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From Kraftwerk to Daft Punk, electronic artists have often operated on a more mysterious level than their rock counterparts, happy to exist as shadowy characters behind the machines they create their music on. The British producer and DJ Simon Green has had a 15-year career as the artist Bonobo, yet you’d be unlikely to recognise him walking down the street.
“People don’t necessarily know who I am,” he tells me on the phone from his current home in LA. “Some people think Bonobo is a band. I don’t make personality-driven music. Personality stagnates, people become tired of it. When it is purely about the music, that is what gives it longevity.”
Not that the 40-year-old is a studio hermit. Working at the forefront of electronic acts blurring the distinctions between digital and live instrumentation, he has acquired a growing reputation over the course of five acclaimed albums as his sound has evolved and blossomed from languid hip-hop-influenced instrumentals to more complex compositions, mixing vocally charged, beat-driven dance music with precisely layered, brooding soundscapes. His relentless global touring and DJ schedule has seen him play everywhere from sellout shows at Sydney Opera House and Glastonbury festival to six-hour sessions in New York clubs. Without a mainstream chart hit or Mercury Prize nomination, Green has established himself as an artist who creates intricate electronica that taps into deep, human emotions but also makes you want to dance, and has racked up half a million record sales and 150m streams on Spotify.
Look up Bonobo performances on YouTube and you can see the two sides to this quietly spoken man. On his groundbreaking North Borders tour, where he played to more than 2m people at 175 shows in 30 countries, you can see him onstage with his 12-piece band at London’s Alexandra Place in 2014, flitting between instruments and triggering samples. But you can also find videos of Green DJing in sweaty clubs, whipping up a party with a deftly sequenced set of underground dance records.
His upcoming sixth album, Migration, mixes both these sides. “There is not this polarised thing of electronic music versus acoustic music any more. I use electronic methods to make non-electronic music. It is essentially editing and compiling sound in a human way and using the equipment to collage the sound. If you think of electronic music in the traditional sense, like Detroit techno or Kraftwerk, it is literally sound generated by machines. What I am doing is collaging sound from acoustic sources. Rather than music made by machines, it is music made with machines.”
Green grew up in rural Hampshire to folk-loving parents. “My parents and two sisters were great musicians but my family’s approach to music was always way more academic than mine. They were virtuoso players. But they were all impressed that I could sit down at a piano and find a melody. We had a different approach, we had mutual envy.”
As a teenager he turned to rock music: “When I was 16 I was in a neo hardcore band called Finger Charge. I played the drums with my shirt off.” But a move to Brighton to study at art school in the late 1990s introduced him to the south coast town’s burgeoning beats scene, centred on local label Tru Thoughts. “It was a very informative time. We were coming out of the rave and trip-hop era, using primitive samplers for the first time and playing with cut-and-paste loops from old records.”
Taking his stage name from Will Self’s 1997 novel Great Apes, he released two instrumental albums, Animal Magic and Dial ‘M’ for Monkey, the second on the influential label Ninja Tunes. But it was his third record, 2006’s Days to Come, that saw him moving away from the chill-out, downtempo, sampling scene and incorporating more organic soul and jazz grooves and the vocals of the Indian-born singer Bajka. As a result, Green began to change the way he performed his own music. “I had been playing clubs in Europe but when I went to America they scheduled me in live music venues. I felt like: ‘This is really weird. Stop watching me!’ The audience were staring at me as if I was doing a piano recital when I was playing club music in the middle of a really brightly lit stage.”
In response, he assembled a band to try and replicate the sound of the records: “There was enough instrumentation that I could break it down to drums and keyboards with me playing bass — similar to the bands I was in at college. But it wasn’t really working. So we turned off the backing track and we just locked in and had this eureka moment.”
After his fourth album, Black Sands, Green began spending increasing amounts of time in the US and moved to New York in 2010; five years later he moved west to Los Angeles.
In LA, Green has found himself part of a community of like-minded musicians, such as British electronic producer and Coldplay collaborator Jon Hopkins: “There is a very creative mindset in LA right now and everybody is really willing to connect and collaborate, more so than I found in New York or London. People like Jon moved out and there are bands on my street like Grizzly Bear and Vampire Weekend. It feels like an incubating moment for creativity out here right now.”
Migration reflects this change in Green’s life. Elemental in scope, it uses voices, including samples of R’n’B star Brandy and folk legend Pete Seeger as alien textures, rubbing alongside found sounds and hypnotic beats. “I road-tested one half of the album DJing. Some of it was created in a transitory state, at 7am in a departure lounge at an airport with the club still ringing in my ears. The other half came when I stopped and the dust settled. I found myself living alone in this new city. My dad passed away last year, and I turned 40. So I have been assessing where I was and who I was. I was going through these waves of weirdness, and the more sombre parts of the record are from that period.”
It’s a beguiling mix, and one that few other electronic artists pull off.
‘Migration’ is released on Ninja Tune on January 13. For live dates see bonobomusic.com