There are moments in music when you hear a sliver of something that sounds like it has come from the future. It’s a sound or an approach that has the well-made feel of its heritage, but in an original setting. Perhaps most excitingly, it could be the shape of things to come.
One such moment arrives during a lecture session with Floating Points, AKA Dr Sam Shepherd, at the Red Bull Music Academy in Tokyo in November. Unsettling Fender Rhodes stabs spit out over a low bass thump, while tense shimmering sounds take shape and fade, lent a house feel by electronic glitches and the overriding oddness of the music. And underneath it all, a gorgeous jazz drum shuffle unfussily puts everything in its place and lends dynamic and intent to the disparate elements. Among the 40-odd assembled musicians, producers and journalists, there is hardly a head that isn't nodding or a foot tapping as the track unspools through the PA.
This, says Shepherd, is a track that might find its way on to his next record. His shy manner belies a voracious musical appetite and some exacting musical standards. He's still under 30, but already Shepherd has caused plenty of musical waves, whether releasing his own music; putting together epic DJ sets; building equipment from scratch behind the decks at London’s Plastic People club in Shoreditch; or putting out the music of his peers on Eglo Records, the label he helped found with Rinse FM DJ Alexander Nut. (November 28th will see Floating Points perform with labelmates Fatima and Alex Nut in Dublin’s Sugar Club.)
Then, of course, there is the day job. The title in the name refers to his main gig as a neuroscientist studying how pain works on the brain.
Shepherd came to music through a reversed unusual route, starting with classical, moving on to jazz and then into electronic music.
“I feel like I’ve followed a lot of the lineage of the music itself through the ages,” he says. “I started as a chorister singing church music and then got into techno and electronic dance music through jazz, house, soul, which seems pretty logical.”
An obsession with records
This heritage is reflected in the sounds of his records, and his choices during his highly rated DJ sets.
When it comes to the latter, he credits a lot of his approach to Ade Fakile, the founder of Plastic People, a no-frills club with a world-class sound system and reputation.
“Because of my obsession with records and record collecting, I don’t ever thing think of myself as a DJ,” says Shepherd. “I sort of think of myself as a music lover who loves to share that.”
He says going to Plastic People and hearing Fakile play jazz records, for example, in a club famed for its dance and electronic cutting edge, was a "mind-blowing concept. Here is the Pharoah Sanders record I was listening to a week earlier at home. Then he's playing it and everyone is jumping up and down, spinning around, going crazy. It was really wild. The tune was Love Is Everywhere.
“That club context makes people dance. And again, the art of DJing was that Ade was able to play records of a certain amount of time in a certain order, and they crescendoed into something that was more than the sum of its parts and transcended the music itself. It was a magical experience and something I try to recapitulate myself, though I never managed it as well as he does. Also he has the most insane records; I have no idea where he gets them from, what half of them are.”
It’s refreshing to think that even in the age of easily searchable online musical databases, there is still plenty of obscurity in music, and people still experience particular music for the first time in a club. “There is this Spotify generation and it’s much easier now, more than ever, to be spoonfed if you’d like to be. I’m pleasantly surprised by the number of people who don’t want to be. I have Spotify; I don’t think I’ve ever opened it. I open it just to make sure my new stuff isn’t on there.”
Shepherd used his student loans during his university years to fund trips to the US to stack up on records. “When there’s a certain sound that a shop has, the conversations you have [with other people in the shop]: it’s so nice sharing music like this. That relationship of discovery is so important, and it’s something no algorithm is ever going to work out.”
A physical connection
When Shepherd talks about music, his language is very tactile; it’s all about the shape and feel. “I have such a physical connection to the music because I’m really into vinyl. From actually holding the record and seeing how long I have left from where the needle is in the groove, having my hand on the compressor and being able to dial it in . . . It makes the whole process of making music and of DJing more pleasurable.”
This obsession with feel has extended into the equipment he uses – he recently collaborated with Isonoe to build a new two-channel rotary DJ mixer, and he likens the control over the sound on that mixer to a "gas flame on a cooker".
“Feel is a very important thing, almost as a sort of justification for spending so much on equipment,” he says, laughing. “I’m really interested in space, in the sonic soundscape, the canvas you have for the sounds. I don’t think stereo is used nearly as widely as it was when it came out. Someone told me Brazil had stereos before America, so you listen to a lot of Brazilian music, especially from the early 1970s, and there will be a guitar panned full right and drums panned full left and it’s such a weird thing to do . . . and then I listen to those Brazilian records and it sounds so good.
“Space in records is definitely something I’m aware of, using as much space as possible. I’m really interested in quadraphonics; I love the experience of sound moving around a room. That’s definitely something I’m working on.”
Floating Points, Fatima and Alex Nut play an Eglo label night at the Sugar Club, Dublin on Nov 28