Bibio on Nostalgia, Guitars, Perfume, Group Chats, and Chasing the Dream of the Real

Bibio on Nostalgia, Guitars, Perfume, Group Chats, and Chasing the Dream of the Real
Photo by Steven Wilkinson

This is a free post from Larry Fitzmaurice's Last Donut of the Night newsletter. Paid subscribers also receive two Baker's Dozen playlists every week, along with music criticism around the music contained within. If you are a paid subscriber and have not received the playlists in some time, please reach out to me at larry.fitzmaurice@gmail and we can get you sorted.

Something I've always admired in Bibio's Steven Wilkinson is his willingness to really dig in to several established styles he's worked in over the years. He's astoundingly trend-averse, which is impressive enough in the world of music at large but especially in the always-versatile arena of electronic music. He's got a new EP out this week, Sunbursting, and after a long time of admiring from afar I sent over some questions to Steven to answer—including why he is reluctant to do phone/voice-based interviews, something I'm always non-judgmentally curious about when it comes to musicians. I thought his answers were great and fascinating, hope you will too:

What's some of the music that you grew up listening to? How did it shape your own development as a musician?
Early on it was rock and metal, which led to the desire to learn guitar. Then, in my late teens and early 20s, I was really into electronic music, particularly the Warp catalogue at the time. I didn’t have any decent gear, but I had a guitar and a very primitive sampler, so I relied on those to come up with my own thing.

Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint was a key influence in my early works. Even though Electric Counterpoint was made up of multitracked guitars and bass guitar, the structure and arrangement and overall sound appealed to my love of electronic music at the time — it was so far away from guitar-music and guitar clichés, in my mind. I didn’t have the means to multitrack to that extent, but what I could do was layer short melodic phrases and experiment with displacing them against each other and reversing parts.

I was also interested in experimenting with time signatures. These early experiments were lo-fi and recorded with cheap equipment — and as my sampler had no storage, I had to mix a track and wipe the memory before moving onto something, so I’d make rough loop-based tunes. My sampler also didn’t do quantising, so the loops were triggered by hand and there were timing imperfections. When I had finished a track, I’d record the result to cassette and wipe the sampler’s memory ready for the next tune. This was around 1999-2000, and that’s when I felt like I had come up with a sound of my own, partly serendipitously as I was kind of striving for something more produced, but I stumbled upon something worth exploring further.

The lo-fi aesthetic then became more deliberate, and as I expanded my gear inventory and got better quality gear, I found new ways of incorporating the lo-fi sound into my productions, which were becoming more elaborate and wider bandwidth. Now, I’m very well equipped, but I’m always striving for a warm and analogue sound, and lo-fi still has its place in there — sometimes as a lo-fi element within a bigger more polished overall sound.

What have the last several years been like for you in general, both during lockdown and post-lockdown?
My life didn’t change dramatically during lockdown because I work from home and live in a small village with nothing happening. I spend most of my time at home and in my studio. It was a fairly surreal time — but, then, it was for everybody, and that’s partly what made it surreal. It was strange not being able to socialize, and I felt like I was a bit late re-entering society when rules started to relax.

I don’t watch the news or read papers or listen to the radio. I’ll read stuff online during a crisis, but I deliberately cut myself off from a lot of mainstream culture and media, so when people were starting to go out more, I resisted a bit at first, because I couldn’t imagine what it was like out there. Once I did it, it was fine and not really that weird at all. I think I was expecting to find bars and restaurants to have the vibe of partitioned pop-up hospitals with weird queuing systems, but it was actually pretty normal.

Although Covid has done a lot of damage, it was also a stark reminder that a more brutal virus could have ended humanity, so there was a fair amount of time for reflection on the fragility of humanity and our civilizations.

Since the world's opened up again, have you noticed any changes in your personality or the way in which you make art?
I think about this from time to time — not specifically how it’s affected my personality, but people in general. I don’t know if I’m making false observations, but I’ve had this nagging thought that people are less sociable now, having spent 2 years getting used to not seeing each other. But I think technology is also a factor. Older generations often accuse kids and teenagers as spending too much time in their bedrooms and doing most of their interacting in a virtual manner, and although I think that’s true compared to how kids lived their lives decades ago, it’s also true that technology has had the same impact on older generations.

I think things like Whatsapp group chats have replaced physical meetups more. Maybe it’s because, subconsciously, we feel like we’ve spent time with friends, so we let time pass by without actually catching up in person. The pandemic probably saw a huge increase in group chats as people couldn’t meet up, and it would be easier to manage people in groups rather than lots of individuals, so maybe that’s residual from the pandemic. What concerns me more now is that sharing social media links is sometimes replacing conversation, but that’s a whole other rant.

I'd love to have you talk about your relationship with the guitar as an instrument. It features so prominently throughout your work, and you have the ability to make a guitar sound beautiful in a way that many do not.
Thank you. Yes, it’s my main instrument, although not my first (keyboard was). But I pursued guitar much further, and much more intimately. I never studied music formally and I’m self-taught, so I don’t have a lot of music theory in me, but I do have over 30 years of playing in my fingers, so with that comes a lot of nuance and feeling. I’m actually pretty obsessed with guitars as instruments and objects, they’re like sculptures. I’m also obsessed with tone, so I’ve been working on that for a long time.

I’ve thought more about guitar in recent years and how expressive an instrument it is. It doesn’t have the polyphony of a piano, but it’s so much more tactile than a lot of other instruments. A huge range of tones can be got from how you use your fingers or a pick — the position and location on the strings, you can bend and slide notes and play legato, you can very easily and instantly change the timbre by touch alone, you can use it percussively and mute strings, and then there are all of these sort of "artifacts" or ghost note-type sounds, string squeaks for example. And all of that is before you even go into the world of amplifiers and effects pedals.

I read that Sean Booth from Autechre said something like “The piano… separates the artist from the strings.” I can disagree with that if I wanted to, but I also see his point, especially if you talk about the piano in the context of what I just said about how tactile a guitar is. A piano has this mechanical interface between the pianist and the sound it produces, so it takes your hands away from all of these other sonic possibilities with a piano — although you could just lift the lid, stick your hands in, and do what the hell you want.

But I’m certainly not criticizing the piano, or any instrument for that matter. I absolutely do not believe in any hierarchy in any form of musical instruments. An artist works with the capabilities and limitations of any instrument, and the piano offers something the guitar doesn’t and vice versa. Every instrument offers something unique, and as a producer I think you should value something as basic as a triangle as much as any other instrument as they can all make or break a track. There are many instruments that aren’t capable of polyphony (unless you want to get pedantic and talk about split harmonics), such as the saxophone, the flute, and the trumpet — yet, all of those instruments can be very expressive.

But maybe what made the guitar so popular is that it’s polyphonic, it’s portable, you don’t need to plug it in (even an electric guitar is playable without plugging it in), it has a wide range of notes, and they (well some of them) look cool as fuck. Let’s be honest about that — the way guitars look is part of their appeal. I think Robert Smith said something about him not being a guitarist, he just likes how they look, and he’s obviously being modest because his contribution to guitar-based music is very significant.

But that’s another great thing about guitar, especially the world of electric guitars and distortion and FX — you don’t need to be a virtuoso to make a statement or a new contribution to the world, it’s such a versatile and expressive instrument that it can be interesting when used in a raw or simple way. Good ideas and a good ear for emotional content within music, in my opinion, are more important than virtuosity, as much as I can respect musicians who get to that level, because it takes a lot of dedication and practice, I think the world needs both and everything in between.

What are your recent listening habits? Who are some new(-ish) artists that you've found yourself drawn to?
I listen to a lot of old music, when I say old I mean recorded 1940s-present (and hundreds of years further back if you include baroque), so a lot of my listening isn’t made up of new releases or new artists, but I suppose any new discovery regardless of when it was recorded is new to the listener. I started using Spotify this year with the intention of hunting for new music, but as I mentioned earlier I don’t listen to the radio, and it’s partly because I don’t have the patience to listen to loads of stuff I hate in the hope I’ll find something I like, which also applies to Spotify playlists. So I haven’t actually been discovering that much on it, because when I do hear something I like, I tend to keep going back to it and stop searching for a bit.

A couple of artists I got into some years back are Óskar Guðjónsson and Skúli Sverrisson. They’re not very recent discoveries of mine. but I’ve got quite transfixed on some of their work, particularly an album they made together called The Box Tree. It was one of those albums that’s been played a lot in my household for some years, so I consider it a significant discovery. Skúli has also done some amazing solo albums, one I like in particular is called Seria II. He also made an album in 2022 with a Swedish multi-instrumentalist called Gustaf Ljunggren called Floreana — there's some particularly gorgeous ambient pedal steel guitar on there. All of those artists have a wonderful ear for melody, mood, texture and tone. I was delighted to have Óskar play on “Sunbursting.”

Your music conjures a strong sense of nostalgia for listeners — I'd love to hear your thoughts on nostalgia's convergence with popular culture, and how you see it playing a role in your own creative energy.
I’ve read different comments from artists who are known to dabble in nostalgia and it’s interesting reading their thoughts. I tend to agree with them. Nostalgia, for me, isn’t about retro — it isn’t about “Remember the good old days?” or “Remember when we used to have/wear/use these?”. That’s retro, or retromania. Nostalgia is a feeling, one that is linked with sadness or longing.

I think some people are turned off by nostalgia in principle because they equate it to living in the past, or thinking backwards. I don’t think of it like that. I think of it as a fascinating and powerful emotion that is unique to everyone who experiences it. I’m fascinated with how it can be induced and how the ways it can be induced will vary from era to era and generation to generation. I was of the generation that grew up with '70s/'80s Sesame Street and grainy wildlife documentaries on TV, so I was particularly sensitive to what Boards of Canada were doing with their references back in the late '90s and early 2000s. I’m curious how it will be perceived by younger generations who didn’t grow up with those references, because BoC are certainly getting new waves of fans. Maybe nostalgia transcends references, it must.

I think Daniel Lopatin talked of nostalgia as a “false memory” — I quite like that perspective, although I probably wouldn’t use the term “false." I also prefer to stray away from nostalgia being referred to as a “rose-tinted” view on the past — that suggests nostalgia has to be this warm, fuzzy feeling, when in fact it can be kind of painful, like an aching. Are our brains wired to recognize melancholy in music because we are immortal and aware of the transience of life, beauty, and youth? Is there something inherently bittersweet about the universe and it’s encoded in music?

Apart from the long-lasting effects that trauma can have on an individual, I think that it’s fascinating how, during the present, we can easily dwell on negatives and anxieties and not be present. Yet, they fade over time and our more distant memories can be more beautiful, as all of the pointless worries and anxieties have dissolved and the positives of the memories have survived, free of their ball-and-chains that prevented us from appreciating them fully at the time. So, looking back on them many years later, they could be considered as somewhat falsified, and because we can look back and think that they were simpler, more innocent, and more beautiful times, we can then develop a sense of longing or sadness for their unreachable nature. We can desire to escape to them but we can never get there, and there’s something addictive about that.

I’m somewhat addicted to inducing those emotions without really reminiscing. It’s like the feeling of remembering something without the memory, and that works beautifully with music because my nostalgia is not the nostalgia of my listeners — yet the nostalgic qualities of the music has an effect on other people, it travels. There are certainly some sonic features that help with this, such as graininess and tape warble, but for me that has to be done very carefully and sensitively, otherwise it can go into tacky “remember the good old days?” territory. For this reason, I stick to using analogue tape and celluloid film for when I want that sound and that look as opposed to emulations — the subtleties are essential.

I tend to think of the nostalgia thing and the aesthetics associated with it as being related to dreams and dreaminess — not specifically in an ambient floaty way, but in a vague, blurred, vignetted kind of way. Artists like Monet obviously tapped into this, like he was painting scenes through the lens of a distant memory. I’m also fascinated by the olfactory experiments and expressions of perfumery, and I’ve sometimes thought that if I wasn’t a musician, being a perfumer would be an interesting life. They’re often very much behind-the-scenes people, like film directors and music producers, yet a small number of perfumers are responsible for many global hits without their names ever being on the bottle. I tend to prefer more niche fragrances, and it’s not about trying to resemble nature, even though perfumes are often referencing natural smells — they can be more like impressionistic paintings, in that they evoke a sense of a place or space through blurred or exaggerated or altered strokes or "notes."

There’s a key French perfumer, Jean-Claude Ellena, and during a documentary he said “I don’t like to copy the reality… I don’t care a damn about the reality, because the illusion is more beautiful, it’s like a dream, and the dreams are always more beautiful.” Although I wouldn’t have worded it like that myself, I can relate to it as an artist who doesn’t want to capture what’s happening in a complete or perfect way. I often want the technology I’m using to leave its mark on what I’ve captured, so I’m particular about certain technologies and how they render something captured, whether it’s sound or images. I think this is important for nostalgia and an impressionistic or dreamlike approach, as dreams and memories are never crystal clear. For me, it’s when a technology gets promoted from a tool to an instrument — it’s not there just to get a job done like a screwdriver, its voice or character is also to be heard or seen.

A guitar (or any musical instrument) is not a tool to me because it’s not a means to get a musical idea across — the music is the guitar and the guitar is the music; I’m playing with the guitar and discovering what it can do. Likewise, I might choose a certain lens or film stock because it brings some character to an image. I’m not looking to capture a spotless rendition of reality, I want some form of distortion or coloration, and some artifacts from certain types of technology are an important part of my art. The artifacts of the technology we use define eras, and over time the technology and media and skills behind the craft get somewhat lost, making certain eras feel more mysterious. Part of what I do is finding new ways of achieving or referencing qualities from different eras, sometimes by using vintage technology and sometimes by exaggerating or amplifying certain artifacts, such as putting a digital recording on tape several generations to make it more grainy, more filtered and more warbled.

We're doing this email via interview, and if you're comfortable talking about it, I'd be interested to hear you discuss why you prefer email as a communication format rather than through a call of some sort. This isn't meant to be a judgmental question by any means, just purely curious as to what appeals to you most regarding email communication.
I can express myself and articulate my thoughts in more detail and in more depth if I have some time to think about my answers. I also think it makes a better read than transcribing speech, and in the past I’ve been misheard and misquoted, and when that gets published I feel somewhat violated, even when the misquoting was a genuine mistake.

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Jamie Larson