An hour with Sam Shepherd should come with a glossary. Modernist composers, jazz pianists and arcane disco session players all whizz by, alongside specific discontinued turntables, microphones and mixers, obscure musical instruments, modern soul re-edits and long-defunct club nights. Even if he’s talking about something else entirely, it seems Shepherd’s brain is still doing background indexing of all the musical information he’s ever been exposed to.
At one stage, while he’s explaining how he made the transition from being Sam Shepherd, pharmacology undergraduate at UCL, to DJ and producer Floating Points, he interrupts himself: “Oh man, Donald Byrd, ‘Lansana’s Priestess’,” he says, out of nowhere, pointing at the ceiling as the bar’s music changes. “Good record!” A beat later, as the tune bursts into life, he corrects himself with a shake of the head: “KILLER record! I play this all the time. Sick. It’s so good with an isolator because you can just throw the bass back in there when the flute comes in and it SLAMS!” He starts mimicking the bass – b-ba, b-ba – and drumming on the table with his index fingers. “It’s SO good…”
Then he checks himself, suddenly sheepish. “Sorry, where were we?” You get the impression this sort of thing happens rather a lot.
Far from being pretentious, however, Shepherd’s musical reference-point diarrhoea is rather infectious. It’s not that he’s trying to point-score or show off, but more that he wants you to feel what he feels, like some proselytising minister (apt, perhaps, for the son of a vicar): when he unleashes a flurry of album names, it’s because he desperately wants you to hear them, rather than desperately wants you to know that he already has.
Given his background, though, Shepherd’s unswerving conviction towards all things musical is perhaps understandable. Born into a household brimming with church and choral music (“indoctrinated” is the word he uses at one stage in relation to his father’s imposed listening choices), given piano lessons from an early age and then sent to the prestigious Chetham’s Music School in Manchester, Shepherd’s biography is a world away from that of the self-taught bedroom tinkerer whose frame of reference rarely extends to daily academic musical study. Instead, at Chetham’s, Shepherd did music GCSE and A-Level a year early and, while the rest of the national curriculum was adhered to, “every other living breathing second is spent doing music.”
Soon enough, however, Shepherd grew tired of classical music, and hit the first of his two major musical-life turning points: “When I was about 13, I realised I wasn’t so rubbish at piano and I started being able to decide what I wanted to play,” he remembers. “So when my music teacher gave me this Scarlatti sonata, I was like, ‘this is horrendous!’ so I played a lot of Debussy, and Bill Evans, and Messiaen instead.”
Thankfully, Shepherd found solace for his adolescent rebellion in the school library at Chetham’s, which had a giant collection of vinyl. “I used to spend all my time in there,” he explains. “I studied composition at school too, so it would be research: a Toru Takemitsu symphony or whatever – it wouldn’t be just ‘standard classical music’, it would be really challenging stuff, from Schnittke to, well, all sorts of weird stuff.
“The web spun out of control very quickly from then,” he continues fondly. “There were really cheap record shops in Manchester so I was buying entire crates of old records I’d never heard before for the price of one Keith Jarrett CD and just going through them, and that helped me find out actually what I was into.”
Suddenly, Shepherd’s ears were opened – jazz and avant-garde classical blew out the boundaries (“harmonic and rhythmic complexity and variation, instrument combinations that didn’t exist pre-1850, Stockhausen and music concrète stuff, I mean, Mozart wasn’t writing for tape machine…” to use one of Shepherd’s dreamy streams of consciousness), but, more importantly, he was able to express himself. “Having the freedom to improvise, and seeing your instrument as an extension of how you can express yourself was important,” he says, “because I was at school with a bunch of people who were technically far better than me, but I would always go to the piano and hear something in my head before I played anything, and now I was allowed to.”
Within a couple of years, Shepherd had won the BBC Young Composer of the Year award (“It was some pastiche-y version of Shostakovich quartet no 1, which I tried to copy”, he says, blithely, of his winning piece, written aged 15), and while everyone around him was trying to persuade him to go to the Royal College to read composition, Shepherd had other plans: “I got in, but it just didn’t feel like my vibe: the curriculum in the first year was Bach chorales and harmonisation, and I felt like I’d done as much of that as I wanted. At this point I’m listening to Dutilleux and Bartok every day – I was the guy walking around with folders that had bits of magnetic tape stuck to paper rather than sheet music.”
So instead, incongruently, Shepherd applied to do Pharmacology at UCL – “it was such a last-minute thing to apply there, but I was into science, too, and I really wanted to be in London” – and on his first night in halls, musical-life turning point number two happened. “That very first day I was here, I went to Fabric,” remembers Shepherd. “I bumped into someone in my corridor, he said let’s go out, so we went.” Despite being an avid dance music collector for years before, Fabric was Shepherd’s first clubbing experience: he danced 10pm to 7am, on two bottles of water.
Within months, Shepherd was DJing at student nights and had won a competition to open for Andy C at The End while simultaneously making tracks in his student bedroom with the equipment he’d won as a prize for being Young Composer of the Year. A few years later, after founding various club nights around London with fellow UCL students, he began releasing his own electronic EPs as Floating Points, became a resident at Plastic People, embarked on a PhD in epigenetics – the study of how our genes can be affected by environment – and begun work on ‘Elaenia’, a symphonic instrumental album whose release is finally here after five years’ work.
“A PhD is just so time-consuming that you can’t really do anything else at the same time,” explains Shepherd of his debut album’s long gestation. “But once I finished the PhD [in January this year] I was able to actually finish the rest of the album really quickly.”
It’s perhaps telling that despite Shepherd’s runaway conversational style when talking about other people’s music, he’s quieter when discussing his own. He talks elliptically about some of ‘Elaenia’ being the musical expression of going down a black hole, how one track, ‘Nespolé’, was inspired by an unusual fruit tree in his garden, and how a lot of the writing happened in the aftermaths of bad days in the lab, but there’s also the sense that Shepherd feels he’s said all he can about it via the record itself. That’s probably just as well, too – one of ‘Elaenia’’s attractions is that it’s abstract and multi-genre enough to invite listeners’ own projections. It doesn’t draw much from the same palette of any of Floating Points’ discography hitherto, although the most obvious commonality is a painstaking ear for detail and high-fidelity recording.
When I mention this, he begins talking about the technical side of his record – all EQ units, compression and mic placement – and is instantly more comfortable. It’s not boffinism for its own sake, though: “It’s worth striving for the best recording quality you can get, so that even if the sound does get watered down further down the line, you’re giving the music a fighting chance.” – it’s as if every one of Shepherd’s actions is based around an unyielding and devotionally pure respect for music.
Anyone with huge knowledge of a topic walks a fine line, when trying to share it, between supercilious berk and disingenuous faux-naivety.
Sam Shepherd walks it well by acknowledging that the opportunity for him to learn new things is still all around him; as befits someone who’s spent the past four years trying to unpick new discoveries from one of the most niche branches of microbiology conceivable in an environment that fetishises new information, his mind is simply programmed to receive, never to broadcast: “I never go into my set thinking that I’m educating the audience,” he says, of his DJing. “I don’t think it’s right. If you do, they’ll quickly leave you. Thing is, also, just as an example, when Four Tet and I were playing together recently, he played this amazing record I’d never heard before and I was like, ‘what is this!’, and he was like, ‘dude it’s the Supremes’. It was a one-dollar record that I should own. Then simultaneously, these people are coming to gigs who know Bileo and rare modern soul records because they’re all digging for music on YouTube. They know these rare cuts already because they’re super switched-on, and the information is there if they just look. It’s so easy.” Framed like that, it’s hard to disagree: all the information is there – all that’s required is a voracious appetite and a knack for research, a combination that’s served Shepherd well thus far. On that basis, perhaps he needn’t come with his own glossary at all.
FLOATING POINTS OF REFERENCE:
A selective list of every musician referenced by Sam Shepherd between 6:10pm and 7:25pm on 30 September 2015:
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), German baroque composer; pioneer of counterpoint
Bela Bartok (1881-1945), Hungarian modernist composer; founder of ethnomusicology
Bileo (1979-1983), American disco session group
James Blake (1988- ), English electronic songwriter and producer
Donald Byrd (1932-2013), American jazz trumpeter
Claude Debussy (1862-1918), French Impressionist composer; pioneer of atonality
Chick Corea (1941- ), American jazz pianist; responsible for electric jazz fusion
Keb Darge (1961- ), Scottish northern soul and rockabilly DJ
Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013), French Modernist composer; former head of production for Radio France
Manfred Eicher (1943- ), German record producer; founder of the influential jazz label ECM
Bill Evans (1929-1980), American jazz pianist and band leader
Aretha Franklin (1942- ), American soul singer with 112 Billboard chart entries
Four Tet (1978- ), English post-rock and electronic musician and DJ
Glenn Gould (1932-1982), Canadian classical pianist
High Contrast (1979- ), English drum’n’bass producer; former Fabric resident
Mark Hollis (1955- ), English songwriter; former leader of Talk Talk
Keith Jarrett (1945- ), American jazz and classical pianist and composer
London Elektricity (1971- ), English drum’n’bass producer; co-founder of Hospital Records
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), Austrian romantic composer; work banned by the Nazis
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), French Modernist composer
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), German classical composer; bane of all piano teachers’ lives
Theo Parrish (1972- ), American techno DJ; former Plastic People resident
Players Association (1977-1981), American disco session group
Sun Ra (1914-1993), American jazz pianist and band leader; originally from the planet Saturn
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), Russian romantic composer
Steve Reich (1936- ), American minimalist composer; pioneer of tape collage
Pharoah Sanders (1940- ), American jazz saxophonist; pivotal in free jazz movement
Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), Italian Baroque composer; wrote 555 piano sonatas
Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998), Russian polystylistic composer
Mr Scruff (1972- ), English electronica DJ and producer
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), Russian modernist composer; blackmailed into becoming the General Secretary of the Communist Composers’ Union
Simbad (1982- ), Swedish broken-beat producer
Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007), German avant-garde composer; wrote a string quartet to be performed in four helicopters
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Russian Modernist composer whose ‘Rite of Spring’ incited a riot during its debut performance
John Surman (1944- ), English free jazz saxophonist and synth player
Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996), Japanese avant-garde composer
Ron Trent (1973- ), American house DJ and producer
Kenny Wheeler (1930-2014), Canadian jazz trumpeter; free jazz pioneer