III Points Festival

Bonobo on the Importance of a Human Touch

In the world of electronic music, Bonobo is a mellow monkey among men. We mean that in the best sense. As other artists float around in airy imbalance, Simon Green samples sounds – both industrial and organic – with layered structures as secure as they are ethereal.

The 39-year-old English musician, born Simon Green, will be coming to Miami as part of the III Points lineup alongside folks like Nicolas Jaar, Run the Jewels, Panda Bear, and King Krule. 

But before he does, he spoke to us from Los Angeles about performing with a live band, NASA, and the threat of A.I.

New Times
: You spent much of 2014 touring with a live band before releasing The North Borders Live album. Why did you begin touring with a live band?
Bonobo: I’ve been working with live bands for about ten years. I started in about 2004 after [Dial “M” for Monkey]. Back then the music sounded more lively, with jazzier elements. I didn’t want to do a one-man show because I didn’t think it would represent the process of the music as well. So I put a band together. I tried to disassemble the record first then see if it could be brought to life again.

I’ve been touring that way since. So I’ll make a record, take the tracks apart, and then reconstruct a live show and tour that a while.

Do you write your music with this live element in mind?
No, I don’t consider the band while I’m making music. So the music isn’t informed by whether it can be performed live or not. I just make the music I want to make and worry about the live aspect afterwards. Certain tracks just will not translate into a live performance anyway, and they have to stay as recorded music. It becomes a secondary process to make the rest of them live.

What do analog instruments offer that digital devices don’t?
I don’t think it’s the instruments as such as much as it is the humans behind them. There’s something unique in the timing of playing together. It’s still an electronic show, though – or it’s fifty-fifty. There are three of us on synthesizers. I’m manning a big electronic rig. Within that, there are woodwinds and live drums and vocals. It’s a mixture.

I’ve never been one of those musicians to differentiate between acoustic and electronic sounds. I just see it all as sound sources to be used. This translates into my live shows as well.
How does your relationship with the audience change when you’re on stage with a live band, as opposed to as a solo DJ?
The focal point is different. I’ve got more of a history as a DJ, and that’s where I’m most comfortable. As a club DJ, it’s more about the room and the whole immersive experience of the club.

In a live show, the focus is on the stage. It’s more of a performance, more of a spectacle. For me, the energy when I’m DJ'ing should be about the dance floor and not about the person performing.

What natural sounds influences your music the most?
I wouldn’t say any specific natural sound. But there’s sound, particularly rhythm, all around us. There’s rhythm in industry and everywhere you go today.

There are some very interesting sounds coming from space, though, from the radioactive material left over from the Big Bang that’s still out there. I think NASA has a soundcloud where you can go and listen to this stuff. It sounds like a modular synth.

Your music combines human and technological elements from your live performances to sound samplings and synthesizers. What are your thoughts on trans-humanism?
It’s interesting that we’re at this point where artificial intelligence is potentially about to supersede humans. The idea of machines in music has always been misunderstood and reinterpreted and misunderstood in an ongoing dialogue.

Does this unnerve you?
It doesn’t unnerve me, no. But technological development happens so fast. In the last 20 years or so, there’s been no guidance for how to use it, how to assimilate it into your life. Now everybody is just kind of living their lives on Snapchat and no body is being cautioned about the effects of technology. People need to be more aware of what it’s doing to them — need to look up occasionally and acknowledge that we’re still living in an organic world.

Will humans and musical A.I. ever really compete for listeners?
I don’t think so. The musical machine is only as good as the algorithm that’s been programmed into it. This gets into almost the question, Can computer have soul? Computers can be taught that certain tune or certain chords changes will sound pleasant together, but I don’t think it’s going to reach a point where a machine will generate ideas and styles.
So something like a soul is needed to make truly beautiful music?

Your songs tend to develop in stages, layer upon layer. Does this reflect your songwriting process? Do you hear and create a sound or beat (say, a kick drum), lay that down and then build upon it? Or does it all come to you at once?
I usually start very abstract. I find a sound that excites me. I find a rhythmic mood or an abstract noise that has some interesting textures in it, then I find a way of finding a rhythm in there and placing other sounds against it until I find what works.

III Points 2015 with Bonobo, Nicolas Jaar, Run the Jewels, Panda Bear, and more. October 9 to 11 at Mana Wynwood, 318 NW 23rd St., Miami. Tickets cost $99 plus fees via squadup.com. Visit iiipoints.com.

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Dyllan Furness is Miami New Times' "foreign" correspondent. After earning a degree in philosophy from the University of Florida, he crossed the pond and dove into music, science, and technology from Berlin.
Contact: Dyllan Furness