Bonobo reflects on his versatile new album
Si Green AKA Bonobo’s latest release is exactly that – a deep exhalation in the wake of change. Mournful, seductive and frequently euphoric, to understand Fragments’ conception requires a glance back at a heady five years, where it percolated in a maelstrom of anxieties and fluctuations. Previously a creature of constant transit, Green’s album is the polished product of isolation and standing still for the first time in his career. We are all the better for this enforced stasis.
Green, whose late father was a renown folk musician, initially entered the scene spinning decks in the basements of mid-90s Brighton. Debuting on local independent label Tru Thoughts, he soon signed to Ninja Tune, where he has remained as one of their most consistent heavy hitters. Picking up the downtempo mantle thrown down at the very end of the 20th century, Green’s style has since bifurcated to encompass all manner of world, alt rock, ambient, nu jazz and electronica reverberations – all while retaining his smooth sonic signatures that have been present from the start. Thrice Grammy nominated, the solo venture – which includes collaborations with Erykah Badu and Gorillaz – has expanded to sell out shows, with a full band, to millions worldwide.
Doing so with his previous album Migration, in 2017 the multi-instrumentalist found himself physically exhausted after close to 150 performances, still processing the recent passing of his parents, and worryingly unable to create music whilst on the move, a skill he’d honed whilst touring. Finally arriving home in California, he was met with the state’s most destructive wildfires to date. “I was struggling a little bit,” Green reflects over Zoom. “I felt I had drifted, was rootless after my family was no longer in the UK, that my base wasn’t there anymore. This was compounded by Trump getting elected and being acutely aware of the climate emergency unfolding in my backyard. I felt lost.”
Having spent his childhood in rural Hampshire and Sussex, the musician found solace in the sublime natural world, hiking and camping around Utah and California’s vast valleys and deserts. Still facing a block to articulate his ideas, a global pandemic was then thrown into the mix. Wanting to counter the mounting chaos and exercise some control, Green began playing with kickdrums and banks of modular synths, stating that the latter “allowed me to be a bit more of a hobbyist again, enjoy the process of exploring, finding, making. I’ve been collecting analog for a while, but Eurorack (a small format synthesizer format originally specified in 1996) is what I consider to be the most progressive part of music technology at the minute. What I enjoyed most was discovering its generative nature, that you can set these things to randomly create music that is defined in your own parameters. Previously I’d always been looking for samples online or digging through crates, but found that you can generate the exact tones you’re looking for in a disarming, inspiring way. A lot of ideas started from little sounds that would happen by accident, and I enjoyed encouraging those accidents.”
The fruits of these chance labours are perfectly refined on ‘Rosewood’, ‘Closer’, ‘Shadows’ and ‘Counterpoint’, all of which are assured and muscular productions with Green’s trademark precision and pacing, his canny timing for reflective ebb and spectacle ridden flow. These electronically darker, driving units of the 12-track album are complimented by a host of acoustic instruments, strings in particular. Working with acclaimed arranger and session musician Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, as well as harpist Lara Somogyi, Green allows the organic sounds of their respective instruments to wash over the listener, their salve most notably applied on ‘Elysian’ and ‘Polyghost’. “Miguel is such a staple of the LA scene, his unique sound is kind of woven into the city,” replies Green, when I profess my love of his work. “He’s just a wonderful person. Because he lives close by, in between vaccine doses we’d walk around the park with his young family. We’d talk about everything but music.”
Green is a sensitive, adept collaborator, and Fragments features thoughtful work from talent inside and out of the Ninja Tune family, with Jordan Rakei, Jamila Woods, Joji and Kadhja Bonet all lending their voices. Although no stranger to working with remote recordings from artists around the world, I ask how the pandemic inevitably shaped the project. “After my last album I told my management that I need to live my life for a bit, not worry about the next release. I think this record is possibly me doing that, not thinking too hard about how it’s going to be received, perceived, or who’s going to like it. I had a much more carefree approach and therefore more experimentation. The pandemic was a forced stop, a chance to assess where I am and where I live. I’ve found that LA is my home, I’m with my people. Gaining that sense of belonging has been a profoundly positive experience.”
Due to travel restrictions, Green’s Anglo origins have bled through in bracing and unexpected ways. Unable to return to the UK, British radio shows and sets were regularly spun instead. A response to the re-emergence of breakbeat, jungle, UKG and bass vibrations on the airwaves can be glimpsed in ‘Sapien’s collapsing rhythms, ‘Age of Phase’s frenetic chopped up vocals, or when up and coming producer and artist O’Flynn essentially remixes Green’s sampling of Bulgarian choir 100 Kaba-Gaid in ‘Otomo’ to thunderous effect. “I was also looking back quite a lot to the early 90s rave era,” notes Green, “as well as people like Mike Paradinas, Reflex Records, early Warp Records, Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. Everything in that period was attempting to capture the future by some means, so it’s interesting to use or reference it in a retrospective way. I never thought these sounds would find a place in my palette, but it’s good to catch people off guard. There is a moment in the live show where we go into this whole drone metal suite for a minute…I mean, I like it! It sounds great, but it’s also there to keep people on their toes.”
Has he missed touring, and after a significant hibernation, ready to return to the madness of globetrotting gigs? “Absolutely. I don’t miss the insomnia or lack of schedule and exhaustion, but I’ve missed traveling and playing for people. I’ve missed the world. It was such a big part of what I did and hope it’s not been irreparably damaged. Clubs, festivals, gigs, they’re all shortcuts to making connections. I remember rolling through Lovebox festival years ago and seeing these big grime crews absolutely destroying the stages and realising okay, that’s what’s important now. Listening to and encountering certain music in these settings, firsthand, is the only way to really understand what’s happening at the moment. They’re real litmus tests of where the world is, culturally.”
Released at the start of a tentatively optimistic new year, as a barometer, Fragments reflects the melancholia and tumult of the last half-decade, and offers some much-needed catharsis. The playful irony of the title is that it’s an incredibly whole and aurally coherent project – featuring some of Green’s tightest arrangements and production to date – while excavating new ground for the artist through modular music. A by-product of social and environmental forces under threat, the record captures the fragility and comfort of where we nest and call home. It marks a confident return for Bonobo, and hopefully for us all.
Fragments by Bonobo was released 14th January 2022