Interview: The Bees
Published on September 23rd, 2010 | Jonny Abrams
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If you are one of the many people who would profess to not knowing of The Bees yet would register instant recognition at the merest prompting of ‘A Minha Menina’ or ‘Chicken Payback’ – well, you are strongly advised to investigate this glorious oddity of a band. From the lush eclecticism of Mercury Award-nominated debut Sunshine Hit Me through the harmony-splashed psychedelic R&B of Free The Bees and the melodious ska-pop of Octopus, the Isle of Wight six-piece have carved out a captivating niche for albums that at once take you back in time, soundtrack your present and map out an idealistic future in which all bands possess such an innate ability to pump liquid sunshine through one’s veins.
With long-player number four – namely Every Step’s a Yes– due out on October 11th, I had the pleasure of catching up with the band’s bassist/trumpeter/all-sorts-of-other-instruments-ist Tim Parkin to discuss the new album and then some. What’s more – in a journalistic first for articles about this band – we eschewed the use of any lame puns about stripy, honey-producing insects…
All I’ve heard so far of the new album is ‘I Really Need Love’, which indicates a return to the gentler touch of Sunshine Hit Me…
Yeah, it is a lot more going back to the Sunshine Hit Me days, really, but it’s more consistent throughout the album. One criticism of The Bees’ albums that crops up now and again is that it sounds a little bit like a compilation tape, like different bands – whereas, with this album, you can hear that it’s the same band throughout. It’s consistent. There’s a bit more of an acoustic vibe on this one, more sort of singer-songwriter, because a lot of the songs were written before we went to the studio, whereas beforehand we’d go into the studio to write songs. We used to do these things called ‘The Kitchen Sessions’ in the kitchen above our studio, which is in a basement, where we’d just play on acoustics and an upright double bass and record a demo that would end up being an actual recording – that directed the sound of the album, the fact that a lot of it was done sitting round the kitchen table with acoustics, recording it like that first and seeing what happened. It’s not something we’d really approached in the past – I think there’s only one tune on all the previous albums that’s got an acoustic guitar on it, but I think every tune other than one on this album has got acoustic and upright bass. More of a folk element.
Could this album then be literally described as “kitchen sink psychedelia”?
(Laughs) Well, yeah, I suppose. I hadn’t really thought about that. It’s definitely psychedelic. We’re heavily influenced by the sixties – as well as lots of other stuff – so that sort of vibe is what we’re all about, really. Kitchen sink psychedelia – yeah, I like that!
I was going to ask you which sixties bands in particular inspire you guys…(I begin to list a few, including The Zombies)…
Yeah, quite a few of the guys from the band like The Zombies. The Byrds. I’ve just recently bought a few albums by 13th Floor Elevators – wicked band, well into that at the moment. There are so many sixties bands to choose from. John Martyn died recently, which led to us rediscovering his music – that quite heavily influenced the vibe of the new album, actually. We also like some new stuff, like Animal Collective – there’s a tune on the album which is heavily influenced by them. We didn’t use loops, it was all played live but it sounds like we were using loops, like they do. It’s quite a tripped-out tune, actually. Three of us have written and recorded this album, with the other three coming in to do a bit now and again, and everyone’s got such a wide variety of taste in music that one tune is always going to be influenced by several styles of music.
How do you go about working out your vocal harmonies?
It’s literally just trial and error in a studio. Sometimes there’s two or three of us stood round a mic singing at the same time, and at other times Paul, the main singer, is quite heavily involved in that side of things because he produces the album as well – he gets the final say on all the sounds and that. It’s just a case of building them up from scratch, layering loads of stuff up and if it sounds good then it sticks, and if it sounds crap then we get rid of it.
(Laughs) Trial and error is the main way we work, not just with vocal harmonies but with all the music – you play something and then just add to it and it evolves naturally. There’s no real rule or structure to how we go about it – everything just happens quite naturally.
What left-field band is there that all of you like? I suppose Os Mutantes is the obvious one…
Yeah, that whole Tropicalia thing. We were quite lucky when we covered ‘A Minha Menina’ – which we played last night and everyone still loves it – that it got picked up on a bit in South America as well and played a part in rejuvenating the whole Tropicalia thing. We were lucky enough to be involved when they came over to do a concert at the Barbican. Gruff Rhys played ‘Bat Macumba’ with a thirty or forty-piece orchestra and I played trumpet in it, Paul played organ in it and we all sat in amongst these amazing Brazilian musicians. A lot of the people at the front were the sons and daughters of the original sixties Tropicalia scene. It was a joy to work with them, really, because it was a day of rehearsing and the next day was the gig and even when they weren’t performing they were still dancing round the place. It was brilliant. I recommend getting hold of the Tropicalia album that Soul Jazz released a few years ago.
Wasn’t The Bees a two-piece at the time of Sunshine Hit Me? How did you come to join the band?
Yeah, Paul and Aaron wrote Sunshine Hit Me but they didn’t realise they were going to get any sort of success out of it – they were just recording music for fun and they’d still be doing that even if they didn’t earn anything from it. I came in and played a few bits on that album, even though I didn’t help write any of it and, once it got a Mercury nomination, it was like, sh*t, we’ve got to go on the road with this! It would have been impossible just the two of them. We were all mates from school anyway – I was away working on cruise ships at the time and came back to find it had all taken off. I said, oh right, yeah, I’ll get involved in that. After that, we started jamming and writing together and since then, in different combinations, we’ve all been involved in writing the previous two albums to this one. This album’s gone down to just three of us and the other guys came in to do a bit of playing every now and again. We tried writing with six again but it was just a bit tricky so we went down to three. There were no hard feelings about it as everyone had other projects on the go anyway.
Finally, what would be – at this moment and in no particular order – your top three albums of all time?
It changes all the time. OK Computer, I guess. John Coltrane – Blue Train. I’m having a look at my record collection.
(Laughs) Jimi Hendrix – Axis: Bold as Love. Classic.