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Louise Haywood-Schiefer

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Talking to Floating Points' Sam Shepherd, neuroscience PhD turned electronic musician

"There are a lot of subtle changes in my music — it’s like the epigenetics of music, maybe."

When electronic music gets described as “cerebral,” it usually just means a writer’s getting frisky with their adjectives. It means a little more applied to Sam Shepherd’s work as Floating Points: his elegant, complex compositions mirror the work he did to earn a PhD in neuroscience from University College London. Shepherd became an in-demand producer and DJ while still spending hours on research, and he’s since left science behind as a profession to focus on his musical career.

Elaenia is Shepherd’s first full-length album, and it finds him leaving the dancefloor to realize a multi-disciplinary musical vision. There’s not much that’ll move your body on the album, but it’s patient, genteel, and ambitious, and it pulls from the worlds of jazz, classical music, and experimental synthesizer work in equal measure. It’s the sound of a born tinkerer — a lab rat with a cluttered studio and a knack for taking things apart and putting them back together — rummaging through his musical history for inspiration. The result doesn’t sound like anything else you’ll hear this year.

When I spoke to Shepherd on the phone a few weeks ago, I found myself impressed by both the depth of his knowledge and his generosity. Elaenia isn’t a demanding record, but it inspires a certain curiosity; spend time with it, and you’ll feel yourself compelled to seek out its roots. We talked about those roots: formative musical lessons, experiments in school studios, key records — and the subliminal connection between Shepherd’s science and his music.

Jamieson Cox: You started playing classical music and listening to jazz first, and then you backed into electronic sounds from there. Did you have a gateway drug — or a gateway artist — that served as your way into those genres?

Sam Shepherd: Yeah, definitely. I was playing the piano and playing a lot of French impressionists — Debussy, Messiaen, Mouray — and I was intrigued by their pieces and the color of the music. Around the same time, my piano teacher gave me a Bill Evans record and a Kenny Wheeler record. Looking at the history of jazz recordings, Kenny Wheeler isn’t the most popular — he’s not Duke Ellington or Chick Corea or Keith Jarrett; Wheeler’s weirder. I had this record on ECM, Music for Large & Small Ensembles, and it was an amazing record. It made beautiful use of harmony, and I felt like it had a similar sensibility to a lot of the classical stuff I was playing at the time. That was a gateway into the jazz realm, and it was a rabbit hole I got myself lost in.

The gateway into the electronic world wasn’t through recordings. There was a little studio in my school that no one was using. It was just a little tape machine studio with an S950 and an Atari computer, very basic, and I used it to program samples of simple sounds and domestic things because there were no instruments there to sample. My teacher started showing me Stockhausen, some of the musique concrète composers, and synthesists like Morton Subotnick, but it’s only after I started playing around with this gear that I started listening to people’s work. I hadn’t heard any experimental music — I was just trying to make normally tonal, melodic music using weird noises, and then I heard this out there stuff that didn’t have any tonal sense or rhythm. The gateway was open because I was interested in the techniques. Listening to these records, I thought, "Wow, this is meaningless," and that was like a whole new level of meaning.

Say you have a fan who likes club music — Four Tet, Caribou, that sort of thing — but they’ve never made the leap to jazz or classical music or more experimental sounds. They listen to Elaenia and they start to get a little curious. What albums would you recommend as a next step for someone if you had the chance?

Steve Kuhn’s self-titled album was a huge inspiration to me. It’s got a jazz sensibility, and it’s not electronic or anything but it has beautiful playing. The recording is just a warm blanket of sound the whole time. Maybe Laughing Stock by Talk Talk, that was an important record to me and really opened my ears … it’s totally unique. I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from it and I know that a lot of other bands have, too. It’s like a cult record, and it’s rubbed off on me.

Were you a Kid A fan growing up?

It’s interesting you say that — the 15-year anniversary just passed, right? My friend has a bar with a beautiful sound system, and they held a listening party the other day where everyone sat down and listened to Kid A. I haven’t heard it.

Like, at all?

I’ve heard one track. "Idioteque" is on that record, right? I know "Idioteque." Everyone always says, "You’d really like it," and I know Nigel [Godrich, Radiohead producer] really well, but I haven’t listened to it. I have all these records I haven’t checked out … the basics.

I asked because some of the songs on Elaenia reminded me of Kid A — it’s an album that inspired a lot of imitators but it’s hard to really capture its spirit, and I thought you did.

No one’s said this to me, actually. I was thinking about this weekend, though — my friend told me about the listening party and I thought, "Oh, maybe I should go because I haven’t heard it!" I was talking to Kieran [Hebden, aka Four Tet] about it literally two days ago, telling him, "I can’t believe I haven’t heard that record." But I do know "Idioteque," it’s got that amazing analog systems drumbeat that sounds so good.

Did you field test any of the tracks on Elaenia when you were playing club sets?

Yeah, I played the opening track ["Nespole"] at the Dimensions Festival in 2013. I remember it going pretty well. I don’t usually play a lot of my own new stuff — people will know it’s one of my tunes, it’ll have a certain identity. That’s the only track — I didn’t play anything from the rest of the record.

You’ve talked about your philosophy when playing DJ sets — you build a base and gain people’s confidence, and from there you have a little room to explore. Is that something that informed your construction of the album as a whole?

No, not really. If there’s a crowd of people standing there asking, "Make us bounce, we wanna dance," I’ll do it, but I get a bit bored if I’m just playing banging tracks. I want to have a bit of fun with it, and that’s where that rationale for DJing comes in. I think any bit of the record is inviting; you can drop in at any point and it’s not going to try to kick you out. I think it works on the whole from beginning to end — I think of it as one big track, and there are a lot of segues that are particular — but I didn’t really think about trying to bring people in before kicking them about a bit. I guess it probably does that — there are layers of synthesizer in there and they build slowly and gently, but it’s not too aggressive. It’s like a kind of welcome.

Other than hearing it in one piece, is there an environment in which you think people can experience the record best?

Ah, no. It’s multi-purpose! It took me a long time to write, and I was having different thoughts and working on it in different places — I wasn’t thinking, "Oh, you should listen to it sitting on your chesterfield sofa." I like to imagine it could be enjoyed on the bus with a pair of iPod headphones and with more of a traditional listening experience. I don’t know how well it would work on a tinny, mono speaker in your kitchen — I’m not sure it’s that kind of record — but why not? We all listen to music in so many different ways. People can listen however they want, I can’t control it.

It’s hard to be prescriptive, but you do have some particular sound design moments. I was listening to "Thin Air" before we started talking, and what’s going on in each ear is completely different — they’re complementary.

I’m sitting here in the studio, and there’s a lot going on: there’s a lot of wiring, a lot of modification, a lot of spare screws. In a corner of the room there’s a little workstation where I work on equipment, and I’ve definitely adjusted the studio so I can make certain sounds. I care a lot about the record sounding nice, so on the best possible system it’s going to be super rewarding. But it also functions on a normal little radio — I’ve got good speakers, but I’ve also got a monotone, tiny little rubbish kitchen radio, and that’s how some people might listen to the record. And things’ll become more apparent on multiple listens, there are a lot of layers in the music for people to explore.

"with scientific research, there’s a certain hypothesizing that takes creative energy."

How did you build the harmonograph you used to make the album’s artwork? And where did that idea come from?

I saw a harmonograph in the science museum in London, but it wasn’t being used. It was behind a glass plate, and I thought, "That’s rubbish, I want to see someone using it." So I came home and I got a piece of wood, and I just built one myself in my studio. I drew a few pictures and quickly got very bored. And then I thought, "Oh, this is interesting" — if instead of using a pen on paper I use fiber-optic filaments on graphing paper, I can control the pen and the thickness using light. I took the light source and hooked it up to a modular synth that was doing [album track] "For Mamish," and now I’ve got loads and loads of prints. I’ve got like 50 prints — different bits of artwork, different tracks. You set the fiber-optic filaments tracing over the paper instead of a pen, and then you get the light to start pulsing. The light creeps up and it drops off suddenly, so you get these nice lines — I got the very first one to work.

Floating Points Elaenia

Elaenia's harmonographic cover art

Do you feel like your research work and the work you did on your PhD is creative?

When you’re thinking about the next step with scientific research, there’s a certain hypothesizing that takes creative energy. You need it to imagine how science might be working, especially in my situation where the work is very much biological. Throughout my undergraduate and my entire PhD, the way I understood a cell working was through this giant cartoon in my head — the DNA unfolding, the cell’s machinery. That’s the way it all made sense. So in the cartoon in my head, I’d wonder how this protein is interacting with this bit of DNA, and how it might work. That kind of process was definitely involved in my PhD, and that’s a creative thing.

But once you get down to actually testing things, you have to switch that part of your brain off — it’s best not to get creative with your results. There are creative steps, but my music was an outlet — it wasn’t having a daily impact on the way I was practicing my science.

When you spoke to Pitchfork, you described your work as "looking at way to modulate cells’ machinery in order to try to suppress pain." Do you think that informs your compositional philosophy at all? You said your music didn’t impact your science, but I’m wondering if there was a relationship in the other direction.

The science I study, epigenetics — it’s a very new science. And it’s definitely quite subtle, the thing I study. It’s all about modulation and subtle changes in cell behavior that can have drastic effects. That first part, controlling homeostatic regulation in cells’ daily behavior — keeping it regular, kicking over, behaving well — that’s a delicate system. There’s a lot to it. I like that analogy, there being a lot of subtle changes in my music — it’s like the epigenetics of music, maybe. There’s subtle movement, and that could be analogous to the subtle changes in the genetics I’m studying.

I’m not sure if it’s a conscious thing. When I was in the laboratory dealing with all of this subtlety, I was actually using rather blunt tools, and it was very chaotic. I was stressed about the fact that I couldn’t measure nano- and picomolar concentrations, and I’d be looking down a microscope to see things and not seeing anything. These small delicate things would blow out of proportion and become annoying. I was studying this delicate dance cells do to stay healthy and safe, and this record — well, I’d like to think it’s a delicate record, and I guess it’s similar.

Elaenia comes out on November 6th.