Fully Flexed: Bicep interviewed
Ahead of their long anticipated debut album, we speak to Belfast duo Bicep to find out what's taken so long
The Feel My Bicep blog started out in 2008 as a way for childhood pals Andy Ferguson and Matt McBriar to share music with like-minded friends. On the strength and growing popularity of the blog, via which the Belfast pair would curate a constant stream of head-turning club tracks and unearthed gems, their production career as Bicep was born. Almost a decade later, as DJs, producers and label owners, the duo are one of the most popular and significant acts on the UK’s current dance music scene.
After years of prolific EP releases and a constant touring schedule that's seen them develop a renowned live show, Bicep are set to release their self-titled debut album on 1 September. The duo have become synonymous with hard-hitting dancefloor cuts, but when we speak to them ahead of the imminent album release, McBriar reveals that the forthcoming record showcases a different side to Bicep. “We were definitely not thinking about the dancefloor when we were making this album,” he states. “We spend a lot of time making and listening to stuff that’s maybe slower or more intricate, and I think obviously when you’re thinking about nightclubs you’re often thinking about the dancefloor.
“It is, I suppose, showing a different side to us,” he continues. “It’s a bit more musical and a bit more thoughtful than some of the club records we’ve made. And so it’s definitely going to appeal to some people, and there’s [also] going to be some people that just really want to hear club material. And that’s fine, we’ll still release club material in future, but I think it was definitely about sort of broadening our appeal.”
The album, which is comprised of 12 tracks that blur the distinction between raw energy and refined ambience, is the product of a willingness to experiment and explore their sound, the duo concur. “We did about 60-odd demos of really varied music – some of it very ‘clubby’, some of it really not – and then from those demos we whittled it down to 12 tracks that were a broad representation of what we were doing and enjoying at that time,” explains McBriar. “It’s definitely a more home-listening album rather than club music,” he adds. “It’s pretty varied, there are some ambient tracks on there. It’s kind of a slice of our influences, but the influences are really across the board.”
Befitting for a duo that boast an expansive knowledge of music, Ferguson explains that when they were recording the album, “there wasn’t one style or one artist that directly influenced it. I think it’s a process of us just building up the music over ten years. You’ll hear little bits of everything in there, hopefully." McBriar adds, "We definitely wanted to approach it more from a long player perspective, as opposed to a load of stand alone tracks."
Their first EP was released in 2011, so for many Bicep fans, this album feels like a long time coming. The pair explain that the decision to release an LP stemmed from both a combination of the right timing, and a desire to diversify their creative process. “I think we got to the point where we’d done quite a lot of EPs, and it does just get a wee bit restrictive in terms of, you’ve gotta have something that works in a club,” says McBriar. “We’ve talked about an album for years and years but it just felt right now. We had our initial studio experiment, and yeah, it just kind of came at the right time.”
“I think if we’d been [just] DJing for ten years, and not released as much music, there’d have been a lot more pressure, but we’ve released so much music already, this is kind of like it was an album for us, not necessarily an album for everyone else,” Ferguson offers. “I think you can rush an album – if we’d done one three years ago, it would have been immature. I think we’re at the level now where we’re just happy with what we’ve done.”
The pair certainly appear to have relished the opportunity to set aside any industry or consumer expectations and focus on making a record that allowed them free rein to experiment with their sound. They explain that this unencumbered mindset was responsible for Aura, the final track and lead single from the album. An up-tempo track that marries ominous bass notes with buoyant synth lines, they describe the process as a "happy accident". McBriar says, "I think we approached every track quite differently, we tried to experiment a lot. I don’t think we’ll ever make a track like that again – it was just one of those things where it was like, 'that was amazing', and then we moved on,” he laughs.
This looser production approach has also gone some way to reinvigorating the duo’s writing efforts, they agree. Ferguson muses that “there was a period, I think maybe two years ago, where – not that you run out of ideas… but through that experimental process of making the album, we loosened up a lot. Even going through the process of translating the tracks into a live show, you come up with way more ideas. You may as well keep making music while you still have ideas,” he laughs. “And it’s only the first of many [albums] that we’ve been planning,” reveals McBriar. “We’re going to start working on the next one pretty soon.”
This productivity clearly reflects a close working partnership between the two. Nearly ten years in the game together and a series of relentless international tours must sometimes add pressure to their relationship, we venture. “It seems like we’ve always got something to do,” laughs Ferguson. McBriar agrees: “Yeah, we don’t have time to fight because we’re always busy, we’ve always got an interview or a track to do,” he laughs. “Fighting would literally take up too much time,” he adds. Ferguson laughs, “yeah, it’d be inefficient.”
With the album all wrapped up and set for release, for the remainder of 2017 Bicep will concentrate on a busy international tour that sees them take their live show on the road throughout the UK, Europe, Asia and the USA. On 5 August, the duo will return to Edinburgh for their third successive Fringe performance as part of Nightvision's August line-up. They’re undoubtedly firm favourites in Scotland, and it seems as though the feeling is mutual, as they enthuse about the multitude of shows they’ve played here previously.
“To be honest, they’ve all been amazing. It’s really hard to single one out. It’s very similar to Belfast – it must just be the constant bad weather,” laughs McBriar. “I suppose some of our first ever gigs, in Edinburgh and Glasgow, when we were first DJing out… you go from playing in a bar with like 12 people, and you have to play something really slow because you don’t want to be hammering it out in the corner of a bar. And then suddenly you release a few records, and then you get your first [big] gig. Like the first time we played Sub Club, it was completely packed, people were thumping the roof, screaming and cheering.”
Despite the big-room appeal of their live performances, the pair also agree that they regularly look for the opportunity to play intimate venues, explaining that smaller, more relaxed shows complement their diverse musical palette. “We often say ‘look if possible, can we play in the afternoon or early evening’ and that gives us the chance to play a lot more down-tempo and a lot more chilled [music], and that’s something that we actually love. It means you can play records that you never actually think you can play,” McBriar discloses.
Feel My Bicep was born from a love of music, so it feels only right to close the conversation by asking two people with such an expansive ear for music about an album they never tire of hearing. Surprisingly, the answer comes instantly, and is a unanimous choice for them both: “We literally just answered this in another interview,” they laugh. “It’s [Aphex Twin’s] Selected Ambient Works [Volume] II. I still get goose bumps when the third track kicks in!” McBriar exclaims.
“I listen to a couple of tracks off it every week. It’s like the perfect ambient music, especially after a lot of heavy music touring, it’s just so musical. It’s definitely my favourite album ever,” adds Ferguson. Such is Bicep’s reputation as both trusted performers and esteemed curators that when they name a classic, we’ll take their word for it.