Photo: Neil Krug

When the Forms Start Taking Shape: An Interview with Bonobo

Bonobo: "I moved to L.A., but I don't really have a base anywhere: there's no base in England, there's no base here, it's just sort of me and wherever I am is where home is."
Ninja Tune

The titular track of British artist Bonobo’s latest album Migration, would probably fit well a sort of Studio Ghibli-fied trip on the Sunrise Izumo: a night train that departs from Tokyo at 10pm each day and, after a 12-hour journey, arrives at Izumo on the shores of the Sea of Japan. Its chirpy percussion and hopeful melody leads into an album that covers expansive sonic spaces and defies categorization.

Simon Green has been behind Bonobo ever since Animal Magic, that alluring debut album released in 2000. Although not one for radical changes, the star of Ninja Tune’s roster has, over time, moved away from the downtempo and chill-out delineations he was cast in early in his career towards more intricate soundscapes. His penchant for sampling has somewhat declined, but the mastery with which he turns any odd sound into a fine-tuned instrument has only grown — you wouldn’t be able to tell that nestled somewhere in Migration there’s the sound of a tumble dryer.

Now mostly known for his winding, melodious tracks that dominate “study” playlists, Simon still has his heart in the club scene, and his hectic, packed touring schedule reflects this. Always on the lookout for the next big thing to invest himself in, he has started OUTLIER, an amorphous project that has seen him become invested in creative venues that transcend traditional album-making and solo live shows.

A native of both everywhere and nowhere, he was at his current home in sunny L.A. when he spilled all the beans to PopMatters.

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Ready to hit the road again with Migration finished now?

I will be by the time it happens, I think if you’d have asked me this six month ago I’d still been in shock from the amount of touring that happened last time, but now I’m rested, it’s going to be good. I think it takes a while to really get into that kind of headspace again, but I’ll be ready. I’m working on the show solo now and later on I’ll bring in the players. The band that I’m touring with haven’t even heard the record yet. We get two weeks to rehearse, we all get together for the first time first of February, we rehearse it for two weeks and then we’re on the road.

Do you still have those moments when you come to a new place for a show and are unexpectedly greeted by crowds of adoring fans?

That’s always good to see, but I think that happened particularly back in the day when I just assumed that nobody knew who I was in the US. I think that was back in the dawn of online streaming and things like last.fm and Myspace and that kind of era. When you were seeing this kind of peer-to-peer online community. You don’t really see that happening until you actually get to a city and there’s all of these people. It’s more immediate now since you’ve got social media and everything’s there. But yeah back then it was definitely a bit like you know we were all really shocked. You know like wow I didn’t realize all these people got here.

Do you see a difference between the people who come to your DJ shows and those who come to see you live?

There’s a lot of people who get the difference and there’s some people who don’t. You get the night club crowds that come to the DJ stuff and they get it, they know that I produce this type of music and sometimes it goes a bit louder and more kind of dancefloor. They’ve seen the Boiler Room stuff, they’ve seen the Essential Mix, they’ve been to the clubs. And then there’s other people who aren’t as familiar and only know my mellow, vocal stuff — they come to the clubs expecting the live show, the vocalists. There are certain people who don’t engage with club music and will only come out to see the live shows which is great, that’s totally fine, I’ll see them at the live shows. I just try and explain to the people who don’t understand the difference between the two things. It’s not to say that one is compromised by the other, they’re just two different sides to what I’m doing.

How comfortable are you with being on the stage with the spotlight on you?

I was never really comfortable with the stage. I always used to hate it and I wouldn’t be able to sleep the night before a show from anxiety, but now, especially when it comes to DJing, I just enjoy it so much, especially if I’m confident that I’m going to be in front of the right crowd that understands it. When DJing works and the room is with you then it’s one of the most enjoyable things you can do.

You play a lot of music festivals; how do you feel about their growing trend?

I used to go to Glastonbury when I was young back in the ’90s, back when you could jump the fence. And a lot of the times we wouldn’t even go anywhere near the main stages, I would always be more interested in the fringes, the sort of suburbs of Glastonbury rather than the main stages, I would go to Glastonbury and would not see a band once honestly, I would just get involved in this other stuff. But yeah I never engaged with festivals in the way like “Oh yeah we’re going to watch this band and then watch this band and then we’ll go over here and watch this band!” I just tended to get there and hang out and just get swept along with it really.

I was wondering if you could talk a bit about how you write albums, whether it’s a process of tracks crystallizing around a central idea or is it more haphazard?

What I do is all about balance really, I just sort of start the work to gain some creative momentum, I don’t really think about it because it’s too daunting to start with a blank canvas and just write a record so I just start by saying I’ll make music and then forms start taking shape. After that comes the balance part, because you might have lots of work that is kind of heavier and more energetic and then for the sake of balance you need lots of less energetic pieces. I think that once a shape starts emerging you can sculpt it into something that fills up a cohesive whole.

Migration seems to present a pretty wide musical range, from the symphonic heights of “Second Sun” to the very “classic” Bonobo tracks “Kerala” and “Outlier”, did you consciously pursue this kind of diversity?

With something like “Second Sun” it was something I’d never really done before. It has no drums and I think that was the first time I’d done this sort of instrumental, bass-less kind of piece. I think it’s just me trying something different. I mean I did sort of listen to a lot of neo-electrical classical stuff, or whatever you want to call it. Stuff like Erased Tapes and Ólöf Arnalds, that kind of sound. So the album just reflects where I am musically right now. Nils Frahm and I’ve worked together previously, minimalism has always been a thing too.

So when making songs like “Ontario” or “Bambro Koyo Ganda”, how did you come to include these melodies and samples?

You know I’ve always seen the dialogue between African music and dance music and I was just sort of exploring that a little bit. I never thought of them as being that disparate. There’s a counteracting aspect to it. I kind of knew I wanted to record some Gnawa, which is the sort of North African, Moroccan music and I found these guys through some friends. Gilles Peterson was very helpful as well.

Which song was the easiest to produce on Migration, can you tell whether a song will take longer than average to produce?

“Outlier” came together pretty quickly. There’s no real telling why that happens, sometimes the thing is just more intricate and takes longer you know, there’s actual labour to be done in terms of sound design whereas other things are much freer. Things like “Outlier” are a lot simpler, it’s just much broader strokes and sometimes you know the track calls for complexity. “Grains” was tons of hours of work and layers and layers, very intricate sound design.

Since you live a pretty cosmopolitan life and since you’ve moved home quite a bit, I was wondering if you could talk about how you understand the concept of home.

During that North Borders tour, I didn’t have a home and a lot of this new record stuff is from that time. I was working on a laptop in the back of the tour bus, in a hotel room, or in an airport, so I had to kind of figure out what the idea of home was. I moved to L.A., but I don’t really have a base anywhere: there’s no base in England, there’s no base here, it’s just sort of me and wherever I am is where home is.

And does that bleed into the new album? Knowing what it’s called, is this sort of like you processing what’s happening to you?

Yeah, kind of, I was just talking on the phone with this friend of mine in London about the idea of these disparate points we all kind of start from. All of these musical careers just sort of have taken off into different corners of the world but we all have these lines between us and we’re all at these disparate points and have taken in other cultures and moved our own cultures to other places. We’ve sort of affected those environments and those environments have affected us. That’s kind of the idea of it really, that we’re all at these disparate points that are loosely connected.

And what do you think of the current political landscape of building walls instead of bridges?

There’s a sort of rise of anti-intellectualism and the right trying to cling to this idea of nostalgia, but it’s a very misguided idea of nostalgia, because I don’t think these people understand what they’re trying to create with this sort of resistance to diversity. I always used to come from the idea that the more you understand other cultures the better you’ll be and the better the world will be, and those people think that they’ll make the world better by resisting diversity, which is pretty sad. I think a lot of people are trying to counteract this too. You can just see that from moving around.

Finally, I wanted to ask you about OUTLIER, could you talk a bit about this new project?

The idea is to have some sort of central thing that will culminate with a festival perhaps or a series of festivals and events that will just keep going. It’s just an umbrella to keep all the aspects of representing other people and collaborating under this one main thing.