Caught by the River

A Conversation With Bibio

30th July 2009


Our friend Pat Long, the man behind the brilliant Heron label sent us notes from a field-recording of CBTR favourite Bibio, whose album ‘Ambivalence Avenue’ has pretty much fused with our office stereo since it arrived a couple of months back…

Bibio is the alter ego of Wolverhampton-based Stephen Wilkinson, keen amateur gardener and prolific creator of lo-fi electronic folk music. Stephen has released two albums this year already, the most recent of which, ‘Ambivalence Avenue’, was his first for Warp and seamlessly combines evocative digital burble with instrumental hip-hop and truly beguiling harmony-rock. It’s an unassuming delight that also happens to be one of the year’s best albums so far. He spoke to us from his home studio about fishing, caravans and making dens.

You studied sonic arts at Middlesex University and the title of ‘Ambivalence Avenue’ was inspired by your first visit to London. But then your records are very pastoral-sounding. Is there a tension in your music between urban and rural?

“Actually the meaning of the album’s title is more about powerful emotions that you can’t really identify – I used that particular trip as something with substance to project this idea onto. It was an initial trip to London before I moved there for University and I remember looking out of the window of the bus at streets like the one on the album cover and dreaming about living in one of these big houses on a wide tree-lined street. So the album’s lyrics tell the story of a daydream and the front cover is an image of that daydream too. I wanted a sort of childlike colouring book kind of image as a nod to my naïve expectation that I’d live somewhere like that. Instead I ended up in some shithole of a halls of residence in Wood Green.”

Childhood is obviously something that’s very important to you. Your videos reference ‘Sesame Street’ and old nature documentaries – the imagery seems very nostalgic for a particular period in the early ‘80s…

“I think with nostalgia the thing that’s so haunting is the fact that the way that you see the world as a child is quite different to the way that you perceive it as an adult. When you’re a kid you believe in things like magic and your imagination plays a big part of your life. You spend a lot of time pretending that you’re somewhere else and you use your environment as a prop to do that – like being out in the park with your friends building a little den or whatever. And because of this imagination you notice things in more detail in some respects. When you get older you become more interested in functional detail, in the way that the world works, but when you’re a kid you take more notice of little things, like a spider spinning a web or whatever…”

How do you think that this distinction has affected the way that you make music?

“Well, even though I don’t live in the epic wilderness or anything, as an artist I try and take note of the little things. But I should say that my music’s not supposed to be overtly nostalgic or retro – more just that those kinds of things are props or triggers in order to help the listener to delve into their own memories of childhood, whatever they are. Nostalgia’s a universal feeling, even if the memories that it provokes are very personal.”

You took the Bibio name from a kind of meadow fly favoured by trout fishermen. Do you have a personal connection with angling?

“I just remembered that as a kid I really liked that word – it sounded benevolent and bouncy and it’s also short and non-descriptive. But, yes, there was also a strong personal reason behind choosing it as well – my dad always insisted on using that fly in his collection. He has an old plastic box that he’s had for decades and it’s got lots of little polystyrene pads which hold the fancy flies. But then in amongst them there were these little tiny black ones that looked boring but which he used the most. I kind of liked that as a title to represent me as an artist – I’m not someone who’s like a peacock or anything. I like the idea of something’s that really simple and really lo-fi. Just a simple little design that tricks the fish into thinking it’s a real fly.”

Do you have a strong connection with the countryside? Were you born there?

“I grew up in the Black Country, which has this history of being a pretty grim place, although it’s probably a lot nicer now than when the sky was black with soot and smog and stuff. Anyway, I grew up in a ‘70s-built house in a housing estate so it wasn’t rural but it wasn’t hectic either – not countryside, not city. But I think that my rural obsession was from going to Wales on holiday as a kid. The rivers and valleys made a real impression on me – you don’t have to go very far into Wales to really see the landscape change from what looks traditionally British to what could be like New Zealand or somewhere – very epic. I still tend to try and squeeze in visits as much as I can.”

Is there one particular memory of the countryside that has informed your music most?

“When I was a kid we had a touring caravan. My dad bought one in about 1982 or something and pretty soon afterwards we started using it on a regular basis. We’d go to these really simple campsites, really basic but always by a river. My dad’s really into angling so he’d always want to be by a river, whether is was sunny or raining. He’d rarely catch anything. Anyway, some of my happiest memories are of just splashing about in the water with other kids: those summer evenings that seem to last forever where the light is just perfect and everything shines…”