“Well that’s a great way of looking at it, and I think the people we have now are all misfits too. Going back to that New York presentation we just did – there was a valid reason to do it I guess, we were showcasing what we’d just done, what was happening now and what was forthcoming, and it was pretty diverse. But, presenting it all in one go seemed to give it a thread, it did feel like ‘oh, it fits together’. Even though it was coming from diverse sources – we’ve got an A&R team now, where Ivo never used an A&R team but did everything himself, I do use scouts, A&R specialists, and we do cover the ground, cover the world, and I think it’s important not to be too narrow, not that my taste is very narrow – there seemed to be a thread through it, and people remarked on it: from Scott Walker to Inc. to Ariel Pink to David Byrne, there was a loose thread…I dunno what it is…musically it’s quite different – I guess we’d like to say it’s quality, that the connecting thread is just ‘good’, that old cliché about music only being good or bad…”
“I think the people we have on the label now are all misfits.”
But it’s your good or bad, that’s what defines it?
As you said with the Gang Gang Dance DJ set, you don’t know what connects the music but it is definably part of something by virtue of him drawing it together.
“[thinks] But would it still be the same if it was someone else? Are you just saying that because it’s 4AD so you think everything fits the aesthetic? If it was somebody else doing it would you think that or are you naturally biased because you know who’s behind it? If it was Warp doing it, would you think of a whole different set of reasons that the same artists were connected?”
This is the question! One of the things that’s noticeable about the current roster is that you have people who’ve come through other labels, often well-known ones, before getting to you: Iron & Wine, Gang Gang Dance, Zomby… yet somehow if you see them as “a 4AD act” then they are a 4AD act…
“Well, Gang Gang, I felt as if they didn’t have a home, but as if they were looking for one – they did an album on Warp, they did one on Social Registry, but I felt like they needed a proper home where they could settle. They’re a great act, and I don’t think they sell anything like what they should do, they’re better than people give them credit for. That last album – I mean, I know R&B and soul are kind of in at the moment, but I really felt that last album was like future soul, the production was like the 80s soul I was into as a little boy but put into a modern thing, with more of a house sensibility but really soul-y. But it didn’t get much credit, and I guess people felt they’re difficult or something…”
“I felt like Gang Gang Dance needed a proper home where they could settle.”
Well there’s the complexity, but also the fact that it’s easy for people to tar them with the word “hipster” – they’re arty, Brooklyn –
“Manhattan actually! They don’t even go to Brooklyn! But yeah, they’re really hip… although maybe they’re kind of not…”
Well, they’re into African music, they do gallery shows, there’s the kooky outfits, all things people associate with a hipster aesthetic – and if you say “hipster” then people assume there’s some shallowness to their interest in all these diverse things.
“True! But you know it’s not how they are. I actually think Brian DeGraw and Lizzie should go out and DJ more, as well as playing live, just to show they’re in the musical world fully – to show how immersed they are in it.”
“Exactly. It made him seem committed, it wasn’t just him and his band having a big album, it was him constantly doing it, making beats, DJing every night, and living it. It makes you take people more seriously I think. He’s a really great example actually, they could so easily have gone ‘oh we’ve sold a million records, fuck everybody’ but he loves it and he shows it – plus he’s a decent producer and remixer, which helps!”
And all that’s vital now, right? I mean, while the whole idea that all musicians’ income should come from touring instead of records is clearly flawed, the way it’s all set up now means they have to be more involved and plugged in on every level of their own careers to survive…
“Yeah and maybe that’s one problem with Gang Gang – they’re not very self-promoting, they’re not very organised, and they’re a bit… well rather than being hipsters, they’re a bit hippie. I’m not sure if I should be saying this on record, but they’re kind of a bit jam band-y, they do an amazing live show that is really hard to capture on record. They did that ATP that Animal Collective did, they were sandwiched between Atlas Sound and Animal Collective, who are good live acts, and they not only held their own but they did the business.
“It was just one of those shows where it was like Underworld right in the early 90s, where a dance act has that thing of being incredible live – Underworld had that for a while where it just transcended it being about their big tracks, it became a believable live music show. And even after I’d gone off Underworld, maybe their third album, they’d still be great live – I remember seeing them in Japan about five years after I’d stopped really being interested in their records and they were still amazing, and much more believable than, say, the Chemical Brothers. My god, though, some of Underworld’s early tunes were so monumental, those first Junior Boys Own singles…”
“Yeah, ‘Rez’ is huge, and it draws you in. I was working with Boys Own at the time, I feel really lucky to have been there. 4AD’s label identity gets stretched, of course it does, we’re covering a lot of ground – but you think about something like Boys Own and it’s very concentrated, like ‘we just do this’, and it’s great. You look at their first 25 records and every one is stonking.”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, trying to set up a label myself, and looking at those classic dance labels where the identity was that tight – where you could see the section dedicated to that label on people’s shelves. Guerilla, Junior Boys Own, Moving Shadow…
“…Cowboy, Underground Resistance…”
“4AD’s label identity gets stretched, of course it does, we’re covering a lot of ground.”
…Reinforced, whatever. You knew exactly what you were getting with those labels. And nowadays there’s a few: Hyperdub or Numbers or Night Slugs…
“All good, all good! We’ve been thinking about doing a series of twelves, there are some really good singles out there where you don’t want to do an album, but if you could do a few twelves in a house bag, a series of ten twelves and all of them were great that would be fantastic. It doesn’t happen very often, a lot of those labels tend to be short-lived – maybe because it’s a genre and subject to fashion…Red Planet was another, you get those ten Red Planet twelves, you know what you’re going to get, but they’re all good. Those first few Underground Resistance releases were like that, except not predictable actually, you’d buy them all because you knew it was a guarantee of quality and some would be hard as nails and some would be really girly housey, and they’d show you a different side of them.”
“And I love that, I love labels with that tunnel vision, like ‘fuck what the world’s doing, we’re doing THIS’. It’s commendable. We’re not in that world, though, we can’t rely on a fanbase who are guaranteed to buy everything, we have to paddle in the real world of pre-releases, sales, having to make a certain amount of money to keep the whole thing afloat. Hopefully it’s not too artistically compromising, though – if you ever find you have to make a decision like ‘sign this act for the money’ then you’re going to come a cropper. Genuinely. Even if you think it’s nailed on, Sod’s Law it will fuck up then you’ll have a release you’re ashamed of.
“Far better to go down on a great release that sold fuck-all than go down on something that you’d just thought might sell, because we don’t have to do that, we really don’t. We have that freedom to put out the music we really want to – and you can promote accordingly. If you think something is specialist then you’re not going to spend a load on it. Spaceghostpurrp was never going to sell millions, all the people into it are 16, 17, they don’t buy records – he’s got a YouTube following, Twitter followers growing by the day, all this support, but where’s the sales? So we’re really proud to work with him, I love him, I think he’s a great producer and he’s only 21, he could be seriously great – but then you look at sales and think ‘hrrmm…’. Then you cheer yourself up, you think, well, a lot of these hip-hop guys don’t sell straightaway, they might not until three or four albums in and people realise what they’re about and they break through to that audience who do buy records. But young people don’t seem to…I’ve noticed.”
“Spaceghostpurrp was never going to sell millions, all the people into it are 16, 17, they don’t buy records.”
People think hip-hop is pure hype and overnight sensations, but of course really it’s about hard graft, and only a very few make it big.
“Of course. There’s a lot of good hip-hop coming out now on the younger side, and those guys work hard, maybe not on shows – all too often they’re pretty ropey – but on Twitter, on remixes, on putting stuff out there all the time, and they live it. And a lot of those – Danny Brown doesn’t actually sell at the moment, Wiz Khalifa only started selling after so many albums, Lil Wayne the same even. It takes a long time to build that stuff up. Selling records is tough!”
“Well, we listened to a lot of mixtapes! There’s a crew of us in the office – our LA guy, our London guy, and me…oh and Zomby, because he fucking loves Spaceghostpurrp…there were a bunch of us going ‘woah have you heard this track?’ They were great, dirty and heavy as well – and we were just into it as something to listen to first and foremost. We love hip-hop anyway, so we were just listening to it as one of those things along with A$AP, Tyler, the other things that were coming along at the time, and we thought ‘wow this guy’s got it – if he cleans up his sound and keeps up this quality he could be a big deal.’ So we got in touch and miraculously he wanted to deal with us. Although, I think it worked for him, because we didn’t impose any restriction on him, we didn’t say ‘we want it to be like this’ or ‘we want a hit’ or ‘we want more female appeal’ or anything – just ‘do what you want’. Apparently he had a big deal set up with Polo Grounds, which is RCA, and he said, ‘I don’t want to do it because they want to control me.’ But we were kind of surprised he wanted to work with us, he had no idea who we were…”
Not a Pixies fan?
“He didn’t have a clue. In his interview with Rolling Stone, I think, he said, ‘well, before they got in touch with me I didn’t know who they were but we had a meeting and they seemed humble, and legit – they seemed OK.’ Humble and legit! [laughs] Legit!”
Well those are fair enough criteria to make a choice on really…
“And then we said ‘do you want to do vinyl?’ and he said ‘what’s vinyl? Oh – those big things!’