Producer/DJ Bonobo (Simon Green) is one of the pillars of the UK’s pioneering electronic music label Ninja Tune (Blockhead, The Cinematic Orchestra, Daedelus), and is among most well-known practitioners of what many generally refer to as “downtempo.” Though it’s fair to say he’s transcended that label with each and every album (2010’s Black Sands is my personal favorite), his records have become increasingly dense sonic affairs, sampling sounds from more and more obscure instruments, and using wholly new sounds from traditional ones. In the ever-evolving electronic music scene—you don’t need a list all those subgenres—Green has never followed a trend, and he probably never will. It’s definitely for the best.
Fresh off the Shots Fired hot seat, Green was kind enough to grant me a phone interview while he was on his LA press circuit. Among other things, we talked about his great new record The North Borders (drops April 1), his approach to making music, DJing, the fact that his music is consistently labeled “downtempo,” and, yes, Bonobos. – Max Bell
Black Sands came out in 2010. How soon after did you move to New York?
It’s kind of a weird thing—I went on tour and then I came off tour and I realized that I’d moved somehow. But yeah, I kind of did that in late 2010. And then like gapped between two big periods of touring.
You play a lot of instruments on the new album (The North Borders). Are they all self-taught?
No. I just picked stuff up and figured it out. I never really had lessons or anything. I was in bands when I was younger—like kind of little indie rock bands or whatever when I was a teenager. Just that same kind of principle, just playing stuff into a sampler, I guess. It’s a really kind of low key way of playing music. But yeah, that’s how I’ve always done it. I just picked stuff up.
You used to sample a lot more when you started making records. Did your playing more instruments evolve out of necessity for how you wanted your music to sound?
Yeah. I think you just answered it yourself there. I think it’s just as I learned more about production. When I started out I didn’t really know how to record things. I didn’t know about microphone placement. And then I got into working with samplers and it was whole thing. Because I’d been in bands, but I’d never really recorded. So when I started working with a sampler that was my first way of recording stuff. It was taking snippets of sounds—I mean I was playing little bits on the earlier stuff, but just more so now because I feel like I’m sort of better at doing it. I’m still using samples, but in a different way. I’m not sort of flipping breaks like I used to back in the day, I’m just kind of recording things and using those recordings as the samples.
Have you ever thought about recording an album with a band, from start to finish?
No. Not really. That’s not really where I’m coming from with it. The band thing is just a way of performing the music. I don’t consider Bonobo a band. It’s just sort of a process. I don’t know. I’ve recorded a live version of tracks, but I’m not coming at it from a live band perspective really.
There seems to be some hip-hop influence in your work. How influential has it been?
I don’t think you could say hip-hop itself. I mean my kind of era of hip-hop is that early ‘90s—it’s like Tribe and like Native Tongues. That was my introduction to it. But I think I kind of approach music without saying my aesthetic is hip-hop. Especially now, I don’t listen to much new hip-hop. I’m more into the aesthetic of approaching music in a more live, recorded kind of way rather than using or following the trends within hip-hop. It’s a different approach I guess.
“Jets,” off of the new album, reminds me a little of Dilla. Do you ever listen to Dilla? Has his music been influential at all?
Of course. You can’t make this kind of music and not listen to Dilla. In terms of how much that is an influence, I don’t listen to Dilla religiously. [My music is more influenced] by stuff that’s coming out of London rather than that post-Dilla crowd.
How do you feel about today’s electronic music scene, especially here in the states with the emergence of “trap” and music like that?
Well that’s a very different place than where I’m coming from. I’m coming from more European electronic stuff. So what I’ve heard in the U.S. is a little bit alien to me. The whole trap and EDM thing, it seems a bit kind of crazy to me. I mean trap is not something I’ve really listened to. I don’t profess to know anything about it. For me it’s always been kind of a UK thing. I got more of a sort of influence from London sounds like Grime and Garage and that sort of UK based scene.
I really enjoyed your Boiler Room set. You played a lot of House stuff I’d never heard before.
Yeah, that’s more of where I come from. I’ve always been a kind of club DJ in that respect. It’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been DJing House longer than I’ve been making tunes. I mean people think of Bonobo as kind of like a live thing, but that’s where I come from. There’s kind of a breadth of sound coming out of the UK and that’s where I look for influence and inspiration.
You’ve said in the past that it’s difficult to work in your own music into your DJ sets because it’s a little more downtempo. Is that still something you deal with?
Yeah, that’s the thing now. When I DJ there’s the set that I want to play and the set that I’ve been obliged to play, which I think is the set that people want to hear. So sometimes I feel like I’m playing to the wrong crowd. My crowd are the wrong crowd when I DJ, if that makes sense. Sometimes when people come out to my DJ sets and I play a little House they can be a bit like, ‘Whoa, I wasn’t really expecting that.’ So I try to steer it back in towards my own sound and keep my own sound present as much as I can while also keeping things fresh. People go nuts when I play my own shit, but then when I play stuff that I think is ten times better they will just sort of stand there. It’s kind of a tough one, but I just try to get that balance.
Did you aim for more of a club sound with your new record, The North Borders? I’m thinking of a record like “Cirrus,” which you did drop at the Boiler Room. Did you want to be able to work more of the tracks into your DJ sets?
Yeah, I’d say there’s less kind of jazzy shit on this record. I think that’s just kind of a reflection of where I’m at now. I mean there is still loads of stuff like “First Fires” or “Jets,” which have that downtempo kind of vibe, but I needed to represent other sounds. I feel this [record] is more of an honest balance of what I actually listen to and a reflection of where I’m at musically.
How do you feel about the “downtempo” label that people have given your music over the years?
I think that’s happened a lot because when people emerge, whatever scene their in that’s what they get stuck in. And for me it was like ‘downtempo’ or ‘chill-out’ or whatever, just because I came out of the early-2000s when people were calling everything downtempo. But I mean you take stuff like Mount Kimbie or James Blake—that is way more chill than my stuff and that will never get called downtempo. It’s really hard to check. Once people start calling you a certain thing, that’s kind of what you do. Even if you make like a neo-hardcore album, people are still going to call you downtempo.
Each one of your tracks has so many layers to it. Do the sounds emerge as you start to play around with an idea for a song, or do have an entire track in your head when you go into the studio?
No. It’s mostly experimentation. I start with an idea and then I just explore it. What happens is that I’ll have like a little embryonic idea and then it will sort of splinter off into three or four different ideas that are all gapping in different parts. Then it’s a case of trying to bring them all back together again, to make them sort of one coherent thing. And that’s where you get that sense of movement. There’ll be two or three different parts that I’ll move through. Sometimes it’s worth sticking with one idea and cutting the others loose, but I like to connect all of the different tangents that one embryonic idea will take.
There are so many different sounds in your music, and many of them feel like they’re pulled from different countries.
Well kind of. People always say that I use a lot of ethnic or world sounds. But really it’s just the way the process is. I’m interested in sounds that aren’t just a guitar or a drummer or a piano. I’ll find sounds from anywhere. It will still be a piano, but it will just be like dropping a marble on a piano string. I just do all kinds of stuff, like dropping nails into a piano and just recording those kinds of things. And that’s where a lot of those sort of “ethnic” sounding things come from. It’s actually just fucking with normal instruments and making unusual sounds come out of them.
I don’t know. I’m just kind of more concerned with what you can do with sounds. I think it’s just the way sounds can sort of interact. It’s all about juxtaposition. I mean you can get a sound that’s seemingly abstract, but, depending upon what you put against it, it can suddenly take on a shape or a context or a tune. That’s kind of what I’m more interested in: finding rhythm and harmony and melody in abstract shapes.
I sometimes actually get a jungle vibe from your music. Is that something you aim for?
I mean I’ve been to Southeast Asia and stuff, but I don’t think that’s informed the way I approach music. I went from London to Brooklyn, so I’m not really thinking that globally about it. It’s more of a mental state than an actual geographical one.
You’ve used a number of string instruments on your records—violins and stuff like that—how influential has classical music been for you?
I’d say more kind of soundtrack [or] film score stuff has been more of an inspiration than actual classical music. Stuff like Bernard Herman or Ennio Morricone, people like that. That’s kind of more where my more orchestral sounds comes from.
Have you ever thought about scoring films, or have you been approached to score any?
Yeah. I have been. I’m talking to this director in New York at the minute. It’s something that I’d love to get into eventually because it’s a different way of approaching music. The narrative is already there with the movie, so the music can hang back a little bit and be more subtle and more suggestive, and it doesn’t necessarily have to exist in its own medium. So it’s a very different way of looking at stuff and exploring themes and making the scene work. So I’m really interested in that idea.
You have Grey Reverend, who’s also a part of Cinematic Orchestra, on the new record.
Yeah, I met [Grey] through Cinematic, but we live in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn and we’ve been hanging out for a couple of years and just always talking about music. I was working on that track and it seemed like he was the right guy for it. He had the kind of voice I was looking for.
He’s one of few, if not the only male vocalists you’ve worked with, right? Do you find yourself gravitating more towards female vocalists?
Not necessarily. It’s just the right choice for the right track. And he was the right choice for that one.
What’s your collaboration process like with vocalists? Do work with them on writing the lyrics?
I mean we work together. They eventually work on their own. But we’ll talk about the track and what kind of vibe [I want] and where I see the vocals hitting. And I give them sort of references, like, ‘This is what I imagine a vocal on this tack would sound like,’ and then they kind of go in and write the lyrics and your sort of take it from there.
You have a track with Erykah Badu on the new record. Had you always wanted to work with her? Had you been in contact for awhile?
No, it’s actually a fairly recent thing. We really started chatting a year ago. And you know we kind of stayed in touch and bounced around the idea of working on a track together. The thing with Erykah is that she wanted to hear the track. She’s all about the music. If the tune was right, she was down. And that was kind of how it was. And that’s what I really liked about the collaboration—it was all about the music for her and for me as well.
Where did you record the track?
She lives in Dallas, so most of it was done in her studio. I was there in the beginning and then she kind of spent of bit of time there on her own, and then I was there at the end for the final mix. It kind of happened over a little period of time.
Do you usually work with all of your vocalists in the studio or do you ever send material back and forth?
It’s happened, like with Cornelia [who’s on “Pieces”]. I knew her and we chatted in London and we started the whole thing. But then I had to be somewhere and she had to be in London so we kind of ended up just home working. She’d send me stuff, I’d listen, and then we’d speak on the phone and she’d go back in and record some other ideas.
I prefer to be in the room. This one was just different because of time constraints and geographical constraints. But I like to keep it as personal as possible. That’s when the best stuff happens.
Yeah, your music has always felt very personal.
I think especially with vocals. That’s the most upfront thing. That’s the most immediate instrument, is the voice. So it’s got to be just right. It’s got to relate to somebody somehow. There’s got to be a sentiment that I feel as well because it’s also my record.
It’s interesting because I’m not a lyricist. I’m just kind of fairly impressed with songwriting. It’s something that I can’t do. I find it a really inspiring thing.
Definitely. But even without the vocals, your music feels that way.
Yeah! Yeah it is. It’s got to mean something to me so I hope it means something to others as well. It comes from a very personal place.
Is making music something you do on daily basis? How soon after Black Sands were you recording stuff for the new record? Do you record while you’re touring?
I’m not too good at that whole working on the laptop on the road thing. I mean I do it if I have to, but I prefer to have time at home. I shut the door and I’m in the room with a bunch of instruments and machines. I need that space to sit back and listen to stuff through speakers.
So I started making it whenever I had time, whenever I was at home. It’s been about two years. I had a year of straight touring and I wasn’t really making much music. I was putting little ideas down, but not really getting anything to the point. So when I got back to New York I really sat down and got back into it.
You’re in Brooklyn now, right? Has living there affected the new record at all?
I don’t know if it has. I don’t know if the geographical context has really made a difference. I still think this is a very London sounding record. And I think that the world is a lot smaller now. You’re not sort of influenced or swayed by what’s happening musically unless you want to go out in New York and listen to that Brooklyn music. I’m still going out and seeing the same music I probably would’ve seen in London.
In terms of attitude, my attitude might’ve changed. But I don’t think anything is going to sound like New York because I live in New York—whatever New York sounds like. But I’ve been traveling a lot as well. I still have a foot in London and I’m still there a lot. There’s good stuff everywhere.
I’ve heard your music pop up in random places. What’s the strangest place that you’ve heard your music?
I was in Hawaii for a weekend and I was in a coffee place and they were playing it in there. But I just kind of keep my head down. I’m fairly anonymous, which is cool.
I know you have to go, but can I ask you two more questions?
If you had to give a presentation on Bonobo apes right now, could you do it? Or would you have to go do some research?
I could probably bluff it. I could probably get about ten or fifteen minutes before anyone realized. I mean people are always like, “Did you know Bonobos do this or that?” So I have all these little facts about them. I didn’t know anything about them when I decided to call myself Bonobo.
But yeah, I could tell people. I wouldn’t feel comfortable in panel of Bonobo experts. But I could tell a casual monkey fan about Bonobos and that would be enough.
Have you ever played your music for Bonobo apes?
No. I’ve never met one. The Bonobo conservation people have started reaching out now and they want me to go meet them or whatever. So I would [play it or them], but I’ve never found them in my vicinity.
Thanks for your time. Very much appreciated.
Thanks. Take it easy.