The retro-loving party taskforce invite us into their cluttered beat laboratory
Back in 2013, Crack descended once again on Worthy Farm and, by nature, the delirious hinterland that is Block 9, The Common and Shangri La. After watching Bicep on the then-brand-new Genosys stage, we ended up spending a large proportion of the morning with them courtesy of a mutual friend, sucking in the haze of a dry Glastonbury morning at The Stone Circle; blissful ambience punctuated by balloons and the humour of two affable Northern Irishmen.
Our second meeting with the Bicep boys is in their new Shoreditch studio, a space with pieces of hardware and Expedits rammed full of vinyl everywhere your eye rests. If hedonism characterised our first meeting, this is a more relaxed affair. Matt McBriar and Andy Ferguson are in wonderful contrast to one another. The former is the distinct mouthpiece for the duo, while the other reclines, intently chipping in when appropriate with amusing quips.
Surfacing from beneath a blog that exposed them as studious hunters of all things disco, Italo and ultimately rare, Bicep’s production sound initially owed a debt to 90s piano house as much as any other more convoluted genre strain. This retro fetishism was hugely refreshing at a time when every other UK producer worth their salt was making house music with lashings of bottom end heft attached. The good prevail, and the result is a label, an image and a touring schedule that has for the last year cemented their place as leaders of their field.
Oh … and they like taking their tops off as much as we do.
So does the studio represent a bit of a respite from the relentless tour schedule? Is that whole lifestyle beginning to take its toll?
Matt: I wish I could take some time off. I’m just rolling from one thing to the next, and it’s got to the point now where sitting around listening to a load of people talk about fucking coke before a gig is my idea of hell. So now I just try and arrive at gigs as late as possible and then split.
Andy: When you’re tired in here [the studio] and you can’t even move a wire around despite needing to get shit done, it’s not good.
M: You hear a lot of the music produced these days from DJs who are pretty good, and it just passes by. You can tell there’s no decent quality gear being used. The more we’ve bought this stuff and developed an ear to listen to it, the more we’ve dug further back into time to achieve a good sound.
How long has the studio taken to assemble then?
M: It started last October. Prior to that we’ve been buying bits and pieces over the last two years.
A: It’s like a wormhole, you start buying this stuff and it just keeps going, there’s always something we want. This over here [Arp Odyssey analogue modular synthesizer] is semi-modular so there are literally no presets, so you have to turn it on in the morning and leave it for a bit while the oscillators heat up, and then you have to tune it. It was made in 1976.
What’s the end game from all this equipment investment then? Are we looking at a full-length record?
M: There’s no point in having another house music album with a couple of female vocal bits that work in a nightclub. We do singles that are aimed at the dance floor, they aren’t meant to be life-changing pieces of music.
A: You need a vision for an album. Space Dimension Controller for instance, his vision for his album is that he thinks of a story and the songs almost write themselves. If we did an album it would definitely contain a concept and I know Matt has talked about going to Scandinavia and just sitting there for six months in the winter and writing an album.
So taking it back, what were your first partying experiences in Northern Ireland?
A: Basically there was one club called Shine. When we were growing up in school together we were surrounded by commercial hip-hop and shit Euro music. Belfast has got a very cool little punk scene and I got into a bit of that. I wanted to be in bands but I played sport and committed to that. I played rugby and I nearly played cricket professionally. It was a case of choosing cricket or music, but I chose music and started going out more.
M: I remember stumbling across Shine one night, Umek was playing, and I didn’t understand the concept of music being part of a bigger set. Up until then it was always a case of going to a club and the guy would play one anthem and then another and that was music to me. So when I heard this repetitive rumbling techno with no vocal and 800 people going mental, I was like ‘Woah!’. I got a set of decks immediately and started buying loads of hard techno and going out at every single weekend to see Dave Clarke, Green Velvet, Underground Resistance.
Dave Clarke often talks about Belfast being a proper hotbed for that kind of music.
M: It was in the SU building and it could hold between 1000-1500 people and they sold ice lollies on the door. People were smoking indoors and every time you walked back into that room was like going straight back into battle.
A: I’d have a Twister in one hand and a Stella in the other.
M: I went to university and that instantly died away. Minimal techno got really big and I fell out with it. I stopped DJing and stopped music. That era in the UK was awful, there was no musicality involved and it was just dry.
A: It was the musical sound of a cappuccino machine.
M: That’s why we started the blog, we just put up loads of weird 70s music and Italo disco. Anything that was strange, weird and off centre, basically.
So did you used to visit each other at university?
A: Matt was in Liverpool and I used to go up and see him all the time.
M: While I was at uni I also had no interest in DJing out and I didn’t have decks. Before I started Bicep I hadn’t DJed in seven years. I was still buying vinyl but I wasn’t trying to DJ out. That was the starting block for the blog though, wasn’t it? It wasn’t a case of you guys posting mixes, it was more of an educational tool, weird music and humour. But we were making bits of music on the side. Just messing around and making edits and stuff. So we had one or two records out, and then I moved to Dubai.
M: I got offered a graphic design job in the UK mid-recession. It’s the easiest place to get your head down and get locked into music as there’s nothing else to do other than go to the beach. I brought some equipment into my office and just practiced after work on Ableton. Things just came together when I came back to London, so we quit our jobs and said we’d just starve for a year. When your first gigs come in and you’re staying in a hotel for the first time you’re like ‘Woah!’
A: It was fucking tough for a year. Next level broke. I was sleeping on his couch and waking up at seven each day to go to Tesco, cause that was when the reduced section came out!
2013 was the unequivocal year of ‘Taps Aff’ in the Crack office. That’s your shit though, what are the origins?
A: It’s not even our shit, it’s more of an Irish saying. The Revenge also had a record label called Tops Off and he used to put edits out on there that were tunes to take your top off to. There were friends I used to say it to at university, I’d be like ‘you coming down for some Tops Off?’ If you were doing ‘Tops Off’ you’d just be playing party bangers.
M: It’s a Glasgow and Belfast thing. Basically places with really shit weather and the idea is the minute there is a little bit of sunshine you whip it off. Belfast and Glasgow are two places you are least likely to take your top off, so it becomes a cheer! It was fun when we were DJing and there would be 50 people with their top off. Then it got to the stage where people expected us to do it. So we stopped.
A: You’d get one really creepy guy coming up to the decks and being like [creepy old man voice] ‘tops off?’
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Words: Thomas Frost
Photography: Tom Weatherill
Bicep appear at Bestival, Isle of Wight, 4-7 September and The Warehouse Project, Manchester on 5 December