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Interview: The Bees

Published on August 3rd, 2012 | Jonny Abrams

You love The Bees, even if you don’t know it yet. We could play up the whole ‘you know more songs by The Bees than you think’ angle for the umpteenth time, but we’ll just cut to the chase and tell you that if you haven’t yet been captivated by any of their four stellar albums then you are to be envied, for abundant joys await you. Listen to Free The Bees or Octopus first thing in the morning, and Sunshine Hit Me or their most recent LP, 2010’s Every Step’s a Yes, last thing at night; then make yourself look super cool and awesome by playing them to a friend, because The Bees could very well have been put on Earth by God for that very purpose.

Last time Rocksucker spoke to the band’s trumpeter/upright bassist/backing vocalist/whatever else might be lying around-ist Tim Parkin, the psychedelic wonderment of Every Step’s a Yes had yet to be released to the general public. Two years on and it’s still a regular go-to LP for this writer, not just for the purposes of appearing super cool and awesome in front of others but even moreso for personal consumption, for it’s an album to truly lose yourself in and let your mind unravel to. Suffice it to say we’re jonesing for more Bees, so we asked Tim for the latest buzz (sorry) and he proved to be as thoroughly accommodating as he was the first time, even through the tiredness that comes with being – as of fifteen weeks ago – a new father…

What can you tell us about the next album at this early stage?

Yeah, like you say it’s at a very early stage. Earlier in the year we went to Dorset for a little sort of writing camp, if you like, in a barn in the middle of nowhere with a load of studio equipment, and we recorded a load of demos. We’ve got ten or twelve works in progress but we haven’t actually started recording properly yet, we’ve just been gathering material.

We’re not really sure what direction it’s going to take in terms of sound yet – that sort of thing tends to happen very naturally, when we’re in the studio – but we’ve been talking about making an album that’s a little bit more like Free The Bees, a mixture of styles, a more eclectic mix whereas the last album was more like a piece of work in itself, very consistent from start to finish. Everyone in the band listens to different music so it’s hard to pinpoint our sound, as such: we’re just going to mix it up again and keep things interesting in that way.

Every Step’s a Yes is a record I still listen to regularly: it’s a quietly astonishing little album, in my ever so humble opinion. It was generally well received by critics, but do you feel as if it went underappreciated by the world at large?

I don’t know. It gets a lot of appreciation from people that are into music. It’s a weird place, The Bees: on the one hand people see us as a credible band rather than a pop act that comes and goes, and we’ve stuck around doing what we’re doing for twelve years now, but with the last album we were on a new label; it was our first album with Fiction and it was a difficult time for the label as far as money went, and therefore promotion, so no-one was really sure where it was going to go or what was going to happen. In those respects they weren’t going to commit.

We always get good reviews in the press but it never seems to translate into sales. I think what we do is appreciated by lovers of good music but we always struggle with getting the backing of the radio stations, which seems to be quite a fundamental part of being successful these days, at least in terms of selling large amounts of records. I don’t know if it was underappreciated, I think it was just a case of the label thinking, “We’ve got this new band, let’s make a record [and see how it goes].”

The record was pretty much made before we signed for them; we make music anyway in between labels, because bands inevitably have to change labels from time to time. I think we were about three quarters of the way through it when we started having interest from Fiction and other labels, and I think maybe we thought we were a little bit bigger than we were! (Laughs) I think people appreciate what we do but there aren’t enough people out there that buy music any more.

To my ears, “I Really Need Love” and “Winter Rose” sound ready-made for radio play, albeit they might sound out of place sandwiched by, say, Avril Lavigne and N-Dubz. (Additional note: Rocksucker googled ‘N-Dubz’ to check we’d stylised the name properly, and we now know that N-Dubz are about to release a Greatest Hits album. Good grief.)

“Winter Rose” got a fair bit of attention from BBC Radio 6 Music, the digital one. They really got behind that one. (Rocksucker says: 6 Music is superb, to be fair.) “I Really Need Love” we all thought was a classic pop song and expected maybe Radio 1 to pick that up, and although they gave it a few spot plays I think there’s just so much other stuff out there at the moment that…well, I don’t really listen to Radio 1 any more. Whenever I turn it on there’s nothing that really appeals to me.

When you’re making a record and you’re choosing your singles, you’re thinking, “None of our songs are going to get much attention from a station like Radio 1,” because it’s not going to sound right sat next to the latest pop acts; we record music in an old-fashioned way, so I think maybe a lot of it’s to do with the sound rather than the song itself.

Have you discussed whether or not you’re going to continue with the kind of vintage sound of the last three albums?

Yeah, I mean, we’ll always use valve equipment; it’s about the cleanliness of the signal for us, not necessarily about sounding like old music. People throw the word ‘retro’ round quite a lot and it’s not a decision that we made, to sound old, it’s just that the equipment they made in the ’50s and ’60s is a lot better than the equipment they’re making now. It’s made of proper components, whereas nowadays things break because there’s a market for replacing bits that are broken. Back then stuff was made properly so it just works better.

We try to keep things as simple as possible in the studio: instruments and microphones straight into a desk that’s got amazing preamps built into it, 158 or something. There is stuff like that being made now but it costs the same as a house! Paul runs the studio, really: he’s the boffin, if you like. He’s quite passionate about keeping things simple, because the more things you plug in the signal gets less and less pure.

We used to record into a tape machine but now we record with a computer, so we have updated in that respect, but only because the tape machine would break down once or twice a month and there’s like two people in the country who can fix it and they cost something like £600 a day to come down and do it! We use a really nice Swedish-built desk from the ’60s or late ’50s, and we use old valve amps for guitars and bass; the valves give the sound the kind of warmth that we’re going for most of the time.

Do you have a nice studio to work in?

Our current studio is in a basement and we’re just about to move that to a barn conversion in Chale on the island. We’re pretty lucky: there’s a rich guy who’s into music who decided to build a studio and he approached Paul [Butler, front man] about moving his equipment, his desk and everything, into it to add to the stuff that he’s got in there. So we’re going to have this luxury studio set-up in about six weeks’ time if everything goes to plan. We’re holding out until then before we really start recording and tracking the new album. We’ve got loads of demos ready to go.

Have you considered following in Paul’s footsteps and going off to the Amazonian rainforest to sample ayahuasca

(Laughs) I’ve thought about it because I’ve got a fair interest in that sort of stuff as well, but I don’t know…I don’t think you need to go all the way to Peru to do that! (Laughs)

You – well, collective ‘you’ – wrote on The Bees’ Tumblr that there’d be a competition to win posters of Tim Watkins’s artwork. When will this be held? I want one!

I’m not really sure, to be honest. The label have been organising that side of things lately, putting out the odd mention of competitions, but I can find out when it’s happening and let you know. But yeah, he’s a great artist, Tim, isn’t he? We’re lucky to have someone like him onside, especially at mate’s rates! (Laughs) (Rocksucker says: You can see more of Tim’s work at watkinswallpapers.com)

Are The Bees on Twitter? If you are I can’t find you.

We did open an account but sort of lost interest in it. (Laughs) It was one of those things, “We should really have a Twitter account, all the bands are tweeting these days”, so I opened one, followed a few people and then lost interest. We didn’t really announce it to the world because we weren’t sure what was going to happen with it. I’ve got my own Twitter account which I just use to follow footballers on: I like reading what they’ve got to say after matches.

I love David Luiz’s account: it seems like he’s on there every twenty minutes going, “Hello my friends! I love you!” I saw a brilliant picture of him on Twitter standing next to Carlos Valderrama, with “my hero!” written underneath. I could only just about tell them apart, they look like brothers or something.

Valderrama with Luiz

Rocksucker says: Click here to read Tim talking to Football Burp about his beloved Chelsea FC!

Yeah, we haven’t really taken to Twitter like other bands have, but I suppose that could be more out of laziness. Maybe when the next campaign starts up we’ll become more active on it, when we’ve got a new album to push for a year. We opened the Twitter account in the middle of a quiet period, when we were doing a bit of writing at home. There isn’t really a lot to talk about when you’re writing and recording an album.

Have you ever thought about appropriating this scene from the dreadful 2006 remake of The Wicker Man somehow? Perhaps you could come onstage to it…

Or even this techno remix…

Yeah, we could have it on a screen in the background: “NO, NOT THE BEES!” (Laughs) I never understood why they insist on remaking classic films like that. They never do them justice.

Think about it. Moving on, are there any up-and-coming artists you’d like to recommend or give a shout-out to?

There’s a band from round here called The Shutes who are doing quite well at the moment. They’ve just been signed to Cross Keys Records and they’re getting quite a lot of coverage in the music blog world at the moment. They’ve been on tour with us a couple of times. I think they’ve just finished their album and are about to give it a push. Yeah, they’re a good band.

I don’t really listen to a lot of new music these days because I get put off by what I hear on Radio 1. When you spend hours on end in the studio – days and weeks, even – trying to make a record that sounds nice, sonically lovely and warm, all the frequencies in the right places, and then you turn on the radio and hear this disposable pop music, you just think, “Oh right, I’m going to go back to Neil Young.” (Laughs) I read about bands in magazines and think, “That sounds interesting,” then I go online and listen to them and it’s just not really for me.

I tend to listen to a lot of old music these days, John Martyn and people like that. I like songs in the traditional sense; a lot of people now will go into the studio with an idea and come out the other end with a track, but I like the singer-songwriters who sit down at a piano or with a guitar and write a song from start to finish, then take it to the studio and record it. Writing songs for other people is the next thing on The Bees’ agenda, as well as writing our own music obviously.

For anyone in particular?

We haven’t got anyone in particular in mind, but we’re currently going through this process of getting a new publisher and we’re making it very clear that writing for other artists is something we’d like to do in the future. As we get old and grey (laughs) and we don’t want to go on tour any more, we could still make a living writing songs for other people. That’s the idea, I suppose.

Tim Parkin, thank you.

The Bees will headline the Far Out stage at Green Man festival on Friday 17th August. For more information, please visit wearethebees.tumblr.com

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About the Author

Editor of Rocksucker and the website's founder, Jonny is passionate about the music he listens to, both good and bad, as well as interviewing his favourite musicians.