The Bees (known as "A Band of Bees" in America, owing to a rights conflict over their name) are a UK band from the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England. Formed in 2000, the bandmembers are Aaron ‘Fletch’ Fletcher (bass), Paul Butler (vocals, keyboards, guitars), Kris Birkin (guitar), Tim Parkin (trumpet), Michael Clevett (drums) and Warren Hampshire (keyboards). Known for harking back to the 60s and 70s, with cheery pop and trips into the psychedelic, A Band of Bees record their albums in analog, notably recording their debut album in a garden shed.
To quote an Amazon review: “The best word to describe the music is bouncy — the Bees call on snappy drums and cheery basslines and guitar riffs for their sound, as well as some deeply moving Hammond organ. To finish off the sound, they inject some harmonies that would make the Zombies wipe away a tear of pride.”
Their influences cover soul, reggae, funk and motown, with artists such as Curtis Mayfield, Burt Bacharach, Up the Junction era Manfred Mann, The Kinks and Small Faces.
A Band of Bees started out as the duo of Paul Butler and Aaron Fletcher, both of whom hailed from the Isle of Wight. They recorded their debut album, Sunshine Hit Me, in a home studio in a shed in Butler's parents' garden. Butler and Fletcher, both multi-instrumentalists and singers, were avid record collectors and, even more so, avid record listeners with interests that extend back to the roots of British rock and into American soul, as well as a multitude of other directions. Sunshine Hit Me, released by We Love You as a U.K.-only issue and credited to the Bees, reflected their interests and listening, melding '60s freakbeat and psychedelic sensibilities with '70s power pop, and got nominated for the coveted Mercury Music Prize in 2002. Their prospects were further enhanced when the duo's rendition of Os Mutantes' "A Minha Menina," from Sunshine Hit Me, was licensed for use in a car commercial in England.
The Mercury nomination and the album's critical success led to the assembly of an actual band, and a couple of years of steady touring. When the smoke cleared, the Bees were officially a sextet with everyone writing songs and switching off on instruments (and Fletcher doing their lyrics). And instead of recording their second album in the Butler family garden shed, as they'd intended, Butler's stint producing another act at EMI ended up with the group booking three weeks there. It took that long for the six members to create Free the Bees. Released in the summer of 2004 on the Virgin imprint, the album got rave reviews in England and earned notice in the United States as well, working its way into better stores and eliciting positive reviews from critics who normally would never have known about it. The group's work has been variously compared to that of the Small Faces (and the Faces), the Beatles, the Byrds, Donovan, the Kinks, the Temptations, and early Pink Floyd, with some other interesting permutations. Butler, for example, counts his own influences as Lee Perry, King Tubby, and Fela Kuti. They saw further commercial success when the tracks "Chicken Payback" and "Wash in the Rain," off of Free the Bees, were both picked up for use in television commercials.
In 2005, in the wake of their success with Free the Bees, the band was also prominently featured on the soundtrack of the Brian Jones biographical film Stoned. Their contribution, doing some finely executed and nicely inventive covers of songs from the Rolling Stones' repertory — including a version of "The Last Time" that managed to rock as hard as the original and get the guitar nuances right, even as it was decked out with sitar — provided some of the very few bright spots to be found in a film that was otherwise greeted as wrong-headed and tedious by most critics; and their tracks made the soundtrack CD well worth picking up.
Being the well-informed pop scholars that they are, the group knew that before they could record their third album they first needed to build their own studio, somewhere they could find their own sound. Forsaking vocalist/producer Paul Butler’s shed (where 2003’s Mercury-nominated debut was hatched) and Abbey Road (where they made 2005’s Free The Bees), the band duly spent a year constructing their wood-lined sonic laboratory in the basement of Paul and fellow founding member Aaron Fletcher’s Isle of Wight home. With walls and floor of pine, it looks most like a Scandinavian sauna. They started jokingly referring to it as The Steamroom and the name stuck. Then the band set out equipping the place, filling it with vintage instruments, amps and recording equipment to get exactly the right sound. An early 1960s mixing desk was recovered from a Swedish radio station, while serious eBay habits were developed.
“Basically we’ve built our own budget version of Abbey Road at home” says Paul. “But the plan is to use it to get our own individual sound from whatever’s recorded in there, so that any of our friends’ bands from the island could come down there and record and it’ll still sound like a Steamrooms production.”
With the studio built, the band was ready to embark on their densest and most far-ranging record to date. Having their own studio within stumbling distance meant that the band could record whenever they wanted: transported from the time-is-money atmosphere of Abbey Road to the picturesque Victorian seaside town of Ventnor with a pub, the Crab And Lobster, over the road.
“Abbey Road was a song-a-day place” reckons drummer Michael Clevett. “And listening back to Free The Bees now it sounds rushed - all of the songs are at breakneck speed! With this it was recorded in a much more relaxing surrounding. The Steamroom is like our headquarters, really.”
In 2007, reduced to a quintet with Clevitt's departure, they released Octopus, a brilliant, wide-ranging pop/rock opus that had inventiveness and unexpected influences quietly oozing out from between every note and chorus. The album benefits from its relaxed homebirth, as it is dense and layered but simultaneously packed with pop grooves; Octopus is the sound of A Band Of Bees refining what they do. Gone are the cover versions and wonky instrumentals, replaced by ten great Bees-shaped pop songs.
Its feet were planted in 2007, but its musical influences looked back to the Kinks of Village Green Preservation Society and the Small Faces of "The Universal." As with much of their earlier work, the album seemed to demand attention as much as it elicited delight, like a book the reader can't put down. For all of their seeming '60s influences, the group comes off as startlingly contemporary, just willing to reach back to artists and styles they admire when it suits them and the music at hand.
“Building the studio on the island was a big thing for us” explains Paul. “We’ve isolated ourselves, hopefully in the same way that all the Jamaican music that we love was a product of being a long way from the mainland.[...] Plus, this time we had no-one to disturb us” he continues. “On one side of the house is a Masonic lodge that only meets twice a week and on the other are some neighbors that are really into what we’re doing. So we had plenty of time to listen back to stuff we’d been working on and remix it if we weren’t totally happy with what we’d done.”
In line with this approach to recording was a new spirit of egalitarianism between the band. Whereas A Band Of Bees’ first album had been written almost entirely by Aaron and Paul, this time round the group were able to drop into the studio at whatever time of day they wanted, pick up an instrument and write something. “We all play each other’s instruments,” says Tim Parkin. “No-one has an ego about whose is which. And because we have The Steamrooms we have plenty of time to jam together, listen to what we’ve recorded then go back and adjust stuff.”