Cover Story: Bonobo
Cover Story: BonoboJanuary 21, 2022
In March 2010, I was interning at Ministry of Sound, preparing to move to Manchester for university in the autumn. A few years later, in March 2013, I was getting ready to hand in my dissertation, pulling all-nighters and having nervous, excited conversations with my housemates about what our futures would look like.
Bonobo’s fourth and fifth albums, Black Sands and The North Borders, came out in March 2010 and March 2013 respectively. That is to say, Bonobo records have provided a soundtrack to some formative moments in my life; the intricate textures playing in the background as my very best friends and I met, got to know each other, grew up together and cemented formidable lifelong bonds.
It’s a pretty big responsibility, soundtracking the moments who make us who we are. Or is it? Simon Green (aka Bonobo) who I spoke to over Zoom from his home in Los Angeles, doesn’t see it that way. “If I start making music for people who hold something very personal to one record,” he explains, “I think the music would suffer for that.” Green understands that there exists countless groups of friends like mine who have grown up listening to Bonobo, but he says, honestly, that he can’t think about that when he’s working on new material. “I think the only way to create anything,” he continues, “is not to be too dictated or informed by what’s gone before, and just keep going in a direction that feels right.”
As his seventh studio album, Fragments, is sent out into the world, Bonobo is practiced in focusing on the direction that feels right. Simon Green is a three-time Grammy nominee who has been signed to Ninja Tune for almost two decades. The website Concert Archives has a record of 1,151 Bonobo shows to date, with an additional 45 shows scheduled to take place in 2022. His 2017 Migration tour sold an eye-watering two million tickets. And this year, his Fragments tour will include three shows in Royal Albert Hall’s historic auditorium.
Excluding recent years thwarted by the pandemic, Bonobo has played at least 30 shows a year since 2008. For five of those years, he played over 100 shows in 365 days. Is it any wonder then, that on returning home after two years touring Migration, as the California hills were being ravaged by wildfires, Green felt he needed to take a step back from it all? It wasn’t long after that Covid-19 took its ugly hold, and we had no choice but to step back from it all.
Simon Green grew up in the South East of England in a musical family — his parents were involved in the English folk scene, and his sisters were both talented instrumentalists. “I wasn’t really into [folk],” he admits, “but I was grateful to be around it.” He describes his childhood as an environment in which “instruments and stuff” were happening all the time. As a teenager, he did what teenagers often do, and “smashed around in a garage playing punky, shouty music.” He had a drum kit and guitars that he and his friends would play, and outside of their own raucous jam sessions, he’d be listening to the likes of The Smashing Pumpkins and Beastie Boys. Shouting and smashing in the garage later made way for sample-based hip-hop coming out of New York — an era which, for Green, was defined by artists like Native Tongues and A Tribe Called Quest.
In the ‘90s, as labels like Dorado, Mo’ Wax and Talkin’ Loud were putting down roots in acid jazz and trip hop, Green moved to Brighton, which is where he first cut his teeth as a DJ. These labels encouraged him to go digging back in time, exploring rare groove, funk, soul and anything else that had texture, heart, rhythm and melody.
But an inclination for music-making began much sooner, Green explains, before he was even a teenager. He recalls one summer when the music department at school permitted him to borrow a 4-track cassette recorder for the holidays. “The idea of being able to record multiple takes of myself playing something without a band was mind-blowing,” he says. He’d continue experimenting with drum loops, folding layer of sound onto layer of sound, until he arrived in Brighton and discovered the sampler. “I’d apply the same thing,” he says, “finding a drum break on a record and looping it. It was a mad discovery for me.”
The process from there, Green says, was slow. The first Bonobo record (Animal Magic, released via Brighton label Tru Thoughts in 2000) was an expansive collection of sound files, tied together in a marriage of downtempo electronica, jazz and trip hop. Although the album was made using electronic processes, Green didn’t consider the music itself as electronic. “I was always sampling things that had been played or recorded; the source was very acoustic,” he explains. “That approach was from the hip-hop records I’d been listening to.”
By 2003, a long, fruitful partnership with Ninja Tune had begun, and the legendary London label released Bonobo’s second album, Dial ‘M’ For Monkey, in early June. Moving away from such heavy sampling, Green introduced live instrumentation, vocals, and lithe, elastic basslines. For example, “Flutter” glitters and grooves with twinkling chimes, a funky sitar-like melody, crisp percussion and a shimmying bass guitar. It was at this point that Bonobo became a live project.
Not long before setting off on the Migration tour in 2017, Green suffered the death of both his parents. In the midst of his grief, hearing, making and playing music became a form of escapism like never before. “I’ve always thought of [making music] as a place to go to find contentment,” Green explains. “And I think everybody does that, either collectively or as a solo cathartic thing. It’s a very reflective place to be.” In recent years, with so much collective loss and grief, the escape, respite and catharsis that music offers the human experience is essential. And when Green returned to the DJ booth as dance floors began to open up again, he felt that catharsis emanating from the crowds he was playing for. “People are more rabid for it,” he adds with a laugh. “Everyone is going a bit harder now. The tempo has gone up by 10 BPM.”
With more than two decades of practice under his belt, Green has figured out the tricks of the trade and the processes that suit him creatively. For instance, he always wrote new music while on the road. But in 2020, stuck at home in LA without the “noise of the world in the background,” Green’s creativity evaporated. “It was weird not having anything to bounce off,” he says. “Everything just stopped, and I was in the studio, pushing a kick drum around in Ableton but not really doing anything.”
And so he set out to manufacture experiences of his own; driving out into the desert and exploring in the baking sun, or venturing into a traffic-free Los Angeles. It felt postapocalyptic, Green says; this unrecognisable version of LA with audible bird song everyday and no cars on Route 101. During lockdown Green took to watching a lot of classic LA films before listening back to the soundtracks and scores. And on his adventures into the quiet city, he’d look forward to finding locations he’d seen on screen.
At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a great deal of noise about utilising all the time we suddenly had — creating, meditating, baking banana bread — the general drumming-in of the idea that from the ashes of hard times rises the phoenix of great art. But “nobody wants to revel in shit times,” Green says matter-of-factly. “There are no good songs about the Spanish flu.”
Green eventually felt his creativity spark again by experimenting with modular synthesisers, which was unfamiliar to him. The irony, he says, was that as soon as things started opening back up again, he’d found his groove and wanted to spend more time locked away in the studio.
Unable to get back to the UK, Green dedicated time to keeping up with what was happening musically back home — Ben UFO’s Rinse FM show remained his go-to. “When you’re in London,” he says, “it’s easy to take for granted that you’re exposed to this music. I have to keep that in mind and go out of my way a bit to find things.” But scrolling through playlists, DJ charts and an inbox full of promos also had its challenges in lockdown; he had little interest in functional dance music. “My head was so far away from thinking from a DJ or club perspective,” he explains. “It’s different now and it was different before, but for me, I was thinking ‘why are we even talking about club music?’”
This temporary aversion to music made for dance floors could be attributed to the fact that, pre-pandemic, 2020 was set to be an important year for Green’s club-focused label OUTLIER, named after his radio show and club night. “Outlier” is also the name of a shuffling house track on Migration, with synths that slowly bloom into something more punchy over the course of eight minutes.
“2020 was supposed to be the year for OUTLIER,” Green explains. “We’d found these really interesting spaces across North America and we had all these events planned,” including several “industrial rave spaces,” Green adds. He looked for spots that people hadn’t partied at before: warehouses, factories and woodland dance floors.
While the parties weren’t to be (yet), Green’s intention for OUTLIER was clear from the off. “Heartbreak,” with Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, came out in November 2020. Drawing inspiration from UK rave, with big, rolling breaks, a soulful vocal riff and rippling synths, “Heartbreak” was a euphoric debut for the label, fit for joyous, healing dance floors. In January 2021, Kerri Chandler then added his distinctive four-on-the-floor stamp, transforming “Heartbreak” into a stomping house cut complete with a juicy piano riff.
With such a busy tour schedule, OUTLIER events will have to stay on the back burner this year, Green says. But in 2023, he hopes the parties will be back, bigger and better. In the programming of his own events, Green is acutely aware of the responsibility he has to ensure he is booking diverse talent with inclusivity at the forefront of his mind. “When you have the opportunity to be the booker yourself,” he explains, “it’s something I’ll always consider.” For external bookings, for example at festivals, he says it’s more difficult to be sure of who is going to be on the bill. “Often you only hear about who’s going to be adjacent to you on certain stages,” he explains.
As far as the state of the scene right now, Green explains himself simply: some people are making positive changes and doing it well, and some people are not doing it well. He hopes we will continue to see incremental improvements in achieving equity in programming, like he’s observed over recent years with the push to reach gender parity. “We’re not there yet,” he says. “But it does seem to be going in a good direction. Bookers are definitely more conscious.”
As Bonobo and his team prepare to take his new album on tour, there’s another thing on his mind that we all need to be more conscious of — our industry’s impact on the climate. Ninja Tune’s managing director Peter Quicke is also the co-founder of Music Declares Emergency, a group of artists, industry professionals and organisations that are pledging to work industry-wide towards a carbon-neutral future. As a result, talk of making changes to the operation of Bonobo tours and shows is ongoing. “It’s not practical to stop touring or just do one show,” Green explains. “But I’d like all my shows to be as waste-free as possible, and there are certain offsets I’d like to see happen.”
Living in California, Green says, brings home the impact of climate change in a very tangible way. Every year, the wildfires in the hills rage with more ferocity. “It’s become a lot more biblical in the last few years,” he explains. “Breaking records every year. Seeing flash floods, droughts and fires, you’re acutely aware of how quickly it’s progressing.”
During our chat, Green says he’s not sure how, or if, his experience of the changing climate has directly manifested itself in his new record. Instead, Fragments represents a time capsule of Green’s state of mind at the time, and in doing so, it captures the wider societal mood. “There are some meditative moments, an acceptance and stillness,” Green explains. “And then there’s frustrating moments. I think that’s what that period was for a lot of people — swinging between frustration and calm acceptance.”
Since the release of Black Sands in 2010, Bonobo has shifted into a space more influenced by dance music. Skittering drums, deep sub bass and undulating synths accompany layers of live instrumentation and soulful R&B vocals (Green found a perfect fit in 2010 with vocalist Andreya Triana, and he’s found the same synergy this year, with Jamila Woods on “Tides”). The overall effect is one of easy, languid motion; waves lapping gently on the sand, a gentle breeze breathing over lush, sweeping landscapes, halcyon days.
When Jamila Woods sent over her idea for the swooning electronic ballad, it was a catalyst for the shape that Fragments would take. Green had not spoken to Woods for months, and was feeling creatively stagnated when the Chicago artist sent him a text saying she was going into the studio that night. “It wasn’t even a demo,” he says about first hearing the fruits of that studio session. “It was the finished vocal that ended up on the record. Once I had that tune in place, I thought, ‘This is starting to sound like a record that I’m proud of.’”
Inspired by deep house from Detroit, Green first began working on album track “Shadows” in 2019. In its first iteration, “Shadows” was a seven-minute affair: bright, stripped back and understated house, before Green teamed up with label mate Jordan Rakei. “We started chopping it up into something else,” he says. “We discovered there was a song structure in it somewhere.” The result is smooth R&B with a groove, finding a contemporary in woozy tracks like Jamie Woon’s “Night Air.”
The rest of Fragments moves through dusty house (“Rosewood”), the unexpected pairing of a Bulgarian choir with a whomping bassline (on “Otomo” with O’Flynn), and sugary vocals that float over crisp percussion (“Closer,” “Age of Phase”). The opening track, “Polyghost,” began as something Green describes as “more clubby” before he decided to strip the production back and allow the strings to shine. “Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and Lara Somogyi were the two main instrumental collaborators,” he says. “‘Polyghost’ is reduced to those two elements at the beginning, because of how they’re both woven into the rest of the record.”
Fragments is threaded together using delicate and stirring string and harp sections, courtesy of Atwood-Ferguson and Somogyi, respectively. “[Somogyi] exists in a very unique space,” Green says of the contemporary classical composer and performer. “She uses the harp in such an interesting way. We had two feeds from the harp, one as the microphone and the other was going through all these effects and loops that she’s developed.”
The artwork for Fragments was created by LA-based photographer Neil Krug, renowned for his colourful and psychedelic work with Tame Impala, Lana Del Rey, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Bat For Lashes. Krug also made the artwork for Migration. In an interview with Creative Review, Green said about the cover: “When I talked about this with Neil we wanted to visually represent these themes with movement. Whereas Migration was visually about vast landscapes, Fragments tries to capture motion.” After shoots in California and Wyoming, the final cover image sees the viewer submerged in water. A bright fork of red light illuminates the sky in the background, as if it might defy the elements and set the ocean alight.
In his work on Migration and Fragments, Krug has captured the stark, intimidating beauty of the natural world. And on his tours around the globe, Bonobo has experienced that beauty many times over. Though he thrives in the environment of being on tour and enjoys the camaraderie of the tour bus, sometimes Green drives alone, taking the scenic route and exploring the nature that exists between one venue and the next.
Of the most extraordinary places he has visited, Banff National Park, between Calgary and Edmonton, is one of the most memorable. “It was one of the earliest trips I did,” he says. “I drove up into the mountains and it felt almost Arctic, surrounded by lakes and mountains.” A quick Google search reveals turquoise lakes and bright green trees contrasted against snow-capped rocky mountains — the scene is so colourful and dramatic that it could easily be mistaken for a Neil Krug photo.
If there’s time, I ask, will Green be taking the scenic route on tour this year? “If there’s time, definitely,” he says. “I like to have a moment to step back and be somewhere else. It’s a good way of taking care of yourself mentally I think.”
Katie Thomas is a freelance journalist based in London. Find her on Twitter.