Floating Points, Electronic Music’s King of Pain

Since he emerged as one of the standout D.J.s at the London club Plastic People in the late aughts, Sam Shepherd, who makes slow-building, deliberate electronic music as Floating Points, has become known for his precision, his musical knowledge and his modesty. “Elaenia,” his 2015 debut album, took five years to make. He tends not to enjoy his own work.

But the 33-year-old’s new album, “Crush,” out Friday, was jostled from him in five weeks, fueled by his frustration at the state of the world, by “searching for hope and not being rewarded,” he said in a phone interview that started in a taxi from King’s Cross in London and continued in his Shoreditch studio.

Shepherd’s sensitivity to suffering and those who aim to alleviate it — the new track “Sea-Watch” was inspired by Carola Rackete, the German ship captain who was arrested after defying Italy’s attempt to close its borders to the some 40 migrants she had rescued — has long been part of his intellectual exploration. When he moved to London for his doctorate, he studied neuroepigenetics, specifically the role DNA plays in neurons that encode pain.

“I still do think about pain and the academic side of things and the fact that its one of the principal unmet clinical needs of the world,” he said. “It’s still deeply misunderstood, deeply maltreated.”

His musical education began in his hometown Bolton, near Manchester, when he was 8 and became a choirboy at Manchester Cathedral. After his voice dropped, he studied composition at Chetham’s School of Music. He was drawn to the French composers Claude Debussy and Olivier Messiaen, detecting in their music the fascinating harmonic contrasts that brought him to the work of the impressionistic jazz pianist Bill Evans. Shepherd was particularly taken with Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” written while the composer was captive in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II.

“The actual story behind that piece of music is as effective to me as the music itself,” Shepherd said. “Just the clarinet, it just kills me every time I hear it.”

When he was working on his doctorate in London, his hunt for compelling music led him to Plastic People. The club was an incubator for some of the most forward-thinking sounds in dance music, and Shepherd fell in with two like-minded musicians, Kieran Hebden (Four Tet) and Dan Snaith (Caribou); the three remain close. “That’s like the three musketeers, there,” Shepherd said.

Snaith said he believes a big shift between Floating Points albums has been the evolution of Shepherd’s studio, which has had a massive impact on his creative process.

“Sam only works when he feels inspired,” he wrote in an email, “and I know that finally having all these amazing pieces of equipment set up — easy to use, chain together and experiment with — was a big catalyst to this music.”

Hebden emphasized his friend’s engagement with the world. “We’d talk about something happening in the news that day, and then he’d go spend a day in the studio,” funneling it into music, he said. “That’s just the way it works, as far as I know.”

Another change came with a lesson Shepherd learned on the road after he released the jazzy, warm “Elaenia” and toured with the xx. He had been listening to the Krautrock group Harmonia’s concert album “Live 1974” and decided to try something similar onstage with a Buchla modular synthesizer, a complex, keyboard-less instrument usually used in the safety of a studio.

“I don’t know where the confidence to do something like that came from,” he said. “Playing Buchla music to 20,000 people without knowing my gear that well. Even I was like, ‘That was mad.’”

But the experience gave him a better understanding of the Buchla, an instrument that grants a detail-oriented musician like Shepherd extraordinary control over the sounds he’s creating. Now, “Rather than spending loads of time producing a record, I’m spending loads of time learning the equipment that I make the record with,” he said.

That helped when it came time to record “Crush,” which Shepherd wrote, arranged and composed. The opening track, “Falaise” which features a string ensemble, a French horn and several woodwinds, was written with the goal of taking a “normal ensemble” and treating the parts as building blocks of a modular system.

The album is significantly harsher and heavier than earlier Floating Points music. Several songs dwell on Shepherd’s anger about the destruction of the planet. On “Enviroments,” the music — a blend of synths and drum machine — seems to spin almost out of control. “I think part of that is rage,” Shepherd said. “Let it burn, you know.”

Shepherd has unending admiration for artists who make political music. He enthused about “We Almost Lost Detroit,” Gil Scott-Heron’s exploration of the 1966 partial meltdown at a nuclear plant in Monroe County, Mich.

“The lyrical content is like, wow,” he said, adding that he knew about people like the activist Karen Silkwood because of Heron.

“Crush” gave him his own canvas for political expression. And he spent such a comparatively short time making the record that he even likes listening to it.

“It’s imperfect,” he said. “But it doesn’t bother me.”

 Jonah Bromwich is a news and features reporter. He writes about cultural change — shifts in the way we date, eat, think and use language and technology — for the Style section. @jonesieman

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