BELLA UNION RECORDS – Labels We Love

Posted: June 25, 2017 in MUSIC
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Bella booklet

Simon Raymonde never really meant for Bella Union to become a music industry success story.

When he started the label back in 1997, it was nothing more than a vehicle for his artistic endeavours with Cocteau Twins. Bruised by dismaying music business experiences, Raymonde and bandmate Robin Guthrie made a brave, autonomous move – starting a label with which to put out their own records.

Then, in a classic indie-label-starts-with-laughable-disaster moment, Cocteau Twins split up. Six months after we started the label, Liz called up and said she didn’t want to do the band anymore. The intention of the label was to put out our own music – it was never to sign other bands, to be an actual record label; we hated record labels! We had such a terrible experience with 4AD, and then another terrible experience with a major.

Raymonde knew if his fledgling record label wasn’t going to be dissolved before it had got going, he needed to become an A&R, and sign some bands. The band [Cocteau Twins] had an undeniably difficult relationship with 4AD. Then we made a huge mistake and signed with Universal – with Mercury – in 1994.

We started the label, got the logo done, letterheads, an office, staff… and then we had no band.

Nineteen years later, we have his willingness to do so to thank for standout records from the likes of John Grant, Explosions In The Sky, Laura Veirs, Midlake, Beach House, Father John Misty, Ezra Furman, The Walkmen, The Flaming Lips, PINS, Money and Lanterns On The Lake.

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Of course, you can also add to that list Fleet Foxes – whose self-titled 2008 debut and 2011 follow-up, “Helplessness Blues”,have reached a level of commercial success all-too-rarely enjoyed in the independent label sector.

Getting a BRIT Award nomination for John [Grant, 2014] and Father John Misty [2016] – that’s huge when you think how this label started.

It’s a real challenge to break a new band – much more than it was five years ago. Yeah, we’ve got John Grant, Beach House, Father John Misty, Explosions in the Sky and several artists like these who sell 20,000 to 50,000 records. And that’s decent. I’m very happy. But those are all bands who are now in their 30s.

The challenge is, how do we break a band in their 20s who haven’t put three albums out back in the age when CDs were still selling and you could get blanket press? I fear it’s not easy.

There’s brilliant bands everywhere. Especially Fleet Foxes, That band has been massive for Bella Union. I probably wouldn’t be here without them, and the signing, to keep the whole thing going, was pivotal. I was about to give up the label before I heard that song, “White Winter Hymnal”.

I’d gone to Oya Festval in 2007. We’d had Midlake’s record [The Trials Of Van Occupanther], which came out in 2006. I was so upset this record hadn’t sold a million copies. I still think it’s a classic album.

We’d sold 30,000 copies in the UK, which was good, but it wasn’t what it deserved. I was thinking, if only I had some money in the bank, even something small – £10,000 extra to do some posters or some more marketing.

In those days our marketing was literally: put the record out. There was no money for anything beyond a press and radio campaign that we did in-house with Duncan and Cool Badge.

It was the same with Fionn Regan [who released Mercury-nominated album The End Of History on Bella Union in 2006]; we got to that 30,000 level but we didn’t have the cash injection to get it above 50,000. It was so frustrating.

So I was at Oya Festival, miserable, thinking, ‘I don’t think I can do this any more.’ My first marriage had gone all wrong and I’d just gotten divorced. I was at a low ebb.

Claus who runs Oya had invited some people including me to his house for a get-together but I was really not feeling sociable at all, quite out of sorts, sat overlooking the fjord – I thought, okay, I’m going to go home, tell everyone at the label, that’s it.

I got back to my hotel room and got an email from this friend called Trey, who booked Midlake and Beach House in the US. He said, ‘You’ve got to listen to this MySpace link. I just saw this band’s third ever gig – I think you might like it.’

I pressed play and within ten seconds, I was like, ‘I HAVE to sign this band. This is the one.’ I wrote to the band on Myspace, from my hotel room and it turned out that Robin the band’s singer/writer was in Norway with his brother and sister – despite living in Seattle. His ancestors are Norwegian. A really weird coincidence.

I explained what Bella Union was and that I used to be in [Cocteau Twins], and I was encouraged that he knew who I was. He was flying to London the next day, and that’s where we met the next week. We got on really great.

I offered him a worldwide deal, even though we didn’t really have anything going on in the US at the time. I also offered to manage him! Whatever I could do, you know. Then it went a bit quiet – a month went by after I’d made him an offer, and I’d heard a whisper that he was talking to Sub-Pop. He lives in Seattle, so it made sense he would be speaking to them.

I put 2 and 2 together and realised something was going wrong, and that I needed to do something about it. Eventually, he wrote me and said: ‘Listen, we’ve had a worldwide offer from Sub-Pop and I think we’re going to do it. I wanted to let you know about it first.’

I immediately wrote back, without self-editing, with what I felt. I said: ‘I get it. I’d probably do the same thing in your shoes. Why wouldn’t you? It’s an iconic label, one of the best, round the corner from your flat. But just think about it for a second. Over here, Sub-Pop don’t quite have the setup. Who’s going to meet you at the airport in London or Paris? If you sign to Bella Union, or any label with a similar setup around Europe, you’ll have a home here.’

It was true. The next day, I got the contract back from the band, signed, for Europe. It was musician to musician, not as a guy cynically trying to get him to sign. That’s where sometimes, I win, and sometimes I lose.

 


Bella Union also signed The Czars, 

Yeah. I’ve worked with John Grant since 1998; the year after the label started. In the days when people used to use DATs, he sent me one of a Czars demo and it was… awful.

I remember writing back – he seemed really nice in the letter – saying, ‘Your voice is good, really interesting. But the music’s not. Maybe send me some stuff another time.’ A few months later, another DAT, and some of it was pretty good, but the band still sounded pretty rubbish. I told him. He was like: ‘Yeah, I know. I’m trying to do something about it.’

Then I saw them play in Denver. The band were good, not great, but he had something about him. He was this big guy with this fragility and an amazingly powerful voice.

In those days, we had a beautiful recording studio which Cocteau Twins had on the river in Richmond. It was Pete Townshend’s studio and, well, ‘cos it was in Richmond, the rent was fucking ridiculous – like £60,000 a year.

The band had broken up by then, so there was no income to pay for the studio. Pete was a very generous guy [and let the band owe him rent]. It was the last days before we were kicked out, really.

I offered to bring The Czars over and to produce their album in that studio. That’s what I did; I played a lot of the instruments, got very hands on with it. I really enjoyed the process. I think John did too, in his own way.

Then we made another album, and I went to Denver to produce that one. I always knew that it was all about John. The Czars made a third album, then John was starting to have some problems with the band – they weren’t improving at the rate we needed them to improve, but his songwriting was getting better and better.

I should say, we were selling no records at all at this point. The Czars first three albums probably sold 5,000 copies each. But I just knew that John would make an amazing record at some point.

Then he got into trouble – he had big problems with drink and drugs and stopped making music. He was translating Russian medical text books into German and living in New York, I think; he’s an incredible linguist. He speaks about 10 languages fluently.

He was miserable as sin. Then the Midlake guys, God bless them, heard he wasn’t well – rumours were that he was on suicide watch in a hospital, I think – and they said: ‘You need to get back to Texas. We’ll look after you. We’ll get you well. Come and stay with us and make a record.’

They literally put him up in their houses for six months to a year. Going in the studio in the evening after they’d finished their own record during the day time. My part in this is very minimal, really. I believed in him and thought he’d make a great record, but I wasn’t the one looking after him. Midlake did it all off their own back. And then John delivered this amazing record, “Queen Of Denmark”.

The catalyst to the whole John Grant success story is Phil Alexander, the editor of Mojo, who had come to my office in Hackney. I was playing him the latest Midlake album and talking to him about getting on board with it – he’s a massive fan. And as he was about to leave, I said come back and let me play you this thing by John Grant from The Czars. I played him two unmixed tracks and he was completely blown away.

A month later, I was speaking to Phil about something else and I said, By the way, how did that interview with John go? And he was like, ‘It was unbelievable – it was a four hour phone call. I couldn’t ever transcribe it. It was like a therapy session. It was too intense, too personal.’

But two months later, Phil made Queen Of Denmark Album Of The Month in Mojo. That support was huge – for John Grant to get a five-star, two-page review with a hand-painted illustration on the second page… when no-one knew who he was. .

We are lucky enough to have two limited and exclusive coloured vinyl pressings of the long out of print Jonathan Wilson albums Gentle Spirit and Fanfare. If you purchase any of the Bella Union titles you’ll also get a free sampler CD and booklet, once again exclusive to Rough Trade

Jonathan wilson

20 years doing ANYTHING in music seems faintly absurd, let alone running a record label, something my previous 20 years making music mostly with my band Cocteau Twins certainly did not prepare me for. What I do know is that i have always wanted to run this label from the perspective of an artist and was always advised that this wasn’t possible to make work over a long and sustained period. So, even if this all goes pear shaped tomorrow, I think we have done a great job to still be in business after 20 of the most tumultuous years in the music industry’s history, and this I am sure is in great part down to the team I’ve been lucky enough to work with at the label throughout these dark times. Simon Raymonde – Bella Union.

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