like ‘maybe the filter sweep on this is a little bit sweeter’. You shouldn’t be wasting time doing that stuff and I wanted to work a lot faster to capture a sense of immediacy on this album.

How does this all compare to when you were producing in your early days and more focused on software? Was it more immediate then?

SS: Yes, and I want to try to capture that again. I was able to knock some of those tunes out in a few hours, like ‘Vacuum Boogie’ for example. In those days I was working with sampler instruments, not necessarily samples from records, but I was just taking sounds and using samples, as well as in-built Logic stuff, which makes everything a lot quicker. It will usually end up sounding like that in the end result as well. It would be good to go back to that world of being able to make things so simply. I still do experiment with it all on my laptop and just knock out some ideas, but it’s never for any particular purpose. But, in terms of my current output, I want a certain sound and I have methods of being able to achieve that sound, but it can come at the expense of immediacy. Crush, fortunately though, was different.

Do you feel like you have ‘found your sound’ now and tapped into something you want to do further?

SS: Not really, the ideas I’ve had whirring around that I want to develop next haven’t really involved electronics at all. They’re using harps and strings and stuff. I’m about to go in a completely different direction, and I’d actually like to start writing some of that now. It’s gonna be weird touring and pushing this record, while at the same time, my headspace is already in this other world and looking to what’s next. It happened when I was touring Elaenia with the band and doing more live instrumentation stuff, I was kind of already over it – compositionally. I had this thought process of ‘why do I have to go out on stage and play this stuff that I’ve heard a million times?’ The last US tour with the band, we would start out playing more familiarly for the first 30 minutes or so, and then just decide to jam and go more freeform, which was really fun… for us.

There are obviously more overt club music influences on this record than Elaenia since that was live instrumentation-based. I hear breakbeats, 2-step UKG and IDM in the rhythms on this album, so was that a return of sorts to the world you’d more obviously been a part of before the first album?

SS: I never wasn’t making dark music throughout putting out Elaenia and touring it, but it just wasn’t really being put out there. Putting an album out is such a long process that by the time it’s out, you have to tour it for a while. I’ve made a lot more music since then and some of it’s garage-y, some of it’s quite jungle-y and there’s a lot of ambient stuff too. It might never see the light of day but it just keeps me energised and it’s good for me to listen back to.

Do you play any of it out at all?

SS: No, I never really play my own music out in DJ sets actually. I don’t know why. I guess I do sometimes, but very rarely. DJing for me is about what I want to hear loud and played over a good sound system at that point. I can listen to my own music that I’m making down here very loud whenever I want and I do enjoy listening to it – that’s why I make it. I might be here spending an evening making something and thinking ‘yeah, this is sick’. The day after though when I’m DJing, I’ll find myself picking things to play and thinking ‘I don’t wanna listen to that now’. Never say never because I do play my stuff very occasionally but it just purely comes from this perspective of being someone that enjoys listening to music and wanting to share other things with people. I don’t view my DJ sets as having to be this promotional tool where it’s like ‘this is my record’. Generally the people that come to my parties and places I play are really nice because I like to think I play music that’s quite inviting.

I know with the era of dance music that you came up through, FWD and nights like Theo Parrish’ at Plastic People were pretty important to you, right?

SS: Yeah, but I actually didn’t go to too many of Theo’s nights early on. I was a student at UCL and my friend was working at The Rhythm Factory in Aldgate East, which is gone now, and he wanted to start a night there for Macmillan Cancer Support, a Wednesday night student thing for charity. He asked me if I wanted to get involved and we’d have guest DJs coming through and we would both DJ. So, we had this night going for a couple of years and it got pretty big, it was always full. Loads of friends were involved, our friend Michelle would make this red velvet cake which became a thing. We raised loads of money for charity and it was a really nice thing to do. Guest DJs would come through and play for free because it was for charity.

The people at the venue also owned The Gramaphone in Shoreditch, which is also now closed, and they asked if I wanted to do a Friday thing there in the bar, all night. Those were the first nights I did where I played properly with regularity for people. I actually sent a mix CD to The End in King’s Cross around that time, just randomly. The day after, Mr. C, who handled a lot of the bookings, just got back to me like ‘hey, Andy C’s playing on Friday, do you want to warm-up for him?’ I was like, ‘yeah, fuck you’ because I thought it was one of my mates just having me on. They called back like ‘no, this really is The End’, and I couldn’t believe it really. It was all jungle on the CD and I was into the whole Creative Source, Fabio sound of that era as well as some liquid D&B.

Was drum & bass your entry point into all of that music then?

SS: Pretty much, I used to hang out in Eastern Bloc record shop in Manchester and Marcus Intalex was there. I religiously visited that shop and that was all I into. When I came to London, I was always in Black Market Records where people like Ray Keith and Nicky Blackmarket would always be around. I was there everyday and they had all the records I wanted. I’d be getting hold of all the white labels coming in. I’ve been returning to some of them recently. I gave a lot of the collection away to a friend some years ago though. Me, Kieran [Hebden, AKA Four Tet] and Ben [UFO] were talking about all these old Klute records the other day in a WhatsApp conversation like total dorks. There was one I didn’t have that we were talking about so I got a copy and then started going back through some of those records like ‘what else have I got on Certificate 18?’ I pulled out all the other stuff and just remembered how brilliant it all is and how great a time it was.

Back to that set at The End though, Ed Rush and Optical were there I think. I was first on, the doors opened, and it filled up pretty quickly. I played a bunch of my own productions, a lot of drum & bass stuff that I’d been making.

I guess it must have been significant to hear it all on a big system too?

SS: Yeah, it all sounded dreadful [laughs]. I’d never used a CDJ before, so there I am in one of the most important clubs in the world at that point, asking one of the most important drum & bass DJs there is to quickly teach me how to use CDJs. He’s probably thinking ‘who are you? What are you doing here?’ I played my set and I kind of ran out of records, so Andy C’s like ‘play some more’, and I’m just stuck like ‘err… I’m kind of done. Well, the only thing I haven’t played is some of my own stuff’. So I played some more of that and he was like ‘oh, what’s this? I haven’t heard this’. I told him it was my own, gave him the CD and kind of left. I had all my uni friends there and it was an interesting experience. It didn’t lead to anything at the time but it was quite a big thing for us at that point.

Those nights at The Rhythm Factory and The Gramaphone, I was frequently doing five-hour sets. That was how I learned to DJ basically. The technical side of DJing can be a walk in the park if you have access to the equipment. But, holding it down for that long and knowing what to play when, controlling the energy in the room, that’s the harder part. People started coming down to those nights each week, regular dancers. It was a bar but they started moving tables out of the way and it turned into a party. That’s where [DJ Benji B’s party] Deviation eventually started, in the basement, so it became known as a venue. I was going to Plastic People around that time too and seeing Theo Parrish play there, not too much initially, but those were amazing nights.

I also went to Plastic People for the CD-R nights which were quite a big deal for me. They asked me if I wanted to do a set and it was really good fun, really vibey. Ade, who was one of the people running the club, asked if I wanted to come and play again after that first time. We did the launch for the ‘Vacuum Boogie’ release there, an Eglo Records party, with me, Funkineven, Fatima, Alexander Nut, and it felt like a moment for all of us. Ade then asked if we wanted to do that every month and it turned into a regular party for five years or something. Sometimes I’d play down there for five or six hours and I’d got that practice in from those nights at The Gramaphone. I still had so much to learn though.

You mentioned CD-R, did you attend those regularly when you were developing as a producer?

SS: Every time. They felt like something to work towards because you’d go in there surrounded by other producers and want to have something to share at the next one. What a cool idea for a night. It’s essential though that the sound system is great for an event like that because people need to hear their works in progress on a clear system. You’d get producer nerds, singers and rappers, A&R people who were not only there to spot new people but also just to see what was going on because a lot of them really do care. Some really great producers developed from attending those events. I met Fatima there, I met Alexander Nut there, so we essentially started Eglo from that room. It’s a shame that room isn’t there for it anymore.

As a DJ, a lot of your focus is of course on old disco and soul records, but I guess you also embody a very UK style of DJing of placing this music alongside house, techno, etc. and moving between it all quite freely. Would you say that style has come from anywhere in particular?

SS: I love listening to soul and disco and techno and loads of different music, but after, say, 15 minutes of playing techno in a DJ set, I often just think, ‘OK, that’s enough of that, let’s change things up a bit’. I did an NTS show with Kieran once where we started like ‘let’s play techno, techno, techno’ and then we got an hour in and were just like ‘please make it stop’. One of us cracked in the end and played a jazz record.

Floating Points’ Crush is out now via Ninja Tune. He plays live at London’s Printworks tonight (November 21)

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