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Nathan Jenkins admits that he's "not particularly eloquent when it comes to talking about music". But his music speaks for itself. There's no grand narrative or knotty concept behind 'Loop the Loop', his debut album as Bullion, but he packs a dazzling amount of creativity and colour into its otherwise relatively straightforward pop songs. "I like the commitment of sounds and melodies and the punch of things," Jenkins says when we meet on the fringes of East London. "That's the kind of pop music that I like."
Jenkins has been releasing singles and EPs on labels like Young Turks, R&S Records, and his own imprint DEEK Recordings since 2007. His earliest releases were influenced by hip hop beatmakers, exemplified by his bootleg album 'Pet Sounds in the Key of Dee', which combined songs by the Beach Boys with programmed and sampled drums à la Jay Dee. "It was all instrumental at the beginning – just really harmless, simple chill-out chords and watered down hip hop beats," he says, "Trip hop, basically. It wasn't any specific type of music, just a bit… dull." Jenkins started to incorporate his own voice and a wider range of instrumentation into his work after Young Turks co-founder Tic Zogson introduced him to musicians and future collaborators, like singer-songwriter Laura Groves.
Groves is one of many musicians (including multi-instrumentalist Jesse Hackett, bassist Ben Reed, soul vocalist Sampha) to play on 'Loop the Loop', bringing bright melodies and splashes of colour to Jenkins' songwriting. The resulting album is heartfelt, but with a wry sense of humour that recalls artists like Holger Czukay and Thomas Dolby. It's fun, but it's not funny. "There's a lot about regret and missed opportunities," Jenkins says, "The whole 'Loop the Loop' thing was about wanting to make a change in real life, not just in my head. There's this image [in my head] of a guy in a plane, doing a loop-the-loop. At one point in the loop, all you can see is sky. It's about getting back down on the ground and making changes rather than going over and over on the same old path."
When did you start using your voice in your music?
Bullion: "It was after being introduced to Laura through Tic. They were writing some songs together and I wanted in on the act, rather than just being on my own making these sample-heavy tracks that didn't really feel like my own personality. I think the first time I sung was when I was asked to do a Radiohead remix – I thought I'd cover it rather than remix it. It turned out to be a really bad idea – they didn't like it, and I didn't like it – but that led me to want to get at least a little bit better at singing and recording instruments. I've heard people say that I sound quite despondent when I sing. I'd never really considered what it meant – when I looked it up it said, you know, no real passion or feeling. It's not like I'm not trying to put feeling into it. It's not like the lyrics are drab and about nothing, they do mean something to me."
When did you start branching out of electronic music to record more instruments?
Bullion: "I was lucky enough to meet other people through making music, like Jesse [Hackett], this violinist called Sarah [Anderson, also of Chrome Hoof] through Laura, and Ben Reed who plays bass on my album loads. All of these people are quite open to just coming round and recording stuff."
"The first time I sung was when I was asked to do a Radiohead remix – I thought I'd cover it rather than remix it. It turned out to be a really bad idea – they didn't like it, and I didn't like it." – Bullion
I like that about DEEK, seeing this small community of musicians playing on each other's records.
Bullion: "Ben has been making music for years and years on his own, either playing all the instruments or getting someone to come in and play a little bit of piano. He's got three records that are brilliant. He's not really selling them. We're all not particularly savvy when it comes to putting our music out there, or self-promotion."
I think about self-promotion – how someone can just be a musician today when so much seems to be sold around a certain narrative, or how well they can maintain a social media presence.
Bullion: "I've thought about it quite a lot. Everyone's thinking like that; everyone's encouraging you to be present [on social media]. I did rail against it for a long time, but I thought: who cares? It'll happen, or it won't. But I'm not a big online personality. In a way, it does challenge you try to figure out a way to make yourself known. I feel quite lucky that I had some stuff out before it became so essential to have this online personality. I can imagine a lot of people are sitting on some great music but are crippled by this though of 'How am I gonna get people to hear it?' That's quite a daunting thought. Everyone's like, 'Well, the good stuff will rise to the top', but that's rubbish. There's bound to be so much out there that's unheard because it's just a sea of chat and self-promotion. But I dunno – I think you just have to get on with it."
Why did you start DEEK?
Bullion: "If you're wanting your music to come out on another label, that could potentially affect the way you make music. You've got a certain impression of that label, or the audience that they've got. When you're bound by your own rules, you can just have as much fun as you want. If it doesn't go well, it's only yourself to blame. That's much easier than falling out with someone, or changing the music to suit something. Ironically enough, I shopped my album around to a few other labels and that did effect how I was compiling the tracklist in the end. I had a couple of knockbacks and that knocked my confidence. Eventually, three years passed and I'd gotten through three drafts of it – finished records, to my ear – and I'd play them through to someone, and it'd be a quiet room. It took me that time to realise that DEEK is probably the best place for it."
"I can imagine a lot of people are sitting on some great music but are crippled by this thought of 'How am I gonna get people to hear it?' That's quite a daunting thought. Everyone's like, 'Well, the good stuff will rise to the top', but that's rubbish. There's bound to be so much out there that's unheard." – Bullion
How do you criticise your music if you're your own A&R?
Bullion: "It's still playing it to other people. It's not like I don't care what anyone thinks – that does make a big difference. The main thing is playing it to people who aren't big musos, who aren't listening out for detail or little tricks and techniques but are just getting a feel for the whole thing. If you get a good response from those people, that's quite rewarding. It's almost more rewarding in the end."
Is there ever anything you look for with the artists you release on DEEK?
Bullion: "I was thinking about this yesterday. My strength isn't being some record label A&R guy, having this really slick label that releases tons of music. The 'selling point' for DEEK is that it has a unified sound. [I like] to bring certain things forward that might be pushed back or masked by too many effects – things that deserve to be upfront. If there's something you've put in there, then I'll make sure that it's heard – why bury it? I don't want things to be this muddy mess that washes over you. You can feel the confidence through that."
Your music always seems to have quite an English sensibility. Do you think about that when you're making it?
Bullion: "The main thing is just getting away from singing in an American accent, but trying to find a comfortable way of singing in an English accent that doesn't sound overcooked. And that's quite a challenge, because some words just don't sound good when they're sung in an English accent. I remember recording with Laura when we were doing Freedom of the Floor [by Nautic, Bullion's band with Laura Groves and Tic]. She was singing 'dan-cing', and I said 'Sing it like 'darn-cing', it's much more English.' She's so polite, she said 'I'll give it a go.' At the end of the recording, Tic was listening and said 'Why are you singing it like 'darn-cing'?' I suddenly clocked that she's northern: she doesn't say it like that. I was just imagining that she was going for an American, disco-y thing. But I think that tells you how obsessive I am about that."
"I do think that there's that easy route in pop music to make something quite dark and brooding, with those big piano chords. But that stuff just doesn't cut through. It's so universal, [trying so hard] to get everyone on board that it just turns a lot of other people off." – Bullion
It's also the sense of humour you have that seems quite English – 'humour' is okay to say, right? You can make music with a sense of humour without it being a joke?
Bullion: "Or, heaven forbid, 'novelty'. I can't think of anything worse than novelty music. [For me,] it's walking that line between something a bit naff and something with a bit of cheek to it – a little nod to something, rather than a big, glaring, smack-in-the-face of a joke. Because music is a really funny thing! Especially when you're getting people to play solos, which I do quite often – partly for everyone's amusement, because when you're recording, it's so funny to watch someone go off with no preparation. It's not a solemn thing."
Solemnity, self-seriousness: again, these tend to be qualities I tend to associate with American pop music, whereas the best British stuff to me has always taken the piss a bit.
Bullion: "I do think that there's that easy route in pop music to make something quite dark and brooding, with those big piano chords. But that stuff just doesn't cut through. I don't think it cuts it for anyone. The problem with that brooding pop music is that it's so universal, [trying so hard] to get everyone on board that it just turns a lot of other people off. Because it's like, what even is this? It's a wash of nonsense."
DEEK Recordings released 'Loop the Loop' on February 26th, 2016 (buy).