Since releasing his debut album, Animal Magic, 22 years ago, Simon Green has cultivated one of the most consistent sounds in electronic music. As Bonobo, Green makes productions both celestial and weighty, contemplative and body-moving. His seventh studio LP Fragments, out today (January 14) via his longtime label Ninja Tune, is the latest expansion of a signature sound cultivated over two decades and through many eras of electronic music. (The last Bonobo album, 2017’s Migrations, hit No. 59 on the Billboard 200 in February of 2017.)
Made in Green’s home studio in Los Angeles, where the U.K. native relocated to from New York in 2015, the album took time, with Green finding little inspiration during the dog days of the pandemic. Adventures into nature helped spur his creative energy, with Green hiking the sand dunes of California’s Death Valley National Park on a 127-degree day. “Half a mile doesn’t seem like a lot,” Green tell Billboard over the phone days before the album release, “But when you start getting a bit dizzy and dehydrated, it feels it feels a lot farther.”
Green fused the momentum of these expeditions with the excitement he felt about working with modular synths, a tool that gave him randomized output that he incorporated into an album that is in moments sensual, spare, lush and urgent — and as well-suited to home listening as it is for a night out. Finally though, Green will make up for many missed nights out when he goes on tour behind Fragments in February, when he will hit the road with a full live show. This tour begins in Nashville on February 18 and extends through late March.
Below, Green talks with Billboard about his tour plans, and how he’s feeling just before Fragments‘ release.
I’m always curious what this moment is like for artists, when you have this thing you’ve been working on for so long and then, in a few days, switches will be flipped and the album will be in the world and no longer just yours. What are these final days like for you?
Honestly, it’s a real sweet spot. I feel like the record and the work just sort of belongs to you and the people that you’ve chosen to share it with, in a way that it exists in a very special embryonic state, before everyone sort of plows in and either loves it or hates it or has an opinion either way. I like to elongate this period as much as possible, which I’ve kind of had to because of how long it takes to get vinyl these days.
Why is having vinyl important to you?
I’m not a format purist. I never have been. I’ve always collected music in whatever bits and scraps I can get it on. But I like vinyl. I like the sort of physical element. I like that you have to commit to putting on a record. You have to attend to a record paying, which is kind of a nice way to sort of be present with the music.
I understand that you experienced some writer’s block while making this music. Is that right?
Yeah, absolutely. I don’t want this to be a sort of pandemic record, but I couldn’t help but be influenced by that. Previously, you had the of noise of the world passing over you the whole time and were out having experiences. When that’s not happening, for me personally, there’s nothing to say. I would be sitting there in the studio with this abundance of time. There was the irony of having all this time and nothing to talk about. So it took a while. I had to kick start that creative momentum again by going outside and doing stuff and engaging with the world in a different way, to try and have some experiences within that.
Going into nature was one of the things you did, right?
Living in Southern California, especially coming from the U.K., the whole landscape around here is kind of strange and weird and wonderful and just there to explored. And it’s a good way of having experiences that don’t involve travel or getting amongst crowds of people. I really took the opportunity to get out — and also just exploring L.A. There was this unique situation of not having any traffic, and being able to just traverse the city and find your corners.
You moved to L.A. in 2015, at a time when the city was really considered a world hub for electronic music. Seven years later, I’m curious about where you think L.A. stands in that way.
I’ve actually never thought of L.A. as a hub for electronic music. I consider London or Berlin or New York [as those], even more so. There’s a lot of good creative energy out here and a lot of people doing exciting things, and I feel like that community was really exciting. It just seemed like an interesting place to be based. There’s a lot collaborative will. People want to want to do stuff together, more so than other cities I’ve lived in. But L.A. lacks a scene for electronic music, I think.
Obviously venues in L.A. close very early, relative to places like New York or Berlin.
I think that’s probably why a good electronic scene hasn’t really thrived here — because of those restrictions and because nothing really goes past midnight. And then some of the infrastructure for as well, there’s not really nightclubs or spaces specific for this type of music. I think there’s a festival culture here, which is great. There are these big mega-raves that happen on the outskirts of the city, but in terms of nurturing an actual nightlife scene, I think there’s a little ways to go, and that’s probably to do with the licensing and how everything closes at midnight.
But there are so many other parts of L.A., and I think it’s fine to be here and go elsewhere if you want to stay up for three days straight. That’s probably New York. And that’s probably why I left New York. [Laughs.]
You’ve released all seven of your albums via Ninja Tune. Why does that relationship work so well, and what has it been like to evolve there?
I’ve always been a big fan of the label, and I think in terms of the ethics of how they work with their artists, they’ve been independent since day one, and the same principles still apply as they did [when the label was formed] in the ’90s. They treat artists fairly and everything is very transparent. They don’t need to rely on their own hype anymore. They’re not trying to be cool, and by default they’ve become quite cool.
I really correlate your sound with Ninja Tune.
I’ve been on the label for a really long time now, but I don’t see myself as an original Ninja Tune artist either. I very much think of myself as the second wave. When I was in college, I was listening to DJ Food and Coldcut and Amon Tobin. I feel like that was the original Ninja Tune wave. As much as I have been there for longer than most people on the label, I still feel like I’m part of a second wave of Ninja Tune artists.
What excited you most when you were putting this album together?
In terms of process and technique, I was really getting into modular synths. Starting to make music and like, learning how to play a chord on a guitar, you just want to learn more, and there’s that excitement. And later on discovering a sampler, and later on discovering how to loop a drum break, that excitement is what really drives you. For me, it’s finding something to be excited about and something that I don’t know about to explore. This time around, it was modular synths and exploring how they’ve got this generative nature to them; you can sort of randomize and set these parameters within these machines to sort of emit almost random melody. It was exciting to explore that.
So it’s giving you something you couldn’t have predicted and then you’re working with that?
Yeah, totally. And that’s what I’m looking for anyway. In the work, if I’m working with samples, I’m looking for something I wasn’t expecting, and it’s nice to have surprises and encourage accidents to happen whilst making stuff. Most of the music I make is a product of experimentation. Rather than setting out a very specific idea and executing it, it’s more a case of like, “Let’s see where this can go. How weird can we get with this?”
Given that process, how do you know when you’ve got it, or that something is done?
Yeah, that’s a tough one. You don’t really know when something is finished until you play it out in front of an audience. It’s the only way you can really tell, which was difficult this time, because there were no audiences. At some point you just have to make a decision that it’s a document of a thing you did and that it’s time to move on. I mean, you can fiddle with stuff indefinitely, but sometimes you just have to accept that it’s finished and move on, which is difficult. I’m really good at starting things, and I’m terrible at finishing them.