Bonobo: Music in motion

Jul 7, 2017 - Artist Stories

Shot after shot, the imagery in Bonobo’s recent video for “Bambro Koyo Ganda” is a feast for the eyes: A drone traces a dotted line of multicolored beach umbrellas along the shore; jetliners home in on a sunset flecked with distant birds; sped-up footage of Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing renders pedestrians as fluid waves of pure motion.

It’s all so striking that it might take a moment for your brain to process the fact that the images are in fact digitally manipulated—chopped and tweaked to mirror the Artist on the Rise-featured musician’s audio production techniques.

“Everything I do is loop-based,” says British electronic musician Simon Green, who has been recording under his simian alias since 1999. Likewise, “Bambro Koyo Ganda” is driven by visual rhythms.

This spellbinding fusion of sound and image goes to the heart of Green’s approach on a series of YouTube videos stretching back to 2009's “The Keeper.” It's a strategy that has earned him a wide audience: The 2013 video for “Cirrus” has earned more than 10 million YouTube views with its kaleidoscopic collage of intricately moving parts, while “Kerala,” which preceded his 2017 album Migration, has been viewed more than 4.6 million times in just eight months. All things told, Bonobo’s views across the platform are quickly nearing the 500 million mark.

The growing set of videos taken from that album represent his most ambitious work yet, from innovative camera experiments and complex set design to perception-altering visual effects.

“When I’m walking around listening to music, I look for patterns, for repetition in everyday life,” Green says. “When I was making the record I would be recording snippets of mechanical noises, so the video is the visual equivalent of that, looking at the rhythm of traffic or of trains coming and going.”

Folding acoustic instruments and field recordings into richly textured panoramas, Bonobo is among the most innovative producers in electronic music, and arguably equally groundbreaking as a visual storyteller. Recently, he waded into largely uncharted technological waters by adapting the Migrations album track “Outlier” for Horizons VR, Reactify’s series of interactive musical journeys for Daydream, Google’s platform for high-quality VR.

By setting listeners inside a virtual audio-visual environment where exploring the space entails interacting with the music itself, the experience blows the dimensions of the music wide open. To accomplish this, Green supplied the Horizons VR programmers not just with the stems of his music—bass, drums, synths, etc.—but the building blocks of the sounds and effects themselves, which were then programmed into the audiovisual experience.

“As you move around within the space, you can grab certain things and that will have an effect on the synthesizer tone or the size of the snare drum,” Green explains. “You’re affecting the music as you move through the space, which looks and sounds really cool.”

Another variation of the “Outlier” video takes the form of a 360-degree perspective—a format that has been gaining currency in recent years, thanks to surprising and enveloping videos from artists like Gorillaz, Björk and Sampha. Green sees a lot of potential in the format, particularly where performance videos are concerned.

“That can really inform the ways that a performance is filmed,” he says. “You can choose a really interesting location, like out in the desert, and do a performance in 360.”

Ironically, Bonobo’s 2009 YouTube clip for “The Keeper” in many ways anticipates the look and feel of today’s 360 videos. Shot in a single take, the video keeps singer Andreya Triana in the center of the frame while the camera slowly pans around the room.

What is novel about the video is that as soon as they’re out of the shot, the members of the band quickly run around the back of the camera and pick up their instruments in a new position. By the end of the video, each musician will have appeared four or five times. Through the magic of panoramic filmmaking, a small combo becomes an overflowing ensemble.

That video serves to demonstrate that even when he’s not tackling new technologies, Bonobo is finding new ways to tell stories in his music videos. For “No Reason,” whose video focused on a shut-in's claustrophobic interior life, director Oscar Hudson constructed an elaborate set that gives the impression of a room closing in on its protagonist. Hudson and his crew did the whole thing using only in-camera effects—a painstaking process laid out in a fascinating behind-the-scenes video.

Green acknowledges that the video “definitely broke away from the aesthetic of the rest of the records, but I really liked that idea.” Besides, the cascading series of rooms ultimately represent another form of repetition, the animating force in his work.

Kerala,” on the other hand, takes a simple narrative and uses extensive post-processing — teasing the action in a series of two-steps-forward, one-step-back loops — to test the limits of the viewer’s perception. At the same time, it renders its protagonist’s psychotic breakdown in starkly realistic terms.

“This one really wrong-footed a lot of people,” admits Green. “A lot of people found it quite jarring, which is kind of the point: We wanted to agitate the viewer.” At the same time, the video is stuffed full of strange, surrealistic, barely perceptible details created using CGI, from a meteor that streaks across the sky in the video’s opening moments to a man who duplicates as he crosses the street. (One intrepid viewer detailed more than a dozen of these digitally rendered Easter eggs in a comment on YouTube.)

Those paying close attention to Bonobo’s work may notice similar elements cropping up in his other videos. “There’s a thread going through them,” he says. “I’m glad people are picking up on it.” Just like his music, his videos are driven by repetition—rhythms we notice and others churning away under the surface, drawing us closer to his captivating creations.

But some of Bonobo’s most powerful videos are also the simplest. Consider “Break Apart,” for which director Neil Krug essentially brought Migration’s evocative cover art to life with a montage of drone footage he shot in the desert of Death Valley.

“It wasn’t even going to be a video until we saw the edit and thought, ‘Wow, this is incredible,’” says Green. “I knew what the aesthetic was for this record: This kind of desolate landscape, the idea of migration and cartography, that was always the thing. So there’s a real coherence between the video and the album artwork, more than any other visual collaboration I’ve done before. It’s great to see these images come to life.”

And come to life they do, thanks to subtle digital retouching that inserts small floating orbs over the desert floor or makes canyon walls glisten as though threaded with veins of pure gold. In Bonobo’s world, where every sliver of sound might become the foundation for a loop, every pixel serves as a potential doorway to a hidden world.