Bullion: Sail away
The best way of getting to know a new place is to acquaint yourself with the locals. For Bullion – who fled the chaos of London for a calmer life in Lisbon two years ago – a reconnaissance unfolded via the city’s microcosm of synth enthusiasts. After developing an “obsession with buying and selling things on OLX” – Portugal’s preferred online auction site – the wayward pop adventurer otherwise known as Nathan Jenkins found himself rubbing shoulders with a wealth of characters, including a veteran pilot who owned a garage stuffed full of music memorabilia. He bought a couple of synths and made a record.
That record, the sparkling new EP, We Had A Good Time, carries the languid quality of Lisbon across its five sun-kissed tracks, all of which were written, except Hula, at Jenkins’ former home in hilly Alfama – Lisbon’s oldest neighbourhood and a hotspot for fado; Portugal’s melancholic traditional folk. With its cobbled winding streets, historic buildings and panoramic view of the river Tejo, Alfama has been a source of creative inspiration for generations, its hotel Palácio Belmonte immortalised by Wim Wenders in his 1997 arthouse gem, Lisbon Story. Jenkins found himself residing just a stone’s throw from that opulent building.
“Like a lot of people, I had this romantic notion of living abroad, and Lisbon seemed like a natural move,” says Jenkins, who was inspired to make the move partly after watching another cult film set in the Portuguese capital, In the White City. Alain Tanner’s 1983 drama depicts the misadventures of a hapless sailor who goes AWOL in Lisbon. “He just decides to jump ship there, and gets lost in the city,” explains Jenkins, who loosely draws a line from the film’s existential wanderings to the continued appeal of Lisbon as a hub for refuge, retreat and in some cases, even rebirth. “That seems to be quite a common thread in films about Lisbon; lost people coming here in need of some change they’re not necessarily aware of. A lot of people I’ve talked to since I’ve moved here seem to be coming from that place too.”
© Thyra Dragseth
Our chat is taking place over a coffee at one of Lisbon’s numerous miradouros (viewpoints); an outdoor spot near to both of our houses. “If you look around, it’s pretty clear why you’re here,” he says, gesturing to the sweeping vista of our hilltop surroundings. “Because it’s such an incredible place. It’s just idyllic really.” Jenkins first began putting out releases as Bullion in 2007 with his viral sort-of-mashup opus Pet Sounds: n the Key of Dee, before turning out a string of records for respected imprints like Honest Jon’s, R&S Records, Young Turks and Whities. In 2011, he dropped “non-LP” You Drive Me to Plastic – a head-spinning testament to his intrepid plunderphonics and magpie-like knack for genre-mashing. A keen collaborator, Jenkins has worked with Paul Epworth, Sampha and Nilüfer Yanya, and recently jammed with Avalon Emerson while she was in Lisbon for a show. He has been flitting between Copenhagen and Lisbon with Danish band LISS, while also producing the understated pop of London singer-songwriter Westerman.
In 2012, Jenkins christened the launch of his own DEEK Recordings with the Love Me Oh Please Love Me EP, which featured a cover of Robert Wyatt’s The Age of Self. Subsequently attaching the ‘Pop-not-slop’ aesthetic and accompanying playlist series to the label, 2015 saw the release of the Rooster 12”, and in 2016 his vocals-heavy full-length, Loop the Loop; a 13-track record that stylistically joined the dots between Jenkins’ ’70s and ‘80s songwriting fascinations, from Can’s Holger Czukay, to Devo and Thomas Dolby. Last October marked the fourth covers collection on DEEK, which features artists including Lisbon-based duo Camila Fuchs and Westerman. The 4 Down compilation is a document of Bullion’s wide-reaching collaborative vision. “Working with other people is the best way to learn and also to finish music,” he offers. “Those are the two things that I would like to achieve when I sit down to make music – learn something new and to actually finish it. Also, it means you’re less precious about things. You can’t be in your own head so much; it’s clearly not good for me to be in my head for too long.”
His new EP, Bullion’s first solo record in three years, picks up where Loop the Loop left off, infusing slices of chamber pop with soothing pads and diary-like snatches of lyrics. It’s all bathed in a warm, reverb-cushioned glow. “So I’m the lucky one,” he sings on the title track, tripping over gauzy synths. On Hula he asks: “Are people in pain where you are?” His vocals, although sparse, are confident, stirring and charged by memory. With guitar from both Jenkins and recent collaborator Will Westerman on Hula and Hula Hula, the record exudes a vaguely yacht rock sensibility that hints at the nautical highs of 2016 underground house smash Blue Pedro.
© Thyra Dragseth
Jenkins is enthusiastic about the “unbridled joy” that Blue Pedro brought to so many. “The year after making and releasing Blue Pedro was probably the most I’ve ever enjoyed DJing,” he says. “I was just playing it out shamelessly and enjoying the response more and more; letting go of some idea that I shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy it as it’s too self-indulgent.” He remembers putting the track on at a party in Bristol and looking out at the crowd to see everyone dancing on each other’s shoulders. “It was just really fun and inclusive and everyone seemed kind of quite happy. You can’t argue with that; being in a place where everyone is dancing around and smiling – who could be cynical about that in the end?”
Reflecting on the Blue Pedro epoch, Jenkins feels like it summed up his last days of partying. “Those communal experiences are undeniably really lovely things at the best of times, but I don’t do much of that anymore so it’s really nice to look back on it and have that attached to it, to have made something out of that experience and to have a postcard from that time.” Jenkins began developing tinnitus about six years ago, and this has affected his ability and desire to enjoy certain things. “It has been getting worse over the past few years, and this is partly why I stopped DJing so much. It’s not even just gigs, but loud spaces with certain frequencies. Being in Lisbon is the first time I’ve had an acoustically treated room and I think it’s made me listen more closely to things. Being in a quieter place, I can hear the tinnitus more and it’s just made me hone in on really detailed sounds.”
© Thyra Dragseth
Embellished with intricate electronics, this attention to detail comes through in the effects-layered tapestry of We Had A Good Time. “I’ll never go quiet on you,” he repeats balmily on opener O Vermona, kicking off the record with woozy pitch-bending that nods to alt-country. Boxy drums and claps add a dancey touch to the mellow title track – co-written with Diego Herrera, aka Suzanne Kraft – and on Cinema Down, tinny hi-hats bash into louche, twangy guitar for a satisfying concoction. Jenkins gives his wistful vocals extra room to breathe on synth ballads Hula and Hula Hula, the latter stirring up echoey thoughts of 10cc.
We Had A Good Time is characterised by its sense of ending as much as its hopeful promise of springlike renewal. It naturally embodies the spirit of Lisbon, while also representing a new chapter of self-discovery for the west London-born producer, who had started to feel the pressures of his hometown taking their toll. “I needed to reflect on myself and who I actually was,” he admits. “In London, I was stuck in a cycle of bad habits and not really having a clue about who I really was. I think coming to a quieter place with less people around and less things around you that are familiar, then you really do get to understand more about yourself.”
Photography: Thyra Dragseth
We Had a Good Time is out now via DEEK Recordings