When Clash attempts to track down Warp producer Bibio just before Christmas we’re met with a number of obstacles. “He’s busy,” we’re told, and we immediately imagine the musician – real name Stephen Wilkinson – ambling around his local shopping centre, weighed down with festive trinkets.
A few days later another email comes through: “He’s watching the snow”.
When we finally get through to the producer, it turns out he’s been doing exactly that: filming the snow as it falls outside his house, down a walkway he sometimes uses to clear his head.
“Yesterday the sky was blue,” he tells us. “It stopped snowing, the sky was pure blue, and it was sunny. When it snows everything is black and white, everything looks monochrome – this was white, blue, and gold… it was lovely, a lovely colourway.”
It’s a beautiful image, but then anyone tangentially familiar with Bibio’s work would be aware of his longing for colour, perhaps spurred by a side interest in photography. It’s something that ripples through on recent fascinating album ‘Phantom Brickworks’, an ambient, highly atmospheric release that could be described both as his newest and oldest record.
“Technically I started it 10 years ago, although it wasn’t really the intention to do that,” he insists. “One day I wanted to set up a mic and a loop pedal next to a piano, and I was just improvising, indulging myself really. It’s something that I do quite often, where I want to have a really minimal set up, not too much clutter, and see what I can get out of one pedal and one instrument. I did a collection of those. Now and again I’ll do it – usually in the Autumn I’ll feel inspired to do that kind of thing.”
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Elements of this approach have segued into prior releases, with Bibio chopping up these pieces to provide colour – there’s that word again – to his dalliances in R&B, glitchy guitar, and murky electronics. ‘Phantom Brickworks’, though, is the first time these impulses have been given full rein, the first time he has demonstrated these techniques in their entirety.
“Over the course of 10 years I gave it a title, started adding tracks, taking tracks off, and it got to the point where there was more than an album’s worth… so I just pushed it until Warp agreed to do it,” he says. “But it was really important to me – I really wanted to get it out there so people could hear it, as there’s something a little frustrating about sitting on music that you personally like and other people don’t get to hear it.”
“This album might seem like a new direction to some people, and other people might recognise elements of it in some of my older work,” he continues. “It depends on how familiar you are with my discography. For me, it’s not really a new thing because obviously I’ve been doing it all this time.”
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It’s very slow music, and it requires a slow approach as well...
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Perhaps Bibio’s most fragrantly beautiful album to date, ‘Phantom Brickworks’ exists truly on its own plane, with the term ‘ambient’ barely covering its heavily improvisatory approach, its languid tempos, tumbling piano notes, sighing vocals, and electronic shades.
“Some of them are literally one take,” he insists. “It’s very slow music, and it requires a slow approach as well. And if you’re kind of going in guns blazing you can smother the essence of it. Some of it is just a loop on a guitar pedal, and I could do a thousand of those and one of them would be a particularly good one. One of them would have a magic that the others don’t have.”
“I kind of draw a parallel with photography in the sense that yes, you can take a technically good photograph, but really what makes a good photograph is that sense of magic. Capturing a moment – whether that’s a moment in human activity, or certain things coming together in a split second… and there’s a parallel there to me, with making this kind of music.”
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Carefully structured yet owing an enormous amount to change, the material on ‘Phantom Brickworks’ writes its own rules as it progresses, with Bibio uncovering fresh techniques simply through the act of performance. “There’s not really a rulebook about what makes a good ambient track, or a good loop,” he contends. “It’s just… does it make me feel a certain way? Does it make me picture something in my head when I listen to it? On a technical level it’s incredibly simple, the way that it was made. And unrepeatable.”
Ambient music has been a recurring fixation of Bibio’s for over a decade, and the producer uses the material as a tool in many ways – indeed, he has spent long hours listening back to these takes, absorbing both the performances and the emotional information they suggest.
He tells Clash: “I listen to it myself – usually at night, when everything has quietened down I like to put my headphones on and listen to it. That’s important to me, to put my headphones on and listen to it for a long time. It can – at least for me – hold up to lots of repeat listens without me getting bored of it. I was quite confident with this album because I’ve listened to it so much that it felt for me like it had longevity.”
Ambient music is usually associated with a certain meditative quality – perhaps due to its ergonomic use in classes in the mindfulness sphere. Actually making it produces a quite different feeling, though, with its slow-paced nature breaking down each emotion into fractured hues and enormously subtle shades.
“I think it can very emotion-based,” he describes, “but you’re dealing with micro-emotions… much more subtle types of emotion. Rather than extreme happiness, or extreme melancholy – there are so many different layers. Even the quality ‘bittersweet’ can have so many different facets to it.”
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I listen to it myself – usually at night, when everything has quietened down...
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“I think when I’m making the music it can be quite meditative because – especially with the loop pedal method - I’m just responding… I’m playing a few notes that go into a cycle, and then I’m listening to it. It’s almost like I’m jamming with another musician. And then I’m responding to what it’s giving back to me. It’s this conversation with a machine, I suppose, that’s happening in real time.”
“When you put down the notes you’re marking down a key in the signature, and then you’re working to see where you can take it, within limitations. That’s the challenge, really,” he states. “The method that I’m using means you can’t have abrupt key changes, you can’t go from major to minor, it’s trying to find melodic pathways. It can start off happy, it can start off sad, to a degree you can shift that as the music builds, becomes more complex, you can shift the emotion. And that becomes the challenge.”
It’s a challenged he’s faced countless times. ‘Phantom Brickworks’ helps close more than a decade of work, and it’s tempting to see that as a wiping clean of the slate. Bibio, however, doesn’t quite agree; in fact, he’s making more and more ambient music everyday, alongside countless other forms. “I’m just writing music all the time,” he says with clear relish. “I’ve got lots of new tracks, unfinished things. And at the moment I’m quite happy with the idea of taking my time over it.”
“So I think that the next album is going to be very different to this – it might have elements of it, but I think it’s going to have more songs, vocals, and electronics. But it’ll just shape itself. I just write music and whichever tracks work together will shape the album. With ‘Phantom Brickworks’ I had an idea of what the album should sound like, whereas something like ‘Ambivalence Avenue’ is a deliberately diverse. So the next album is going to be a bit more diverse, I would have thought.”
And with that Clash leaves him to return to the fields and railway bridges, to the slow-falling snow and to his camera.
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'Phantom Brickworks' is out now.
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