The law of the sea can strike itself as an apt metaphor for the ebb and flow of a defiantly inconstant music industry; the push and pull of the ocean tides, the ever-evolving cycle below, the bitter taste of the salt-spiked air, undercurrents of groove bringing home tales from the mainland…
The grey swathed sky blankets the south coast like a silent sigh, as a quietly progressive Catamaran breaks it way through Portsmouth’s waters towards the Isle Of Wight. Progression can be deceptive as the pull of the ocean is lost to the gentle hum of the interior. Greeting Clash on-land, the isolation is hardly lost to six-piece native band The Bees as they stand side by side on a shingled shoreline just minutes from the Victorian seaside town of Ventnor, backs on open skies.
We’ve got a high threshold of what’s good. Influences come from everything.
Two local boys on rollerblades stop to take in the peculiar sight of professional cameras at work: eyes widening at each flash. “Who are you?” they yell out to muffled laughter below, “are you a metal band?” Anonymity seems to suit The Bees down to a tee. After all, disguises can themselves, be a blessing in disguise…
“I will always say that it’s the environment and living on the Isle Of Wight and being near our friends and family is our biggest influence,” one sixth of the Bees collective muses from beneath his jet black cowboy hat. “It’s good to get back to the sea,” the harmonies sing on new record ‘Octopus.’ Back to the sea is exactly where the band have returned. Just as their Isle stands defiant against the pull of conformity, so the philosophy is passed down from land to land-dweller. The Bees strike individuality in their deep understanding of where they come from, and where indeed they would like to be.
“That was definitely influenced by The Band,” Paul enthuses over a pint as we wander down a winding country lane towards the Crab And Lobster, a simple stone’s throw away from band members’ Paul and Aaron’s dwellings. “They were a revelation – their whole ethos. The whole industry changed but they stuck to their guns and did what they did. We want to do it like that. It’s a good affirmation of what we feel.” The organic surroundings of the isle seem to seep into every pore of the creative process for all concerned. Defiance is a sea song, and all six members are blood-tied to its sound. Talking of the veritable pull of the music industry, bassist and vocalist Aaron “Fletch” Fletcher pinpoints the divide perfectly. “They place all their eggs in a star basket. They want a star. And we look at our great influential bands – it’s never about one person ever. But that’s something that the label doesn’t encourage. Because they want it simple.” Paul picks up the baton as he concludes thoughtfully: “Money is always the destroyer at the end of that day.” Pausing slightly he reaches for his pint. “That, or a bad drug habit…” to laughter all round.
The complexities of the music industry seem a far cry from the humble beginnings of the band in a carefully constructed shed in vocalist Paul’s parents’ back garden. The story began with Paul Butler and Aaron Fletcher, and with a small scale debut album ‘Sunshine Hit Me’ in 2002 which took both the UK and the boys themselves by complete surprise. “The album totally shocked us,” Fletch explains over his late afternoon pint, “it had a bit more claim than we imagined. We didn’t expect anything. We got the Mercury nomination, that was a big motivational boost.” An unassuming Citroen advert took track ‘Minha Menina’ to new kaleidoscopic heights: a whirling tropicalia mixture of harmonies and melody that spurred Aaron to produce his own version of Portugese for the track: Fletchagese. The sudden popularity of the band’s multi-cultural sound prompted a plethora of men in suits, all desperate to sign them up to a major label. As Paul describes, “We’d been on a label previously, which had got a bit messy. When we got signed by Virgin, we literally signed a contract, did a gig for them and then went to Abbey Road the next day.”
The giant leap from shed to studio was complete as the islanders found themselves in the most famous recording studio in the world, which naturally breathes a sound all of its own making. The album produced was aptly named ‘Free The Bees’ in 2004. The question to be asked is whether The Bees ever found the living breathing history of Abbey Road a handicap, in the sense of making individual island music? What seems evident is that the professionalism of the space certainly seeped into the pace of the record, creating an energised collection of songs at break-neck speed. “Time’s more important in a big studio like that, cause it’s got to be done and you’ve only got a certain amount of time to do it,” keyboardist Tim Parkin muses quietly. “Whereas when you’re at home, you’ve got more time to sit back, reflect and think: is this good? But if you’re under studio time, you’ve gotta have it done quite quickly, and that can forcibly make things go quite faster.” For Fletch, the time spent at Abbey Road gave them a whole new insight into the fascinating world of recording equipment and production techniques. “We are really into how to record,” he enthuses, “so going to Abbey Road was like a goldmine – the greatest living equipment there is.”
Their collective passion for the raw unpredictability of music is palpable. As the band take Clash back to Paul and Aaron’s house, their shared love of musicianship lies within the woodwork. Quite literally. Part of the adventure of life in a band are the mysteries that lie beneath each new instrument they pick up. No piece of woodwind is off-limits, and every stringed device is a land left to pluck. As Fletch walks me down to their basement, Tim Parkin warms up his trumpet in the kitchen above as the kettle boils. The brass sounds rise and fall through the brickwork. Winding down beneath the floorboards, acres of pine caress the walls and floors like flora and fauna around the room. Outward appearances of a Scandinavian sauna soon sparked the boys to jokingly refer to it as The Steamroom, quickly filling the cocooned space with vintage instruments, amps and recording equipment. It is a fitting blend of The Shed of the past, and the inevitable glamour of their Abbey Road future. As Paul shows Clash the sights, their own description of a “botched shed” seem far away from the reality of what they have achieved beneath their living quarters. Paul Butler sits down and reaches for a strikingly ornate sitar propped up in the corner of the room, before plucking away like an incarnate George Harrison as we discuss his love of Ravi Shankar and Alice Coltrane. His fearlessness of the unknown permeates through the work of The Bees. On new track ‘The Ocularist’ alone, he picked up the cello and the sitar for the first time and conquered them both like a seasoned pro. “I think if you can make a noise out of an instrument, you can play it,” he philosophises perfectly as notes and sounds flutter past us, settling up in the rafters above. When told about the over-riding respect contemporary bands feel for The Bees, Paul looks visibly touched with the unexpected accolade. Asked to pinpoint the reason why they seem to have become the musician’s band, Fletch steps to the rescue. “They’ve never met us,” he deadpans.
The Band were a revelation – their whole ethos. The whole industry changed but they stuck to their guns and did what they did. We want to do it like that.
Five years on and all six members of The Bees seem more than ready to release their third album ‘Octopus’, due to be unleashed on 19th March on Virgin Records. The record is a true return to form for the band: a thirst-quenching cocktail of sights and sounds that coil and unravel to a myriad of eclectic influences. No genre is left unturned, and the result is a joy to the eardrums. For the band, the aim is simple: “As long as it’s good. We’ve got a high threshold of what’s good. Influences come from everything.” Each track spirals from a different point. Non-conformity takes on a life of its own as opening track ‘Who Cares What The Question Is?’ signalled by a lone Texan guitar riff, it dives straight into a Ringo-inspired Beatles melody full of humour. A change in direction for The Bees is in their exploration of West Coast California sounds, perfectly suited to their Pet Sounds harmonies. Whereas ‘Love In The Harbour’ pony treks into being through Buffalo Springfield harmonies, submerging itself in the sound of Neil Young and Harvest; ‘(This Is For The) Better Days’ grooves into a thoroughly Stephen Stills Manassas sensibility. The 70s funk riff and beats reverberate to a cruising pace all of their own making.
“I think everyone here is a fan of Neil Young,” Fletch represents for the group. “Me and Chris were in the kitchen one day and we came up with that little riff, and we just jammed it out.” As the band are quick to joke, “we needed some country.” Whereas ‘Listening Man’ slows the pace to a laid back Reggae footprint, fellow tracks ‘Stand’ and ‘Left Foot Stepdown’ bathe themselves energetically in Spanish Siesta inspired trumpets and Latino rhythms, always underpinned by dub-reggae beats. Delving further into the record and ‘Got To Let Go’ unveils a sensational jazz trumpet solo of Miles Davis inspired proportions. It is a true revelation in sound: unravelling from nowhere and smouldering the track. Each musical venture oozes an organic live feel. “There’s a lot of jamming,” Fletch explains as we discuss the process of writing a record. “If anyone has an idea, we’ll all snap onto it. That’s the ethos really: loads of trial and error.” Standout favourite for the band is unanimously ‘The Ocularist’, a true achievement in writing and production. Gentle 70s travelling guitars trickle over a ghostly sitar, aching back to the mysticism of hero Ravi Shankar. It is here that the connection between nature and song is truly met: calming harmonies move rhythmically like the tides of the sea as landscape naturally seeps through the track. “That’s a magic track,” they all assert, “that’s our favourite track.”
As an entity, the record stretches its eight arms across every musical category and squeezes from it every last drop. To ask, why Octopus? The response is quickly reversed. “Why The Bees?” And so the ethos is set…
So far from the mainland, the need for questions quickly evaporates along with the constantly shape shifting air, diluting itself in the rock pools below, fading away and out with the tides. The music transcends all of these things, because it is all these things: an island unto itself…