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Melancholy and euphoria: Bicep capture the emotional spirit of rave

Bicep talk to Séamas O'Reilly about growing up in Belfast, their new album ‘Isles’, and the liberating power of dance music

  • Words: Séamas O'Reilly | Photography: Sam Mulvey | Gifs: Zak Norman
  • 25 January 2021

Bicep are on the cover of Mixmag. Read the cover feature below and check out their exclusive Cover Mix here

It was early March when Bicep’s Matt McBriar realised 2020 would not be like previous years. “My partner’s sister and her husband moved in with us for a month while they were looking for a house. They both work for the NHS, so...”.

The rest, as they say, is history. And in the McBriar household, history moved fast.

“One day, we heard COVID-19 on the news for the first time and, within two weeks, we’d all lost our sense of smell and taste. I lost mine for a week – it was zero. Minus smell, even. Every dinner tasted like wallpaper paste. The only thing you could pick up was salt and texture. It made life miserable. Coffee was just hot bubbles. Beer was sparkly water.”

Read this next: The Cover Mix: Bicep

He pauses for a while, before switching back to his usual, and altogether more chipper, Belfast brogue, “I was lucky enough to feel ok throughout though, I was able to do loads of work round the house.”

McBriar and his bandmate Andy Ferguson are speaking to me on Zoom from their Old Street studio, and the familiar chemistry of the double act prevails throughout our long and rangy chat.

For the uninitiated, Matt is the taller of the two, although in certain press photos, this height differential is emphasised beyond all reason. This, coupled with dance music photography’s passion for making its subjects look Very Serious And Angry™, means a brisk Google Image search reveals several photo shoots depicting them like a mismatched duo of surly assassins; Matt, the loud one who rips peoples’ arms off; Andy, the quieter one, who does the accounts and discreetly tells Matt whose arms he should be ripping off next.

In reality, both are so blisteringly, bracingly friendly, you’re once again left to wonder why photographers are so keen on making DJs and producers look like nutters in the first place, and why other musicians seem to avoid the same treatment. Why is it that the programme for the BBC Proms seems happy to show off each tilted head and giga-watt grin of their soloists and sopranos, without ever forcing them to stare vacantly near pylons, or glare at the camera like they’ve just received a larger-than-expected gas bill?

Regardless, their webcam is giving me a reassuringly gnarly view of their production space in Islington, a long tunnel of synths and equipment that lumbers into the background, bathed in purple neon. With their backdrop of eerily-lit keyboard racks, I tell them they look like they’re filming an episode of VH1: Behind The Music on a submarine.

“It’s proper mid-90s Max Power Magazine lighting,” laughs Matt, “a real hard trance studio”.

The formative years of Bicep are by this point, a well-stretched ligament. After meeting as kids in Belfast, the pair formed a friendship based on mini-rugby, dance music and avoiding being beaten up at local funfairs. After briefly separating during their college years – Matt studying design, Andy chemical engineering - the pair collaborated on their now legendary blog, Feel My Bicep, which collated their favourite dusty Italo ballads and long-lost disco cuts, amassing hundreds of thousands of loyal fans, and spawning DJ gigs, edit and remix commissions and, eventually, interest from labels for their own productions. All of which culminated in an album with Ninja Tune in 2017: the self-titled Bicep LP which created a surge of popularity every bit as muscular as their eponymous forearm flexor.

That album’s mix of floor-ready bangers, uncommonly layered production and deep emotional heft charted a new course for the duo. Its monster lead single 'Glue' is a case in point, threaded with so much melancholic euphoria it seemed nostalgic for a place and time neither member of the group was actually present to witness first-hand. Joe Wilson’s masterly video seized on this, pairing the song with written testimonials of rave warriors from the Second Summer of Love, and becoming as iconic as the song itself in the process.

In an odd recursive twist, the past year has seen 'Glue' itself become a subject of nostalgia, as the comments sections for both Wilson’s video and its spine-tingling performance from their 2018 Printworks show, stand now as a litany of elegiac testimonies to much-missed, and much more recent, raving days.

“People project their own situation on to the music, and vice versa,” says Andy. “Like when people watch the 'Glue' video and say how much they’re craving 2019 again, when that video was made in 2017, about the 80s and 90s”.

Read this next: Flex it: Bicep's remarkable rise to stardom

“Watching this now on lockdown at home brings tears to my eyes,” effuses YouTube user Ollie Haylock, among thousands of others ejecting similar sentiments into the digital void. “Good times like this will come back soon. Your music gives me hope <3”. The top comment from Jane Godfrey is simpler but no less exuberant, “I'll smash whatever vaccine's necessary to get back to doing this”.

That feeling of missing live performance is very much mutual. “The freefall was the hardest part,” says Matt. “That very first weekend of lockdown was also the very first weekend of the Brixton shows, literally to the day”.

These were last March’s 02 Academy shows, which sold out in minutes and racked up a 10,000 person waiting list once all tickets had gone. Originally planned to kick off a new tour, this postponed residence became the canary in the coal mine and, at the risk of mixing metaphors beyond breaking point, the first of several dominos to tumble.

“Since the government didn’t cancel things, we had to cancel it ourselves,” adds Andy, “and we didn’t get any insurance payout, so we had to pay everyone out of pocket. We had a space rented up north for rehearsals for a week, paid all the crew to come there. Twenty riggers. But, more than that, those live shows were going to refine the music on the new album”.

The sleek new record ‘Isles’ takes the through-line of melancholy found in Bicep’s deeper currents and runs with it full speed, packing its fair share of big room bombast while also being riven with a tangible sense of aching pathos, of things lost and abandoned. As its title suggests, both attribute a large part of this emotional punch to growing up in, and leaving, their homeland.

“With instrumental music it’s hard to describe emotions,” says Matt. “But the musical element of 'Isles', the emotion behind it, was definitely centred on Ireland. I think being happy and sad at the same time is quite an Irish emotion, like, It’s rainy and grim outside but you’re also happy to be indoors and warm. It’s a guess, but I think Irish, Scottish, Scandinavians - anywhere the weather is awful, there’s a bitter-sweetness to things”.

These mixed emotions were everywhere to be found in the Belfast of their teens, a “can of worms” they’ve declined to speak about much publicly before. With 'Isles', then, comes a chance to express some of these more complex feelings, and to do so in their own terms, from leaving home behind and experiencing new pastures, to reckoning with their formative musical experiences in an occasionally unstable environment.

“I remember associating large crowds with danger,” says Matt, not of coronavirus infected venues, but of his earliest clubbing memories. “The only times you’d see large groups of were riots, marches and football matches. Without a doubt, going out in Northern Ireland came with an edge. On a standard punter level, it felt more dangerous than going out in London. But, it was flagless going to places like [legendary Belfast nightclub] Shine. I think we take for granted how much that meant at that time. I remember going to Snackbar in Shine with 2,000 people there and just not being able to comprehend that many people in a room. Because big crowds were not a thing”.

Read this next: Belfast's dance music scene is one of the most vibrant on the planet

The music, too, was different to where they ended up. “Belfast sounds were energetic music” says Andy, “its core chord changes in 80s music, which create energy, or trance”.

“Also,” adds Matt, “Northern Ireland is, separate from all that stuff, just a very conservative place. Dance music felt liberating even in that sense, just to be at those events. Somewhere where off licenses didn’t open on Sundays. Growing up, you’d be hard pressed buying a stick of butter before midday.”

When they speak about writing 'Isles', both do so in a way that recalls storytelling as much as composition. “We’ve progressed musically,” says Andy, “in terms of piano and understanding theory, and the amount of demos we’ve made and chord progressions we try out, it’s about working out what story they tell and what we’re trying to say with these sounds and how they link together. We’ve gotten to the point where we’re quite confident with what we’re trying to say, which in previous recordings maybe we weren’t”.

“Time and space are also equally important, in terms of letting your work mature,” says Matt. “You have to give it enough space and enough time for it to keep speaking to you in the same way, or change how it speaks to you in a positive way. Sometimes we listen to our old tunes and think, Jesus Christ”.

“We actually laugh at them!” continues Andy. “I think we made mistakes early on, always finishing tunes for the next EP and constantly trying to build things to get a career. But then, once you release it, it’s out there and it’s going to be promoted by the label for a couple of years and your live tour has got to represent that. When we’re releasing music now, we think about that, because if we’re going to be playing this thing for two years, and we’re not totally happy with it, it becomes a big issue”.

One track from the ‘Isles’ sessions caused so much debate between the pair, it made it all the way to final, mastered track list, before second, third and fourth thoughts emerged.

“We knew something about it was wrong,” adds Matt, now grimacing at the very recollection. “And we were saying “no this is a really good idea, it’s going to be a big one”, but it just felt… off. It was choking us, and we just said “should we axe this?” and as soon as we did, we breathed a huge sigh of relief, it actually felt like an album then”.

This meticulous level of tinkering seems an ever-present part of their process, and one that isn’t new by any means. “We were playing 'Glue' out for six months before we mixed it and nobody cared about it at all!” notes Matt in a claim so unlikely I simply accuse him of lying. “It didn’t get so much as a cough!” he insists. “We played it at Coachella: nothing”.

“Even after the album came out, it was still a sleeper,” confirms Andy. “We went through a phase where we didn’t even play it!”

“It only worked when we started closing with it,” says Matt. “It’s almost like you can lower people into 'Glue', but you can’t lift them up into it. We have this new, really indulgent intro for it now, where it has four minutes of beatless arpeggiator at the start”.

It’s pleasing to imagine them spending lockdown like this, going slowly mad in their submarine bunker, contriving ever-more indulgent, hour-long intros to their biggest hits. Fortunately, they’ve found other ways to fill their studio time. Most of the last few months have been dedicated to planning and programming their Bicep Live Global Streams, the first of which took place in September and was watched by thousands of living room ravers in over 70 countries.

Having seen the preponderance of “plague rave” events in the summer, both made the decision not to do any large public gigs this year, or even smaller shows once lockdown eased. They’re at peace with this decision, albeit looking forward to an endpoint if the virus ever abates -“Summer 2021, maybe?” Matt offers, hopefully - although both are incandescent at how Brexit could soon affect gigging, in the wake of news that the British government turned down Visa-free access for touring musicians, a decision which they say will cause undue havoc for anyone lugging equipment around the formerly frictionless EU touring zone. “Being in a creative industry but constantly problem solving and striving to do better” says Matt, “it’s mind blowing that the government wants to cut their nose off to spite their face on this”.

Read this next: Bicep: “Established DJs playing raves during a pandemic is disgusting"

For now though, these streams have taken on the function of their usual touring schedule, giving them creative goals, satisfying their legions of comment-writing fans, and allowing them to tweak their compositions in real time. Their next one will be on February 26, broadcast live from the Saatchi Gallery in London, and showcasing a new iteration of tracks that’s never been played before.

“We’ve rewritten a lot of the new album for the next one” says Matt. The idea was always to have a more downtempo focused album and redevelop those tracks for a clubbier environment”

“Challenging ourselves to do these streams and redo the music was good too,” says Andy, “as well as the visuals and the aesthetic with Zak [Norman, of design crew Black Box Echo, who have overseen their LP and live visuals for the past few years). When we come to do the live show, it’s going to be next level because we have spent so much time working on it, it’s three years’ worth of work and we’ve done it in six months”.

“It’s a strange feeling,” concludes Matt, “but the music exists differently once we play it out. It’s as if it isn’t real until it’s been played live”.

Bicep 'Isles' is out now via Ninja Tune, get it here and get tickets to their live stream here

Séamas O'Reilly is a freelance writer, follow him on Twitter

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