Sam Shepherd has been a bit depressed. You may hear it in his new album as Floating Points, Crush, out this Friday via Ninja Tune. It’s a subtle melancholy, but it’s there. It’s the sort of sadness that leaves you checking the news everyday for some solace, only to be crushed by our collective further descent into madness. On an early Texas morning, he speaks to Vinyl Me, Please from England, where he’s preparing for Crush and all of the promotional and touring logistics that come with putting out a new LP. “The fear I have is through a growing sense of the loss of truth,” he explains. “Truth seems to be completely irrelevant today as a currency. I spent a lot of my academic life seeking the truth. To see that become valueless is incredibly worrying,” he adds.
As a retired neuroscientist, Shepherd was able to see facts, to use them to confirm hypotheses. This deductive practice is disappearing, and Crush is, in some ways, a reaction to that. It’s also, more simply, sort of about a Harmonia song. “I was listening to Harmonia’s live album from 1974, specifically a track called ‘Veteranissimo,’” he explains, before diving into the technical aspects that make the track such a stunner: “I wanted to take that idea of pulsing, basic drum machine patterns and make a few various delays to create polyrhythms. I wanted to use a basic synthesizer arpeggio that sort of goes in and out of time. It’s a really satisfying 20 minute track. The xx asked if I’d be interested in going on tour with them, and I figured I’d do something like that Harmonia song.” From this basis, Shepherd would move into heady improvisations, the bones of which are now Crush.
You can hear it all over the album, from the repetitive melodies that alter ever so slightly to reveal new skeletal structures, to the Baltimore break that forms the rhythm section of “Anasickmodular.” It’s an aching track with synths that call out toward death, a deep, dark look into the emotional framework of Crush. This is Floating Points’ first LP in four years, although in the interim he’s released a Late Night Tales mix and recorded a session in the Mojave Desert. Sam Shepherd has been busy, if not loud about it. Without ever featuring a word, Crush laments the almost helpless global situation, while still putting faith in the human will. It’s truth, or the discovery of something like it.
VMP: When in the process did you feel like this album was really taking shape and beginning to look like what it does now?
Sam Shepherd: It was pretty rapid. I made the whole thing so quickly, in about five weeks. After the first week, I figured I was probably making an album. I had two tracks and three sketches, and was able to see it becoming what it now is. Some of it is quite slow and melancholic, and some is also very quick and aggressive. It was all made in the same period, though.
Despite it being thematically disparate, there has to be something holding it together — in part because it was made so quickly. There are also melodic themes that weave their way throughout the whole record. There’s always some subliminal glue holding it together.
Is that unique to this album or is that something you always enjoy doing on your records?
I like the idea of the album being a consistent body of work. There are too many records in my collection where I only focus on an individual track. Especially in the DJ world. I want to be able to listen to my records as an entire thing. I want it to almost be one track in and of itself. That’s the dream.
That’s interesting because you came up releasing a lot of singles and edits. With full-lengths, you seem to be taking an entirely different approach.
Exactly. This isn’t a collection of disparate dance files. I don’t see the point of releasing albums of dance music, necessarily. But then again, there are examples of great dance albums. Carl Craig’s stuff was so brilliant. His stuff feels like album journeys, but you can also DJ them out as digital tracks as well. In this age of Spotify and streaming services, where a lot of music is consumed track-by-track, the album needs to be a much stronger conceptual statement.
What would you consider the conceptual statement of Crush to be?
The last album [Elaenia] had a dream element, which gave me a backbone for a lot of the record. That was the beginning of that record. I didn’t start this record with a concept other than the musical one. I bloomed from there. A lot of the elements influencing it, especially recently, have been political, and this growing feeling of slow violence; political classes Crushing society in a very self-serving way. Society is losing itself, I think. I was turning to the news every day looking for hope rather than news. That’s not the concept, but a lot of the music was based on the pain of modern politics.
How do you go about translating those emotions with music that’s instrumental? There’s an inherent tension there.
I don’t think I’m actively trying to convey that message or my feeling of disgust. Everyone knows it (laughs). I just can’t help but feel that it must have found its way in my music somehow. I think it’s a function of my anger and fear. It’s time that we as a species be seeking the truth now more than ever. The planet is melting. It’s very bleak, isn’t it? (Laughs) I’m such a downer! It’s 7:15 in the morning. I’m very sorry.
This is how the world works now, especially for someone that likes to be informed. There’s no way to avoid it. We can lament how much it affects us individually, but it’s important to have this in your face all the time. Because unless we do something, we’re doomed.
I do worry that I just go on about it. When you read the news, it feels like an endless cycle. You try to stay informed, but I feel like I wasn’t really informed because I was using the news as a source of release. Like, ‘Please, tell me something is changing. That Trump signed up for the Paris Agreement or Brexit has been canceled.’ But it only ever gets worse.
It is comforting, in a way, knowing that the United States isn’t the only country that’s elected an absolute lunatic.
(Laughs) You got Trump and then ours is as embarrassing now!
Was the plan always for this new album to be done very quickly? Elaenia took quite a long time.
I wasn’t in a rush. The difference is that I had all of this university stuff to do back in the day. I just didn’t have time to even think about music. I had time to practice my instruments and get to know them on a deeper level. I had a five week window with no one bothering me. I was completely free. No emails, no nothing. That time is really important. It’s truly difficult because I live in a scene that’s inherently sociable. I needed that escape, though.
I had time to be alone, which had its benefits. It happened really quickly because I had a better understanding of how everything worked and I had a lot of sounds I had been working on. A lot of the sounds on this album are presets, but they’re all presets I’ve made on a Rhodes Chroma. It’s a pain in the ass to program, but I’m very familiar with it now.
How did those opening dates for The xx inform this album?
Prior to going out on that tour, I had just finished touring with my band. Coachella was our last show. We’d been touring for two years and then we all moved on. We were all pretty tired of touring. I was back in my studio with my synthesizers. I was listening to Harmonia’s live album from 1974, specifically a track called “Veteranissimo.”
I did a little jam akin to that. It was pretty obtuse, I was making some pretty weird music on that tour. It was all improvised every day, created from scratch. I was doing this in front of 20,000 people and came off that tour. I used the same gear I used on tour and just continued making the record. I embellished that live rig I had with all the tools I had in the studio. I spent a year getting really familiar with the tools and then made the album once I deeply understood the instruments. Now, my live touring is electronic again and using the same gear. We’ll see what happens, but a lot of the show is improvised and quite heavy.
What’s it like experimenting and pushing the envelope in front of 20,000 people who are not necessarily there to see you?
That’s quite liberating because they’re definitely not there to see me. Who knows, but I can’t imagine there were many people at those shows expecting someone to come on stage and play a cover of a Harmonia track (laughs). I had a really good time doing it. I’m not sure anyone had a good time listening to it, though. It was very selfish (laughs).
You did that Mojave Desert session and a Late Night Tales mix as well. What is it about these side project-type releases that keeps you coming back to them?
I’ve been a fan of the Late Night Tales series for years. When they asked me to do it, I was super stoked. I’m also a big record nerd. It was nice to be able to dig through the stuff I’ve collected around the world and show off the more mellow side of things. That was really fun.
It’s quite difficult getting licenses, though, because half the stuff I couldn’t find. The actual tracklist wasn’t what I wanted entirely, but that’s how it goes. I’m a big fan of doing things legitimately because it’s important for the artists to get renumerated for these things. That’s what we do with my Melodies record label. We find a lot of old artists — a lot of soul and dance stuff, too — and release the albums with magazines, so we can add some context to it.
The Mojave Desert thing was just another interest I had. It was born out of being there. We had a week off and we were looking for somewhere to stay that wasn’t in Los Angeles and wasn’t in Arizona. We stayed near Joshua Tree and while we were there we were learning some new music. We set up all of our gear outside because it wasn’t raining or anything. Our sound engineer was walking around the site and he could hear the delay and reverb coming from these rock formations. We stuck some microphones in there and started recording. Our visual coordinator, Anna, has a background in film and she called a bunch of her mates in L.A. and they came out with a truck. Before we knew it, we had a full film crew out there.
We just decided to record the stuff. It was a truly chaotic week. It was super hot. Half of us slept outside because there wasn’t enough space inside the house. You’d go to bed at three in the morning and you’d be up by five because the sun would smack you on the head. It was a magical, crazy, tense week of learning new music. We used the environment as an instrument, which I’d like to explore. If anyone knows these crazy, natural spaces that could be exploited for their sound qualities, let me know.