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Bonobo’s Club Hits Are Never the Ones He Expects

Producer-DJ worked with Jamila Woods, Joji, and more on upcoming album Fragments, due out in January

Bonobo's new album is due out January 14.

Grant Spanier

Like many electronic producers who are also active DJs, Bonobo is used to test-driving work in progress, relying on a constant feedback loop between the studio and the club to sharpen the peaks and smooth the valleys of his serenely danceable tracks. “Usually part of the process is you work on something and you go out and play it that weekend,” Bonobo says. That way, “you can really tell when a tune dies on the dancefloor. It’s invaluable.”

You might think it’s relatively easy to determine what’s going to galvanize a full club ahead of time — crank a disco loop into a frenzy, add a big kick drum, call it a day. But often “it’s not the tunes you think that are going to get big reactions,” Bonobo continues. “You think, ‘this is it, this is the club track! Then it falls flat.’” And on the flip side, “some things really get a big reaction when you’re least expecting it.” 

But, it’s been quite a while since he’s been able to enjoy those “curveballs, when the stuff that’s not obviously a big bombastic moment works and it’s really special.” For most of the past 18 months, as Bonobo chipped away at his upcoming album Fragments, his typical creative process was upended. No clubs were open, so assessing his music’s real-time impact on a crowd was impossible. “Without having the benefit of doing that last year, you’re kind of going in blind,” he says. “You have those moments: ‘I really hope this works, ’cause there’s nothing I can do about it.’”  

Bonobo needn’t have worried; Fragments, due in January, moves from tranquil to chugging with the same easy grace as much of the producer’s recent work. He’s built a big-room following with a sound that stays calm even at its most kinetic and crunchy, like a stone skipping across a pond without ever really disturbing the surface. Some dance music crashes and slashes; Bonobo’s tends to ripple and swish. (One exception was last year’s “Heartbreak” with Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, which melds pummeling breakbeats and roaring disco vocals to “nod to historical moments in club culture.”) 

Like Bonobo’s last two albums, Fragments opens on a meditative note: a pretty number awash with shivering strings (it’s made with help from the arranger, composer, and multi-instrumentalist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson). Bonobo returns to this tranquil space several times. The album ends with “Day by Day,” a string-swaddled lullaby with vocals from Kadhja Bonet. For “Tides,” a chilly soul cut featuring Jamila Woods released earlier this week, he crafted the swoony melody using “tiny loops” of a harp sample, programmed so that the notes triggered are slightly different each time. 

Harps play a key role throughout Fragments. “The very beginning of this record was a session I did with a harpist,” Lara Somogyi, Bonobo says. “I didn’t have a specific part I wanted, I just wanted some source material for harps.” Rather than asking musicians to play pre-written progressions, Bonobo prefers to collect a wide range of material in the studio with collaborators and then play around with it later. “I feel like I work best with manipulating audio, re-pitching it, stretching it,” he says. “You can hear it all over the record, right at the beginning and then happening throughout the rest of the album, different bits of that harp session.” 

For “Closer,” a soothing, chattering track that’s sure to go over well in Bonobo’s DJ sets, he went into his own back catalog to find some audio to manipulate. The wispy vocal comes from “Far Closer,” a track he produced on Andreya Triana’s 2010 debut album Lost Where I Belong. “It’s quite meta sampling music I’ve done in the past,” Bonobo says. “I was like, ‘can I do this?’ But this one just sat there so well in the beat that I made” — he didn’t have a choice.

One of the most loop-able tracks on Fragments is also one of the most jittery: “Otomo,” a collaboration with the producer O’Flynn, who has a knack for fizzy, blasting house like 2019’s “Mesablanca.” The partnership came about almost by accident. “I had this song, a big choral sample, and I wanted for it to go into a loud moment and then come back, but I wasn’t sure how to do it,” Bonobo explains. “I’d been playing O’Flynn’s music during my sets, so I just decided to message him. I don’t know him that well, but I needed secondary advice, someone else to have a listen. I just asked if he had any suggestions about how I would finish this tune.”

O’Flynn asked for the files to the song, and, to Bonobo’s surprise and delight, executed the “dynamic shift” that was flummoxing him. “It was a real case of someone else being able to zoom out and think bigger picture when I was stuck in it,” the producer adds. 

This summer, as dancefloors around the world took tentative steps towards reopening, Bonobo returned to his DJing routine and started to incorporate “Otomo” into his sets. “That one’s been going down really well,” he says. “No one knows what it is yet. But there’s a feeling of recognition already, which is a good sign.”

From Rolling Stone US