By now, you’ve no doubt heard about Floating Points aka Sam Shepherd - his name has been pure buzz since the turn of the year. His debut, the crunching, bumping, spaced-out hip hop of ‘For You/Radiality’ was more than enough to grab our attention, and he’s since become one of the scene’s most talked about beat-makers. His penchant for melody, synth and soul connects his tracks, but beyond that he is in no way predictable - his subsequent releases have seen him turn his hand to warm, 80s funk-sampling deep house (on ‘Love Me Like This’) and lush, psychedelic 2-step (on Planet Mu’s ‘K&G Beat’).
The scale of Floating Point’s ambition is pretty remarkable; in May he took the Floating Points sound live at Camden’s Roundhouse, where he put together a 14 piece live band. He’s also launched his own label, Eglo Records, with Alexander Nut, and with plans in the mixer for more of his own music, plus new signings at the label (not to mention a wicked new night he and Alex are launching down at the Macbeth this Wednesday) we asked Sam to record us a mix, a request he was decent enough to oblige and caught up with the man himself to find out where he’s coming from, and where he’s off to…
Can you tell us a bit about your musical background, and your first introduction to music production?
The whole story begins in murky Manchestoh. My dad is a vicar and made me join the church choir because of dwindling numbers of warbling old ladies etc. I didn’t really enjoy it, especially having to get up at 8am on a Sunday morning! I also had piano lessons from aged 9.
My dad realised I could sing (can’t and won’t anymore) and took me for an audition at Manchester Cathedral Choir. I got in and as a result went to the neighbouring school called Chethams which is a music school for kids. 8 am till 9 pm music and your GCSEs/A-levels squeezed in. When my voice broke and I left the choir, I stayed at the school studying composition and jazz piano. The school got a fancy new digital desk etc in 1999 (when I was 13) and the head of composition let me use the old forgotten studio as much as I liked. No one was interested at all, even I wasn’t that bothered, but in that room was a wealth of gear, stuff I really took for granted - Korg MS20, Yamaha CS80, 8 track tape recorders, Akai S90 etc… old stuff. And the way my composition teachers (Jeremy Pike and Gavin Wayte) taught me how to use it was not from the angle of techno etc, they really wanted me to appreciate sound. So I was listening to Stockhausen, Varése, Trevor Wishart and Xenakis rather than Atkins, Saunderson and May; so all my early stuff is noise - which I tried to turn into music - really naive to be honest.
All that stuff has gone, I remember the first things I sampled were a set of jangling keys, a fire extinguisher and a vacuum cleaner. That vacuum sample still exists and is the one I used in ‘Vacuum Boogie’ haha. I used to make loops of reel to reel tape and stick a pair of scissors between the tape and the erase head...that was how I made loops. Then I got into sequencing stuff before recording it to tape, it was an Atari running Cubase v1... it was shit... and so I learnt a program called Max/MSP which is great and I still use occasionally nowadays.
It was a reallllly lo-fi education... really annoying, slow and electrocuting at times... but it meant I was taught to appreciate sound rather than be instantly dipped into electronic music from the start; and for that I’m really grateful to my teachers (also to my rents for putting me through 7 days a week of cathedral choir etc! I hated it at the time!)
What has your musical journey been – both in terms of your influences and in what you were producing – to bring you to the point you are at today?
So yeah, the choir, the composition lessons, all that stuff was mainly 'classical' I guess. Singing ‘Palestrina’ in the choir and re-harmonizing Bach chorals in composition. I was particularly keen on 20th Century composers; especially Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Messiaen, Debussy, Takemitsu, John Adams, and lots of the English cats like Walton, Britten, Howels.
I got into jazz mainly because I felt really restricted by classical playing. I just felt like I was playing a type writer rather than "expressing myself," if you get me. I met a lot of opposition with the jazz thing, especially at the school which was (I don’t know if it still is) really classically orientated, but I got a teacher (Les Chisnal and Steve Berry) and they were and still are amazing players and people - such an inspiration. I don’t really feel they taught me jazz so much, rather they taught me how to hear the piano before I played it, yagetmi!? So the piano was transformed from a typewriter into a sort of extension of what I could hear in my head, and so I wouldn’t say I was a technical pianist (and in fact it can really hold me back) but I feel comfortable playing what I hear in my head!
A lot of the jazz my teachers would lend me and some I got on record from the library, but I wanted my own turntable and after a family member passed away and left me a little cashola I got a pair of 1210s etc and started buying jazz from the local record shops. Again, I took it for granted, but only 500 metres away from my school was the likes of Fat City, Piccadilly, FAC (RIP), and so that’s where the whole records thing began; mostly jazz and soul, also used to get lots of house, I hadn’t a clue what I was doing (I was 15). Most of it was shit, but I really hadn’t developed a taste. Then I got into D&B, techno, hip hop, and so by the time I was to leave school, it was either Royal College of Music to study (classical) composition or UCL to study Pharmacology. I didn’t feel like RCM would be accommodating to the way I was writing, or even listening to, music!
I think I made the right choice with UCL, and in fact the very first day I got to London I went to this night I’d been DYING to go to - Hospitality at fabric. I got there as the doors opened by myself and had to ask the door peeps if it was the right place because I’d heard it was supposed to be busy. From 10 till 6 I didn’t leave the dance; it was Tony (London Elektricity) and High Contrast - I can still remember that night vividly...best club night I’ve ever been to! Haha!
One of the determining features of your music so far has been stylistic variety. Is this a conscious artistic decision or just something that happens naturally? How do you go about ensuring your mark is still stamped on there?
All that stuff above... I’m a mess... I’ll go from listening to a 17th Century Montiverdi opera to Roska’s new funky offering. I’m completely messed up with what I absorb sonically!
I’m never conscious about making a certain sound. I absolutely hate the idea of people saying "I’m trying to make a tune that sounds like Flying Lotus," it even slightly grates when people try and describe music based on another artist... one flyer said "Floating Points, bringing that 'FlyLo' sound;" that pissed me off, haha! I understand that genre and artist descriptions are convenient, however, they must be used sensitively.
We heard you’d set up a live band for a gig at the Roundhouse…what’s the setup and how did it go? Did you perform all your own tracks?
Live thing is 4 strings, 2 brass, drums, percussion, singer (Fatima), bass, guitar, and me on synths and keys...
It was all original, we replayed ‘Radiality’, which I think worked, but the rest of it was fresh. We’re doing a Maida Vale on the 15th August for Gilles Peterson, but I haven’t written the scores yet... got some ideas, but it’s impossible to rehearse 14 people at the same time - they are all pros and too busy – it’s nice though, most of them are old school friends.
Did your studio sound translate well to a live platform?
It’s completely different, I write all the dots on manuscript paper and can only hear them once they get played by the players. I’m still unsure about where I want to take the group’s sound. At the mo it’s quite tonal, draws a lot from French impressionist harmony, bit of hip hop, spacey synths... I don’t know, it’s all up in the air at the mo.
You run Eglo Records with Alexander Nut, which had its first release with your ‘For You’, what is the ethos behind the label and where do you plan on taking it from here?
Well, there was a lot of interest from peeps in releasing that tune, and Alex and I thought, let’s do it ourselves. That was the beginning. We want to use it to push music we like - like most labels! It’s a nice situation and it’s nice to see the whole process from having a waveform on a computer screen to having a piece of wax with artwork etc. It’s also nice because it’s a big family thing; the peeps we got along on the label are all friends, which is nice.
What releases do you have in the pipeline? Can we expect an album any time soon?
So the next release is Floating Points’ ‘Vacuum EP’ followed by ‘Kleer’ by Funkineven, and then an EP from Shaunise.
I’m certainly not going to be doing an album for a while yet, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Also I’m trying to do a PhD which takes up 99% of my time.
What tracks are the biggest in your DJ box right now?
The Actress remix of Various Productions, it’s on the mix. Also that Theo ‘Lies’ remix, also a re-discovery. And that Marcellus Pittman track that’s also on the mix!
Which artists do you most hope to emulate in your career – is there anyone out there you really look up to in that way?
So many that I look up to, so many. But I wouldn’t want to emulate, I don’t fear where this is taking me, I just do it for the love of sound, not for the kudos associated with an artist’s name.
Floating Points and Alexander Nut launch Oneness at The Macbeth in Shoreditch on Wednesday 8 July with special guests Cooly G, Funkineven and Fatima.
To win yourself and two mates entry on the guestlist, email firstname.lastname@example.org with the answer to the question below.
Various Production - Lost (Actress Remix)
Falty DL - To London
Marcellus Pittman - There's Somebody Out There
Omar S - Psychotic Photosynthesis
Brothers' Vibe - Step Into It
Pangaea - Bear Witness
Martyn - Vancouver (2562's Puur Natuur Dub)