Shepherd's skill-set is as diverse as his music. He writes, plays, records, engineers and mixes almost all of his music, at times directing ensembles of up to 16 musicians. He's involved with three record labels: most famously Eglo, but also Pluto and the reissue label Melodies. When he found himself disappointed with the quality of DJ mixers on the market, he made his own in collaboration with Isonoe, a fantastic sounding and impractically oversized piece of high-end kit called the FP Mixer. When he struggled to get dubplates cut, he travelled to the German countryside to learn how to do it himself, taking a week-long course with an eccentric cutting-master. When he launched Melodies, he didn't just re-issue a rare record. He wrote and published a fanzine to accompany the release, complete with charts and spoof ads for Shepherd's services as a wedding DJ. When I met Shepherd at his studio, he told me he'd been organising visas for the 12 musicians in his band ahead of an international tour. He joked that he's becoming "megalomaniacal."
This list of achievements is even more mind-boggling when you consider that until last year his music career was something of a side project. Shepherd earned his doctorate in 2014 after spending four years studying a PhD in neuroscience and epigenetics at University College London. His days were spent in the lab doing work that involved "a lot of microscopes." Gigs and studio sessions filled his spare time.
"I would leave early every Friday, sneak my record bag into uni and go straight to Heathrow," said Shepherd. "There'd be times when I'd have a Thursday gig and I'd go to the airport, then be back in the lab by the morning. Those weeks were brutal. I did a Milan Design Week show. I flew out at 4 PM and was back in the lab by 9 AM the next day." Luckily, Shepherd had an "unbelievably supportive" PhD supervisor who himself was "a massive music head."
"I was definitely a more diligent student than I was a musician, and I prioritised going into the lab—if anything just because I felt like I was letting my friends down in the lab. We all started our PhDs together and they were smashing it. They were getting papers in Nature. It was tricky because there were lots of nice and exciting offers on the table for work, interesting projects artistically. But I was like, I want to make music so badly that if I wait three years and get this done I could dedicate the rest of my life to music."
Balancing the two worlds was far from easy, and music often became a release from the occasionally disheartening world of science. "It was difficult. There were times when I was having a really bad time with science. Things weren't working out. A lot of times it wasn't working out but music was the reason I would stick with the PhD at that point because it gave me so much comfort. I was having a lot of fun making music and I was having fun releasing records myself."
In Shepherd's studio you get a sense of this fun. A darkened basement room with red strip-lighting, the place is an audio-nerd's paradise. There are vintage synthesisers, high-end speakers, tape-machines and myriad musical instruments. It's the kind of gear you'd expect to see rack-mounted in a mega-bucks studio, but Shepherd has it all crammed haphazardly into one cluttered space. In the corner of the room is his record cutting lathe where he presses tracks to PVC, a more durable material than the traditional acetate used for dubplates. In the back room is a harmonograph, a homespun contraption Shepherd made from wood and fibre-optic cable. He used it to create the artwork for his new album, Elaenia.
The array of flashing lights and dials in the studio is bewildering, but during our conversation Shepherd quietly explained the purpose of each piece of kit. "I don't obsess about hardware even though it might seem like I do with this setup," he said. "I don't get new equipment until I've learned inside-out how one piece of equipment works." He pointed to a modular synth: "With this, I've got another rack but I have a rule that I don't buy another module until I've exhausted all of the possibilities I can imagine. I always find I make the most interesting stuff once I've nailed my understanding of how something works."
From the outside, Shepherd's music seems painstakingly crafted. Floating Points' trademarks are a sense of sonic dynamism and a musical virtuosity that's lacking in most dance music. But his creative process is more haphazard than you might imagine. He gets a lot of pleasure from experimentation, and has said he doesn't want his music to sound "too polished." While his science work was meticulous, often measuring the behaviour of single cells, his work in the studio is more serendipitous.
"This room, it's not a proper studio," he said. "There's no live room and there's no control room. I can route the drum machine through the lathe, and the lathe can be on playback immediately from the vinyl. The vinyl can go straight into the guitar amp. The guitar amp can be picked up by a microphone and then can be sent back onto a phaser, and that can go onto a tape machine. Any kind of weird combination of sound is possible in here. There are very few limitations. I'll apply a tiny amount of reasoning to the process: 'I wonder what the 808 will sound like through a guitar amp?' I've set it up so having a whimsical tiny idea is very easy to do. And so I don't have to be traipsing wires around, I can just plug it in. That can be quite inspiring, or inevitably sound pretty rubbish. But because I've not wasted so much time doing that I can go and start something else. Actually the 808 through the guitar amp does sound pretty bad, so don't try that one. I didn't go to any school of audio engineering or whatever. I don't really know what I'm doing. I can use this place to make a mess."
This unorthodox approach extends to Shepherd's record collection. When I interviewed him in 2013, his front room was reminiscent of a compulsive hoarder's. Records sprawled from already full Ikea shelves, invading an unreasonable volume of living space. Still, Shepherd seemed to know roughly where everything was. In his own understated way, he guided me through some of the choice cuts in his collection. The obscurity of some of his records is self-parodying. At a gig he once told me the story of a record he'd just played. The Eyes Of Love album by Edge Of Daybreak was a 1979 soul obscurity, recorded in a prison, and all but a few of the original copies were destroyed in a flood. Unsurprisingly, it sounded amazing. Shepherd, however, seemed more enthused by the records he'd pulled from bargain bins. He showed me a Chick Corea LP called Tap Step. "You can pull out a really common record that you see everywhere and Mr Scruff, J Rocc, or whoever, they might not know it," he said. "You see this in every single second-hand store you go to. It's got the most disgusting cover and no one ever buys it, but it has the most unbelievable cut on it. You can play it with DJ Nuts or whoever, and he'll be like, 'What is this?' It's a 30-pence record."
Few other DJs put the research Shepherd does into collecting and playing music. For him, if something's worth doing it's worth doing properly. When he offered me a cup of tea, he picked up an unfamiliar-looking bag of loose-leaf tea and made a pot using not-quite-boiling water and a strainer. He explained that boiling water kills the flavour. "Digging for tea, digging for records," he joked. Later, he showed me his record player. He uses an EMT broadcast turntable, a hulking, 30-year-old piece of German equipment that arguably sounds better than anything else. (Most people would be happy with a cup of PG Tips and a 1210.)
The way Shepherd digs for records gives you an insight into the strong bonds he forms with his peers. He works closely with his friends to find new vinyl and is remarkably generous. Some of those friends are well-known—Caribou, Ben UFO— but just as often they're not. One of the best records Shepherd played me in his flat was Aged In Harmony's You're A Melody, the record that inspired his club night of the same name. He discovered it through his friend Julia from the DJ duo Javybz, and the London selector Red Greg helped him find a copy. It's not the rarest record he owns, but it's pretty hard to find. I later learned that the record dealer who sold Shepherd the single had only seen one other copy in 40 years. The João Donato record Shepherd traded a car for? He actually had two copies of the single and a copy of the album it comes from. (He eventually gave the other single to Four Tet.)
"I don't need two copies of things," Shepherd said. "I'm really not about that. I've just been in Japan and I've bought loads of copies of records I've already got, and I just give them to friends who I know are going to want them. I find stuff cheap. I buy records for myself and I'm lucky enough to be travelling around, but if I see things I know people want, obviously I'm going to pick it up. It's the same with friends who go away and hit me up with records they know I want. It's a good way of doing things, I think."
Kyle Hall, Plastic People, London (2010)
Caribou, Poble Espanol, Barcelona (2014)
Four Tet, XOYO, London (2015)
Hunee, Dekmantel, Amsterdam (2015)
Plastic People, the much-missed London club where Shepherd held a residency, had a deep impact on him. Seeing Theo Parrish there was an inspiration and catalyst for Shepherd's love of DJing. The way the club's owner, Ade Fakile, would play also had a huge effect. Shepherd said the only time he cried in a club was during one of Fakile's sets. "There was always so much space to the music he played, and you could hear so much depth to the music he played, all those things massively shaped the way I want to record music. Plastic People has had a big impact on my studio setup with the sound I want to achieve. I heard so many records played in that room, hearing details and sounds with such beauty and depth and precision and wanting to try and achieve those sounds myself, and having the freedom to experiment. This place afforded me that luxury. "
But as important as the music was, it was perhaps the community aspect of Plastic People that has lingered longest. Shepherd said it was there he met most of his musical peers based in London, which includes most of the Eglo crew—Alexander Nut, Fatima, Funkineven and Mizz Beats. It also extends to acts Shepherd has worked with, such as Hejira and The Invisible, whose drummer, Leo Taylor, performs on Elaenia. In fact, the entire band that play on the album are part of his musical friend group.
It was at CDR, Plastic People's night for upcoming musicians, that Shepherd started to gain confidence as a producer. Here he would test unfinished tracks on the club's famous system, getting tips and trading ideas with then-unknown producers such as Maya Jane Coles, SBTRKT and Mr Beatnick. "CDR is very, very, very important. Everyone who makes music should go there. I improved massively by going to those nights."
It's clear that the instinct to push himself as a producer burns as bright as it ever did. For every aspect Shepherd has taken total control. "I give the musicians the parts," he said. "I write all the scores out and say what I want. Actually, on all the tracks there are demos, that I hope will never be heard, with me playing everything. The drums and the bass and stuff. They're quite funny."
Elaenia is the product of five years' work, which isn't to say that it's the only music Shepherd made in that period or that he works slowly. In fact, some of his tracks have been written incredibly quickly. "Vacuum Boogie," one of his breakthrough tracks, was made on a train journey from London to Manchester. "Nuits Sonores," another standout, was made on a plane travelling to Lyon, then mixed down in a DJ booth. Shepherd's also played a big role in producing both Fatima's album Yellow Memories and Gilles Peterson's Sonzeria: Brasil Bam Bam Bam LP.
Shepherd also said there's "lots more material" that didn't make it onto Elaenia. "This record is a body of work I felt belonged together and, despite being recorded across quite a protracted amount of time, it was made in this space with certain processes that were consistent throughout. The ideas were varied about it but there's a sonic cohesion to it all. Initially it was all going to be one 43-minute track. But that, apparently, isn't a very good idea for many reasons. Then I went to two tracks, side-A and side-B. Then Kieran [Four Tet] went and did that [laughs]. Then, I was like, 'I'll make it three tracks.' Then I just cut it up into seven. But it does feel better to me to listen to it from beginning to end as a whole."
The album's long gestation period was thanks to Shepherd's studies as well as his creative processes. He loves temperamental, old machines. Sometimes recording would be delayed by months as he waited for equipment to be repaired. One particularly troubling instrument, his Rhodes Chroma, only worked properly for 30 minutes every six months. Other times he learned how a particular machine behaved before bringing it into play. It took time, but there was a vision to uphold.
"I guess my goal is a sonic one," he said. "I have digital converters I'm very happy with. They sound great, but whenever I've recorded it'll take me a while to set up the tape machines and get the recording. Then I'll do a various number of live performances of the track. All the stuff in the studio is difficult, but the end experience has given me much more pleasing results than when I was just [working with a computer]. I'm getting much more space in my mixes now. More separation and I can hear layers of gaps and distance between each instrument."
Despite the focus on audio aesthetics and recording techniques, Shepherd is quick to point out that he's most interested in the music itself. "Once the music is finished none of [the process] mattered," he said. The album is a summary of Shepherd's esoteric influences, stuffing his polymathic loves into one package. There are nods to neo-classical, music that's been close to his heart since he was a teenager and began studying piano and composition at Chetham's School Of Music. There are also nods to the soul and jazz-funk he so ardently collects. Talk Talk's 1991 album Laughing Stock was also a key influence. Recorded in an almost pitch-black studio over seven months, that record had a boundary-pushing sense of space, at times muting everything, stripping back a track only to the hum of amplifiers. Elaenia shares its quiet/loud contrasts.
Elaenia's stillest moments—songs of real isolated beauty that are little more than whispers of electronic notes—run up against frantic rock drumming and surging walls of sound in the LP's final moments. The album has a genre-less quality, something Shepherd's work has exhibited from his first release, in 2009. It doesn't have anything as instantly loveable as his best singles, but it's an incredibly detailed and rewarding listening experience, with a deep craftsmanship that reveals new layers each time you return.
"I don't want to be limited," Shepherd said. "I listen to a lot of music, and I don't see why I should make certain music. I've got ideas for all sorts of different things, and I'm going to give it a go. I just make whatever comes into my head."