Bicep: Chroma Dreams

Despite – or perhaps because of – being one of dance music’s biggest acts, Bicep have never taken the easy route to success. In fact, you could say that Matt McBriar and Andy Ferguson subscribe to David Bowie’s adage about artists producing their best work when they go out of their depth. With that in mind, the duo have recently returned with their hybrid audio-visual DJ/live Chroma project. Explaining the ambitious concept to Felicity Martin, the pair reveal: “It’s closer to how we began…”

Bicep’s “rave cave”, as they affectionately call their Shoreditch basement studio, is bathed in a purple LED glow. To get to it, you walk past a “synth graveyard”: a hallway containing stacked shelves of broken equipment, plus a giant version of their muscular trefoil logo from their XOYO residency. Inside, every inch of space is taken up by vintage synths, cables and keyboards.

This is the way Matt McBriar and Andy Ferguson like it. A dark, windowless room means zero distractions. Their previous workspace, Fortress Studios, was around the corner – but gentrification took over and it became “a kind of luxury WeWork,” says Ferguson. “If you could imagine a bashed-up shadow of the 80s… it was so run-down,” McBriar says of Fortress’ previous pre-gentrified condition. “There were posters in the loos, like, ‘Please don’t smoke crack in these toilets.’” Tom Jones used to record in there and was apparently doing so when the pair recorded their first album, 2017’s ‘Bicep’.

“We were thinking about moving somewhere, like, nice, but the good thing about here is that you’re in a prison cell. It’s not even nice out there,” McBriar continues, gesturing above ground to the Old Street area now populated by suits and table tennis bars. The pair no doubt could get a fancier, spacious studio: over the past few years they’ve cemented themselves as one of dance music’s biggest names, their widespread appeal meaning they’ve appeared on everything from car adverts to NHS vaccine promos to ‘Love Island’. Their elephantine track ‘Glue’ is, at the time of writing, fast approaching almost 250 million Spotify streams.

The numbers don’t lie: Bicep’s formula is a winning one: weightless arpeggios and colourful strokes of euphoria that pulls off that tough thing of uniting underground sensibility with commercial success. But the duo now, post-second album (2021’s ‘Isles’), are taking something of a left turn. Chroma is their new project, a combination of performance concept and record label comprising only their music. First single ‘Helium’ brought a gruffer, grittier edge to their sound, with a garage-like shuffle and swing cut into by a chopped-up vocal – a Loopmasters sample.

“Stagnation was always round the corner,” McBriar says candidly of their decision to make this sonic swerve. “If you’re always trying to live by a set of rules that you’ve been creating... like, even when we put up ‘Helium’, someone went: ‘This isn’t a classic Bicep vocal!’ And I was like: ‘There you go – already, people have an idea of what they expect.’ If ever there was a reason to have a new label that experiments, that’s it.”

But in a way, Chroma is a return to the old Bicep. “It’s closer to how we began, like sampling and chopping up, very much playing around and experimenting, trying different vocals,” says McBriar. “Our releases, pre-Ninja Tune, moved around a lot – it was just a more varied palette.” After meeting aged eight at rugby practice in Belfast, the pair have been friends ever since, and exhibit the finishing-each-others’-sentences camaraderie of old mates.

Aged 15 they started going out to techno club Shine, “putting tennis balls in our boots to give us an extra two inches,” says McBriar. “I remember opening the doors and hearing 145bpm, ripping techno, with black and white strobes hammering. That was my heavy metal or punk – music conveying emotion through its actual delivery. That was a theme for that era in Northern Ireland. People loved intense music.”

So much so, that Cajmere and what we might consider peak-time house was reserved for Belfast’s chillout rooms, and trance such as Chicane’s ‘Saltwater’ was thought of as pop. “A conservative environment definitely breeds a kind of club culture – [clubs] were places where people really let go,” says Ferguson of the city’s nightlife. Touring DJs would be shocked at how quickly things kicked off there. “They’d open and immediately, there was no mixing and mingling, having drinks and warming up. People were straight up the front, going bananas. They’d crush the next five hours at 100 miles-an-hour,” says McBriar.

Before heading out to Shine, Ferguson, McBriar and their friends would do a three-hour meet-up at one of their garages, which they nicknamed The Garage. They’d all bring burned CDs of eclectic Italo disco and weird B-sides they’d found and argue furiously over their selections. “It’d be like Aphex Twin tunes from ‘Analogue Bubblebath Vol 3’. Like, you couldn’t go for ‘Windowlicker’,” McBriar says. “You’d only get one go, if it was a stinker, everyone was like ‘Nah, nah, off!’” Ferguson adds.

They’re still friends with that crew of “super music nerds” from The Garage, and their group chat continues to critique DJ sets today. “Underground music and digging culture in Northern Ireland was a big thing,” says McBriar. “It’s so isolated that naturally you have to dig for anything – nothing’s on your doorstep, unlike London.” 

“There’s queues round the block for the new Pret,” Ferguson laughs. In their teens, blog culture was bubbling away and mp3s were scraped from Napster via dial-up internet. At school, Tim Sweeney’s ‘Beats In Space’ mixes would get passed around, and people would record from MiniDiscs in class. “I like that you had to work for the music,” says Ferguson.

A continuation of that love of sharing rarities and unearthed gems, they started their FeelMyBicep blog in 2008. For the first two years, they didn’t bother promoting it – it was them reporting back from an Optimo night, or Ricardo Villalobos at fabric, finding out what tunes they’d played (by either asking the DJs or snapping photos of the decks). Even though the pair went their separate ways for university, it was their love of dance music that eventually brought them back together. 

When they both moved to London, they relished how accessible music was there. The dominant sounds felt comparatively restrained, though. “Northern Ireland was much more maximal – it was synths with no filter. The Irish thing was like: ‘I need to feel something!’ There’s lots to do with kind of what Ireland’s like as a place to live, that you craved that turned-up feeling.”

“I don’t even remember how they managed to persuade me to let them in,” says DJ and club promoter Neil Macey, who sold Bicep some records back in 2010. At that time, he was flogging records on Discogs from a warehouse on Hackney Road. Macey had a strict ‘online-only’ policy of not allowing anyone to come in and browse – they were in a strict numbered order, “and crate-digger types always messed up my system. Somehow [Bicep] managed to persuade me to bend my own rules for them. I remember being surprised at the time that they had knowledge and awareness of records and labels, particularly 90s US house and techno, that were obscure and hard to find, and were completely disregarded and out of fashion at the time.”

Macey says the pair bought a huge stack of records, at a time when interest in vinyl was at an all-time low (before the surge of interest arrived later). The selection they bought was cheap as “nobody knew what they were or their significance”. A couple of years later, Macey bumped into Bicep backstage at Space in Ibiza, where they were playing a headline slot on the terrace. “It was heartening to me that they’d taken inspiration from the underground music I’d been involved in from times gone by, reinventing it in their own style to create something new and relevant to what was happening on the dancefloors of superclubs,” he says.

Following the success of the blog, and the same-named club night, came their signing to Ninja Tune and the self-titled ‘Bicep’ in 2017, launching them into the charts and sending them on a tour run. Four years later, ‘Isles’ should’ve been the record to recharge the dancefloor, and introduce a new generation to the club, but it came out in January 2021 amid lockdowns and an uncertain feeling for the future of dance music. 

But the euphoric, hopeful quality of the inadvertent home listening record – which soundtracked bubble get-togethers and socially distanced park meets – means that they now want to pull things in a different direction. “After the second album, we were like, this feels like everything is lovely and stuff, but there’s no bit where it’s just, darkness,” says Ferguson. “It’s like all sugar and you have no sour,” McBriar adds. “We were talking about the pH scale, and you kind of think of Bicep sitting in neutral, it’s a bit underground, a bit radio friendly, it’s fun, it’s a bit dark at times, but it doesn’t really go too much in one direction.”

That realisation came at one of their shows in Dublin. When they played one of their Benjamin Damage collaborations (as BDB), ‘Boss Rhythm’, the energy in the room took a turn, becoming electric, and more pounding. “I always think music and food are similar in terms of balance and your palate and how opposing elements on a plate can heighten, or accentuate each other,” continues McBriar. “Sometimes when you go dark, a moment of light feels so much brighter.” When they played ‘Glue’ straight after their screaming techno production, it solidified that idea in their minds. “It’s only now that we actually have the ability to go really, really high and bright in one direction and then just drop off a cliff and take people with us.”

Spending five days a week in the studio, post tour, they were increasingly having days where they’d go off in obscure directions – spanning hard techno to ambient but grew frustrated at the lack of outlet for it. “We increasingly felt that some of those more esoteric bits of music wouldn’t fit being released as Bicep – it’d almost be detrimental to put them out and jackhammer them in,” says McBriar. “We all know about an artist that gets to the third album, suddenly decides to go super hard left and go really, really weird. You can gain a few new fans, but you can alienate a lot of people.” They flirted with the idea of coming up with a few aliases, “and getting it out of our system. But then as we develop as artists, we’d really like the opportunity to bring our fans along with us. We don’t want to just release stuff quietly on a white label that a few people on Discogs mutter about.”

That said, they don’t mean for the new music to be “selfish or isolating” – it’s about creating “some tracks that just hold tension the whole time” rather than resolving, as they’d been keen to do in the past. The overarching theme for Chroma, they explain, is “prettiness mixed with absolute darkness”, something they’re also relaying in the visual side of their accompanying A/V show. “We’ve ideas of the most stunning, serene visuals, and the most calming lighting, along with some of the hardest music, to create that: ‘Whoa... what?’ feeling,” McBriar says. 

To create this “jarring”, head-spinning effect, they’ve been working with their go-to show designer Zak Norman, plus cult designer David Rudnick on the Chroma aesthetic. There’s also, Bicep say, a desire to do something “anti-AI” and bring a human quality to the art direction. To do this they’ve been going to the Barbican and Kew Gardens with their cameras to shoot interesting textures and lighting, “these bits of beauty that you would never normally see”.

The pair play me some old versions of ‘Helium’, which originally started out on the Basic Channel-esque, dub techno spectrum. (Their new studio monitors, it turns out, are very good). They go down a hole of playing various works in progress, cheerfully debating the merits of each and fist pumping vigorously on discovering old basslines. 

“That’s something we’ve really gotten into – almost never working on a piece of music and finishing it the way you started it, like it has to change,” says McBriar. Some of the forthcoming Chroma music is under their alias Dove (which they released ambient and trance-indebted single ‘000’ under in 2021). “I want there to be people that say: ‘You know what, I’ve never been a fan of Bicep, but I actually really enjoy the stuff they do as Dove’,” he adds.

Chroma is an opportunity for them to not have to play with the music industry’s dictated rules, too. “With things like Spotify, when you stream online, you’re encouraged to make music shorter, shorter and shorter – whereas we can really experiment with that longform storytelling approach, like a lot of tracks we grew up listening to,” says Ferguson about Chroma’s single-led approach to releasing. “A lot of that gets sunk by the algorithm. But hopefully with this label, it’ll make sense – if you’re putting a 15-minute ambient tune in the middle of an album, you’re losing everyone.”

Strangely, as soon as they had the green light to veer off in more esoteric directions, Bicep started writing the poppiest material they’d ever made. “The brain works in a funny way,” says Ferguson. “We were having all these days on a Monday where I was like: ‘I don’t wanna write a radio tune, I just wanna jam out.’ And then as soon as we’ve got an outlet, we’d come in and be like: ‘Ooh, this sounds nice and poppy!’ You always sort of crave what you can’t have.”

While www.feelmybicep.com is very much still in operation – recently publishing mixes by Daisy Moon and 1-800 GIRLS – it’d be naive to think that the blog is getting the same readership as it did in its hundreds of thousands of views per month heyday. The pair recently started a Discord as a way of returning to that more exclusive, early internet feel. “Instagram’s not a place to communicate, it’s a shop window,” says McBriar. “With anything like that, fans come last, advertisers and money and all that comes first. It’s not a form of communication with your followers, it’s just a flagpole to say: ‘This is happening’.”

They’re excited to start the new channel – you can currently join the waiting list – “although probably only 0.1% of Bicep fans will use it,” they say. “We’ve always wanted to have a forum where we share tips, help people out, or give them certain tracks,” says Ferguson. There are demos, unreleased music and edits that they feel they couldn’t give away on their public channels, “because then it’s like you’re positioning it as something new”.

It’s also a chance for them to reconnect with their fans after the disconnect that comes with an intense tour run. “You’re like a satellite floating in space around music, rather than actually being in the industry,” McBriar says of their time spent on the road. “There’s just so much to do every day with the show, like you don’t go out for dinner, you don’t see any cities, you don’t have time. It’s just a rinse and repeat.” Recently, over Christmas, they performed seven times over nine days. “There’s a reason why bands don’t do it constantly,” adds Ferguson. These sold-out shows are a far cry from one night a decade ago that they reminisce about; a four-hour set in Denver where, two hours in, there were three people in the audience. “There were literally more people in the toilet than on the dancefloor,” Ferguson laughs.

Following all the success they’ve had in recent years – BRIT nominations, a number two UK album, being booked for Printworks’ headline closing set – Bicep’s decision to evolve is refreshing in an industry where there’s a focus on achieving big streaming numbers. Admittedly, the saying ‘if it ain’t broke…’ comes to mind. But the pair very much have an ethos of shape-shifting, experimentation and never standing still. “We may lose some people, we may gain some others, but hopefully by the end of this, we’ve more widely informed our audience of what we’re like, with the hope that maybe when we come to album three, we’ll have the confidence to push it properly,” says McBriar.

“I always love DJs that challenge and push the genres,” adds McBriar, “that’s why we were drawn so much to Optimo, and how they fused techno with, like, Dolly Parton. Then you’d have Jeff Mills, ‘The Bells’ coming in the end, and you’d be: ‘What the...!’” 

In that same sense of challenging their audience, Bicep are rejecting the allure of a winning formula. “If we wanna make safe music all the time, we can do like 20 different versions of ‘Glue’, and just keep releasing them,” Ferguson laughs.  

This article first appeared in issue 5 of Disco Pogo magazine. Which you can buy here.

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