There can be an air of snobbery when a group decides to start a record label with the aim of releasing the music of their own band. People are quick to assume that they must be doing so as they can’t find anybody else who wants to help release their material. A decent proportion of the time assumptions like this might well be true, but with the case of Shape Records it most certainly is not.
Based in Cardiff, Shape was started in 2006 by brothers (and sole Attack+Defend band members) Mark, Lee, and John Thomas with the original aim, indeed, of releasing their band’s material. Four years have passed and things have changed. Mark and John make up half of Islet, Shape is now run by Mark and Lee alone (though John can dip in and out of activity freely, I’m told), and the label have put on far more gigs and released far more material than that of their band Attack+Defend (who, incidentally, barely play or release anything at all anymore) alone.
Not bound to any strict genre, Shape have a wide range of releases under their belt; names such as Fredrick Stanley Star, Them Squirrels, Evils and Failed NASA Experiment may not be especially well known, but Shape rightly pride themselves on the quality, not reputation, of their releases – although they aren’t without a ‘bigger’ name or two. Previous work from Sweet Baboo and Islet, plus the forthcoming H. Hawkline debut album, are certainly helping to raise the label’s profile somewhat. I had a chat with Mark and Lee in a Portuguese café in Cardiff over a cup of tea/bottle of beer/frappuccino about Shape Records.
Why do you do what you do?
L: We kind of just stumbled upon the opportunity to do it really.
M: It’s a buzz. There’s just something about it. Although it can be an expensive habit, it’s worth it. It’s just fun and it’s something to sink your teeth into instead of just going on the internet and watching telly.
All the music released seems to be quite different. Is the ‘criteria’ essentially if you like the music and you can help the band out you will try to?
M: Yeah, I guess so. There are some things where we’ve come close to releasing certain things and then not done it due to the fact that it feels like the other person isn’t quite on the same page as to what we as a label can and can’t offer. We basically set our stall out and say this is what we can do… it’s not very big, but this is what we can promise. Some people aren’t mega into it and want more.
L: I think there are a variety of reasons why we release a band’s stuff but essentially we just have to like it.
M: Yeah, we have to like it. Quite often it’s been people that have already been established bands, more recently anyway. People like Sweet Baboo, Evils, Failed NASA Experiment are all people who have previously released stuff themselves or have had stuff released, and they know that they aren’t going to sell out Wembley and sell a thousand-million records over-night. I think it’s kind of the worst thing if people aren’t realistic.
I often think independent labels might be in a little of a catch 22. They’re not there to make money, yet you do need money to continue helping bands in the future. What do you think?
M: I think we’ve come up with fairly decent ways of making money and paying for records. For most of them we’ve done a launch party and on a couple of occasions that has sold out, so all of the money that comes from that we put against the cost of making the record. That’s a method that seems to work for us.
Mark, you’ve been increasingly busy with Islet. Does that mean you, Lee, have had to take over more?
L: I wouldn’t say that at all… Mark’s just busier!
M: I’ve got a handy internet phone now which means I can do a lot of replying on the road. In fact, I can probably do more replying on the road than I can when I’m at work in Cardiff, so it goes hand in hand. Lee has kind of got more involved again too though. With Sweet Baboo and H. Hawkline – they’ve happened primarily because they’re my friends, so it was obviously easier for me to deal with that. I like to think Lee does all the boring bits, but I think I’ve stepped into the boring bits now.
L: You’re increasingly finding [the boring bits] quite exciting!
M: Yeah. It’s good to learn about the boring bits; ISRC codes, ordering promo CD’s, There are endless things you can do which is the good slash bad thing about running a label. You can always feel disappointed that you haven’t done enough, and I don’t know how you really feel satisfied.
It’s probably difficult to choose a favourite release. What’s the most satisfying release, or the one you’re most proud of?
M: I’m going to say Fredrick Stanley Star. We oversaw it from the very beginning. They were a kind of ramshackle bunch who had no direction at all [laughs]… sorry guys. I watched them a few times and I absolutely loved them. They put some recordings online and I told Lee and we just totally fell in love with them. We actually came up with an entire plan with them. We did the release and it was just a really fun period of time.
What other labels do you aspire to be like or are a fan of? I think you’ve mentioned Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks before?
M: Yeah, that’s my big one.
L: I remember this one right at the start, I can’t remember their name…
M: I know. Smoking Gun Records.
L: Is that the one where you had to print out a form, fill it in..? It was really home brewed.
M: Rather than have a PayPal, you had to print off this sheet of paper which asked for the artist which you wanted to buy and the release – like an application form. You’d send it to them with a postal cheque and they’ll send you it back. Just everything about that record label, the way they’ve laid out the website; everything. I think, as well, the Super Furries’ label Placid Casual simply because they were a band with a label and we were a band with a label. That influenced us, or me anyway, to get it going and made me think “this is an okay thing to do, we can do this.”
L: I think the Smokin Gun Records too. I think that was inspirational for me.
M: We’re kind of strange because we’re not people that are that heavily influenced by things particularly. I think a lot of the way the music industry works is like that, but I wouldn’t put us in that category… We don’t know that much. You could ask Lee “let’s name some American labels” and we basically wouldn’t know any.
Despite the fact Shape started relatively recently, the music industry has changed quite a bit. Things like illegal downloading and Spotify – do you think they’ve made things easier or harder for you as a small label?
M: Having known a few bands which I’m friends with who are very outspoken about [illegal downloading] and against it… I think it depends where you’re coming from. In a way it’d be sensational if that happened to one of our releases, but I can completely understand the other perspective. I have never downloaded anything illegally to my knowledge because I don’t want to. I quite enjoy the current free MP3 download thing. The idea that that’s a single and you can sample that or go and buy it. I’ve just become a subscriber to eMusic, for example.
L: I think things have changed. I think it’s about much smaller quantities of higher quality releases. There was a bit of a hoo-ha about Spotify with one of the artists who didn’t get paid much but if you compare it to what you get off Radio 1, relative to audience sizes it’s about the same, apparently.
M: It depends what you’re in it for. Spotify doesn’t bother me at all. I really like its existence, I think it’s great. I’m sure loads more people have listened to our releases just because they’re on Spotify, and whether they ever buy it or not, kind of… “Whatever.”
So you don’t ‘believe’ in release dates..?
M: I don’t really like build ups and hype ups.
L: There’s a bit of a pretence to it.
M: Yeah. In the last few years, even people that I know, have had countdowns on their pages like “24 hours to go until the thing which we’ve already got will be sold to you, the public!” kind of thing, and it’s like “piss off!” I’d rather just say “Hey, you alright? Here it is.” For example, around the Fredrick Stanley Star release I was walking to [Cardiff independent record store] Spillers with the records and someone I vaguely know stopped me and bought one there and then. That’s what it’s all about – I love that. We have a release month in mind, and whenever we send it off to the press we make up a release date. I understand that the system couldn’t work without release dates, but we just don’t need a big thing.
Your next release is the H. Hawkline album. He’s just been announced to go on tour with Gruff Rhys. That must be pretty cool.
M: Yeah, it’s really good. Really exciting, good, and pleasing. H. Hawkline, Huw, has done gigs for a couple of years yet no-one really knows who he is yet, so it’s really exciting.
I’m not too sure how far ahead you think. Do you have another release planed after that?
M: No. It’s completely as it comes. Lee has a bit more time now, so maybe he’ll like the sound of something. I keep saying that we’re not going to do another release.
L: There are no targets or anything like that.
M: I keep trying to do a bit less but then get tempted and end up doing more. I was concentrating on doing my own thing, but I think I like doing Shape too much. We do have an Attack+Defend EP and some stuff by Them Squirrels that will happen at some point, and there’s talk of doing something with Sweet Baboo again depending on what he wants to do, and I think H. Hawkline is thinking of going straight back into the studio. If I think about it there is quite a lot, but I’m trying not it think about it.
So do you think it will ever finish or run its course?
M: No way! That’s a definite. I always get into talking about other people’s things, but I think it’s what people may have expected. I remember when we first did Shape and we released our first thing by AttackDefend, Shape001, and people were kind of smarmy that we were releasing it on our own label; that attitude was there a lot at the time. But those people have since then created their own labels which have already been and gone. It’s a family. There are so many people that help out. Like Emma [also of Islet] has done a lot of artwork and general encouragement, and Steve [Sweet Baboo], Huw [H Hawkline], and James and Murry [Evils] are all very proactive in terms of getting stuff done and helping themselves as well which is really good. It’s a partnership [between us and the bands] really, and it’s based on friendship primarily. That really helps; there’s no blame or anything. It’s just good fun. We’re going to continue to release for the foreseeable future, definitely. We’re doing such limited runs as well that it just makes sense. I think we want something quite different to what people may perceive when people start something like this. I think we just want to continue to enjoy it rather than wanting to take over the world.