Cover Story: Bicep Are on an Island All Their Own
Cover Story: Bicep Are on an Island All Their OwnJanuary 4, 2021
“The reality is, we’re just two fucking pasty guys from Northern Ireland,” says Matt McBriar with a big belly laugh. That might be one reality, but to fans across the world, McBriar and Andy Ferguson are one of dance music’s biggest duos. “I’m dead shy,” McBriar continues. “Usually if we get recognised it’s at the worst times, so I’m just like…” he trails off and puts on a timid voice. “Oh, hello.”
Given the party-ready sets they first became known for, the pair’s collective reservedness might come as a surprise. And these days they’re perfectly used to playing to crowds numbering in the tens of thousands. Despite their incredible rise, the guys from Northern Ireland have maintained a veil of privacy; a separation between themselves and their stage presence, which is all the more surprising given the image-dominant age in which they came up in.
While their low-profile presence on social media (which remains business only) is partly due to the pair’s introverted nature, Andy says there are plenty of people he’s grown to dislike over the years, having seen the way they behave on social media, though he won’t be drawn on specific names. “I’m just like, you guys are fucking losers. When you’re oversharing, it removes the illusion. But that’s not even the main part of it — it’s just that people fuss over shit that will be forgotten next week.”=
Bicep’s identity and connection to their fans has almost always come the old fashion way: through electric DJ sets, their famous blog and its mix series, and their iconic productions, each of which carries the duo’s undeniable musical stamp. It’s an important distinction, which means that, although they stop short of rolling out the old cliché themselves, they’ve actually managed to let the music do the talking.
“We’re much more studio heads,” says Matt. “We really like the creative aspect. So we don’t really think too much about anything else. We just crack on, and always wished we could have more time off to focus on the studio side of things.”
Because of coronavirus, of course, the pair got even more of that than they wished for. Not only did they take much of 2019 off to focus on making music, but because of the pandmeic, they had the best part of a second full year to hole up in their studio, every day from Monday to Friday.
They’re in the studio when we speak in late December, 2020. It’s a small space just a short cycle ride from their respective homes in North London. The room is bathed in a warm, purple light. Keyboards and drum machines are stacked everywhere around them, making it look they’re speaking from the control room of a giant spacecraft.
“2020 and ’21 were meant to be big years touring,” explains Matt. He’s the blonde one and the taller, chattier of the two thirty-something-year-old Belfast men. “But the first lockdown [in March] hit on the weekend we were meant to do our very first show at Brixton.”
By then, before they knew the government would impose a nationwide lockdown, the pair had already decided to cancel the tour. It was a painful move given the amount of time and money they’d invested in rehearsals. But also a huge disappointment given the year of studio work that had already gone into the shows.
“I was down for like, easily two months after the whole lockdown hit,” says the more direct Ferguson through his dark, thick beard. “We had to take a massive hit, but then the gravity of the situation also really dawned on us.”
The original plan was that the live tours would offer up a harder, more energetic version of the forthcoming Isles album before it was released via Ninja Tune. That way, people would have familiarised themselves with the music before getting their hands on the full length, which was “deliberately written to be quite reserved and more for home listening.” Of course, that never happened.
The lockdown might have been a perfect time to switch things around and get the album out. But, says Ferguson, both men felt that was too opportunistic. “We made a pretty strong decision early on that we need to show this year the kind of respect it deserves. It was not a positive year. It didn’t feel right to shout about stuff. It would have been vulgar to promote a project that wasn’t written with this sort of situation in mind.” With almost a year gone since the situation first began to devolve, the pair now believe people have “acclimatised” and “got over the main hump” of the situation, and will be in the right headspace for the album.
The sumptuous record is another artful development of the pair’s lush, expansive electronic sound. It doesn’t have a straight four-four beat on any of the 10 tracks, and instead is driven by pillowy broken beats and rhythmic synth work. Every track shows a clear step upward in craft; a mastery of the machines, which they collect obsessively, but view not as holy artifacts, but as “tools of the trade” valued for the distinctive sound each produces. “We have loads of eBay search filters set for like Japanese and Russian synths that we can’t even read,” Andy says. “We don’t fetishise the stuff, but it’s definitely what we spend most of our money on. Like, I don’t even tell my girlfriend or anyone how much we spend.”
Isles’ 10 tracks were culled from around 150. The pair felt each song needed its own specific DNA, which can be reworked for the peak time or the chill out room, as was often the case with releases that came with multiple remixes back in the ‘90s. Each song has a deeply personal meaning to the pair, but they gave each tune a one-word-only title, hoping to leave more room for fan interpretation.
“I think we get a lot of our emotion done in our music,” says Matt. “I’m not the sort of guy to cry at movies. That’s the beauty of music, you can say stuff that you can’t really put into words, you know?” Andy cuts in — “With our music, it’s like us kind of writing little stories. It’s a back and forth between me and Matt. There’s definitely a push and pull element to all the tracks. Beauty mixed with distortion.”
Named in-part as a nod to the fact the pair grew up on an island, Isles is, according to Matt, “a meditation on the struggle between the expansive and the introspective; the isolation and euphoria” that comes with such an upbringing. But life in London also has a big influence on the record, which is subtly coloured by a world of sound and musical styles — the same sort of range you’d hear walking down a high street in any of the capital’s bustling multi-cultural boroughs.
“We’d made most of it before the lockdown. But the first sessions back in the studio after that were a bit shit,” admits Ferguson. “You’re like, ‘What’s the point of making this for a club when there are no clubs?”’ But after a couple of months, the pair came to terms with the situation and started working on their first ticketed livestream performance. Taking place in September, it was one of the first of its kind for any electronic artist, broadcast across five time zones, and watched by people in over 70 countries, with visuals by close collaborator Black Box Echo. A second is to follow in February.
The duo’s gradual pivot to playing live shows almost exclusively came about for relatively modest reasons — since they usually play earlier, they get more sleep between shows. “It’s harder to recover the older you get,” Matt says. But they also feel like DJ sets don’t allow for the full Bicep experience, and fans seem to agree. Their live shows have proven so successful that they’ve hardly had time for anything else, including the studio.
“We just kept going and going,” Matt says. The setup has evolved from “an 808, mixing desk, loads of effects, a 606, few drum machines and Ableton,” to one with live synths, compressors, EQs and a side chain. The visuals also had to be developed, adding to the physical challenge of lugging 200kg of gear onto flights around the world, and the mental strain of wondering whether or not the machines would work once they’d landed. “We spent hours working out which were the best but lightest cables we could use,” Andy says. Even something as simple as failing to notice a routine MacBook software update could throw the whole show out of whack, a problem that was only resolved when, as a last ditch attempt, Andy’s personal “years-old, dented piece of shit” laptop came to the rescue, allowing the gig to go ahead.
Despite the challenges, both admit they’re glad for all the hard earned experiences of life on the road, and feel that having someone else taking care of those details would be even more stressful, leaving them “in the dark” about the whole process. That said, after Andy “burnt a pair of headphones with a soldering iron” and shuddered at the thought of that happening to one of their pricey synths, they now happily leave repairs to a pro.
Ferguson and McBriar first met at school when they were eight. Their earliest musical memories are of bands like Slayer and Tangerine Dream, and Irish legends Thin Lizzy and Moya Brennan. Their electronic music education, however, came at the world famous Shine in Belfast, which is sort of like skipping out on the school years and going straight to Oxford or Harvard. It’s a place known for its hard-edged sounds, no-frills techno and famously raucous crowds — anything less than full throttle is seen as “boring.” It was also a place that, however temporarily, united people from Northern Ireland’s different religious backgrounds. “Dance music does not originate from there,” Matt says, so there were no competing claims of ownership on the dance floor. At the time, neither realised how big the acts they were seeing were. But it didn’t matter, they were hooked, and began their own research.
Belfast certainly punches above its weight given the small size of the city, but it still didn’t quite offer enough to keep these longtime friends there for university. Ferguson went to study chemical engineering in Manchester, and Matt studied design in Newcastle before later spending time in Dubai.
“I couldn’t wait to leave,” Matt says. “Plus, I supported Manchester United and I loved the whole Manchester music scene. In comparison to Belfast, it seemed like a metropolis.” Andy takes over. “I remember thinking it’s grey, it’s wet in Belfast. There’s hardly any tall buildings, and most of them are fucking busted up. So you definitely had this feeling of like, whoa, when you arrive somewhere else.”
They stayed in touch while at different universities, and in 2008 started the now legendary Feel My Bicep blog. It was a place to share Mp3s with each other and the world, which at the time was not a particularly unique thing to be doing. What stood their platform apart, however, was not only the breadth and depth of the tunes, which featured everything from deep house to Italo, weird pop to techno, but also the design.
These days, every DJ has a logo, a brand, a visual identity or range of merchandise. But Feel My Bicep, with their now-iconic, muscle-flexing trefoil logo, were early pioneers who found a receptive underground audience, likely owing to their impeccable selections. Next to keyrings and clothing, the pair recently hooked up with their favourite local chocolate shop for a high-end collaboration on an ethically sourced vegan bar. “Because why not? We respect the brand, so thought, fuck it,” Andy says.
For many years, every blog post also came with a carefully selected image, which further helped to popularise it. “With the blog, each post would take us an hour,” Andy says. “We used to try and tell the story of every track, what it meant, whether that be visually to us, or painting a little picture with each one.”
The effort paid off. DJ bookings followed, and before long, Bicep became new-school pin-ups. They were energetic young DJs who could turn up and erupt any dance floor, festival stage or boat deck. But the truth is, there was always more to Bicep than people knew at the time, and the new album proves that once more. Early on, they made and played lots of ‘90s house music (and probably precipitated its revival in the early 2010s). But that was through necessity rather than choice.
“The whole house thing purely came from the fact that we had an ear for music that we couldn’t replicate on laptops,” says Matt. Because they couldn’t make the music they wanted on a laptop, they started editing old tunes and chopping up samples, “just ’cause it got us a lot closer to the aesthetic we were looking for,” Matt continues. “I was listening to Aphex Twin a long time before I was listening to any house music. But house is a nice, easy way of getting into dance music.”
Being locked down during 2020 allowed Bicep more time to pursue their hobbies, like gardening for Matt and boxing “quite intensely” for Andy. They’re also digging for music again. “It reminded us how fun searching for music is,” Matt says. Despite their many intense hours in the studio each week, which are always between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. — the most efficient way they’ve found to work, even it means they sometimes leave and arrived home to girlfriends “unable to string sentences together” — Bicep still spend time listening to plenty of music outside of work.
“I’ll just go down a weird wormhole,” Ferguson says. “More Autechre!” McBriar shouts. “Yeah, more Autechre than anything,” agrees Ferguson, who suddenly becomes as impassioned as he does at any point in the afternoon. “Full blast through my speakers, and my girlfriend is always like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ Anything I listen to is pretty intense.”
He mentions metal more than once while we speak, and the new album from post-metal doom mongers Tool comes up. “There’s a weird niche of four of five of our friends who are super fans, because when you’re in Belfast, these are the kind of things you look up to. You think they’re fucking really cool.”
It’s fair to say that these days, plenty of folks look up to Bicep. They’re ubiquitous in the Internet’s most popular dance music track-identification and meme groups, have produced some of the 2010’s most enduring tracks, and have headlined events like Glastonbury and Coachella. But the pair themselves remain fully grounded. They have already been on the receiving end of an inevitable backlash after becoming so closely associated with the ‘90s house revival, and they don’t want to repeat it. “We quickly found the limit with that,” says Matt. Looking ahead, limits seem a thing of the past.