ABOVE: BONOBO. IMAGE COURTESY OF ANDREW DE FRANCESCO
For Simon Green, beat-making is personal. The British musician did the band thing in the 1990s before emerging as Bonobo, alone with a sampler and a cacophony of instruments, at the turn of the millennium. The next few years saw three albums quietly amass a dedicated following, until resounding acclaim for 2010’s Black Sands brought Green recognition as one of electronica’s most pioneering artists. A remix album kept the hungry at bay in 2012 while Green locked himself away once more to craft the next highly anticipated installment.
The North Borders is a pure reflection of Green as a musician, demonstrating more than ever his ability to transform myriad influences and thoughts into rich soundscapes that enthrall and enlighten. The jazz leanings of his past works are but shadows now, with 4/4 beats and bigger, faster basslines throughout reflecting house as a heavy accent in Green’s aural taste. His attention to detail sends the most minute of samples spiraling into significance, while vocals, layered and chopped, build organically towards climax.
Multi-instrumentalist Green may be first and foremost a solo artist, but his love for collaborations continues with guest vocals from songbirds Cornelia and Szjerdene, velvet-voiced Grey Reverend, and the one and holy Erykah Badu. It’s a line-up—and an album—that grooves with the soulful instinct of a pro.
TEMPE NAKISKA: It’s been three years since you released Black Sands; what have you been up to since?
SIMON GREEN: In 2010 and most of 2011, I was touring Black Sands, and somewhere in the middle, I moved from London to New York, which is where I am now. Then I went harder into the studio isolation thing—for the past year, really.
NAKISKA: How do you find the writing process these days—do you still have those 4 am wall-hitting moments?
GREEN: Yeah, all the time. Some tracks fall out there and are a real joy, but with others you have no idea where to go. I think you haven’t tried enough sometimes unless you’re suffering a bit.
NAKISKA: How do you keep your sound fresh, keep it evolving?
GREEN: My taste is developing constantly, and it goes in whatever direction it wants to go in—the music follows. I feel like I’ve moved away from that jazzy, down-tempo classification. I think it’s been done a lot; it’s 2013 now, and I don’t feel like it’s something that needs to be said anymore. But half of Black Sands was essentially in line with what this one is all about. I just went down the road of more soundscape territory with The North Borders.
NAKISKA: You seem to have let your house influences get under the skin of the new album?
GREEN: Yeah, I’ve never worked in that 4/4 tempo before, so that was a new thing for me. It’s good pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and exploring something different; it keeps it exciting, especially for me.
NAKISKA: And, ironically, it feels more “London” than your previous music.
GREEN: Yeah! Just before I moved, a friend of mine told me that I would make my “London record” in New York. That sound has been a bigger inspiration for me over the past few years; that bass sound. It’s not a complete departure, but it’s me going further in that direction.
NAKISKA: Do you think moving has given you a new appreciation of how much impact UK music has on electronic music worldwide?
GREEN: Yeah, it’s kind of crazy. Like how you can be up somewhere in… Mississippi, or something and there will be kids talking about Boiler Room and Rinse FM. Music has become instantly global. When I used to DJ, I’d be bringing in bags of white labels, playing music nobody had heard before. But now a Boiler Room set gets ripped onto YouTube within seconds and from there it’s straight on Soundcloud and on and on. People in San Francisco know what’s happening in London the second people actually experience it.
Everything is also more accessible and exposed now; you don’t have to hunt through records when you just go to your Facebook feed. Putting that all together, I don’t think music is as geographically specific as it used to be. Everyone’s from the Internet now.
NAKISKA: Do you still get to record stores?
GREEN: Well, it’s different today; the time when you went down to your local record store and you knew the person and they’d pick out a selection for you is gone. I still like digging for old jazz records, but those places aren’t about sourcing new music anymore, the over-the-counter DJ culture has pretty much disappeared. It’s new music that’s really exciting for DJs of today.
NAKISKA: One thing often said about your music is how full of feeling it is. Why do you think that’s your tendency?
GREEN: It’s just the way I engage with music. Some people like music to be far more immediate and make you dance straight away. But I like to engage with it on a different level and for it to have that human element where it moves you in an emotive way. The process of making music is very therapeutic; it’s late at night and I’m wearing headphones a lot of the time, so it becomes a way of zoning out and engaging with my thoughts. It’s a solitary environment and process.
NAKISKA: It must be quite intense sometimes.
GREEN: Yeah. It’s those times when you start putting stuff together that you never would have thought would work before. You listen back to it the next day and there’s a lot of stuff you don’t actually remember doing, but it’s often the best music. It’s a matter of getting into that space where you’re just working without thinking.
NAKISKA: What about your attention to detail? Everything you do is so intricate and layered.
GREEN: There’s nobody there telling me when to stop, so often, I end up adding a bunch more elements to the track after I originally thought it was done. I often have an idea and it starts splintering off into a whole lot of directions; I’m interested in exploring every single one of them. So sometimes I end up building two tracks from an initial idea instead of trying to stick them both together.
NAKISKA: On The North Borders?
GREEN: [pauses] “Transits.”
NAKISKA: And I heard you got a Prophet-5 synth recently…
GREEN: Yeah! That thing changed my life. I got it after Black Sands and use it all over this album. I love its sound, so a lot of the synth stuff is now based around that.
NAKISKA: In your early, early days you played in bands, then went on to go solo. What is it about the solo creative process you love?
GREEN: The thing about being in those bands was that it was always a compromise of ideas. You always had people pulling in different directions, and that works for some people, but I have very distinct ideas about how things should sound, so it wasn’t for me. Discovering the sampler really revolutionized music for me; suddenly I could record everything myself.
NAKISKA: But you collaborate with artists on specific tracks today, and more than ever on the new album. What was it like working with Erykah?
GREEN: Musically, we’re into the same stuff, so we found we had a lot in common right away. Erykah wanted to hear the track straight up, and I had most of it down already, though I left space for her to work with her own ideas. We bounced the arrangement back and forth, extending or shortening verses and changing things here and there.
NAKISKA: And the rest of the collaborations?
GREEN: Well Grey Reverend literally lives right around the corner so we worked very closely together. Szjerdene—we recorded that in another studio in London and Cornelia was kind of done over e-mail! Everything came together differently but very cohesively.
NAKISKA: You’re about to go on tour again; has your live setup changed since touring Black Sands?
GREEN: The main change is that we’ve got Szjerdene as our full-time vocalist, so she will take the lead on a lot of those tracks. It’s good to change things up. I’m looking forward to it.