pulls free from crate-digger cliché
Certain themes emerge when reading about Sam Shepherd, better known as Floating Points.
There’s the classical music background, former residency at Plastic People, PhD in neuroscience and epigenetics, extensive record collection, love of studio gear, and ‘jazzy house’ – more on that later. While he hasn’t given a lot of interviews, most of this information is shared knowledge among his fans and peers. He doesn’t let this glut of information trouble him. “It’s just whether it’s interesting or not! It’s all pretty benign I think. No one knows about all the really dark stuff,” he laughs.
Shepherd’s debut album, Elaenia, is due for release in November on his new label, Pluto. As one of the first stops on his PR train, we meet in a nondescript bar in Stoke Newington, and as I press record for this interview, I suddenly notice he has a bag full of records. “I have this… unending desire to find new music, whether ‘new music’ is music being made now, or music made years ago that I haven’t heard before.”
As he takes a few sips of sparkling water, I ask if rare records are more important than common ones. “Nah, not at all. I guess it has to feel exciting to me.” As we speak, Shepherd often cadences his words like this, in ways difficult to represent in text. In conversation, it conveys strength of feeling, passion. He leans on words like Theo Parrish leans on EQ.
A crate-digger from the age of 13, Shepherd talks engagingly of growing up “obsessed” with finding new records.
While he’s hopelessly committed to the format, he’s not quite guilty of the same vinyl fetishism you see online, like those slo-mo HD videos of a needle hitting a groove. “I was only buying records because it was the cheapest way of getting hold of the music at the time,” he claims. He even suggests that he would be using “those CDJ machines” had he started out now. As he talks in these short bursts, I detect not one iota of ego.
Vinyl has staged a comeback over the past few years. While this is, for the most part, a good thing, there has been a spike in the trend of labels putting out limited runs – 300 copies or so. This makes music unobtainable. “I don’t believe in trying to make your record as exclusive as possible,” Shepherd agrees. “It’s only good for the internet; people talking about music instead of listening … it’s bananas, why don’t you make more copies? Then we can listen to it and talk about it.”
Though he’s not entirely innocent in this respect. “I’ve done it,” he admits. If Shepherd sees his records going for silly money, he’ll press more. Sometimes, however, he is hamstrung by legal and technical issues, and cannot. “Some had artwork screen-prints that don’t make economic sense at high volume. It’s interesting, I see the allure of pressing few copies, to get ‘hype’. But really, truly, what people should be doing is making a great record that everyone has. Not a great record that everyone talks about.” His rhetorical style is compelling. I nod sagely in agreement.
The conversation turns to the new album.
“The tracks started as a set of very long improvisations,” he begins. “I’m a pianist by training. I’d be playing things and think, ‘this could work’, and I’d work on structuring a song around it, records bits, play it again, cut it…” As he’s been touring and developing as an artist, Shepherd has collected more and more studio equipment: “It’s very geared towards experimentation with sound. Every little weird thing is patchable. I could put a piano through a set of guitar pedals, whatever.”
He launches into an impassioned discussion of his modular synthesiser and the current vogue for these. But have we reached ‘peak modular synth’? “Well, I’m not one of these guys that spends all day on the Muff Wiggler forum… honestly. I have been on them, but…” I can’t help but laugh.
Composing ourselves, I put my most pretentious question to him: if there is a symbiotic relationship between a musician’s creativity and their machines, could the same be true of the relationship between Shepherd’s PhD work, and his art? He soon becomes contemplative. “I used to go home after working 12, 16 hours in the lab. I spent a lot time trying things that didn’t work. Music gave me something to go to and hope for… I’m making it sound quite sad!”
"I have an unending desire to find new music”
Born of those studio sessions, Elaenia is a body of work that’s whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. I mention that some of the record has a (and I literally make air-quotes) “jazz” feel to it. Shepherd bristles. “I don’t really know what ‘jazz’ is anymore. Such a loaded term.” He concedes that there’s a core of it that could have been based around improvisation, is harmonic, and rhythmic – all of which are found in ‘jazz’. But each, individually, he argues, is found in loads of other kinds of music too. “Whenever someone calls my other stuff ‘jazzy house’, it makes me feel slightly sick. I guess people like to have labels to organise their iTunes or whatever. But what really matters is whether they like it or not.”
Shepherd is talented and lucky enough to make a living from creating music. Many musicians are not. Indeed, the general position of the musician is an increasingly precarious one. “A musician now can’t just be a musician anymore,” he replies. “They have to be an entrepreneur too. And that’s sad, because there are some amazing musicians who just aren’t interested in the business side.”
As the co-founder of the globally renowned Eglo Records imprint, Shepherd is by no means naive to the business side of things, yet he freely admits to being confused about the future direction of the record industry. What do Spotify, Apple Music and the rest ‘mean’? “The rhetoric is a mess!” he exclaims. “You hear about these people who get played 14 zillion times and only get paid 14 pence. This is a problem!”
But Shepherd isn’t closed to the idea of digital music platforms. He gestures to the street outside as he says, “I can see four people walking past right now listening to music on their iPhones or whatever. They’re probably listening to Spotify, because it’s convenient. We shouldn’t really fight the technology; that’s dumb. But there definitely should be a fairer system for renumeration. I hope the record labels lobby on behalf of the rest of the music population, because they have a louder voice than each of us individually. That’s a lot of responsibility”.
If you search ‘Floating Points interview’ on YouTube, you’ll eventually come across a piece he did in Sao Paulo. There’s a moment when Shepherd picks up a record he hasn’t heard before, places it on a turntable, and listens to it for the first time. A variety of thoughts appear to jostle for pre-eminence as his eyes dart from left to right. What’s he actually listening for in these records?
“Definitely not the lyrics! I got this Brazilian record recently and the lyrics turned out to be, ‘Banana tree, I don’t know, banana tree, I don’t know what, banana tree, where are you’… but it’s such a killer record!” He then reaches into his bag and pulls out some records. With renewed enthusiasm, he describes them to me. “This one’s an orchestral type record, this one’s Ana Maria E Mauricio, a dance-pop record. Unbelievably rich orchestration, harmony… DJ Nuts tells me the lyrics are some of the most beautiful poetry they’ve ever heard. They died in a car crash almost immediately after they wrote this…” He trails off again. “But I’m sure I’ll soon be one of those nerds, buying crazy rare Northern Soul records that sound like someone’s bashing a trash can in your face.”
As our conversation draws to a close, my attempt to coax out some details on subsequent releases on Pluto, Shepherd’s new label, proves futile. He’s tight-lipped. “Nice try!” he laughs. Shepherds sense of humour is key to interpreting his music. Even in the more ‘serious’ elements of his productions, he pursues architectural, layered beauty, complex rhythm, experimental sounds, with infectious enjoyment, rather than alienating hauteur. When I get up to leave, he mentions going for a wine tasting. We both mumble something about not knowing anything about wine, agreeing that “wine is for enjoying, not intellectualising”. In retrospect, that may be exactly how he approaches music.
Elaenia is released 6 November via Pluto. Floating Points appears at Club To Club, Turin, Italy, 4-8 November