To music fans, it's where The Who and Jimi Hendrix signed out the flower power era with two incendiary live performances. To many schoolchildren, it's that place where you get that funny multicoloured sand in bottles shaped like lighthouses. But to The Bees, the Isle of Wight is the place they call home.
Two years ago, the main vocalist, Paul Butler, and lyricist, Aaron Fletcher, cobbled together an album of funky, late-Sixties- influenced jams in a makeshift studio- cum-tool shed at the bottom of Paul's father's garden. They were quickly signed to the Wall of Sound label, which had just created a subsidiary for live bands. "We never touted anything around," Butler explains when we meet up after their gig at Fiddlers in Bristol.
"In the beginning we were just gambling, getting loan after loan to build up our studio. We knew we were good enough to get a deal, there was no fear because we felt we deserved it. Then we wrote a pop song called 'Punchbag', and Wall of Sound signed us up. What spun us out was that they were a dance label, but it was a necessary stepping-stone - because, really, that was all we had at the time."
The biggest single from the Mercury prize-nominated Sunshine Hit Me also happened to be the last one they recorded. "We happened to be listening to Os Mutantes, and we didn't quite have enough tracks for the album, so in the last few days before mixing we put 'A Minha Menina' down, and it turned out to be the biggest tune on the record." The classic cover of a song originally written by Jorge Ben suddenly found itself on numerous adverts around the world, and The Bees found an international audience. "Our label didn't even make a video," Fletcher sighs, sitting in the tour bus next to Butler. "They only pressed 2,500 records because they didn't see the potential in it."
Growing feedback from press and live performances was enough to get the attention of four major labels, and the scramble was on to sign the band up for their second album. In the end, Virgin Records triumphed, and the band found themselves recording the new album, Free The Bees, at Abbey Road Studios. "I was doing production for a mate on the island called Drew, who's also signed to Virgin/Source, and it got to a point where I couldn't get the sound that I wanted," Butler explains. "Joe, our manager, suggested I try out a different studio, so I said that if I had to do that I would use the best studio in the world - Abbey Road Studio 2. As it happened, it wasn't a problem because it's all part of EMI, and we got a good rate. After that it seemed to make sense for The Bees to record there."
Butler could be forgiven for feeling nervous about handling production duties in Abbey Road after his previous experience of working on a four-track mixing desk in his parents' toolshed, but he insists he had the time of his life. "We all love our toys, don't we? Well, I had the best toys in the world in there. I had so much fun. It wasn't difficult to adapt, because a little tape four-track is just a smaller version of what they use. When you go into a big studio, you're just working on a bigger scale. So what we actually did was take things back a few steps. We took out the computers and all the different processors, and were left with the best analogue equipment ever made."
"People ask us if we were concerned about making our second album, but how could we be when we recorded it at Abbey Road?" laughs Fletcher. "We insisted on getting all the old Sixties equipment out to make it," continues Butler. "The old tech- nicians who had been working there for years were so happy to get all this stuff working again. Every time we took a new bit of equipment out it just sounded better and better. We used an old Sixties desk and a tape machine, and kept things as simple as possible."
One criticism that could be levelled at the band is that they are trying to sound like a rich amalgam of all their favourite bands, instead of creating a unique contemporary identity. This is a criticism that they hotly deny. "We got asked recently, why aren't we sounding, like, now? Well, one answer is that surely we'd be copying that style then? The truth is that it's a lovely feeling to be able to crack a style of music. With all the different styles that we cover in The Bees, we're not trying to hide the fact that we like those styles and we want to make a piece of music to compliment that. I think we always put our edge to whatever we do."
"We also create new music," Fletcher points out vehemently. "The NME made a real thing about us just trying to copy our favourite music from '62. But really it's just that we use the same instruments, and sounds, and recording methods. We like the fact that at a certain point in time, people could play their instruments really well. The sounds they made were really raw and organic, and we love that."
"Music nowadays is overproduced," Butler retorts. "Everything is very separate with a lot of computer manipulation, and that's not something we're up for copying or getting into. If you could understand what its like to be in a band of six people playing instruments, coming together to write a piece of music that involves everyone, then you'd appreciate where we're coming from. It's really powerful, and its great fun when we're playing it live. It just gets better every time."
On stage that night, the six members of the band - the other Bees are Kris Birkin (guitar), Michael Clevett (drums), Tim Parkin (trumpet, keys), and Warren Hampshire (Hammond) - interchange instruments at regular intervals. It turns out that both Parkin and Butler are accomplished trumpet players as well as vocalists, and Butler is a very capable drummer to boot. It's a remarkably charged set that concentrates on classic riffs and timeless harmonies, but the retro façade never overruns the vitality of new songs such as "Horsemen", or new single 'Wash in the Rain'. Funk and soul are fused on "Chicken Payback" - a song reminiscent of Shirley Ellis's "Clapping Song" - and Afrobeat hinted at on "The Russian". It's about as retro as you can get without sounding like a rather good Sixties cover band, but the band's pure youthful exuberance and versatility shine through.
The Bees pride themselves on being a self-contained unit, from creating their own studio space in the house shared by Butler and Fletcher, to providing their own production. "Producing is part of the whole thing for the band," explains Butler. "We want to take out all these digital processes and focus on getting each instrument's recording position right. When you look at all the great soul records, it's basically a band jamming in a room with a few microphones and no separation, and it sounds awesome. There's a picture of the JB's where James Brown is standing in the middle of the studio with the band spread out around him. You can't ever fault that production. The Beatles were masters at getting the sound of the instruments being all around you. It happened because the Beatles loved mono records, and thought that stereo sounded really weak in comparison. So they made two really good mixes for two separate speakers, which gave this definition from right to left."
"You don't want to be clicking a mouse when you're writing music. You just want to be playing the stuff and then listening back to it. If you go and buy the vinyl of this album, you'll find that there are no digital processes at all. We had to stamp our feet to make it happen, but everyone that's heard it is amazed at how really big and open it sounds. Technology just boxes this stuff up. All those frequencies don't get recorded on digital equipment. It can't take it in. The trouble is that digital wants to be analogue nowadays. You have to get programmes to create the effect of tape. Why not just use a tape machine? It would be a lot easier."
The lyrics are a sticking point in interviews with the band. As they started out making instrumental music, lyrics are a relatively new endeavour for them and are now undertaken primarily by Fletcher. However, he is reluctant to go into much detail about their origins. "It does our heads in when we're asked about the songs," he mutters wearily. "It basically comes from listening to music constantly, and thinking about songs. I try to design songs in a way. The lyrics come from all different things, but basically I'm just trying to write parallels and metaphors that people can relate to in their own lives. I'm so up for my lyrics meaning different things to different people. I'm not into people listening to my songs and thinking it's about me and how I felt when my girlfriend dumped me. You'll never get that out of us. People like Neil Young wrote songs that people could think about, whether it be little stories or recollections."
The use of multi-part harmonies and choruses is prevalent right across Free The Bees. This is down to Butler's early fascination with the classic pop harmonies of bands such as the Beach Boys and the Beatles. "When I was about five, the first music I got into was the Beatles. I remember being in a car and trying to work out the harmonies. One of the biggest transitions from the first to the second album was that we had a more definite lead vocal, whilst trying to keep the harmonies intact. On the first album I disguised my vocals because I wasn't that confident with it. But with this album the ability to create a really good pop song became the main challenge. Songs that people love to hear again and again are amazing. That's where we wanted to go. But it's almost swung 360 degrees now because it seems an easy thing to do. The trick is keeping it simple and not overcomplicating things. If you listen to the Beach Boys, they have two minute songs that you want to rewind and listen to again and again."
Aside from their exhaustive three-week recording session at Abbey Road's Studio 2, and their recent tour, it doesn't look like The Bee's will be packing up their bags and moving off the island just yet. "We're really excited about the new single and being a priority act for Virgin, but when you wake up on the Isle of Wight, you don't think about all that," explains Fletcher. "You know that feeling when you've just done a gig, and everything's hectic?" asks Butler just before he leaves to get ready for the evenings performance. "Well, when we drive onto that ferry, and it starts easing off, and we drive onto the island and down south to Ventnor, we get a feeling of bliss. The air is really fresh and we feel like we've got our space back. If we play a gig in London, we never stay. We drive straight back and get the four o'clock ferry in the morning. There's no determination to sta -it's our home and it's where we're from, and ultimately it helps us make our music."
The single 'Wash in the Rain' is out on 19 April, on Virgin; 'Free The Bees' is out in June; The Bees play Academy Islington , London N1 (0870-771 2000) on 20 April, then touringReuse content