Neuroscientist isn’t the day job of most record label founders, DJs, and producers. Not so much with Eglo Records’ co-founder Sam Shepherd (Floating Points) though. Still in his 20s, Shepherd’s relatively young age betrays his maturity and position in the industry – that PhD-awarded empirical mind extends to his music career and business as well. Just recently in November, audio equipment developer Isonoe collaborated with him on a DJ mixer, dubbed the FP-Mixer, that set the UK dance scene aflutter with excitement. This studious quality is also part of his crate-digging habit – Shepherd is something of a musical anthropologist when it comes to his record collection, which is a meticulous library of geography-specific genres. During Red Bull Music Academy 2014 in Tokyo, Benji B poked Shepherd quite a bit on the issue of his appreciation for old music and avoidance of new music. Suffice to say, JUICE decided he didn’t thrust deep enough…
You started off traditionally more electronic, and now there’s a more analogue feel to your music because of the live instruments used on your more recent releases. What happened there? What was the transition?
Actually, I started off more classically. I’m not moving back to it and I’m moving into as well. Or, I never left – but I think mostly it’s because I have now more time, since finishing university, since having more resources with which to record bigger groups, something that I always wanted to do. So now I have the time and the resources to do it in a [proper] studio. It’s great. I can now record strings, whatever, I always wanted my music to have violins in it. It’s nice to be getting back into it on a more regular basis.
Before this, it was more out of convenience…
Yeah, because London is an expensive city. Being a student, you’ve got your bedroom and you’ve got your studio in there as well. It’s a small space. I had my studio in there, it was amazing. The size of the space was probably even smaller than this room. I had a full on studio in there, with like an API mixing console, and a bed, all my records, it was impossible to get around. It was becoming delirious with all the stuff in that room, like there wasn’t any more space for air. So, I moved out into a studio, finally.
Was the environment conducive to the type of music you made?
I don’t think it is, actually. No. That’s something I’m having trouble with, it’s in a basement. There’s no light, natural light. The lights in there are nice, very vibe-y. I’ve got these sort of oil wheels that rotate. Lights are good in there but it’s a dark place, lots of red lights, so the music I’m making might be quite dark (laughs), I don’t know. But, I don’t feel like I would like to have a place overlooking the mountains that everyone dreams about. It’s conducive enough to make music, yeah, it’s doing okay (chuckles).
During the lecture, it was mentioned that you weren’t a big fan of your older music, but you’re a big fan of old music in general. Have you grown out of newer, more electronic-y sound then?
Benji sort of asked me about this. It’s not something I think about really. When I DJ, I play a lot of old music, it’s true. But then… um, I still can’t answer it. I don’t know. I play music from all times, y’know, I buy records every week. I buy new music every week. It doesn’t necessarily work its way into my DJing, but I still put ‘em on at home, I listen to them at home. And I’ve got a record label, so I put out new music all the time. If it were a purely a reissue label, then you can then label me as being just into old music. But, it’s not true. I have a record label that puts out new music.
Could people make this mistake because you’re a vinyl collector and being a collector, you are always crate-digging for older stuff?
Right. When you’re digging in crates and record shops, often the records are gonna be old, sometimes not. That’s not really why… It’s not because that the only music available to me when I’m digging is old music. No, I’m catching up basically, catching up with all the old music. I get bugs for that kind of stuff, like I get bitten by bugs for certain sound or certain moment. It’s been Brazilian, it’s been soul music – American ‘70s soul. So, I start getting into like calypso, maybe next it’s gonna a big Trinidad and Tobago phase. Then, maybe I’ll get into hip hop, who knows? (Laugh) I don’t know.
For all DJ-producers around your age range, they don’t really have an appreciation for vinyl when DJing. You seem very keen on DJing exclusively on vinyl, or you don’t mind using USBs and CDs, actually?
I use whatever. I have a USB, yes (laughs). I know what it is, I’m not very good with the CDJ thing, but I know how to use it. I’m really not a purist – that’s the thing. I have an iPod. I walk to the studio in the morning, I listen to music on an iPod through terrible quality iPhone earphones and that’s fine. That’s the way I consume music when I’m on the go. But because I’m in a position where I’m DJing, I’m presenting music to people on a sound system where the people who have built the sound system have put a lot of effort into making something that sounds really good. That we should be aiming for excellence in reproducing the music. So, I’ve become obsessed with trying to get things to sound really good in those situations, but I’m not trying to get my iPod to sound any better, I don’t care, it sounds fine. I can’t really tell the difference between like a 320kbps .mp3 and a .wav. I really like playing vinyl because it’s a really tactile format, tangible. I know when a track is running out, I can see the needle moving across it. Less goes wrong, although more and more in clubs goes wrong because the turntables aren’t looked after, not steady, not stable there. And the feedback is often the problem. We’ve been lucky with a lot of clubs, they get that now when I go and play because I’m playing records, they have to get that sorted out. It’s important. It was never a problem in the vinyl days, when vinyl was king. But I’m not a purist. I do play CDJs. I don’t burn CDs, no one burns CDs anymore. What’s the point of CDs? If someone gave me a CD and I said “I don’t have a CD player.” I don’t know what am I gonna do with it.
Some people argue that due to the loss of a physical medium, music becomes even more disposable. What are your thoughts on that?
Your connection with music is on a musical and emotional level. So, it shouldn’t matter if there’s no physical product there. But, having an artefact does make it easier to store that memory in a physical item. As humans, I think, we find that easier. As Benji was saying [during the RBMA lecture], he likes the idea of records because it’s a physical object that you are leaving that’s lasting, innit? I have trouble reconciling that with the environmental cost of pressing records. It could all be digital and we could be saving oil used to make records. It’s something I have to sleep with.
Still on the vinyl subject, a lot of people say that today is the ‘Vinyl Renaissance’, people are interested in vinyl records again. But when we spoke to the store owners here in Japan, they told us it’s still just the niche of DJs and collectors. How’s the scene in the UK? Is the ‘Vinyl Renaissance’ just hype?
I definitely think there’s an increase in manufacturing, simply because it’s insanely annoying to get records made now because of queue[s], there’s a queue [to get pressed]. Like when I first started making records, I was turning records around in a few weeks, from sending the lacquer off to getting finished products in three weeks. Now, [it’s] 10 weeks. So, the delay is massive now. There’s definitely a lot more people making records. It’s good, it’s a great thing. I actually know more of my friends who aren’t into vinyl like I am getting into it, buying turntables. I am noticing more of it. I am noticing it slowly, whether if it’s significant or not, time will tell. It feels like it.
You were classically trained before you went into electronic. Have you always had interest in electronics or did you discover it during your uni days?
No, I was into electronic music as a child. When I was 14, I was hearing electronic music, but not dance music, not dance music. Like [Karlheinz] Stockhausen, Morton Subotnick – this kind of ilk of a classical electronic music. And, I actually got into the electronic music of dance music through jazz, soul, disco, house, techno, whatever that’s coming out of producers. That’s the kind of lineage that I got into, that kind of music never strayed away from me. I wasn’t listening to house records when I was 13 and like, “Yeah!” I actually didn’t think very much of [house music], actually. There’s a club opposite where I used to live as a child and every time a door slammed opened, this house music was pumping out of there and I used to think like, “That’s rubbish (laughs).” But over these years, maybe it is rubbish (laughs). No, over these years, I’ve really seen another side to it, the more spiritual side to repetitive bass-drum music. Yeah, I got into it very late actually.
In the late noughties, there was something of a house comeback in the UK. Was that when you found appreciation for it?
No, no, no. I mean… no. I don’t think I make house music, I make music that people sometimes dance to. I don’t know if it’s house revival in the UK. I don’t know about it. I’m just you know doing my thing. I don’t know about this scene… Who’s the house revival band? Who’s doing it at the moment? Disclosure? Things like this, it’s kind of a more recent thing, right? It’s become a kind of chart thing. It’s cool. That’s not where I came from though. I was more getting into it from going to underground clubs. I don’t know, maybe there is a house revival. I don’t know. But then again I don’t listen to Radio 1 (laughs). I think that’s it! I basically don’t listen to Radio 1, day time stuff. And people tell me there’s more house music coming out now. I don’t know what it is. Basically, to answer your question – I don’t know. (Laughs)
Being someone of a scientific mind, do you think there’s an empirical way of making good music?
No. I think that’s the music where you hear the drum machine but you don’t hear the person behind it. You’re just hearing a formula. Music is a form of human expression. I don’t know if there’s any [formula to it]… there’s no a formula. I don’t know. Maybe there’s great music that is just completely formulaic. As humans, we search for distortion and disorder in art.
Floating Points played at RBMA Pres. No Sleep Til Zanzibar at Legato, Tokyo on Friday 7 November ’14.