20 Questions: Bibio

Photo: Holly Fuller

British electronic artist Bibio has just released his third album, Vignetting the Compost. He tells us about his work and love for Walt Whitman in these 20 Questions.


Vignetting the Compost

Label: Mush
UK Release Date: 2009-03-09
US Release Date: 2009-02-03

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

Book - Zen Effects: The Life of Alan Watts. I find that at this point in my life, I tend to shed a tear or get a lump in the throat when I read something uplifting rather than something tragic. Reading about this amazing character, Alan Watts, developing from childhood and battling with expectations from his conservative upbringing to flourish into this eccentric lovable rogue was such a page turner. At one point in particular, after he had been to sit a Zazen with his girlfriend in a Buddhist Lodge in London, he was frustrated with being unable to concentrate on the present, his girlfriend hit him with a revelation that he didn't need to concentrate, all his memories and future projections are all in the present. The beautiful thing is that when you listen to the Alan Watts podcasts, you hear this perspective shine through, and it puts a smile on my face to know of the origin. I must admit, near the end of the book when it describes how he passed away, I shed a tear or two.

Movie - A Very Long Engagement. I think it is impossible to not cry during this film. I don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it, but the ending leaves you so ambivalent, but an ambivalence accompanied by tears. I love endings like that, they leave creative decisions in the mind of the viewer, they're philosophically evocative.

2. The fictional character most like you?

Howard Moon from The Mighty Boosh (according to my girlfriend). We kind of joke about how his pedantic nature and seriousness is paralleled in my personality. Of course it's a British comedy, but the ongoing joke is the way he contrasts with his polar-opposite companion, Vince Noir, who is more about dressing up and going to parties. My girlfriend is more like Vince, she'd wear fancy dress regularly if the opportunity was there, and in contrast, I'm the sombre one who would rather stay at home and discuss rare jazz vinyl.

3. The greatest album, ever?

Music Has the Right to Children by Boards of Canada. No record has moved me as much as this. When I first listened to this all the way through on headphones, I had decided by track seven that it was the greatest thing I'd ever heard. Not only that, but track nine: "Bocuma", was the most distilled yet murky-vague rendition of a specific type of nostalgia, completely steeped in melancholy and awe; the joy of reminiscing with the ache of longing. I remember that the hidden voices in "Turquoise Hexagon Sun" brought back an incredible childhood memory of splashing about in a Welsh river with my brother and sister and other kids from the campsite until the sun started to set. Any music that dusts off a gem of a memory like that isn't simply music, it's something else, closer to psychedelics or hypnotism than just a regular music CD.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

I suppose Star Wars is the cool answer, but for me, neither. I must admit, as a teenager I had a brief fling with Star Trek: Next Generation, there were some cool episodes, particularly the one about the moebius when they were caught in a loop, I remember it because Orbital had sampled it on their brown album. Star Wars? I like the sounds that R2D2 makes, but I was never obsessed with it like some people are.

5. Your ideal brain food?

Wild Welsh sea trout. But catching it myself. I've never caught a sea trout. My dad tells me that the river Dyfi in mid Wales at night is the time and place, and if that whole experience isn't good for your brain, then I don't know what is. Fish is generally supposed to be great for your brain, a friend of mine told me that he once heard that if you eat fish every day, you can't be depressed. Besides, good enough for Jesus, good enough for me.

6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?

Er... there are probably quite a few things I could choose and choosing any one would feel like an arbitrary choice, so this is a fairly recent 'accomplishment' that I'm proud of, albeit arbitrary: the remix of Wax Stag's "Folk Rock". I was well chuffed to be asked to do a remix for Wax Stag, I know the guy personally (Rob Lee) and he's a jolly nice chap, but also a great tunesmith, a real tunesmith, something the music industry is lacking.

Everyone wants to be a producer and everyone's making great beats but they often lack a juicy melodic centre. I studied Sonic Arts in London from 1999-2002 and have had my fair dose of being surrounded by people who talk melody down, as if it's just a component of mindless light entertainment, or that melody is restricting and applying rules to what should be a rule-free zone... ironically, that's applying rules! Anyway, melody is not to be dissected with the cold knife of intellectualism or with the horribly self-obsessed consciousness that is bent on dragging politics into pure form, that's like talking yourself out of liking grape juice because it's not a 1982 Chateau Margaux.

Since leaving the Sonic Arts clan I have continued to love non-melodic noise and I still do a lot of sound recording, but away from the clique I feel I have naturally been reunited with melody without any self conscious poisonous shame, and funnily enough I don't feel any less intelligent for it too!

Sorry to go off on a tangent, but melody, as I have rediscovered, is not something too many people are good at, in fact melody is not something too many musicians are good at! But Mr Rob Lee is good at it, and for me to do a remix was a challenge, a big one. That's because I don't treat remixes as remixes, I treat them as an opportunity to take someone else's melodic and rhythmical ideas and turn them into a Bibio track, you could de-glamorize that and call it a cover version if you wish.

I initially did this with Clark's "Ted" track, which was also a challenge because its strength is melody AND production, and to completely strip away Chris Clark's genius of production and start from scratch was a little nerve-racking. With the "Folk Rock" remix, the first hurdle was to learn the melodic parts on the guitar, the original track is made up of manually and meticulously sequenced synths forming lavish waves of arpeggios like icebergs, and at the tip of these icebergs is carried the main melody. When I learned these melodies by ear, I got them down on the computer so I could use them as the kelson onto which I would attach other instrumentation and percussion.

I remember working on this tune absolutely solidly for several days, and long days too, running up over 60 tracks on the computer before it was too much for my brain to handle and I'd have to start mixing down to give me some mental space -- amazingly my computer could handle it, but that's a lot of separate overdubs to be juggling with using a mouse, but before the mixing down commenced, there is all the Bibio analogue and magnetic tape treatment, but I won't bore you with the details. I worked on each section separately as if it was a track of its own, and then I'd spend time stitching them together so they would join effortlessly. It was a mammoth task, but I enjoyed every minute of making it, and I was even more thrilled with the result -- if only I'd written those damn melodies!

Funny, because it feels like an accomplishment to me, but this is one of the lesser known tracks with the Bibio tag on it, but that's cool with me, as long as the few who have it enjoy it, and as long as Rob Lee likes it, that's an accomplishment.

7. You want to be remembered for...?

Making a decent old-fashioned cocktail. It was my friend who suggested that this would be cool to have on my gravestone. I guess it's more personal, for the people who knew me closely and shared good times. Of course I like to think that my music has longevity and the few kids of the future who discover the obsolete CDs and vinyls in the year 2120, will be intrigued at the sounds that come off a bibio record. Who knows? Or maybe I should have "Here lies Stephen Wilkinson, the man who had over 30 tape recorders".

8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?

Walt Whitman. Nobody has uttered so much truth and reassuring love as this man. The fact that he was a poet meant that his words of enlightenment were put forward in the most heart-achingly beautiful way.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Leaves of Grass. Not even music has moved me like this book. I remember reading it 30,000 feet up on my way to Germany, I had to read it in small doses because I was getting too emotional and didn't want to cry on the plane! It's not sad though, it's pure wondrous optimism. There's something so moving about the truth. I don't know why it makes me want to cry, it's odd. Maybe it's flushing something out?

10. Your hidden talents...?

I can improvise in the kitchen. I mean I'm no pro by any means, but I love cooking, and I think it is one of the most important things to practice as a human being. People who don't cook aren't engaging in one of the wonders of the world. At least enthusing about food, exploring and seeking. I'm no traditionalist, but I love some of the cooking traditions of the world. In particular the tastes of Mediterranean food, from Italy to Morocco. Just grinding some cumin seeds with a pestle and mortar is enough to inspire me. I tend to glance in a recipe book and get ideas rather than follow an entire recipe. Sometimes just seeing a suggestion of combining two ingredients that you've never tried together is all you need. It's like music, you hear a tiny detail on a record and it spurs an idea in you that evolves into an original composition.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

Re-examine all you have been told at school or church, or in any books, and dismiss whatever insults your soul.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

Bought - Nagra Kudelski IV-S reel to reel tape recorder. My swiss-engineered beauty. It's just a tape recorder, it records and plays back, I have a bit of a magnetic tape fetish. The Nagra has more soul than any digital recorder.

Stole - wood for the campfire. Somehow it didn't feel like theft, besides, not stealing it would have meant retiring to our tents prematurely, or freezing to death. It was a great fire, a real shin-bender.

Borrowed - student loan. Four years in London, recording sounds and making music, as well as indulging and listening to records while smoking, drinking and eating. Don't regret a single penny of it.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or...?

Wranglers Pro Rodeo Cowboy Cut. My girlfriend got them for me from Las Vegas. They're probably common as muck in the USA, but in England, they're as rare as rocking horse shit. They feel like you could fall of a horse in them and not graze your knees.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

If he's paying, David Attenborough. One person I'd like to meet the most. All the other people on my list are deceased, like Buddha, Jesus, Walt Whitman. David Attenborough is not in that vein of cosmic-minded people, but he has seen more of the natural world than anyone I guess, and I grew up watching his documentaries and loved them, and now I own most of them on DVD. There's nothing to see more inspiring on a TV screen than our Dave, he's a national treasure.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

Where and when unknown. Why? To see the face of the first person who lit a fire (I nicked that one from someone, sorry Greg!). This question deserves multiple answers, like the clever answer, the witty answer, the weird answer etc. As well as seeing something really far back, I'd like to see something close to home and not that long ago, like Victorian London, or 17th century Edinburgh. The list could go on... ancient Greece is on the list for sure, as is India 600 BC.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

Lying down in a tent in the rain. There something so connecting about it, it's surely a form of yoga. Words can't do it justice.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or...?

Tea. As an Englishman, I savour tea above all other drinks. The first cup of the day is literally holy. I'm really into green tea now too, particularly Japanese Sencha or Maccha. It has to be loose leaf! Tea bags won't do, I'm quite a snob about it. If you're going to drink an infusion of leaves in hot water, make it as real as possible.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

Country. The mossy green valleys of Wales. As much as I want to see the world and visit epic places, there will always be something particularly special about Wales. It's the constant rain, the greenness, the sound of sheep, the smell of wet grass, the smoldering campfire from the night before and drinking tea from a chipped enameled tin cup. They all go together like one big epic composition.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Wake up!

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

My fifth album.


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