Green Shoots: Richard Dawson And Sally Pilkington On Lockdown Project Bulbils

From lockdown in Newcastle, Richard Dawson and Sally Pilkington have released over thirty new albums and counting under the new moniker Bulbils in an effort to cope with the coronavirus crisis. They tell Patrick Clarke the story of their beautiful new band.

Photos courtesy of Richard Dawson

On Monday, March 23, the day the UK was first placed into lockdown, Richard Dawson and Sally Pilkington released their first mini-album as Bulbils. Bandmates in Hen Ogledd and partners on lockdown in their terraced house in Newcastle, they’ve now released over thirty, at first at a rate of one every day. Their living room has been converted into a makeshift studio, with synths, vocoders, keyboards, guitars and drum machines; the music is for the most part hypnotic, lo-fi, beautiful and ambient – gently evolving, growing and shrinking from one album to the next. You’ll find some of their favourites peppered amidst this article.

The project is serving as a coping mechanism, the duo tell tQ over a Zoom call, particularly after Dawson put the finishing touches on an album he’s been working on with brilliant Finnish metal outfit Circle. Bulbils is like a landmark, he says, in the choppy waters an artist finds themselves in after the end of a big project. He and Circle were also due to perform together on March 28 as part of a festival curated by the former at the Barbican called Delight Is Right. Before its inevitable cancellation, it stood on the calendar as the climax of his superb most recent project, 2020. Bulbils has served as a calming, comforting influence for listeners too, they’ve been told.

That Barbican show is now indefinitely delayed, and the world that 2020 so viscerally captured has been turned on its head, but he and Pilkington are already setting their sights on what’s next. They have also been using lockdown to work on their next album as experimentalists-turned-glorious pop quartet Hen Ogledd, whose Rhodri Davies has also appeared on two Bulbils releases – Loved And Longed For Always and Colour – from his home in Swansea.

Every one of the albums is free, but they are encouraging those who are able to contribute to Women’s Aid, Crisis and/or RNIB. You can find all of the releases here, and read on for our chat with Dawson and Pilkington.

Can you take me through the story of Bulbils? At what point did you start the new project?

Sally Pilkington: It was on the first day of lockdown, the very first day, it was Richard’s decision to start recording…

Richard Dawson: It’s kind of foggy, but once we got going we made an album a day for the first couple of weeks. We agreed that it should be of use, at first to us and then hopefully to a small handful of people too.

SP: It’s become a reason to share the kind of music we wouldn’t normally share, which feels like quite a personal thing. A lot of it’s quite rough and the kind of thing that’s quite unprocessed. It’s quite intimate in a way.

RD: The context helps a lot, it’s pretty context heavy, but it does make me realise you lose a lot of interest in something when you refine it. So it’s nice it being really unrefined, like the scum off the top of the beer, that’s this, rather than the tasty part!

The name is self-explanatory, I guess?

RD: We really wanted to call it Mole but there’s already a band called Mole. We went through names like ‘Weather’, ‘Mushrooms’, ‘Spores’… You see where were going with that. At first it was going to be the something something ‘lockdown band’, but that’s so crap. Bulbils was perfect, it feels like where we’re at as well, just poking through the surface, not ambitious, you know?

Do you feel like there’s less pressure on the results than there would be usually?

RD: For sure, although there’s still some quality control. If I’ve done some crap guitar playing I can’t let that stand!

SP: It’s still quite different than it would be if we were messing around in the house. I’m definitely aware of making it sound nice, or not messing it up, or doing anything that’s too painful to listen to, because we don’t want to spend loads of time editing it.

RD: We’re trying to just shift some element each time we record, to shift the set up slightly or some approach or some melodic thing, make it so each piece might have its own identity.

Have you had a sense of who’s out there listening, any feedback?

RD: I’ve had a lot of tweets and Facebook messages, nice things saying exactly what we’d hope for, that it had been comfort, and that they were looking forward to a notification landing in their inbox. A label got in touch maybe to do a record, so maybe that’s something we might do at the end as a nice memento. We go out for walks and bump into friends and they’ve been listening too.

SP: Amongst our circle of friends it’s been a nice way to keep in touch.

RD: You know you see some people being really gung-ho and full of life and productive on their social media profiles? Hopefully this is that, but not as repulsive because it’s not that impressive.

Has it ended up helping you cope, as you hoped?

SP: I find it very relaxing to do, and most of what we’re playing is very minimal, zoned-out, ambient relaxing music. Some of it’s had more rhythm and structure to it, but just actually playing is generally quite relaxing and meditative for me.

RD: I’ve been making an album with Circle and I’ve just about hit the end of that, I did some recording and finished the lyrics, and like I do every time at the end of a big project it suddenly leaves this hole. I was doing pretty good for the first few weeks of lockdown but then at the end of that project you’re just out at sea, with no landmarks. Bulbils has functioned as a bit of a good landmark. It’s really meant that instead of spending the last couple of hours of every day playing FIFA or flicking through crap telly, I’ve had this thing to do. It’s not too demanding, but you still have to focus, every day you make a cover, find a different font. It gives me a bit of structure.

I was so excited to see you play with Circle in March and was so sad to see it cancelled. I don’t want to depress you even further but it seemed like such a culmination of the 2020 project…

RD: It’s tricky. You quickly adjust to [the cancellation] and realise everyone’s in the same boat, but the trickier thing is that we’re trying to reschedule shows now and it’s starting to look like it might be next year, and you can either hold on or move on with music. It feels like a bit of a sin that you might put off music, so the idea that we’re gonna be able to perform this stuff next year, I don’t really see it myself. So it does feel like we had this big thing to share, a lot of work had gone into it and we were just getting to the point of the payback, but now we’ve had to draw back quite a bit. It’s changed the course of everything. The element with Circle doesn’t feel so sad because I think we’ll get to it and it’ll be even better for it, so that’ll be good, but yeah, we didn’t get to play with Hannah Diamond.

Do you see Bulbils’ life as being connected completely to the lockdown, or will it continue indefinitely?

SP: I think it makes sense in that way of just relating to this specific time.

RD: And if there’s any more lockdowns, which there well might be, we’ll start again. I kind of think circumstances might allow for us to do things in the future but we’ll play it by ear. I think the music will make itself apparent if it needs to, and if it doesn’t then that’s OK, we’ll read more books instead.

SP: I don’t know how long we’re gonna be in lockdown because already I feel like what I’m bringing to it or what I’ve got each day is… I guess it goes up and down in terms of feeling inspired. But also I guess because we’re just kind of doing it as time’s getting on and we’re doing more and more, there’s patterns emerging and things that we’re doing over again. That’s kind of nice in a way.

RD: It’s a problem that most bands face, running out of ideas, but they run out ten years into their career.

What else are you working on at the moment?

SP: The new Hen Ogledd album is on its way! I’ve been busy getting the artwork together for that, and we’re also wrestling with getting a video together. We’ve got a friend who’s an artist who were hoping might do it but deadline-wise she’s got three kids at home so now it’s not going to happen. Making a video in lockdown is proving quite a challenge.

RD: I’m writing as well because I feel this urgency, not necessarily to do with what’s going on, but I have the time now. The last few days have been really crap, but otherwise it’s been very focussed and creative on a personal level. New songs are appearing and I’m starting to work on another record. It’s tricky, because the context changes. That’s always the thing with writing as well, you can write for the moment you’re in and then two or three months down the line the picture can change quite dramatically.

The world that you captured so brilliantly on 2020 has been obliterated now!

RD: It’s totally fucked that album, that’s the worst thing about all of this! [laughs]. People are going to look back and say that album’s bollocks! Perhaps they were going to do that anyway though.

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