Stephen Wilkinson (aka Bibio) is the latest signing to über-cool label, Warp Records. The 30-year old Wolverhamptonite’s penchant for mixing up guitar-based, electric folk alongside digital bleeps and squeaks effectively lie together on the curiously titled, Ambivalence Avenue.
“It’s not got anything to do with ambivalence in particular, really,” he says somewhat non-committally. “It was triggered off by a weird daydream I had on a coach going down to check out some universities in London. We were travelling down a road similar to that on the front cover with white hotels and trees lining the streets – stuff like that. Obviously, I was approaching a time when I was moving away from home, going to university and though it wasn’t confusion as such…it wasn’t really that in itself that was so important. That was the trigger; and the sensation that accompanied it is what I can’t put my finger on.”
On the first of numerous occurrences during the interview, Wilkinson refers to emotion, and how he uses music as a platform to transmit it to the listener. Outlining the construction of track ‘London Planes‘ (which features on earlier album ‘Fi’ released on Mush), which sees arpeggiated guitars harmoniously entwined, he says, “It had this kind of spirit or vibe that was very particular to the blissful side of London as opposed to the city side. And then a couple of years ago, I was writing a guitar riff and it brought back the same, weird emotions that I get that…like flickering shadows casting through trees in London avenues.” And this “Idyllic, London avenue” is represented on Ambivalence Avenue’s artwork with a character one assumes to be Wilkinson out and about recording ‘found sounds’ for his recordings to thrive on.
Ultimately, though, what Wilkinson wants is for the listener to imbibe a “Summery, nostalgic vibe,” from the track. “Hopefully the lyrics are building blocks to someone else’s imagination – that’s really what I prefer to do. Whereas lyrics put words in people’s heads, instrumental music might more likely paint pictures in people’s heads.”
Strangely enough, title track, ‘Ambivalence Avenue’ put me in mind of an American children’s television programme, one captured by an innocent, retro-styled recording exuding an ineffable charm.
“I think that, not just with that track, but also with the track ‘Lover’s Carvings’ as well, there’s an intention to get a bit of ‘Sesame Street’ in there: where kids play out on basketball courts in this idyllic, blissful Bronx! It was also really influenced by Marcos Valle. The album that really influenced me is ‘Previsão do Tempo’“.
Moving on to talk about specific influences, I asked Wilkinson about the legendary ’70s trio, America, and did they have any significance on the development of Bibio?
“I’ve got a couple of America LPs that I’ve picked up from charity shops and they’re the kind of band I wouldn’t rave on about, but there’s maybe something within their sound that I’m trying to capture. Sometimes, influences aren’t necessarily stuff you listen to; it could be stuff heard as a kid, on films, or on radio – but it’s not necessarily at the forefront of your attention. With someone like Marcos Valle, that was something I was obsessing about”.
On listening to Valle’s recordings, it becomes clear that Wilkinson is not so much trying to recreate styles, but sounds. So who else makes his hit-list?
“Around that time, I was really getting into J-Dilla, MF Doom, Madlib and you can probably hear that in a couple of tracks. ‘Fire Ant’ is very much an ode to Dilla. The chopped-up vocals that you can hear on that track, that really stems from being a Daft Punk fan.” The mention of the French duo sends Wilkinson into hyperdrive as he begins enthusing at great length about their album Homework. “I got it on cassette from the library about a year after it was released and their track ‘High Fidelity’ has got all these chopped-up vocals that don’t make sense. That just blew me away. A lot of the time, people just presume I listen to lots of hip-hop and stuff like that but really, Daft Punk have been in my musical history along with a lot of other mid to late ’90s French House stuff. There’s something in that music that’s got a tinge of melancholy, but also an uplifting feeling.”
That sentiment itself seems to sum up a lot of what Bibio is about, but how does he feel being included amongst Warp’s output which famously features artists like Aphex Twin, Flying Lotus and Two Lone Swordsmen? “It’s a dream come true,” he admits. “I’ve always been a huge fan of the label and I think that I’d have to admit to being influenced by Warp artists than any other label.”
It isn’t just music that spins a heady web over Wilkinson, he also gets his kicks from nature, “It would seem odd to me if anyone didn’t have an interest in nature, because you are nature; you are a part of it. I get a lot of elevation from going somewhere natural, like going camping, going out somewhere wild, climbing mountains. I think my favourite places in the world are river and valleys – places like that which are mossy and green – places that are really psychedelic.”
Drawn in comparison to Wilkinson’s experience of clubbing, roaming England’s green and pleasant land would seem to be his preferred option: “I’m not much of a clubber,” he confesses “I don’t dig everyone gurning and the hot, sweaty, dark environment and spending 30 minutes queuing up to get a can of Red Stripe. I don’t really go to concerts much either…I’m more of a hi-fi person.”
With leanings towards the natural, Wilkinson eschews computer plug-ins in favour of his guitar commenting that “You can sit on the garden with that, it’s quick and accessible”. Most sounds on the album come from outside the computer due to Wilkinson’s continual search to escape the digital, sequenced and rigid. “While I use the computer to record, it’s like an advanced recorder where I can capture things, move them around and edit them. I’m not really a computer-based musician as such.
My music doesn’t have that clean, in-the-box sound: it sounds a bit softer and a bit rounder, production-wise because I use microphones. I’ve got these old tape-recorders that I use to degrade stuff – that’s how I get that sound.”
Unlike contemporaries like Autechre who work solely in-the-box, I was keen to understand how Bibio will be presented live – purely because the music is a mix of a traditional band setup alongside the electronic.
“That’s a good question and it’s one of the problems of electronic music: it’s created with machines as opposed to live manipulation of an instrument. My music is somewhere in-between because some of the tracks aren’t electronic at all, they’re effectively a band recording but with one member. So a future plan is to try and get a band together to make some of my songs happen in the live situation. The important part is to get them sounding right because I spend so much of my time making my music sound a particular way with lots of studio trickery, it’s not often possible to do that live.”
Because of this obstacle, it’s clear that Bibio will not be performing tracks live any time soon. But without live shows, how do you promote a record?
“The live show isn’t going to happen soon as I’ve got a lot to work on, especially if I’m to get a band together: it’s not something you can put together in a week. So for the moment, I’m going to be doing DJ sets just to get out there and get used to it all. I’ve been really enjoying putting this DJ set together – I’m playing a lot of exclusive tracks so it’s not just a case of playing tracks that people have heard. I’m not a DJ, I’m a musician!” he says somewhat cheekily, before going on to explain that he’s already working on his next album.
“I just write music constantly so when it comes to album time, I’ve got lots of tracks to choose from. I don’t sit down and write and album, I just sit down and write tracks. Usually it ends up at 50 tracks by the time I’ve cut it down.” This would explain why Wilkinson doesn’t have the time to learn flamenco guitar or to learn how to be a ‘proper DJ’ using turntables instead of a laptop. And as the nature-loving, analogue-friendly musician points out: “Being on Warp has become a full-time job in itself…”