Sam Sheppard has been making music in various forms since the age of 13, most notably as Floating Points. He achieved his first breakout release with Vacuum in 2009 and roughly six years later, he released his debut full length album Elaenia in 2015 to critical acclaim. Given the intricacy and often-melancholy nature of his music, it doesn’t seem farfetched to discover he holds a PhD in Neuroscience. His last tour of Australia saw him play DJ sets at Meredith and Freedom Time shortly after the release of Elaenia, and after years of travelling solo, Floating Points decided to engage a full band to join him on the expedition.
I read recently that you were trained as a classical pianist which led you to discover jazz, soul, house, electronic and techno. When did you first start to produce your own electronic music?
When I was at school they had just built this brand new, fancy digitally-equipped studio. How old was I? 13. How old am I now? 30. It was 17 years ago. So, there was this brand new digital studio in the school and everyone was excited about it, but there was also an old analogue studio in the school that no-one cared about. It was an old forgotten room, which was still functional but they didn’t get rid of it. It was so oversubscribed and, because I was still a little young, to be in the digital studio they let me loose in the analogue studio to play around with synthesisers and samplers. I used this old Akai-S950 sampler in there to sample all sorts of things. I was never sampling records because there was no turntable or anything, it wasn’t that kind of studio. I never knew that was something someone did. I was sampling more found objects and would make music from found sounds and domestic sounds. Like my first electronic music was called ‘Domestic Cycle’ – it was loads of tracks sounds of vacuum cleaners, glasses, keys, and things. The vacuum cleaner ended up on Vacuum Boogie which was one of those found sounds. So that was how I started making electronic music, but it was very much like a classical kind of electronic music. There was a teacher at the school who was really into Musique Concrete and a lot of the early electronic music pioneers: Stockhausen, Morton Subotnick. So I was kind of going at that angle. It was much much later when I started making dance music.
When you play as a DJ you can sort of read a crowd and have some direction to guide what you are going to play, but a live performance is more contained. How have you found performing live? Is it more stressful?
There’s a lot more that can go wrong with the band. There’s a lot more people involved. There’s a lot more gear involved because it’s not just a pair of turntables and a stereo feed. There’s a lot more things going on. But I wouldn’t say it’s stressful. My band and the crew, they’re all my friends and extremely reliable. I think I enjoy it more than DJing because there is a whole camaraderie of my friends who are travelling the world and just hanging out.
So the band you tour with, did you grow up with them? Did they go to music school with you back in Manchester?
My other band ‘Floating Points Ensemble’ have all been my friends since I moved to London. We sometimes do some gigs with strings, wind and brass, and there are players in that that band who I’ve known since I grew up in Manchester. But they’re not in this smaller touring band.
Have you found it hard to perform the album live as a five-piece band considering how many textural layers are on the record?
When we play it live, we only play about half of the album and the other half is new music that I have written. I’ve written a lot of new music. The set in Melbourne was only about 50 minutes but we could have gone on for another half an hour. The new music is material that I’m constantly writing for the band, so the band itself is making me write new and different music. I never really thought of starting the band and then taking my album and playing it live. Obviously, we would play some of the music from the album but it wouldn’t be about trying to recreate the album. Elaenia is an album that belongs in the studio. There is so much intricacy to it and electronics so it requires a lot of production. That’s why it’s a bit hard to play live. I have mountains of gear surrounding me on stage and I am trying my best. There’s a lot to control to try and even get close to it.
I’d imagine it would be very hard to recreate.
The band is actually causing me to make different music. It’s getting me into guitar-heavy music. It’s not really something I really knew much about.
What kind of guitar-heavy music?
At the moment I’m getting into psych-rock sort of stuff because of having the band. I never really knew anything about this kind of music. Like honestly, literally nothing! I’m discovering Pink Floyd and bands I had heard about but never really looked into.
So this has opened a door for you to discover more music? Has it helped you to discover new records as well?
I don’t know really how to begin but I’ve only still heard about two Pink Floyd tracks. I really need to stop messing around because people keep saying to me “It sounds like you listen to a lot of Pink Floyd”. Well actually, I don’t. The band made me listen to ‘Echoes’ by Pink Floyd for the first time. I haven’t really heard anything else but I’ve got to check out Dark Side of the Moon apparently.
How did your record label Melodies International come about and who else is involved other than yourself?
There was this record that I obsessed with by Aged In Harmony called You’re A Melody. I couldn’t find it anywhere – it was incredibly rare. It turns out there was a DJ in London called Red Greg who had a copy and I finally got one of my own from a guy called Gary Dennis. I had a residency at this club called ‘Plastic People’ and I once played it five times over the course of the night. Each time I played it people would go more and more crazy, it was a really amazing moment. The last time I played it people were literally losing their minds. Red Greg was there that night to come check out the party and I said “Why don’t we do our own party just like this?”. It was soul music – it was inviting and it was like outsider’s disco. Red Greg was up for it and so we did a party, we invited some other friends to play that have similar taste to us. People like Jeremy Underground, DJ Love on the Run, Mafalda, and Layla.
We would do these parties and put mixes up online and then we thought, “Why don’t we try and find this guy who made You’re A Melody?” With a lot of help and around six years of searching, we found him and presented him with the idea. Often it’s really difficult to deal with because the artists are a bit older. They’ve put a record out that is incredibly rare, I’m talking around 200 original copies in the world, which are trading hands for thousands of dollars that they’re not getting a penny of. They probably used their life savings into putting out a record, thinking something big would happen but they got a bad distribution situation, so radio didn’t pick up on it and nothing really happened. So you’re calling this person to say “We would like to reissue this record” and they’re usually like “Well, that was a long time ago and it didn’t really work out so yeah, I’m okay thanks”. It’s difficult to explain that it’s got this new lease on life, you know?
It would be hard for them since they have already put it out of their minds.
Yeah and I feel like they would also be a bit confused, seeing as it was released such a long time ago. Why would people be interested by that release now? We are playing with broken dreams sometimes. I heard DJ Shadow actually once say that was the reason why he was digging. We’re doing this and we’re trying to bring this music to a new audience. We’re trying to do it legitimately so that the artist is actually getting paid for it. We’re having them do interviews so that they can tell their story. It’s nice. It adds a lot of context and there is so much appetite for it. I just think everyone wins really.
So what’s the latest Melodies International release?
It’s ‘Open Soul’ by Tomorrow’s People. That is a record which is impossibly hard to find but there is an incredible desire for it. We tried our best to find the license and we did it! We have a lot more in the works.
Have you found the time to go to any record shops here in Australia?
I did go to Licorice Pie and Northside Records in Melbourne. I always forget the names of places that people tell me to visit, unfortunately. I’ve slowed down a lot on my collecting. When I was in Northside Records I only bought a few classical records, so my selection has gone a bit weird recently. I’m not buying so much dance music. I’m buying a lot of weird classical music. They have a really great collection there.
At Laneway Festival you played a new track that hasn’t been released yet. Is there a new record on the horizon?
Who knows? You’ll just have to wait and see.
I heard you once swapped a 7-inch record for a car. What was the record and what was the car?
The 7-inch was João Donato’s ‘Amazons’ off his album Quem A Quem. It’s not particularly rare. The car was a MK II Jaguar – which was actually my girlfriend’s car because I don’t drive.
- Words: Laurie Hamilton-Grundy