Their sophomore album Isles extends the Bicep tradition, bringing their talent for record digging and musical reinterpretation to the fore, as they sample esoteric R&B and willowy disco rhythms alongside Malawian singers and The Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir. With the aid of Bicep’s psychedelic textures and melodic manipulation, you’re made to feel the sacredness of these rare records. And while each listen will conjure up a different emotional journey for each listener, to me, Isles sounds like a haunted euphoria.
VMP caught up with them ahead of the album’s release to talk techno, their creative process, and the strange experience of going viral on TikTok.
VMP: At what point did the theme of Isles come into play?
McBriar: After finishing the album. It came about from reflection. After discussing the things that inspired us and influenced us, we looked at the tracks and realized they were essentially a hybrid of the islands we’ve lived on: England and Ireland. It’s coming up to the halfway point of us being in both, so it made sense. We just saw the influences of early Irish club music, all the techno clubs and hours spent listening to trance on the radio, as well as Irish folk music. Then, coming to London, you’ve got your garage and drum & bass and jungle and stuff that we’d never really experienced in Ireland, or maybe only a little bit of it. The album definitely reflects the influences from both sides of the spectrum. With Isles, as soon as we said it and thought about it, it really began to make sense.
Techno was big in Ireland?
McBriar: Yeah, massive. When we say “massive,” it was still extremely underground. There were big nights at Shine [one of Belfast’s most legendary clubs] where they’d have around 3,000 people, and it was just crazy, the appetite for it. It was such an intense experience against Ireland being very conservative, where not a lot of intensity happens.
Ferguson: Belfast was, in many ways, behind the rest of the world, so to have this forward-thinking techno was crazy for us when we were kids; it impacted us heavily and kick-started our love for digging and searching for music. It led to us DJing and from that, we discovered all other kinds of music. It was a real catalyst because before that both of us were really into rock music.
Why do you think techno was so appealing to people living in Ireland at that time?
McBriar: The weather (laughs). But no, I think it's transcendence. You can let some aggression out too. There’s so much political turmoil, the weather’s not great. And with techno, it’s music to switch your brain off to. There are no vocals, just five hours of going to another planet. I think that’s why techno’s so popular for a lot of people, it’s a chance to really disconnect and go into your own place. It really made sense in Ireland at the time. I remember the feeling of going in and experiencing a couple thousand people in a room, all their heads down in pitch black, and for the first time — we were 17 — it was just mind-blowing.
Were there many other environments where you felt that lack of tension between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland?
Ferguson: No. Almost everything else in Northern Ireland is politicized, it’s hard to think of anything that isn’t. Even how the city’s separated into different districts that are predominantly one religion or the other. It was crazy, the difference you felt at the club. Not that we particularly were searching for that, but it did certainly feel like a counterculture to what was going on outside.
Do you think that’s something specific to techno, its depoliticizing effect?
Ferguson: The problem is, if you look at punk and rock, so much of it is political, but with dance music, you write your own narrative. You go into your world when you listen to it. Everyone gets a very different experience in a nightclub than maybe they get elsewhere. I think there’s more introspection to dance music, where you go into it in your own way because there are a lot of gaps to be filled.
Are there any particular emotions that you try to seek out in your music?
Ferguson: We cover a lot of ground. There are days when one of us is angry, or happy, or sad, or whatever. We don’t discuss it, we just jam in the studio constantly, and then what comes out is the result of two different people working. We regularly have people saying that our music is a mixture of happy and sad; uplifting yet melancholic. We’re at a stage where we can see that quite strongly, despite it not being something we actively chase. It’s something that naturally comes out though, it must be something that’s just inside of us. It is still written in a way for people to interpret it in their own way and go on their own journey with it, so they can place their own narrative arc. There are futuristic scenes, with some of the sounds of the past — the stuff we’ve grown up with. We have a natural affinity towards old ’80s synths.
McBriar: We never want to deliver something completely sweet or totally dark. It’s the tension between those emotions. Anytime we have a track that feels it’s going in one of those directions, we make sure to drive it elsewhere. There are about four or five versions of every track on the album, and usually the first version takes it into quite a basic direction, then we take a bit of time and approach it from another angle, then we try to sculpt this multi-layered thing. Naturally, with there being two of us, we’re very rarely on the same page.
Is there ever any conflict between you two when you’re making music?
McBriar: Yeah, it’s not so much conflict, but if one of us is very opposed to a certain element then we have to make the consideration that someone else who’s listening might be opposed to it, too. If we don’t both believe in it, then it won’t be an idea we’ll want to hang onto. It comes from both of us working in design backgrounds and understanding not to get too attached to your ideas because someone in some department will fuck them up. If you get too attached to a certain idea or vision, then you keep it too close and it affects the overall final output. We’re constantly tweaking and questioning and adapting. The approach has to be collaborative, and there’s no room to be selfish. That’s the ethos of the music anyway, we try and draw influences from everywhere. It’s meant to be open and outward-looking. We have that same approach between us. We keep it relaxed, we don’t bully the other person in order to get our point across. We did 150 demos, and if one of us didn’t like the track, it’d be scrapped.
Having toured your debut so much, did that affect how you went into making this sophomore record?
Ferguson: Yeah, definitely. From the live show, we learned a lot about what works and what a track requires in order to have longevity. We found when we were writing a lot of dance tracks when we were younger, when we tried to pull the tracks apart, they were only as good as the sum of their parts. Our tracks only seemed to work as a complete idea, and the more we got into the live show, the more we realized the parts needed to be as important as the whole sum. A melody had to be strong enough to be isolated or fitted in with a different drum pattern in order to still work.
McBriar: Now, we try and reinvent our tracks in new ways, while still being able to make it sound like the same song. We really did find that some tracks just didn’t deconstruct properly, whereas some other songs we’ve written did — and those are the ones we strive toward. The ones we can really break apart and play live. We don’t want the tracks to follow a rigid formula, we want them to be fluid and open. The tracks will have a second life when you come to see us live.
How important is sampling to your music?
McBriar: Even in the early blog days, we’d pick out hip-hop tracks and research their samples. The journey of finding the original samples and seeing how a musician reinterpreted them is a massive inspiration for us. We love being open and sharing music. Our tracks aren’t reliant on the samples, and there’s nothing to hide. We want people to hear the original music, and we want to be transparent about the music samples we’ve used. We have a website where you can read about all the samples we’ve used on this album, because we really wanted to make a point about why this music has influenced us.
Would you say you’re bringing the underground to the masses?
McBriar: We just do what we do. We’re certainly from a more underground culture, and we don’t really lean toward the more commercial. It’s amazing if it does connect on that level, but it’s not the reason we do it. We just want to make music the way we want to make it. With Ninja Tune [Bicep’s record label], they don’t make you compromise. We deliver the music and they say “We’ll make this work.” You never feel like you’re trying to achieve some commercial goal, it’s never an intention. With platforms like Spotify, people are tending to listen to more experimental music and are open to music that’s way more out there, because the algorithm has brought that to their attention. You’ve got people who aren’t really into dance music or who wouldn’t necessarily go to record stores to go digging listening to what we’d consider more underground music. It’s just the nature of dance music in the past couple years. There are clubs in Grand Theft Auto playing underground dance music. If you said that to me as a kid, I’d say that was the most commercial form of any music — to have a club in a computer game.
When you were starting out, there weren’t many obvious ways to discover underground music, so your blog served a purpose there. How does it feel now that the underground really seems to be in conversation with the mainstream?
McBriar: That’s all down to social media and the way it’s evolved. It’s hard to think of anything that’s truly underground anymore or that hasn’t been exposed. The world’s so hyper-connected now, but when we started the blog in university, it really felt like its own little corner of the internet. It’s why the live show is so important now, too, because in our heads we know that the people know the music, but the only way they’ll get to experience our reinterpretation of it is in a club or festival setting. We want to create these little moments in time in that way, because at least that gives you something that isn’t attainable at every turn.
Ferguson: Everybody wants everything now.
Because you come from a culture of digging — which I think is a really special way to bond with music — do you think that bond becomes compromised when the music’s just served up to you on an algorithmic platter?
McBriar: There are multiple ways to look at it. Now more people have access to more music, that’s probably a good thing. Forty years ago, there were people who’d only listen to the top 10 and mainstream radio, but now more people are hearing this stuff. However, there does need to be more emphasis on the underground and rarities. Who knows where streaming will go, how long it’ll last, or how long artists will keep their music on there, but I do know that artists need to be getting more from these platforms.
I’m interested to know how TikTok has impacted you since your track “Glue” has gone viral on the platform?
McBriar: We’d heard of TikTok, but neither of us have it or know anything about it. We’ve learned about it recently because we knew the track had blown up. It’s quite interesting, the idea of something being viral. Originally, a viral video meant that it’d just get shared lots of times while the video stays the same, but an actual virus mutates. With TikTok, the music can be reinterpreted with different visuals every single time it’s reposted, and that’s much closer to the original definition of viral, because it’s always changing. For us, you can’t help but think, wow, so many people have reinterpreted our music. It’s a platform that’s built for it, where stuff can take on its own life.
**Despite the multiple reinterpretations, all the videos I’ve seen on TikTok that use your track all follow the same sort of vibe. A kind of painful nostalgia. **
Ferguson: It’s funny. People have used the song to soundtrack the empty streets during the pandemic, and it’s enticed even more nostalgia from people — what they miss and what they’ve lost. It’s full-on emo. But we certainly didn’t associate such strong emotions with “Glue.” When we wrote it, we put it more on the happy end. For us, that’s the beauty of instrumental music, that people can find their own meaning from it.
What made you want to revisit your Bicep blog during lockdown?
McBriar: We’d been speaking to Olly, one of our managers about it, but we found it was very different this time around. You’re constantly fighting to get people to even go on the blog. The technology’s just become so reliant on directing people to it, to the point where it no longer makes sense. In the past, it had become a sort of destination for blog aggregators, so you didn’t really need to work to get people over there. Now, it feels like a lot just to get people to read a post. If we’d have posted something on our Instagram, it would have got way more interaction. The blog just feels like a dated technology, which is kind of sad because we always liked writing about music, providing context for it, and trying to imagine what the artist who wrote it might be like. It might be far from the truth but the blog always felt like a good place to paint those pictures, it felt like a fanzine for us. It’s something that’s been lost in the internet and social media culture.
I’m wondering how it feels to plan an album release not knowing what the condition of the world is going to be like when it comes out?
Ferguson: To be honest, it was just good to set a date in stone, because it might have been never ending otherwise. The music still needs to feel fresh to us, and delaying it would have been detrimental to us having to talk about it or playing it live. We might not have felt connected to it if we’d let too much time pass.