When lockdown drudgery stalled Bonobo’s creative process, inspiration for his new album ‘Fragments’ came in the shape of modular synths, sweeping strings, vocals galore and, well, a bagpipe choir

The sun beats down on desert scrubland, stretching as far as the eye can see. The ground is scattered with boulders and defiant cacti. In this heat, Joshua Tree National Park is in no mood for visitors. Simon Green, the musician better known as Bonobo, is climbing onto a rock to get a better view of this lunar-like landscape.

He knows the terrain. He’s already braved the Mojave Desert’s Death Valley, famously the hottest place on earth. As he scrambles over the stones, he nearly meets a sudden end. A rattlesnake rears its head, confronting him with a trademark tail-shake, the gravelly rasp warning him the desert belongs to the reptiles. No place for musicians here.

Green gives a slight shrug, and the moment of jeopardy is broken. We’re chatting online, me in my writing room wallpapered with recordcover designs, him in his studio lined with synthesisers. It’s a mild winter, a little damp, and the closest wildlife to me is a ladybird meandering on the windowsill. Despite nature trying to kill him, Green seems bored with the memory of his ventures into the Californian desert.

“The record company’s press people kept saying I should make the story of the album more interesting,” he says. “So I said there was this snake once. They put the rattlesnake story in the press information and now everyone wants to talk about that.”

But he’s also quick to point out the truth of the story.

“It did happen. You’re definitely just part of the food chain out there.”

The album in question is ‘Fragments’, Green’s seventh as Bonobo,released on Ninja Tune and accompanied by a world tour that will take him from Milwaukee to Munich, and from British Columbia to his old home town of Brighton. ‘Fragments’ is not arid scrubland. It has soul singers, proper orchestration and some pretty banging dance beats.

It’s his first album since 2017’s ‘Migration’, for which he earned two Grammy nominations despite scrabbling together the tracks on a laptop
while touring. ‘Fragments’ seems squarely aimed at urban life, whether it’s nightclub dancefloors, coffee-shop playlists or headphones during a morning commute. However, his forays into the American wilderness played an influential role in its creation.

Green grew up in Brighton, an English seaside resort that has counted Fatboy Slim, Nick Cave and Warp’s techno don Clark among its residents. It also gave us the independent label Tru Thoughts, who released Bonobo’s first album ‘Animal Magic’ over two decades ago. After living in London and New York, Green now finds himself in Los Angeles.

He describes his current home as “mostly too hot, and everything’s on fire for three months of the year” – a far cry from the chip shops and the shingle-strewn deckchairs of Brighton’s beachfront. Although admitting to being a city boy at heart, he has found himself increasingly obsessed by the geology of the western United States. Its sprawling deserts caught his eye from tour bus windows, travelling from Colorado to California.

“I saw all this red stuff, this rocky terrain, and I’d want to come back and be among it for a bit,” he says. “Utah and Arizona and Nevada are mad if you grew up in Brighton. It’s just very alien.”

Eyes widened by the American countryside, Green took up photography, driving out to places like Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, with its gravity-defying rock spires reaching for the sky, and Monument Valley, its sweeping sandstone instantly recognisable from John Ford and Sergio Leone westerns.

“Photography was a nice way of getting out of the monotony of touring,” he explains. “I wanted to learn something new, something that had the same excitement you get from learning how to make beats. I could drive for an hour and find these stunning lakes and mountains, then turn up for a soundcheck in muddy hiking boots the next day.”

Buoyed by the stillness of the world around him, ideas for ‘Fragments’ slowly formed, like ancient volcanic rocks. A rambling Detroit-y instrumental was one of the first pieces to take shape.

“I was trying to sound like Theo Parrish,” says Green.

This became the album’s second track, ‘Shadows’, fronted by his touring partner and Grammy-nominated Disclosure collaborator, Jordan Rakei.

Photo: Grant Spanier

And then the pandemic happened. Stillness became a necessity, although the drudgery of lockdown stalled Green’s creative process. He talks about the functionality of dance music not existing without dancefloors, and with club culture on a seemingly never-ending hiatus, he had a problem.

“What’s the point of doing this if we’re not all out there having experiences?” he says.

“Music, especially mine, is based on optimism, right?”

He uses two words to describe this time: “existential” and “yeeugh”. He had been texting track ideas back and forth with Jamila Woods, a Chicago poet and singer who had previously worked with Chance The Rapper. The conversation had come to nothing, but as lockdown eased and bars began reopening, things suddenly started moving forward. Like a rattlesnake ready to pounce. While Green was out boozing, Jamila sent him an excited text saying she was in the studio and he could expect some material that same evening.

“I’d had a few glasses of wine, so I was excited too,” he says. “When I got home, I pressed play on what she’d sent. She’d smashed it. It wasn’t even a demo – what she’d done ended up being on the album track, with no need for re-dos.”

He credits Jamila for kick-starting his creativity, calling the resulting track, ‘Tides’, a centrepiece for the album.

“It got me out of a creative hole, so it was a turning point. A montage moment of, ‘Right, let’s finish this record’.”

Other collaborators followed. Bluesy emo singer Joji features on ‘From You’, bringing with him fans from his former career as YouTube personality Filthy Frank, inventor of the Harlem Shake.

“There are now these very excitable kids turning up on my feed, all Joji fan accounts. It’s real pop star stuff.”

Then there’s O’Flynn, a London producer previously included by Bonobo in a mix for Fabric. He added dynamic pizzazz to ‘Otomo’, which reverberates with an ear-popping sample of a Bulgarian bagpipe choir called 100 Kaba-Gaidi that Green discovered on Bandcamp.

“The choir sounds quite cathedraly, like a dense harmonic kind of drone. Their artwork showed a lone bagpiper standing in a valley by a riverbank or something. I don’t think that’s an accurate reflection of the record!”

And there are the soulful tones of LA singer Kadhja Bonet, who popped up from Orange County and laid down so many vocals that Green was too tired to deal with it all.

“We had tons of takes, so I had to tell her, ‘I’m fried, I’m going to look at this tomorrow’. It’s exciting when you have those kinds of sessions, with eight-part harmonies and so much to wade through.”

As well as finding his way around a camera, Green also embraced modular synths for ‘Fragments’. This wave-form-wrangling style of music creation has been on trend, with his Ninja Tune labelmates Floating Points and Amon Tobin exploring some interesting modular works in recent years. Alongside his expeditions into the rocky wilderness, this gave Green a useful lockdown distraction.

“I feel like modular is where the most interesting stuff is happening right now,” he says. “It doubled as a nice hack to jump-start ideas during 2020, learning how to build a system when nothing else was really happening. I’ve used a Doppler for clocking my Prophet and MS-20 before now, but I’d never really got into the actual sound source part of it until then.”

He talks about “Euclidean patterns”, “randomising LFOs” and letting generative patterns play around with each other to “spew out sometimes awful but occasionally amazing melodies and sounds”. In other words, he discovered new joy in making lots of tangly wires make buzzy analogue noises.

Photo: Grant Spanier

Such sonic and scenic wandering needed two final contributors to ensure this album would come to be billed as Bonobo’s most emotional work to date. The warm orchestration of harpist Lara Somogyi and the multi-instrumentalist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson can be heard throughout the tracks, from the waterfalling harps that start ‘Polyghost’ to the flowing backing strings on closer ‘Day By Day’. Atwood-Ferguson’s string arrangements were so grandiose that Green insisted on letting the last minute of ‘Tides’ melt into a sweeping showcase for them.

“I thought it could be like the end of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Right On For The Darkness’, where we could just have this whole string suite happen on its own,” he recalls.

Somogyi is no stranger to electroacoustic tricks like loop pedals, and a lengthy session using her home set-up gave Green a whole database of potential samples.

“She’s great,” he enthuses. “There are not many harpists who really understand left-field music, and she’s very much in that world.”

Orchestration is not new to the Bonobo sound. ‘Black Sands’, from 2010, opens on a memorable symphonic note, and what would ‘Migration’ be without its heart-melting harps? The synth work gives Green’s albums a technological foundation but it is so-called “real” instruments that create his trademark soulfulness.

“I like working with acoustic sources,” he tells me. “A sound that has travelled through the air into a mic or has been plucked… sorry, I’m going to tell these guys to just stop drilling. Give me a sec.”

Our interview has been interrupted by an unwelcome acousticsound – someone seems to be excavating a road right outside Green’swindow. Maybe digging for rocks. But he’s not phased. Unexpected audio interventions are pretty much his trade.

“I’m into embracing accidents, even if it makes things a bit loose,” he says once the noise has died down. “That’s the main thing, avoiding loops of four and having everything slightly moving to some degree, even if it’s very subtle. So every time a snare hits, it’s in a slightly different place at a slightly different volume.”

The sloshing sun-kissed waters of the ‘Fragments’ artwork, using footage by ‘Migration’ photographer Neil Krug, reflects this fluidity. Motion in landscapes, motion in music-making.

As we speak, Green is gearing up for a world tour and a return to life on the road. The live show is usually an expanded version of his solo set-up, so he spends a lot of time in rehearsals parsing each track into different performance sections. Audiences on previous tours would have seen his synths accompanied by a drummer, a guitarist and a gaggle of brass players. And you can’t beat a trombone for extra oomph. This time will be different, however.

“I don’t want to make everything a band performance if it’s not created that way. There are modular, more clubby bits on this record, so it might be that the band is on stage sometimes, and sometimes I’m incorporating more solo electronic parts.”

This planning hasn’t been without its challenges, with the pandemic predictably causing disruption.

“We had a couple of weeks of rehearsals in London, then I had to pull the plug because Omicron was approaching like an army of zombies. But we’re back rehearsing soon in Nashville. It’s nice to have the experience of having done this a few times before – it’s a bit like getting the old band back together.”

These new-found musical and geographical freedoms have left Greenin a place of reflection. He remembers the 1990s in Brighton, when he was swapping beats with his old mate Amon Tobin. He recalls sleeping on kitchen floors, waiting in the drizzle for his promoter to pick him up, and taking Ryanair flights to his next gig, hangover raging. He’s grateful for that time, but he’s certainly in no rush to repeat it.

“I’m going to approach this tour cycle with a healthier mindset,” he says. “Not overschedule myself, not do things that exhaust me. Take a bit more care of myself.”

Has he even got the energy for live touring anymore? Having asked this, I remember that this is the musician who scrabbles over desert rocks and faces up to battle-ready rattlesnakes. Meanwhile, the ladybird is still exploring every corner of my windowsill. Simon Green is optimistic.

“We’ll find the energy, right?”

‘Fragments’ is out on Ninja Tune

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