When Sam Shepherd picks up the phone, he's in his London studio, doing some early evening repairs on a vintage synthesizer. It's an image that seems a little out of step with the music he makes. As Floating Points, he crafts seamless and boundless electronic soundscapes, which in his most ambitious moments swell to something more elaborate and intricate, not to mention complex in arrangement. Even if it's an illusion—a creation of a professional and skilled studio environment that he finds himself in—Shepherd's music sounds the farthest thing from D.I.Y.
And yet here he is, a self-taught tinkerer pulling apart the nuts and bolts of a piece of analog electronics.
"I've got one of these old British synthesizers...and it occasionally doesn't work, so I'm here with a soldering iron trying to get it to work," he says in a phone interview. "Most of my time making music is spent working on gear so I can get it to make music."
With music as ambitious and transcendent as Floating Points', it might seem hard to imagine Shepherd and his bandmates as a scrappy bunch, doing last minute tweaks on their instruments just hours before a gig. Yet while their music is more conventionally beautiful than punk or garage rock, Floating Points is still very much a band, and as such they've put in the same elbow grease as any group of rowdy guitar slingers. When Shepherd—who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience—expanded his solo project into a full ensemble with the release of 2015's Elaenia, it meant adjusting to the realities of touring life, be it lugging around their own gear or replacing parts on the fly, like an old ship in port. The flipside of going from a much simpler and more straightforward electronic dance project to live band, however, is that it allowed Floating Points to expand into something much bigger sounding and more innovative.
On Elaenia, as well as the newly released Kuiper EP, Shepherd and company blur the lines between electronic music and rock, soul and jazz, with all manner of sound in between. And by extension, the sounds they make have stretched out into previously untapped territory. "Silhouettes," a song that took years to finish, is an 11-minute odyssey through psychedelia and jazz fusion, with traces of Radiohead and Talk Talk, while the 18-minute "Kuiper" gradually builds up from hypnotic ambiance into an astral krautrock exploration. For Shepherd, moving from a solo project based mostly in house music to a vast and skilled ensemble of players allows his music to do things it couldn't before, namely have the physical feel of a live band.
"I'd like to imagine that it creates physical space in which it belongs," he says. "The space to make electronic sounds exists within a set of circuits and goes all the way to the speaker, and...never exists in a space until it hits the speaker. Whereas with a guitar, you record it in a room, and that room has a microphone in it, and the sound of that space is unwittingly caught in the recording. So I think that's why I like the idea of space...it's just this idea of endless distance. I really like the idea of creating sonic worlds."
At full strength, Floating Points has about a dozen players involved, including string players, a pair of drummers and the various synths that Shepherd, himself, has set up around him. Yet the music typically starts with him alone in his studio. Playing with other musicians, such as Floating Points' drummer Leo Taylor, opens up other possibilities and ideas that simply working alone wouldn't.
"The way he plays inspires the way I try to play drums," he says of Taylor's technique. "Whenever I'm playing drums, I play in the privacy of my own studio and to no one, and I think 'yeah, I'm killing it, this is wicked.' And I listen back to the recording and thatís so far from the truth."
Floating Points has made a significant journey since first being attached to a series of club-ready 12-inch singles in the late '00s, but Shepherd—who has a record collection with about 10,000 items in it—is too musically curious to ever stick to one style. That sometimes means he'll confound the expectations of some of early listeners to Floating Points' music. But that doesn't mean he's going to stop exploring.
"I get grief from people who are like 'why aren't you making dance music any more?' Right this minute, I'm not in my studio making dance music. Ultimately, if I look back on 15 years of the music I make, I hope it wasn't just dance music. How sad would that be?" he says. "It kind of upsets me a little bit when people get annoyed that I'm not making certain kinds of music.
"I feel it's a little bit short-sighted, actually," he adds. "Lots of people make dance music or whatever, they probably have the capacity to make all sorts of music and express themselves in all sorts of ways. As a consumer of music, I don't just listen to one type of music, I listen to jazz, I listen to soul, I listen to all sorts of music. And it informs the kind of music I make, I suppose. I don't want to feel limited to one thing."
Floating Points plays Belly Up Tavern on September 5