What do you do when you’re about to release the most highly anticipated dance album of 2021, but all of the clubs in the UK have been closed for almost a year?
“We hired out Corsica studios,” says Matt McBriar, one half of London-based, Belfast-born duo Bicep, with a laugh. “We tested the early demos there just to hear what they sounded like on a big system. But it’s such a different vibe when there’s no one else there.”
Luckily, the lack of dancefloor action hasn’t diminished the appetite for Bicep’s music. After releasing a steady trickle of tracks throughout 2020 – singles “Apricots” and “Atlas” are on well over 10 million plays each across streaming services, and the latter won Track of the Year at the 2020 DJ Mag Awards – they may have inadvertently made the perfect dance album for the pandemic. With shades of Aphex Twin’s early work and the intricately programmed melodies of Autechre, Isles couples leftfield influences with pervasive hooks. More introspective than it is euphoric, this is an album that speaks (despite largely being written and recorded in 2019) to the constant anxieties of life in the 2020s.
“We’ve really thought about home-listening first on this album,” says Andy Ferguson, the beardier of the pair. Speaking from their studio in east London, the duo, both in their early thirties, are today dressed in identical black hoodies. “There’s no 4/4 [the default time signature of house music] and it’s given us the freedom to explore different structures and feelings. It’s more about storytelling through creating these emotive elements.”
They first settled down to make Isles in 2019, taking most of that year off touring to concentrate on writing. They didn’t expect to have to take most of 2020 off too. When the pandemic struck, the pair were mixing and mastering the album and looking forward to two sold-out nights at Brixton Academy. Their plans were scuppered. But the duo seem sanguine about the card fate has dealt them. “We came to terms with everything being out of our control last year,” admits McBriar. “We’re keen to do the live show, but it happens when it happens.” They are less laid back about other DJs who continue to play gigs. During the summer of 2020, several high-profile DJs, including Nina Kraviz and Dax J, played shows across Europe. They were legal, but arguably ill-advised and definitely not socially distanced. “Seeing these established DJs who have money playing big raves during a pandemic is just absolutely disgusting,” says McBriar. “It’s drawn a line between the artists who think like businessmen and strategise on how to extract as much money as possible from everything, and the people who are driven by creativity.”
“They don’t need to do this,” chips in Ferguson. “Take a year off, write an album. So many people lower down in dance music are struggling and this paints the whole industry in a bad light. It’s just that their egos need constant massaging.”
And they’re no less irked by how the government has handled the nightlife and hospitality industry during the pandemic, and its alleged refusal of an offer for visa-free travel for musicians during Brexit negotiations. “It’s shocking how blatant their disregard is,” says McBriar. “The amount of money the music industry brings in, you’d think they’d at least care about that! If they gave a roadmap back, it would be enough for people to not just abandon their careers without hope. They’re just completely spineless.”
Warm, affable and easily engaged, the duo work almost telepathically as a unit, both in their music and conversationally, in that way only people who have been best mates for decades seem to. And it’s no surprise considering the pair first met at rugby practice when they were nine, and then fell for dance music together during teenage trips to Belfast club Shine. There, they’d see DJs like Dave Clarke and Andrew Weatherall pummel the crowd with banging techno. “Clubs shut at 3am in Belfast so there’d be absolutely no warm-up,” remembers Ferguson. “The release of pent-up energy there was just incredible.”
It was starting a music blog while both were away studying that set Bicep on the unlikely path to becoming a dance music behemoth – one to rival Nineties titans like The Chemical Brothers and Leftfield. A stream of Italo disco curiosities and rare Nineties house tunes built the page a massive following and, by 2010, offers for the pair to DJ had started flying in from all over the world. Two years later, they had established themselves as a big name on the underground circuit and their track “Vision of Love” became one of the most identifiable anthems of the early 2010s Nineties house revival.
“We were learning in public really,” says McBriar, the taller and chattier one. “A lot of the music we made was adhering to the pre-set framework of Nineties house. When you’re doing that, you’re replicating something and changing it a bit rather than being genuinely creative.” Losing a hard drive in the mid-2010s was a key moment in their evolution.
“We had 10 more house tunes ready to go,” says Ferguson. “Then we lost them and were like, ‘Right, we’re going to have to start from scratch again.’” The pair invested in an impressive array of synthesisers and began taking piano lessons to help improve their writing process. The result was 2015’s “Just”, a brooding anthem that inadvertently ushered in a breakbeat revival and freed them up creatively to produce 2017’s self-titled debut album and become one of the biggest draws in underground dance music.
But they are not above criticism. Following the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, dance music has had to do some soul searching, with many questioning whether minorities (and black artists in particular) have been paid their dues for music they originated.
“We feel uneasy now about sampling something and not explaining where that’s come from,” says McBriar. “There’s quite a few artists from the Nineties who took music and hid it within their own work. When we found out how blatantly they’d lifted stuff, we were shocked.”
Their new album features everything from Seventies Bollywood soundtracks to The Bulgarian State Radio & Television Choir, and the pair have set up a website that details and gives context for every sample on the record. “If we sample something, we try to speak to the people who made it and make them part of the story and the album,” says McBriar. “Hopefully we’re appreciating rather than appropriating.”
Despite lamenting not being able to get out and perform live, Bicep are most content working nine-to-five in their east London studio. They’re currently reworking the album to fit the live show and the extended period off touring has given them time to lean into their more wholesome hobbies, which include cycling, boxing, gardening and cooking (“I got into making ramen and was spending, like, three days making broth,” says McBriar).
They do wonder where they’d be, though, if the pandemic had struck 10 years earlier, just as the wheels were beginning to turn on their career.
“It’s easy to look at the Nineties as a golden era, but now, that period from 2010 to 2015 looks like a special time in dance music,” says McBriar. “The festival scene was kicking off in Croatia and there was an amazing scene and community in London. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, that might be lost on people now. If you don’t get captured by a moment like that, it’s easy to get carried away by your real job and other things happening in life.”
Isles is out on Ninja Tune on 22 January