Bonobo on New Album, North Borders: "Things Get Exciting ... Outside the Comfort Zone"
Classifying any musicians's sound as simply downtempo is unfair. The term says nothing about the idiosyncrasies and stylistic nuances of the individual artist's work. In fact, it's merely a description of the music's rate of speed, a suggestion that these tracks are meant for afterhours home listening instead of the club's peak-time dance floor. Even worse, it often implies something like, These songs are generic muzak.
When applied to UK producer Bonobo, AKA Simon Green, this genre tag, downtempo (of which he was hailed as a leading exponent throughout the 2000s) is even more reductionist than usual. It betrays the lush, lyrical, and exquisitely baroque songcraft that characterizes his work.
Black Sands, Bonobo's critically acclaimed fourth album, released on his home label of Ninja Tune in 2010, was a stylistic tour de force by any genre's standards, though it largely defied genre altogether. Ostensibly electronica, it drew from a myriad of world-music influences -- from jazz to Middle Eastern and Afrobeat -- and employed a stellar ensemble cast of studio musicians, as well as beloved British chanteuse Andreya Triana.
Never one to stagnate, his 2013 follow-up album, The North Borders, sees Green take the Bonobo sound into even deeper waters, with densely layered electronic textures and hypnotic grooves offering a more meditative listening experience. Not that the end result was premeditated.
"Albums are just a punctuation of music," Green tells Crossfade. "I don't usually start out with a manifesto. Your tastes change with the process of the album. I just make music and put it out when there's enough to call it an album."
"I think on every album, I keep experimenting to go where I haven't been before," he adds. "That's when things get exciting -- when you're outside the comfort zone, trying different things. Music I'm listening to now is different than the music I listened to years ago on the first album."
For Green, music is a journey and not a destination, informed by the here and now, but not necessarily specific to any single geographic location. So the fact that he relocated to New York City from his native London to work on the new album, without forfeiting his quintessentially British musical sensibility, doesn't seem strange in the least.
"I think I made a London record in NYC," he says. "With places like Spotify and YouTube broadcasting these days, you get a track made in San Francisco broadcasting in London moments later, so it's more global now. I don't think the transition has made much of a difference. Music isn't as geographic as it used to be."
Of course, The North Borders wouldn't be a Bonobo album if didn't boast poignant female guest vocal performances, including, in this case, none other than the queen of neo-soul, Erykah Badu.
"We discussed working together," says Green about hooking up with Badu for their collaboration on the album. "I felt I had just the right beat. She was into the tune. We talked a lot on the phone during the process."
And it wouldn't be a Bonobo album tour if he wasn't presenting the studio material in monumental fashion with a hefty ensemble of musicians to help reinvent the songs. It makes the best case for Green's artistry being far, far more than just downtempo. But you'll have to catch him at Grand Central on November 14 to make up your own mind.
"The whole six-piece live band is with me," says Green. "I have delegated and deconstructed each track using this ensemble. It's a big multisensory show."
Bonobo. With Chet Faker. Thursday, November 14. Grand Central, 697 N. Miami Ave., Miami. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets cost $20 to $25 plus fees via ticketfly.com. All ages. Call 305-377-2277 or visit grandcentralmiami.com.
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