Works Of Contrast: Bibio Explores His Own Catalogue

A moment of reflection with the Warp artist...

Bibio is a singular artist, someone who never consciously repeats himself. A producer, songwriter, guitarist, and tape-wrangler, his work has built into an imposing catalogue, littered with about-turns, surprises, and even the odd pop deviation, too.

2022 became a year of return for Bibio. His own ‘BIB10’ capped of the year – his tenth for Warp Records, it found him tapping into his roots, if only to head towards uncharted waters.

“I like contrast between my albums,” he commented recently. “When I finish an album, I crave doing something different for the next one.”

With ‘BIB10’ now on record shop shelves (and streaming), Clash sat down with Bibio – real name Stephen Wilkinson – to look through his back catalogue, ranging from those early recordings, breakout moments like ‘Ambivalence Avenue’ and beyond.

A fascinating artist, he was unafraid to go deep, revealing a few of his key transformative moments as an artist in the process.

‘Fi’ (2005)

The first time I ever recall feeling nostalgic about anything was when I was a child, I don’t remember what age I was, but an even more distant childhood memory was triggered by a view from a window in my childhood home. In the distance I saw a row of Lombardy Poplar trees. The sight of these trees triggered a previously forgotten memory, which is possibly my earliest memory in life; the memory was of me in a pushchair with a clear plastic rain cover over me, it was the early 80s, it was raining, my mom was taking us somewhere.

On our way to wherever we were going, we went past a row of Lombardy Poplar trees, they took on an imposing but comforting character, like they were protectors (actually they’re often planted as windbreaks). I remember feeling blissful in my bubble, protected from the elements, listening to the crackle of the rain on the plastic and seeing the wet streets slightly blurred and obscured through the beads of rain, it was like I was being shown around as a tourist in suburban neighbourhoods, this was my moment, one to be cherished as I was soon to grow out of this privilege.

Fast forward around 20 years from that time in the pushchair and I’m sitting on the floor in my student house in Oakwood, North London with a digital delay pedal, a Stratocaster and a MiniDisc recorder. I was recording improvised melodic loops that evolved gradually over time, notes were added to a loop bit by bit and notes faded out and crumbled into grain. At the back of this house was a long garden, and at the back of the garden was a row of Lombardy Poplars, which separated our garden from the Piccadilly line’s rail tracks.

The combination of this musical piece and the view of the Poplars brought back both of those childhood memories, a double nostalgia. To this day, the track remains my personal favourite from ‘Fi’ and the one which sums up the feeling of the album most potently.

‘Hand Cranked’ (2006)

After finishing University and leaving London in 2003, I moved back to Wolverhampton. It wasn’t something I particularly wanted to do, but I also knew I didn’t want to live in London. These were the limbo years, not knowing what I was going to do with my life or what I was going to do with a degree in Sonic Arts. The one thing that remained a constant was that I wanted to make music, ideally that’s all I wanted to do, but this was the Black Country, and generally people don’t make music for a job.

So in the spare time around part time jobs, I recorded music with what little equipment I had. Around this time I was spending a lot of time with my friend Richard Roberts, and we’d often hang out in the day time and play guitar together or go for walks, sometimes even taking guitars on our walks. We also worked in a pub together and would often take our guitars so we could jam after closing the bar, accompanied by fine English ales and Scotch single malt whiskies.

‘Marram’, however, was recorded in Rich’s parents’ living room while they were at work. We used two samplers and two nylon string guitars and a tin whistle. The bird song is a slowed down recording of Skylarks which I recorded in the dunes of Ynyslas beach in mid Wales, the track gets its name from the Marram grass which tufts the dunes.

During the recording of this track, we went into the loft of Rich’s parents’ house and brought down a 1970s Sanyo “music centre” as they were called then. Basically a turntable/cassette/radio unit with separate speakers. We transferred what we’d recorded on the samplers onto cassette using the Sanyo and it had an incredible warm grainy sound (we were like connoisseurs of cassette back then), part of the sound was also the veneered speakers, we tried a few ways of digitising the cassette transfer, including miking up the speakers, but we ended up using a coil pickup (the kind used on telephones to record conversations) by placing it next to the speaker cone and re-captured what we’d transferred to the cassette.

It’s kind of futile to try to describe the emotional nuances of music, but the track has a certain type of melancholy, which I find addictive.

‘Vignetting The Compost’ (2009)

‘Vignetting the Compost’ should have been released years before 2009, but for reasons out of my control its release was massively delayed. So it might seem odd that I released ‘VTC’ and ‘Ambivalence Avenue’ in the same year. The truth is, they were made at very different times in my career and my head was in different places when I made each album.

‘Vignetting’ was very much a continuation of ‘Hand Cranked’ in its overall lo-fi sound and using some of the same gear and techniques as ‘Hand Cranked’, but it was more ambitious. ‘Hand Cranked’ was a deliberately simple album, an aesthetic partly inspired by antique wind up toys and Zoopraxiscopes. ‘Vignetting…’ contained some of those elements but was more complex, it had more layering and in parts was intended to feel like sequences of disjointed dreams and memories, or vignettes.

Before and during this album, I was reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass, and some of the themes and philosophies he wrote about had an impact on my artistic vision, particularly the poems about the seamless cycles of life and death. I remember walking down the road on a sunny day when the idea of the front cover came into my head, almost complete.

The song ‘Mr & Mrs Compost’ features in this scene, painted as a vignette by Arezoo Robinson. The song tells a fictional story, firstly setting a scene of lethargically walking through farmland in the baking heat of summer, then it talks about a local legend of a couple buried beneath a tree along with their dog. Another ‘feature’ of this song is that I sang it while I had a cold, so my voice sounds different to how it usually sounds, but I embraced this at the time.

‘Ambivalence Avenue’ (2009)

‘Ambivalence Avenue’ was the start of something new for me, not just because it was the album that got me signed to Warp Records (a dream I had since my early 20s), but it was also an era of new discovery as a producer.

With this album I felt like I had made some leaps in production techniques that I didn’t previously know how to achieve, this had a snowball effect because this was a very prolific period and each song on ‘Ambivalence Avenue’ felt like a new discovery, but discoveries about myself and what I was capable of. During this period I was surprising myself regularly. Despite this being a new chapter in my life as a producer, I hadn’t turned my back on my previous signature sound, it’s just that I wanted to find new ways of incorporating what I had built before into something new, and allowing myself to stray into exploring new sounds, new instruments and new styles of production and songwriting.

‘Haikuesque…’ feels like it has some of the DNA of my earlier works but feels very much like a song that represents this new era, the combination of tape saturated warbled guitar along with drums and synths, and of course vocals, which became more of a prominent feature on this album and the albums that followed.

‘Haikuesque…’ is also an anomaly among my songs, not because of how it sounds but because of how it was written. When I write lyrics, they almost always come after I write and record the music. I usually make an instrumental and then sing random things over the top hoping that something will come out that starts the foundations of a verse or chorus. With ‘Haikuesque…’, it was the opposite. At the time I used to carry a notebook with me, and I was attempting to write haikus. The correct syllable count in haikus is 5, 7, 5, but I’d mistakingly remembered a haiku as 3, 7, 5.

Anyway, I had built up a collection of haiku-esque poems in this notebook, sometimes scribbling them down on train journeys, and then at a later date sang them over an instrumental I had recorded, although that wasn’t the version that made it to the album, that came later. So there are two very different versions of this song.

The line about “when she laughs, the piano in the hall, plays a quiet note” refers to my girlfriend who has a loud laugh, and at times it might cause a string to resonate inside the piano. The same piano that she played as a child and the same piano that’s been on most of my albums, it’s moved house with us twice so far and will no doubt follow us to the next.

‘Mind Bokeh’ (2011)

After making ‘Ambivalence Avenue’ and feeling it was a success and a well-received album, my confidence in experimenting with genres had been boosted. I still though of myself predominantly as a guitarist, but I was exploring synths and samplers more and wanted more synthetic sounds in my productions. ‘Excuses’ feels like an evolution of some of the techniques I explored on the more electronic moments on ‘Ambivalence Avenue’, but this time it was more of the foundation of the whole song.

I had a “fist in the air” moment when making this track, originally I had sequenced a much faster drum pattern on my MPC. I was churning up the sound of the drum machine by feeding the MPC into the audio input on my Yamaha CS-10 synth, which allowed me to jam with the filters and LFOs on the synth to modulate the sound, but it also sounded particularly good when I drove the input hard allowing it to distort in the synth’s audio circuitry. All of this was being captured to tape on my Nagra IV-S reel to reel, then when I rewound the tape so I could transfer the captured jam into my computer, I decided to hear what it would sound like played at half-speed (that was the fist in the air moment). That laid down the foundations of the track, and the rest followed.

I didn’t use this technique again on the album… I often want each track on an album to have its own thing and for the album not to repeat itself throughout, so it’s all over the place genre-wise, but that’s another facet of experimentation in my mind – the juxtaposing of styles.

‘Silver Wilkinson’ (2013)

A pattern that has emerged in my album making is that I like to do something different each time, there’s almost a day/night thing going on, this craving usually starts before I’ve finished each album. To me, ‘Mind Bokeh’ explored a more brightly coloured pop sound, bold melodies and sound and upfront vocals. After that album came a desire to delve into an impressionistic and somewhat psychedelic sound, revisiting folk elements and also winding the energy down some (with the exception of tracks like ‘You’ and ‘Business Park’).

When I think of ‘Silver Wilkinson’, I think of pretty, overlapping tones and textures in muted colours, much like the album artwork. ‘Dye The Water Green’ is probably one of the most obvious example of this “impressionistic” production approach, there are definite melodic lines, but the overall sound is grainy, murky, the layers dissolve into each other like a sun-dappled forest path in spring as seen my Monet or Renoir.

The song started out as a memo recording on my phone, just the main guitar part which repeats throughout the song up to the coda. I remember transferring this phone recording to my computer and labelling the file “DO SOMETHING WITH THIS”. I can’t say what or how, but I heard potential in that understated riff, and that was very much the vibe of the song and some of the album, I wanted to explore an understated beauty – soft, muted, dappled and light but also having depth and emotional substance.

I remember some of the stages of how this song developed, such as the drone that runs throughout, which was a sine tone generator recorded to an endless cassette, but where I’d removed the erase head from the recorder, allowing the tone to record over itself sveeral times, there was a concept with this technique that I was fascinated by, but how it turned out was haunting and unexpected. 

‘A Mineral Love’ (2016)

As I said before, I already start to crave doing something different when I’m finishing an album, already thinking ahead to the next. A Mineral Love was a return to the more polished pop sound of Mind Bokeh but perhaps exploring some more traditional approaches. It’s another varied album, so it’s hard to really sum it up as one sound. For example ‘Wren Tails’ could have sat comfortably on any of my earlier albums, and tracks like ‘Feeling’ and ‘C’est La Vie’ retain much of the grain of my tape-saturated signature sound, but there was new territory being explored on ‘A Mineral Love’.

This album was the first time I’d properly collaborated with another artist, in this case Olivier St Louis (AKA Olivier Daysoul). Olivier feels very much a part of my journey now and this album was just the start of it, he’s also been an influence on myself as a singer. The album closer ‘Light Up The Sky’ probably demonstrates this, and feels like a good cross section of this album’s vibe, it has the more polished pop sound that I was striving for with this album but still retaining the warmth and human touch from using real and analogue instruments, such as Clavinet, baritone guitar and analogue synthesizers. 

‘Phantom Brickworks’ (2017)

‘Phantom Brickworks’ is a project that ran alongside my other albums for many years, it technically started around 2006/2007 but there is material on the album going back to my Sonic Arts experiments in 2002 while at uni. I’ve been making improvised loops for a long time, it’s a meditative process that is like having a conversation with yourself, it draws something out in a very immediate yet gradual and continuous way. There were a few different disciplines used on this album; sampling records and splicing tape loops with a razor blade, improvised piano and guitar pieces made with a digital delay pedal (the same approach as with ‘Poplar Avenue’ from ‘Fi’), some other sampling techniques and also a single-take live performance (‘Capel Bethania’).

The album title gets its name from the title track ‘Phantom Brickworks’, which really marks the start of this project. The title track gets its name from visiting a country park after decent snowfall around 2006/2007, I’d gone there to record snowy sounds, cracking ice and the sound of skimming stones across a frozen pond. I’d gone there equipped with a mono microphone and my favourite 1960s cassette recorder. I remember walking out into a wide open field and listened to the distant sounds of families chattering and kids playing in the snow, muffled by the snow covered surroundings.

When I got home and started to digitise the cassette recordings, I noticed industrial sounds in the background. I was aware that adjacent to the park was a brickworks, but I always assumed it was defunct, so this gave me an idea that I’d captured some kind of phantom activity of the brickworks (obviously this was just a fantasy, the brickworks was still running until shortly after I’d made those recordings).

Around that time I had recorded an improvised piano, viola and lap-harp piece in the hallway of my girlfriend’s parents’ house (the same piano and hall as “the piano in the hall, plays a quiet note”) using delay pedals and a reel to reel tape machine. I recall playing the piece back at half speed and loved the grainy and murky sound. The snowy field recordings were added to this slow-mo piece and it was titled ‘Phantom Brickworks’. It wasn’t a new technique, but it was one of the first times I’d used this technique with these instruments, and for this reason it started to feel like it was a project of its own.

I continued to make music in this vein over the years, often in autumn, and eventually I persuaded Warp to release it. It’s a really important part of who I am as an artist, so I was very keen to share it with the world. There will be more of this to come, I have a lot of it.

‘Ribbons’ (2019)

As ‘Phantom Brickworks’ was an album that developed slowly alongside my other studio albums, I don’t think of ‘Ribbons’ as a follow up to ‘Phantom…’, but rather a follow up to ‘A Mineral Love’. Ribbons was the contrast I craved after finishing A Mineral Love, in fact before I even finished A Mineral Love I had urges to return to the folk sound. It’s not that ‘Ribbons’ is purely a folky album, because there are exceptions as always (‘Before’ and ‘Old Graffiti’ for example), in fact none of my albums since ‘Ambivalence Avenue’ (apart from ‘Phantom Brickworks’) are purely anything, so summing each album as a specific genre feels more like an unfair generalisation, or a bias weighted towards a few core tracks, and different listeners have different ideas of what those core tracks are.

However, ‘Ribbons’ was made in the spirit of wanting to return to a more folky sound, so there was a deliberate emphasis on seeking out the tones of acoustic instruments more, synths came more in the form of the 60s psych sound of Mellotrons, and electric guitars took on a more woody timbre (such as the archtop jazz guitar tone of ‘Beret Girl’). ‘Ribbons’ was an attempt to somehow fuse lo-fi and hi-fi, leaning on 60s production aesthetics more than ‘A Mineral Love’. I wanted this album to sound grainy and tapey, but also rich and full. I also explored some new techniques on this album, one of which was the manipulation of my vocals to sound like chanting children in the track ‘Erdaydidder-Erdiddar’, which has a bit of a split personality day/night/day/night vibe to the structure. As well as creating a percussion track out of sampled footsteps, I also brought a spare oak door into my studio and knocked on it with my knuckles in time to the track. Apart from making my knuckles sore, this was one of the more experimental and fun tracks to make.

The title is a question and answer (sans question mark), but in a Black Country dialect. It came from an anecdote an old friend told me, I liked how it sounded and I liked how most of the world wouldn’t know what it meant, and the title seemed to work with the split personality nature of the song.

‘BIB10’ (2022)

Again, a contrasting departure from ‘Ribbons’, this time returning to a more electrified and polished sound, probably the most “pop” album so far. Acoustic guitar makes a cameo appearance on this album (‘Phonograph’) as the focus (and obsession) was with electric guitars. As I’ve already pointed out, each album is almost like a response to what came before, but it seemed fitting that my cravings for this album would mark the 10th album milestone, because this is the album where I wanted to go more upbeat and even create some danceable pieces.

It was a pretty difficult album to make in parts, as I was probably at my most meticulous and perfectionist (although I’ve never thought of myself as a perfectionist). There was less room for sloppiness on this album, it was intentionally tighter sounding, it’s a more controlled album in many ways, more structured, it’s the hardest I’ve pushed myself as a vocalist, as I had to train myself more than usual to achieve some of the styles on this album. It’s also the first time I’ve teamed up with Olivier St Louis since ‘The Serious EP’, so it definitely has some connections to ‘A Mineral Love’ and ‘The Serious EP’, and that was intentional, but I wanted to take this into new territory again.

‘S.O.L.’ was the track I always wanted to make, but like most of my tracks, it started out in the usual way – I picked up a guitar, I stumbled upon a riff that gave me ideas, I recorded it, I made demo versions, I changed the tempo, I messed around with it until it was heading in the right direction. A bass line followed and then drums and lyrics and vocals.

This song was written by myself and originally I’d intended Olivier to be a backing vocalist on this track, but then I soon realised that I’m the one who should be singing backing vocals to him, so I mixed him up front as the lead vocalist. It was a fun track to make and dance to as it went through various stages of production, the bass line gave me blisters but that’s partly because I just enjoyed playing it on repeat, and of course I must mention the slick guitar solo from Isaiah Sharkey, I sent him the instrumental and a couple of solo references and specified a type of guitar and tone and he smashed it.

Photo Credit: Matt Peers

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