Search The Line of Best Fit
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Bella Union founder Simon Raymonde on the pivotal moments of the label's first two decades

24 August 2017, 14:30

“Looking back on these twenty years now, with some of these moments you’re proud of the bands, but you’re also thankful you were able to ride it out.”

There isn’t a typical lifespan for an independent record label, but a look at the major players in its history shows that reaching twenty years and remaining vibrant and progressive is a rarity. Bella Union, like their artists, music and founder remain an exception to the rule.

When Best Fit spoke to Simon Raymonde on the labels’ 10th anniversary he wasn’t sure he’d still be running Bella Union in 2017, “I think I would like to be doing something else by then, but you never know. I love doing it today and can’t see much beyond tomorrow.” A decade later, Bella Union has gone on to global success with the likes of Father John Misty and Fleet Foxes and continuingly grown its formidable and eclectic roster, releasing stunning debuts by Lowly and Mammút this year.

The story started when Cocteau Twins, after parting with 4AD and a frustrating stint on a major label, decided to release their music themselves. The band, Raymonde, Elizabeth Fraser and Robin Guthrie, split before putting out anything on the label, at which point Raymonde and Guthrie decided to sign other artists whose music they loved. When Guthrie departed, Raymonde took control of the reins, “Once Robin let me get on with it I began to get more confident and thought the vibe of the label could take a clearer focus.”

Twenty years later, a period in which the music industry has changed beyond recognition, Raymonde talks us through the pivotal moments in the labels story. Covering highs and lows, break-ups and breakdowns, it’s a tale of perseverance, redemption and ultimately love, that ends with another beginning, as the label boss returns to making music again as Lost Horizons.

Signing Midlake

In 2000, on his annual pilgrimage to the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, Raymonde signed Lift To Experience, who then broke up after releasing The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads but not before tipping him off about another Texan band, Midlake. “They sent me some tracks that I absolutely loved, I saw them in Austin and pretty much signed them straightaway.”

Midlake’s part in Bella Union’s story proved to be pivotal, as Raymonde learned that building up a bands' momentum took time and patience. “It’s a story that repeats itself, like it did with Beach House. Sometimes you’re full of excitement for a bands’ first record but they often don’t go as well as you’d hope. It takes a lot of time for people to pay attention to something new.”

Accordingly, Midlake’s first record, 2004s’ Bamnan and Slivercork was met with rave reviews but modest sales, but he considers their second, The Trials of Van Occupanther, to be “one of the best we’ve ever released, people still talk about it and rightly so, it’s a very, very special record.” Whilst it sold more than their debut and gave him confidence that Bella Union could be a success, the glass ceiling of sales the label was hitting provided a reality check.

“That record taught me a lot, it highlighted some good things and also some bad things about the label, which was once we got to 30,000 records we couldn’t take it any further. There were other records that weren’t nearly as good but doing way better sales-wise and it frustrated the hell out of me.”

The signing of another US band was about to change that, but would also present Bella Union with a whole new set of challenges.

Signing Fleet Foxes in 2007 amidst financial chaos

In 2007 the labels financial situation was a growing source of frustration. “We weren’t making any strides forward and there wasn’t money to invest in the bands, I felt I was letting them down.”

At a festival in Norway that summer, Raymonde considered cutting his losses, but that evening he received a link to Fleet Foxes Myspace page from Beach House’s booking agent and quickly changed his mind. Featuring just one song, “White Winter Hymnal’, his first reaction was “‘Oh my God, this is unbelievable’, it was almost spiritual, from thinking I’d been doing it all for nothing, it was ‘this is why I’m here, I have to sign this band’, it was biblical really.”

He wrote to them that night saying how much he wanted to sign them, “I went to bed feeling really positive about music again, excited and a little nervous.” The next morning he received an equally effusive reply from the bands' Robin Pecknold and with no other labels in the running the chances of signing Fleet Foxes seemed positive.

However, in the following weeks Raymonde heard rumours they were going to sign with Sub Pop instead. “A Seattle based label talking to Fleet Foxes? It doesn’t take a genius to work out what was happening and I was thinking the worst.” He wrote to Pecknold again, saying ‘If you sign to Sub Pop, when you come to Europe there won’t be anyone to meet you at the airport, I’ve got people all over Europe, you’ll be really well looked after and be a part of our family.’ It was ‘there’s my thoughts, take it or leave it.’”

Two days later he received a signed contract and Fleet Foxes went on to be a platinum selling record. “In a year I went from ‘I haven’t done this band justice’ with The Trials of Van Occupanther to having this huge record. I learned you can’t get too down when it doesn’t go well or get too excited when it does. I realised I needed to take the long view and I guess that’s why we’re here twenty years later.”

Our licensing label and distributor going bust in 2007

A month before Fleet Foxes was due to hit the shops Bella Union were dealt two unexpected financial headaches. Their distributor Pinnacle and licencing label V2, who Raymonde enjoyed working with “they were very helpful and really good people”, went bankrupt within weeks of each other, “it was a double punch, with the second one coming when you’re on the floor.”

A meeting with Pinnacle’s sales rep was interrupted when he received a phone call. “He literally went pale in two seconds and said ‘Sorry, I’ve got to go.’ I got a call a few minutes later and was told Pinnacle had gone bust, it was really scary.”

At the same moment a van carrying 50,000 CDs of Fleet Foxes was en route from Germany to Pinnacle’s warehouse in London and Bella Union somehow managed to track down the driver and re-route the van. “Making the call to say ‘get me the number of the driver’ was a very, very pivotal moment. If we hadn’t been at the meeting when the guy from Pinnacle took the call, if it happened on a Sunday… those little things, the tiny details, can be the making or breaking of you.” Had the CDs reached Pinnacle’s warehouse they’d have been impounded by the receiver and Bella Union, in addition to losing £100,000 through Pinnacle going under, wouldn’t have had the time or means to re-press them. “It would have been worse than catastrophic.”

The collapse of V2 created a similar financial hit, yet rather than disheartening Raymonde, it stiffened his resolve. “I thought ‘I’ve got this far, I’m not going to let something that’s nothing to do with us stop it.’ It’s alright me saying ‘I don’t think I’ve done a good job, let’s jack this in’ but when something extraneous happens that may be your downfall, I decided ‘No, that’s not going to happen.’”

Losing Fionn Regan to a major label

In the ‘2000s it was commonplace for artists to view independent labels as a stepping stone to a deal on a major, “that was naff, the worst reason to sign to an indie.” Consequently Bella Union were often offered one-album deals, which they usually gave short shrift. “I wanted to sign bands for ten albums and work with them for the right reasons, I didn’t see why it was ‘I’m committing to you, why aren’t you committing to me?’

One artist they did sign on a one-album deal was Fionn Regan, whose debut The End of History was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. Regan then signed with a Warner Brothers label for what Raymonde thought was a US only deal, but turned out it was a worldwide contract and Regan left the label.

Having signed to a major himself, Raymonde understands why artists do it, but cautions it’s not always the right decision. “As much as I love artists, sometimes they get stars in their eyes and think it’ll be better were the money is. I’m the best person to advise on it, I know how horribly wrong it can go.” Bella Union hoped Regan would grow with them, as his label-mates John Grant and Midlake did. “He had the perfect opportunity to stick with us, we could have built this thing together. As an artist you need to be patient and see it through for a couple of albums with a small label, let them do what needs to be done.”

Raymonde thinks Regan’s decision meant his career didn’t take off as it should. Describing him as one of the best singer/songwriters in the world at the time, he still listens to The End of History and marvels at the lyrics and finger-picking. “You look at Bon Iver, Robin Pecknold, I think that record is just as good, in some ways it’s absolutely the equal of them.”

The story almost came full circle when Regan discussed releasing his latest album on Bella Union. “I was, well I should say ‘Go fuck yourself Fionn’ but I really loved the record. The deal couldn’t get agreed in the end, but I would certainly have released it and let bygones be bygones.”

The John Grant resurrection

Raymonde views the career of John Grant, whose first release on Bella Union was with The Czars in 2000, as one of the labels’ most heart-warming tales. “It’s a lovely story, not just because of the length of time we’ve worked together, that’s beautiful in itself, but the trials and tribulations he’s been through as a human being and an artist. We’ve all been through difficult times, but his story is unique.”

Having released records by The Dirty Three and Françoiz Breut, The Czars were the first US band Bella Union signed. Grant had sent a series of progressively improving demos which prompted Raymonde to bring them to the UK to record Before...But Longer. He then went to Denver to produce their second, The Ugly People vs The Beautiful People. “That was a gorgeous record, they were becoming much more musical, but John was still up and down emotionally.”

The Czars split after the prophetically titled Goodbye, at which point Grant went into a downward spiral, leaving Raymonde unsure if he’d make music again, but his label-mates Midlake came to Grant’s aid, getting him back on his feet and writing. “My part is peripheral compared to theirs, they invited him to live with them in Texas when he was very ill, they kind of saved his life and career in many ways.” Grant wrote Queen of Denmark - “as good a debut album as you’re likely to hear” - and unlike the fate that met The Czars, the world started to take notice.

“If any story over the twenty years is one to highlight, and they’re all important stories, every single one, it’s John’s, in terms of where he’s gotten to and to be such a lovely human being at the same time. I count him as one of my greatest friends, we put our trust in each other and it paid off. I’m so proud of him and that’s what it’s all about, all I do is get peoples records’ out there.”

Meeting Beach House in Austin after our initial two album deal ended

When Beach House’s two-album deal was due to expire, Raymonde approached extending it with a sense of cautious optimism. “I don’t think they were looking for another label but you never know exactly what’s in a bands’ mind, they don’t often articulate it outside their own circle and nor should they.”

However, the nature of the music industry meant that the contract negotiation was common knowledge, “because the world we traverse is small, we knew there was a significant amount of labels, including the big players, that wanted to sign Beach House and had already approached them.”

What Bella Union had in their favour was their relationship with the band and a shared philosophy of taking the long view. A meeting with Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally was arranged at SXSW, where Beach House were supporting Explosions in the Sky, which Raymonde describes as one of the most important trips the label has made. In keeping with the close-knit nature of the label, face to face communication is a key tenet of Bella Union’s ethos, “when a band can see and feel how much you care the decision is a lot easier to make, rather than sending an email saying ‘I love you guys, hope we can continue working together.’ Email has become such an awful form of communication.”

“We told them how much we loved them, that we felt bad the first two records hadn’t gone that well and we’d continue to do our very best for them. They were so lovely about it, they’re adorable people. Signing to a major would’ve been the easy thing to do, the hard thing to do was stay with us and trust it would get better and it did, Teen Dream sold ten times what Devotion did and Bloom did even better.”

As well as a love of their music, Raymonde’s affection for Beach House is also rooted in their commitment to their art and he laughs when he mentions a lesser known fact about them. “They build their own sets, design the lighting and do the whole thing. I’m not kidding you, Alex builds them in his backyard and to me that’s a massively important thing. I’m proud of them and proud that they stayed with us.”

Making music again

Two years ago Raymonde found himself pining to make music again. “I’d left something behind and there was this big hole, something was missing.”

He called an old friend Richie Thomas, who he’d collaborated with on the 4AD collective This Mortal Coil and whose band, Dif Juz had toured with Cocteau Twins. “I loved watching Ritchie play drums every night, he’s such an artist.” They booked four days in a studio and came out with seven improvised pieces that provided the impetus for what would become Lost Horizons.

Raymonde worked on the music at home and sent instrumental versions to vocalists he heard singing the music in his head, with a note saying “I don’t know if this is anything, I want it to be about the music and having fun, only do it if you feel excited and inspired by it.” All of the singers, including Hilang Child and Tim Smith, formerly of Midlake, came back with words and vocal melodies that made Raymonde realise he had a collection of songs, rather than improvised pieces.

He decamped to a studio in Ovingdean, home to a legendary piano and where Nick Cave and Warren Ellis had recorded soundtracks and albums for The Bad Seeds. The sessions yielded more songs and he sent the results to other vocalists, including Marissa Nadler and Hazel Wilde from Lanterns on the Lake. “All of them came back and said they’d love to sing on them and suddenly I had another album. I thought ‘I can’t come back with a double after twenty years, no one will listen to it.”

He had a change of heart and decided to keep the majority of the songs on the record, which is called Ojalá, Spanish for ‘hopefully.’ With live dates booked in and Ojalá out this November, Raymonde says he wants to make up for lost time. “I’m at a stage in my life where I can’t be hanging around with people I don’t like or doing something I don’t want to do, I haven’t got time to waste, I want to enjoy every minute.”

When we finish talking about his pivotal moments of the last twenty years, Raymonde adds an important caveat on his feelings towards record labels. “You have to remember that my relationship with them has never been very healthy, I don’t like them in general and because of that I can’t see myself doing this forever.”

Today he feels more comfortable with his role in the light of what the label, artists’ and staff have achieved, as well as learning the importance of detaching himself from time to time. “Before I needed to be there for everything, every show, email, checking every single detail. I don’t need to do that now because I’ve got an amazing bunch of people who are much better at that than me. I’m a better A&R person and boss when I’m happy in my own work, if I wasn’t making my own music, doing production and going around the world seeing bands, I just wouldn’t be happy.”

Just as when we spoke to him for the labels 10th anniversary, he’s keeping an open mind on the future, saying that ten years from now “I might still be doing this, maybe a little slower, but I’ll be here.” Yet whatever happens in 2027, in the here and now Bella Union continue to be a musical force to be reckoned with.

Lost Horizons release Ojalá 3 November on Bella Union
Lost horizons jul17
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