4AD boss Simon Halliday on living with the label’s past, and his vision for its future
From Bauhaus to Spaceghostpurrp: the inside story of one of the world’s greatest independent labels.
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!”
So, 4AD is a busy label now, and seemingly constantly changing. Are you ever able to take stock – to say “this is where we are right now”?
“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.”
“I kind of count 4AD as being kind of dancey because it was on the electronic side all along.”
And where did 4AD fit into this for you, as a listener?
“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!'”
She was a completely untrained singer, right?
“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]
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.”
I certainly felt when I was 15 that the appeal of Pixies, Throwing Muses, even something like Colourbox, was that they were misfits, not that they were cool.
“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…”
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?”
“4AD’s label identity gets stretched, of course it does, we’re covering a lot of ground.”
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…”
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.”
Well, that’s certainly done no end of favours for Jamie xx.
“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…”
I remember going to free parties in the 90s, and the sound of ‘Rez’ coming over a hillside was like the most unmistakeable rave signal.
“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…”
…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.”
“Selling records is tough!”
But Underground Resistance are still going!
“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.”
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!”
How did you stumble upon Spaceghostpurrp?
“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!’
Talking of people who need to be given space to do their own thing – you mentioned Zomby, he must be interesting to deal with?
“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.”
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’!”
“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.”
And I guess you give him that space he needs without judging him?
“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!'”
And where do you feel someone like Zomby – or Joker indeed – fits? Are they doing something that’s definitively separate from the acid/rave generation?
“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.”
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’m sure in the 70s people were dissing Motown for not being as good as they were in the 60s”
Is there anyone else of that generation you would have loved to have signed?
“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…”
…practically indie music, really.
“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…”
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?”
Well – is it diluting it, or is it concentrating the essence?
“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.”
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.”
“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.’”
Yeah, you have to scroll quite a way down an Amazon purchase page to even see what label something’s on – and a lot of reviews won’t say either, these days.
“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.'”
It sounds like you do feel the weight of history a bit, is that inevitable?
“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.”