He’s drummed with Spiritualized and Julian Cope. Now Kev Bales has joined up with Wolfgang Buttress and a beehive – to create a transcendental drone symphony
We had a joke in the studio that they were the best band members we’ve ever had,” laughs Kev Bales when describing the recording of Be’s One album. Bales may have spent the last 30 years drumming with the likes of Spiritualized, Soulsavers and Julian Cope, but the musicians he’s referring to here are a different kind of buzz band altogether: to be precise, they’re 40,000 bees, and their activity forms the basis of One, a transcendental drone symphony between man and bee that is surely one of the year’s most beguiling offerings.
To understand where it all came from requires a bit of backstory. So let’s begin at the Expo 2015 exhibition in Milan, where Nottingham-based artist Wolfgang Buttress has been chosen to represent the UK and build a pavilion under the theme “feeding the planet”. He’s decided to base his structure around the honeybee – responsible for 30% of the food we eat, yet threatened by pesticides and a lack of biodiversity – and sets to work constructing The Hive, a 50-tonne, 17-metre-high lattice structure for people to wander around. It’s an impressive concept, but Buttress feels that, to truly convey the honeybee’s plight, it needs something more.
“Have you ever been to a hive?” asks Buttress, when we meet for coffee in London. “The first time you lift them out there’s this incredible, visceral hum. I thought it might just be an irritating bzzzzzz sound, but it’s so low it just kind ofgets you.”
The hive in question belonged to Dr Martin Bencsik of Nottingham Trent University. Bencsik is an expert in bee communication who has developed ways to measure their activity – from docile morning periods to frantic afternoons – by placing vibration sensors inside their hives. After his first meeting with Bencsik, Buttress had a brainwave: by transmitting a live stream of the hive’s activity from Nottingham to Milan, he would be able to reflect the daily life of a bee in real-time using a series of LED lights placed throughout his giant hive.
That was all well and good, visually speaking, but what about a soundtrack? Buttress set out to form a band that could play alongside the deep buzz he’d been so affected by. He already knew Bales and his longtime bandmate Tony Foster, but serendipity played a part too: it turned out Bencsik’s wife Deirdre was a classically trained cellist. She worked out that the bees were buzzing in the key of C, and went about adorning their drone with resonant swathes of cello while Buttress’s teenage daughter Camille improvised some vocals. Watching all this unfold at the first rehearsal, Bales realised straight away that they were on to something magical. Yet it was also completely different to anything he’d done before.
“We kept saying: ‘Let’s try putting this in,’ but we realised that the more space we left for the bees, the better it sounded,” he says. “We kept cranking them up higher and higher in the mix.”
“Too many human instruments sounded wrong,” agrees Buttress. “You had to get the balance right between bee and musician. At one point we tried some free-form Coltrane drums but it just took over. If you play too much the hypnotic trance is gone”
As the sessions progressed, Buttress had another idea. If the hive vibrations could be used to influence the LED lights, then why not use them to help influence the soundtrack too? The musicians set to work recording a library of different musical stems – from plangent chords of lap steel to splashes of Mellotron – and Wolfgang and Bencsik devised a system using noise gates that could be triggered to play whenever the hive was acting in a certain way. In this way the bees would, quite literally, be playing the music.
This multi-sensory picture of a bee’s activity struck a chord with the judges in Milan, who awarded The Hive with the gold medal. The resulting album One can be considered an equal triumph – a curated version of these sonic explorations that stays true to the transcendental spirit of the original project (especially opener The Journey: a meditative, 19-minute epic). Bales and Foster even persuaded Spiritualized linchpin Jason Pierce to add guitar, harmonica and autoharp in his home studio, while use was made of the many different bee sounds Bencsik has identified.
“It’s not just buzzing, but also these specific toots and quacks and purrs,” marvels Bales. “I couldn’t believe that some of these sounds came from a bee, they’re far more musical than I expected.”
While Buttress continues his bee adventures – one current project involves setting up a hive in a broken cello; another involves Bencsik translating musical sound into vibrations that the bees can sense – there are plenty of opportunities opening up. The Hive is set to be reconstructed in Kew Gardens from June. And Be will be performing One for the first time later this month in Nottingham, with the aim of bringing the show to festivals such as End of the Road and Glastonbury. Not bad for a band that comprises an artist, a scientist, a classically trained cellist, a 14-year-old girl, half of Spiritualized and 40,000 insects. In fact, when you see that written down, it does make you wonder: are they the most unusual group in pop history?
Bales has a think for a few seconds: “Well, if we’re not, I’m definitely going to see the other band,” he laughs.