Bicep are reflecting on the last time they knew normality - back in March 2020 when, having been forced to cancel a Brixton Academy show that had been a year in the planning, they were applying the finishing touches to the writing of second album ‘Isles’. The Belfast duo, Andrew Ferguson and Matthew McBriar, had spent the entirety of 2019 working on the record, finding out the hard way that they’re not the kind of songwriters to find themselves struck by divine inspiration, able to pump out a track in an afternoon. Instead, the ten songs that make up their second came together as months-long construction projects, born out of countless hours of jamming and experimentation.
That’s true of both the reflective side of the record (opener ‘Atlas’ is an exercise in Technicolor introspection) and the clubbier cuts. “We need to spend half a day on a song, on eight or nine different [occasions], over a long period,” explains Ferguson. “And we have to be in the right mood; you don’t want to end up associating a track with a time you were pissed off or hungover. It’s not an approach that’s conducive to finishing an album very quickly…”
Accordingly, ‘Isles’ arrives more than two years after the pair began its creation. It’s an album entirely contradictory to the world it’s being released into; an electronic record radiating vitality at a time when clubs are shuttered, with a global, forward-thinking outlook that jars in an era of both Covid-enforced border closures and the UK’s self-inflicted isolation from the rest of Europe. ‘Isles’ is defined by its dichotomies, and was inspired particularly by the pair’s realisation that they’ve split their lives pretty much down the middle between two very different environments.
“The difference between Belfast and East London is stark,” says Matthew of the two cities Bicep have called home. “Northern Ireland is very conservative; London feels very open and liberal by way of comparison. That informs the music that’s made there. In Belfast, there’d be a window to play electronic music, which was between 11pm and 3am, and it meant there’d be this concentrated, four-hour explosion of high energy. Things are a lot more chilled in London, where you could see a DJ any time of the week; things just felt deeper, longer somehow. We noticed those differences and how much they’ve shaped us. Those contrasts are on the album - sometimes they fight against each other, and other times they work together.”
“We can’t be fighting amongst ourselves when we’re fighting the government as well.”
— Matthew McBriar
After two solid years on the road in support of their self-titled 2017 debut, its follow-up has the feel of an international affair. The duo closed themselves off to nothing and, as such, the record’s samples run the gamut from traditional Malawian singers to 1950s recordings of Bulgarian choirs. The influence comes not just from their travels, but from their adopted home’s enormous cultural diversity. “We’d go to the record store and the one thing we wouldn’t dig through would be the house section,” notes Matthew. “Instead, it’d be straight to the Bollywood soundtracks, or trying to find something similar to the Turkish pop song we just heard in a kebab house.”
On a day of interviews with European press, Bicep have found themselves fielding constant questions about Brexit which, on the part of most journalists, seems to stem from a morbid curiosity as to how the whole mess could have happened in the first place. It’s served as an uncomfortable reminder to them as to how badly the situation reflects on the UK, and makes you wonder whether the outward-facing nature of ‘Isles’ was meant as a response. “There comes a point at which you have to try to use the whole thing to set a positive example moving forward,” opines Andrew. “We were just responding to how inspired we were by living in London, and by all the things we were exposed to travelling the world. But the reality now is that you used to be able to go to any major city in the UK on any given night and there’d be an international DJ playing. There might be three or four in Leeds, five or six in Manchester, who knows how many in London.”
“Guys from Poland who had one release out would be flying in to play,” Matthew continues. "For years, we DJed for very small fees and the freedom of movement made it easy; we were able to live that creative lifestyle very cheaply. The visas, as they’re going to be now, would have killed us. Combine it with the pandemic and the problem of gentrification in London, and the electronic world is really going to have to pull together. We can’t be fighting amongst ourselves when we’re fighting the government as well.”
While they’re optimistic that, post-Covid, the demand for live performance will be higher than ever before, Bicep are also increasingly of the mind that we might just have lived through a golden age for electronic music without even realising it. “People complained about camera phones and wished they could go back to the ‘90s or the ‘70s,” says Matthew, “but it’s possible we’ll look back at the decade between 2010 and 2020 as an incredible time for electronic music. We could travel so freely, there were so many festivals, there was just so much variety. I wonder whether we took it for granted.”
‘Isles’ is out now via Ninja Tune.
As featured in the February 2021 issue of DIY, out now.