To mark Bella Union’s 10th Anniversary, we catch up with the label's supremo and ex-Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde.
Which artists did you look up to when you first started playing music?
My very first heroes when I was 15 when I got my first bass were the Sex Pistols, Public Image Limited, Elvis Costello, The Clash and The Slits. Then when I was 18/19 I got into Wire, The Buzzcocks, Pop Group, Birthday Party, The Fall, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, Television…
What was your key ideas and focus behind starting Bella Union? Was it always going to be a label for multiple artists or just somewhere for the Cocteau Twins to release material?
The initial idea was for it to be a place for our own stuff but we split up soon after we had spent ages designing the logo and thinking up the name so we figured we may as well as put something out. It sort of just grew naturally that way. I didn’t really have a plan, still don’t really…for the first few years, it was a little odd because I was in partnership with Robin from the Cocteau’s too and the early direction of the label wasn’t totally guided by me. Since 2001 its been fine as Robin decided to concentrate on his own music and moved away to France..
Bella Union, at the moment, doesn’t seem to be able to release a bad record! Does that increase the pressure on you to find artists of a high calibre?
Well in a way I guess it would if I let it, but I think just more people are paying attention now. I think we have been releasing pretty good albums for quite a while, and I like to think I have been getting it right slightly more often than wrong.
Did you ever believe the label would get to its 10th Birthday? How have things changed in the industry since you’ve started?
I didn’t imagine we’d make 10 records let alone 10 years. The whole thing’s flipped on its head in the last couple of years. All the prophets of doom have been proved right in one sense in regard to downloads and how people expect to buy their music today and the shift of power seems to be changing weekly rather than yearly. With Myspace and YouTube the presentation and marketing of the bands has changed enormously. The access for me as a label to hear and communicate with artists globally has changed a lot and this is of great benefit to me. And I think there are some wonderful bands out there, maybe they were always there but Myspace has increased the coverage.
Where did your fascination with Texan music start? Can we expect further releases from the American heartland?
I guess from my visits to SXSW festival alerted me to some good stuff, but mostly it came from signing Lift to Experience. Through that relationship I met some cool people like Jetscreamer and the Midlake boys..etc it seemed like there was a real energy and passion in the Denton scene and while Explosions in the Sky are from Austin, these bands all seem to me to have that “we have to do this or else we’d die” attitude which more often than not, means that these folk are creating music from the heart not the head. I don’t have any idea if I will sign any more Texan bands, I have nothing on the burner just now..i hope so…
What’s your favourite and worst Bella Union release to date?
Hahaha, of course that is not a question that is possible for me to answer!! There are a few that haven’t done very well in terms of sale, but I would still stand by them musically! I have regrets over signing Trespassers William, but not because they weren’t any good. I have loved working with most of our bands but certainly there are the ones that have done well, like Midlake, the Dears, Stephanie Dosen, Dirty Three, Kissaway Trail, Fionn Regan, Lift to Experience, Laura Veirs, Devics, The Czars that have all been treasures.
Are there any records that you wish you could have released?
I would like to have released the latest Of Montreal album, a Patti Smith album, but mostly no regrets no!!
You’ve worked with some fantastic artists over the past few years; James Yorkston, The Duke Spirit, Clearlake and, more recently Stephanie Dosen. When producing a band or artist, what do you look for? Do they approach you or do you only contact artists that impress you?
I don’t really contact bands at all, but I will only work on things I like because I don’t have much spare time and if I am gonna do a decent job I need to feel happy about being away from the office for all that time….so the ones you have mentioned were all dreams to work with, as was the Fionn Regan album I mixed. I like to find people who just need a little help in direction or confidence, bands who have an identity already, but maybe are not quite there yet in terms of what they want to do… I am not the sitting at the back kinda producer, more of a sitting around the piano chatting about what a great drum sound that is, or how to look at a song with a fresh attitude…
How have you embraced the internet revolution? Do you see downloading and Myspace as crucial to the future of the music industry?
Yes I do, but it’s a worry of course as to how labels are going to sell music and therefore fund new artists. You see now that no major wants to sign a new band. They’ll only sign a band they know can sell 20,000+ from day one. Which means there is little place for artist development any more, which is why I am here!!
Downloading is of course where we’re at but downloading albums is gonna have to change which will mean how we promote our bands will change. I don’t believe we will be promoting albums by bands soon..it will just be tracks. I am not sure what I think about it yet…
As a label boss. How do you feel about internet piracy? Do you lose much sleep over it or see it as something that simply just happens.
I hate it but the industry could have done something about it 15 years ago and didn’t, so we have to just get on with it.
Are you part of the MP3 generation or do you still buy CD’s or vinyl?
I buy CD’s and vinyl and I buy music and videos from iTunes. I buy about 10 CD’s a month. And I download about 3 albums a month. I know everyone is saying that the CD is dead but I am not 100% sure.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking of starting a label?
Think again. Be an agent, a secret agent or a booking agent. Or start a clothing label.
Any plans for recording any solo material yourself? Or maybe, as is the fashion at the moment, regrouping the Cocteau Twins?
No regrouping now…that’s not a good idea. I am working on some new songs for myself yes, finally after a 10 year hiatus!!
Can’t tell you much more than that just now, but if I progress with it, I will let you know!!
What’s currently on your stereo?
I am listening to the new Rufus Wainwright, Soy Un Caballo, a great singer called Heidi Spencer, Cocoon, Fink, Barth, Rien, Hanne Hukkelberg, Captive States, Lily Electric…
If your life flashed before your eyes, what three things would stand out?
- The moment my sons were born (I will count that as one for literary purposes, because otherwise it would be boring).
- The moment I kissed my girlfriend for the first time on the 33 bus.
- Getting bottled off stage in front of 40,000 rednecks in Kansas City supporting Metallica.
Can you see yourself still being at the helm for its 20th Anniversary? What does the future hold for Bella Union?
No not really because I think I would like to be doing something else by then… but you never know… The future in any music-related venture has to be uncertain. But I am not overly bothered about it. I love doing it today and cant see much beyond tomorrow.
And a completely, non-music related question, who’s going to win the Premiership next season? Do you think that Chelsea’s millions have made it harder for other teams to compete?
I think my team Spurs will win it. I don’t care a hoot about Chelsea’s millions really. They bought some really stupid players with all their money and who play like twice then never again then they sign players like Alex who are brilliant who are out on loan!! And I think Mourinho lost the plot last season though I quite enjoy watching his post-match interviews. Almost as funny as Arsene Wenger’s. Mourinho thinks there is a conspiracy by referees against Chelsea and Wenger can’t see anything that happens on the pitch unless it’s a sublime Arsenal move. They’re both terrible losers and friends of mine say that’s what makes them winners. But I disagree. Ferguson will see it how it is mostly, and he is the classiest of premiership managers. Martin Jol is pretty cool though, I like it when he is being asked a question where the only answer can be “Yes” and he says “No”. It seems to make complete sense to me. If Berbatov stays at Spurs and doesn’t get injured then we should win it by about 14 points. I think Reading will finish second and Sunderland 3rd. I think Roman Abraham-”lene”-lovich will get bored and sell Chelsea back to Ken Bates. I think Wenger will resign and Henry will leave and Fabregas too (I hope!! He is just TOO good!!! ) and Man Utd will have a mediocre season because Giggsy and Scholes will get injured and Darren Fletcher will be found out as “Not very good” and Real Madrid will sign good Ronaldo and West Ham will sign fat Ronaldo and Big Sam will be sacked by Xmas. I don’t really know what I am talking about, but I love Spurs and that’s all that you need to know.