Simon Green, aka Bonobo, first established his rep as a sample-based beat whizkid in Brighton in the late ’90s. His spacious, meditative tunes initially — if slightly misleadingly — colliding with the utilitarian ‘down-tempo ‘music of acts like Air, Kid Loco and Kruder & Dorfmeister. Unlike those artists, however, Bonobo’s roots were firmly grounded in sample-heavy hip hop — as soon became clear on his increasingly sophisticated records on the beatmaster indie label, Ninja Tune.
Bonobo’s dazzling fourth album, Black Sands, delivers a whole different blend of luxury for the ears. It’s consummate, classy, intricately woven, both funky and jazzy, and more vital than his previous three outings thanks to the use of ‘real ‘instrumentation (for one: tons of brass), and by the sultry voicings of Andreya Triana. From the uplifting, looping, MoWax-y groove of ‘Kong, ‘and the spaced-out early-Massive Attack swing of ‘Eyesdown ‘and ‘The Keeper, ‘to ‘Animals’ ‘jazzy hypnosis, it’s a world every bit as lush and irresistible as the landscape depicted on its cover.
eMusic’s Andrew Perry sat down with its young creator, and found him soft-spoken — refreshingly free of ego, articulate and focused.
What inspired you to start making music?
Time, circumstance and geography. Ten years ago I was about 17, and my whole plan was to go to London and do painting. I was trying to get into Goldsmiths or St. Martin’s [prestigious London art colleges]. Then I spent a summer in Brighton, and got distracted by parties and people. I just thought, ‘I like it here, I’m gonna stay here. ‘I’d always been in bands — noise bands, mostly, because I was a skater. Neo-hardcore, stuff like that. But getting to Brighton was the thing: It was the late ’90s, so all that big beat stuff was happening — Skint, MoWax and Ninja, of course, which all changed my outlook on music. I got hold of a little Atari and a sampler and got into the whole idea of getting out of bands and plugging stuff into a sampler — looping things, sampling beats off old vinyl.
…Which is, ethically, as punk rock as it gets!
Yeah! DIY! At that time, it seemed like everyone in Brighton had a record label, everyone was a DJ, everyone was a producer. And everyone seemed to be a little bit older than me. I was always slightly patronized with my stuff — it was like, ‘One day, son, you’ll have some tunes.’
So I never really played anything to anyone, I was just making these little tunes with my limited equipment. But then one day I played ‘Terrapin ‘to this guy, Rob Luis, who’d just started this label TruThought. I hadn’t played it to many people because I didn’t think it was that good. But he was like, ‘I really like this, what else have you got? ‘And I was like, ‘I’ve got all this. ‘And he was like, ‘OK, well that sounds like an album, why don’t we try and put it out and see what happens?’
Suddenly, Steve Lamacq [John Peel-esque BBC radio DJ] was playing it, and people were buying it! Then all that chill-out compilation stuff started happening, which I got associated with, which I haven’t really been able to shake off — that down-tempo chill-out tag. It definitely helped to raise my profile, because maybe if it hadn’t been for all that chill-out bullshit, that record might not have seen the light as much as it did.
Why was it bullshit?
It was music packaged to have as a background soundtrack to your latte, or your pina colada by the pool. It wasn’t really where I was coming from — I was in a freezing cold attic, with a woolly hat on, going out and listening to hip-hop, and coming home and making beats on this crappy little machine. The places where they were playing my record were probably places where they wouldn’t've even let me in. But I kind of went along with it at the time, because the offers were good [financially], and it got me out there. But I didn’t subscribe to the whole image of it.
Those compilations are always playing in this ultra-trendy, design-heavy hotel in Los Angeles, called The Standard, where they have girls lying in a fish tank in the foyer, reading books — like this kitschy space-age dream of a perfect life, or an idyllic respite from hectic urban living…
Back then I wasn’t in hotel lobbies in L.A. much, although ironically I ended up there — I stayed at that place last autumn! I think if you look back to it in 20 years, it’s going to seem like elevator music — muzak. There’s people still knocking it out for that purpose. It’s so diluted now. Soulless. So I started trying to go over this way a bit, and disassociate myself. I’ve always loved stuff like A Tribe Called Quest, Native Tongues — jazz, turntablism and sampling — more than any atmospheric synthesized chillscape shit. I’m more from hip-hop, sample culture and reggae, but slightly different, for all the extra palette of sound that goes into it.
Did you come from a musical family?
Yeah, my dad was a folk musician. This was out in Hampshire, outside Winchester, but he was always doing stuff at [London's folkie epicentre] Cecil Sharp House. I’d come home from school and find a beardy dude playing banjo in the bath. Like, ‘Who are you? Go outside because I need to do my homework! ‘Always lots of that going on. They were involved with all that Fairport Convention extended family, and the British folk scene, from trad folk, right up to the more psychedelic stuff.
Somewhere around the mid-noughties, your own sound started to become more like ‘proper music. ‘You started a live band, with you on bass guitar. Was that pivotal in the evolution in your recordings?
Definitely. That made it more my own. I was DJ-ing quite a lot — that was how I was touring the first two records, but there’s only a small percentage of my own music I can play when I DJ. Most of it’s not compatible with the energy of the dance floor. There came a point where people were coming to hear the music from the record they’d bought, rather than just some dude playing records. But then, I didn’t want to do that thing of nodding into a laptop, pressing buttons, because that’s not really how the music’s made — it’s recording keys onto a tape, and editing it, and putting it into a sampler. So I knew that if I got a few people together, I could say, ‘OK, you play that part, you play that, and we’ll see how we get on. ‘There was an epiphany around the fifth rehearsal: We just clicked, and started playing like a proper band. Then we brought samples and electronics back in over the top, rather than that being the focus — them playing along to us, rather than us playing along to them.
So is Black Sands more of a ‘live ‘record?
To keep things interesting for myself, I just wanted to do something a bit different, and go into areas where I’ve not had much experience in production. The best tracks are the ones you don’t feel like you’ve made them, more like it’s beyond your control. I could knock out stuff like the first album in a day now, because I know how to do it. Whereas this feels like it’s more beyond your own ability, and that’s when it gets exciting. In fact there a few tunes like that — ‘Kiara’, maybe ‘Eyesdown’, for the groove for it.
You’ve always been pretty underground. Do you think Black Sands will take you more into the mainstream?
I’ve never been hyped at any point. Well, maybe a little bit at the beginning. But it’s been a real steady build, spread nicely over the globe. It’s not part of any scene that’s imminently gonna collapse when the next one comes along. It feels like it’s ticking along regardless of whatever people are supposed to be into that year.
Since you mention it, what are you into this year?
I love the xx. They’re super minimal, with almost gothy guitar melodies, but with programmed R&B beats. Recently, I’ve been getting right back into electronic stuff. I think there’s been a bit of a fallow period, especially in the U.K., for instrumental dance music. It had all been getting a bit anorak-y, going down this miserable tunnel of quite abstract beats, but now there’s people like Floating Points, Joy Orbison, Bullion — more fun again, celebratory music. It’s still really clever and really deep, but also up — not introspective, geek-out music.
Is the sleeve of Black Sands — the opulent photograph of a lake, surrounded by verdant forestation — intended to reflect the music? Is that landscape what you imagine through the music?
I’ve got this thing, I quite like very remote locations, but where there’s still evidence of human interaction — like the transmitter in the trees. You know when you get oil rigs, or stuff right at the top of mountains — like, where no man should tread? There’ll be some structure there, like some massive engineering device. I find that quite romantic, that idea of human endeavour right out in the middle of nowhere. We found the location, after that idea, me and Ewan Pearson the photographer. It looks like South East Asia, or somewhere tropical, but it’s actually the Lake District. The album title is meant to be a place that doesn’t exist — that image, and some theoretical place name.
So the music does have an imaginative dimension?
Yes, it references stuff that doesn’t really exist. Like the place in the picture seems like it’s somewhere more significant or exotic, but it’s actually the Lake District.
Now, presumably, you’re about to start playing live around the world. Where is exciting, musically, that maybe we less-travelled folks don’t know about? I’ve been to all kinds of places, including places you would probably never choose to go to, like Belarus — Minsk. Serbia, all over Russia and Poland. Istanbul’s really wicked. They’re switched on, man. There’s this one club called Babylon which is really good. They know exactly what they’re into.
And what can those places expect from the Bonobo live experience this time?
We lock in. It’s fun just bringing the record to life. The record is a static object, but then it gets brought to life by all these people, so it changes each time. We’ve started playing stuff in suites, so there are three parts to the show. We come on and make loads of noise for 20 minutes, then we’ll stop — OK, here’s the vocalist, then we’ll do those tunes, then we’ll go back into the heavier improvised stuff towards the end. It really…flows.