Welcome back to Selections, a series of exclusive artist-curated Spotify playlists from those in the know.
It’s a special one this week. On Friday (1 September), Bicep will release their self-titled debut album via Ninja Tune. Having gained a reputation for themselves as masterful curators, the highly anticipated LP draws from the sounds and records which they’ve absorbed across a lifetime of collecting, discovering, sharing and creating music.
To celebrate the release of their first definitive statement, we invited the Belfast-born, London-based duo of Matt McBriar and Andy Ferguson to put together an extensive playlist of influences and inspirations which helped shape the DNA of the album.
They didn’t disappoint. Fifty-five tracks and over five hours of music ranging from formative neo-soul right through to dystopian ambient via atmospheric breakbeat. It’s a trip – and one worth riding along with. We spoke to Bicep over email to break down their choices.
When did you guys start working on this album and how did that process begin?
We started last January and basically just did a tonne of experiments. It began very broadly, I’d say we probably did about 60 different demos, a lot of them beatless, just melodies maybe with a clap or some hats.
Did you find yourselves listening to a lot less floor-focused stuff? If so, what?
Matt: When it came to actually writing the album, I actually didn’t listen to very much music at all. We wanted to just sit in the studio every day and see where we ended up. After a full day in the studio, it was usually time for silence once we got home.
Andy: Yeah, when doing the album we were working so much in the studio that when I wasn’t in there I needed to rest my ears. We would mainly be listening to ambient or more chilled out stuff during this period, stuff like Loscil, Wolf Muller, Cass, Bersarin Quartett and Gigi Masin.
Could you pick out a favourite from this list and explain how it inspired the album?
It’s hard to pick a favourite, I really do love them all in their own way. These were all very passive inspirations as opposed to “Ahh, just listened to track A and now I’m going to make something like it”. The list is really just records (that are actually available on Spotify) that speak to us, or connect in the way we’d like our music to.
How did the more soul / RnB-leaning stuff (Erykah Badu, Aaliyah, Dilla) inform the record?
Matt: Everything from the production, the tempo, the rhythm, the choice of snares… the reverbs. We can take influence from many parts of the stuff we hear.
Andy: Yeah, albums like Baduizm are ones I’ve always loved in terms of production. Amazing low end and pretty slamming but refined drums, also how the vocals are mixed… it’s all pretty perfect.
Out of all of these influences, which do you think can be heard most prominently on Bicep?
Well, they’re almost all what we’d call quite “musical”; they all revolve around chords, melodies, and emotion. That’s a big thing for us.
There’s a lot of ambient stuff on there – how did that influence the record?
We’ve both always loved ambient music. For us it’s very pure – just something that doesn’t get carried by big drums or bass. If the chords and atmosphere alone can really take you somewhere… they’re special.
We spotted that cut from the Blade Runner OST! Are you both excited for the reboot or skeptical?
Excited and skeptical, as with all remakes, but we’re remaining hopeful. From reading, it’s not trying to replicate the original but actually do something new. We have bought the CS80 remake synth (Deckard’s Dream) that was used by Jóhann Jóhannsson on the new theme tune, although I heard Hans Zimmer is now involved in the main score. We’ll see. I find it hard to believe the isolating weirdness of the original vibe could be matched.
How have your listening habits changed since working on a full-length?
Matt: Not really that much. I’ve started to use Spotify more for albums and full-lengths which is great but that hasn’t been influenced by working on an album. I listen to music on a lot of different sources.
Andy: I don’t think mine have changed at all really. It was an interesting experience compiling our full-length. Before we did the album I thought it would be relatively easy, like you would piece it together as you would a mix or a DJ set but you realise that some tracks just don’t work alongside each other as you would assume – there’s key clashes and tempo changes and other things. I now definitely listen to how others solve this problem when piecing their own albums together.
Obviously, you started out as music bloggers, did working on a full-length – especially one that drew from so many influences – play into your curatorial impulses?
We always intended to make it very broad and try lots of different and new approaches. The album was more a chance to just pin down styles of music we’d been making for quite a while but never released. We’ve got hundreds of much slower tunes and weird experiments on our hard drive. Lots of tracks we never felt suited or worked on an EP.
Over the last year, you’ve really focused on performing live. Did that have an impact on your approach to the album?
We wanted to play live as a chance to bring the studio on the road. We love being in there and jamming on machines. We have lots of freedom and DJing and while it’s very fun, it felt a little restrictive after a while, especially after a very productive week in the studio, so we decided to bring some of the studio on the road and try and build it up from there. They kind of now both feed into each other. When writing the next album, we’ll naturally be influenced by our experiences playing live.
Bicep is released on Friday 1 September via Ninja Tune. They headline their own Feel My Bicep party at The Warehouse Project on 18 November with performances from Moodymann, Jane Fitz and Avalon Emerson.