It is often said that Margaret Thatcher survived on just four hours of sleep a night during her stint as PM; whether apocryphal or not, this relentless urgency to get stuff done now seems to be a power being put to far less sinister use by FLOATING POINTS (real name Sam Shepherd), who until recently was splitting his time between DJing, recording an electronic opus, compulsively crate digging, leading an 11-piece ensemble, running an independent record label, and even finding a bit of time to complete that classic part-time pursuit – a PhD in neuroscience.
The now Dr Sam Shepherd greets us groggily on the phone even though it’s 10.30 in the morning; of course, he was up late in his home-made studio in Islington the night before, mixing. Mixing what exactly, we are duty bound to probe, prompting just a knowing chuckle. A handful of days later we find out what he was up to: a surprise new EP, Kuiper, the follow-up to Elaenia, by common consent one of 2015’s most sublime and considered albums. Kuiper is an evolution of Elaenia’s trajectory, projecting its movement forwards via twitching drum machines, restless jazz drumming, pulsing bass, guitars, delicate piano, floods of synth, a sweeping string section and rogue saxophones all over the place. The full postmodern orchestra, as devised by Floating Points.
Even a year ago, this state of affairs might have seemed a fairly remote possibility. Despite being revered in dance music circles for his non-conformist approach to DJing – which re-contextualises funk and bossa nova records as dancefloor catalysts – and his Vacuum Boogie and Shadows EPs – which infused house music with humanity and a sense of space – an ambient masterpiece was not entirely expected. Shepherd, though, wasn’t remotely fazed about seeking out new musical spaces. “I’m not like, ‘I’ve got to keep making house bangers because that’s what everyone expects of me.’ As soon as I try and second-guess what the audience wants I think there’s no point in making music. You can have 1000 people there and they might look like they just want to hear banging techno, but then you play a Brazilian record and everyone goes insane. And there’s a pocket of, like, 20 people there for who it’s their favourite record ever. People’s cultural references are vast and I don’t think I should offend anyone by a) second-guessing them and b) thinking that they can’t handle it.”
Elaenia’s flowing, almost modal-jazz-like understanding of space makes sound as much out of the tension in between the music’s elements as it does through virtuoso flourishes, which Shepherd says was the influence of Talk Talk’s seminal record Laughing Stock. All that obsessive digging has left an imprint on him, too. “All those records were made in a room, and you hear that room in the sound system, whereas techno, for example, is made entirely within the box and it’s difficult for it to have any of that space. My favourite electronic records have a sense of architectural space that they belong in, and I think that’s always what I’m trying to achieve.”
Back to April 2014, when Elaenia was just a figment of Shepherd’s furtive imagination and a way of dispelling his frustration with his PhD’s lab work. His close mates knew he was concocting something in his studio; his close mates in this instance not being your standard fonts of endearing idiocy and football trivia, but Kieran Hebden and Dan Snaith (Four Tet and Caribou to me and you). Word got around, and before long he was being plied with offers. “Dimensions Festival came along and asked me to do it live in their amphitheatre. I’d seen the Caribou show there the previous year and I was like, ‘This is an insanely beautiful place!’” From that point, the Floating Points Ensemble was born out of the need to bring together a group talented enough to realise his vision. “I’d been doing a lot of recording with The Invisible and as musicians they’re this unsurpassable unit. Such solid players. All over the Adele album; absolutely insane rhythm section. Alex, the guitarist, is also a friend of mine who plays guitar for Hejira, who we put out on Eglo [the label Shepherd runs with Alexander Nut]. A lot of the wind and strings are people who went to music college in London. They’re very adept musicians, so I can print off some solo and they’ll play it right immediately, so we do these rehearsals and they’re just like, ‘Why are we here?’ And I’m like, ‘We’re not rehearsing for you, we’re rehearsing for me!’”
Since testing the waters at Islington Assembly Hall last November, the ensemble have been touring the UK to rapturous acclaim, a process which has altered Elaenia. “We’ve been playing chunks of the album live, so I’ve been using that live experience as an impetus to write new music. It’s grown. It’s evolving.” This makes Shepherd probably one of just a handful of musicians who can compare the thrill of DJing to thousands of convulsing bodies to the pleasure of patiently constructing ambient, jazz-leaning electronica. Or, as Shepherd puts it, “DJing has its peaks and troughs of excitement: you mix something and people are like ‘Whooo!’ But playing live, I’ve realised, is like a constant stream of energy from me and everyone on stage. It has the power to be very intense and that power is right with you all the time. I’m not dissing DJing, because I love it and I think there’s an artistry to it, but it’s a different thing to playing live.”
Whether DJing or playing live, all artists need spaces that help make their music something more than it seems on record, something that facilitates hedonism or introspection or immersion or whatever. Yet noise complaints have directly or indirectly stifled creative hubs such as The Kazimier in our own city and Plastic People in London. Having played such a central part in the life of Plastic People, as well as having DJed at The Kazimier in late 2015, does Shepherd think that these cultures are in danger of being suffocated by councils? A nerve clearly touched, he’s suddenly off on a fiery monologue worthy of Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction:
“When Plastic People was set up it was in a very undesirable part of London. It’s transformed radically, and it’s because of places like Plastic People that it became culturally relevant. And then it became quite cool and people starting developing properties there and then they start complaining. It’s very difficult for a council to comprehend: they don’t realise that by granting planning permission in an up-and-coming area that they’re at risk of upsetting the balance between those cultural reasons that people want to be there. It will turn into a city of people just existing but not living.”
“I think there’s more to be done by the clubs; they could be more sound-isolated, but that’s major engineering. But then I do sort of think, if you’re going to build a club, and clubs that we like to go to, we want a place where the sound system is impeccable and there’s a sprung dance floor, and I do often feel like a lot of clubs don’t install a sprung dance floor and don’t install the most impeccable sound system and tune it and maintain it because the reality is that it’s a business and they’re not making enough money at the bar. I know the economy of running a club intimately – it’s insanely difficult – but more isolation is going to help. I went to a club in Munich recently called Charlie, and they’ve built a room within a room and suspended it, and there were flats directly above it. They can do it; you can get up to almost 100dB and nobody can hear it outside the room. Although I think if you move to an area where there’s lots of clubs, and you expect to get a good night’s sleep on a Friday and Saturday night, and you’re going to start phoning the police, I think that makes you a bit of an ‘annoying person’, to be honest…”
The irony of this steady trudge of commercialism over creativity is that, even if you only look at it economically, it makes no sense. “It’s insane,” Shepherd continues. “You imagine Plastic People being a room that holds 200 people that was the incubator of dubstep and dubstep being the instigator of EDM in America, and that being a multibillion-dollar industry: the roots go back to that tiny room, and that soundsystem, and that neighbour that might complain and turn that whole thing around and make something non-existent.”
“I’ve had experiences with people complaining about noise and I know their character, and you’re kind of like, ‘You really, really wanted to live here… but you’re not investing in the culture of the area or being a part of it, so why are you living here? Just because it’s cool on paper? You want to observe it but you never want it to actually interact with you?!’”
In a sense, that is the beauty of Sound City and The Kazimier’s successor, the Invisible Wind Factory, which is also found in the post-industrial sprawl round Liverpool’s northern docks. Both in the city and removed from it, they have the now utopian appeal of being cut off from the world of 200-grand student flats and skin-deep hipsters – which is undoubtedly the best atmosphere we’ve got in which to be submerged in the rising tide of Floating Points’ deafening restraint.
Floating Points plays the Baltic Warehouse on Saturday 28th May / Onstage at 17.30.