Pigeonholes. Much loved by journalists and music fans alike to categorise and define music but prone to being used as restrictive shoehorns that encourage people to dismiss or overlook the subtle (or even huge and unmissable) differences between artists’ output. Bonobo, AKA Simon Green, found himself imprisoned by such narrow-minded tag-slinging when his debut outing ‘Animal Magic’ happened to get dragged along by the media-induced tidal wave that was Chill Out in 2001.
Simon now says of that time: “I kind of got annoyed by it but at the same time I was living in a freezing bedsit and then all these compilations came along like Ministry this and Ibiza that and I just kind of went with it. Ultimately when that wave crashed they tried to take everyone down with it as well but hopefully there was a bit more resonance with my stuff than like lounge bar music or whatever.”
Indeed there was. The follow-up, ‘Dial M For Monkey’, saw an evolution in sound to rely less on sample-based productions and incorporate more live instrumentation and forthcoming third album ‘Days To Come’, while still distinctly Bonobo, sees a further progression to an almost completely live approach.
It should see him shake off the chill out label for good. “I didn’t really want to do more of the same,” explains Simon. “What I was doing before was essentially just sample based, cut and paste instrumentals and I think I’d gone as far as I could go with that. It just wasn’t as exciting having been doing it for over five years. I guess I’ve been phasing out the whole sampling thing and the majority of the instrumentation is completely live on this album.”
Much of the instrumentation is provided by Simon himself including guitars, double bass, keys, percussion and drums with strings, horns and vocals the only elements supplied by other people. This has led to a new approach to working in the studio. “There are a lot of tracks on the album that I sketched out and got people in the studio and it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it so I scrapped it and did it again. It’s a lot more hard work but ultimately it’s more rewarding because rather than trying to find a horn sound that’s going to fit and trawling through thousands of records to find it it’s just like, ‘Right, I’m gonna write this horn sound’.”
Working more with vocalists has also seen the Bonobo sound evolve but rather than being a complete departure this proves to be an organic strengthening and broadening of what went before. Whereas many artists draft in a different artist for every vocal track and risk fracturing their albums, Simon opted to use just one main vocalist in the form of Bajka to retain the album’s strength and cohesion. “I decided I definitely wanted to use a vocalist and I wanted to use one rather than a bunch and make the whole thing sound like a compilation,” he explains.
He discovered just the right person by complete chance and contacted Bajka (pronounced ‘biker’) after an exercise in degrees of separation. “I picked up this Jazzman 7”, it just said Bajka and it had these two tracks on it and I assumed in the Jazzman tradition it was something they kind of dug up from the Fifties,” relates Simon. “Then someone was talking about her saying that she lives in Berlin and I thought ‘Shit I’m going to try and get hold of her’. I tracked her down through Will Quantic who kind of knew a friend of hers and he managed to get her number.”
Hopefully there was a bit more resonance with my stuff than like lounge bar music or whatever.
The results are stunning. Title track ‘Days To Come’ is a hazy jazz number with a touch of the exotic, ‘Walk In The Sky’ is simultaneously calm and edgy with deep double bass meeting subtle horns while ‘Between The Lines’ has an uplifting sentiment and a moody yet upbeat atmosphere to it. It is ‘Nightlite’, however, that is the greatest of their quartet of collaborations. A driving beat carries the track while strings gradually seep in and build to provide the perfect vehicle for Bajka’s distinctive vocals. An instant classic if ever there was one. The only other vocal contribution is from Bonobo’s fellow Ninja Tune stablemate, Fink, who appears on the sweeping ‘If You Stayed Over’ where calm acoustic guitar meets forceful, melancholic strings and wind instruments.
For those who may object to a more song-based approach from the Brighton-based artist, half of ‘Days To Come’ is still instrumental but the overall sound has moved on. The drums are heavier, as evidenced by ‘On Your Marks’ and the tempo is not always down, just check ‘The Fever’ with its fast, almost Latin rhythm for proof. There is also the album centrepiece ‘Transmission94’ to contend with. Beginning with guitar and keys, sunny, ska-style horns then take over before the track opens out into a gorgeous jazz-flecked epic. “That track is hopefully a final nail in the coffin of that chill out thing!” laughs Simon.
‘Days To Come’ should garner the wider audience Bonobo deserves as it proves to be his most accomplished album to date. “Yeah, I hope so,” Simon says modestly at the idea. “It’s certainly the one I’m the most proud of anyway. Obviously ‘Animal Magic’ was quite crazy, having nothing and then having that thing but this is definitely the one I’ve felt the happiest with.”
Once you hear the consistently brilliant ‘Days To Come’ for yourself, you will understand exactly why.
Big Chill Festival 2010