Last Thursday, Bonobo stepped behind the decks at Output in Brooklyn for the latest set in his residency there. As a producer, he’s been exploring the virtues of sample-based music since 2000, mostly ignoring trends that come and go in electronic music and hip-hop. He’s a pillar of the venerated label Ninja Tune, which has released four of his five albums, and this Saturday, he will headline a warehouse party celebrating the organization’s 25th anniversary.
Bonobo records have a mellow, meditative bent — for years they were classified as “downtempo,” an adjective that the man who made them hates — but as a DJ, he is considerably more ferocious. After starting his set at Output with a variation on “Kiara,” from his Black Sands album, Bonobo soon burst out of the thicket of instrumental hip-hop — which tends to return to the same stern crunch — into freer rhythms: cascades of drum soloing, a dusting of reggaeton. When the pensive keys that you might find on a Bonobo record reappeared, they were paired with a commanding beat. The resulting movement in the crowd was visceral. Where heads had been bobbing, limbs went flying.
“I’ve always been a DJ,” Bonobo recently explained over the phone. “I think people think this is a new thing — I was a DJ first. Back in the day when I made that first record, we had a weekly Saturday night and I was one of four residents. Each one of us would play open to close. That was a very informative time. You start with an empty room and you end with an empty room, somewhere in between, everybody comes in and the place is jumping. Knowing how to control a dancefloor for four or five hours is a really important thing. And you get to play a full spectrum of music in that time. The DJing has taught me how to put together a live show in terms of structure, energy, tempo.”
The structure and energy of Bonobo’s sets are more in line with what you encounter at European clubs than American ones. “The European sound is a lot more subtle,” he suggests. “Berlin, Ibiza, the London warehouse thing — the music is steadier. U.S. audiences like more dynamic music, more of a rollercoaster, with the quiet bit and the loud bit. Here there’s a shorter attention span perhaps. People like DJs shouting at them on their microphones.” For Bonobo, “it’s all about the journey rather than the hype.”
He sees the progression of his career in similar terms. “There was no moment where anything blew up, there was no hype track, no hit. It’s been a very steady thing.” He got his start in Brighton, England, and after stints in a series of bands, became enamored “with labels like Mo’ Wax and Ninja Tune — the weirder instrumental hip-hop.” The first Bonobo album, Animal Magic, arrived in 2000. “There’s a naivete when you start out,” he recalls. “You don’t really know what you’re doing, but stuff sounds great because of it.” The strength of his debut and a friendship with Amon Tobin eventually landed him on Ninja Tune, the very label that inspired him in the first place.
Since then, Bonobo has released four albums which explore a similar set of ideas, making a series of micro adjustments to Animal Magic’s initial statement of purpose. Dial ‘M’ For Monkey (2003) was like enervated boom bap remade with pretty vocal snippets, while Days To Come (2006) pushed to achieve the snap of a live band with sampling — listening today, the record sounds close to something that might come out on the Brooklyn label Daptone. (Bonobo included a song from the Daptone-affiliated Menahan Street Band on his installment of the ongoing Late Night Tales mix.) Black Sands (2010) has slightly more heft — see the buzzing textures of “Eyes Down” — and his most recent album, The North Borders (2013), nods towards dance music on songs like “Emkay,” with its slight, glitchy rhythm, and “Cirrus,” with a descending bass that keeps cycling through the frame.
“I always try to do what I feel is right now,” Bonobo notes when thinking about his development. “I don’t have a manifesto at the beginning of the project.” While he received radio play in England — where the underground has more of a presence on the airwaves relative to the U.S. — he believes “social media .1” (“last.fm, Myspace, Pandora”) is responsible for a lot of his popularity in America. “There was a period where I wasn’t touring in the U.S.,” he remembers. “I didn’t really have a handle on what was going on out here in terms of my music and where I fit. But on things like Last.fm and Myspace, my stuff just bubbled along, and I didn’t realize it. The first time I actually came out around 2008, 2009, on my own shows, I was really surprised that there were people out here who had heard me.”
He eventually moved to the U.S. — living first in New York City, and now in Los Angeles — but he’s adamant that this hasn’t impacted the trajectory of his recordings. “It’s not like I’m going to start making yacht rock now [that I live in L.A.],” he jokes. “To assume that you’re going to change your style because you’re living somewhere is to sort of undermine all of your influences and the things that inform you.” “For North Borders,” he continues, “I was living in New York at the time, but I was paying more attention to what was happening in the U.K., because I wasn’t there, and I didn’t want to be missing out. When I moved away I was like, ‘shit, I need to pay attention to everything that’s happen there now.’ So I got this very U.K. sound.”
He’s currently at work on his fifth album. “It’s really coming together,” he says excitedly. “I haven’t been thinking about the overall bigger picture. I’ve just been building creative momentum, every day making music and not really worrying about it. Fifty percent of what I’ve worked on is never going to get heard, but I think the important thing is just working. I really like what I’ve got so far.”
As he heads towards the release of the next record, he’s also putting together a series of “curated events” under the umbrella “Outlier.” These will push him beyond the studio and DJ sets, “possibly into small festivals, all-nighters, or one- or two-day parties. Maybe a radio show, maybe a label. I want to start putting together a more cohesive thing.” “I’m trying to bring that European warehouse party vibe out here,” he adds.
His Output residency, which will continue next year, will soon fall under the Outlier brand as well. As he DJ’d last week, it was clear that Outlier is open-eared: Bonobo’s set incorporated the twitchy pulse of ‘90s garage, steel-drum disco, and African music. An elegant, insistent funk edit rubbed elbows with an ‘80s synth pileup reminiscent of Alan Braxe. Dancers stopped to applaud during a sweeping, cinematic piano house track, an impressive merger of atmospherics and danceability — journey and hype existing side by side.