By Alliz Nicholas
It’s been three years since Bonobo’s last release of Black Sands, and Simon Green has returned to revive us with The North Borders. Being a natural production master and expressive conceptualizer, Bonobo has yet again increased his sample boutique, further extending his atmospheric palate of lyrical expression. The North Borders will easily become your overture to summer, featuring great artists including: Erykah Badu, Grey Reverend, Szjerdene, and Cornelia. The following interview with Simon (Bonobo) is bound to make you further appreciate his production approach and the cogs that make his hypnotic synthesis turn.
Berklee Groove: This album invites yet another array of diverse musicians. How did you come to collaborate with Eryka Badu, Grey Revernd, Szjerdene and Cornelia — what’s the story?
Simon Green: I just asked them! Last year, we ended up playing at the same festivals, got introduced, and immediately clicked. Musically, we have a lot in common. I started the work instrumentally, then added vocals as the last piece to the record.
BG: You have been living in the U.S. for a few years now. Has your work been influenced by your life here in the States?
SG: I don’t think music is as geographically specific as it used to be. To be honest, I think [The North Borders] has been a London record made in New York! I do still have a foot there and I travel a lot between the two places. I’m really informed by my past and where I came from is really a big influence in what I do.
BG: Which generally came first when you were working on The North Borders, the beat or a melodic/harmonic idea?
SG: I rarely start with a beat. I usually start with an abstract loop and I use it as a framework to hang ideas off of — that is always my starting point. Invariably though, the samples I start with are removed and you get a combination of disconnected ideas that still have a common point. Although you wouldn’t have thought the two ideas would go together, their skeletal structure in the middle makes it work. It’s interesting how you get these sounds, which are three-times removed from each other, but when you listen to the track you think, “WOW, this sounds great!”
BG: Which production gear has stayed with you over the years of your five-album output?
SG: Nothing really, it’s constantly changing. I started with midi gear, a sampler, and an Atari sequencer. There was no software like Ableton or Logic, it was just a box of floppy discs and a load of hardware. Nowadays, I have some nice outboard stuff like vintage keys and guitars and some nice frontend gear, but essentially you could open up a laptop and make an album now. [BG: But you definitely didn’t produce North Borders that way, correct?] No I didn’t, but it’s arranged in that way; it’s just the way the sound “comes in.” I’ll go into the studio one day and work with a harpist, then take that session back and work it like a sample. I make midi compositions and approach them like I’ve found a record.
BG: I still feel your approach is unique though; your production approach is more of a DJ’s mentality, which is still unique today. Lots of producers today are very driven by beats or harmonic beginnings, whereas your production feels sample driven and developed.
SG: Yeah, I think I’ve come full circle. When I was a teenager I played guitar in bands, but getting a sampler really changed everything for me. Since then, I’ve gone full circle from digging through records to recording samples at a big studio session with a small orchestra. It’s really been an interesting way of doing things.
BG: Instrumentation wise, are there any instruments that you particularly like to flavor your production with?
SG: I’m interested in unusual textures. I don’t aim to make a baseline from a synth or a lead line from a guitar; I’m all about finding a range of sounds.
BG: Can you believe it has been 12 years since Animal Magic? Since that first release, you’ve gained a following from a whole generation of fans, not to mention those who you inspired to make electronic music in their bedrooms. Do you have any advice for those musicians who are producing electronic music built for a live show?
SG: My only advice is to keep it human and trust your instincts. Don’t try being a scene and don’t try to aim your music at anyone except yourself. People hop around from one sound to another, or whatever strain of music is currently at the top for people. If anything, trust your instincts.
Don’t miss out on Bonobo’s current U.S. and European tour! Boston is the next city to host Simon’s band at The Paradise Rock Club on April 13th at 8pm.