Originally written for Clash in October 2017. Read the original article here.
Following a decade spent building a reputation as crate digger extraordinaires for the modern age, 2017 has very much proven to be Bicep’s year.
Formed by childhood friends Andy Ferguson and Matt McBriar, the duo began their first foray in to the music industry back in 2008 in the form of the legendary Feel My Bicep blog, which quickly became the go-to outlet for carefully curated house curios.
The duo garnered an avid following of likeminded musos, later going on to develop a reputation as one of the most dependable live acts currently touring today. With the release of their self-titled LP via Ninja Tune back in September, the Belfast natives’ journey from tastemakers to house music heroes was all but complete.
As they prepare to play a string of UK live dates this November, I invited the duo to reflect on their work, their influences and the tunes that remain live set staples to this day.
How did you guys first meet?
We were mates from mini-rugby when we were about eight or nine. That’s also when we met Rory [Hamilton, better known as Bicep collaborator, Hammer] – so we’ve all been friends since then.
And with regards to the music, it all began with the blog, Feel My Bicep, right? What led to you setting it up in the first place?
Long before Spotify and YouTube became great places to find music online, we wanted somewhere to upload our version of playlists and curation. It was really more for sharing with each other and our friends. We were really just archiving what we were listening to.
It’s still great for us to dig back into the blog when we’re doing mixes and rediscover our own music, as it’s easy to forget little weird nuggets and gems you found eight years ago.
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Looking back now, what were some of the most exciting tracks you stumbled across at the time that you’d still view as essential staples during your sets today?
We actually really try to avoid playing tracks for more than a few months, which always pushes us to keep digging, however Serge Santiago’s colour series of Italo edits was always a really big one for us back in the day and there’s still tracks for the series that we’ll dig out from time to time. They were tough non-nonsense edits of some really amazing Italo tracks and they all sound huge.
Also, tracks like Skatt Bros’ ‘Walk the Night’ – that was a huge one for us for years. We used to play that every week and we’re still not tired of it.
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How much has the scene changed since you guys first started DJing?
Loads. Camera phones barely existed back then, whereas now clubs are awash with twinkling phones. Strange modern obsession of videoing a night out to then actually enjoy and watching at home.
The culture of digging was much more personal. You would spend months searching for a track you only caught a glimpse of and feel a huge sense of joy when you finally found it. Now you’ve got Shazam and these ID groups, which certainly dull that magic and make every find much more instant, and ultimately kind of throwaway or disposable. When you can find everything, you value things less, and that’s the same for IDs and finding music that’s more personal.
That said, the phenomenon is always helping bring new people into the “scene”, or whatever. Even Discogs was fairly young back then in the early 2000s, and if a record sold out, often eBay was the only place. It was all very exciting to get your hands on a track after sometimes years of searching.
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Do you tend to find audiences a lot more open-minded about the kind of stuff you play now than they were when you guys were first starting out?
It’s hard to tell. We’ve always played a broad range and some cities and countries always got it, and some didn’t. Weirdly, some cities that used to get it have become more narrow-minded and vice versa, some places have opened up.
I think it’s always evolving and changing and little factors can have a big influence. Even a particular DJ from a city or club night pushing a sound can impact the place quickly.
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With regards to what you guys play now, how much of your sets constitute original material and remixes of other artists?
It’s probably 50% our own remixes, edits and unreleased stuff and then a load from other artists. It’s our own way of trying to make sets more personal and being able to put our own twists on tracks that we maybe wouldn’t want to release – ideas we can keep sketchy and raw.
We love editing old Italo and kind of overlooked genres, but don’t release a lot of it as it’s really sometimes just a quick rehash with new drums and feel it might detract from our actual originals. We’ve learnt this from some previous things that got online.
It’s also recently been a way to try and pull back from this culture of everything being instant, attainable and thus growing old fast. We want to have some tracks that you can only hear in a club. That was something that made clubbing very special for us when we were younger.
How did you guys come to sign to Ninja Tune? What drew you to the label?
We’ve always loved and respected the label. We kept a very open mind when sending out the demos and approached a broad range of labels. Ninja Tune came back instantly with feedback and an understanding that instantly struck a chord with us.
They wanted to push us to be ourselves and didn’t try and micromanage or dictate to us what they wanted. They got the ideas we were trying to convey very quickly and at times it was like reading our own minds from their emails.
This instantly felt great as we were in a big transition period in terms of broadening what we released and we just connected well. It’s been a very smooth ride with them. They’re great.
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You guys worked with each other remotely for a long time. I take it that the album was predominantly recorded together in the studio?
Absolutely. Long gone are the days of working on laptops and emailing files. We don’t really work at all outside the studio. It makes us more focused when we are there, as opposed to knowing you can maybe edit things later at home, but also it’s basically impossible as we’re all hardware and can’t write/record remotely.
And how did working remotely affect the kind of music you were producing back then, versus the material you’re producing today?
Working remotely was boring. It was dull. We would mess around clicking on a little laptop, moving blocks around and then email it back and forth. It was closer to design work and writing or more importantly expressing yourself musically. When you’re in a studio you’ve built yourself, which in itself becomes an extension of you, then you can be a thousand times more creative. We couldn’t and wouldn’t ever go back. It’s actually really sad to see a lot of older artists who were groundbreaking in the 90s with this amazing sound end up now just making thin, cheap sounding music on laptops.
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The label described the album as “the perfect summation” of your career to date. Was it a conscious decision to bring together all your influences of the last nine years or so, or do you feel that drawing on those influences just comes naturally as part of the creative process?
We went in blindly with no real direction. We really just jammed out sixty demos, in many, many styles, subconsciously drawing influence from everything we knew. The range in BPMs and styles were very, very extreme in the initial demos, and when we kinda distilled all of that down and found what was working, it was pretty varied but at the same time we felt it summed us up.
That said, we made a lot of darker techno stuff – funnily enough, often on a Monday or Tuesday, which is also a representation of us, but just not suitable for an album, or certainly the album we wanted to make.
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You’ve cited the likes of Jon Hopkins, Aphex Twin, Steve Reich and Philip Glass as influences in the past. Who of those four would you say had the biggest impact overall on the feeling of the album as a whole and how would your describe their influence on your work?
It’s hard to pick. We never stylistically wanted the album to sound like anything or anyone. It was basically the fruit of us jamming and just being ourselves, so it’s hard to then point at another artist. They’ve all influenced us in some shape or form as we love all their work and it really connects with us. Aphex is obviously always going to be a hero though.
Do you draw your influences from elsewhere other than the music scene?
On the track ‘Drift’ in particular, there’s an almost Goblin-esque, Italo-horror vibe to it. Is film score something that inspires you guys too?
Yeah. Of course. We both come from design backgrounds, where you’re taught to become a sponge. Just soak up everything around you all the time. We would both absolutely love to work on a film score sometime. That’s actually a pretty big goal.
What does it mean to you guys to be playing the Warehouse Project?
Warehouse project is kind of like home now. We’ve been playing from pretty much the very start and we’re good friends with all the crew. It’s an amazing feeling to be part of it and just return each year, relaxed, knowing we can just focus on doing our best. We always try and prepare some new edits and music for the show as it’s such a great crowd.
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[NB: Clip embeds are part of Bicep’s essential selections from the Feel My Bicep blog era, specially compiled for Clash]