As former Cocteau Twin,Simon Raymonde prepares for Liverpool Music Week, Getintothis’ Del Pike discusses with him 4AD, Bella Union, 23 Envelope and the Adele dominated Indie chart.
Raymonde who enjoyed nearly twenty years of indie chart success with the wonderful Cocteaus is now perhaps equally known for his work as showrunner for Bella Union, the label responsible for amongst many great acts, The Flaming Lips, Fleet Foxes, Ezra Furman and John Grant.
As Bella Union celebrates it twenty-year anniversary and Raymonde prepares to take to the stage for the first time in as many years, we spoke with him, and found out what has kept him in this increasingly difficult industry for so long.
We’re on good terms before we begin as Simon has been a valuable member of the GIT awards judging panel previously and knows what we’re about. He’s clearly happy to discuss his role as performer and record label manager and believes sincerely that he still has work that needs to be done.
We start by celebrating the fact that Bella Union has lasted two decades and achieved so much;
“It’s remarkable that we’ve got this far really, I still scratch my head as to how it all happened, cause it just seems like yesterday that we started this label out of nothing really, we had no experience at it, no interest in record labels AT ALL!, hated them in fact, still do, so the idea of running one and being relatively successful I suppose is quite bizarre if I’m honest. Looking back on it as you tend to do when you hit a landmark… I’m pleased at how it’s gone. To develop some of those careers or helped them along the way, some of those artists out there, it’s an absolute joy.”
We discuss Lost Horizons, the new project that finds Simon and Richie creating more dreamlike soundscapes with a whole roster of guest performers. The incredible Frenzy, Fear features mesmerising vocals from Bella Union artist Hilang Child and has been playing on a loop in this writer’s room.
“Bella Union has taken over my life if I’m honest, I’ve done nothing else for literally twenty years, it’s interesting that right now I’m phasing down a little bit on the label and concentrating on my own music which I’ve missed. I got in touch with Richie, who is an old friend, and we said “Let’s just make some music for the fun of it, let’s not talk about having a record out or any of that nonsense, let’s just do it! Make music like we did when we were kids for the sheer love of it, it’s been an absolute joy to be honest”
We talk about an unofficial Cocteau Twins website makes the claim that Bella Union represent “Music that transcends boundaries”. Simon is flattered that “ardent” fans have put together the site but refutes the claim in some ways;
“I’m not much for analysing what I do, or what I’ve done, I’m just quite an instinctive sort of person with really broad musical tastes. The label is obviously, in part a reflection of my musical tastes, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. I’d like to have a lot more interesting articles on my label than I have. I’d love to have some dub or reggae on there as I’ve always been crazy about that kind of music. I’d love to find something in the jazz world that would excite me, but I haven’t found those things yet, not through want of trying. Having said that, we do have an extremely varied roster of artists, and the ones who have done well do paint us into a corner and make people think we are a folky, Americana type of label. I don’t really think that though, we have classical, soundtracks, hip-hop records, all sorts of African stuff on there, but obviously the things that have done the best are the things that are in that vein.”
We take a little time to reflect on the iconic nature of 4AD, a label which nurtured and established acts including The Pixies, Colourbox, The Breeders and continue this day to provide a home for acts such as Deerhunter, D.D. Dumbo and The National. 4AD have been as celebrated for their in-house sleeve designs as the music within, via graphic artists 23 Envelope. We talk about the extent to which 4AD has influenced Bella Union:
“The influence has not necessarily been conscious, but when you are young, impressionable and at that period in your life, you are like a sponge – sucking all of those influences in, it’s inevitable that at some point during your adult life that that stuff comes out. I wouldn’t have known about Tarkovsky or Eno if I’d not been friends with the guy who ran the 4AD label, he was older than us, in his 30s when we were in our late teens / early 20s. He had amazing tastes and would get us into all these cool things.”
“As a result, becoming interested in art, design and film was in part his influence. So, I do take a lot of care over the packaging… to an extent. There’s plenty of sleeves for Bella Union that I don’t like, but for the main part I’m quite hands off, unless I’m encouraged to give my own opinion. I’ll say “Look, if you think that’s an amazing piece of art work, I’m not going to tell you it isn’t. If you think that’s representative of what you do – then great, if you want my opinion, I hate it.””
“I’m not saying 4AD was fascistic but they had their own art department and it was like “Vaughan’s doing the art work, and that’s what it’s going to be like. I now have my in-house art department which the artists can use… if they want. But is it as influential as 23 Envelope? Absolutely not.”
Simon makes a valid point about the resounding influence of 23 Envelope;
“Their record sleeves influenced how book sleeves ended up. In the 80s / 90s they were just boring, boring images, boring fonts, boring graphics and typography. You look at what 23 Envelope were doing in the late 90s, particularly their work with The Breeders and The Pixies and I’m sure they had a massive influence. Book design became really interesting.”
I bring up the issue of the lack of identity in the modern day Indie chart and how it differs from the days of The Cocteau Twins. A look at the chart now reveals that apart from the regular presence of The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army and four-year old singles from The Arctic Monkeys, the chart is unrecognisable, dominated by Adele, Stormzy and many acts featuring “featuring” in their name. We discuss how difficult it is for traditional indie bands to find recognition in a chart that is effectively, completely alien to them.
“To be honest, I don’t even look at it, not looked at it for years”, a telling statement from the boss of an indie label. “It needs to be addressed by the Association of Independent Music, I’m sure they have noticed this discrepancy. It’s got so much harder, for young bands getting any sort of recognition outside of supportive blogs. I love 6 Music, but there is just not enough space in there to cover all the things that are going on just in the UK, never mind anywhere else.”
“There is more great music being made than ever before. I could sign two new bands every day for the rest of my life based on the amount of good things I hear that excite me, but you can’t do that with the limited resources you’ve got. It’s difficult to keep up with the amazing backlog of the shit that’s out there, you can’t give it enough coverage and that’s a worry to me; Once upon a time a band like The Cocteau Twins could come out of nowhere with literally one DJ like John Peel, supporting the band and you could sell out shows, create a buzz about our records, but people are too busy to listen to the radio or read a review, they just skim the surface. Bands now can’t survive without a day job, fitting their music around it”
We continue to lament the changes in the industry and Simon sadly admits;
“It’s hard to sell out a show nowadays, people just won’t get off their arses. As far as record sales go, maybe even just four or five years ago, an album would come out by a new band with a decent amount of buzz and you could guarantee you’d sell maybe a thousand in the first couple of weeks, nowadays it’s probably a hundred.”
We talk about the difficulty of bands making it to a second or third album and Simon blames this on old fashioned record contracts still overseen by old codgers. A situation where a lack of profit on a first album means there is money to invest in another, “it’s just daft” sighs Simon. I ask how he combats this old-fashioned model with Bella Union.
“I just have to be really, really honest with the bands and say, “Look, don’t give up your day job just because you’ve signed to Bella Union, don’t think your whole life is going to change, it’s not. You’ve got a team on your side who will help every which way we can, but that in itself, means absolutely fuck all. There’s no point in giving a band an advance because straight away I have to make that money back. Even if you sell a hundred records in the first campaign, do the math, it just doesn’t add up. It’s going to maybe take three albums or more before anyone gives a fuck about what you’re doing, I wish it weren’t so, and it has no reflection on your artistic merit, but that’s how it is.”
Despite the downbeat route that our discussion has taken, Simon still finds that the drive to continue has not dissipated in any way;
“I still love what I do, I adore the music 24/7, I always want to hear something exciting. It does still thrill me to go to a gig and be blown away, just like I did when I was 15, going to see The Buzzcocks or The Smiths or whatever. I appreciate I am now a much older gentleman, but I still retain the same enthusiasm as someone much younger, and because of my association with The Cocteau Twins, with major labels, with Bella Union, going through so many ups and downs, all these fantastic artists I’ve worked with over the last 20 years, I must have some value to a young artist who may need a bit of help, confidence building or realism.”
“Sometimes people need to hear it straight, as you get older you don’t really care what people think of you anymore, it’s quite fun, I’m happy just to say “Do you want my honest opinion on this? I don’t think the vocals are good in that, I think you need to go away and rewrite these songs, or whatever.” I don’t mind saying it, even though it might be upsetting, because I don’t say it in an upsetting way, I say, I’m trying to be helpful, not destructive. That’s why I carry on, and because I don’t want to work in Tesco.”
We finish by looking forward to the Lost Horizons gig and what to expect;
“We’ve not started rehearsing yet” he laughs, “I’m not exactly sure but I’m excited. We have a full band, three female singers and two male singers. It’s almost impossible to recreate the album live, so it’s a big collaboration, quite similar to This Mortal Coil. We’ve made it work with a select bunch of artists who I love and admire, and that’s about as much as I can tell without giving too much away. I’ve not done this for 20 years so it better be good. I’m really excited about it, because I care so much about the music we’ve created.”
Simon finishes by admitting;
“I’m not a natural performer, I much prefer the studio, but I’ve been touring and playing with Mercury Rev as a guitarist, and I’ve so loved doing that, and I’ve been involved in the Scott Walker prom that happened.
Simon is clearly someone who is passionate about his many platforms of work and we think that the gig will be an essential night on Music Week’s calender.
The Lost Horizons album Ojalá, is due for release in November and the band will appear at LEAF on October 30.