“I’m a lover not a hater.”
Sam Shepherd aka “Floating” has just earned his PhD with a special interest in the mechanism of pain. Turns out this is the last thing you would expect listening to his debut album “Elaenia” just released on his own label, Pluto. Thomas Venker caught up with the man himself right before he gave his first performance at Berlin’s Berghain.
Sam, I have been told to make sure you leave by 7pm…
I know, I talk and talk and talk. You will get bored anyway.
I have enough questions here, but I hardly think you’ll bore me! I saw you five years ago in Toyko on a New Years Eve party playing alongside with Metro Area.
With all these naked girls dancing on the podium?
It was a funny night. But when I saw them dancing I was thinking: “Oh, that isn´t me.” I am not into this… these girls were wearing really little, that was totally weird.
It was the place where Lady Gaga and Terence Koh performed just a few months earlier.
Oh really? It is always nice to be in Japan, everybody is having a good time there.
Was it your first time there?
It was probably my first gig there, but I have been on holiday there before.
I mention that as it took five years from then to come up with the debut album. You were identified back then as the next hip thing, so others might have come up faster. Do you consider yourself as a pretty relaxed guy who does not care so much and drops things when it feels like dropping them?
Yeah, I am not in a rush. I was quite busy with my schedule as a scientist. At least the last five years I was doing my PhD and so that was every day: science, science, science, science. During that time I was being one track – that is what I am doing. This was important and music was fun. The day after my PhD was finished it switched. It was very clear, now I am a music person.
Do you think this changed your way of doing music?
No, I don´t think so. It was always fun for me. I guess I set things up during that time. I felt like I am blessed to DJ, to be in that lucky position. But now this tactic is over and I am still having the same fun in the studio, but I am being there more. I never feel the pressure in the studio, I am sure there might come a time, but at the moment I just have fun.
So you put all that efforts in the studies to not use them now after finishing your degree?
I like to go back to do some science stuff. I am still linked to the university, I still have access, I still see them a lot. Most months I visit and hang out with my science friends and talk about very nerdy science things like developments in the epi-genetics of pain. It is a new field. I am interested in pain mostly, in the sensation of pain in babies. Lots of painful things are done to them in hospital environments but of course there are never any complaints from babies.
Cause they have forgotten by the time they are able to talk?
Exactly. But at the time all they could do is grimace. But you never know if this is painful. If someone would slap me now, I would probably grimace too. It is pretty difficult to tell what pain is in a baby. Things like that. I am still super interested and talk a lot to people what is going on to stay on top the scene.
Do you have the feeling that those things are reflected in your music? I ask as listening to the album, I would not say pain was an influence.
I am studying pain, because this field included the whole world of neuroscience. Pain is this universal paradigm which could describe a lot of the brain’s processes: from memory to learning and development and sensor and feedback systems.
As it is such a big trigger..?
Yes, pain is involved in so many things. There are people who are studying only memory. But when someone is having a chronic pain, the brain is in fact storing the pain as a memory with the same mechanism, roughly speaking. So by studying that you also have a basic understanding of memory. That said I understand memory, sensory neuroscience, brain feedback, some integration neuroscience, the one thing I am not really interested or not smart enough to figure out is perception itself because this crosses into philosophical areas I’m not aware of.
Are questions of impulse and rhythm connected with your scientific searches? It makes a difference if you get a pain once, twice or in a steady pattern, right? You know what I mean, an idea of torturing somebody with sound.
Code 9 has written a lot about this. His thesis is definitely that sound could be used as a weapon to control people with it. But I am a lover not a hater. I am using music as a universal healing force of humanity.
Beautifully put. So you still have ambitions in both fields?
Yes, I think so. My ambition as a scientist has always been out of pure interest. I only did the PhD cause I was interested.
Do your science and music friends mix?
Yeah, totally. When I DJ my university crew comes out as do my music friends.
Sam, you mind my asking from what kind of family background are you coming?
My dad is a priest and my mum is nurse. Quite a simple set up, not a wealthy family, definitely not. I grew up in Manchester in quite a nasty, rough part of the city with two sisters. Everybody in our family plays an instrument: my Dad piano, my Mum violin, one sister the violin and the other piano, and I also play piano. But not everyone is playing amazingly well.
They must be pretty proud on you as “Elaenia”, the record we are talking here about is a beautiful one. I’ve listened to it over and over in the last few days and there are so many layers that appear over time. It may say a lot about me listening your music, but it took me quite long to realize there are vocals on it as I understood them as sounds, as instruments, there are so blended into the whole soundscape.
Right. I get that as well. When I listen back to records I’ve made, I hear new things in them. Which is technically impossible as I played it, I should know all, but sometimes I hear my music with new ears. I think that is interesting about all music. If that principle is true that you hear different things in even your own music, it means that every time anyone listens music collectively, everybody is having a different experience of it which is so interesting.
Well, when you play or listen to music you achieve a loss of control. Like driving: you do it but you don’t realise it…
How did you produce this record? From the complexity I see a long production process of revisiting the ideas, but from the sound I feel that you must have been able at the end to play it all in one rush too. Does this make sense?
Yes. Pretty much everything on the record is recorded on a tape machine and on a computer in Logic. Instead of recording it in little blocs, each file is one track. Most of the pieces started of with me playing the piano, sometimes an improvisation, sometimes an idea I had before. So there was the piano part, then I put on top drums, bass, strings and some choir. Usually I play the drums and bass and everything else first myself and then I replace the drums with a real drummer cause I am rubbish and then I replace the bass with a real bass player cause I am rubbish … In fact I don’t even have a bass guitar, I just have a normal guitar which I also can’t play. I have to detune every string and play every bassline on one string. I just have no idea. The guitar must be so easy as every kid could play it, but my fingers are just bleeding. Piano is much easier coming to me, everything is there.
So but in the end you were in a state where you could play it all at one time – well, if there were 8 of you and were able to play it?
I got a demo version where I am playing everything – but that will never be heard by anybody!
While listening I had to think about two poles of music: the jazz approach Carl Craig followed with his orchestra in the beginning of our century, this kinda typical Detroit nervy-style and hyper emotionality. And on the other side that cinematic jazz idea a band like Tortoise cultivated in the mid 90s in Chicago with their friends.
Kieran Hebden, Four Tet, he gave me the Tortoise back catalogue on vinyl for my birthday. I listened to it and it is wicked stuff. I finished the record a year ago, so …
… you never heard them before?
No. I only got into them two months ago. Actually often people ask me, “have you listened to this or that” and every time I reply “no, haven’t heard it.”
But you heard the Carl Craig Innerzone Orchestra?
No, I should have probably.
How old are you?
29. It is weird, I am a digger for records, but there are massive gaps in my knowledge. Kieran played the other day a Pointer Sisters records, a one dollar record, when we were DJing at Brilliant Corners bar in London. All night we were playing heavy bass records. And when he played that one I asked him what it was: “Whoa!” And it turns out I already had it at home but had never listened to it.
There is so much good music out there and not enough time. But I am more interested in the combination of your two sound aesthetics: your record is a hectic/unhectic record. A very special combination. It could be a Nightmare on Wax record but it can’t be a Nightmare on Wax because of these feelings of contradiction.
Right. It feels like being on a saddle, but on the verge of falling. It can be delicate but also wild. I like that. Everything is based on top of a piano improvisation, most of the times the first take and by that there is the rawness of the performance.
How are you planning to play that live?
Personally very badly. I remain thrilled by how amazing the musicians are. My band are just so good. I have written all the scores so.
Have you already played it live?
Yes, one show at Dimensions festival. It was amazing, we had a massive crowd. I have done shows with my old band before, but back then I was doing monitors, front of house, tour managing… I was doing everything, I was not knowing that people exist to do that. So this time we had a tour manager, a technician, a monitor engineer, a front of house… everything has been more … I could have not worried about that stuff, but I still did.
You think this caring aspect, your tendency to do it yourself, is this a habit you gained as a scientist?
As a scientist my principle is: you are having a problem – you have to think of a way to solve it. Just try stuff as long as it is methodical. As a scientist you have to jump between being totally crazy and totally methodical. You hypothesize how biology works and then you get methodical and say these are the statistically approved methods with which we test it. The approach to music making is the same: I have that crazy idea and then I calm down and first I have to record this and then I have to make sure the compressor is working… cause in my studio there is this a very complicated set up. There is the big “patch bay” ???? which copies everything to the computer and a 24 track machine at the same time. All the routing of the signals goes through different set ups of equipment.
Why do you record on both, computer and tape machine?
Just in case. I mean, being a scientist… Sometimes I am recording with a band or live stuff and then it is wicked to have it on tape, but if you wanna make this certain bit a little different it is great to have it on the computer also. The sound is definitely better when using the tape machine too.
From which point are you starting of with your music? I was talking this week to Michael Rother of Neu! and Harmonia and he always starts of from a feeling of colour. So what is your starting point?
Nice. Definitely art. I go to exhibitions and find things there exciting. Also the news. I get quite angry about some political things, like a war, and it puts me in a state of mind and that sometimes is reflected in the music I make. Some piece of music will come and be born out of place of anger.
So you come from quite concrete everyday things.
It could be. One of the tracks on the album, the title track “Elaenia” comes from a dream about a migrating bird. I am not the person who has lot of dreams. But I did have one and I remembered it. This migrating bird going from north to south America landed in a forest. Having lost its group of birds, he is in the forest and lost and does not know where to go. So the forest tries to look after the bird and keeps him warm. As winter is coming the forest tightens its embrace on the bird until it absorbs the birds life. If you listen to the track again, there is this bird song on the Fender Rhodes and the synthesizers in the background are the forest and then halfway through everything switches round and the Fender Rhodes is the background and the forest is the melody. I made it straight away that day I woke up. I wish I would have dreams more often.
Are these people you worked with on the record, Tom Skinner and Leo Taylor on drums, Rahel Debebe-Dessalegne and Layla Rutherford as singers, Susumu Mukai on bass, Alex Reeve on guitar, Qian Wu and Edward Benton on violins, Matthew Kettle on viola and Joe Zeitlin on cello also the ones you tour with?
Only the drummer played on the album, string section was different… actually for this upcoming tour the guitarist is the one from the record.
It is basically a big group of friends from London who are all killer musicians. The core band is the Invisibles who are on Ninja Tune records: Dave Okumu, Tom Herbert (bass & synthesizer) and Leo Taylor (drums). I’ve known them for years and I work with them on their music and we hang out a lot. We are old friends, so there is a family spirit. The tour around Europe will be a bunch of 16 friends, so it should be quite fun.
Sam, so you play Berghain tonight. Did you play there before, I mean the real Berghain not Panorama Bar…
No. I gonna do what I do because that is what I do. I have been to Berghain many times and I love techno but I also love soul, disco, house, african music and jazz… Berghain is one of the few places where architecturally speaking, listening to 6 hours of techno makes sense, it was always transcendental for me. So I feel maybe I wouldn’t be bored doing that, but I tried it in the past at other occasions and I get personal so bored playing these record. I got my bag of records with amazing sound with me, I wanna hear them also loud.
It will be interesting what that does to the room. I hope you do not play just techno tonight.
I have no choice. My records are all different.
But I know what you mean. The room maybe leads you somewhere… how do you feel with everybody labeling your kind of music with jazz by the way? A thing also happening to Flying Lotus and the releases on his Brainfeeder label.
I don’t know what this is based on. I listen to a lot of jazz. But just cause it is harmonic, melodic, elements shared with jazz, people maybe confuse it with jazz. Yes, there is also hell a lot of improvisation, but there is also Krautrock, and most of all there is also running beat under all of it , so technically it is still a techno record. It is all these things… I obviously don’t think about it.
Maybe it also comes through your academic background that people put you into the jazz shelve.
When I am making music, my brain is not switched on the science stuff, I am thinking what sounds good. It is very much an invisible thing for me, not an academic one. The only time it gets academic is when I wanna achieve a sound heard in my head.
It think I have to let you run here. Last question: you release your album on your own label Pluto.
I had a couple of offers, but in terms of business (this is a business decision to do it on my own), I have people around me I trust, so this situation arose I could do it this way and it would make more sense than doing it with another label. At that point of the messed up music industry in 2015 I like the idea to hold onto my copyrights, this could be important later on. For now at least.
Sam, did you family members, your father, mother or sisters try to get a little part on the album?
No way. (laughs loud)