After holing himself up in his West Midlands terrace for the past year or so, Stephen Wilkinson recently unveiled his second full outing for tastemaking label, Warp. Mind Bokeh sees Wilkinson (aka Bibio) explore new territory, as well as expand on the various ideas first encountered on 2009’s sun-soaked Ambivalence Avenue. When we dropped him a line last week, he was happy to divulge in the creative process behind the new record, telling us why his biggest influences actually came in the shape of Thin Lizzy and English philosopher, Alan Watts.
It’s not even two years since the release of Ambivalence Avenue, so you’ve certainly been keeping yourself busy. Could you tell me how Mind Bokeh came to fruition?
For me, writing music is a continuous process. When I start to get a feel for what aesthetic I want to have for an album, I’ll select the tracks I feel fit in with that. At least two of the tracks on Mind Bokeh certainly pre-date the release of Ambivalence Avenue, the oldest being ‘Take Off Your Shirt’ and ‘Saint Christopher’. But this time around I wanted to pay more attention to synths and stuff like that; there was an intention to go a bit more electronic and explore that side a bit more. In my mind I was thinking of making a nighttime counterpart to Ambivalence Avenue.
Mind Bokeh is an incredibly varied record. What sorts of things were you listening to when you were putting it all together? Do you feel that those interests influenced your own music in any way?
It’s hard to say which records influenced this album, because what I listen to doesn’t necessarily affect the music I make. At the moment I’m listening to John Coltrane, but I’m not making jazz. I suppose the influences were perhaps more concerned with certain concepts and lyrical aspects. The main influence in that domain was Alan Watts, an English philosopher who did a lot of recordings during the sixties and seventies, which are actually available to download as podcasts. He helped popularise Zen Buddhism and Eastern philosophy in the West, and that really captivated me. I went off it for a bit because I’d listened to so much of it and ‘heard the message’, but he still continued to fascinate me. The album title itself, Mind Bokeh, is a reference to photography, but it’s also a reference to mind, perception and psychology.
So how you feel that title relates to the music?
For me, it relates to certain tracks more than others. I’m not really a purist, so I don’t believe in absolute. The idea of having an album full of tracks that portray this ‘Mind Bokeh’ theme isn’t necessary for me; it’s the idea of getting that across in some of the album and having the rest for other things like ‘Take Off Your Shirt’, which is quite a break from all that. I suppose the title track and others such as ‘Artists’ Valley’ and ‘Excuses’ feel like they belong in a fairly abstract environment. I perceive those tracks as being like a black space filled with colourful lights, whereas some of my older works would probably conjure up images of old impressionist paintings and grainy films of rural landscapes. On Mind Bokeh, I was beating together that nighttime, artificial world; it’s still something that’s very tangible and physical, and not computer generated. The music also really dictated to me what the artwork was going to be.
There does appear to be a strong visual aesthetic accompanying Mind Bokeh, such as the colourful video you co-directed for ‘Excuses’. How long have you been interested in film?
I’ve always liked film. I shot quite a bit of Super 8 in the past, but I haven’t done that for a while. It used to be a lot easier than it is now; you could just buy the film, shoot, send it off and get it back – now it requires a lot more dedication! But it’s still something I want to get back into. In fact, I came to this conclusion the other day that as an artist I feel like I’ve got more in common with a film director. The music I make is usually about creating an illusion in the same way that a director creates an illusion by faking a scene or an event through the medium of actors, cinematography and light. When people say that my music reminds them of running around in long grass with the sun beating down on their head, for example, it means I’ve communicated something through music without actually singing any words to make that picture. That’s a magical thing for me.
Do you still incorporate field recordings into your work?
There are field recordings on the new album, but they’re a bit more disguised. In the opening to ‘Excuses’ there’s the sound of rain on a tin roof, but I used it more as a texture; I tried to make it sound like a crackly film soundtrack. There’s actually a metronome in there as well, which was actually made from the sound of a dripping tap – about sixteen different drips recorded individually!
What about that vocal sample at the end of the track? Is that Alan Watts talking?
No, that’s actually Dean Stockwell from Quantum Leap! I found it on a documentary and completely forgot what it was. When Warp wanted to clear it, they managed to track down the original video. After I confirmed that was what I’d sampled, they got in touch with Dean Stockwell’s agent and he granted permission for me to use it. So it’s a nice story really. It’s actually from an old documentary he narrated about the Victorian photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who was an influence on my older albums, particularly Hand Cranked. There’s something about that documentary, particularly in the quality of the sound; I just love the way there’s this poetic melancholy in his voice when he’s just telling you something that’s practically a scientific explanation of something.
Although Ambivalence Avenue was a bold departure from your first three albums for Mush Records, Mind Bokeh continues to delve into completely new territory. I guess ‘Take Off Your Shirt’ is the key example – that was influenced by Thin Lizzy, right?
I listened to a lot of heavy metal and rock in my teenage years, but then I got bored of it at about the age of fifteen when I started getting into other stuff like jazz. I discovered electronic music when I was sixteen and that really took me, so I completely dismissed metal for a long time. More recently, I came back to some classics like Iron Maiden’s first album, and I also went out and bought a couple of Thin Lizzy LPs. With ‘Take Off Your Shirt’, I just got out of bed one day and started rocking out with my guitar. It could easily have been played on different instruments, but because I decided to stick with guitar, it prompted a vocal melody that felt quite Thin Lizzy-esque. In its rhythmic nature, I was actually thinking more along the lines of Alan Braxe or Daft Punk.
Could you tell me a little bit about the limited 12” split you’ve put together with Clark for Record Store Day on April 16th? I get the impression it will be on many people’s wish lists…
We’ve both got huge libraries of tracks, and ‘Willenhall’ was one I had floating around that I really liked. Although I’m not afraid to put different genres together on an album, it felt like something that I wasn’t going to put on album and wasn’t going to put on an EP either. However, I still wanted it to be heard, particularly in a club setting… even if I wouldn’t be there to hear it myself. Chris has obviously got loads like that as well. He sent me the track he already had in mind [‘Baskerville Grinch’] and I thought they worked really well side by side. They’ve both got quite a ‘ghetto’ sound to them, and that’s why I called mine ‘Willenhall’ – it’s the area [of Wolverhampton] where I grew up, which is a pretty rough place.
So will you be collaborating with Clark in the future?
We’re good mates, so we’ve already done some stuff together. Because we’re both full-time musicians, we like to piss about when we meet up. We tend to do more comedy kind of stuff; I’ll play guitar and he’ll sing, for example. There’s even a part of me that thinks there’s a place for that in the future! But to be honest, we’re both really busy with solo projects, so it’s always hard to come together and find the appropriate time to pitch it to Warp. You would think that once you release an album, it’s a weight off your shoulders… but it’s actually when you’re most busy. Especially when you get requests for remixes and live shows.
But despite all of that, you’re a pretty prolific guy. When can we expect more material from you? Do you think that your future output will continue in the same vein as Mind Bokeh, or will there be a slight return to your earlier work?
I’m already thinking of ideas and starting to record stuff for the next album. Ironically, I’ve been playing more acoustic guitar again. I’m really a ‘stage’ person; I go through really long periods of obsessing about the guitar. There’s always overlap, there’s always crossovers, but there’s always a period where I’m really into one thing. I don’t want to force anything and start thinking “Right, I’ve got to do a folk album now”, but certainly at the moment, I’m getting back into the folk influence a little bit more. I suppose it will find its way onto the next album – but that’s going to be a while yet!
Mind Bokeh is out now via Warp Records.