Pretty Ribbons And Lovely Flowers: Clash Meets Bibio
“I’m aware some fans prefer certain side of what I do, I think the people who truly get it, also get the variety. Variety makes individual components more special, rather than just sticking to the same ideas and sound.”
Following the release of Bibio’s album 'Ribbons', his sixth on Warp Records, we speak with the musician about J.S. Bach, his love of nature, and how picky he is about who he will work with.
- - -
- - -
Lots of descriptions like ‘bucolic’, ‘pastoral’ and ‘dreamy’ get used when talking about your work, but how would you yourself describe Ribbons, perhaps to someone who is not familiar with your music?
Although I don’t disagree with some of those descriptions, they are starting to feel like clichés. Personally, I’m not into describing music, if someone was to ask me what kind of music I make or what does my album sound like, I’ll just give them a copy or tell them to look it up. If I do describe music, it’s probably a bit more nuts-and-bolts in nature, like I might tell a friend I’ve been working on a new lo-fi tapey guitar tune or I’ve been working on a droney piano tune etc. It would be weird to say “I’ve been working on this new pastoral bucolic dreamy track”.
Where did the album title come from?
'Pretty Ribbons And Lovely Flowers', which is a track title and the lyrical lines within that piece. I don’t have a specific reason why I chose ‘Ribbons’ as the title, I just liked the idea of it and all of the possibilities it could mean, I have my own ideas and I suspect other people will think some up. It also led to a nice theme for the artwork.
You play nearly all of the parts on this album, do you like music making to be a self-contained process? Is collaboration something that interests you much? Or do you enjoy music as a solitary experience?
I do like collaborating with other people if the chemistry is right, but I can get quite anxious about it too. Working with Mark Pritchard was fun and I’d like to do more of that, but we’re both really busy with our own stuff, which is another reason why collaborations rarely happen. As well as the vocals I did for his ‘Under The Sun’ album, when he stayed at my house one time we spent long days in my studio making a few tunes with drum machines and synths, I’d like to finish those at some point, but I suppose they’re in the never ending queue of things that need finishing.
I sometimes get nervous or protective about inviting people into my creative world and I’m camera shy and don’t like performing in front of other people, so it’s why I don’t tour and it’s why I mostly direct my own videos. But I still imagine that I’ll work with other people in future.
The truth is, I don’t like being bossed around but I don’t like bossing other people around, so in order for a collaboration to work, both of us would need to be equally as enthusiastic, motivated and self-driven, Mark fits that description so that’s why it was easy working with him, although he has very high standards, so that kept me on my toes! I hope we’ll do stuff together again at some point.
- - -
- - -
Have there been any musicians or albums that have been particularly influential for you whilst creating the pieces on 'Ribbons'?
In the latter stages, when I started learning mandolin and violin, I got into some recordings by Kevin Burke and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill and some Bothy Band stuff. It was handy for learning those instruments. From that world, I’ve mostly been listening to an album called Promenade by Kevin Burke and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, which is mostly just guitar and fiddle and consists of trad Irish tunes, but with interesting chord arrangements and top notch playing, Kevin Burke has become my violin hero (alongside Stéphane Grappelli ).
J.S. Bach has been an influence too, firstly on my playing but then it seeped a bit into my compositions. I’ve mostly been obsessing over the Cello Suites and learning a few of the pieces on mandolin, now I’m trying to transfer them to violin and more recently cello, but this year has been crazy busy with album promo stuff so I haven’t had time to put the hours in that I’d like. Ode To A Nuthatch has a detectable Bach influence I think.
This album contains a lot of quite intricately arranged moments, where parts have clearly been carefully constructed alongside one another. Was this an intentional contrast to the more open, improvisatory composing on your last album, 'Phantom Brickworks'? Is there one way of writing that you prefer?
I don’t prefer one over the other, the more intricate arranging process requires more technical concentration where making 'Phantom Brickworks' stuff is more like meditative concentration, there’s a bit of technical stuff to be aware of as I’m making it, but it’s very much about going into the zone.
When I’m making music, no matter the method, I become focussed and the more focussed I am, the more involved with the music I feel. That’s very important, because I’m trying to extract something from deep down and get it into the music, but it also often feels like I’m extracting something out of the laws of physics and I’m more of an observer, that’s possibly more true with experimentation, but ultimately that’s what we’re doing, we’re discovering and presenting.
The tracks on that last album were accumulated over the course of 10 years. Have the pieces on 'Ribbons' been similarly stored, waiting for the right type of album to be released on?
The material on 'Ribbons' goes back a few years I’d say, but of course the knowledge and techniques go back much further. On some tracks I use some of the same hardware that I used 20 years ago.
I made some important discoveries with certain pieces of equipment all those years ago and they’re a key component of my sound, and as this album revisits aspects my earlier works, it made sense to continue to use some of the equipment that shaped it, although with ‘Ribbons’ it’s playing the role of details within a bigger picture, where with my earlier works, where I had very little equipment, it shaped the overall picture.
- - -
- - -
Your music is often described as having folk influences, would you say that this just refers to traditional music from the British Isles? ‘Watch The Flies’, for example, sounds like it might have traces of folk from foreign lands…
The biggest ‘folk’ influences on my music are The Incredible String Band and Nick Drake, neither of which are really folk or trad, but sonically they are associated with folk. There’s a bit of an Irish trad influence on small parts of this album.
With ‘Watch The Flies’, the fiddle (played by my friend Tom), follows a melodic line within the fingerpicking on the guitar (which is how the piece originally came to be), and I had more of an Indian sound in my head before we recorded the fiddle part, I think Tom’s Irish influence possibly came through as his family are from the West Coast of Ireland and he’s getting more and more into Irish trad music.
I’ve been playing fingerpicked guitar for a long time now, so a lot of the ‘folky’ element comes from within, after a while you tend to become more self sufficient and outside influences become less crucial, they tend to come through as smaller elements, where when I first heard The Incredible String Band and Nick Drake many years ago, it was a U-turn, now influences are far more subtle, the bulk of my ideas are entirely self-generated.
Where have you drawn your inspiration from for lyricism on this album?
A range of things. I don’t read books much, I never feel like there’s enough time in the day to read and it’s not my preferred way of learning, I’m not a great reader as my mind wanders and I often get to the end of the page not having absorbed anything.
Over the last 15 years, roughly speaking, philosopher Alan Watts and poet Walt Whitman have influenced my lyrics. Other sources of lyrical inspiration come from bits of remembered conversation, little memories of places and events, everyday stuff like leaving the house and stepping outside of your den into a wider world. I often get inspiration from stuff very close to home, as much as I’m attracted to exotic things from around the world, I also see profound beauty in the immediate.
Broadly speaking, your music seems to bridge a gap between the electronic and the organic. Do you think this reflects something about you and your personal connection to rural/urban settings? Perhaps your interest in nature and your industrial West Midlands background?
I think growing up in a 1970s new-build housing estate, in an industrial town nestled between other industrial towns, made me fall in love with the countryside, particularly Wales, because where I was from felt bleak and boring in comparison. Some people think the countryside is boring because there’s nothing to do, I find urbanity tedious because it’s mostly ugly, I never tire of the beauty of nature and the countryside, I find it magical and just walking around looking at stuff, taking photos, recording sounds or just appreciating it without the need to capture it.
- - -
- - -
When I go out into a valley with streams and moss and trees covered in lichen and just breathe the air, it seems to me so much more inspiring than the clutter and noise of a city. I do see beauty in cities too, and photography brings out the optimist in me more in that respect, because I’m deliberately looking for something positive to take a photo of, whereas being in the countryside, where you’re surrounded by so many picturesque sights, the challenge is to find the most concentrated pockets of beauty.
As a nature photographer, I’m more into chasing those small secluded pockets than I am huge epic panoramas. As for the electronic and organic juxtaposition, I don’t really know, it might be as simple as a love of nature and all of its wiggly lines but also having a soft spot for gadgets. My favourite parts in old James Bond films were the parts where Q shows Bond what gadgets he’s going to be taking on his mission.
You have meandered your way through some really different music styles through your releases, are you ever nervous about what your old fans will think about your new material?
The way I look at it is like this - if people liked the music I made from years back, then what they liked was the result of me being me, doing my own thing in isolation. That is the case with everything I put out. I was aware that 'Ribbons' might go down well with fans of 'Vignetting the Compost' and my other work in that vein, but I didn’t make 'Ribbons' to please any particular group of people, it’s just an album that reflects where I’m at or where I’ve been recently, which is what my albums are generally about.
I’m aware some fans prefer certain side of what I do, I think the people who truly get it, also get the variety. Variety makes individual components more special, rather than just sticking to the same ideas and sound.
Do you already have any thoughts on what musical direction future projects might go in?
Only vague ones. I’m working on more ‘folky’ stuff right now in the vein of 'Ribbons' but I’m also on the verge of buying a modular synth and I’m actually craving making electronic noises again. Every album I release is only the tip of the iceberg, it represents a small fraction of the music I’ve made over that period and within that writing period there is music that is totally different to what gets released, so although this album was weighted towards the folky side, behind closed doors I’ve been making all kinds of stuff, including funk, house, ambient, electronic…
As I’m making an album, it tends to kind of form itself, because I have a much bigger pool of tracks to choose from, so playlists form (I put tracks I’m working on on my phone to listen to) and then I get into certain playlists and then albums come out of them.
Before 'Ribbons' was fully formed, I must have had around six or so playlists of completely different styles that could have been albums. I was toying with the idea of releasing a quadruple album, one ambient, one folky, one electronic and one pop, but I decided that it was probably too much, so I decided to focus on one album that was a bit more eclectic.
- - -
- - -
'Ribbons' is out now.
Words: Patrick McMahon
Join us on Vero, as we get under the skin of global cultural happenings. Follow Clash Magazine as we skip merrily between clubs, concerts, interviews and photo shoots. Get backstage sneak peeks and a true view into our world as the fun and games unfold.