Simon Green, aka Bonobo returns with his sixth album – the masterful, magisterial “Migration” – is a record which cements his place in the very highest echelons of electronic music and indeed, beyond. By turns lush, manic, beautiful, melancholy, joyful, packed with both emotion and technical skill, this is perhaps his most ambitious attempt yet to capture the very textures of human existence in his work, as Green says of the broad dynamics on the album, “Life has highs, lows, loud and quiet moments, beautiful ones and ugly ones. Music is a reflection of life.”
It is a theme with a personal as well as a sociological aspect to it. Last year, a close family member passed away. “My Family and I are all disbanded and spread to far corners of the earth,” explains Green, “In the end we did the funeral in Brighton. My own personal idea of identity, where I am from, and what home is, has played into this record and its migratory themes. Is home where you are or where you are from, when you move around?”
It’s tempting to relate Green’s emotive aesthetic to his sense of dislocation. He grew up in rural Hampshire with a father heavily involved in the British folk scene. “We would have endless folk jams in the house. There would be random banjo and violin players crashing in the garage for the weekend.” Not that he was necessarily feeling his dad’s taste at the time: “I was a grubby little skater back then, listening to alt-rock, hardcore and hip hop”. But no doubt this phase was an early musical education, indeed Green started learning to play guitar, piano, 4-track tape recorders and effects pedals in this period, building up soundcscapes from an early age. His move to Brighton is also a key influence; his skill at drum programming harks back to his days DJing and producing in the small, musically fertile town. Under the initial guidance of Tru Thoughts’ Rob Luis and at nights such as Phonic:hoop where he began to regularly play all-night DJ sets.
His first album – 2000’s “Animal Magic” – was released via Tru Thoughts before being picked up by Ninja Tune. It announced him as a serious talent; able to bring a true musician’s edge to electronica, with all the freedom that skill allowed. His subsequent albums for Ninja, “Dial M for Monkey” and “Days to Come”, developed his sensibility, won him fans across the globe, and saw him evolve his live show into a mesmeric re-working of his records.
He also worked hard as a DJ, a part of Green’s arsenal that perhaps truly came into its own at the same time as 2010’s “Black Sands”. 2012 saw him take the uptempo, club re-edits of “Black Sands” from a seminal Boiler Room performance in London to dance floors across the world. A remix album was released featuring reworkings by fans and peers such as Machinedrum, Floating Points, Mark Pitchard, Lapalux and Falty DL.
Later the same year, he finally settled down in his New York studio to write his fifth album. “The North Borders” was another long stride forward – both a natural evolution and a continuation of the electronic palette of “Black Sands”. Thematic, resonant, addictive and perfectly formed, it was a thrillingly coherent statement piece. With vocal features from no less than Erykah Badu, as well as Grey Reverend (Cinematic Orchestra) and Cornelia (Portico Quartet) it’s another finely balanced body of work, leaving room for the beautiful, rich productions themselves to breathe and shine. Bonobo has a long history of unearthing new talent (Andreya Triana, Bajka) and “The North Borders” saw him do so once again. The startling vocals of new collaborator Szjerdene were sprinkled across the album, and Green yet again found the perfect voice to express where he was at. He also found time to contribute a volume to the long-running Late Night Tales DJ mix series, as well as delivering an Essential Mix to Radio 1.
“The North Borders” went Top 30 in the UK and was number 1 in the electronic charts in both the US and UK. In support, his 12-piece collective (over an 18 month period) played 175 shows across four continents and 30 countries, wowing a total audience of around 2 million people. In fact, Songkick reckoned him to be the amongst the most travelled artists on the planet that year. The tour included two sell outs at the Sydney Opera House, an all-day festival at the Roundhouse culminating in a sold out show at Alexandra Palace plus a number of high profile festival slots. Over the course of five albums for the legendary label Ninja Tune, a myriad of tours, singles, remixes and production work for other artists, Bonobo has built a large, loyal and engaged global fanbase: over half a million album sales and over one hundred and fifty million streams on Spotify point to the levels of success achieved by this quiet, self-effacing man. Most recently, Bonobo curated an international series of Outlier events including a sold out all day festival at Tobacco Dock in London and further parties in Berlin, Madrid, Paris and New York.
After the epic North Borders tour, Bonobo relocated once again, continuing his gradual move westward by laying down roots in Los Angeles. He had spent almost three years out on the road with no fixed home and on returning to New York, he found it a “noisy, stressful environment” and decided to try the other coast. LA, he discovered, is the ideal juxtaposition to balance out the “hypersocial” world of touring. There is a collaborative and outward-looking attitude in LA he hasn’t felt elsewhere after years of making music on his own.
This process has been aided by the people he has met in his new home, Jon Hopkins moved to LA at the same time as Green, and the duo have become good friends and “studio sparring partners.” Other visitors to his studio include Machinedrum, Leon Vynehall (with whom Bonobo has been doing back-to-back DJ sets with), Lapalux and George Fitzgerald. But there is a respect in LA which allows him to retreat when he wants. As always, his home studio set-up, where he records, mixes and masters, is “100% DIY.” He even recorded the string quartet you can hear on ‘Figures’ in the living room of his house with particularly good acoustics.
The landscape in California and beyond has also fed into the artwork of the record, designed by Neil Krug (best known for his work with Boards of Canada and Lana Del Rey). All the desert locations pictured “are close to where I now live,” Green explains. “Part of the writing process was to drive up to these places and live with the tracks as I was making them. This was a new part of the world to me, where the landscape is quite alien and Martian.”
All this – both the monumental live and DJ tours and his new home in a city full of people from somewhere else – has fed into what makes “Migration” such a special record. Drawing on both a new interest in found-sound and the “euphoric, spiritual moments” he experienced when playing his all-night DJ sets at his Output residency in New York. These residencies can’t be underestimated in importance, it was where Green road-tested ideas for “Migration” and taking that feedback into the studio. Green has placed the unstable, the heartbreaking, the often beautiful migratory life at the core of how he understands humanity, and hence how he understands music. Migration is to him, “the study of people and spaces,” he expands, “It’s interesting how one person will take an influence from one part of the world and move with that influence and effect another part of the world. Over time, the identities of places evolve.” It’s also true that the person will be changed. Green’s newest work is itself a statement of this change and growth.