Priya Ragu’s post-genre sound champions her Tamil heritage
Bullion is a man who chooses his words, like his sounds, thoughtfully and with care. I’m sat in his kitchen in Portobello Road while he washes up a couple of mugs to make us a brew. He tentatively apologises for the non-existent mess while behind him on the fridge magnets spell out ‘smile / in / to / the / future’. I’m here to chat about his debut album ‘You Drive Me To Plastic’, released on limited vinyl by Young Turks at the turn of this year and now about to get a full release on CD – a format at once both modern and antiquated, which suits Bullion down to the ground. Not that he’s sure it exactly qualifies as an album, it being just 20 minutes long and one, unbroken, mixtape format. But there’s no doubting its artist-album status – it’s a dense and thrilling whirlwind tour round his mind, revealing a finely tuned ear and an instinctive understanding of both the subtleties and ludicrousness of life. While hip hop is in his DNA – Bullion’s instruments are samples, beats and loops, stitched together with intelligence and wit – his music stubbornly refuses to be tied to genre, time or place.
It was his hubbub-generating Beach Boys X J Dilla mixtape ‘Pet Sounds: In the Key of Dee’ in 2007 that first alerted folks to that ear of his and his ability to spin stories through sound. While the releases that followed on One-Handed Music were perfectly lovely – the groove-based Young Heartache EP and the Get Familiar and Say Goodbye To What 12”s – they showed an artist experimenting, exploring, testing things out. Listening back, they feel like sketches almost – finely worked and displaying undeniable talent, but sketches nonetheless. Wrong Door, the opener to ‘You Drive Me To Plastic’, seems to acknowledge that – drawing a line under everything he’s done before via a series of slammed doors. In comparison to his earlier work, this debut album is a city-encompassing mural – bold, bright, turning this way and that to dress the brickwork in an ever-mutating menagerie of sounds that drip and flow in an almost Pollock-esque fashion. In fact, it turns out he works in a similar way as the abstract expressionist master: feeling his way, never knowing what he’ll end up with – the mark of a true artist, according to WH Auden.
Against the current landscape of self-consciously sombre electronic music releases, ‘You Drive Me To Plastic’ sticks out like a sore thumb. And one wrapped in a cartoon character plaster at that. Because there’s a lot that raises a smile and an eyebrow about this album. Not least the phenomenal array of samples: a neighing horse, an operatic gurgle, bagpipes, a Celtic fiddle, a flute or two, that saxophone solo. Nothing is off limits. Every sound has its own value, is its own carefully chosen treasure. Then there’s his use of spoken word. At the beginning of My Castle In England, a 10 second snippet of a sweetly deluded groupie proclaiming that if she could just get backstage then the object of her affections would fall in love with her is preceded with the sharp metallic click-snap of a rifle being cocked. Bullion has a brilliantly dark sense of humour – and he’s got smarts. There’s huge skill involved in crafting music with humour that avoids descending into novelty, irony or pastiche.
Above all, though, what’s most enjoyable about ‘You Drive Me To Plastic’ is that it’s not an album for anything in the same way any piece of art isn’t for anything. It’s for and of itself. “Time is free” goes a vocal sample at the beginning of Magic Was Ruler (listen below). “If a record can be played now, then it’s now,” goes another on Too Right (listen above). Both are ideas he lives by, creates by. The man behind the solid gold sounds may seem quiet but he knows exactly what he’s doing, even if he doesn’t quite believe that himself just yet.
As we make our way into the living room, he wonders out loud if he should put some music on while we chat. Sure, why not. He opens a huge wooden cabinet against the wall to reveal a turntable and selects a record from a pile – John Martyn’s ‘Solid Air’. Needle set, we begin.
Thanks for having a chat. I really love ‘You Drive Me To Plastic’ – your first album proper.
I guess so, yes.
It’s been a couple of years since you released the mixtape.
Yes, that ‘Pet Sounds’ thing. It’s funny, I don’t really see either of them as albums, I guess like the whole mixtape thing kind of sums it up in a way. It’s just like a short passage of music, and I don’t know – I guess that’s why it’s called a non-LP, because it’s just like what is it?
An SP, short play.
An SP, I was thinking that as well. It was meant to be longer, you know, I wanted it to be an album really, but I just kept cutting stuff out because I wasn’t totally happy with it. And then eventually it was 20 minutes. I submitted it, and they said “Ah right, yes, quite short isn’t it?”
I definitely feel like it’s an album. All the songs sit by themselves fully even though it’s continuous. How do you approach each track?
I don’t know really. I’m really bad at like describing that sort of stuff, or even trying to figure it out, because a lot of the time it’s probably quite a boring process. It’s just like sitting down and having a beat going, making a little beat, add some drum sounds, and then just kind of play around with some records until I find something that I think sounds kind of nice. And then it will go through loads of stages, like each track will sort of start at something and then move on to something else, then I get sick of that, and then I sort of keep going until there’s something that I can listen to and feel like, you know, it can sit, kind of happily sit.
I was imagining you had this cabinet full of samples that you’d been collecting. Like a butterfly collector with all these butterflies, waiting for the right time to use each one!
I like the idea of that, yes. That’s much more interesting than it actually is, you know, it’s just a bunch of records.
So it’s very much finding it in the moment…
Yes, I tend to just sort of do it on the fly, I’m just not organised enough to sort of sit down. Because if I hear anything that I like it’s a bit like, right, I’m going to use that before I forget what I want it to sound like or whatever.
What I really love about the album is that it’s so dense, in terms of like it’s all the sound that’s in there, but it doesn’t ever feel like there’s too much going on. It just feels like there’s stuff that you can find – because obviously stuff like Pressure to Dance is probably the most conventional track on there, and originally it was my favourite. Because it really does make me want to dance, it’s a great track. But then it’s really like a treasure trove, because like the thing where you go “Ah that shiny thing there, I really love that one” and then you just suddenly get, when your eyes have adjusted to the dark of it, then you just go “Ah, this bit over here”. And all the sounds that are on there, like the fact that you’ve got like the neighing horse and the kind of Celtic strings at one point.
Yes, it’s a violin or fiddle or something.
Yes. And like the operatic stuff and the saxophone. It feels like there’s so many different cultural sounds or senses there. So it made sense to discover you live in Portobello Road…
All the sounds that are going on around, yes.
I was like, oh that’s not a surprise really.
There was no reggae in there.
I wish there was, to be honest with you.
I really like your bold usage of sounds. Sounds which maybe on their own would just be like…
Yes, that’s a saxophone solo.
Yes. But then just having like the boldness to just go actually no, I’m going to put that in.
I guess it’s just liking hearing sounds together. If I put on a record and there’s like a bit that works with the music, you know, it sounds good straight away, then I’ll just put it in and that will be that. It’s not even a – I mean it’s obviously a choice, but sometimes things just fit so well that you just think, yes, I’m definitely going to do that. Yes, it sounds good – so yes.
I don’t want to make it sound like it’s too sort of lazy because it’s not just like, oh, here’s a sax solo and it works and that’s that, that’s that track done.
I kind of wish it was that easy. But for me it’s more like getting into the detail of things and kind of working on it until I’m kind of angry about it. It’s just pure stress and frustration most of the time. It does my head in.
Do you have a real strong idea then about what you want something to sound like before you start or is it just about chipping away at this thing?
Yes, I think it’s more chipping away than kind of setting out to do any kind of track. It’s guided a little bit by the sample and a little bit by the kind of music I like. So it’s sort of half-half. It’s hardly ever what I wanted it to be.
I was talking to someone recently about that actually, and they were saying that they think it’s better not to start with an idea, and just let something sort of naturally happen. But then, I was thinking about this just today actually, just how people tell you a way to try things. And I’ve always listened to stuff like that and thought, right, I’m going to try doing it like that now. And in the end I just come back to what I feel comfortable with.
Like a lot of people go, Oh you should do it like this, you know, that’s the sort of best way, and that’s going to get the result. And it sounds good and everything, but in the end I am just stubborn about the way I do it, you know, just like it’s too much to have to change it. And it’s like why do I have to change it? Just get on with it.
Yes, exactly, exactly. It’s all about finding and trusting your instincts. It’s probably good to test your instincts and try it another way because then you end up going, “That just proves my own.”
Yes. At the same time, like, I’d hate to be too narrow about it. I’m much more interested in the end result than the process, you know. Because the process is too overwhelming for me. It’s just like I could do it all these different ways, you know. And just never finish anything. Because I barely finish things enough doing it the way I’m comfortable with, so maybe that means I’m doing it totally the wrong way. Maybe there’s a way where it’s like, it just works really quickly and comfortably. You know. Maybe I’ve just missed the point completely.
No, good stuff hurts I think.
Yes, that’s a good quote.
It feels like with some of the samples and sounds you are using, it’s stuff that people might have a kind of natural prejudice towards but you present them in a different way. Which makes people listen to them, give them a second think, and really appreciate that sound. There’s a lot of humour in there too.
Yes, I guess [the sound of] fiddles and stuff, I’ve always found quite funny. Again I guess it’s just like whatever sounds right with the thing, you know, like whether it’s funny or whether it’s kind of got feeling. But yes, I’m definitely drawn to sort of funny little sounds, and just creating kind of little scenes and stuff.
When did you get into music? Can you remember what you first went to listening wise?
I’m not too sure, I guess like hip hop was sort of the first main music I was really into as one thing, you know, before that I was listening to loads of different, you know, pop kind of things. So yes, like rap and –
People like Tupac, Snoop Dogg, a lot of west coast kind of stuff. One of my friend’s brothers just started showing us loads of stuff he was listening to, and he was just kind of into everything that was trendy at the time, so then he sort of showed us some drum and bass, and like jungle and stuff, and then that moved on to garage, and then it was sort of trip hop and all that stuff, you know. For ages it was just like whatever he gave us, that’s what we listened to. Because he was this cool guy.
How old were you then?
I guess 11 or 12. Like getting into hip hop and stuff round then. But then garage was like the next thing I was really kind of into. I think mainly because it was such a London thing. Rap was fine until you suddenly got to an age when you are like, that’s quite embarrassing just trying to sort of be a rapper and act like I’m from New York. What am I really doing? You know. And garage was like, all right, I can get into this, and it kind of feels…
Yes, yes. So I started buying garage records and DJ-ing at little parties and stuff, and played on a couple of pirate radio stations. Just really like small things, but just the whole atmosphere was quite nice, you know.
Is that when you started making music as well?
Yes, I suppose so. Because I started kind of wanting to play tunes that were mine, I just liked the idea of it. And yes, one of the guys I lived with was making tunes and we started doing some stuff together, and yes, that kind of got me into making music, yes.
You got a big reaction to ‘Pet Sounds’…
Yes, I guess so. It got blogged about a bit and yes, it’s pretty nice. I got a nice reaction for it. A couple of DJ bookings out of it, you know. Like when I got asked to play at the big shows, like “Oh, what do they want me to play?” you know, and I just sort of played ‘Pet Sounds’, just pressing play on the CD players. Really boring for everyone, probably expecting me to turn up and do some sort of full band, you know, Beach Boys cover thing. But no, it was nice to get a reaction anyway, quite cool.
What is it that you ultimately want to do?
I don’t really know yet. I’m sort of gradually getting closer to it I think, or just enjoying what I’m making more and more, and feeling more kind of like it’s coming from somewhere a little bit more original as it goes on and on. I guess I would like to do things more for myself and not just rely on sampling so much. It’s just sort of figuring out what that is. I’ve been trying to sing a little bit recently, sort of inspired by like kind of home recording people in like the early ‘80s. There’s a few people I really like who were doing kind of electronic music and then singing over it. It just sounds like fun, it sounds like they are really enjoying themselves.
There’s this guy called Thomas Leer, who’s a sort of Gary Newman type but much more experimental. But it’s not just about fun. I guess it’s just wanting to kind of do things for myself, you know, that’s the main reason for wanting to do it. It’s just having full control over everything that goes in. Because I’d like to do stuff for singers, but it’s just so hard to find people…
Well, the last couple of things you’ve done with Sampha, like the Fantasy cover and then the new track, I’d Never Dance With You…
I’d Never Dance – yes. Those were really fun to do, because he’s just a wicked singer. And he writes really nice sort of melody lines as well, you know. So that kind of worked out.
You’re working with Othello Woolf as well?
Oh yes, I’ve been doing some stuff with him, yes. I was mixing some of his tracks and then we did a couple of kind of tunes from scratch together, and yes, that was good. It’s the first time I’ve sort of sat down and watched someone sort of write and him say “Oh do you like that? And do you want me to sort of change it?” And it was kind of like doing it together, you know. And yes, that was good fun to do. And that sort of gave me more of a taste for doing it myself as well. But I’ve got a pretty bad voice.
But what’s a good voice – like, what’s that classic David Byrne quote? He said something about how if you’ve got a really nice voice then it’s not believable.
Yes, a lot of the singers that I like haven’t got angelic voices, but then they have got some sort of tone that’s nice. And my tone straight away is quite like nasal, you know, and it just doesn’t translate that well into the recording, you know. But I’m trying to figure out, I’d like to make it work. And I’ve only just started trying it and I’m already like “Oh man, I just can’t believe I can’t do it.” But I haven’t given myself that much time to really get some, I don’t know, get some singing lessons or something! (Laughs)
Yes, why not? But I kind of like that you keep setting yourself these tasks that really annoy you, but it’s a nice thing that you need some time.
Yes, I do sometimes think, what do I actually enjoy about making music? It’s usually just finishing tracks that I’m kind of enjoying. The rest of it is, like you say, setting annoying tasks. But then they shouldn’t be really. It should just be enjoyable.
But I think there’s always some kind of a creative battle when you are doing anything and trying to get somewhere. But then there’s this moment of “Ah, okay, yes.” And that’s what you kind of do it for.
I guess so, yes. There’s no guidelines that you have to enjoy everything or it has to all be sort of plain sailing. But yes, I’d like to enjoy it a little bit more, just for my own wellbeing and health.
It sounds like you are continually getting more confident about what you want to do with your music…
Yes, I do feel like that, definitely. I really like having feeling and emotion and stuff, but also having kind of fun and humorous things, you know.
Yes, fun, that’s the thing. There’s still this thing that fun isn’t cool. Like, cool people don’t smile in clubs. And I hate that, because I’m most of the time quite a smiley person. And it’s just nice to hear that range of emotion – it’s quite light, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less valid.
Some of my favourite music has that balance down perfectly, and I like not taking it too seriously but also getting across a lot of feeling.
That makes it more poignant.
Yes. And it’s just so much more human like that, isn’t it? Because no one is that serious really, you know, and if they are they are pretty boring. I’d much rather be around people who are, you know, just having a laugh but also appreciate that there is meaning to things.
I mean because the main thing that I like doing with music is getting emotion into it, like that’s the kind of music I love the most is really kind of emotional and feeling music. But not taking itself too seriously at the same time.
It’s such a fine balance.
Yes. That’s the trouble, I think that’s why I cut a lot of stuff out, because you kind of don’t get that balance enough, enough as I’d like to. I’ve been listening to a lot of Robert Wyatt over the past, I don’t know, six months or so, just picking up all of his records, because I just got one that was amazing, really kind of funny but also lots of really nice emotional passages in it. It was like, Oh this is exactly what I want to get. Just been listening to loads of his stuff, and I think that probably had quite a big influence on ‘You Drive Me To Plastic’, just that general balance.
And Paul White as well, I always bang on about Paul White, but he’s just another person who really gets that, and inspires me to do more of it. Paul doesn’t take himself seriously, but also has like a strong conviction about what he does. And loves kind of funny little things. That’s just the best thing in music I reckon, it’s wicked.
What were we listening to before?
It’s John Martyn, ‘Solid Air’, it’s quite good. Don’t know if you know him?
No, I don’t. That’s a pure ‘70s cover.
Yes, I love that cover. I’ve been listening to a lot of John Martyn as well. The clips I’ve seen of him on stage, he’s always just drinking. I mean he died a couple of years ago I think, as a result of being quite a heavy drinker. But he just sort of did it in a funny way on stage, just like down a pint and then go into this really emotional song, you know. He would be telling ridiculous jokes and being really crude about something and then as soon as he plays a chord, his face just changes and he’s just like pure feeling, that sadness about him. That’s amazing.