Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
An Interview With Stephen Bass (Moshi Moshi)

An Interview With Stephen Bass (Moshi Moshi)

06 May 2008, 12:00
Words by Jude Clarke

The Moshi Moshi record label are celebrating their first ten years in business this year. As part of those celebrations they have just released a rather excellent compilation of releases from their acclaimed Singles Club. Jude Clarke chatted with label co-founder Stephen Bass and found out his views on running a successful label, why he thinks negative reviews of Kate Nash are foolish and rude (oops!), and what acts he particularly rates from the past and present day.

So, it’s Moshi Moshi’s 10th anniversary…
Yeah, in October it will be 10 years from our first release.

How did it all start out – who were the first bands that you worked with?
There were three of us that started it. Two of us worked at labels, one was doing press and we had the normal frustrations of working for other people. We wanted to release things that we liked so we decided we’d get on with it, and do it. Spent ages trying to think of a name. We persuaded this band, Sukpatch, to do a 7” with us, and we just got on with it. We got a nice review in the NME, so that was encouraging. We knew vaguely what we were doing, because we’d worked in record companies and, you know, it’s not really rocket science, the whole process. We did try to do it properly, though, rather than completely amateurishly. It took us quite a while to really pull our socks up. Probably the Bloc Party single, and Hot Chip, were when it started getting a bit more serious.

So did you “quit the day jobs” at that stage?
No. There’s only two of us now (and I’ve got an assistant) but I still work elsewhere. Michael does it full-time. It’s about 4 or 5 years now that it’s been more full-time, for Michael, at least, but it still doesn’t make much, or really any money – at least at the moment. In the last three years it has been a lot more “grown up”, though, I’d say.

Presumably when running a record label there is a balance that needs to be worked out between pragmatically considering whether or not a band is going to sell, vs choosing bands and releasing things just because you love them. Do you follow your heads, or your hearts?
We have to consider everything. Because we’re only a tiny company we can do things really cheaply, which means that we can still do things that might be a little more artistic, as opposed to commercial. Keeping costs down helps, obviously. But you do have to think like that anyway, y’know. We have dropped bands. You have to make similar decisions to bigger labels at certain points. It’s tricky.

So it’s always a balance, but I think to a certain extent music is a weird thing to work in, but the whole thing is: music should mean something to people, and if it doesn’t really mean anything to anyone it’s pointless it existing, so it kind of has a natural balance. You find something you love, and it might only sell a thousand records, a thousand albums or something and you just decide whether you can do it, whether you’re going to not lose money, or whether it’s going to take too much time to make it worthwhile because if you were to do it it would be cannibalising other bands you work with.

But we do release things that we love, we don’t just find things that we think are going to sell and then even though we don’t like them, do them anyway. That never really happens… Only a couple of times, maybe in the past we’ve had things a little bit more like that, but they just… they never work anyway, really.

Because your heart isn’t in it?
Well yeah, and I think people tell, y’know. The whole thing about Moshi Moshi being all about “Truth and Beauty” is kind of drunken bullshit in a way, but at the same time it’s something that I wholly believe in as well. It’s always best to do something you love – people aren’t so stupid that they can’t tell. It just means that you can always hold your head up high and be proud of what you . Which, mostly, we are. We’re mostly completely and utterly proud of the stuff that we’ve released, and we all love it and think that the artists are all brilliant and talented people that deserve to be “worked” well, you know?

How do you identify acts that you want to sign?
All sorts of ways. In my day job I work at a major label, and have done for 14 years doing A&R, so we’ve got lots of contacts – people we know that will tell us about things. We use MP3 blogs a lot too. You find music the same way that any fan does really, but you’ve just got to try to be there a bit quicker, and just listen to things in an open-minded way. Some people like music that they hear, and after repeated listenings they’ll get into it, but I’ll always look at what gives me a “hit” in new music. The thrill is finding something new and exciting. I think naturally I’m predisposed for doing what I do, really. You just listen to everything that’s recommended that you think might be good, you’ve just got to be open to good new music.

Are there any “ones that got away”: bands that you would have loved to have signed to Moshi Moshi but, for whatever reason, it didn’t work out?
There are ones that we’ve lost, like Hot Chip and Architecture in Helsinki, Late of the Pier, Lykke Li, that we’ve done singles with. We would also have loved to have carried on working with Kate Nash. But they’ve got managers, and we don’t have the budgets to compete with people. A couple of acts that I wish we’d done things with, where we probably should have tried harder: I saw Foals once and didn’t quite “get” them, and the second time I saw them realised they were brilliant but it was too late. Also Vampire Weekend – I wish we’d had a go at signing them. We sort of spoke to them about doing a single but then someone else I knew was already speaking to them so we backed off. So those two, recently when I hear them I sort of slap and kick myself. We also tried to do a Klaxons single but we didn’t manage to do that. But there are fortunately not too many.

The Wave Pictures

So you tend to get the ones you want?
Well, generally. We’re not perfect though! Dirty Projectors might be another one. Fuck Buttons as well, that’s another band that I love at the moment. They’re incredible, I really like them.

There doesn’t seem to be a typical Moshi Moshi band. Do you have any template for what you think of as “your” kind of band?
It’s all styles, stuff we like. I mean generally lots of things that have gone before. I think that’s just the nature of the music that I like, you know? But our tastes in music are really broad. I’d love to do some bassline garage stuff because we quite like that music, and I used to do a lot of that in my day job. There’s no genre that we don’t enjoy, to an extent. I don’t know much about emo, and probably wouldn’t do anything on that , or heavy metal, or classical music, but other than that, pretty much anything is game, really. It’s just stuff we like. We’ve both got really broad tastes in music.

What are some of your favourite bands that aren’t on your label?
Current stuff – Dirty Projectors… There are a few bands that I want to go and see at my first ever ATP (the Pitchfork one), like The Hold Steady, who I love, Yeasayer, Vampire Weekend and Jens Lekman. I really like Bright Eyes. A lot of weirder house music, as well, sort of stranger, druggier dance music.

What sort of stuff did you listen to growing up?
Well, I’m very ancient… I’m 38. Acid house was probably the first big musical youth movement for me. Michael was much more of an indie shoegazer than me, he was more into My Bloody Valentine and things like that. But really acid house was my first thing. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five was my first “favourite band”. I didn’t, personally, get into guitar music until later, and then things like Pavement – they were another seminal band for me, them and Flaming Lips will always be in my top 10.

I always think that all of these things are pop music, in a way. It’s pop music that’s just more left-field: creative pop music that isn’t like manufactured pop. I don’t think anything on Moshi’s being super serious, you know? Not that I don’t think it’s serious, but… I just think it’s music that anyone can appreciate, if they are being open-minded when they listen.

I just get frustrated when people compare us to Fierce Panda, or something, or when they say, y’know, “uber-hip, trendy Moshi Moshi”. It just annoys me – I’d rather we were successful than trendy. I’m not trying to find music that is only appealing to hipsters or something. I believe all this music is great, and people should hear it, you know? I want to find this music and make it successful and give the bands we work with good careers.

You’ve just put out the Moshi Moshi Singles Club compilation. How does the distinction between the main Moshi Moshi label and the Singles Club work? Are they very separate?
We hadd stopped doing singles for a while because it just cost too much money, and we just got a bit bored. There were many more artists that we wanted to get involved with that we could do albums with. We set this up so that it was as cheap as possible. For example all the releases have one colour on the art work, we do limited runs, and we don’t do CDs. We lose a little bit, probably, on each release. The idea was that we’d do a compilation every 18 months that would hopefully make back some of the money we’ve lost.

It’s not really separate, musically, it just gives us a bit more freedom to release more music, and do things with people that we know we might not get to do the album with, but that we really like anyway. We can hopefully give them a good start, which also helps keep our name out, and enables us to work with bands that we really like. So it’s not separate in any philosophical way, we just set it up so we could get more out, and work with more bands. It means we can be a bit more adventurous than perhaps we would otherwise be.

It has worked brilliantly, I think. I’m really happy with the compilation. I know everyone “tushes” Kate Nash, but I stil think she’s great . She’s a great young artist: she’s – what? – nineteen or twenty, she’s writing all her own music and doing everything pretty much on her own terms. She’s gone on to be hugely successful really without selling her soul or anything. I mean, people may or may not like her, but I think it’s a bit foolish or mean to slag her off as being some sort of annoying pop girl. She’s actually a young person with a load of character that’s succeeding in having a career doing what she wants to do. I think if anything she should be applauded for it. She should really be seen as quite an inspirational person. Obviously “Caroline is a Victim” might not be her greatest moment, but I think it’s a bit rude of people just to say “oh she’s execrable” or whatever word they use to describe her, cos I’m still proud of releasing the record with her on the b-side, and I think she’s a good artist.

Do you have favourite artists that you work with? Who would you say are the next up-coming artists that our readers should look out for?
Personally probably Hot Chip are my favourites, I think they really fit what we’re trying to do: they’re a challenging pop band and they make great music. They’re a brilliant live band too, and are now actually appealing to an awful lot of people. New bands: probably Slow Club, who we’re managing and releasing, and The Wave Pictures. I don’t know if they are “new” enough, but I’m really excited about them. They’re one of the most exciting bands in England at the moment. He’s a truly genuine creative force, Dave Tattershall, I think he’s one of England’s greatest living songwriters quite easily, and they’re a brilliant unique band that are operating completely in their own world, just doing what they do. I really hope that people are going to understand them and appreciate them. At the moment we’re just looking for other new things like them, but they are the two latest ones. Other ones that are around: Hot Club De Paris got a new album coming out on Moshi, then there’s a new Tilly and the Wall album out at the moment but I guess they’re already known about, so really Slow Club and The Wave Pictures are the two newies. The Slow Club are getting better all the time and they’ve got heaps of charm and talent as well.

They play percussion with bottles and things, don’t they?
Yeah, not so much bottles any more, but they’ve got a chair as part of the drum kit. They’ve got some great new songs. The Wave Pictures just blow my mind. You should try and catch them live – they’re something to see.

We will do. Thanks very much for talking with us, and enjoy the rest of your day.
Thanks, keep in touch. Bye.

Moshi Moshi [official site]

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