Interview: Boom Bip
The Neon Neon man on black magic and being late for your girlfriend's birthday
Words Jazz Monroe
Hastily recovering from a three-day residency playing fashion parties in Las Vegas, Boom Bip is on the Santa Monica end of our phone line, no doubt willing this somewhat meander-bound interview to an elusive conclusion. You’d be hard pushed to notice, judging by his patient, measured tone and loose cool, but the guy’s finding himself in something of a tizzy, preparing to atone, later this eve, for missing out on his girlfriend’s birthday. Some kind of present must be delivered by dinner; it is, presently, 3pm Santa Monica time.
But let’s cut to the chase: it’s new music, namely October-ready LP Zig Zaj, which draws us. The record is Boom Bip’s first since 2007’s Mercury-nominated Gruff Rhys collaboration Stainless Style – an ‘electro-popera’ (©The Quietus) centred on bigwig car-manufacturer John DeLorean, written and toured extensively under the Neon Neon moniker. While 90% of Zig Zaj is the work of Boom himself, what’s perhaps most blurb-worthy is the crowded raft of guests to be found, not so much propping up the sprawling thing as defining it, at least by nature of their genre-ditching disparity. They range from Cate Le Bon to Alex Kapranos, Mike Noyce (Bon Iver) to Josh Klinghoffer (Red Hot Chili Peppers), and Luke Steele to one half of Warpaint. In fact, all four of the latter – having collectively befriended el Bip way back when – were present and correct during his 2009 studio relocation, as well as the subsequent early-stages development of this much-awaited third.
Tackling the towering castle of this prolific musical mood-monger, once referred to by John Peel as a “modern day Beefheart”, we lowered the drawbridge to that warehouse fire, dignity in musical collaboration and, natch, the dark and dusty art of 19th Century magic. Click the Soundcloud player below to hear a track from the album, ‘New Order’, recorded with Empire Of The Sun’s Luke Steele and Chili Peppers man Josh Klinghoffer.
Tell us about your time with Warpaint in this Echo Park studio of yours.
Well, we all moved into the same space — this big, open, really dirty wooden room. It was a lot of work. It took at least a month and a half to get things set up in there properly and make it clean enough to even want to put your gear in there. So we got that all settled and it pretty much became a jam space for everyone: the girls in the band and a lot of their friends and a lot of my friends, that would be our place. We could walk to it from our houses so it was kind of a place we could meet at — it could be 11 at night or 2pm, 3 in the morning, whatever — and just jam and play music. And that was really how the whole Boom Bip record came together, it was just a bunch of jam sessions and moments with different people.
Gruff Rhys said in an interview that you’re “very militant about the direction” — that’s a direct quote. Is that part and parcel of working largely as a solo artist, or was it just in that instance that you felt you had to take control?
No, I’m pretty much a control freak. When I’m collaborating with someone, I want them to do what they wanna do, I want their sound and their personality to shine through. But also, when I talk to someone initially about collaborating it’s because I either hear their voice or I have an idea of what I want. I’m not sure if I would say ‘militant’ — to me it’s a little bit more OCD. It just has to be right, it has to work. I’m still a nice person in the studio. I’m not like some monster that’s difficult to work with, at all. I just have an idea of what I want. And I don’t stop until I can get at least as close as possible to that.
What’s the theme of Zig Zaj?
What a lot of the record was inspired by, was that I was doing lots of research and reading at this magic library, about magic, at the turn of the 19th century. I basically gave [Alex Kapranos] ideas from Aleister Crowley and all these different people, and told him, you know, imagine yourself in a dusty room, deep red velvet curtains, and write about the idea of magic and black magic — just put yourself in that mindset and write from there. ’Cause the tracks have a kind of a spooky feel and I always imagine skeletons dancing or something when I hear the song. I wanted to give him a theme so it would lyrically work on the same level as what I hear in the music.
It’s not a subject particularly indigenous to dance music. Why black magic?
It was mainly because, like anything else with music, it was just part of my life at the time. It was just inspiring to me. My girlfriend works at this place called the magic castle — one of the most extensive magic libraries on the planet, it’s massive. And you go down there and you’re reading these 200 year old books that are really spooky with these amazing illustrations. It’s just really intriguing, really great stuff — it’s very Harry Potter, the whole thing, a lot of dusty books and candles. So that’s what we went with for that song.
When instrumental or electronic artists draft in lots of of-the-moment collaborators it often feels incongruous, forced. How do you choose who to work with and keep it credible?
Well mainly it’s all just friendships. Everybody that I’ve worked with are friends and it all happens very naturally and organically. It’s not like I was seeking out Warpaint because they were the hot band of the minute. I mean, we recorded this and were sharing a space together well before their record came out. You know, Luke asked Neon Neon to do a remix in 2007 of their song ‘Walking on a Dream’ so we knew each other from that. I had known Alex through Franz Ferdinand’s sound man for ages. It’s not like with some producers where they just grab on to trendy names at the time. Nobody would really want to do that unless there was a massive payoff financially. In fact, a lot of times it’s just by accident. We were just jamming together and hit record and then it was like, “Hey, we should build this further, we should actually develop this into something.”
I mean, Los Angeles is a very transient place. I’ve been here for 10 years now and being involved in the music scene you meet a lot of people. And people keep coming back and you build friendships and they come into town. And you get together and play music together and sit around in a room. It’s just what musicians do. So I’ve never forced any collaborations whatsoever, I would feel really uncomfortable doing that.
I was reading up on John DeLorean (the car guy, subject of Neon Neon’s Stainless Style record). One thing that struck me about him was that, even though on his rise he made his name working with other people and contributing to team efforts, all that was in aid of making a stronger image and reputation for himself. Do you see any of that in yourself at all?
No, no. Because DeLorean was doing it for the sake of gaining fame and money. He was a very selfish man who was driven by fame and fortune. I obviously am not on that ambitious path, I’m just doing something for friends. If I wanted to take that path, I’d be making music for like, Rihanna, Katy Perry and people. That would be the John DeLorean model of climbing the rungs on the ladder.
How did you immediately react when you heard about the PIAS warehouse fire and, in retrospect, how have those feelings developed, if at all?
I didn’t have too much… there wasn’t hatred or anything, I understood. When things like this happen you gotta realise that people are trying to say something. There’s some message that’s not getting heard, so these people, they have to step out and do something. That said, there are a tremendous amount of idiots that are just out there to just be violent and give in to testosterone and just be part of something. When I heard that the warehouse had burned down, my reaction was, “Oh God, there goes a tremendous amount of backstock of some of the best music in the country,” so it’s really sad. But it could’ve been a whole lot worse, you know? Luckily so many things have been digitised. If this had happened 10 or 15 years ago it would’ve been a much bigger loss. There was a lot of vinyl in there that can’t be replaced — including some of mine — but, y’know, now maybe the eBay prices will go up. Extremely limited edition!