Photos by Amy Lombard.
You can talk to Sam Shepherd about nearly anything. The London-based artist, known to the world as Floating Points, is as erudite as a seasoned college professor—no surprise, seeing he spent the last three years acquiring a PHD in freaking neuroscience.
That's right, he's doctor Floating Points to you.
Shepherd's breadth as a musicologist is likewise wide and deep, ranging from antiquated soul to modular jazz to progressive rock, as well as noted club-world influencers like Theo Parrish, who like Shepherd held a longtime residency at former London institution Plastic People. And just wait till you get him started on the intricate construction of his new studio, or the custom harmonograph he built to create the artwork gracing the record sleeves of his most recent singles. Shepherd is someone who not only loves to learn, but also to impart what he has learned to others—exploring subject matter from all sides, as any scientist would.
This penchant for detail applies to Shepherd's music as well, most recently his long-awaited debut album Elaenia, released not on Eglo—the label he runs with former RinseFM veteran Alexander Nut—but David Byrne's Luaka Bop. Barely a month out from its official release, it's already one of the most talked about, reviewed, and lauded releases of the entire year. Throughout its seven tracks we get immersed in a near endless highway of engrossing instrumentation, from Rhodes Chroma pianos and Bunchla synthesizers, to vibraphones, flutes, live drums, and even choral sprinklings. The album brings together the voices of guest artists Rahel Debebe-Dessalenge and Layla Rutherford on "Silhouettes"—all with the same maniacal attention to detail that marked his obsessed-over 12" releases.
But while his past gifts to the world—like 2014's Nuit Sonores and the punchy King Bromeliad, or 2011's Shadows—can creatively work a dancefloor when dropped at the right moment, his "official" debut long player, which was arranged and recorded over the course of three years, takes Shepherd from behind the booth into a new space: the composer's chair.
In many ways, Elaenia feels like Shepherd's re-imagining of classic experimental jazz albums like Miles Davis' seminal Bitches Brew, which passed on traditional jazz sounds for a looser, fusion-heavy improv style, or Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, which also heavily features ARP Odyssey synths and the Rhodes electric piano throughout. You even hear the influence of classic Sun Ra, like his album Strange Celestial Road, which Shepherd sampled on his 2009 single "For You."
Like those albums, Elaenia, was created in a heavily improvisational fashion. The album is named after a bird, and its seven tracks progress like living entities—expanding, shifting, speeding up, slowing down, and decomposing until there's nothing left but the faintest hint of white noise. Sometimes the tracks feel warm and fuzzy in your ears, other times the tension throws you slightly off-kilter, but like nature itself, it's a multi-faceted, ever-changing experience. On "Elaenia" and "Nespole," Shepherd experiments as a one-man show behind trios of Rhodes piano and Odyssey synths; on "Argente" and "Thin Air," he enlists those electronic and traditional pianos against a palette of marimba and snare drums.
Following the release of the album, Shepherd finally hit the road this fall with an 11-piece orchestra, which includes players on the flute, bass, guitar, violins, cellos, saxophones, trombones, drums and more. In contrast with the often-lonely life of a DJ, Shepherd's foray into a live atmosphere is a family affair comprised of longtime friends and collaborators—like guitarist Dave Okumu of South East London rock band The Invisible, who Shepherd beautifully remixed in 2012. (The Invisible's drummer Leo Taylor also played a role in the recording of the album.)
Shepherd continually stresses the improvisational talents of each of the musicians in his live ensemble, who feed off each other's cues as second nature. Others credited guests include flutist Renate Sokolovska, violinists Phillip Granell and Paloma Deike, violist Anisa Arslanagic, cellist Magada Pietraszewska, saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, trombonist Tom George White and drummer Leo Taylor. For Shepherd, working with this large international band was a chance to challenge himself in way like never before, included but not limited to tense live gear mishaps and headache-inducing visa issues.
If you got the chance to catch the band throughout their last string of dates which ran October 30-November 17, hitting Paris, Turin, NYC, Utrecht, Leuven, and London, consider yourself lucky. If not, we're pleased to have the chance to present an exclusive live performance of Floating Points' track "Silhouettes (I, II & III)" recorded in New York City at the YouTube studios, with visuals by the creative team of Pablo Barquín and Anna Diaz Ortuño.
Additionally, we got the chance to dig deep with Shepherd on some of the powerful lessons learned while recording and performing the album— an experience that brought him to a place worlds away from producing tracks on a laptop and playing records in sweaty basement clubs. Below, Floating Points shares some of the pieces of wisdom he learned while experiencing this transition. For any artist, musician or not, you'll more than likely find something useful, and hopefully, inspiring.
10. You don't always need to write music with the intention of making a song
My music is never driven by the fact that I need to get something done. I think part of [producing with that type of intention] is that you're making music for the wrong reasons, but there are other situations where I've got an embryo of an idea and I'd go through those processes to develop the idea. If I'm not able to develop the ideas or get anywhere, I don't worry about it.
I go through months and months completely devoid of ideas, and that's totally normal. I'm at a point where I'm starting to become comfortable with not having ideas for a while. It's quite depressing when you're making music and you're not inspired to make any music, but I have faith that I'll have an idea again someday.Though maybe now that music is my main thing, I'll start feeling different if I don't have an idea for a long time.
9. Composing music for an ensemble is a much slower process than making club tracks
The process by which I made [the new productions] was exactly the same [as my past releases]. I used multitrack tape machines and the same instruments and synthesizers. The only difference I guess is that the composition process might have been a bit different—I gave it more time.
Because dance music is generally faster and more visceral, the approach to making that music tends to be more immediate, so I'd make dance music relatively quickly because it's looped music and it's repetitive. The transcendental quality you get from a good loop is the kind of thing that affords dance music its beauty. [This record] is not loop-based music—everything's live and it's a different process compositionally. Almost everything I do starts with me playing the piano and coming up with some melody or chord sequences.