Bicep’s eponymous 2017 debut album offered an effective mix of soothing melody and pummeling rhythm. The electronic duo of Andrew Ferguson and Matthew McBriar had a gift for shiny, shuffling, shuddering tracks like “Glue” and “Opal,” which became modest streaming hits and sent the group on the road for two years. The duration of the tour was an impressive feat for an independent electronic act existing outside of the commercial mainstream.
But it was also a new challenge: While on the road, Ferguson and McBriar quickly discovered that, in their back catalog, “we had tracks that we love, but when we stripped them apart to play live, they didn’t always work.” “Some of the older tracks didn’t have one strong element,” Ferguson explains. “They were the sum of their parts,” and if one part was hard to pull off in a live setting, some of the tracks’ vitality was lost.
When Bicep finally completed the Australian leg of their tour and returned to the studio early in 2019, the pair wanted to make sure their next album didn’t lose anything when it needed to be translated to the stage. The focus was making songs that stamped themselves in listeners’ brains — “the drums could be anything and it still sounds like the song,” as McBriar puts it. “Especially when you’re playing a song out every week for two years, you want to feel like you can play it different every time, that you breathe new life into it,” he adds. “That was really an important part of the writing process this time.”
The first glimpse of Bicep’s new approach was the squiggly, hypnotic single “Atlas,” released in March. On Tuesday, the duo followed that with “Apricots,” which was accompanied by a video directed by Mark Jenkins. “Apricots” is bright and stately, with hiccuping vocal samples — a snippet of traditional Malawian singers interwoven with a piece of a Fifties performance by The Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir — rubbing against grand, gleaming synthesizers.
The track’s development is also reflective of Bicep’s increasingly patient recording process. After a string of EPs on respected dance music labels like Aus Music, the pair recorded Bicep for the independent label Ninja Tune. That “was less introspective,” McBriar says. “We spent a lot less time thinking about what we wanted to say with the music.”
“Previously it was a case of let’s do a jam and capture the feeling and that’s enough,” Ferguson continues. “That’s how we wrote a lot of our early records. Now we do a jam, leave it, come back to it in a month, go over it again. The core elements are still naive jams — but we try to piece them together in a way that’s a little more thoughtful.”
“Apricots” initially started as an ambient tune built around those two vocal samples. It sat beat-less for ten months; according to McBriar, “it wasn’t really one of the demos that we were actively trying to finish.” But when the two producers stumbled back on their own work, they spent a feverish day adding drums, transforming it into something more forceful.
Many of the songs on Isles, the duo’s second album, due out January 22, 2021, went through a similar set of revisions. “Saku,” a fleet-footed highlight, originally started at around 150 beats per minute (Bicep were listening to lots of Chicago footwork at the time). It also featured a melody played on a kalimba, or thumb piano. Bicep later slowed it down to 130 b.p.m. and added vocals from Clara La San, who had the rare ability to evoke the R&B and U.K. garage that they grew up listening to. The resulting cut is sure to ignite dancefloors, once dancers return to them.
Part of the cruel irony of making an album for maximum live impact, of course, is that right now, few artists are going to be performing live in the foreseeable future. “The best thing about performing live is that just ’cause a song is written and released one way, doesn’t mean it has to stay that way,” McBriar says. Initially, listeners will only be able to hear one approach to the music on Isles. But with tracks like “Saku,” it’s hard to imagine anyone complaining.