‘Electronic music is in for an extremely challenging five years’
Dance duo Bicep, aka Matthew McBriar and Andrew Ferguson, look back at their teenage clubbing roots, and forward to the future of dance music
Andy Ferguson and Matt McBriar of Bicep. Photograph: Dan Medhurst
Clubs will remain shut for the foreseeable future. Ironically, this somewhat suits the arrival of Bicep’s home-listening-oriented second album, Isles. Its title refers to these very islands, which the Belfast-born and London-based duo call home.
Isles is not the world’s first dance album about trade agreements, customs delays, lockdowns or other issues currently blighting the lives of its citizens, but an emotional exploration of the mixed feelings connected to growing up on an island that you want to leave but end up wanting to return to.
“Half of our life was spent in Belfast and the other half in London,” says Matthew McBriar, speaking over Zoom from their studio in Shoreditch, where they are flanked by an impressive stack of synthesisers and an array of electronic equipment. “We have a dual sense of where we call home.”
Despite being at the vanguard of the past decade’s dance revival, McBriar and Andrew Ferguson haven’t spoken much about their Belfast background before.
“You don’t really have to discuss what your work is about if you make instrumental electronic music” says McBriar. “However, when we finished this album and took a step back from it, we noticed just how different growing up in Belfast was to our current lives in London. It was fascinating to become aware of this, because on a day-to-day basis you just breathe it in and get on with it. We absorbed everything like a sponge for all these years without ever really thinking about it.”
Today their sonic sponge soaks in the kaleidoscopic sounds of London, where they’ve been known to whip out their phones in a Dalston kebab house in an attempt to identify an obscure Turkish pop song via Shazam. During their youth in Belfast, the famed club night Shine became their formative musical influence.
“You’d go to Shine and it would be full of people from both sides of the tracks and they’d be hugging,” remembers Ferguson. “The following week, they’d be with their mates rioting. It felt like the safest place but, on paper, it should have been the most dangerous.
“I vividly remember walking through the doors of the Mandela Hall for the first time. Laurent Garnier was DJing. I was only 16 and I looked it. Initially I was a bit paranoid about this, but then I realised that it didn’t matter. I looked around at all my friends, thinking that this was absolutely insane. Everyone went there to be part of a collective that didn’t exist anywhere else in Northern Ireland.”
The presence of Shine in their hometown was a pleasant surprise.
“In the early 2000s we thought that the only places where you’d get over 400 people in a club were somewhere like Ibiza or the big cities,” says McBriar. “We simply didn’t comprehend having something like Shine on our own doorstep. We didn’t have older brothers or sisters telling us the stories of these places, so the shock of coming through the doors and hearing the music was explosive.”
Shine and David Holmes’s Sugar Sweet became milestones in Belfast’s cultural history.
“While there are political elements and undertones to dance music, I don’t think they really relate to Ireland,” says McBriar. “There was no association with the outside world and a sense of neutrality in going to Shine. Northern Ireland undeniably has a tense religious background, so being able to go to a club that wasn’t linked to any particular community felt liberating. I know it sounds like such a cliche, but dance music felt real.”
From an early age London was very much on their radar.
“Growing up in Belfast we always looked to London and New York as these mystical places where everything seemed amazing,” says Ferguson. “When we moved to London we dived straight into the deep end. The music on the radio here was so different to what’s on the radio in Belfast. I remember coming here and being amazed by all the pirate radio stations, jungle music, record stores and the Notting Hill Carnival. It was all a massive culture shock. Everything was so new and so different. It was a massive inspiration for us, and on this album in particular.”
Bicep were also inspired to become ambassadors for Youth Music, a UK-based charity that fosters musical creativity in children and young people.
“When we first got into dance music, we were lucky to have mentors in London who were much older than us,” says McBriar. “The guys in Simian Mobile Disco took us into their studio. They were about 10 or 15 years older and very well established. The experience lit a fire where we could see an end goal, which was no longer just about performing in a big room. They left a huge impression on us, so we spent the next five or six years developing our own studio.”
Spirit of generosity
Ferguson and McBriar resolved to emulate the London duo’s generosity.
“We reached a stage where we felt compelled to pass on what we’ve learnt,” says McBriar. “We’ve always wanted to bring young people into the studio, especially from backgrounds where they don’t have such opportunities. Dance music can look very daunting and polished from the outside.”
Also during their early days, Jamie xx, the quiet engine room behind indie electronic pioneers The xx, became a committed champion of the emergent double act. Bizarrely, an unsubstantiated online rumour circulated last year claiming that Jamie’s first solo single in five years, idontknow, was a diss track aimed at Bicep.
“The whole thing was completely made up,” says McBriar. “It proves that people don’t question what they read online because it became gospel in 12 hours and five people ended up messaging me about it. It’s ridiculous that it got any legs whatsoever, so it goes to show that there is a serious lack of critical thinking on Facebook groups.
“I think we should start leaking our own fake news. Aphex Twin was on to something with the stories about living in a bank vault underneath the Elephant and Castle roundabout and driving a tank. He’s the original master of mythologising.”
While Bicep started life as a pair of enthusiasts blogging about obscure house tracks, they have no interest in online gossip or feuding.
“In the early days the hard part was trying to get people to listen to us,” says Ferguson. “Now we have people listening, so we want to say something that’s meaningful rather than engaging in pointless Twitter fights. We grew up before social media, so it’s not something we really got into. It’s hard enough to stay on top of our work as it is.”
The two believe their scene faces enormous challenges on the post-pandemic horizon.
“The future for music is quite uncertain at the minute,” says McBriar. “We really hope a lot of issues hanging over Brexit regarding touring get sorted. Nobody in the music industry wanted this precarious situation. There are no two ways about it, we’re in for an extremely challenging five years for electronic music. Hopefully artists will be able to work their way out of it. It’s really important that younger artists don’t get their opportunities crushed.”
This year is a world away from the more innocent mists of their emergence in 2009.
“We got into it during the financial crash,” says McBriar. “It was tough, but it was nothing like this. Artists will have to help each other and be kind. We need to see this as an opportunity to nurture and develop the scene. The onus will be on older, established artists, who are better placed to weather all this, to help people through. There must be a real emphasis on making the community work.
“It became about accounts and stats and followers for while. We really need to make it about a community again.”
Isles is out now on Ninja Tunes. Bicep perform a livestream on February 26th, bicepmusic.com