When the Zoom window clicks in Clash finds club pairing Bicep – Andrew Ferguson and Matthew McBriar – at peace in the studio. They’re a bubbly duo – friends essentially since childhood, they’ve travelled the world together, and their passion for music remains undimmed.
Behind them lie row upon row of keyboards, with bundles of cables piled around the studio. It’s gear heaven, and clearly somewhere they relish being – after all, they’ve spent a huge percentage of their lives in the past two years in what they label “a little dark basement with no sunlight in Shoreditch!”
Of course, they’re only half-joking. Timing is everything, and Bicep made the mistake – as so many of us did – of thinking that 2020 might work itself out. “We kind of got back in the studio straight away, really,” reflects Andrew. “We took a little time off in 2019 actually, which in hindsight probably wasn’t the best idea...”
Matthew erupts into laughter: “We misjudged our year off!”
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The extra time gave Bicep the space they needed to fully crafted a follow up to their superb, vastly successful debut album. The self-titled record made waves globally, with the pair building an astonishing live show, one that brought their aesthetic – deep-rooted techno with a very human sense of soul – to some huge audiences.
Starting again was a challenge, they explain, but one they absolutely relished. New album ‘Isles’ is the result of studio sessions that pushed them to the limit, with Bicep constructing an incredible 150 demos (and counting) for their sophomore effort. Ideas were sketched out and rejected, with the pair working endlessly in search of audio perfection.
“The best parts of the album are always the beginning because it’s just no rules, complete freedom,” explains Andrew. “The middle part is always the really tough slug, usually seven or eight months in where you have some ideas already there, but some ideas are not working... and you definitely don’t have an album! And you think: are we ever going to get there?”
New album ‘Isles’ is a broader experience than their debut, one that reflects the juggernaut Bicep live show while also containing a soulful array of intricacy. Take recent single ‘Saku’ - a huge favourite with fans, it blends Clara La San’s wonderful vocal to layer upon layer of playful sonic experimentation. It’s a product of those in-depth sessions, in which Bicep would challenge themselves to absorb as much music as possible.
“That was initially a footwork beat,” says Matthew. “We like to delve into other genres that maybe we wouldn’t be associated with, and just jam for a few days and think about things differently. We just took the track and slowed it down to 130, and instantly that’s got that ‘Saku’ weird loop beat; that was originally was written 20bpm faster. We slowed it down, dropped the melody and changed the drums around slightly. And then it sat on our hard-drives for a couple of months.”
“It just didn’t feel right,” he explains. “And then we had a chat with Clara - we’d done a couple of demos with her already - and we sent it over. Boom, nailed it first time!”
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Clara’s approach seems to bring something extra out of the production duo, adding some light and shade to their block grey Shoreditch space. “She’s got that like UK Garage, Timbaland era R&B, honey-sweet vocals that are a real guilty pleasure of ours,” says Andrew. “She brings such an opposite influence to the original track. It was definitely one of our more successful hybrids”.
Those moments of illumination didn’t come easy, though. Bicep worked tirelessly across a 14 month period, spending long days away from friends and loved ones. They developed certain routines – Tuesdays could be a challenge, so the duo would turn their synth armoury up as loud as they could go, and blast out some vintage R&S inspired techno for hours on end. Think of it as a sonic reset, a means of re-connecting with their roots before making eclectic departures.
“We were in every single day for a year and a bit,” sighs Matthew. Remarkably, the approach would vary each day, a purposeful attempt to regulate their methodologies. “We’ll have days where we start on a drum machine and say we’re actually going to start with a rhythm here, rather than start with a melody,” he explains. “We try and really just be as open as possible... to potentially our own detriment. It gets to a point where - as we get to about eight or nine months into this process - we’re utterly exhausted.”
“Looking back over those sessions, he comments: “It was a really good learning curve in terms of just how insensely you can give 100% for… and for how long. I think this album was right on the tip of burn-out.”
Patience was key, with Bicep knowing instinctively whether an idea would work out or not. “The idea needs to be captured immediately,” asserts Andrew. “It kinda moves through the motions quite quickly.”
“It’s interesting when you play your tunes to other house music producers or techno producers, instead of, say, playing to your girlfriend or your parents. They’re just kind of waiting about for something to happen, and you instantly feel how tracks move, and how they should perform. On an album, it’s a different listening process and it needs to hit like a wider range of people than a club record does.”
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‘Isles’ is certainly broad. At times wildly ambitious, it pushes Bicep’s sound to the limit, incorporating a vast array of fresh elements. “Getting it all to fit is the fucking hard bit!” laughs Matthew. “It does pull you in different directions but this one wasn’t too bad, I don’t think. I’m looking back with rose-tinted sunglasses, maybe... I think it was fucking pretty tough, this one!”
Having come through the other side, Bicep are currently re-entering the no-man’s-land this is UK club culture in 2021. Critical of artists who chose to play plague raves, they’re also desperately sad to witness first hand the damaging loss of income their road crew have suffered. There’s no easy answer, say the duo, and their completely dismissive of government support – or more precisely, the lack of it.
Right now, ‘Isles’ stands on its own, a terrific studio statement from one of the finest electronic partnerships in UK music. It’s a record that pushed them to the limit, but its release finds Bicep revitalised and renewed – it hasn’t been easy, but it’s certainly been transformative.
“We learnt a lot,” Andrew nods. “We definitely learnt a lot from approaching it the way we did. There’s never a perfect way to do an album, and we did it very different to the first one... both have their merits, both have their weaknesses.”
Matthew agrees, commenting: “We probably wouldn’t have forced ourselves this hard... but I think it serves us well for the future, really.”
Bicep have come through 2020 intact, and their optimism is infectious. Whatever this coming year brings, the duo are able to find a path to the other side, and their creative eclecticism contains the inspiration we need to get by.
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'Isles' is out now.
Photo Credit: Dan Medhurst
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