10 Lessons From Floating Points On Swapping the DJ Booth for the Composer's Chair
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Floating Points

10 Lessons From Floating Points On Swapping the DJ Booth for the Composer's Chair

Watch an exclusive performance of "Silhouettes (I,II & III)" shot live at the YouTube Space in New York while you read about Sam Shepherd's powerful transformation.
02 December 2015, 9:56am

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.

8. Having your own studio changes everything

Having a studio now, with a big space where I can experiment and do whatever I want in it, changed the way I make music more than anything else has. When I was in my old studio, I could play with my synthesizers and record maybe a guitar in there, but I couldn't record a drum section or a choir, so I didn't have those things in my music. Now I've got all this space, I can explore those textures in my music. I've never studied audio engineering so I don't know what I'm doing in the studio, but I do know what I like the sound of. I listen to a lot of records and I'd think, "That's amazing, I wonder how it's done." I'd try some techniques out and find out what sounds good and what sounds bad.

7. Playing live is a lot more fun than being behind the booth

It's definitely good not being the focal point [of the club]. I hated the DJ world more than anything. The DJ should be the last person you're looking at. It's so boring. I mean, what are they doing? I really don't like it when I'm DJing at a club. It's so awkward because I feel like [the clubber's] focus should be on someone in the crowd with their friends. It's a social gathering on a much bigger scale, and maybe [focusing attention on the DJ] is the function of growing isolation in young society. Focus on the music and each other—I want to be on the ground and in the party.

With this band, we've done seven gigs or something so far, so we've not done a mega tour, but everyone in the band has been friends for years, so hanging out with them and playing music together is great. I do believe that DJing is a different way to experience music that's very well recorded and played together. I'm not saying it's not an art form in itself. I believe it, but playing live is wildly exciting. The adrenalin is felt way more constantly and more exciting. It's been a massive thrill and every gig is different. I've written scores for the band so they all know what they're playing, but as we've gone along we've added different cues. Because everyone in the band is so competent and comfortable with improvisation, they're all allowed to do whatever.

6. Learn to accept the fact that something will always go wrong

I want to be easy going but [composing] can get stressful—like the gig in Brooklyn the other week when we had to set an entire new mix for eleven people on stage. It was a mega-stress situation where doors were opening and people are coming in. The gig before that, we had a 20-minute sound check, and the gig before that, the sound got cut off half way through the show. Every gig has had its stress, and I say to everyone, "I'm just a part of this band." It's getting to the stage now where I don't have to cue anyone. Organizing this many people—16 in total with the technical staff and sound people—logistically is a nightmare. We did a show in Paris and there's a 10-minute saxophone section and everyone was just sitting there because the sound engineering went completely off-piece.

5. Jazz is at the core of improvisation

When i was young, I guess I heard in jazz something that was so close to the classical music I was listening at the time. As I was composing to myself, I thought back to hearing jazz artists people using their instruments beyond the role of a device that reproduces the noises that someone's written on a paper. Piano's just playing the dots like a typewriter. I was starting to play the piano without looking at the music as I was composing it. The first things I'd listen to [when learning to compose] are Bill Evans or Kenny Wheeler records. They're just doing this beautiful stuff as they're making it up, and I guess it represented a sort of freedom in composition, and its immediate improvisation. The idea that a quartet of players can get together—on the bass, drums, trumpet and piano—and make it work without having any idea on what would happen.

I listen to all these different kinds of music and realized the similarities rather than the differences between what Herbie was doing and what Jeff Mills was doing. The similarities are way more apparent to me and I treat them the same in a club.

4. Playing with the band releases a wild, untapped energy

The last track on the record really lets loose and it's fun to play, and I can see a situation where the band itself gets way wilder than we're typically used to. This whole album is very meticulous and controlled, but that last track just lets loose, and everyone's performance was just off-piece. Everyone just lost their mind. When we were doing the gigs, we realized that kind of energy exists in the band, and that's what we wanted to tap into. On the album there's a track called "Thin Air" that's so intricate, delicate and controlled, and you'd lose some of that live. Something like "Silhouettes" is completely off the rails, and that's something I can give control to the band to do. That's where I can't separate the recording from the music; when the recording is so
embedded in the music itself, it becomes part of the music.

3. Music played by humans usually sounds better

If you're interested in using acoustic instruments, have faith that whatever you do will always sound better when a human being is playing it. You can write the string quartet parts very easily on some software, find some friends who play the instruments, and it will definitely sound really good. When you play it back on your MIDI keyboard, it will sound really uninspiring. So I would say one thing I'd recommend to have faith that it would sound much better when it's real. I've got a rule now that when I write music out I don't play it back. I play it on the piano and figure it out as I go. You have to imagine it.

2. Improvisation starts with an idea, but that's only the beginning

I recorded "Silhouettes" on a computer and in the middle of the track, there's this one long audio file, and that's it. It was one take—parts one, two and three are all one thing. I thought that was quite cool and started adding the bass and drums to it, and I recorded it all myself. That would be the demo version, and then I'd find some friends who can actually play the instruments.

1. You can love spiritual music without being religious

Something I find difficult to reconcile is how I can be most interested in spiritual music and not actually be religious. It's a problem I have. I would agree that I explore spaces and sounds, and silence as a sound in itself in music. The recording is as integral and important a part of the music as the music itself, so I can't separate the composition from the music. The idea of using and exploring space in a mix takes the listener into physical space. Using music and sound to change the shape of the room is a transcendental experience in itself, so that's as close as I get to being spiritual.
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