Music might not save the world, but Floating Points believes it will help us to hold it together at the seams.
Environments have a specific sound. The landscape has a voice. The space in which you’re reading this article right now has a sonic atmosphere like no other. This fascinates Sam Shepherd. But it wasn’t a physical space that inspired his second full-length album, Crush – it was the political and social climate that seeped into his London studio, creating a record that is both hopeful and destructive: a sign of the times.
Floating Points was born out of the thriving UK dance scene that manifested itself mainly in the country’s capital during the late 2000s. It was a time when electronic music was constantly fluctuating and changing, largely thanks to the community of artists and musicians trading tracks and encouraging each other to innovate. This community also felt the effects of the outside world, with rising rents and the hovering developers lurking overhead, many of their haunts were closed down, an almost inevitable destiny in an ever-expanding city. As I ask Shepherd if he fears for London’s current scene, he shakes it off with ease:
“I read about the decline of club culture all the time. It happens throughout history. Every generation says ‘It used to be better back then’ or whatever. But I’m sure there are people out there who are having just as much fun as I was having 10 years ago. I think it is a sonic loss to London that there’s no place like Plastic People anymore. I mean that purely because that place had such a unique sonic character; it would incubate some of the best music that happened in London. Dubstep came out of that room, CoOp came out of that room, the whole broken beat scene came out of there too. Having a place that was sonically so good meant that people could experiment with the very nature of sound, and the music would therefore benefit from it. But there are definitely still great parties happening in London – I don’t worry about that.”
The London scene helped shape Shepherd as a DJ and a producer. He drew from the eclectic blend of styles he heard and transformed them with his own imagination. After several EPs aimed solely at the dancefloor, his debut album Elaenia merged his love of jazz with his electronic roots. “I feel like jazz is perhaps a loaded word somehow," he says. "The influence of jazz is there, but jazz is just another form of improvised music.”
Elaenia was a five-year process, a labour of love which needed a full live band to help bring it to life. His new album Crush is a very different beast, brought together during an intense five-month period holed up in his London studio – though the lines between Elaenia and Crush are somewhat blurred. “Falaise”, the opening track to Crush is an orchestral, pulsing track that signals the dawn of his new album. Resonating notes and waveforms clatter against each other like the tides of the sea. This is just how Shepherd wanted it.
“I have this romantic idea that if you played all my albums back to back through my entire history – obviously, I’m only two deep at the moment – that perhaps they could all flow through in to each other, and it would paint a picture. Maybe even be seamless. Elaenia ended in a black hole of immediate nothingness, and I did want it to fall into something. Crush is definitely a gateway into my more electronic side, rather than the band side of things, because this album doesn’t have any live drums or guitars.”
Was there a reason he turned the limelight towards his love of electronica rather than live instruments? It seems like it was just a natural response to his time on the road. “We were all looking for new sources of inspiration, and also just looking for a break from being together all the time," Shepherd admits.
"When I was back in my studio just jamming with my equipment, my friends from The xx wanted to know if I’d like to join them on their tour, playing before they came on. At the time, I was listening to this track "Veteranissimo" from Harmonia’s 1974 live album, and my idea was to get on stage and play something like that – create a krautrock vibe using drum machines and looping synthesizers that gradually fall out of phase. It ended up being some of the most obtuse music I have ever made, and also aggressive.”
Not something you would think would appeal to fans of The xx, and maybe it didn’t. “It was completely ill-fitting, but it was also such a liberating experience. I was playing to 20,000 people a night, making this really strange music. I took the setup from that tour and it became the new heart of my studio, almost like a studio within my studio. I used this setup as the basis for making Crush. That became my new band. When I play the record live now, I’m using the same gear I used to make it, and that’s really fun.”
Shepherd has a knack for creating electronic music that sounds natural, organic. He makes man-made machines evolve and bloom, and reach outwards to pull you in with their voltage-surging tendrils. The natural world has an on-going effect on Shepherd and his music; it’s a constant source of inspiration.
“I find so much joy in the natural world. When I was a kid, my mum and dad would want to go ‘round some garden or National Trust property. I would be like ‘Boring…’, but now that’s all I want to do, go to a beautifully-curated garden." He laughs as he realises this could be his age catching up with him.
"That’s my idea of a great day out. What happens to us when we grow older? I see a lot of joy in the beauty of nature itself, but also the fragility of that ecosystem. I’m looking at a garden right now and thinking, we are ultimately responsible for the survival of these plants. But we are capable of destroying them, and we are the ones destroying them, as a species. But we’ll wipe ourselves out, and I’m sure these plants will adapt some how.”
Being inspired by nature is one thing, but how do you take the beauty of the world around you and translate it using electronic signals and pulses? It seems as though Shepherd is still honing this craft. “I’m in the studio trying to seek the beauty of those flowers that I’m inspired by – or whatever it is – in something that is essentially a current going through a circuit board. That for me is the eternal quest of electronic music – creating something that appeals to our visceral sense of beauty, even though it is something that can be quite dry.”
The hardware that Shepherd uses, his starship control room of lights and switches, is like an extension of himself. He’s channeling an electrical pulse through his body and feeding it directly into these machines, trying to create something authentic. Something that is about as easy as it sounds. “If you see a cellist playing the cello, they are literally embodying the instrument because their whole body is wrapped around this thing," he explains. "And no matter how crummy the playing is, you’ll hear the soul of that performer. I think that’s the difficult thing to do with electronic instruments because the vale between you and the audience is this circuit board. The challenge for me is trying to make you hear all the way through to the soul of the performer.”
Not only that, but physical instruments have to be treated completely differently when it comes to recording. Rather than seeing this as a problem, this is where Shepherd gets his kicks. “Instruments embody a physical space in the mix. If you record a cello, you have to record it in a room. For a synthesizer, the first time it’s heard is when it’s coming out of the speakers towards the person listening to it. That’s the first time it exists in a physical space. One of the great things about playing with synths is that you can create a space for the synth to belong in, and these spaces are completely synthetic as well.”
As I speak with Shepherd, I feel that he could easily lose himself talking about the science of sound. As if he’s reading my thoughts, he winds in his tongue before he loses himself completely. “It’s pretty dry, but it’s basically what I spend all my time doing," he sniggers. "I’ll tell you, I’m a lot of fun at a party. I bore myself sometimes talking about synthesizers. I bet you wish you’d never asked?”
I’m glad I did ask, because trying to capture this sense of space is something that has stayed with Shepherd since making his Reflections – Mojave Desert EP. “If I go into a deep Red Wood forest, near where I am in L.A. at the moment, there’s a certain sound to that forest. There’s no shadow of a doubt that that inspires me. It makes me want to create a sound in my studio that harkens back to that. I feel it’s something that’s not really discussed much within music. I find that interesting. So when I go back to my studio, I try to think about that space I was in, and how an instrument might behave in that space.”
And when he’s not trying to recreate these elusive sonics, he’s using the surroundings themselves to become his instruments. “When it comes to actually creating music in these spaces, like I did for the Mojave Desert album, it’s a lot more exciting because the space itself becomes the instrument," he says. "It’s such an interesting thing to explore. The Mojave thing is a really good example because we literally used the mountains as instruments. I went to a hire company and borrowed a 3000-watt speaker. We stuck it in the middle of this rock formation and plugged in a synthesizer which had this arpeggiated loop running through it – playing it at extreme volumes. Then, I would walk about a mile away and record the echoes off the rocks using a directional microphone. The actual instrument was the synthesizer that was a mile away, but that seemed irrelevant, because the actual thing I was recording was the phase shifting, reverb and delay patterns that I got from just moving the microphone around. That became the new instrument. The environment itself was creating the music. It was such a wash of sound."
Unfortunately, Shepherd’s experimentations were cut short due to some close encounters of the confused kind. “We could only do it for a few hours because someone from about 20 miles away drove over saying that could hear it from the other side of the valley," he laughs. "They said that they thought that an alien was landing, because there’s a lot of that kind of stuff going on in that part of the desert. It was a little bit like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This guy was convinced we were trying to play music to call upon a spaceship or something.”
If his synthesizers and machines are the vessel for Shepherd’s soul, what is the message he is trying to convey with Crush? At times, the album is meditative and inward-looking. Tracks like “Karakul” and “Birth” burrow their way into your head, filling up every nook and cranny with their soft synthetic warmth. On the other hand, you listen to “Environments” and “Anasickmodular”, and in places they sound almost abrasive: buzzing, whirring and grinding against your eardrums. This harsh contrast is something he has been working towards, a grating feeling that he himself has been feeling from the outside world:
“I like the word, crush. It has these two very opposite meanings: a benign fawning, or unrequited love – and then there’s the opposite side... this feeling of pressure. I feel like this current political climate that we’re in the moment, well, at least my awareness of it, it feels like this slow violence of the turning of the screw on society – it’s crushing. I think the whole record is the backdrop for this. I was in the studio, and I was glued to the news. Not as a means to be informed, actually as a conduit to hope itself. I read the news just hoping that there would be some good news.”
This clattering juxtaposition of emotions spills out into every note on the album, in what Shepherd refers to as a "slow violence". "The record is very immediate, but I’d also like to think it’s quite delicate, it’s quite sombre in places. But there are moments when I let the leash go. I think the anger that I feel comes out in this record, there’s parts of it where I’m actually raging.”
The sense of impending doom that is fed to us through news broadcasts and news feeds is enough to breakdown the strongest of spirits, but Shepherd is unwilling to give up. Despite the fact that there's "a sense of hopelessness about everything" right now, he's adamant humans must have fixes to problems of their own creation.
"We’ve created it, and we have the keys to the solution. We cannot give up. And that in itself it quite a hopeful thing, you know? Every day it does seem like things are getting worse, but seeing people like Greta Thunberg managing to rally so many people behind her cause, it’s amazing. She’s a teenager, but she’s managed to get so much momentum going for her cause. They give me a lot of hope: young people.”
Music and soundsytem culture is something that bonds communities, creates hope, and encourages creativity to flourish. This is a school of thought that Shepherd stands by. Only recently did MAP Charity – a charity that Floating Points and several other artists have shown their support for – secure themselves a permanent home thanks to a community-led campaign. Seeing this happen after so many years of their struggling, Shepherd is filled with joy.
“What an amazing thing, to have this symbiotic relationship between people who love to go to clubs and raising money to go into an arts and music project that engages children that would otherwise not have access to education. Often, these kids have been excluded from school or mainstream education, and MAP gives some of these vulnerable children a strong chance. I’ve seen the effects of the work they do, it’s tangible, it’s real. There’s people leaving this charity with hope, skills, and the confidence to go and be part of a contributing force within society. That’s an amazing thing, something we should all try and help with."
"Charities like MAP are things that the government should support more readily. They have had a lot of help from Leeds City Council in the past year because of the push to find a permanent home – but this should be on a national level. You look at problems with knife crime and policing, things like this, and I can’t help but feel there’s a whole generation of bored youth. I’m sure it’s incredibly nuanced and complex, I mean, what do I know? But, when it comes to cuts to spending on youth activities across the country, this must have a negative effect on the behaviour of children – no doubt. That can not be argued to the contrary, I don’t think.”
This relationship between music and community is something Shepherd wants to help cultivate (“A great soundsystem brings people together, I believe in this as a working concept.”) So much so, that he has been quietly collecting the parts to create is own monster rig:
“It’s ready to go, we have all the components and everything, but we don’t have the room. I want a room that doesn’t have to open every single day with drinks promotions and things like this – it can just exist as a place for music. Doing events in London is so crazy, and running a business of this nature is incredibly difficult, and I don’t want to get into it – I’m too busy.”
In typical Floating Points fashion, he’d rather get lost in the wiring and general nerdery behind the system, rather than the much needed admin. He just wants to play the music he loves on a banging soundsystem and give a little back to a community that helped him all those years ago. “We’ve been ordering all the components for about eight years now," he explains. "We’ve been building it with components from Japan and America. We’ve done a lot of miles driving around the States picking up horns from theatres and old Craigslist deals. We shipped it all back to Leeds and one day it all just suddenly appeared on our doorstep. So now we have everything we need to build an absolute killer soundsystem.”
For every shit thing going on in the world today, there is someone trying to counteract it. The planet is melting, but people are out on the streets trying to get politicians to notice. For every deluded politician spouting their mouth off through the television, through their social media account, whatever – there’s a few good people trying to get their voices heard through the din. There is always a balance, a reaction.
Shepherd has taken his rage and turned it into something positive. He’s reacted. And that is exactly what he wants you to do. Whether it’s marching through the streets, planting a garden, making some music, or building a soundsystem to bring your community together – do something. Crush might not save the world, but it’s a beautiful soundtrack to listen to as we try to piece it back together.