“Well Zomby’s in New York at the moment, and he’s chill. He’s happy. He’s getting some music together and it’s sounding great – really summery and smooth, kinda like that feeling Aphex would get to sometimes, that sort of Richard D. James album where it was really melodic.”
Wow. Is he in love?
“I, um… I don’t know. He seems happy. He sends stuff over, and there’s some great tracks in there, it makes me happy too. I think his last album for us was great, it showed a really great palette of musical tastes, and that he’s a great programmer in terms of actually putting a record together. I think he’s a little gunshy, he doesn’t speed records out for the sake of it, he takes his own time, he’s very thoughtful – but I think if he can do a couple more good albums, he’ll prove to be one of the great producers.”
“Zomby’s happy. He’s getting some music together and it’s sounding great – really summery and smooth.”
The way he talks about DJing is interesting, he clearly knows and thinks about the art of juxtaposing tracks a lot.
“Yeah and he should DJ more too. He should get out there more too. Once he’s finished this record he should be clear to do more. We have a decent relationship with him, we like him, we get on with him, I think he gets on with us.”
No issues then? I should say I’m one of many, many journalists he’s threatened on Twitter…
“[laughs] Ah, well, see we are ‘legit’!”
“Yes. By giving him his space, and giving him that freedom, it’s much better because of that now. He seems happy to be working. He’s got very high standards, Zomby, whether art, fashion, women…very high standards. He doesn’t want to be churning out any old stuff, he wants to be the best at what he does, and there’s a lot of pressure that comes with that if you’re conscious of it – and he is conscious, he’s very aware of art, fashion, music. He’s got very good taste, in art, football, clothes, very good taste. The odd interview he does is good, too. You’re one of many that’s been issued death threats by him, I’m sure, but then when he does actually talk to journalists there’s real humanity in there, and pathos, it’s like, woah! I wonder sometimes if he regrets being so open in interviews but actually it’s like, no dude, that is a great interview.”
He doesn’t seem to have many filters when it comes to saying whatever’s on his mind.
“No. No filters. And I know just how that is, because when you don’t have a filter you can say great things and terrible things, and it’s incredibly embarrassing looking back going ‘did I say that? I’m sure I didn’t mean it that way.’ And part of my reluctance in speaking to you was that when you see interviews with record company dudes they almost always come over as fucking idiots – but you do get that odd nugget of ‘Oh! That was good…that one little bit was interesting.’ It does seem very weird talking about yourself. I know how artists must feel when they go [adopts stoned-sounding mid-Atlantic drawl] ‘do I have to talk about myself? I don’t care about myself!’”
“Yeah, absolutely. Grime, dubstep, or whatever you call the newest styles, is totally, totally different for old people like me who are totally rooted in acid house, and probably gave up in the mid-90s some time. But that stuff, that’s Britain’s best music! We’re not doing it in guitar music, but the bass stuff is the best music full stop. Of course it’s its own thing. And it inspires – Brian DeGraw loves grime so, so much, and even Spaceghostpurrp looking at Zomby and SBTRKT says ‘yeah I want more of that grime shit’; they’re looking at those beats and learning to twist it up like that. So I think it’s Britain’s best export just now, the underground anyway; the poppy stuff, the Tinie Tempah or whatever is not for me, I don’t get it. But what’s happened in the last five years, eight years or whatever, the grimey, bassy music of various sorts has been like the UK’s hip-hop. I don’t see it as connected to acid house at all, though it is a progression of dance music – people will always want to go out, and that’s what they dance to now.”
“Part of my reluctance in speaking to you was that when you see interviews with record company dudes they almost always come over as fucking idiots.”
I love the perversity of dubstep in that through the 90s beats sped up and got more intricate, but with dubstep it flips inside out and upside down…
“But it works, you go out and you see it working. I don’t go out like I used to, but enough to see how things work on a dancefloor – and those slow tracks work, they’re heavy. Reggae’s slow, hip-hop’s slow, you can get on the downbeat, why not? And it’s everywhere, the whole of Radio 1 is based on that now, seemingly; modern pop music is based on that production which came through in the last ten years. Which is great as it was a pretty natural scene, people doing twelves and building up, it wasn’t a record label thing being pushed, it was kids doing it, it was pretty genuine.”
“I don’t know. I liked DMZ, Digital Mystikz. I liked Trim, DMZ, Zomby. When I was still at Warp, I was all over DMZ, like ‘we should sign this, shouldn’t we?’ I didn’t even have a genre attached to it in my head, all I heard was great beats. To me it was the electronic music we were already doing but just a bit more hip-hoppy and bassy, but I thought they should’ve been huge, worldwide stars…I dunno, maybe they are in their own scene?”
Well, Mala from DMZ has only now got his debut album proper, through Gilles Peterson’s label…
“Well he’s still young, and he’s got star quality, Mala. He looks great and his beats are… are…amazing. So yeah, they were the ones at the time.”
And are there any developments you think are exciting now? Do you keep your eyes on the sub-sub-genres for the latest thing?
“No. Well, maybe. Underground hip-hop in the US feels exciting again. Until a few years ago, there just wasn’t that outlet. There was mainstream, huge hip-hop and that was it. There wasn’t Odd Future, Danny Brown and Lil B…”
Well, there was like leftfield, geeky, backpack stuff – Anticon and that.
“Yeah exactly, that very white, nerdy…”
“Exactly. And I was never into that stuff, I’m not into Atmosphere and Sage Francis and stuff. I don’t know if it’s reverse racism or something, but it was just ‘I don’t get this.’ The stuff I did like was as big as it got – it’s pretty weird when you think ‘the only hip hop I like is Kanye, Jay-Z and Lil Wayne, maybe leftover bits of Wu Tang’. So it’s great that the new hip-hop is good at last, I’m not supporting young artists just because they’re young, I’m supporting them because they’re good. You see Pitchfork well into it, and it’s catching on in a very indie, DIY sort of way. There’s also that other hip-hop that’s catching on, which isn’t for me, like Mac Miller kind of thing, which is another angle but not my thing. But it’s good there’s stuff coming through that feels underground, because hip-hop has missed an underground. When I was at Warp we did the Anti-Pop Consortium, and that never really connected, certainly the hip-hop world itself didn’t take it seriously…”
“Underground hip-hop in the US feels exciting again. Until a few years ago, there just wasn’t that outlet.”
I suppose the underground was regional scenes in the states, Houston or Atlanta rap, or various flavours of booty and bounce music, each of which was very self-contained?
“Yeah, yeah, you go to Baltimore there’s a genre there, you go to Memphis and there’s a good sound there – it’s like booty, it’s fast, Memphis hip-hop is good. Spaceghost takes a few influences from that, it’s not like Miami bass or booty exactly but it’s got a great bounce to it. There’s a guy from there, Tommy Wright, who’s fucking sick. But any of those scenes, somebody needs to collate it, to go through going ‘that’s no good…that’s no good…that’s fucking wicked.’ If you took all the tracks and pared them down, there’d probably be two amazing albums you could sell to rest of the world.”
Which is just what happened with that juke, footworking stuff from Chicago, it took Mike Paradinas to sift and filter it for it to reach a wider audience.
“But then, is that valid? To dilute it?”
“It’s both in a way, I suppose. To me, as a cynical label person, it feels absolutely natural because I want to sell it to the world – or do I? Well maybe not sell, but to enrich people, to go ‘hey, listen to this, it’s good, you might like it!’ And you have to do that with the best tracks, with the most palatable tracks that will work for those people. You can’t just go ‘here’s 50 tracks, if you don’t like it, fuck you.’ You want to encourage people to just take the best ones.
“Sometimes artists don’t get that, it’s a fragile discussion when you’re trying to get to ‘what’s your best song?’. With the Spaceghost album, we said, well let’s start with one album from your back catalogue – but actually he was down with that, he said, ‘yeah I was thinking that too!’ and he picked 20, 30 tracks, we picked 20, and he picked which ones he wanted. He says we chose but really in the end he chose. It feels cynical sometimes but at the end of the day I know it’s right. People are busy. We’re all busy. We don’t have time to listen to 50 songs or a dozen mixtapes to decide which are the four or five good bits. It’s up to someone like Mike Paradinas or 4AD to whittle it down, to say, ‘OK, you’ve got more chance of liking this one track.’ I suppose it’s happened throughout history. But it does feel quite cynical sometims – although I am one of the people doing it, so…But it works!”
It’s obvious you’re still wrangling with this issue…which is good, surely? It means you haven’t become glib about it…
“Well yes. But I am busy, and I do appreciate when someone does that for me. When someone says ‘here’s an album collecting these disparate artists,’ it’s great. This guy Steve Knutson does that with Arthur Russell – rather than me having to go through a thousand demos of Arthur Russell, I know Steve will go ‘here’s ten great tracks.’ I don’t have to do all that scanning – it is legitimate for busy people, there’s only so many hours in the day.”
Yes, we do still have to focus in, we can’t just sift the endless diversity of information all day or we’d go mad. That’s the great myth of the 21st century, that everyone’s into everything…Do you find that people are still fans as such of your acts?
“Oh absolutely, absolutely. More so than of the label. We are a label of acts, not a label that exists for itself. We may be one of the more recognisable labels, but only because of our history – we are really just a collection of our acts. Our acts are much bigger than we are, they have more Facebook fans or whatever. The fans of The National are legion, and passionate.”
“I think of 4AD like HBO, where after a year of watching TV you’ll suddenly think ‘oh wow, all those series, most of those were on HBO, they were on one channel.’”
Ah, so you don’t sell loads of 4AD t-shirts like Warp or Ninja Tune might?
“Not really, no. I see us as being, well, we’re successful after the fact. People will say ‘what have you done this year?’ and I’ll point to that, that and that, and they’ll go ‘oh wow, that’s great, I really like all them, that’s really great.’ Rather than an album coming out and it’s a 4AD act, it’s not, it’s their own thing. I think of it like HBO, where after a year of watching TV you’ll suddenly think ‘oh wow, all those series, most of those were on HBO, they were on one channel.’ So you’re just helping that artist along by being a label, you don’t want to be bigger than the acts, you’re just a facilitator to get those songs out there. It probably wasn’t like that in the 80s when labels had a stronger vibe – Mute, 4AD, Factory had these strong label vibes, and I think that’s lessened everywhere now. For me it only really counts in the media – journalists, TV people will go ‘oh this is on 4AD, or XL, chances are it’s going to be OK’ and they’ll be more likely to listen to it and promote it. That’s the real benefit – most of the general public don’t really care, I don’t think.”
“Yup. And I’m happy with that anonymity. If people find out a year down the line that we were involved in all that quality and give us props, I’m happy with that. I don’t want them to be like every month ‘oh what’s coming out on 4AD, what’s the new thing?’ It’s just about quality over time, and if people realise it afterwards I’m more than happy with that.”
And presumably you’re keen that the next person you approach who knows nothing about the label can look at you and go “seems legit”?
“Well, the artists you have signed, generally, get other artists to sign with you. Someone will look, and go ‘well, they’re good and they’re good, I respect what they’re about, this label must be OK.’ From 1995 to 2005, 4AD had a rough time, lost a lot of its established acts, didn’t have a good policy of people coming in, and then it’s difficult to sign acts. When you’re on a downward spiral you keep going down – but if you turn it around you can go up again.
“So when we began to turn it around in 2007 we got a few acts that were real, not loss leaders, but magnets for other people. The same way Sonic Youth were signed to Geffen as a magnet to other bands, like ‘oh, Sonic Youth are there, it’s OK to sign with them’ and then Nirvana would come in. So by setting out our stall with Department Of Eagles, Deerhunter, Ariel Pink, it was like, we are going out there on these modern-day great songwriters that we really believe in, and people straight away would go ‘oh if you’re willing to do that, then I want to be on there too.’ I remember hearing the Beastie Boys say once about being on Capitol, ‘we don’t care about being on Capitol really, but it’s nice to have your record next to Radiohead and The Beatles.’
“So who you come out with, I think artists care about that. And luckily we’ve managed to get the roster so it’s kind of tight now – it’s diverse, but it’s tight – and our forays into beats have worked well for us, artistically, and I think people are OK with it. If I wanted to make an excuse for it or justify it I’d say 4AD always had that variety: M/A/R/R/S is the obvious one, a straight-up dance track, Cocteaus were very electronic, Colourbox were pretty soul-y really…There was so much diversity, if you look at the first four or five 4AD albums they’re all over the place – Wolfgang Press were hardly straight indie by any stretch…So 4AD can get very pigeonholed into being Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Pixies and that’s it, apparently that’s ‘a sound’ – which is ridiculous of course’…Cocteaus and Pixies are miles apart, but people are like ‘oh you’re not like you used to be, you’ve gone away from that sound.’”
“I’m not paranoid about the past, I’m proud to be associated with it.”
“It is inevitable. The first couple of years I was there I didn’t think about it, I tried to not even acknowledge it because it was so weighty – but now we’re pretty good, I love the past, now I feel we’ve got some good acts and we’re up there with some of the best labels in the world I can be…well, I wouldn’t say proud of the past because it’s nothing to do with me, but really proud of being involved with that lineage, whereas the first couple of years I was shutting it off because you can never be as good as you were in people’s eyes, you can never be the Cocteau Twins. I’m sure in the 70s people were dissing Motown for not being as good as they were in the 60s, while they were doing some fucking amazing albums in the 70s, all those Stevie Wonder albums, What’s Going On in ’71, and I’m absolutely sure it was ‘oh Motown’s not as good as it used to be, coming with all these clever albums, it used to be about great singles and now it’s all these albums.’ Looking back now, we know Motown was amazing all through that period. So no, I’m not paranoid about the past, I’m proud to be associated with it.”
You’ve made you peace with those who make the comparisons?
“Yes, only because I’m so proud of our current catalogue, that I feel we’re good, we’re alright, and that makes me feel like I’m not ashamed to be compared.”