Having built a reputation as a DJ and creator of slow-burning house music under the moniker Floating Points, London based producer Sam Shepherd has recently been exploring other musical avenues with releases encapsulating jazz-fusion and Moroccan Gnawa music, along with the odd twenty minute single thrown in for good measure. His 2015 album Elaenia is an electronic jazz odyssey that showcases Shepherd’s broad musical tastes and talents, while his collaborative work with James Holden and the late Moroccan master-musician Maalem Mahmoud Guinea hints at the open scope of his future potential. Just minutes before his sound check at Primavera, Dave Desmond caught up with Shepherd to discuss his musical journey.
You’ve been studying music from a young age and eventually you got into more dance-based music. What got you into that side of things?
I was buying records when I was living in Manchester, mostly jazz and classical stuff cause that was what I was really into. And in the record shops there was all this other music going on, places like Fat City records in Manchester, Piccadilly records and Vinyl Exchange, they were all next to each other. It was in those record shops that I would discover all these different kinds of music, and I was thinking, ‘well I don’t need to just be buying jazz records’. I actually started buying loads of piano house initially, I don’t really know why. Then I sold all those records about a year later. I think my taste just developed. I was quite young at the time, around thirteen or fourteen, I lived in the middle of Manchester and I’d just buy these tunes from pocket money or from doing odd jobs. So I guess that’s how I got into it but then I’d never actually made it. I thought, ‘Oh I can’t make that music’. It wasn’t until a friend in London, a guy called DJ Sinbad – I always really liked his production – I was always saying to him, ‘How do you do it?’ And he would say, ‘Just go for it. Just stick that tempo in and start from there’. So I realised it wasn’t actually as difficult as I thought. So that’s kind of how I got into it, through record shops, and then I started going out to clubs once I moved to London.
Your new album Elaenia is more of a jazz album than a dance one. Did you find house music limiting? What made you go back towards jazz?
Well, I don’t know if it is a jazz record. I think it obviously has jazz sensibilities in that it’s harmonic and there’s that sense of freedom about it. I don’t know, all this time I guess people know my dance music most, but I was also always writing this kind of music as well, but I never put it on album form, it was always singles. I was always interested in writing different types of music, and the whole time I was writing house music I was making other stuff as well, producing for Fatima and other singers, all sorts of different sounds. So I don’t think it was a return, but definitely a focused attempt to create that record, and I didn’t feel like I wanted to make it a dance record. And in fact, since starting the band, it’s taken a life of its own and it’s become a lot heavier I think. The music I’m writing for the band now it’s a bit more intense and rockier. This is music I wouldn’t say I know anything about and I’m having a lot of fun exploring that.
Is that the Floating Points Ensemble?
No, the Ensemble is an old group that I used to have with a group of school friends. There were sixteen of us or something, but then it just became Floating Points, which is just another group of friends that came together, it’s a much smaller band. There are two incarnations of this group, there are two guitars, bass and drums, and me, and then there’s another one which is those guys, plus four strings, flute, saxophone, clarinet and trombone. So we’re doing Field Day and Glastonbury with the big band, but we’re doing Primavera with just the small band.
And in that set up would you be doing a lot of electronics or is it mainly keyboards?
Well I’m playing the piano, yeah, Fender Rhodes, but there are lots of electronics. There’s a Buchla synthesiser, an EMS Synthi, and I’ve got a mixer, so I can route all the signals, I can take the drum sounds and mess with those as well.
So production wise on the album, is that what we’re hearing, a lot of recorded live instruments that are then manipulated?
Exactly, yeah. On the album there’s lots of the Buchla moduler synth, and that’s on the road with us so that sound is kind of consistent, yeah.
Your track ‘Kuiper’ comes in at almost twenty minutes long. Is there something about the long format track that draws you to it?
I love allowing music to breath in itself and grow naturally. I think you need to be willing to be patient with it. I think you can see how it took that long to grow like it does. Any time we play it it’s about eighteen to twenty minutes. You can try to play it quickly but it wouldn’t come across as sincere maybe. Because there are lots of elements and I think you need to be able to hear each layer coming in, it’s quite progressive in that sense, and if everything came in too quickly it would give the game away too soon I think.
Your release Marhaba ventures into traditional Moroccan music. How did this all come about?
Well I finished my PhD on a Friday, I had my viva, and about two days before that I had this call from a guy who said ‘we’re doing this project in Morocco from Saturday onwards with Mahmoud Guinia and James Holden’, and James is my friend. Actually at that time I was with another friend Charlie Bones, and I asked him ‘Do you know this guy Mahmoud Guinia?” and he said “Yes!” and he played me some of his music. So I called James Holden and asked him, ‘Have you heard about this project? Are you interested?’ And he said, ‘If you do it I’ll do it’. So we just said let’s go out there. I had just finished my PhD on Friday and this thing started on Saturday. I had nothing to do basically. I was going to take a few days off, well, actually I was going to take a lot of time off, but we just went straight into it for a week and it was an incredible experience.
Would you see yourself doing more along those lines?
Absolutely. It was the most genuine of cultural exchanges. There was no common language. We heard them play, they heard us making noises with these weird synthesizers, which I think it’s fair to say they had never seen before. We started then interacting on a musical level, having krakebs players triggering modular synths, things like this. There was a genuine vibe going around the room, it was such a nice thing, because none of us could speak to each other but musically what we were doing made sense with each other. And that was a very edifying experience I think. It felt really good.
So what’s next for Floating Points?
We’re touring loads, until November I think. I’m also writing lots of new music while we’re out with the band. Just playing live and getting into this, because it’s relatively new to me. I miss DJing a quite a lot because obviously before I was DJing so much and now I’m not doing it so often. I think after DJing so often I think you get, not bored, but a bit too comfortable with it. I don’t want to feel like I’m on auto-pilot. So now when I DJ, I go back to it I feel quite excited by it. It’s definitely added to my DJing as well.
Catch Floating Points tonight at Body&Soul, live on the Body&Soul Stage at 9.15pm. Highly recommended.