Words: Joe Muggs
It’s not hyperbole to call it a resurrection.
4AD was one of the keystones of global alternative music in the 1980s alongside names like Creation, Mute, Sub Pop and Rough Trade, with the singular visions of founder Ivo Watts-Russell and in-house designer Vaughn Oliver giving it one of the clearest identities of all. By the mid-1990s, though, following a move to LA, it was starting to lose its identity. For a decade after Watts-Russell sold the company in 1998, it drifted without a steady hand at the tiller – until, in 2008, Simon Halliday came in from Warp’s American offices, and the Beggars Group which owned 4AD began an aggressive campaign of expansion.
The label had not been without successes in the 2000s – the likes of Beirut, TV On The Radio and Blonde Redhead were indie stalwarts, and legendary louche maverick Scott Walker provided highbrow cred. But Halliday’s tenure very quickly saw it make a wide range of signings, from Bon Iver and Big Pink to the then distinctly marginal Ariel Pink, and continued diversifying with the arrival of Zomby, Joker and dark, doomy Florida hip hop rapper/producer Spaceghostpurrp last year sealing the sense of 4AD as willing to run the gamut of alternative music. Halliday appears to have managed to make 4AD a major force again, without rebuilding it in the image of its former self, but somehow with a sense of continuity still.
Maybe it’s the jetlag – when we meet in a west end café, he’s just flown in from New York, where he lives – or the vodka and lemonade he’s using to take the edge off it, but in conversation Halliday seems very unguarded for an MD. It’s clear that he’s a music guy before all else, and his responses are never prepared, but come in a flood of recollection, excitement and self-interrogation: more than once in the conversation he’ll pull himself up and ask “is that really true?”, running through a completely alternative viewpoint to what he’s just said as if to test the solidity of his own theories. He’s inquisitive, too; once the interview’s over he interrogates me about dance sub-genres and scenes, and appears to listen rather a lot more than others in his position often do.
“Imagine if you had an act like Cocteau Twins now, it would be fucking amazing!”
“Well, just recently we threw a big party. I’ve always thought that’s a really important part of being a label – after all, the music is meant to be enjoyed isn’t it? So we put on something in New York, officially a media presentation of our newest releases, just so we could have a party in the Skylight lobby of the New Museum [of Contemporary Art], which has got a great balcony, overlooks New York, and it was the longest day of the year. I’ve always liked June 21st, it’s – well, I wouldn’t say a spiritual day, but the longest day and I like the sun. So we had a party. We got the guy from Purity Ring to DJ first, then Brian DeGraw from Gang Gang Dance ended it off, and it was so good I didn’t even know what genre he was playing. Some of it was like tacky bhangra, some was electronic this that or the other, but it was all brilliant – and I’d ask him what it was and he’d be like, ‘I don’t know!’, or he’d ripped it from this bit of the internet or that badly labelled CD he’d picked up somewhere, and mashed it all up, and it was great, it reminded me of being young and of having a party just for the sake of it.
“When I first moved to London I used to hang out with the Wall Of Sound guys a lot, and it would constantly be, ‘Oh, let’s have a party – ten of us in the back of the pub, there, that’s a party.’ And it’s good. Play some tunes, some of your own and some not your own. And I like dancing. It’s a weird thing, but some people dance and some people don’t. When I grew up, me and my friends, we were soulboys and we just liked dancing. We grew up in Manchester and just used to listen to this guy Mike Shaft on the radio, he’d bring in all the latest US imports like Change and Eugene Wilde and Kleer and stuff like that. And that was us – early 80s to mid 80s, it was soul. I was a soulboy, and dancing seemed very natural to me – so when acid house came in and people were, like, ‘we dance now’, we just thought, ‘oh, we’ve been dancing all along’. It’s not a gay thing or a girly thing, just some people like to dance. It was there in London, with Caister and all that – all the early house people, the Boys Own crew and that, they were soulboys too. Having an E was just something extra, they were already dancing without any ecstasy.
“I mean I do like guitars – throughout my life there’ve been guitars on one side, beats on the other, and through the 80s, beats won without a doubt. After Echo & The Bunnymen, New Order, Teardrop Explodes subsided a bit, for the rest of the 80s, it was just hip-hop, house, techno, soul all the way.”
“People feel more comfortable with the past, they don’t like the present so much.”
“Well it’s funny because I kind of count them as being kind of dancey because it was on the electronic side all along. Even though that early stuff was quite gothy, I’m a huge The The fan, they get through…Bauhaus – gothy but great…Cocteau Twins, who are my favourite 4AD act of all, I count as an electronic act even though they’ve got guitars. I was always coming at them as an electronic, woozy sort of act.
Funny you say that, we listened to Heaven Or Las Vegas over and over when my son was born, and at one point I suddenly twigged that the production style was like a Luther Vandross album. Not indie in the slightest, but like a big, expensive, American soul record.
“I think so. It’s weird, it’s Ivo’s favourite record on 4AD, in his top ten records of all time in fact – and it’s close to that for me. But actually I think the first This Mortal Coil album is better even, and I suppose maybe modesty won’t allow him to say that’s the best record on 4AD. I love the Cocteaus though, and it’s odd, they don’t sell that much, it’s not like they’re a huge selling act, not like Pixies or The Breeders, but they were so influential – and I do wonder if they’ll have their time again, people will be like ‘wait a minute…’ Imagine if you had an act like that now, it would be fucking amazing!”
[interruption as one of the twink waiters belts out Snow Patrol, karaoke style, over the PA system and we move out to an outside table, laughing uncontrollably]
[he gathers himself] “It reminds me of one of Ivo’s stories, about when he first got the Cocteau Twins in the studio. He didn’t know Liz was the singer, he thought they were some experimental noise thing, then she started singing and it was just ‘OH MY GOD!’
“Absolutely, absolutely – and that’s probably why there are no restrictions from any training: it’s just all art, all flow, all her soul.”
And the Cocteaus were pretty rock’n'roll in their lifestyle too?
[smiles, eyes widen, but he says nothing]
“The whole concept of trying to be cool is uncool in itself, and all you should ever really do is just try and do your own thing.”
I mean, the image of classic 4AD was maybe quite arch, very arty, even precious, but that wasn’t the case, right?
“No exactly, there was plenty of partying going on, plenty of hedonism and plenty of – yeah – rock’n'roll actually. None of this ‘oh we’re going to create this and create that according to so-and-so agenda, and we’re too cool for school’, really they all wanted to go for it. Pixies were a straight-up rock band in many ways, and The Breeders were even verging on a crossover big act in the USA, they were a huge act. It’s always easy to look back on things and corral them, to think they all fall under one category, but it’s not like that. People feel more comfortable with the past, they don’t like the present so much very often. I’m sure what we’re doing now, in five years people will say ‘oh it must’ve been amazing in 2010 to 2015′, and I’ll be like ‘well, yeah, it was, but not in the sense of it being some magical period that stood out.’
“I think people don’t like the present, it’s just a natural instinct – people don’t like their own time, they’ll go back to the 60s, 70s or 80s…now the 70s and 80s were awful times, but people have a rose-tinted view of the past, and I think it’s similar with record companies. Now 4AD were cool at the time without a doubt, but I don’t think as cool as people perceive them to be in retrospect. They were never ‘in’, and they never tried to be. Of course, the whole concept of trying to be cool is uncool in itself, and all you should ever really do is just try and do your own thing.”