Floating Points on new album Crush
Sam Shepherd, aka Floating Points, talks us through his new album Crush and his upcoming live shows in collaboration with Hamill Industries
“I'm always trying to capture the moments in my life when I'm actually able to just get stuff done,” Sam Shepherd tells us over the phone while enjoying some rare downtime at a friend’s vineyard in Mount Etna, Sicily. Idyllic as it may sound, this is not a regular occurrence for Shepherd.
Under his Floating Points moniker, Shepherd is one of the most revered producers in electronic music, but juggling multiple responsibilities is something he knows all too well. In the early days of his musical career, he balanced making music and DJing with studying a PhD in neuroscience and epigenetics at University College London, earning his doctorate in 2014. Just a year later he released his debut album as Floating Points, Elaenia, on his own label Pluto.
Elaenia received widespread critical acclaim and was named the best album of 2015 by Resident Advisor. It demonstrated Shepherd’s love of jazz and classical music, pushing the boundaries of dance music just about as far as they could go. Prior to this, he also formed the Floating Points Ensemble, a 16-piece group led by Shepherd, with whom he won the Best Maida Vale Session award at Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Awards in 2010.
In the four years between Elaenia and new album Crush, Shepherd kept himself just as busy, touring around the world with his live ensemble as well as playing solo dates, but when he found himself in a rare quiet period he didn’t use it to relax. “I think there definitely was a period of a few months when I didn't have any gigs... nothing else to really do and it allowed me to get really focused,” he says. “But, having said that, the two years leading up to making the record were so important in the process, so even though it physically took me five weeks to do it, there was probably a couple of years of learning.”
Shepherd isn’t one for doing things by halves, and even though the album took just five weeks to make, he spent an extensive period prior to recording familiarising himself with a range of new instruments and equipment. One of these instruments was the Rhodes Chroma, a synthesiser notorious for being difficult to programme. “I created hundreds of sounds on this thing and had thematic ideas, so I think when those five weeks came around I was actually looking to my own presets on these synths I'd made,” he says. “There were certain sounds in my head that I could recreate quite easily on the modular side of things because I'd been experimenting for a number of years before that.
“You end up making some of the best stuff when you first get the thing because it's so exciting and you quickly explore the thing, and the excitement of that, it makes for sort of serendipitous, spontaneous music quite quickly,” he continues. “I wanted the album to have some spontaneity, and it's very kind of chaotic, and actually that wasn't in the learning process of the instruments, because I felt like I knew the instruments, so I was at the other end of the learning process of the instruments.”
Many of the album’s tracks were recorded live in just one take, and there’s a sense of urgency throughout the record that comes across as a result. Opening with the slow-building orchestral sounds of Falaise, the album reaches its peak with the middle trio of LesAlpx, Bias and Environments before eventually slowing down to a close with two-parter Apoptose. “I think it's fair to say that the heavier things, the sort of really percussive and distorted things, are certainly a function of the equipment I was using and I was working fast,” says Shepherd.
“A lot of those tracks are one-take, live things and, as a result, they had that sound of immediacy and things are distorting and things probably don't sound right... and then, on the other side, there's things like Requiem [for CS70 and Strings] and Sea-Watch and Falaise that are much more considered, but I was writing those on the same equipment,” he continues. “I wanted you to listen to it and think 'well this is so simple', even though I feel like there's a lot of delicate stuff going on with the modular stuff.”
Naturally, Shepherd’s ambition extends to his live shows too. For his upcoming dates in support of Crush, he chose to work once again with Barcelona-based creative studio Hamill Industries, founded by Pablo Barquín and Anna Diaz. The team also worked on the video for the album’s second single, Last Bloom, filmed over 30 days and using numerous scale models of various natural landscapes. And the production levels of the live shows are just as high. “It's incredibly archaic what they do but there are various technologies they use,” says Shepherd.
“One of them is an old-fashioned oscilloscope – you know, that you have in a lab test bench – and we send into that super high frequency audio signals to draw what are essentially Lissajous figures, which are these patterns you get on oscilloscopes,” he continues. “And then, because that signal they send into the oscilloscope is audio, they can treat that signal in the same way I can treat audio, so you can add delays to it, you can add reverb to it, you can do a cut-off filter on it, and all these transformations have an analogous visual result.”
With the visuals directly correlating to the music played on stage by Shepherd in real time, it’s an incredibly high-risk production, but it feels like an AV show in the truest sense. “It's compact as a production but everything hangs by a thread,” says Shepherd. “I'm expecting it will probably go wrong at times, but I think that risk needs to be taken.” And it feels like the kind of risk only someone as ambitious and daring as Shepherd would be able to take and successfully pull off.