Musician, DJ and all round smart cookie Sam Shepherd – aka Floating Points – entered the world of production in 2009 with a flurry of releases including Love Me Like This, J&W Beat and perhaps best of all, the Vacuum EP. These revealed a signature style that breezily combined deep house, soul, hip-hop and jazzy textures into dubby, undulating joints characterised by a hypnotic sense of movement. As a co-founder and central member of the tight knit Eglo Records family, Shepherd now juggles his time between DJing (he holds a residency at London’s Plastic People), producing his own music and studying for a PhD in neuroscience. As far as life commitments go, it’s a diverse and eclectic stew that shines through every time he DJs, with sets that regularly veer from jagged IDM to heaving techno and classic disco and funk.
Since that initial slew of releases, solo Floating Points material has been relatively scarce – unsurprising considering Shepherd’s hectic lifestyle – yet amazingly he admits to having 30 tracks finished and ready for release. The rightly lauded “Shark Chase/People’s Potential” 12″ emerged from the shadow of the Vacuum EP in early 2010, and in more recent times we’ve seen the much-discussed “Marilyn” and equally delicious “Sais” dub. Then there’s his production work for Eglo chanteuse Fatima and his pride and joy, the Floating Points Ensemble, which debuted with the “Post Suite” single on venerable London imprint Ninja Tune. Juno Plus scribe Helen Luu caught up with Shepherd after his vinyl-only set at the recent MUTEK festival in Montreal to chat about why he doesn’t want to make a solo album, his scientific alter ego and his audiophile passion for the EMT German broadcast turntable.
You hold a residency at Plastic People in London, and you played a DJ set today at MUTEK. Is there a reason that you chose to DJ instead of do a live set?
At the moment, I’m still trying to work on it because I’m not convinced by a lot of live sets. It’s not like those days when Daft Punk were playing with a couple of 909s and some serious 606s, and it’s insane, you know, it’s just insane. That’s the kind of thing that really inspires me and it’s what I want to do, but I’m still working on it. Everything is really slow for me because I’m still studying at university. But yeah, I do really love DJing. And my other thing is the [Floating Points] Ensemble, but then no one can afford it [laughs]. Everything’s coming together little by little, and next year when I’ve written my thesis, hopefully I’ll have more time.
You’re doing a PhD – it’s neuroscience, right?
Yeah, it’s sort of like epigenetics and neuroscience. I’m interested in pain. Genetics and pain.
Do you find that your science background crosses over at all into the music that you create?
It’s kind of useful in the studio sometimes when you know that you need 50 hertz and six decibels more. Things like that. It can be useful to take 30 per cent ethanol to clean records sometimes. That crosses over [laughs].
You mentioned that study is keeping you very busy. How do you manage to balance your music and your university life?
I live a 10 minute walk away from uni. I go to uni at about 8am… OK it’s more like 9 [laughs]. Then I’ll leave at 5 or 6pm. I go home, switch my mixer on, switch my synthesizer on, play the piano, sometimes hit record. Sometimes I go to Soho instead, go record shopping. I’ll either go to Soho or go to Camden or Notting Hill. There are some really, really great second hand record spots in London and people are constantly getting rid of their records, and some fool is getting rid of some amazing jazz at the moment in London. I try and prioritize my PhD. It’s what’s most pressing at the moment. I’ve got one year left and it’s getting harder and harder – there’s more pressure on me to finish.
“Whenever we get the EMT turntables out at Plastic People, I’ll go down at midday, plug them in and sit in the club for hours by myself, just listening to records”
I wanted to ask you about Floating Points Ensemble. How did the Ensemble come about?
It’s kind of nice, actually. At school, I was in a little band with some of my best friends. It was a music school so there were some class A musicians. As a pianist and a composer, I took jazz piano and composition. I was playing piano, and my friend Ollie was playing bass, and my other friend Rick was playing drums. Then we’d do gigs in school, at assemblies. We were a pretty crazy ensemble – I mean, we once did “500 Miles High” (Chick Corea) and at the end, there was this whole samba group from the percussion club. They just broke out into the samba and they all went on stage and for the whole of the break straight after, did the samba. Then we all moved to London; I went to university to pharmacology, and my mates went to music college, but we stayed in touch. And then at the end of my PhD, I was like, “man, let’s get back together.” You know, I’ve been composing while I was at uni. The reason I really got into electronic music at uni was because all you need is a computer – you know, anyone can do it. But then I realized towards the end of my degree, it was a case of, “why not?” They’re here, they’re up for it, so we got back together again. I got extra people in, although 90 per cent of them are people I’ve known since I was 11 years old. I’ve got a lot more material at home on tape, but…
Stuff you’ve already recorded?
Yeah, but I’ve only played it to a few people. It’s really kind of film music, quite cinematic, but I want to make it really dirty. I’m really obsessed with high end, trying to get a certain drum sound, using certain studios in London to record in, and recording at home as well. I want to get really nice recordings, and I’ve been mixing it slowly. I want to put out a single this year maybe, from the Ensemble, just to sort of keep it going. But when I finish my PhD, I’m going to record an album.
An album for Floating Points Ensemble?
Yeah. I’m going to play the piano, or I might even try and get someone else to play piano instead and I might want to do electronics. I’ve got these modular synthy things I want to do, and then my friend’s doing visuals for me – but that’s two years away.
So a PhD first and then an album?
Yeah, I’m in no rush. I’m just doing music for fun. As soon as I rely on it for paying my bills, then I need to start really being cautious about what I do because I could then start saying like, “Yeah, okay Britney, you can have my beats” [laughs]. Maybe no one will care by then. I don’t know, I just do it.
Do you ever think about touring the Ensemble?
Oh yeah, of course. We did it with Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Awards. But who’s going to pay for 14 flights and 14 hotel rooms and 14 needy musicians? It’s going to be a lot, and no one cares enough, that’s the truth. Eventually, I’d love to, absolutely. The Ensemble, for me, is like the dearest. Composing – really considered, controlled composing – is what I enjoy most.
And you can really hear it. That single that you put out… it was one of my favourites of last year.
I’m tight with Ninja Tune and they’re good friends but I’m not doing an album with them. It was said that I was doing an album for Ninja Tune – it’s not true. [The Ensemble] is the most important thing to me musically, it’s what I enjoy the most. When I heard that record, when we did it at Maida Vale for the BBC – I was just like, if I get hit by a bus now, I’m happy that this is how far I’ve gone. It’s the only thing I’ve done that I’m actually proud of – perhaps proud is too strong – that I don’t mind. The only thing is that it’s not long enough. That actual composition, “Post Suite”, is really a lot longer than that, but to fit it on a record we had to trim it.
Is there anything else we can expect from you soon, that you’re planning?
I’ve got loads and loads of tracks. I’ve got like 30 tracks that I’ve done and I’d be happy to release, but how do I put them out? I don’t want to do an album for the sake of it.
Do you have any plans for any other projects aside from Floating Points and Floating Points Ensemble stuff?
We did ATP a few weeks ago with Animal Collective, a live show with an audio-visual thing. It was really fun. It was so nice because I thought it would be terrible. I was so freaked out because I had synthesizers, drum machines, all on stage. If I didn’t do something, nothing would happen. I can’t just drop a needle and let the record play. Nothing was going to happen unless I started programming drum beats and playing the piano and whatever. And the crowd – I couldn’t have asked for a nicer group of people. The way they were reacting to it was like joy, and then encouragement. They were just like, “More! More! Keep going… it’s not so bad” [laughs]. So it was really fun. The visuals looked incredible, Will Hurt is the guy who does them. His visuals are amazing. It’s all shapes, very creative. But again, it’s a lot of effort – PhD, university, and then to go home and pack up like four drum machines, three synthesizers, a mixer and a million wires, and then worry about getting to the airport. That would kill me, so DJing for now is enough – but I really enjoy DJing. I love buying records.
I noticed you played all vinyl today, which is very unusual for MUTEK. So tell us about your love for vinyl.
Oh, vinyl! The reason I got into it is because it was the cheapest way to get a hold of releases I really enjoyed when I was 11, 12 and buying records. It was all jazz at first. When I really started getting into jazz, my piano teacher was like, “check this out.” Manchester was amazing for finding records. The sound – I never thought about it really, but they sound amazing. If a CD is scratched, you can’t necessarily see it’s going to skip. But on a record, you see a scratch, you know it’s going to skip. They’re really easy to use. Yeah, they weight a ton, yeah, they’re not cool anymore, but man, they sound amazing. I don’t care what format people use but for me, the sound is so important. My residency at Plastic People, it’s like my most heavenly place. We get the EMT turntables out. We’ve got my mixer which has got really beautiful phono pre-amps. When we use the EMTs, they’re these giant German broadcast turntables. You can’t mix with them, all you can do is play records but when you’re in that club, listening to these records, there is nothing like it. Whenever I do an EMT session, I’ll go down at midday, plug them in and sit in the club for hours by myself, just listening to records because it’s so pleasurable. You hear things that you’ve never heard before… I can’t explain it.
“Composing – really considered, controlled composing – is what I enjoy most”
I’ve never heard of EMT before.
It’s a German/Swiss broadcast turntable. It takes like four people to lift them. They are like washing machines. They are huge, full of concrete and iron. The phono pre-amps in them are incredible. The tonearm and the needle, and all that stuff, everything about it is impeccably engineered. We do these sessions – we did one a couple of weeks ago with Patrick Forge and we played Gil Scott-Heron records, just endless Gil Scott-Heron records. He died the day before, and everyone in there knew what was going on, they know the records. Everyone in there is so happy, because it doesn’t hurt your ears, you can turn it as loud as you want and it always sounds impeccable. Any time we do an EMT session like that at Plastic – it depends on which DJ we’re doing, but it’s the last Saturday of every month. Sometimes it’d be me and someone else. If it’s me and someone I think is like a mega selector, and if they’re up for it, we use the EMTs. You can’t mix, you play half as many records, but it’s like you play them from start to finish and at the end of every record, everyone applauds. It’s beautiful.
In terms of Floating Points, what can we expect from you in the next little while?
I’ve got my new 12” “Marilyn”, which is a track I did a while back. It’s got a B-Side, or I should say it’s got another side – I don’t like the A and B thing. And then I’ve got these 30 tracks I just want to get out, so I was just going to do an extended EP, but I don’t want anyone to think it’s an album. I don’t want anyone to think it’s supposed to be progressive. They’re just tracks, things I’ve done over the years. So I’m working on how to release that as a product.
Interview: Helen Luu