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Interview

Bonobo on music's escape: "When you're making music, the rest of the world just fades away."

By Emma Robertson
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Since the release of his last album, Black Sands, in 2010, Bonobo has kept relatively quiet. You might call it the calm before the storm. His highly anticipated full-length, The North Borders, dropped this summer, and was followed up by a festival tour that saw Bonobo (real name Simon Green) hit everywhere from Pittsburgh to Croatia to Montreal. A native to rural England, Green has been an influential player in the world of experimental downtempo since the late ’90s. You can almost feel the consequence of those years in The North Borders: considered, spiritual, organic soundscapes punctuated by vocals from the likes of Erykah Badu, Cornelia Dahlgren, and Szjerdene. We caught up with Bonobo to talk about the making of The North Borders, the meditative nature of creation, and music as an escape.

You grew up in a pretty rural area of England. Would you say we can find elements of that rural-ness or naturalness in your early work? Was it more organic?

I don’t know. It was when I went to Brighton that I really found my feet, musically. Brighton’s coastal, though, so it still had the same naturalness. I’m not sure that it exactly influenced my sound in the ways you mentioned, but it was where I grew as an artist.

During that growth, you were listening to all kinds of genres—indie, hip-hop, jazz, etc., right? Outside of electronic music, what are you listening to these days?

Still the same! My roots are in jazz—not that swinging jazz but the spiritual side of it—the Coltranes, Sun Ra. I’ve been listening to a lot of neo-classical stuff lately, too, guys like Matthew Bourne, and Yann Tiersen. I love piano. I love that kind of filmic quality of music. I love listening to film soundtracks.

Is there a particular record that has really influenced your sound?

It’s funny, I get asked that a lot. But there’s never just one thing, one record. Never. Everything has influenced my sound. Everything you listen to influences in its own way. It’s just how you listen that’s important.

Definitely. You’re a “born musician,” so to speak. Can you tell us a bit about the different instruments you play?

When I was younger, I was trained on piano but I kind of abandoned it when I became a teenager. I started playing drums and guitar, smashing around in people’s garages, you know? Eventually I got back into piano and was wishing I’d kept with it. But truth be told, I can kind of find the tune in everything!

I guess this relates to what you said before about there not being “one” thing, but if you had to choose one instrument to soundtrack the story of your life so far, what would it be?

[Laughs] Right, but I think when it really comes down to it, the ultimate instrument is the piano. But again, there’s never just one thing. It’s impossible to break it down like that, but the piano is the rhythm that speaks to me the most.

You seem to have a strong connection with animals—your first record was Animal Magic, and later Dial M for Monkey. Even your moniker, Bonobo, is a breed of ape. Can you tell us a bit about the connection?

[Laughs] To be honest, there isn’t any connection. I started using the name Bonobo, and have just kind of been making puns about it ever since. I mean, I like animals, they’re cool [laughs]. I didn’t think it would come this far! It’s not like I’m crusading for these monkeys! It’s just a name.

Let’s talk about The North Borders, which is definitely a more house-focused take on your usual sound. Aside from your move to New York, did something change for you personally between Black Sands and The North Borders that might have influenced your sound?

I think honestly that the way I make music is always dependent on the palette of sounds that I’m listening to at the moment. It’s always a reflection of where I’m at in life, as well. I think where I was at 10 years ago is very different than where I’m at now.

So, would you say that the change between the two albums just represents the natural progression of your sound?

Yeah, I think so. My music is always a result of me experimenting with something different. When you get out of your comfort zone, that’s where the best stuff happens.

Can you tell us about the inspirations behind the album?

There’s no real manifesto. I approached The North Borders in the same way I always have, which is just to experiment with sound. It’s just a case of starting with a bunch of sounds and experimenting. Then letting that process of experimentation suggest what music is going to be created. That’s the way I’ve always worked.

Any memorable moments from the album’s production?

When I got to New York, and I set up my studio, and I switched the machines on…I sat down, and that very first day is when I made “Cirrus.” Sometimes you start working on a track and you’re sitting on it for days and days, and not making any progress, but sometimes, the music just falls out of you. And “Cirrus” was one of those times. It was such a pleasure to make it, to the point that I was almost upset when it was finished [laughs].

I know exactly what you mean. Do you have any kind of ritual or trick to getting over creator’s block or writer’s block?

There’s nothing you can really do, is there? Sometimes you’re better to call it a day and do something else until—I’m sure you know the feeling—a sound or something just jumps out at you. It’s funny, when it’s not working, you can get so down on yourself, but when it is working, when it’s effortless, it’s the most euphoric feeling in the world.

On that note, you’ve said that making music is very therapeutic to you. Would you liken it to a kind of escape?

Definitely. It’s like a meditation. I think it’s a very spiritual thing; you can spend hours zoning out when you’re making music. It’s a way of escaping…when you’re making music, the rest of the world just fades away.