Floating Points: ‘I Think Everyone Can DJ’
The English electronic musician on how DJing is more about art than technique, his songwriting process, traveling to India for a record, and more
Manchester-native Sam Shepherd is one of the DJ heroes of the modern era. He’s an audiophile in the vein of pioneers like New York’s Loft founder David Mancuso. He’s an obsessive record digger, a gifted producer and holds a Ph.D in Neuroscience. His critically acclaimed debut album Elaenia’s restrained electronic jazz funk made its way into most end of the year Best of lists. And his elegantly weaved, genre-hopping, marathon DJ sets are stuff of legend (check out this six-hour epic with Four Tet at the closing of London’s beloved venue, Plastic People, in January last year). In the Internet Age of throwaway tracks and restless toggling, Shepherd likes to take his time with DJ sets and look for space in his compositions. Ditto with this interview, where, Shepherd deliberates every question with measured, thoughtful responses.
It’s been a little over a year since your debut album Elaenia’s release. You’ve been touring with the band on the road a fair bit. How much has the live show evolved in the past year? Has it changed the way you write songs?
I wouldn’t change anything. It’s been amazing, having different permutations and combinations with the band. It’s been a big band with strings, wind, brass and a smaller band with just five of us. We have tried most combinations. It’s a logistical nightmare. The band segues from a selection of the album into its own music and a lot of quite heavier music. I have been listening to a lot of rock music, which I wasn’t doing years ago. Now I am very interested in psychedelic rock, I never used to listen to that. That is influencing a lot of the music I am making with the band. Now, I am definitely making music for the band, which has definitely been a big change.
On the album, I wrote and recorded everything. Then I got demo versions and got friends to play the drums and the bass and things like that properly. And now I have got this band together, and we spend time recording together and straightaway it’s become this live thing that I suddenly I don’t have control over! I mean, I still can control what I want out of it…It’s a different thing, but I am having a lot of fun with it. It’s exciting.
How would you compare the highs and lows of playing with the band and DJing?
Well, I always knew that when playing live, bands put their soul on the line. There’s a lot of passion. So even if I am not really into the music that the band is playing, I am always deeply respectful of the fact that they are there doing their thing, and making a lot of effort to try and do that thing.. It’s a very edifying process, and a most valid form of art.
DJing… I would always get embarrassed at festivals if I was playing after a band. I would land up with just a bag of records! But now I actually have begun to value… maybe I always saw the value of a DJ but now I have missed it, missed DJing so much this year – I am doing it a lot more. It’s really fun. There’s something different between good DJs and really good DJs. That is a skill, it’s an art. I think everyone can DJ. Technically, it’s not difficult at all. But the whole thing about selection, timing. There are some parts of mixing which can be artistic, an aesthetic. People like Ben UFO when he’s DJing… he really knows the sound he wants. It blows my mind every time I hear him DJ. I feel like I think have an aesthetic… it also depends on the kind of people in the crowd…. I get too bored playing the same style of music so I need to move it along.
This isn’t your first trip to India, right? What parts of the country did check out when you were here?
I was looking for one record when I came down to India, and it’s not a difficult record to find but it was one that had a huge impact on me: Ananda Shankar’s Missing…It’s so unfathomably beautiful and dedicated to his great uncle. That record was perhaps whey I went to India, but it wasn’t the key reason. I spent three months in India – it was between my degree and Ph.D, seven or eight years ago. We stayed in Mumbai, then went south to Kerala via Hampi, took the train up to Delhi, and drove upto Leh, Ladakh, Srinagar and drove into Amritsar and Chandigarh–my friend was studying architecture. We met a lot of people. We were living cheaply; amazing experiences. I’m coming back for the first time since then. A couple of my friends were speaking about going back. I’m looking forward to it!
You’re in position now to make any potential dream collaboration a reality. Is there one or anyone that would love to do in the near/distant future?
Umm… I saw Anoushka Shankar on Jools Holland the other day, and I was completely blown away by how insanely a good musician she is. That’s the kind of sound I would love to work with, and it’s not because that I am talking to ROLLING STONE India that I am talking about an artist of Indian descent… I just caught her the other day and she is amazing. I don’t think about these kind of things, collaborations… I appreciate the music she makes, that people make. I have not done many collaborations in my life, and whenever it’s happened, it’s happened by being in a room with this person, and there’s no pressure to make music.
The one time I did do that was in Morocco, and it was an arranged collaboration with Moroccan musician Maâlem Mahmoud Guinia, and James Holden. And it worked really, really well, but I don’t think I could go into a situation and instigate that situation. I would feel uneasy about doing that. I got one of my guitarists to buy a sitar-guitar here (in Los Angeles). I really love the sound… I am really interested in the sounds of Indian classical music. I have got a lot of records, and all the areas around India–Bangladesh, Pakistan… all that music blows my mind and especially the vocal work. Indian classical musicians have this unattainable level of dedication, it’s an example for the world.
Have you heard or read about Mumbai’s thriving jazz scene from the mid-Thirties to the Fifties? Did you ever get a chance to sample that music?
No! Interesting… maybe we need to go record shopping after all!
India’s Hindi film music industry has a generous sprinkling of Latin American instruments. Something about the Latin American lilt appeals very much to us Indians. You’re a big fan or Brazilian music…
What is it about Brazilian music? It’s obviously that sense of rhythm, that incredible sense of rhythm, and melody and harmony. You often hear these pop songs with amazing arrangements and recordings, and at the core of it is this incredible groove, which makes them these amazing dancefloor records for me. Also, I don’t speak Portuguese, and maybe that barrier affords me a sense of naïve joy. When they are singing some lame lyrics about a banana tree, all I hear is the great song. If I knew what the lyrics meant, I wouldn’t like the song. But you could also talk about this José Mauro’s album called Obnoxious and they say that it’s the greatest poetry to ever come out of Brazil, it’s sublime. That’s the other side of the coin, I guess. Arrangements by Arthur Verocai, Hareton Salvanini… these guys were writing arrangements for a lot of these singers like Gal Costa, Cecelia. The orchestration was incredibly good, and interesting, adventurous and that combined with the recording… They sound so good.
The past few years have put the spotlight back on crate-digging DJs. Everyone from Motor City Drum Ensemble to Sassy J talk about their particular approach to digging. Do you have a particular ritual or routine or technique that’s worked for you? What’s your most recent best buy?
Hmm… I don’t have any technique. There are certain shops, certain places that I know I will get stuff. I am always digging around, listening to a lot of stuff. I travel around with portable turntables so I can always listen to records–a lot of shops don’t have record players. It takes time… that’s it. There are certain record dealers I go to, who keep the good stuff and tell me to check out stuff. There are certain shops in Japan that give me some really nice records. Sometimes they’re right, and sometimes they are wrong. A few weeks ago, I bought this Jean Turrell record called No Limit for all of one dollar. It’s literally nothing, you could find it anywhere and I put the needle on the record and I was like, ‘Wow!’ So good, so beautiful. That was my latest find, and it’s even sweeter when it’s only a dollar!
You said in a Red Bull Music Academy lecture that you usually go through different phases of music–modern soul, Brazilian music– what phase are you in now?
I don’t know anything about psychedelic rock… it’s like when I got really into Brazilian music, I didn’t know anything about it. I could probably have a conversation about it with someone now. Psychedelic rock… I totally know even less about it. I am starting so far down that I don’t even know these classic records like Stairway to Heaven, Pink Floyd and all this stuff. I’ve got a lot to learn. It’s good to be informed. Like I said, being naïve about Portuguese has given me a layer of enjoyment… well that’s no excuse to not learn Portuguese. I haven’t reached a stage where I can call myself an expert but neither can I say the same about modern soul, or Brazilian music. I don’t pretend to know anything about the music. I just know that I like it.
You’re an audiophile in the vein of DJ pioneers like (the late) David Mancuso, who was equally particular about sound, mixers and played genre-bending sets. Did you ever watch him DJ? What’s been your favorite sound system to play on after Plastic People shuttered?
Yes, I caught him playing in New York a few times. They were great parties… he created a culture of bringing together nice people with nice music. Good sound is very important. If your purpose is to build a sound system for a club, then you should try and make it sound as good as possible. That seems like a no brainer. It’s mostly down to acoustics of a room. You have to spend a considerable time developing a speaker that sounds good in a room. You can generally buy off the shelf speakers but it’s the room in which they’re played that makes them sound bad. People blame speakers but it’s the room. Even if you have Funktion-One. Good sound brings people together. The sound system that I have really enjoyed playing at is Cosmic Slop in Leeds and Contact in Tokyo.
Another legend you were in touch with is modular synth pioneer Don Buchla. What’s the best piece of advice you got from him?
Buy only a few modules but learn them inside out–this is what Don believed. Try and make any permutation that’s humanly possible. The more modules you have, the more exponentially difficult it becomes. People spend loads of money on huge systems straightaway, which is a waste. You can get a big case but only fill it with it with a few pieces. I always believed that some of my best music was made when I had something like three modules.
What’s the mood like in London and in the nightlife scene after Fabric’s closure and now with Brexit?
London club world, at the moment, to be honest, is a little bit bleak. There are quite a few places where you can have a party, like Corsica Studios but they don’t sound as good as Fabric. There need to be some new places in London. Fabric’s closing is a case of local council showing its power, and that met with a backlash. People have now realized that councils can have that big an effect on culture. Fabric’s re-opening is symbolic as well… There’s a fear around nighttime culture in London, which is unacceptable.
In a post-Brexit, Donald Trump-ian, increasingly fascist world, does it feel like just playing music from different races and nationalities is a political statement?
I guess, one of the by-products of playing in all the places I do is a globalized view. But then I’m preaching to the converted anyway. Yes, I think DJing itself can be a stand but it’s not the same as having a profile and saying something political. That will probably have more reverberations than just playing music from around the world.
You, Kieran Hebden (Four Tet) and Dan Snaith (Caribou) are like the London equivalent of Detroit super group Three Chairs. If you had to pick a fourth member like Theo Parrish, Kenny Dixon Jr and Rick Wilhite did with Marcellus Pittman, who would it be?
It would have to be from London… no? There are so many. It would have to be one friend that three of us know and play with a lot. The guy with the sound system from Leeds is someone we’ve played a lot with. Ben UFO is an option, Joy Orbison… Kieran does these events at Brixton Academy every year where he will get his friends to play… Champion, Daphni… Maybe that’s the best thing to do, come down to Brixton Academy.
You’re spending some time in India after the festival. Anything that you’re looking forward to on this trip?
I’ve been to India before but I have never been to Rajasthan. So I’m hoping to spend some time there. I find the bigger cities a little intimidating. I’m currently in the desert seeking some peace, maybe that’s why. And, of course, as much as food as I can get my hands on. I went to a cookery school in Kerala when I was there last, and learnt how to make parottas.
Floating Points plays at the Magnetic Fields Festival’s Red Bull Music Academy North Stage on Sunday December 11th