Mystery, Novelty and the Nature of Sound
2991 words, 00:09:58
Lucy Jones speaks with Stephen Wilkinson AKA Bibio to discuss the process behind 'Sleep On The Wing'
The opening track from Bibio’s new 10-track EP, Sleep On The Wing, is about escaping the city to find peace in the countryside. In the video, directed by Sonnye Lim, a swift wheels and tumbles through a man-made environment, all straight edges and 90 degree angles, before flying over a lush, green landscape, over trees, fields and bodies of water. The kinetic movement in the central motif of the song, and the action of the video, accentuates the awe-inspiring fact held in the title: that the swift sleeps while flying.
It’s a transportative record, especially at a time when many people haven’t been able to access the countryside during lockdown. Field recordings of birds and water flowing as well as Bibio’s experiences in the landscape around his home in the West Midlands and elsewhere are woven into the melodies and harmonies. Characters include the Milky Way, otters, oakmoss and many other sources of wonder he’s found in the English and Welsh countryside. He has also been documenting aspects of the living world through film and photography, with a signature eye for atmosphere and an image that makes you pause.
When we speak, one evening in June, he’s been in the studio rewiring some new gear. He lives and works at home, a couple of miles from the suburbs, on the edge of the countryside. His garden has seen over 30 species of birds, including woodpecker and nuthatch. There are jackdaws in the chimney. Occasionally he sees badgers. Recently he’d been shooting Super 8 film of the copper beech trees in his garden which make the inside of his home glow pink in spring.
Here he talks about mystery, novelty, his sonic aesthetic, the language of sound, interconnectedness and his influences. We started by talking about the birds in his garden and his love of the nuthatch, for which he wrote Ode To A Nuthatch (Ribbons, 2019).
Why do you like nuthatches so much?
I think it’s the fact you just don’t see them very often. When things are extremely common, you don't exactly value them less but you don’t get as excited when you see a sparrow as if you see a falcon. Also nuthatches look almost like a cross between a woodpecker and a kingfisher, exotic looking. Some of the garden birds are exotic looking, too. Goldfinches look tropical to me. They're so colorful and dandy.
Is your interest in nature and wildlife something that’s been with you for a long time, and how has your relationship with the landscape changed?
It started in early childhood. I grew up in a 70s new-build housing estate in the West Midlands. I didn’t have a town centre within walking distance, we were properly out in the suburbs. It was really built up, between several towns.
My dad has always been into fishing and the countryside so from an early age, maybe 4 years old, my dad bought a touring caravan and we started going to Wales regularly. As I got a bit older, maybe 7 or 8, I’d go on fishing trips with him. I always loved it. One of the campsites we went to had the River Severn running through it, the younger stretch of the river. I loved being there. I liked the peace and quiet: it’s a reason to get close to nature, staying in a caravan. You’re not distracted by the things you’ve got in your home. We’d spend hours on a riverbank, staring at the wildlife, the pond skaters.
I don’t fish anymore because I turned vegan a few years ago. But I’d still gladly spend the day with a camera on a riverbank, rather than trying to catch a fish. I’ve got an idea of what kind of environment I want to spend time in and it’s really based on exploring Wales and camping. The last time we went camping was in Shropshire, a place called Ratlinghope.
This is where you saw the Milky Way, right?
That title was based on a camping trip. We were really lucky with clear skies. It’s incredible because here we are in the Midlands, it’s a huge urban area, with a lot of light pollution, and this campsite is just a 50-minute drive away. It’s very hilly around there which I think blocks the light, but it’s incredible how clear the sky is. You could see the Milky Way and non-stop shooting stars.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Milky Way. What was it like?
I don’t feel like scientific exploration has taken the magic or mystery of it away. You can know what you know, which is obviously very little compared with a physicist, but to sit there and to know what some of that is, rather than being an early human who would’ve looked up and had no idea that it was balls of hydrogen glowing. To know you are this speck, and there is this vastness, and what’s up there is close to home, compared with everything else, it has a profound effect on you. You wouldn't get it from watching a programme about it. You’ve got to be there and you’ve got to see it. I think it’s a shame that a lot of people don’t get to see it, because of where they live.
It feels like it should be a birthright for people to see the Milky Way.
I agree. I sometimes wonder how it affects the psychology of human beings when they’re cut off from these things. If you grow up in a city, a city is a man-made, artificial environment and you’re bombarded with things that relate to human culture, billboards and shop signs, signs and language, all stuff humans have thought of. And yet you can sit on a camping chair and look at the sky and it’s way more powerful than any of it.
Like an ancient oak, or an abundance of species, there must be something specific about that sense of vastness, which you just don’t get in urban environments. I wonder how that affects our psychological development. If we could see the Milky Way more regularly, would we have a more adjusted sense of self?
It’s difficult to say. I think seeing the Milky Way is just awe-inspiring across the board. But maybe when you don’t get to see it often, when you’re going camping, you’re close to a more primitive way of life, but you’re doing it for leisure, and you’re wearing a Gore Tex coat and walking boots, and it’s comfortable in a modern way, but you’re trying to get back to a kind of basic, primeval experience. If you had to live like that, and you saw the stars every day, I think it wouldn't have the same impact.
Though in ancient texts by people like Ptolemy, they’re all pretty into the stars in quite an emotional way.
I don’t know much about ancient cultures or religions, but ancient cultures who did have clear skies and saw the cosmos clearer than we ever will founded belief systems on observing it, without even knowing what it was. And put a lot of effort into stone calendars. It obviously meant something to people. We know more about it, but the mystery of it is bottomless, really. Knowing how it works doesn’t really explain why, why? Why do we have these things called the laws of physics?
I like that mystery, I don't want to know everything.
Humans like illusions. We all have pictures on our walls, they’re illusions, 2D illusions of real places, fictional places. We spend a lot of time looking at screens and watching films. People go to the theatre and they know they’re seeing an act, but if the act is good enough they get so into it that they get absorbed by the illusion.
If you reveal the method, it spoils the illusion.
‘Ode To A Nuthatch’
I’m thinking about your field recordings now, recording bird song and water flowing on the new EP and how recording equipment and photographing nature, going out with a camera, it’s making a frame around nature, or an experience. What’s your experience of bringing your technology outside and then bringing the natural world back into the studio?
When I do that, field recordings or photography, it's a form of documentation, but the way I do it, it’s a bit more impressionistic. I’m introducing an emotion or a nostalgic quality by taking a picture of something. It might be that I achieve that through certain types of equipment, film or tape. A lot of the time I’m trying to induce feelings with it. It’s actually really difficult to put into words because it’s not a verbal thought process. I just know when it works.
Having a quiet, slightly muffled recording of a stream is enough to create an artificial space. It doesn’t need to be too in your face, explicit or detailed. If anything that might be a distraction from the music. It’s more like a hint. If it makes me imagine a certain scene, or a meadow, I don’t want to overegg the pudding by making a realistic soundscape. I want to make a vignette of it. Then it becomes more like a dream than a high definition recording. That’s why I want to conjure up certain types of imagery. I want it to be dream-like, not vivid.
Why do you want that?
I think because it’s less passive. It feels like you’re, as the listener, creating that space in the head, through your imagination. You've been triggered emotionally by the music.
The music is a kind of a language of emotion. It has all these subtle shades and micro-emotions through different harmonies and whatnot but also the role of texture. The texture of the audio is highly relevant. You’re having a conversation with history in a way because of the technology that I use to add texture to the sounds that I record.
Dreams and memories are low resolution. If you try to imagine a place you’ve been you’re not literally seeing the colours or the detail. Memory is a strange thing. You haven’t actually got the picture in your head. I’m fascinated with that and I think some of my music, this EP, is about that. It’s a day-dreamy thing; dreams are kind of murky. The music that tends to represent that has a murky sound.
On the face of it, you might think hi-def or clarity represents life and the more nostalgic, antiquey vibe is more to do with the past but in fact, the blurred-around-the-edges dreamscape is more true to life and memory and dreams?
Memory and dreams, definitely. This is where I might get a bit defensive about certain attitudes to using old technology. I think that there’s a certain camp that treats it like it’s dumb nostagia for the past, retromania. Oh, you want to live in the past by having this old technology.
What I’m doing isn't like, hey remember the 70s or hey remember the 60s. I’m not trying to do that. A straightforward example is if I came up with a guitar riff and I decide to record it, I might be dissatisfied with it because it doesn’t put me somewhere, it feels incomplete because it’s too clean. I deliberately, then, rough it up by taking things away. This is where the term filter comes from. There are certain things that are subtracted: the bass, the treble. Then you’re adding harmonics, distortion. It’s a combination of taking something away and adding something else so it’s not so immediate. I want it to have some kind of mystery to it.
Before I was signed to Warp I was a lecturer at a college in Stafford teaching music technology. I took in some demos to play the students, I made a quick guitar loop. I had the original digital recording and then the same recording again, but put onto cassette, and another loop put onto cassette twice, so it was second generation. A copy of a copy, then a copy of a copy of a copy, and so on. I edited them all together in a sequence. The first one was clean, the second more muffled, and the last one was basically crumbling apart. Out of four groups of students, only one student liked the first digital ‘clean’ one. The rest preferred the gnarliest and the most damaged sounding.
‘Watching Thus, The Heron Is All Pool’
I wonder if there’s an evolutionary reason behind that? Did you reflect on why that was?
I've got my reasons because I’m older, so I’ve got more reasons to be attached to those qualities because they remind me of growing up. But maybe that’s even stronger in a younger person, maybe it sounds more exotic, because you don't hear those sounds very often. Maybe a big part of it was that it sounded less sterile, it had character, it had mystery. Whereas if it was the 50s or 60s, people might prefer the clean one because it’s not something they’d have heard before.
It’s like the novelty of seeing a kingfisher or a nuthatch or the Milky Way…
Yeah, seeing a kingfisher instead of a pigeon.
I think that’s an ancient thing. Maybe it’s part of our inquisitive, investigative, curious nature that we learn things. Oh, we found a new thing! Oh, what is it? I need to know what it is. It’s what led to science. Every stone is overturned.
The track Milky Way has sounds like the twinkling of the stars. The motif in Sleep On The Wing sounds like a swift flying through the air and the drone at the end sounds like a bee. Am I imagining it? Are you translating what you see and hear?
You can suggest certain things which might trigger the listener into imagining things. There’s a trigger there but the trigger itself isn’t too literal. The twinkling in The Milky Way Over Ratlinghope was a definite thing. I used chimes. But again why is there such a common association between twinkling sounds and stars? Why do we use the word ‘twinkling’ for both? It’s almost like a common language. How common is that language? How far back does it go? If we found a remote culture who was cut off from all of our cliches, if you said which of these sounds represent the stars for you, would they choose the same one? In a sense I’m using the cliche but quite tenderly and carefully, not to overdo it, to represent it.
There’s a real mix of instruments on this EP, as well as your field recordings. Cello, mellotron flute, violin or is it a viola?
It’s a viola that’s no longer a viola. I went to a violin shop in Cardiff and there was one I took a liking to. It's an 18th century English violin that had been set up as a viola. I bought that and used it on “Watching Thus, The Heron Is All Pool" as a viola and then more recently I put some octave violin strings on it so it’s an octave below a violin, so it’s even lower than a viola. There’s something about the wood and the age of it, it’s capable of producing quite a low sound. If you play the low string on it, it’s like the second lowest string on the cello, which is quite weird because it’s tiny.
The title, Watching Thus, The Heron Is All Pool, where’s that from?
It’s a quote from an Alan Watts book, Man, Woman and Nature. I’ve been a fan of Alan Watts for years since hearing audio recordings of his talks. I binged on those and he became a big inspiration to me. He was one of the people who popularised Zen Buddhism in the West.
His philosophy flicked a switch in my head, I started thinking about the nature of existence differently. That, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, were big influences. It was this sort of existential, what are we? What is our place in the universe? The idea of union between all matter, and interconnectedness as an undeniable truth of the universe.
But ignored by our society!
I think with the illusion of separateness, there’s an illusory nature to life and being a human being, and it isn’t just humans, animals see certain things as separate to them. I think it’s inherent, it’s not a mistake, or a misjudgement. It’s a hallucination, an essential hallucination, but actually the real true reality is that it’s all connected. Science says the same thing.
I wondered about the harmonic sense of melancholy in Sleep On The Wing and wondered whether you were responding to the decline of swifts?
When I write I feel like I’m playing around with music, and responding to it, and the emotional shades you get from different types of chords are all there although I don’t know what the names are.
I often lean towards bittersweet sounds, where you’ve got these layers, a hopeful quality and a sad quality, which might inadvertently prompt what kind of lyrics I write for it. The lyrics are a culmination of those two things, sadness and pain and loss and hopefulness. It wasn’t a calculated thing, where I think “I’m going to write about this”, it just happens.
When I’m writing tunes, like on Phantom Brickworks, especially the looped piano stuff, I’m trying to steer it somewhere but I’m also just letting it happen. When I listen back I’m listening to the gaps as well, and what I can put into the gaps. It starts to steer itself, or I gently steer it into a harmonic series of notes or chords, so it’s a conversation with the phenomenon of music. It’s like feeling around. You sometimes hit the right spot, and that’s how I make music.