All Photos: Dan Medhurst (Floating Points)
Within the electronic music landscape, Sam Shepherd aka Floating Points is a singular figure. He is one of the very few young producers who really wants to move beyond the status quo of club music, employing a unique strategy. Unlike most club music producers, he doesn’t just stay in fixed stylistic lane working on perfecting it. Shepherd approaches electronic music from an outsider’s perspective: he is a classically trained pianist and owns more than 10.000 records. Nonetheless, he is less interested in classical techno and house but rather in rarities of jazz, soul and a wide array of world music.
Gilles Peterson, founder of the pioneering label Acid Jazz, was once so obsessed with a record in Shepherd’s collection, that he traded it for a Japanese sports car. When Shepherd is not touring with his fusion orchestra of twelve musicians, he might play a six-hour DJ set at Berghain, where he drops an album by jazz saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders – in full-length. On top of all that, Shepherd is also a neuroscientist, who started his music career parallel to completing his PhD.
His third album Crush moves away from his rather jazzy productions, into a more electronic, darker and “zeitgeisty” direction. Alexis Waltz and Ben-Robin König met Shepherd in Berlin to discuss his approach to the new album. He talked about record shops as communal spaces, his formative years as a major drum’n’bass fan – and he revealed what he did with Peterson’s car.
Listening to your new album, I was quite surprised: it’s pretty minimalistic, in your terms. You always have a broad array of ideas and sonic textures that you meticulously arrange. Now you seem to be working with less material, focussing more on particular parts.
Sam Shepherd: Right. I think a lot of this record was the setup. My studio is a large space and it’s overwhelming with all my equipment. But for this record I condensed it to one table of equipment I used to tour live. And I thought: „I just will use this.” I treated that table as an instrument, I knew all the ins and outs and how everything was rooted. So the setup is where all the work went in technically.
How did you come up with this setup?
I’ve got necessities where I need a way of looping this and this thing, but it needs to be in separate channels. There’s a computer there, so I use Max MSP and Ableton. I’m not really good with either of these softwares. I use Logic mostly to record. So, I’m using this other software I don’t know very well to run the live setup, and then I record it into either Logic or on a tape machine in the corner, a big 24-track thing. When it actually came to making music, it was a lot more like „just get on with it”. There were a lot of mistakes, I’d say. I like the sound of them, though. Things go wild and you get piercing sounds, but it doesn’t bother me, because that’s what things do.
Would it have bothered you earlier in your career?
Maybe, yeah. I might have been a bit more forensic in removing things.
How did you change your attitude, what’s different now?
I was having such a nice time making it. And then I’ll listen to it and be like (snaps fingers) „That’s it! Leave it! Don’t ruin it!” As soon you’ll start like „Alright, I like that bit, I take it, get a bit of reverb” and soon you think „Why did I do this!?” and lose all your excitement. So I can still listen to the record now and can enjoy listening to it.
Given how brilliant your sound is, it comes as a surprise you are not a perfectionist.
I’ve definitely been through a phase of leaving a track too long and thinking like „Alright, I’ll release it now. I’m bored of it existing on my hard drive. It’s good enough, I guess.” All of my old music has often sat there for a long time which inevitably led to just putting it out. Whereas this album, I’ve finished it in a few weeks.
The whole album?
Yeah, in five weeks or so. Those were definitely five really strange and intense weeks for me.
„It took a year or two of setup, of knowing the gear and learning it.Floating Points on his new album „Crush”
You talked about the technical process, but what kind of emotion did you want to express with the composition?
There are definitely recurring elements and melodies in the album. I mean, I’ve spent every day in the studio. Most of the time, I think I’m not doing anything of value. Most of the time I’m probably on Discogs (laughs). If I’m not on Discogs, I am probably playing the piano. I play the piano all day, basically.
Yeah, to some scale. But mostly I’m just making stuff up and playing with synthesizers or stare at the modules and think: „I’ll never try patching that into that.” Just try out things that sound rubbish, but it’s in the bank. There’s one synthesizer in particular, I’ve had for years, the Rhodes Chroma. It would work for 30 minutes and then it would get too hot and start going crazy and die. I really love that thing, though. It’s quite rare but one day, one came up for sale. I bought it, thinking having two, I could swap bits and figure out where the problem is, so I could get one into working just fine. But now I’ve got two that just work perfectly.
What what was the error?
There’s very early computer stuff inside. They’re probably not made that well, with a wooden frame. And when the wood expands, it bends bits to the circuit board. (laughs) It’s not ideal. But I managed to use the second one to troubleshoot the first one. Now both work perfectly. They’re a real pain to program. Tim, who works at my studio engineering stuff, he wrote an app that can control it fully. It’s a really beautiful, elegant system, and now I spend hours every day just making sounds on this synthesizer. It’s like a polyphonic ARP 2600, that’s what people call it. [The Rhodes Chroma is often compared to the ARP 2600 as it has similar sounds but more voices, the editor] 16 voices, but two of them, so there’s basically 32 voices, Pan left and right, running parallel, slightly detuned. So it’s this nice sort of effect and most of it pianistic sounds on there. The melody in „Bias” and the bassline in „Bias”, the whole „birth” track basically has all been done on the Chroma. I spent a lot of time programming the Chroma, but only five minutes of playing and recording the actual thing. So it happened quite quickly, but took a year or two of setup (laughing), of knowing the gear and learning it. Also, the actual synthesizer and just learning it. It’s too simple to think, you get a Prophet Five or something and say, „this is my new synth”, somehow you think that you know it because you know how to play a piano, but you don’t know anything about the character of that instrument. It’s like picking up a flute and saying you just learn it – it’s not that easy. (laughs)
This strange sound in „LesAlpx”, its it also coming from the Rhodes Chroma?
Sam: What? The dubudubub?
That is a Hammond B3 organ, but just the percussive bit. So you turn all pipes off. I love that sound! And I’ve got a Leslie Cabinet speaker in my studio, those things are so punchy, the speaker is so loud!
How did you come up with this melody?
Playing it. I’ve got all these memories of [the London club] Plastic People and other nights and clubs I’ve been to. There’s a Carl Craig tune, I don’t even know which one it is, it just builds up and up and up and it’s got this huge reverb and then it just drops to nothing and gets completely dry. I just like the idea of creating these huge spaces and it becomes architectural. You actually change the shape of the very room through reverb and then suddenly it’s like (whistles voiceless) and you’re back to being silent in no time at all. I love that idea, of using sound to change space! That dubududub reminds me of a time when I was in a club and I heard Metalheadz, some fabulous drum’n’bass records. I just remember a similar small sound just dropping before the beat comes in.
How did you decide this fast sonic space would fit into this track? It’s rather unexpected.
What do you mean, it’s quite an expansive tune to have that little dubudubub in there?
It just breaks it up! Just before that second drop, where that big pad builds up, and then it just drops to nothing, and then: dubudubub! (laughs) There’s something cheeky about it, it’s playful.
A lot of records nowadays use reverb and it’s kind of cool, but they also sound very much the same which make them boring.
Yeah. It’s amazing how you can hear reverb plugins now. I can listen to stuff and tell „Hey, that’s a Valhalla” and so on.
It’s the same plugins most people use?
Yeah, I mean, I use those as well!
Your reverb sounds very natural and very refined though.
I layer reverbs on top of each other. I’ve got the Neve AMS Digital Reverb and this one called Infernal Machine made by Publison. That are early 90s digital reverbs, very rich. One of them runs normally, the other one runs through a phaser. So you combine the two together, it’s a mess – I don’t know what I’m doing! But I just keep on not knowing what I’m doing until I hear something I like.
“When I think of these beautifully acoustically generated rooms where there is no real residual slap-back delay or anything. You can play an electronic record in there, and the first time the 808 bass drum or whatever comes out in the real world, the second it hits the speakers in the club, that is such a cool concept to me.”Floating Points
How would you express how it sounds?
I like the idea of having phasers on reverbs. It’s wicked! You’ve got this space, but then on the top you’ve got things closing in (makes a high pitched hollow whistle resembling distant jets). It’s a cascading, waterfall-style sound. Then you can send that phase back into another reverb. I love reverbs as a means to create spaces that don’t really exist. That’s so powerful.
In a lot of records that aren’t really good reverbs are used to create space, but it comes off as an ironic commentary on science fiction movies and how they use reverb to create artificial worlds. The reverb creates an artificial space but it’s just a cliche.
When I start a track and use reverb, it’s routed in the aux send channel [going over the whole music Shepherd makes, the editor]. It’s always there. I use it to put all these electronic instruments in one space. And that’s what reverb does very well. My worry is that a lot of people might think this is the space my instruments all belong in. Because electronic instruments never existed in the acoustic domain until they leave the speakers for the first time. So I’m really keen on the idea of treating electronic instruments as if they were acoustic instruments. Putting them through guitar amps for instance, giving them a room to exist in. And I think psychologically that does a lot for listeners. Suddenly this synth-line has got a weird (snaps fingers and claps) reverb sound to it, you get slap-back or whatever in it, it doesn’t sound right, but it exists. It manifests itself.
You create some kind of artificial nature.
Exactly! Whereas a guitar, the only way you can record it, is putting a microphone in front of it. That microphone will be picking up the room as well. I’m really keen on giving synths space. But once you got that space you’ll be like: „Well, it’s the land of make believe music, I want to make that space sound like no other space.”
What kind of spaces do you have in mind?
I really like the idea of things being infinitely vast, just because of the dynamic range between that and also there being no reverb. When I think of these beautifully acoustically generated rooms where there is no real residual slap-back delay or anything. You can play an electronic record in there, and the first time the 808 bass drum or whatever comes out in the real world, the second it hits the speakers in the club, that is such a cool concept to me. But before that it could have been in outer space, it could have been all the way up to Mars, you’ve been listening to it on earth and suddenly it comes right into focus. I love this idea. But I don’t want it to be too soupy, either. Reverbs can get really, really soupy. They can get sort of meaningless, but I like to be able to hear harmony and detail in there as well. I think Grouper, Liz Harris, all that shoegaze world, she’s got it dialed in so well.
Whose reverbs in dance music do you like?
Who’s got good reverb in dance music? Carl Craig’s early stuff! He’s got a wicked reverb. Ouh, that’s a good question, wow! (pauses thinking) I listened to a good Karenn record, Blawan and Pariah, that had a wicked reverb in it.
Have you seen them live?
Yup! Dimensions, a few years ago, it was bonkers. They got some wicked music, so good! Umm … maybe I’m not buying enough dance music records!´
When did you discover dance music in the first place, you coming from a rather classical background?
Record shops, for sure. I probably heard it on the radio before, but actually picking it up and thinking „That’s cool”, it happened in record shops. Fat City Records in Manchester and Factory Records in Manchester as well – which was a label, and they had a shop, too – it was next door to my school. I’d go down there, they had records so cheap, so I was picking up a lot of piano house. It’s probably embarrassing now. I was really into drum‘n’bass, that was my thing. I slowed down, basically, once I came to London, I was still into Jungle. That’s the first genre I got into, thinking it’s the best music in the world.
But you never tried to produce a standard dance tune – your music was always a sophisticated mix of contemporary dance music, soul, funk, jazz and ambient. Why wouldn’t you say „I just want to do a Doc Scott tune, just a tiny bit better.”
Well I did! I had a phase.
But you never released the music.
No way! (bursts out laughing) I reckon if you do enough digging, it’s out there, no doubt! I was on these forums, talking about production techniques. I was such a geek.
Why did you feel it was not enough? Compared to other artists in dance music, who just want to push a very specific sound you created this wide perspective on a huge part of music, integrating many styles.
I guess, drum’n’bass stuff never really worked out for me because it has to be very well-produced. That is some kind of an unwritten rule.
But your music is well produced obviously.
Not at that time. I didn’t have any technique. I never did music tech. I actually did an a-level in music tech, and I don’t know anything.
How did you get into music production then, coming from playing the piano?
It was quite cool, our school had two studios. It was one MIDI suite and one proper studio. And then they got this grant for a new studio, and built this really nice digital studio everyone wanted to use. It was using ADATs [Alesis Digital Audio Tapes]. Don’t ever use an ADAT! The old main studio was not being used at all, completely left alone. The head of music tech granted me I could use it whenever I want. I kind of turned it into my own studio at school. It had an 8-track tape machine, an Akai S950 [sampler], and an Atari computer on which you had to install Cubase everytime you turned it on – from a floppy disc! I wasn’t sampling records. There was no record player, I didn’t even know sampling was a thing. So I was just (hits glasses and the table) sampling stuff like that, making all my tunes just out of domestic objects, keys jangling and stuff. So I was making electronic music at that point. There was a Korg MS-20 in there, a Yamaha DX7, fairly basic. A basic bedroom studio setup, a good one, though! I was making this music at school at the age of maybe 12 or 13. I was a beast on the S950 at that time, I programmed the hell out of it so quickly and knew all the MIDI-CCs. It’s an early sampler with about four seconds sample time on it. So I was making electronic music without knowing that S950 was probably used by DBridge to make some of the most influential drum’n’bass-records. I was using it just because I didn’t know people were sampling drums into it, I was sampling the pen-lid (plays around with a pen, laughing), because there was nothing else to sample! I got drum’n’bass tracks where a pen lid would be the hihat.
”I was part of a physical community of human beings in record shops. I was at If Music and there’s Patrick Forge, listening to a Joe Henderson record, loving it. I just wanted to be part of that knowledge circle. Patrick is the most amazing guy, saying „I make music as well”. I spent all my time at record shops, with Nicky Blackmarket, Ray Keith, giving them my tunes.”Floating Points
That sounds quite exciting.
Some of it is quite funny, yeah. I got this whole bunch of things called „domestic cycles”. It’s twelve to fifteen tunes of different household objects.
Like musique concrète?
Exactly. It’s kind of rhythmic as well, because I wasn’t really enjoying a lot of musique concrète, always missing the beat in it. Not because I didn’t like music that was beatless, but it made so much more sense to me when it was organized in rhythms. Easier to concede. I was probably making dance music using pen lids and glasses because it kind of sounded okay. But it definitely wasn’t really producing.
Where did you go from there, what was the next step?
So, I was going to record shops and found drum’n’bass and jungle. I thought „This is the best music in the world”. I basically just started dialing up the tempo. I was making it sing (snaps pen lid). I had a Roland RD700, a piano and used the in-built drums and synth sounds. The reverb in that thing was terrible, horrible, actually. All my drum’n’bass stuff has this reverb scheme on it. And it’s really not cool. I don’t know if any of these tunes are out there. I would be so embarrassed if they were heard!
Were some of them online or even put out on a label?
I tried! I talked to Hospital Records all the time, to Tony Colman. They were actually super nice. That’s the cool thing about the drum’n’bass world, everyone’s so encouraging. They were like „This is not good. But keep doing it, you need to try this, try putting a sock in the speaker, to extend the bass”.
How did you get your first record?
Purely by going to record shops. Thinking: „I want to see my record there.” So I made this tune that got a bit of pirate radio play and borrowed some money off my mom and dad. They said it would be nice if they got it back. I just went down to the pressing plant, literally personally, asking if they could make a record. They told me: „This is not how you do it.” (laughs) So I went to get a lacquer, asking “What do I do now?” and they told me I need to take this to a pressing plant. Took it to the pressing plant, they told me: „You need to book it in.” I remember storing the lacquer in the fridge of my university because it’s quite a big box, so I used the biohazard fridge there. (laughs) Then took it down there, got about 200 copies made and took it to the shops, asking if they would sell it. They offered a “sell or return” option, and we sold them all. Got some radioplay on the Benji B show on BBC.
What was the name of the tune?
It’s called „For You”.
And was this already Floating Points?
Yeah, it was the first one. On Eglo, actually the first Eglo record. My friend Alex and I started it. That’s how it started, I wanted to see my record in the shop and it did well enough to get some radio play. Benji asked if I got some other stuff, demos or anything, which I gave him. Gilles Peterson and Patrick Forge played it a lot on their shows.
So it was pretty easy, in the end?
Kind of, I was part of a physical community of human beings in record shops. I was at If Music and there’s Patrick Forge, listening to a Joe Henderson record, loving it. I just wanted to be part of that knowledge circle. Patrick is the most amazing guy, saying „I make music as well”. I spent all my time at record shops, with Nicky Blackmarket, Ray Keith, giving them my tunes. Went to Sounds of the Universe, to Phonica, I was in the record shops all the time, went to lectures occasionally. I tried to learn music. People go to record shops to buy records. And then you meet Gilles Peterson, give him your CD, meet Benji, give him your CD.
Nowadays people don’t go to record shops anymore, at least not that much.
Well, I do. And sometimes people give me CDs now. It’s very difficult to listen to them, my only CD player is in my car.
Growing up in record shops, how do you come up with all these obscure and rare records apart from scrolling through Discogs? I mean, there are lot of tunes you can’t even find on the internet.
To be honest, I don’t find much on discogs. I’ll rather use it in a way that I search for records I love, say, this is on SR Records out of Texas, what else is on that label? Whoever was A&R on that label has probably got a good taste. Then go through and find some other records. I use Discogs for that, for some kind of completion. Again, it’s record shops, it’s the humans that work there, saying (snaps finger) „You might be into this!” Those relationships build over years and years and years of them knowing you personally. When I go to a shop here, maybe they know what I’m kind of into. Or you listen to some, say, Pepe Bradock record and go to the counter and say: „This is amazing. What else do you got?” That’s the best part of working in a shop, tell people to check out that Matthew Herbert record, if they’re into that odd sampling thing. That’s how I learned about all that stuff!
The final question: Did you recently trade any cars against records?
Sam: (laughs) I got rid of that car. That car was such a nightmare, oh man! I got a VW Golf now. Reliable. Wonder what I might trade it for? (smiles)