Music

As Floating Points, Sam Shepherd expands musical boundaries

Sam Shepherd, a.k.a. Floating Points

Louise Haywood Shiefer

Sam Shepherd, a.k.a. Floating Points

For the last seven years, London DJ, producer, and composer Sam Shepherd has released grooving, hypnotic electronic dance tracks as Floating Points, and last November saw the appearance of his debut full-length, “Elaenia.” A contemplative, questing effort that weaves synthesizers, guitar, piano, live drums, and strings through complex time signatures and spacious ambient passages, it’s unlikely to get played in a dance club — although that decision ultimately falls to whoever is manning the turntables.

“When you play Steve Reich in Berghain,” Shepherd says, referring to his own experience DJing at the legendary Berlin nightclub last October, “it’s quite satisfying to see people really get down to it.”

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Now, Shepherd is touring behind “Elaenia” with a live band, which he’ll bring to the Sinclair in Cambridge on Sunday for opening night of the Together Boston festival. “It’s amazing fun,” he says, audibly beaming, in a telephone interview from Vancouver, where he’d just arrived. His present group fluctuates between four and six players, all longtime friends and colleagues. The shows have a flexible structure, allowing Shepherd and his bandmates room to improvise.

“It makes it interesting for us,” he says. “I’m working with such amazing musicians, it’s something that they kind of expect. They want to be challenged. I don’t think of myself as being particularly good at it,” he notes, laughing, “but I’m lucky in that I’m surrounded by players that always get it right.”

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Shepherd is charmingly self-effacing, but he’s no stranger to improvisation. It’s a key part of his writing process, and the reason many of his tracks, like 2014’s entrancing “Nuits Sonores,” stretch well beyond the 10-minute mark. “I’ll sort of have an idea and get it going, and I’ll allow myself time to build tension. Sometimes I’ll edit it, sometimes I won’t. I’ll just let the tune grow.” It’s a signature facet of all of Shepherd’s work and “Elaenia” is no exception, playing like a single, continuous expedition.

Shepherd’s inclination toward making things up as he goes isn’t confined to performing and composing; it shows up in his recording process, too. “There’s no wrong way of doing anything in the studio,” he insists. He records and engineers almost all of his music in a studio that he built himself in London. “There’s no pressure on me to get a good recording immediately. I’ve spent lots more time experimenting with recording,” he says. “I love that process. And it informs the music I make.”

His musical education could conceivably be divided into two parts, the first being the training he received while growing up in Manchester, where he sang in the Manchester Cathedral Boys Choir and studied composition and classical and jazz piano at Chetham’s School of Music. The other part, which Shepherd regards as more influential to his music, took place in two decidedly less formal settings: nightclubs and record shops.

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“Hearing Theo Parrish play Pharoah Sanders, a record that was never designed to be played in a nightclub, being played on a dance floor after a Jeff Mills record like there’s no real difference — I found that the most mind-blowing experience.” It happened shortly after Shepherd moved to London to pursue his PhD in neuroscience, which he completed while recording “Elaenia.” The venue was Plastic People, a small but impactful nightclub in London’s East End, where Shepherd eventually shared his own eclectic music collection during a five-year DJ residency before the club closed its doors permanently at the beginning of 2015.

Shepherd is a tireless record collector, though he’s quick to stress that the medium is not the point; it’s the music he’s after. He’s traveled the world in search of new and interesting sounds, sifting through bins and learning from shop owners and clerks. “I found that those relationships, with people in record shops, have been some of the most valuable musical educations I’ve had,” he asserts. It’s an education that he pursues with the utmost dedication: “I’ll be digging through boxes of records and have no idea what anything is. You’re forced to listen to everything. Every now and then you put the needle down on a record that sounds like nothing else.”

While discussing his collection, which contains upward of 10,000 records, Shepherd recalls an exchange he had recently with Kimathi Asante, the bassist for the Pyramids. That influential spiritual-jazz collective joined Shepherd and his band for a few tour dates, and upon seeing the Fender Rhodes that Shepherd plays on stage, Asante waxed nostalgic, reminiscing about the use of the iconic electric piano in his old band.

When Asante revealed the name of the band as Brute Force, Shepherd lit up; he owns a copy of Brute Force’s self-titled album, released in 1970, and immediately recognized Asante as one of the young musicians pictured on the record sleeve. “You know,” Shepherd says, pausing for a moment, “when the world gets smaller, it’s very nice.” For someone driven to ceaselessly expand his sonic horizons, it must be a welcome change.

Floating Points

At the Sinclair, Cambridge, May 15 at 9 p.m. Tickets: $20, advance $18. 617-547-5200, www.sinclaircambridge.com

Kristen Zwicker can be reached at kristenzwicker@gmail.com
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