Bonobo Talks 'Visual' New Tour, Creating His 'Migration' Album & More

Dan Medhurst
Bonobo performs during the Migration tour.

Musician/producer/DJ Simon Green, professionally known as Bonobo, can finally -- if only for a week -- relax. The British-born musician/DJ just finished 22 shows across nine countries over 27 days for the European leg of his Migration Tour and recently returned to his current home of Los Angeles. “It’s so nice to be home for a week so I can just stretch out in the studio,” he tells Billboard over the phone.

Green’s latest album, Migration, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Dance/Electronic Albums chart this January, is a whirlwind of worldly sounds influenced mostly by his time spent in transit during 2014’s The North Borders Tour. The songs are ripe with Bonobo’s signature style: saturated strings and jazzy drums fronted by melodic xylo-tones and sultry vocals. The tour not only complements the album’s earthly mood, but also its artwork and accompanying videos. “We’ve been working on expanding the theme of the [album] artwork: the aesthetic of the desert and the mountains, so it’s a heavy visual show,” he says.

Ahead of his performances at Coachella this weekend, Billboard spoke with Green about creating his album, the evolution of his live show and what he’s working on next.

How did the Migration album come together?

It came out of this transitory period after the last record. I was living in New York, but honestly I was touring so much that I wasn’t really living anywhere. I didn’t have a home base for about a year, so I was sketching out all of these ideas in quite unusual spaces. That was the foundation for it really -- living and being in various locations.

How is that different from when you recorded your last two albums, The North Borders and Black Sands?

The other albums were made in a static and comfortable studio environment. But it’s always the same process -- I don't start a record with a manifesto. I just start making music and the work itself becomes the creative momentum. I’m always just referencing whatever I’m listening to or wherever I am musically. That tends to be the mission statement that documents where I am in my head.

The album has a lot of ethereal, somewhat softer songs. Was that due to the “transitory” nature of your surroundings and headspace?

There were two phases to creating the album. The louder moments, like "Outlier" and "Bambro Koyo Ganda," actually came from the quiet spaces I was in, like a plane or a bus, when I still had the club ringing in my ears from the night before. And the quieter moments, like "Second Sun" and "Grains," actually came from when I settled in LA during a more reflective period last year. I was in a new place and I’d been through some personal stuff and I was in a contemplative phase.

Why do you think hybrid acts -- acts who do both DJ sets and live shows like you do -- are becoming more mainstream in the US?

I don’t think people are as polarized as they were 10 years ago about the legitimacy of electronic music, when it was very much “guitars vs. DJs.” Now there’s a lot of validity in everything -- and balance is key. One night you can go see a string quartet in a church and the next night you can be listening to techno in a basement. It’s all valid and you don’t have to choose one or the other. If something is done really well then the question of live vs. DJ vs. instruments vs. drum machines doesn’t matter -- it’s all just about taste, really.

You’ve said that DJ-ing helped you learn how to structure a live show. How so?

DJ-ing taught me how to create a journey over the space of two or three hours. I do really long DJ sets -- I play for five or six hours sometimes -- but the live shows are a bit more compact. The arch of how to tell a story, where the energy is, where you have peaks and drops, where things go up and things come down, that’s all being informed by DJ-ing.

What’s the vibe of the new tour like? And how does it compare to The North Borders tour?

Firstly, it’s very visual. We’ve been traveling with a lot of video content and it’s all synced. We’ve been working on expanding the theme of the artwork: the aesthetic of the desert and the mountains, so it’s a heavy visual show. And it’s also kind of “through-composed” so it doesn’t stop. In that sense, it’s kind of like a DJ set, where everything is tied together and all flows as one long piece from start to finish.

But this tour has the full band. How many people do you have on stage at a time?

The core of the band is a 6 piece. But for the bigger shows in London or New York, we could have a 15-piece string section, woodwinds, horns, it just depends on where we are.

Do the show and set list change from night to night?

It’s not going to be dramatically different from night to night. It evolves, though. It’s already so different than it was when we started the show. Things come and go, and we work out new parts, sometimes a 4-bar interlude will grow into an entire section, or things we’re not feeling so much will get vetoed. It all morphs as the show goes along -- it’s a slow change, but it does change.

Will the performances at Coachella have the live band?

It will be the full circus, we’ve got lots of good stuff lined up for it.

Who are you most excited to see at Coachella?

Radiohead, and Kendrick Lamar. Four Tet, Floating Points and Caribou are all doing a B2B set, so I’m excited for that. I hope to discover some new stuff as well.

Are you writing new music on the road?

I’m working on some new stuff right now; that’s how I keep myself occupied during the day on tour. It’s nice to be home for a week so I can just stretch out in the studio with big speakers rather than headphones.

What’s next for you? Any plans to launch your own label?

I have my events thing, Outlier, which is a residency in New York, a festival in London, a radio show -- it’s kind of everything but a label. I’ve still not found the need to do one, and there are only few instances where artists labels have really worked. I won’t rule it out, but for now I like exploring and curating music in different ways under this Outlier thing. So we’ll see.


The 30-date North American Migration tour kicks off tonight in Oakland, CA. Check out the full tour schedule below.