Modular Refinement: Clash Meets Floating Points

Modular Refinement: Clash Meets Floating Points

Sam Shepherd on his working methods, inspirations, and his glorious new album...

When Sam Shepherd picks up the phone, he’s just finished a lengthy lunch in Barcelona. It’s 7pm and the Spanish tradition of sobremesa, unwinding at the table after a heavy meal, has swallowed up his afternoon and he draws parallels to Mariano Rajoy, the ill-fated president that only learned of his ousting after a particularly boozy mealtime. In contrast, life couldn’t be better for Sam Shepherd, also known as Floating Points, right now.

As well as spearheading the prestigious Melodies International imprint and demand for his genre-spanning DJ sets stretching from our very own fabric to Thailand’s sustainable utopia Wonderfruit Festival, he’s also about to drop one of 2019’s most sublime electronic albums in the shape of ‘Crush’. The bruising title is picked for good reason, as Shepherd pairs trademark snapshots of beauty (the impeccably arranged ‘Requiem for CS70 and Strings’, the devastating ‘Sea-Watch’) with vicious tracks like ‘Environments’ and the snarling and spluttering ‘Anasickmodular’.

As he reflects: “I’m pretty happy with things being rough and ready. I really like that about this record, it’s very unpolished.” 

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After touring with his band, Shepherd returned to the studio alone and set about relearning his equipment and experimenting with patching techniques to spark fresh ideas. “There was this one synthesiser I’ve got: a Rhodes Chroma. It’s actually designed by ARP. I accidentally wiped the memory on the whole thing so it had no presets. I was so annoyed at myself and it’s also a complete pain the arse to programme, you have to look at the manual the entire time.”

“So I spent basically months programming, making new sounds, because it’s so nice when you actually get it playing good. And so I feel like I made a repertoire of sounds, that I very rapidly made the record with in the beginning of this year around March and April in basically five or six weeks. It all came out really quickly. A long time basically not doing anything, making sounds, and then a short period of making music.”

The purely electronic recording of ‘Crush’ differed from previous album ‘Elaenia’s live instrumentation, which Shepherd initially demoed himself with varying degrees of success. “I actually played all the instruments myself on that and rerecorded them with professionals...you know, people that can actually play the drums and the bass because I can’t play the guitar at all. I bought a guitar thinking ‘everyone has a guitar, obviously I’ll be able to play the guitar’, really arrogantly, but obviously my elegant piano fingers couldn’t handle the strings cutting into them,” he recalls, before veering back into ‘Crush’ territory.

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“It was liberating being a completely electronic recording. It’s very performative. I had my gear set up from this little live tour I was doing with The xx and I had basically a studio within a studio. It was this setup of synthesisers and drum machines. It was very small and very compact and easy to get things going very quickly. I was getting so familiar with the setup. I was able to make things really rapidly because of that system.”

“Tracks like ‘Apoptose, Pt. 1 & Pt. 2’ at the end of the record, it’s really just one pass of me playing this melody and fading the drums in, this bubbling beat I made on the Buchla. It’s all a function of this live setup I’m taking on tour with me. I’m hoping to have a lot of fun with this tour.”

While his enthusiasm is infectious, finding the middle ground between making people move and recreating his own material single-handedly, he admits, presents something of a headache. “I love both. DJ’ing for me is just sharing with people ‘I love this track and I want to hear this really loud.’ And that’s quite a visceral thing for me, I like that.”

“But live, I guess the DJ part of me worries if it’s communicating with the dancefloor in the same way I would as a DJ. And I even confuse myself with that, not just the audience being confused by it. Am I supposed to dance to that? Or am I at a concert? And that’s a valid thing. I guess I operate in this dance world, so am I supposed to be delivering a dance?” 

“Some of the show is pure noise from this Buchla. I’m playing ‘Karakul’ and the Buchla is just self oscillating and doing this crazy stuff and it has this amazing visual thing that happens in real time that I’m essentially controlling and that is by no means danceable, that is the furthest thing from it, the most obtuse noise. It’s breaking up the dancefloor a little bit and that is something exploring at the moment and I don't know to what success it’ll be. I guess that’s the journey of the whole thing.” 

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That journey has led him to Barcelona on the day we speak, the city where his live team are based and he’s focused on intense rehearsal sessions alongside Hamill Industries, the production pioneers that Shepherd has collaborated with previously. This time, the live visuals will focus on the natural world, as breathtaking landscapes are responsive to the music being played by Shepherd on stage. Ambitious and jaw-dropping, it’ll be unlike anything we’ve seen before. 

“They’re currently sitting down programming some LEDs to trigger a motor control system to send droplets of water into a laser stream, doing this amazing stuff that we’ll take live,” he enthuses. “Seeing this process of how these inventions are made inspires me to make music that can make both a reality. So I have a lot of fun being inspired by the visual side of things.” 

What about the favourite live shows he’s caught as a fan? Richie Hawtin, Tim Hecker and Four Tet spring to mind immediately. “I love Richie Hawtin’s live shows. I just love seeing him live. Every single time. I think he's one of the world’s greatest electronic live artists. I really love Kieran’s show too, one of my best friends, he is also like a guru with the live stuff. I actually really like Tim Hecker’s live show. That was one of the greatest live shows [with the Konoyo Ensemble at the Barbican] I saw all of last year.”

Holly Herndon, he reveals, is also a great source of inspiration as they find themselves in similar performance headspaces. “We talk a lot about very technical things. We have these long conversations about ethernet audio. She’s touring live and I’m touring live and we’re trying to get networks of audio distributed from the front of house and side of stage very, very rapidly so we both use a similar system that isn’t typically used in the live realm. It’s usually used for studio installations, mostly in churches.”

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Fitting, perhaps, that fans will be able to worship at the altar of Floating Points when his only live UK headline performance debuts at Printworks next month. Not that Shepherd seems intimidated by the challenge.

“It’s such a huge canvas to work with. I’ve DJ’ed there before and obviously live this time. We’re trying to use all the walls and have projections over them, but obviously we need a lot of projectors and a lot of processing power. All the visuals we’re doing are generated by these analogue signals, they’re all really happening on stage and we’re filming them with cameras and blowing them up on these projectors. And they’re all controlled by modular synths. Everything you see is super real and really happening.”

From the biggest of rooms to the R3 Soundsystem, the mobile rig that has previously assembled in marches against Brexit and Donald Trump, Shepherd will be at the controls of the protest rave for a People’s Vote alongside many of his contemporaries this month.

“There’s all sorts of causes I care about and some I think that I lend my voice to more than others. I feel like the Brexit issue is not so much being a member of the EU or not, it’s more that it represents this culture shift of losing the currency of truth. The fact that the people this is going to affect greatly, who have been lied to and have voted for it, it makes me incredibly nervous to think that the truth holds no value to some and that there’s no accountability for lying. It’s just terrible for everyone. That’s why this is a particular cause important to me.”

A pause, before Shepherd starts to laugh and recalls: “I’ve just got to find it because I went down to it last time and I couldn’t even get down to the truck. I couldn’t get anywhere near it. I was kettled somewhere.” Hopefully he makes it this time, as nobody makes you move quite like Floating Points.

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Floating Points releases his new album 'Crush' on October 18th via Ninja Tune.

Words: Lee Wakefield
Photo Credit: Dan Medhurst

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