Bullion is tough to pin down. And not only in the sense that the man behind the moniker, Nathan Jenkins, doesn’t interview often – coronavirus or no coronavirus. Since his 2007 mashup of J Dilla and the Beach Boys, Bullion’s releases have cast a wide net: from beat-tape-style sampledelia to vocal-led, off-kilter synthpop, with some nautical themes thrown into 2017’s All Abawd and its unlikely club hit ‘Blue Pedro‘ – a sea shanty house track referencing Blue Peter.
His most recent EP We Had A Good Time is at once balmy and melancholic, and also full of resonances with lockdown life. On, ‘Hula’, reminiscences of late summer nights abroad provide bittersweet relief from present-day anxieties. “Are people in pain where you are?”, Jenkins opens, as if rudely awakened from jet-setting nostalgia – a postcard sent from shores foreign to this new quarantine malaise, or a Zoom call to friends stuck over borders. When the almost identical ‘Hula Hula’ returns to round off the record, the repetition lands less like the grind of quarantine, more the soothing echo of lost routines.
It’s entirely coincidental, of course – the record released just as lockdown measures began. But it’s nevertheless appropriate for an artist whose genre-hopping productions, like the socially isolated, strike distant connections. Bullion’s releases have always exhibited a deep and broad engagement with the weirder corners of a vast pop history, together with a certain idiosyncrasy – an elusive but playful signature buried deep in his experimentations, like many of the outsider singer-songwriters that audibly inspired him (Robert Wyatt, Arthur Russell, John Martyn).
In interview, then, it’s no surprise that Jenkins comes across from a slightly slanted angle – answers teetering away from questions towards self-deprecation, reflections on creative pressure and a skewed perception of his own musical identity. The Bullion that emerges is no less enigmatic than his records, and all the more fascinating for it.
There’s a lot of talk during this pandemic of either going “back to normal” or finding a new normal. What normal had you found after 2018’s move from London to sunnier Lisbon?
A year after moving to Lisbon I visited the doctor for a full check-up. Mostly fine, except for low vitamin D levels… Sad but true! I do make more time for beach and bakery trips these days, but the studio is still my comfort zone.
It’s four years now since releasing your long-awaited first and only solo album, Loop the Loop – everything else you’ve put out is shorter format and/or collaborative. Why is that?
I don’t think I’ll ever be totally comfortable being a solo artist, at least in a performance sense. I love the early stages of songwriting on my own – before the inevitable midway skids – but I tend to lose interest when the process drags on. There’s a strong urge to jump ship. I guess that’s what an EP is for me, a jump off point!
It’s much easier when it’s not your own work. Working with others is a way of practising some humility – reminding yourself to remain open at all times. I’ve worked a lot with Westerman in the last few years. He follows his instinct without fear. If he’s bored halfway through a 4-bar sequence, he’ll cut it short and go somewhere else. That’s fun to listen to and work with.
Given your vast and leftfield influences, it’s hard to describe a coherent Bullion sound. How do you view your work alongside the oddball pop artists who inspired you?
I had a funny experience at a party recently. The playlist I do, ‘Pop, not slop’, was on in the background. Mid-conversation, a song came on that was familiar. I had about 10 seconds of not knowing what it was, and by the time I’d made a judgment I realised it was my own song. The judgment had been, ‘This is alright…’
It’s pretty hard to be objective about your own work and probably pointless anyway. I’m rarely happy with what I make until much later, and that neat trick keeps me pushing on.
At the same time, despite years recording with dance music labels and producers, you don’t write for the club.
I’ve been trying for years to be guided by limitations in music, particularly on the dancey side of things. But the truth is, I can’t resist taking the kinds of twists and turns that generally don’t make for good club music. ‘Blue Pedro’ is maybe the closest I got, in terms of simplicity. But I’ve accepted that it’s not my world, and I’m far happier letting exploration run wild. I’m trying to limit myself in other ways.
How does that factor into your approach in the studio?
Too many synths and drum machines don’t always equal inspiration for me. There’ve been plenty of mornings where I’ve opened the studio door, looked inside at all the ‘gear’, and then left the house for the day. Coming back to London for the recent lockdown and having fewer options, there’s space in my brain for more ideas and writing.
Which brings us to We Had a Good Time. More than previous records, your use of vocals and lyrics there is pretty spare – particularly on ‘O Vermona’, with its one repeating line: “I’ll never go quiet on you”.
I only sing when there’s an idea worth following. Sometimes one line is more than anyone needs to hear from me! For a while after making peace with hearing my own voice, I put pressure on myself to write music with space for a vocal. That got boring very quickly. If you’re boring yourself, it’s time to put a spanner in the works.
The lyrics that are there often hit a particular kind of lightness, but suggest a lot that’s unsaid. Do you write with humour in mind, or are your words more coded?
I can’t bear the snobbery around ‘lyricism’. Words and sentiment can afford to be basic: as long as it sounds right and provokes a feeling, I’m on board. I dig that in M. T. Hadley’s songs – he takes on heavy stuff but never sinks into gloom or pomp.
What’s next for Bullion, at least once this all blows over?
I’ve been working with LISS who are out in Copenhagen. They were quite amused by my interest in Royal Copenhagen mugs – the yearly editions they’ve made since the 60s with designs by different artists. When I flew over to record, we spent a lot of time eating excellent pastries and laughing. If there’s no humour in the studio and all is serious, I find it hard to connect.
Nilüfer Yanya and I are recording again. That’s been a long time coming, since the cover of ‘Hey’ by The Pixies we did years ago. I’m very excited about what we’re making!
Beyond that, I have some more solo material coming up, and I’m producing various other new projects, remotely – until we’re free again!
Buy: We Had A Good Time
Photo credit: Bex Day