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Bonobo Album art

In our first-ever official interview, Okayfuture stepped into the monkeyhouse with Bonobo, the jazz-grounded electronic producer who’s new LP The North Borders has been creating quite a stir amongst serious music heads. Sitting down across a blonde-wood conference table from the beatmaker born Simon Green inside a gleaming new glass cube of an office block in Williamsburg, Brooklyn it seemed somehow appropriate to skip over the Where did you grow up/What are your early musical influences-type questions and get straight to the technical specs.

Accordingly, what follows is a molecular-level track-by-track breakdown of the new record, right down to which knobs were twiddled when and which file folders are for dropping-coins-into-water sounds and which are for scrunching-paper-into-the-microphone sounds. You will also find indispensable studio tips for beginners, answering all-important questions like: “how do I get the amazing Erykah Badu (who features on “Heaven For The Sinner”–listen below) and Szjerdene (who contributes to several cuts on the album) to sing on my record?” Read on, hit the link below to purchase the record and stream along via iTunes and scroll down for tour dates at the bottom of the post.

>>>Purchase Bonobo – The North Borders (via iTunes)

OKF: So before we dive in, maybe you could give us in overview-what makes this album different from previous Bonobo LPs?

Bonobo: There’s no one manifesto when I’m making a record, it’s always more sort of a reflection the kind of palette of tastes that I’m into at the time. Which I guess, even though I’ve been living in Brooklyn for three years, I still think of this as very much a London record – the London record I made in Brooklyn, because I think that sound was still the most prominent in my pull of influences. I think the main expression of that from The North Borders is this idea of the last outpost of human endeavor, like there are these places… Like the flight from London to New York, half of that is going over these northern territories of Canada, and this kind of icy wasteland, and you know there’s people down there, there’s towns and stuff, but you don’t know who they are or what they do. But there’s always these little outposts where stuff is happening in the world. The sort of imagery of that was the main idea behind The North Borders.

OKF: What would you say the balance of digital and live–were you using a lot of live instruments?

Not as much as the last one. The previous record Black Sands had a distinctly live feel to it; a lot of horns, soprano solos live drum breakdowns. I almost stripped the jazzy element out of this one. This one was more about getting back into electronic kind of processing. The sound palette was different, I was using a lot of Foley sound; recording–not drums–but sort of scrunching paper into microphones or hitting pots and pans or dropping coins into water and creating sounds out of that. It’s more interesting to me; I think I’d said a lot already with that set up of double bass and horn ensemble. This was kind of delving more into sonics and abstract textures.

Bonobo: I would have days where if I wasn’t sort of feeling the writing process, then I would just spend the time by collecting sounds. So I would set up some mics. One of the things was just a paper coffee cup I found that was really nice and percussive. I do stuff with squeezing or twisting two wine corks together – slowing that down, then I can make a really interesting sort of drum roll effect. Just getting a pile of kind of nuts and bolts, dropping them on to a table, or just getting objects and dropping them into water, turning them into kick drums. There’s one whole folder [in my library] called “Plastic Bottle” which is scrunching and unscrunching a plastic bottle in the microphone. And then there’s “Paper,” “Plastic,” “Metal”…

OKF: OK, let’s go track-by-track.

1. “First Fires” f/ Grey Reverend – I actually had this as an instrumental. It came into focus rather slowly, I wanted to do this kind of haunted r&b vibe to it, especially with the long reverb tails, and all the sidechain drums, in that sort of style of like a slo-mo Mount Kimbie or someone like that. And it really lead itself, those people who – like Stevie J, or XXYYXX – obviously, there’s little touches of James Blake maybe, this is my nod to that kind of sound. I knew that a sparse vocal was going to be what we needed. I knew Grey Reverend from his work with Cinematic Orchestra, who’s a friend of mine from Brooklyn as well. We originally wrote this track for someone else, because there was this vocalist we knew, and we tried to write it for him, and we recorded an original version with this other guy Len Xiang—he actually busks on the G train, at the Lorimer stop – he sounds like Bill Withers. Incredible voice, but for some reason it just didn’t fit. I think because Grey Reverend wrote the song, well he wrote the lyrics at least, it only sounded right when he did it. So we re-recorded it, and that was the version that ended up going on. But originally it was going to be the version we recorded with Len. So that’s that one I guess. And the strings were recorded in London.

2. “Emkay” – If there was a kind of recurring theme on this record, I guess it’s that sort of 130bpm, post-garage/2-step kind of sound. “Emkay” is definitely one of those. It uses that same kind of borrowed r&b acapella sampling, which is kind of being overdone a little bit now. But I think there’s still room for it to be used subtly – not to the point where it’s autotuned beyond the actual human range. I think when you keep it extended as a plausible lyric, or a plausible phrase, then it can still sound tasteful. This is about as jazzy as the record gets as well. There are some saxophones in here that we layered up – we did a lot of work with looper pedals; layering up woodwind until its more of a kind of droning wall of sound. There’s also a lot of orchestration here with the strings, which is kind of a case of more just writing parts at home, you know, sometimes on a Mellotron. My friend Mike Lesirge plays woodwind in my live show, he kind of helped me with the arrangements on this record. So I would kind of play him a part – we went to London and we got this string section together and he arranged all the charts for them, including the woodwinds. I like the idea of introducing that kind of orchestral aspect to this more skipping, kind of garage-y thing. I really like what MJ Cole was doing back in the day; in a way, it’s kind of a nod to that as well.

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