Editors’ Notes On their endlessly eclectic sophomore album, Bicep considers a musical inquiry most often circled by jazz and jam bands: What if tracks don’t need to be immutable, permanent records, but should instead transform and evolve? Taking inspiration from their first major tour—a two-year trek between festivals and clubs during which they’d regularly rework their tracks from the road—the Northern Irish duo freed themselves from the idea that songs had to be fixed. “Club music has to draw you out,” Matt McBriar tells Apple Music. “Headphone music has to pull you in. More often than not, we’d wind up with six different versions of each song. Eventually it was like, ‘Why do we have to choose?’”

As a result, the album versions on Isles are simply jumping-off points—the best headphones-inclined versions the pair could cut (dance-floor edits will inevitably materialize when they bring the tracks into clubbier environments). “There’s no straight house or techno on this album; those versions will come later,” Andy Ferguson says. “We wanted to explore home listening to its fullest extent, and then explore the live show to its fullest extent. Rather than try to do both at once, we decided to serve each.” Taking this approach presented an interesting challenge: In order for the songs to be malleable and recognizable, they needed to have a strong foundation. “They couldn’t be reliant on a single composition, they had to work in different forms,” McBriar says. “We had to make sure they had strong DNA.” Below, the pair—self-described geeks and gear-heads eager to get technical—take us inside the creative process behind each track.

Atlas
McBriar: “This was the first track we finished after coming back from the tour. We tried to capture the feelings from the peak of the live show, that optimism and euphoria in the room when we performed. It set the tone for the rest of the album in terms of our process. Although we initially recorded several different melodies, the final form came together a few months later in a single afternoon on our modular. This riff was the strongest.”

Cazenove
Ferguson: “This was another early demo, and was sparked by our obsessive interest in ’90s technology—the old MPC controllers that Timbaland and Dilla used. That old equipment doesn’t produce instantly crisp sounds or perfect beats, but that’s where the beauty is. It’s fuzzy and imprecise. We were experimenting with a lot of ’90s lo-fi samplers and bit crushers, and the idea was to build a rhythm by feeding our MPC through a reverse reverb patch on the Lexicon PCM96. From there we just added layer upon layer. We wanted something fast and playful, but with a lot less emphasis on the dance floor.”

Apricots
McBriar: “This actually began as an ambient piece, and the strings sat on our hard drive for a year before we considered some vocals. One day, we picked up an amazing, recently released record called Beating Heart - Malawi. The vocals and polyrhythms of ‘Gebede-Gebede Ulendo Wasabwera’ stood out. They were captivating. We pitched snippets of them to our strings before building the rest of the track around them. The second sample is from the 1975 [Bulgarian folk] album Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares. We connected with the mysterious chanting, and felt like it had parallels to the Celtic folk we grew up hearing.”

Saku (feat. Clara La San)
McBriar: “This began as a footwork-inspired track with a hang drum melody; we’d been looking into polyrhythms and more interesting drum programming. But when we slowed down the tempo from 150 to 130 BPM, it totally flipped the vibe for us. We experimented with several different vocals samples—including ‘Gebede-Gebede Ulendo Wasabwera’ before it wound up on ‘Apricots’—but ended up sending a stripped-back version to Clara La San, who brought a strong ’90s UKG/R&B vibe. We added some haunting synths at the end to bring contrast and some opposing dark and light elements. It was great to pull so many of our influences into one track.”

Lido
Ferguson: “This track was born from one of our many experiments with granular synthesis. We cut a single piano note from a catalog of 1970s samples and fed it into one of our granular samplers. As we experimented with recording it live, the synthesizer glitches and jumps added all this character and texture. It was pretty disorderly and hard to control, but we loved the madness it produced. There are a ton of layers to this track despite it sounding so simple. And mixing it was a lot of work, trying to get that balance between soothing and subtle chaos.”

X (feat. Clara La San)
McBriar: “This track was built around our Psycox SY-1M Syncussion. We’d been hunting for a Pearl original for years. It has all these uncompromising, metallic fizzes and bleeps that are so difficult to tame, you really need to start with it as the center of the track. Most tracks on the album began on the piano, but not this one. The frantic synth melody was actually improvised one afternoon on our Andromeda A6; it was a single take on a heavily customized and edited patch that we've never been able to replicate. It was just one of those moments when you hit ‘record’ and get it right.”

Rever (feat. Julia Kent)
Ferguson: “We started this track in Bali in 2016. We were on tour and had access to a studio full of local instruments, and knew right away that we wanted to use them. We recorded long sessions of us playing them live, but never ended up using them in one of our finished tracks. Several years later, we were working with Julia Kent, who had recorded the strings for another demo, but it just wasn’t working. She tried some of the Bali instrumentals instead. It sounded really unique. The chopped-up vocal came last, edited and re-pitched to fit, almost like a melody.”

Sundial
McBriar: “One of the simplest tracks on the album, ‘Sundial’ grew from a faulty Jupiter 6 arp recording. Our trigger wasn’t working properly and the arp was randomly skipping notes. This was a small segment taken from a recording of Andy playing around with the arp while we were trying to figure out what was going wrong. We actually loved what it produced and wrote some chords around it, guided by the feeling of that recording.”

Fir
Ferguson: “We have a real soft spot for choral vox synths, and this track was born from an experiment with those. It's actually one of the fastest songs we've ever made, and grew purely out of those days in the studio when we just jammed, trying new things. No direction, no preconceived ideas, we just felt it out.”

Hawk (feat. machina)
Ferguson: “The melody on ‘Hawk’ is actually our voices mapped and re-pitched to a granular sampler. We experimented a lot with re-pitching on this album; it brings this unique quality to vocals and melodies. We have a rare-ish Japanese synth, the Kawai SX-240, which creates all those super weird synth noises. Again, this track was the product of lots of experimentation. Machina's vocal's were actually for another demo which we were struggling on and it just worked perfectly.”

1
5:52
 
2
4:22
 
3
4:06
 
4
4:57
 
5
3:20
 
6
5:33
 
7
5:19
 
8
4:35
 
9
5:23
 
10
5:59
 

Music Videos

More by Bicep

Featured On