Sam Shepherd discusses the unhinged, five-week process of creating 'Crush,' his most club-ready album yet
For just over a decade, Sam Shepherd has been releasing music under the moniker Floating Points. Though he came up in the London club scene of the late aughts, it would be hard to pin his music down as a product of the post-dubstep era. Floating Points’s first studio album, 2015’s Elaenia, was written over the course of five years while Shepherd finished his PhD in neuroscience at University College London. Elaenia was lauded for pushing the electronic genre forward, boasting an inventive blend of synthetic and acoustic instrumentation with elements of jazz, funk, and dance woven into intricate ambient soundscapes. 2017 saw Floating Points move even further from the dance-floor with Reflections – Mojave Desert, an audio-visual prog-rock EP that displayed Shepherd’s skill as a pianist and orchestrator with the help of a full five-piece live band.
But on his latest album, Crush, released earlier this month, Shepherd is going back to basics. Made over the course of just a few weeks, Crush trades in acoustic instrumentation for an aggressive, synthesized palette of modular analog synths, and swaps the meticulous composition of past releases for raw, stripped-down grooves. The result is a collection of music that channels the experimentation and intellectual curiosity that Floating Points has become known for into a sound that is more chaotic, aggressive, and club-ready than ever before.
I caught up with Shepherd in Amsterdam, where he was about to present his new live show at a showcase for DJ Magazine. We spoke about the overlap between music and academia, how the chaotic sounds of Crush echo the chaos of contemporary political life, and the impact of time on his songwriting.
Rhodes Murphy—I want to start off with some basic questions. I know you have an academic career as well, but what drew you to music? How did you start out as a musician and when did you know that it would be what you ultimately wanted to do?
Floating Points—As a kid I was having piano lessons. A lot of kids have these parents that insist they go to piano lessons; I was that kind of kid but I wasn’t very good, and I wasn’t really enjoying it. I was also singing in my local church choir because my dad was a priest at that church. There were dwindling numbers and, I had to do it because there was no one else around. I think they realized I wasn’t such a terrible singer so I joined the Manchester Cathedral Choir, which was kind of a step in a more professional direction. It was such a hardcore choir; you’re starting at eight o’clock in the morning every single day and doing a couple hours of practicing and learning new music, then going to do a normal school day until six or seven p.m. when you go back and perform. It’s really hard work as a kid, but, even as a kid, I thought it probably quite good for me if music is something I would do.
I was so quick at reading music that it was like second nature. So that was like a good sort of baptism. The school that you’d go to when you were in the Cathedral Choir is actually a professional music school called Chetham’s. So, when my voice broke when I was like 15 or 16-years-old, I reauditioned to stay there as a composer. I stayed there and just wrote music and played piano.
But when it came to finishing that whole chapter of secondary school and going to university, most of my friends went to media college, mostly in London, and I went in a different direction. I went to study science because I was really interested in that. I started making a lot of electronic music at that point because it was a lot easier than getting a band together in London to pay for a rehearsal studio, which is prohibitively expensive. It was about the same time that I began going to lots of clubs and getting deep into record shops. I love that whole culture of record shops and learning about music in those places.
Rhodes—So, it was between juggling gigs, getting into the London club scene, and studying neuroscience, that you began to release records?
Floating Points—It became a kind of mess; I was spending loads of time in record shops, loads of time in university, loads of time sort of making electronic music myself. Eventually, I thought, you know, ‘I want to see one of my records on the shelves,’ which is when I started releasing records. I just went down to the pressing plant and got one of my tunes pressed. I borrowed some money from my parents, like a thousand pounds which they said, you know, ‘could you give us this back?’ Which I did! I pressed a 7” and just sold it to record shops directly; I had relationships with them already because I was just in there all the time. I didn’t know about, like, distributors or ways to do things ‘properly.’ I was just going in there and being like, ‘I’ve got 200 copies of this record made, do you want to buy one, or two, or five?’
Rhodes—Kind of a ‘DIY’ approach.
Floating Points—Exactly, that’s how it all started. And basically, that’s my entire life.
Rhodes—Did you feel conflict deciding to go into a PhD versus staying with music? How did you decide between the two?
Floating Points—By the time I came to apply for my PhD I had finished my undergraduate and I had started doing some music stuff and parties or whatever. But I didn’t think it was viable at the time. I had a job at Cancer Research UK where I was helping run clinical trials for a year. I had a really cool supervisor who was a massive music fan. He was friends with Sun-Ra, like purely by chance. He was like, ‘if you need to go and play your music in Milan on Thursday night, just go and do it.’ But he knew that I was passionate about science and that if I needed to go do an experiment or something on a weekend that I’d just be there in the lab. So I went and did the music stuff I wanted to do and then just did science the rest of the time, I was really dedicated to it. Things were a lot slower for me, you know, starting off in music, and I turned a lot of opportunities down because I felt like I was very lucky to get this funding to do the PhD. I didn’t want to just throw it all away on something I was certain wasn’t going to pay off. And I really love it, you know, I love science.
Rhodes—Are you the coauthor of a 2010 article called ‘Small RNAs Control Sodium Channel Expression, Nociceptor Excitability, and Pain Thresholds’ in the Journal of Neuroscience?
Floating Points—That’s me.
Rhodes—Were you mostly studying pain?
Floating Points—Pain was the paradigm I based the initial idea of my PhD around, looking at the aberrant expression of small RNAs inside of those cells—neurons—and the way we can modulate them.
Rhodes—Switching gears back to music. This album has been described more ‘chaotic,’ is it intentionally chaotic was it a specific aesthetic choice or reaction to the chaos of contemporary events?
Floating Points—I’m expressing some elements of a feeling of chaos that I’m detecting in the big picture of current events. A lack of compassion in politics and the very currency of truth seemingly holding no value. The way your President and my Prime Minister can lie with impunity—it just seems absurd that that wouldn’t be held to account. It’s frustrating, but it’s also fear because it affects this new standard for democracy that seems antithetical to anything that could work out in the long term. That’s pretty bleak, isn’t it? But it’s what I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. No doubt that finds its way back into my music, for sure.
Rhodes—There’s also a certain irony in inserting chaos into something like dance music, which generally thrives on structure. Is this tension something you had in mind?
Floating Points—I would like to think there’s something there. I like listening to it, personally, which is something that I’ve not really had in the past. I made it so quickly that it feels almost alien to me as well; I listen to it as if I was just a listener sometimes. There’s a journey some of these tracks take you on because a lot of them are improvised. ‘Environments,’ for example, is quite a well controlled composition that tends toward chaos at the end. It could go on and on and on but sort of disintegrates into a black hole at the end. I feel like there’s a reflection of how I was feeling in the studio at that point, reading the news all the time. I used to read the news just to stay abreast of the moment but now I’m reading it as a source of hope. I keep waiting to read that Brexit is canceled. Donald Trump is impeached. I keep waiting for something good, some good news.
Rhodes—How do you think the comparatively rapid pace this album came together effects the music itself? What do the late stages of putting together an electronic album like this look like?
Floating Points—Well, with electronic music you’re often mixing as you go along, unlike a live band where you record first and deal with the levels later. I did run into problems, like with a stereo bounce that was recording straight onto a hard drive set up in my studio. Because of that set up there’s a part of the last track on the album, ‘Apoptose,’ where there’s nothing I can do to change it. It is was it is. These are things that become like little snapshots of what has essentially become my live show now. It’s slightly aggressive, slightly unhinged, and bounces along quite fast. Those things were just captured in the moment and I was happy with how spontaneous they were.
Rhodes—Kind of like that Brian Eno approach to production, where you just kind of embrace mistakes as they happen in the studio.
Rhodes—Do you think the time you spend on a project changes your approach to the composition?
Floating Points—I think the approach is actually always the same but I don’t realize it at the time. There are times when I’m conscious that I’m working on a piece of music and it’s being really slow, and there are other times where I don’t think anything, and I just make a track in a few hours. I used to worry that ‘oh, I’ve lost the ability to make music,’ but I’m a little bit more at peace with it now. I’ve sort of calmed down about inspiration striking, although I wish I could bottle up that feeling.
Rhodes—You were touring with a live band for your last album; are you planning on carrying over any of those elements for your new live show?
Floating Points—It’s basically just me on stage with some drum machines, some modular stuff, and I’ve got some synthesizers and I’m recreating a lot of themes from the album and some of my older music. I’m also toying with this bunch of people called Hamill Industries from Barcelona, and we’ve got this wicked system of analog CRT screens hooked up to my modular system which is triggering all these amazing visuals in real time. There’s elements of the show that are really dancey, really ravey, and sometimes really fast and quite unhinged. But then there are moments where it’s just ambient noise and I’m controlling all of these visual elements with synthesizers and creating these beautiful animations.
Rhodes—I have to ask, though, since modular synths can be particularly unpredictable in a live setting, is it difficult to remake your tracks live using that kind of analog equipment?
Floating Points—Yes and no. The music was all made on this small system that I created, all on this one patch, simply because I wanted to take it live. I can play back the midi patterns of the songs through the modular equipment and it sounds… similar. But it is very distinct. Every day it sounds different because even the tiniest tolerances like temperature affect the way these machines sound. But it doesn’t bother me; it’s kind of exciting for me to play because it’s really real. What I worry about is that the whole process is ultimately not boring and that it actually makes sense musically. It’s all well and good if it’s ‘really real,’ but is it actually any good? That’s the kind of thing that I think about a lot.
Rhodes—After doing this for over a decade, do you see a difference in the DJ scene between when you started playing out and now?
Floating Points—When I started DJing I came out of London into the ‘post-dubstep’ world, where people were inspired by dubstep, garage, house, and techno. I think when I was going to clubs and DJing and early on people were a little bit confused as to why this person coming out of this house-techno-dubstep world was playing Gil Scott-Heron records and soul and disco records as well as Ariel and Joy Orbison and Marcellus Pittman. That was something that I felt like I had to normalize over the course of a few years—reminding people ‘this is me, this is the way I play, this what I love, and I want to share this music.’ I find nowadays when I play, people are expecting me to be all over the place. And that’s nice. Except now when I get the feeling I want to play techno at 140 BPM for a whole night, people start asking, like, ‘where’s the disco?’