If you walk into a record store and say you're looking for the new Bonobo record, you'll probably be pointed to the electronic section. But Simon Green, the man behind the simian moniker, doesn't really see himself as an electronic artist.
“A lot of my stuff is from acoustic sources,” explains the British producer, DJ and multi-instrumentalist, who now lives in Los Angeles, in the hills between Echo Park and Silver Lake. “At some point, every sound has traveled through the air and into a microphone. It's not being generated by drum machines.”
What Green does with those sounds is what makes his work intersect with the realms of electronic and dance music. A typical Bonobo track takes various organic elements — a mournful piano melody, perhaps; a distant wail that might be a horn or a human voice; a butter-smooth bass line; a swooning string quartet — and loops and layers them into something new. He describes it, with a characteristic lack of pretension, as “collaged music; cut-and-paste, loop-based stuff.”
Green is hardly alone in his “collaged music” approach; even when he got his start around the turn of the millennium, like-minded artists such as Thievery Corporation, DJ Shadow and his Ninja Tune labelmates Coldcut had a head start on him of several years. But since the release in 2000 of his debut Bonobo album, Animal Magic, Green has quietly developed such a unique and immediately recognizable sound that he is, at this point, a veritable genre of one.
His sixth and latest album, Migration, released earlier this year, is arguably his finest collection to date, full of achingly beautiful melodies drifting over beats that manage to be highly danceable without ever quite settling into the metronomic pulse of most dance music. [Update: It also just won “Album of the Year” at the inaugural Electronic Music Awards, held on Sept. 21.] Harps, horns and other decidedly non-electronic textures figure heavily on most tracks; those few songs that do feature vocalists do so with a delicacy rare in today's pop music landscape, when most choruses are delivered as though shouted from a mountaintop.
Despite its understated and decidedly uncommercial feel, Green's music has become wildly popular, both here in the United States and even more so abroad. “We have a much bigger profile in Europe,” he says, using the royal “we” to describe Bonobo's touring incarnation. “The kind of slots that people like LCD [Soundsystem] are playing here are the ones we're playing in Europe.”
He says this while lounging on a couch backstage at Lightning in a Bottle, the alternative-music festival on the central coast of California that he co-headlined earlier this year with Kaytranada, Bassnectar and Rüfüs du Sol. Coming from anyone else it would sound boastful, but there's a shy, unassuming quality to Green's demeanor that makes it a plain statement of fact.
“People assume you're there for the whole weekend, but sometimes you're there for three hours total,” he says, describing playing the festival circuit, which this year for him included stops at Coachella, Sasquatch and the Montreux Jazz Festival. “You can be playing up to three and four festivals in one weekend.” He still retains his Brighton accent, but he's lived in the States long enough to put the accent on “week” in “weekend.”
Since 2010, he has toured both the United States and Europe with a full band, though he still likes to do DJ tours when he's between albums. The band, he says, grew partly out of necessity; as his profile rose in the U.S., he found his DJ tours graduating from clubs to venues with large stages, “having lights shown on you and a crowd watching you, like you're doing a piano recital, when you're playing club music. I kind of hated that experience.”
Right from the start
He also notes that he didn't want to be yet another “live” electronic artist “nodding into a laptop … because that doesn't represent how the music's made.” He now plays with a live drummer, guitarist, woodwind player and vocalist (currently Szjerdene, a British singer originally featured on Bonobo's fifth LP, The North Borders). He himself juggles instruments, switching frequently among bass, keyboards and various electronics.
Green's multi-instrumental virtuosity is something he takes great pride in, and he bristles slightly when asked whether his albums involve the work of outside musicians. “That's a misconception,” he says. Aside from guest vocalists — who on Migration include Hundred Waters' Nicole Miglis and Canadian singer Milosh of electro-R&B duo Rhye — “it's basically just all me. I play 99 percent of everything. I did one afternoon with a string section and that was it.” (Strings aside, the one other exception on Migration is the title track, which features a piano played by Jon Hopkins, a fellow British expat who lives nearby in Silver Lake.)
Green is a self-taught musician, the child of an accordionist who was active in the British folk scene of the '70s and '80s. Like a lot of recording artists of his generation, he got his start in punk bands, “playing drums with my shirt off.” Then Brighton became a hub for the mid-'90s big-beat scene, which lured him into dance music — though he was clearly never destined to follow in the footsteps of Brighton's best-known big-beat ambassador, Fatboy Slim. “I was sort of on the tail end, the mellower end of that.” He mentions Portishead, James Lavelle's Mo' Wax label and his own future home, Ninja Tune, as early influences.
Right from the start, Green resisted attempts to label his music. He cops to being once associated with the mellow vibes of downtempo electronic music — “whatever that means” — but is emphatic in his denial of other genre terms to describe his sound. “Trip-hop is a term some people still use, but incorrectly. It was a very specific sound that happened for about three years.”
It's a nearly universal truth that musicians hate genre labels, but Green's enmity feels more earned than most. Throughout his career, he has stayed true to his muse — and, in the process, perhaps helped pave the way toward new genres himself. The so-called future bass of next-generation EDM artists such as Odesza and Flume clearly owes a debt to Bonobo's lush soundscapes and cleverly syncopated grooves — though one suspects that Green would deny any association there, as well.
“We played a few weird EDM festivals on this run where I don't feel like we really fit on the lineup,” he says of his U.S. tour dates. “It was quite strictly EDM — a lot of really heavy trap and stuff. We were like the only band on the whole [lineup], so I think people weren't quite connecting.”
Maybe that's true for a handful of narrowly focused festivals that mistook Bonobo's popularity for trendiness. But by patiently forging his own sound, Green has connected with a lot of people, both fans of electronic music and those who prefer sounds that, as he puts it, have traveled through the air.
BONOBO | Greek Theatre | 2700 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz | Wed., Sept. 27, 7:15 p.m. | $30-$50 | lagreektheatre.com