Photograph by: Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Sam Shepherd, better known as Floating Points, is on the cusp of a major new phase in his music career.
His debut album Elaenia is soon to be released on his new side-label Pluto, and he’s putting together his first proper live tour in support of the album featuring an ambitiously large ensemble of performers. FACT met up with him at his favourite haunt, Brilliant Corners, an audiophile sushi bar in Dalston that’s gaining a reputation for having the finest sound in town – a reputation once held by Plastic People, where Shepherd was resident for a number of years.
As we arrive, disco is playing and a small party is in full swing, making it tough for us to have a quiet chat. Instead, Sam suggests a wander down the leafy backstreets of Angel and Islington, where he’s been living for the last few years.
Elaenia is a departure of sorts, one defined by its soft dynamics and use of contrast and negative space. “Space and separation, and the way that the sound of a room can be a sound in itself, are things I think about a lot,” says Shepherd, describing how he visualised the album in terms of architecture; designing spaces inside of spaces. Making a sound within a song is like creating a room, he explains, and then placing that room on a floor, placing that floor inside a building, placing that building on a street. The process continues until eventually he has a record that exists in its own little universe.
Fans of Shepherd’s previous work, particularly the dancefloor anthems ‘Vacuum Boogie’, ‘Arp 3’ and ‘Love Me Like This’, may be perplexed at the more subdued tone of this record, which avoids bass weight and rhythmic repetition in favour of long, airy passages of ambience, and complex time signatures. But even though his background is in classical music composition, his tastes have always been broad, and he’s always voraciously collected records from different genres. At the age of 18 he took a week-long digging trip to Peabody’s Records in Chicago to sift through house, disco and boogie, effectively speed-learning those genres in a week at the hands of local experts; later, he went to Brazil in search of his personal holy grails, such as string arrangements by Arthur Verocai and his contemporaries on Continental Records. For this album, he was strongly influenced by the work of Talk Talk, and given the earthy spatiality of their work, as well as the meticulous engineering, it’s not hard to hear the parallels.
Much has been made of Shepherd’s background as an academic and scientist and what influence that has had on his compositions, but it seems to me he simply has a rigorous attention to detail in all areas he takes an interest in. If he likes an album, he’ll seek out all the records on the same label, research the performers, the arranger, the engineers – and the same process applies to his love of audiophile hi-fi, sound system components, mixing desks and Buchla modular synthesisers, as well as good food and great wine.
He’s just one of those people who always plunges into the deep end, with a real appetite for understanding how things work and what makes them tick. As we turn the corner onto Essex Road, the conversation turns reflective.
Floating Points plays Turin’s Club to Club Festival this November with SOPHIE, Apparat and more. For tickets and more info, head here.
“You build the room you want to DJ in and then the right people will come.”
You started this journey at an early age – I wonder if at times, this rapid level of underground success must have been a challenge for you.
I always felt that I was just doing my thing. The one time I did force that exposure was the first release, deciding, “I’m gonna get out there and make a record. I’m confident that I can sell 300 copies of this record. I’m gonna go and press it up!” That’s when I was almost on an ego thing, pushing the release through and taking it to shops like “Hi! Do you want to stock this?” And most of them were like, “Erm, no thanks.” [laughs] People were slow to take things off me at first.
I guess that’s humble beginnings for you.
You have to blag it a bit at the beginning don’t you? Finally, we ended up doing 500 copies of the first release on Eglo, ‘For You’. We managed to sell them all, and then onto the next one. Then by that point, Kudos Distribution had approached me and said, “Hey, we can help you with this.” As it progressed, the head rush, the exposure and all that actually felt pretty natural to me, someone helping us do it – and that led to Vacuum Boogie. That’s done a lot of copies over the years.
Indeed, it’s been repressed over and over and still remains in print, which is an incredible achievement.
Kudos were instrumental to the success of Eglo, and, in turn, to what I’m doing now. They facilitated the production of our records. It never felt to me like I was astronomically head-rushing or coming up. It felt quite natural and actually quite slow compared to some people I see, who do one big tune and then suddenly are headlining massive festivals, and maybe can’t follow that up with anything else.
It was the same with gigs. When I was first starting out, Naomi [Shepherd’s agent] came along and said, “Do you need any help with this?” I said, “Well, I guess so, I have been doing it all myself.” And that gradually grew as well. I wasn’t going in at a rate I didn’t feel comfortable with. Jam, on the corner of Shoreditch, was my first gig back in the day, through Naomi, just after ‘For You’ and ‘Radiality’, when I was making hip-hop. I think 10 people showed up and had no idea it was my first ever proper DJ gig!
I think some people will listen to this record and say “He’s changed, he’s not making dance music or club records any more.” But those of us who really know you, know that you’ve been digging this sort of music for years.
Right, and I was still looking for those records back then. When [mutual friend] Alex Harrison was working in Eldica Records, 10 years back, he was putting me on to tunes, and I was just like, “This is the best!” You and him were doing those ‘SHHHHH’ mixes together, I thought those were heavy. I was learning a lot from all over, from people we knew on the internet.
It’s so funny, I actually found out about Brazilian music by downloading a mix that Beane [underrated DJ from Nottingham, host of Beane’s Noodle Hotpot podcast] did. At the time I only knew of Sergio Mendes and I hated it, but this mix had Marcos Valle and things like that. I remember going to India – I was supposed to be digging for records there – but I was sat there listening to that mix thinking, “Oh my god, Brazilian music is just the best!” [laughs] Big up to Beane, cause that mix was amazing. So I was always into things like this and I was always writing classical music before moving to London, but being in London actually put physical restraints on me doing things with ensembles, due to university.
Was it a question of the tools you had available to you at the time, more than what you actually wanted to create?
It was much easier for me to just make records on my laptop, so I just made more electronic music at the time. And making electronic music on my laptop turned into going to CD-R at Plastic People, playing my tracks there, which lead to me putting the records out. So one thing led to another, but I had never lost sight of my classical upbringing, writing scores for bands and strings, and horns, and all these other timbres that I couldn’t achieve with my laptop.
A big turning point was working with Becky Grierson and Gilles Peterson on the Maida Vale session we did for Gilles’s show – they enabled me to do a recording with live strings and then Ninja Tune subsequently allowed us to do the whole thing again at Abbey Road. When I finally finished my degree I began building my studio, near Old Street, which enabled me to learn how to record acoustic instruments properly, by myself. So I tracked this whole album at this new studio and made it up as I went along.
It sounds like a big contrast from another studio you used at home, to write records like Shadows – which was more focused on samplers, drum machines and synthesisers.
Definitely. I mean, I did music tech A-Level as well, but the main thing I’ve learned over the last few years is that there’s no actual rules to recording. I worked in studios, like Fishmarket Studios, Abbey Road – I don’t think anyone realized that the whole time I was there, I was just sneakily peering over the engineer’s shoulder, watching everything he was doing, everything the studio assistant was doing, watching their hands: “OK, so that’s how you get the sub right on the bass drum, you use a NS-10 speaker cone as a microphone!”. How to use a compressor, things like that – realising there’s actually no rules.
At Abbey Road, they have this one box with a big knob on it, no one seemed to know exactly what it does but when they turn it, it changes the stereo width in this magical way. So no one knows what it does, but we all know what we like the sound of – it was a revelation. So when I work now, I set up a few mics, see how it sounds, then adjust them, see if it’s better or worse, and just experiment in that way. Now it’s got to the stage that I can reproduce sounds that I like.
I remember us talking about the 808 once, and you said that you love the sounds but not the sequencer – you’re not at all into grooveboxes, and sounds being on any type of grid. How do you get away from those restrictions in electronic music?
By just triggering the sounds over MIDI! On the 808, I’ve always just triggered the sounds, I’ve never once used the step programmer on the front. People say to me, “How can you do that? The 808 has an incredible swing to it.” I always say, “Yeah, but that’s not my swing, that’s Roland’s.” You don’t have control over that! Why should I let this guy Roland do it when I can do it myself?
I just used to use the piano keyboard to trigger the sounds – I didn’t have pad controls back then, cause it was a bit less common, I would just use the keys. There’s always the same sort of layout on MIDI drums – C is the kick drum, D is the snare, F sharp is the hi-hat, D flat is the rimshot – the classic arrangement of drum kits on piano roll. I’d just play the parts in like that. And then I’d just drag the sounds around in Logic – never once hitting quantize. Quantize ruins everything.
Theo Parrish came round to yours once to do some work, what did you learn from watching him do his thing?
Oh yeah, that was for a remix for Owiny Sigoma Band. It was literally one evening, he was in town and needed somewhere to work, he was playing at Plastic People that night and we’re good friends, so I said come round. We borrowed Tom Skinner’s MPC – he’s actually playing drums on ‘Silhouettes’ off the new album, in fact. Anyway, I was helping Theo engineer – he came round and was just playing in the whole track live on the MPC. Not in , he would just play the whole bass drum part, from start to finish, live. Boom, boom, boom. Because the note shift mode on the MPC is a pain to use, if something was out of time he’d just delete it. So I wonder if that’s why when you listen to a Theo record, there’s a gap in the drum pattern every so often, cause he’s deleted a beat that was out of time.
You mentioned Tom Skinner drumming on ‘Silhouettes’, whilst Leo Taylor plays on the rest of the session – I wanted to ask about the drums in fact, because it feels like you deliberately avoiding compressing the shit out of them like people do on dance records – the drumming is very dynamic – up until the end of the album, where everything goes completely bonkers.
If you look at the waveform of the album, the ending part of the final track, ‘Peroration Six’, grows six decibels in the last six seconds and that’s the only dynamic shift in the whole record. So the whole record is really calm and quiet and it’s gradually building up to that giant explosion at the end, where it finally starts to get noisy. In fact that whole track is going through a Mutron phaser. That was just a live take of the mixdown, I had all the tracks running in real time and it was a really lucky take. On the album, generally I tracked the strings first – Leo did two takes of those drums. The time signature is shifting all over the places – 9/4, 7/4 – so we did one take like that, and one which was more of a free-for-all. Nuts take was the one we went for.
I’m interested in dynamic range and how it applies to DJ gigs as well, given that a lot of club DJing now is quite often a pedestrian game where people just bang a kick drum in the direction of the audience for as long as they’ll stay dancing. DJing in 2015 is increasingly a monoculture and in many ways, you’re the antithesis of that, playing Sonar festival with a little stack of 7″ soul records on a massive stage.
It’s interesting. My first few releases were hip-hop, then the Planet Mu 12”, ‘K & G Beat’, sort of 2-step garage, then Vacuum Boogie which was house – so you’d think people would expect me to play things like that, and I used to, and continue to – but in the early days I would try to mix in things like ‘Lansayana’s Priestess’ by Donald Byrd. It was always a bit of a struggle to be honest. But now, I mean Caribou and I played a recent show in Bologna to 8,000 people, playing Jessie Gould’s ‘Out Of Work’, Danny Hunt’s ‘What’s Happening To Our Love Affair’. Playing harder stuff, but then playing more lightweight stuff as well. And I’m starting to realize people are down with it now. Down with the disco, the soul and the techno stuff. I think I would have had a much harder time getting away with this sort of approach in the past, I don’t know what it is.
“I do it because I care, I care about everything.”
Well, from an observer’s point of view, I’ve come to believe over the years that you get the audience that you build, as well as the audience you earn. A bit like Field Of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”
Ha! It’s great isn’t it. Actually, I played at Berghain on Saturday. I expected to be playing Panorama Bar as usual, but then I walk in there and it’s not the usual entrance, and the door opens and I was like, “Erm, wow, I didn’t realize I was playing Berghain!” So I did six hours, and my first record was Pharoah Sanders’ ‘Harvest Time’. I played the whole entire record. And no one got cross, no one batted an eyelid, so maybe I’ve gotten somewhere.
I thought, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to build the set and experiment, ’cause I was following Mark Ernestus – he’s amazing, playing deep percussive tracks. So I reset the room with Pharoah Sanders, took it through some soul, with Dee Edwards ‘I Can Deal With That’. Dee Edwards, in Berghain! Just magic. Not a single person came over to tell me to switch it off. Played Marcos Cabral, Steve Reich’s ‘Music for 18 Musicians’, then the Bricolage EP by Mike Dehnert, dipping in and out of techno in that way. I think you’re right, and it’s a bit like what I was saying at the beginning about spaces – you build the room you want to DJ in and then the right people will come.
You mentioned Caribou earlier and I wanted to ask your friendship group with him and Four Tet, which seems to be turning into a freeform jazz electronics version of the three musketeers. Three different approaches which overlap and compliment each other.
Well, it all started cause Kieran just emailed me out of the blue. [Puts on funny voice] “Hi, my name’s Kieran. You might know me from such records as…” And I replied, “Hi I’ve heard of you,” although I’ll be honest, I had, but I hadn’t got any records of his at that point. Actually, thinking about it I had ‘She Moves She’, which is phenomenal. Anyway, he was asking, “Do you fancy remixing one of the tracks off my album?” And my flatmate at the time was a Four Tet super-fan – she said to me, “If you don’t do this, I’m not paying rent this month” [laughs].
Jokes aside, I was gonna do it anyway, I really liked the track. So I sent Kieran the remix – the original was four minutes and the remix I had done was 14 minutes long! I think he was a bit in two minds at first. So I think for the 12” version he then had to go back and redo it to compete with the length of my version, stretch it out [laughs]. Anyway we stayed in touch over email, he lives not far from me, we started hanging out. And then I met Dan [Snaith, aka Caribou] via Kieran not long after. We all connected, we all have very similar musical inclinations, we share a lot of records.
I think there are other similarities too, if you don’t mind me saying – you aren’t the type of guys who throw TVs out hotel room windows and spend time on Twitter complaining about the quality of your rider. Despite the constant touring, there isn’t this rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle that goes with it – it’s entirely about the music, not the bullshit that goes with it.
Right! Well, you might have noticed Kieran’s really into his designer clothes isn’t he – we struggle to keep up, me and Dan, but we can’t cause he’s constantly getting to Chanel first before we do, in his fancy clothes [laughs]. Kidding, obviously, and you’re right – we are united in that we don’t care about our footwear, we don’t care about the clothes we wear, we don’t care about the party lifestyle. We’d rather geek out about Albert Ayler. Actually that sounds pretty nerdy doesn’t it? We like Albert Ayler and ice cream! I think friendship groups are brought together by a mutual understanding of each others aesthetic, and that’s definitely what brings us together.
I’m glad Albert’s got someone sticking up for him – and speaking of free jazz in fact, how do you feel about NTS Radio’s success? You have a regular show.
I feel so happy, so happy for Femi especially. Ten years ago Femi had this blog, Nuts To Soup, and he was always like, “I want to start a radio station”, and I always used to say to him, “Go on man, do it!” Now it’s running, the effect it’s had on the community is amazing – it’s brought so many people together, and the coordination that the whole team bring to it is on a very high level too, I feel like the quality is very high.
It’s unified all of us – music, literature and art people – and not just in the geographical context of London, but also internationally. Friends of friends of friends have been brought together, I think, around a common interest. That sense of bringing together, of unity, in the internet age of 2015 is very powerful, particularly as the internet makes people feel alone in a lot of ways. I like Holly Herndon’s thesis on that topic – I won’t paraphrase it, but it’s a great read. Anyway, NTS brings people together, and I think that’s quite unique for an internet phenomenon. It’s funny cause Femi kinda twisted my arm to do the show in the beginning, cause I wasn’t really up for it – but I don’t think he particularly wanted to have a show himself so in the end we just forced each other to do a show! He has fantastic taste in records.
So what’s next on the calendar?
Taking it live. I’ve put together this 11-piece band – we did a show for Dimensions this year. Live is even more of a thrill than DJing to me. DJing has these humps, these ups and downs – one second its going off, and the next you’re looking through your bag, trying to work out what’s next. And then you bring the next tune in and yay! Everything’s fun again. So DJing is funny like that. But playing live is just like the fun part all the way through, it’s actually crazy in that way.
When the offer of Dimensions came along I was chatting to Dan and Kieran about it and they both said, “No question, you’re saying yes to this.” So reluctantly, I took their advice. Then the show got announced and I was like, “Oh no. I’ve only got seven months to come up with something.” Which is actually fine, but felt like a short space of time to nail it at first. So it took a while – I had to put together some players, a team, a tour manager, sound engineer, rehearsals, all that sort of stuff.
So all the players were sat there and I was sat at the bottom of the stage waiting for everyone to take their seats out front, thinking to myself, “This is the biggest mistake of my life.” But then I walked on stage, looked out at the crowd and got this vibe like, everyone was looking back at me nodding, going, “It’s ok, just do what you want to do, be yourself’. Everyone was so welcoming – first day of the festival, everyone in high spirits – and I felt as relaxed as I do when I DJ, like, zen.
In fact I was so zen, I played the whole first tune a semitone too high, cause I’d only been playing along to my own score at home! The band are a crack team of professionals and they nailed it, first time, whereas I had to control the Buchla, remember what I was supposed to be doing, whilst worrying about whether the viola was playing the right rhythm. But I felt zen. I got to the end and thought, “I want to do this again right now.” So we’ve booked a tour of Europe – we play Utrecht, Leuven, Paris, Turin and New York, and finally London, Islington Assembly Hall.
And tickets for that last one sold out in 10 minutes.
I think all the tickets were gone for all the shows in 10 hours. We really didn’t know what would happen – this is a big ship to sail, there’s so many people involved, so it was a relief, and I’m just so happy that people are coming to see us.
I feel like this brings the conversation full circle because there’s a common theme throughout a lot of this, and that’s the fact that you are so hands-on in your approach, whether it’s putting the live band together, putting out records, licensing your album across the globe. I wonder why you haven’t done the obvious thing and just signed to a big player, like a major label. Why stay independent?
I’m not averse to the idea. I see the value of those big labels, filled with great people who are experts at what they do, and how they do it, whereas I’m sitting here thinking, “How do I get hold of a radio plugger in Guatemala? And do I even need one?” You’re right, this path is a heck of a lot of work sometimes – writing string parts in the morning, and then dealing with rights and publishing in the afternoon, and so on. I’ve got good helpers, I’ve hired all these people who help, and have figured out how to do all the things those big labels do.
But I mean, it’s a level of control that you just don’t need to have. You could just let someone else do all this and just make records.
I do it because I care, I care about everything. I care about the end product, I care about the consumer holding the record, knowing that every detail of the project has been dealt with by me personally and seen right through to the end, that I’ve had as much control over it as I possibly could have done, right down to things like what percentage of yellow tint is on the cardboard. Because why wouldn’t you? All that work that’s gone into the record, you care about how it will be received at the end. I guess that some people don’t, actually, they just make the record and let someone else deal with the rest, but that’s just not me. I care and I’m interested, and I’m interested in learning about the process and learning from it.
Elaenia is out on Pluto Records in November.