Sitting in the East London studio of Andrew Ferguson and Matthew McBriar from Bicep, there’s a wealth of covetable machinery on various racks and stands around us. The Belfast duo whose Feel My Bicep blog won them a huge fan base before they’d even released a record are explaining to me their shift toward using hardware and how it has flamed their creativity. It’s been a somewhat fortuitous rise for the two friends, who found the outlet for their love of music they began in 2008 started attracting increasingly impressive numbers of visitors, soon becoming an internationally renowned blog for its solid content and design. Their first releases found outlets through Traveller Records and Throne of Blood, but it was 2012 that saw their biggest spike in popularity, with three twelve-inches, including the Inner City-sampling “Vision of Love” on their own Feel My Bicep label. The record was a big boost for the duo, though ultimately lead to increased scrutiny by critics due to its association with the revivalist sound of 90s house. Over the course of our chat, we discuss media perceptions, their plans for their own label, and why it’s more fun tweaking a knob than clicking a mouse all the time. They also put together our 196th exclusive podcast, which they described as a collection of their latest acquisitions and fancies, and shows off their immaculate taste for house and techno.
Download LWE Podcast 196: Bicep (71:00)
Has it been a considered move, making the move to producing and then to buying the analogue gear?
Matthew McBriar: It was one of those things that from our point of view, there was never a sit-down moment… It was just kind of bit by bit, little things happened and then we decided, “Shit, let’s release a record,” a couple years ago, and we kind of just made it fiddling around, like doing edits on the computer. And then we started making some more housey stuff, and then we just realized that you need to buy all this stuff to get anything close to the noises that we loved. Do you know what I mean? So it just kind of slowly developed.
How has it been going from a digital set-up to using hardware?
MM: It’s kind of good because I think if you’re using a computer first and you get to know Ableton on its own — that’s what we use, inside out, you can learn a workflow and everything makes sense. You can learn a lot of the theory in terms of how to use all the hardware and stuff in this nice little contained area. And so the changeover’s been really quite easy for us. The only thing that’s taken time is the issue of latency. I mean at the moment we can only record one channel at a time, but we have got the latency down.
Andrew Ferguson: It’s a learning curve.
MM: Trial and error for sure.
So you just record one track of audio at once and you can have it all sequenced and everything in Abelton?
MM: Yeah, we can run it, but at the moment what we do is we will literally only record one at a time, and then have that in, put it together, and then loop it and record another one. It just kind of works like that. I mean ideally when we move to the new studio we’ll do, like…
AF: Multitrack. But it’s kind of cool, I think, for the software we like at the minute. It’s the old-school approach of just overdubbing, almost. When you just do one channel at a time it’s like complete, and we just piece it together. It’s a different way of working, but it’s kind of nice.
MM: It’s kind of somewhere in between, really.
So what are you working on at the moment?
MM: A lot of stuff. We’ve just finished an EP for [Aus Music labelhead] Will Saul, which is quite a bit faster and tougher than the other ones. And then the next one for our own label. We’ve kind of got a plan of doing 30 tracks in 30 days. Not really to release, more a case of, you know, it’s easy to be precious and spend six months tinkering with stuff. The thing is your workflow’s a lot quicker with all this here. Do you know what I mean? So we definitely could at least get 30 demos pulled togethers. We’ve kind of got a lot of ideas penned down.
AF: It’s even to make our sets a bit more unique. Because once you start playing a track or you put it on the blog; we hear people warming up for us playing, like, five tracks that we put on the blog a couple weeks before. So it’s just to get us a set of tracks that we know nobody else will ever have.
Speaking of your blog, I was actually really surprised: I just checked it out the other day, and I was surprised to see that you guys still run it, that you still have time. How do you feel about where blogs are at?
MM: It’s up and down because it’s one of those things that, like, everyone goes on YouTube now, SoundCloud’s so popular, so many other things, whereas when we first started, you know, YouTube obviously was there, but it was still difficult to find weirder music on YouTube. And YouTube was one of those things where during the last five years, well, kind of the last three, you’ve really been able to type in the strangest little, like, italo record, and it’s on YouTube. It’s got to take a lot of time for people to upload their collections. But it’s nice just to still have a place where we can just keep our own little corner. You know what I mean?
Yeah. Do you find that with these other channels people still do want some content curated for them? As you were saying, I guess you’re getting DJs who will play tracks off of the blog.
AF: Well, that’s the thing, but also you’ve got things like 22tracks, which we do as well. And lots of people doing the radio shows, and…
AF: Basically it’s an online streaming service where they pick curators, like, selectors from each genre. Like reggae, dub, disco, house, and then you give them five new tracks every week and they update it, and there’s always 22 tracks at once from each genre, and they’ve got it in certain cities. And we do that as well. But it doesn’t have the added element that our blog has where we can actually give our opinion on the tracks or why we put them up.
MM: Well, for us, the blog was always more an outlet of what we like to do, which is just, like, find artwork that we felt fitted the music.
AF: It’s still got something unique about it. I just still love doing it. When you get on a roll and you put up five or six tracks you just get tons of hits and lots of interaction on it.
MM: It was never really an intention in the first place to make it anything more than just somewhere for us to archive music.
Because that’s essentially where you guys really took off, isn’t it?
MM: Yeah, we were in different cities and just shared the same taste in music and it was one of those things that at that stage, for us, we’d all moved away to uni. But when I went to uni in Newcastle, Manchester was a lot better, but the music that I was into, at the time I’d stray away from university friends and go to a club night with DJs that I wanted to see, and it was just, like, 10 people there. And this was sort of like six years ago when dance music hadn’t taken off the way it has recently in the UK. Do you know what I mean? You’d go and see people like Robag Wruhme, and it was like 20 people there. And for Manchester it’d be better, but for us, it was just a chance of having somewhere online that we could share music between just our friends. And from there we just realized that people started to kind of read it, this is before — before we were really taking any production seriously.
Was there one point? Was there something that happened to just help the groundswell of…?
AF: I think the blowup just kind of happened gradually. There wasn’t like massive jumps.
MM: I mean for me it was always that feeling of this is a funny little nerdy hobby that you have that you don’t really talk about that often, and if a gig ever comes up for a friend’s bar, you’ll do it. But that was it. And then we kind of had a music blog and then we started to see, you know, 2,000 people a day reading it. And we were like, “Whoa, that’s kind of weird.” You know, when it first started. But now we get, like, sometimes 100,000 a week. We got offered to do a gig in Barcelona off the back of the blog, and we were like, “Shit, OK.” And then we released an edit and did a little EP for Throne of Blood and it was kind of all that stuff was, like, “OK, let’s take it a little bit more seriously now. Invest in a little bit of equipment and a few little bits and pieces,” and then it grew for, like, another year, and we were like, you know what? Let’s just quit our jobs and actually have a go at it.”
AF: Yeah, it’s worked out pretty well.
OK, what was your first release? Was that the “313” release?
MM: Yeah, yeah. With Traveller Records.
OK, so that happened first, and then you decided to take things a bit more seriously.
MM: I mean, by no means how seriously we take it now, but it was then devote more than the odd evening once or twice a month to it. Do you know what I mean? We started thinking “OK, let’s sit down every week and try to maybe get demos across to each other.” Because we weren’t living in the same city. It takes a very long time to learn how to work in a studio with other people, I think. I can see why a lot of people can’t do it, but I can also see what makes… I find it a lot better, working with someone else in the studio. It actually pushes you. Like, we can say anything to each other about a track. We don’t have any hard feelings.
I moved to Dubai after university because I got a design job there, and it was a case of the UK was mid-recession, and it was just like this was an actual job; I’m not going to make tea and suffer, do you know what I mean? So I was in Dubai; I had a little small studio over there. I brought a case with speakers, laptop, a little keyboard, that was it. And we would just send stuff over the Internet and looking back then, collecting gigabyte files and leaving them to upload overnight.
So is that how the first EP happened?
MM: Yeah, I think at the start it was more a case of we would make a load of tracks, and we would just pick the ones that were working, and then we’d tweak them slightly. But it was kind of too many cooks spoil the broth at that stage, do you know what I mean? One of us just had a full idea.
AF: The amount of time we spend EQing a kick now, and then before we didn’t even question kicks. We just had a kick in there. It was just… it was OK. It sounded OK on my hi-fi speakers at home, as opposed to trying to test it out. It’s pretty funny.
So at what stage did you guys feel like you had to go sort of back into incubation mode and get much better as producers?
MM: It was last year that we had that track “$tripper” and “Vision of Love”; it was one of those things that, from our point of view, we’ve always, in our sets, played pretty varied. I grew up on really hard techno, so I’ve always had that love for it. And Andy’s got a lot of old IDM love so these have always been elements of our sets, and we kind of did disco and house and stuff. There was just that little period of six months where we thought we would do a couple of old-school house mixes. And we just had so many tracks that we were making that didn’t sound like that, but the ones that felt like they would work being released was that track “$tripper” and “Vision of Love.” They were just fun tracks that we didn’t think about that much. But then they got released, and suddenly they did well, but then we instantly felt they branded as 90s house revivalists. And for us, it was fine.
AF: It was good; it got us the exposure we needed. But it’s funny how little of that 90s-house sound we’ve ever played. Because we don’t really play that. We’ve played a couple of piano tunes, but I wouldn’t even call them 90s house.
Yeah. Well, hearing you guys play at Panorama [Bar] that time, it was pretty much all techno, you know? And very far away from what you’re seen as.
MM: I mean we’ve been doing a radio show for Rinse. We just play what we think is good at the time. But recently, during the last year, the best stuff for us was kind of definitely tougher, and we’ve been digging that resurgence in more analogue-y, tougher stuff. It’s the stuff that we’ve been picking up and enjoying and buying on vinyl. So we’ve just been playing that sort of stuff on Rinse. And I think definitely some people maybe expect a certain sound from us, but it’s just one of our sounds.
Do you find it’s a double-edged sword in some ways? Because the popularity of that EP coming out, you guys must have realized, “Well shit, we could churn out a few more of these.”
MM: Oh, we had them all sitting there ready to go. If it hadn’t been popular, we probably would have put them out, but because they were, we just binned them all. And I’ve had people [say], “Come on, put them out! Do something!” But we were just like, “You know what? Fuck it.”
AF: [laughs] They were pretty much 90-percent finished tracks.
MM: I mean, we’re not precious. For us, the whole reason that we started playing more of that earlier-90s stuff was to be the opposite of what was popular at the time. That was kind of the tail-end of when minimal techno was really popular. People wanted this really cold, clinical sound, and for us, playing quite a lot more disco-y stuff and funner, warmer, happier stuff just seemed like the right thing for us. Because it meant we could dig into an area that it felt like other people weren’t doing. And for us, it got really boring when every set had that sound in it. So for us, to keep ourselves interested you want to always feel like you’re digging into something that’s kind of new to you. Maybe not new to everyone else. I mean there’s definitely going to be a lot of people that maybe have heard a lot of that sound, but for us, we’d never really dug into it a lot before.
AF: We kind of came as well out of the disco thing; so edits were everywhere at that time. And I remember we started making this stuff and we just dabbled with it, and it kind of worked. We were just learning sampling as well, like doing it properly, and that whole house thing came at the end of it. It’s kind of funny how it exploded, though.
Yeah. It’s very funny. Like, from a media perspective, I see the way that you guys were tarred with that brush, and I would say probably more from American press, then, there was a backlash.
AF: “What do these guys think they’re doing,” you know? [laughs]
MM: I mean it’s just one of those things: people have to talk, people have to hype stuff up, people have to write, people have to give opinions. We never even were bothered by that, do you know what I mean? For us, we’ve kind of shown that we’ve made some stuff that’s been popular enough, but at the same time, it’s not being completely original. We were aware of that. But coming from a design perspective, you kind of need to learn to crawl before you can run. And I think it’s just natural, when you’re new to something, to latch onto an existent framework. And some people maybe spend 20 years carving their own little niche in a sound and that’s amazing. We kind of went the other way, did stuff that was more, not obvious, but we certainly looked back on stuff that had been popular and kind of let it inspire us. But for us now, we really felt that we needed to get under the skin of it and kind of buy all this hardware. I think the great thing is from buying all this equipment in the last couple years, it totally changes the writing process, and for us it’s freed it up. Because you’re not sitting there in front of a screen going, “Right, I need to come up with an idea,” and then try to put the idea together. The idea comes from playing around in a room for 12 hours, and, you know, it’s kind of through this you get the idea rather than the idea coming. And I think that’s just how you become a lot more creative.
AF: We find a lot more creativity just from mistakes and playing about and getting feedback and stuff. Like, “Whoa, that might work with something.” We’ve got all this modern equipment as well, and sometimes you just flip a switch and it just turns everything and flips the whole sound.
OK, let’s talk about your record label. Because you’ve had about five EPs out in total? Is that going to be more of a focus to do your own label, or is that a bit of a nightmare?
MM: For us, we’d like to do a balance of the stuff for Aus because it’s just distributed really, really widely and promoted and comes out everywhere. And again, with our interest in design and doing the blog, it’s nice just to have a little corner where we can do our own artwork. We get videos made for each one, and we put them together. It’s nice to just have our own label. It’s more of a fun little project for us, do you know what I mean?
AF: It’s kind of what we dreamed of to start. We’ve got complete creative freedom across the whole thing. So it’s like if we make a song, sometimes we’ve got an idea of what the video might look like or what it should look like on the cover; it’s nice to have that opportunity to be able to do that on our own label.
MM: But I think we’re also kind of hit with this thing recently where we want to move as far away from this sort of premeditated, overly precious approach, do you know what I mean? We want to get down to this more, like, not sketchy, but more kind of raw… raw is the wrong term, but, you know, the idea just coming in and being an idea that day and just penning it right down, and that just being it. And getting it out. Do you know what I mean?
Right. Who was it? Like, Relief and labels like that. That’s essentially what they did; they just cut tracks to play in the club that night.
AF: If you over-think it, this analog stuff, you can get into a world of tweaking stuff, and you look back on the first idea and it was better than the rest of what you’ve done. Sometimes it’s just better to stick with a groove or a track and just put it out there and not worry about it too much. But the other thing, as well, is now the more we’ve produced, we know exactly how to cut it up and exactly how to EQ it. We can do all this stuff so quickly now. But that kind of learning curve took us maybe three years of just messing about and learning how to balance songs and see what synths work with other synths and how to kind of use each one. But that’s taken a long time, and it’s just something you can’t really teach anyone. You have to just keep doing it. We’re in the studio pretty much every single day we’re not touring, so it’s taken us a long time.
So how much touring do you do? I guess summer will be pretty busy for you.
MM: The most we’ve probably done in a month is, like, 17 or 18 gigs.
AF: Last year we did more than 18; we did 18 in three weeks.
MM: Yeah, it was too much. It’s one of those things, you spend all this time wanting to do more gigs, and then all you think about is getting less. It is definitely a balancing thing. I know some people musically feel they’ve accomplished, production-wise, what they’ve set out to do. And so from there just carrying on touring is perfect for them. Like a lot of DJs end up just stopping producing and just carry on DJing. But for us, we feel like we’re only at the beginning of our producing. So the touring’s great, but we’re taking a weekend off once a month so we get almost two-week blocks in the studio.
AF: It’s also to improve our gigs as well. Because I find DJing with a lot of other DJs, I see them almost play the same sets quite a lot of times, and we never play the same set. We play a couple of tracks, maybe, in a couple of sets, but we always try and keep it fresh, and when you do maybe four gigs a weekend, you do that three weekends in a row, you run out of tunes you like, and you kind of hate the tunes you loved three weeks ago. And it’s just balancing everything. That’s another learning curve, but it’s tough if you’re not ready for it. I can see why a lot of DJs don’t like touring, but I can also see why DJs love it as well. But mixed with the partying it’s just not sustainable for us, I don’t think.
Right. Not sustainable for anyone in the long run. How did the Simian Mobile Disco, the Delicacies EP come about?
MM: We have the same management and had done a couple of gigs with them a few times, and they played a few of our tracks. We never set out to do an EP; it was more a case of, “Do you want to come down?” They obviously have a really advanced studio. For us, that was definitely a real turning point. We all just sat and fucked around for a whole day and came out with a track at the end. Or it took two days. It was the starting point of us being quite serious about focusing on getting our own studio that works.
AF: And we reached the point as well where we;I know when you can look at the screen on Ableton and it’s pretty uncreative sometimes.
So you were kind of going back and forth between Europe and the States, weren’t you, between here and New York, playing there a bit?
AF: I stayed there for a while, a couple of months. And yeah, that was around the time that we did the first Throne of Blood EP. And Matt was moving back from Dubai at the time, and I took a couple of months and stayed in New York for a bit.
MM: We certainly played in New York a lot, early on. Before we could get gigs in London, we were kind of getting much better gigs in… I mean it’s just the case of New York is surprisingly quite a small place. I think also dance music not being what it is in London there, it’s an even smaller close-knit community, and it’s quite easy, you know, if someone has a record label to get it out there to all the heads in New York. So we found it quite easy; I mean we were doing four, five gigs in a row there, even just at a bar. It was great; it was really good fun.
AF: It’s taken us a while. America is another learning curve in terms of cities and stuff that really get your music. This year we’re doing a couple of big festivals there, and we’ll see how that goes, but we had some really good gigs last year in, LA was a really good one.
MM: The thing about America is, it’s easy to call America “America,” and you just forget the sheer size of it. So we first started doing a month-long tour, and it just took the absolute life out of us because you’re talking sometimes seven-hour flights every day for like four or five days in a row, just to get around. And there was such a huge amount of travel. So now I prefer to just go for a weekend, fly into one part, say, you know, the West Coast, and just do San Fran and LA and then fly straight home. Or kind of pop in to do a little few shows in Canada or, you know, Philadelphia, Boston, New York. And I think it works a lot better if you just go in and do a manageable-sized show. The flight from London is the same to New York as it probably is from New York to LA, so, like, it’s crazy to try and do it all together.
OK, and what about the radio show? When did you start doing that?
MM: About a year ago. Christmas last year.
OK, cool. And that’s a monthly show, isn’t it? How do you find that? It’s such a different format to DJing.
MM: It took a long time to a) be comfortable because we mix all live and we never plan the show because it would just be, like, you’re talking two or three days if you’re going to sit and run through all of your records. And you don’t really want to do the same set that you do on a Saturday night on a radio show and then go and do all the same mixes again. So we really try to play nothing we’re playing out, apart from maybe one or two tracks. So we don’t really have time to practice it, and so it is kind of — it’s very rough and ready, in the sense that we go in, probably prepare 20 minutes before, pick some records, have no idea if stuff works in key, or how they end or start. It’s just hit and hope, hit and hope, but it’s really good fun. The only problem would be it’s a Monday night, and if you’ve been away Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and get home on Sunday night and maybe get delayed in the airport and get in Sunday night. And then your first day when the adrenaline drops from the weekend is Monday night and all you want to do is curl up in bed instead. You’re mixing live on air music… some of the music you don’t know that well and you have to talk.
AF: It’s a bit stressful at times, but it’s definitely positive in terms of pushing us forward to find new music as well. That really forces you… not that you need force, but to go to the record shops to really actively look out stuff that you wouldn’t really put in your sets, but will really work, that you love. Because sometimes you just don’t buy that stuff because you’re never going to play it, but now we can put that stuff on the radio show. So it’s nice.
MM: It’s good to have an anchor point once a month that you know you need to kind of have something for, do you know what I mean?
AF: And building a nice record collection by doing it. And always forgetting records you bought and you’re like, “Whoa, this one’s amazing.”
Definitely. Yeah, and sometimes those old ones, you’re like, “Fuck, I never get to play this out.” And so it goes on the show.
AF: Exactly. And that’s the thing, we always say we’ll try and plan shows and really do, like, an Italo show or we’ll do, like, a special disco mix, but…
MM: But I think it’s nicer just to have a slapdash show.
AF: Yeah, yeah. I know completely.
Yeah. And I guess at the end of the day, as long as you’ve got a bit of good chat, that’s all that counts.
MM: Well, the chat’s fairly sparse. The thing is we’re both quite chatty and we’re both quite loud, but I think it’s just one of those things that, it’s not a very Irish thing to be able to talk to yourself flat against the walls, do you know what I mean? And so it’s certainly taken a while.
So all your mates were like, “Who the fuck was that on your show?”
MM: [laughs] Yeah, we have got a couple of emails like, “Dude…”
AF: We still get it.
MM: Getting better, though.
AF: But to me, the thing is you’ve just got to not really care too much and then it gets a bit better.
So you mentioned you’ve got a couple of things coming out, but where do you see yourselves going within the next year, and what are your main objectives?
MM: At the moment, we’re already trying to come together, trying to get a live show going soon. It’s a case of how to approach the live show because for me the idea of just having seven or eight tracks that everyone knows playing in a row off Ableton with some drums over the top isn’t really enough. So we’re trying to think of a live show that can be really quite unique every time. And I love the idea of starting the 909 with just your four kicks and just feeling how the room’s going and being able to have a load of MIDI that you can run into a few bits of hardware and just sensing a room. And maybe have a lot of ideas kind of sketched in MIDI that you can run through your equipment, but it’s a case of there’s so many issues that can affect that, we need to find a way that kind of works, that means you can do a good live show every time rather than some working and some not. So it’s definitely a goal.
MM: And album-wise, if we ever did an album, it’d have to be… I don’t think it would be… not that it wouldn’t be dance music, but it would kind of have to be a different period for us. It’d be almost when we didn’t want to make stuff that was for clubs anymore, do you know what I mean? But at the moment, because we’re spending so much time in clubs, it just seems quite natural to make music aimed at them.
AF: Also stuff for our sets that we’re missing. I talked about it earlier, but 30 tracks in 30 days, a lot of it’s going to go into making stuff that we want to play, and we don’t particularly have tracks that fit that kind of thing. Because there is a lot of times where you’re like, “How could we bridge these two areas?” Because we always try to move across genres when we’re playing. So I think that’s what we’re going to do with those.