Interview: Simon Raymonde (of Bella Union)

Bella Union is the U.K.-based independent record label run by Simon Raymonde, whom ’80s children will remember for being the bass player with Cocteau Twins. Consequence of Sound caught up with Raymonde, back in London after a successful foray to SXSW in March.

As an introduction, can you give us a brief rundown on the origins of Bella Union? I understand you originally set up the label to release Cocteau Twins material after the band split with a major…

Yes, that is correct. Well to be precise, we’d had the idea for a while, even as far back as ’92 when we left 4AD but we didn’t know the first thing about it, and while the thought of our own “imprint” was tempting, we had enough trouble functioning as a band let alone trying to run a label! After the Mercury/Fontana experience though, we were adamant that the only way we were ever going to be happy was if we were running our own label! But the band broke up shortly after we set the label up, so the whole thing was a bit of a head-fuck to be honest.

Where did the name, Bella Union, come from?

We were thinking of names and getting nowhere fast, and my then-partner, Robin, came in one day and said that American Indians created Bella Unions as their “places of entertainment.” It sounded pretty cool, and we settled on that. Subsequently a TV show called Deadwood had a bordello featured in most episodes called Bella Union, but that’s not quite what we’d had in mind!

In what ways has the label grown since those early days – for example, in terms of the number/range of artists on the roster and the broader, international focus you now have?

We have a better “team” of people, internationally, distribution-wise, promo-wise, and this is a team that’s now been together a while, so there is a nice “family” feel to the label. I have deliberately kept out of the U.S. record market for the last few years, trying to be sure to get the label sorted in the U.K. first. Only now am I taking baby steps into the U.S., but it takes a long time for me to find the right people who I can trust to “represent” me in my absence. Cloning was discussed but I couldn’t afford it.

As a supplementary to that, what changes in the industry since you started the label have had the most effect on how you work?

The industry has changed a bit, I guess, but fundamentally what I do hasn’t changed at all. I find bands, people, music I love, and then I ask them if they’d like to join the family. To me, finding great music is pretty easy, you just have to listen and be sure what you think about something, but the hardest part is always managing the people, the expectations; in working with managers, lawyers, etc. etc. there are so many variables which can affect the music you release. For good and bad, of course. If it were only about the music, it would be dead simple. I guess it’s like any relationship. If you date people just ’cause they look good, it probably is going to be wrong more times than it’s right.

There are an increasing number of U.S. acts on your roster, several European but relatively few British artists. Is this a deliberate policy, or is it more of an organic development?

Yes, it seems that the U.S. has always provided most of the bands on Bella Union, though I don’t feel it’s wholly deliberate. As a young punk living in London in the late ’70s, I was obsessed with the music scene here, and most of my favorite bands then were British. Public Image (up to Metal Box but not after), The Associates, Wire, Pop Group, Slits, Buzzcocks, Subway Sect, Joy Division, etc., and it was only when I heard Patti Smith, Television, Suicide, Patti Palladin, and Talking Heads that I began taking notice of the music scene in the U.S. Then when I was about 20 I joined Cocteau Twins and for the next 14 or so years that was my life. The great U.K. bands of the period like New Order, The Cure, Echo & the Bunnymen. The Smiths were wonderful but I was beginning to feel that the current U.K. music scene was a bit dull. In hindsight it probably was more to do with our personal predicaments and our intense dislike of our record labels. I think I was a bit jaundiced.

Running the label in the early part of the 21st Century, I found myself traveling to the U.S. a lot, and each year finding myself at SXSW in Austin, which was once upon a time, once upon THIS time, a place where it was easy to find incredible bands that no one else would ever have heard of! Midlake, Mandarin, Lift to Experience, Jetscreamer, Josh Martinez, Robert Gomez were all signed as a result of being at SXSW. You could be cruel and argue that no one had ever heard of most of these artists even after we signed them, but that would be very unfair, even though it might raise a smile! So yes, I do sign a lot of American bands I guess! The Low Anthem, Fleet Foxes, Andrew Bird, J. Tillman, Midlake, Pearly Gate Music, Vetiver, yes all American I grant you, but I do sign a lot of Scandinavian ones too!

You are obviously finding lots of new talent internationally. How about at home? How do you rate the current level of new music activity in Britain? Is there anyone in particular who has interested you of late?

It is certainly quite exciting again at the moment. It has that feeling for me like the U.K. had in the early ’80s when Postcard Records, Factory, Rough Trade, and 4AD were so strong. I have signed two wonderful British acts recently, one called Lone Wolf, and one called Alessi’s Ark. Lone Wolf will release his debut album, The Devil and I, on Bella Union in May and you can watch this meanwhile. It’s essentially a homage to the seminal “Sledgehammer” video, reworked in stunning style to the dark subject matter of Lone Wolf’s songs. The Aardman animators who worked on the original Peter Gabriel video saw this last month and sent such wonderful notes of support to us and the director, it’s been great. Mr. Gabriel also loves it, which is great!

Alessi’s Ark is 19-year-old Alessi Laurent-Marke from London, who on her 17th birthday signed to EMI and then was making a record with one of her fave bands! Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes offered to record her debut record so off she went to Omaha. The results were brilliant, an album called Notes from the Treehouse. The only problem was that by the time Alessi got back home, no one was at her record label anymore! It kinda came out, but well you know the rest … happened a million times before, and since.  Happily Alessi is now with us! She’s supporting Laura Marling right now, and we have just released an EP called Soul Proprietor, which is rad. The album will be out in 2011.

Non-Bella U.K. things I like? Villagers are great. Snowbird is awesome (that’s my new band).

There are 30 artists listed on your site. How do you find time to nurture them all? Incidentally, what’s happened to The Dears and Howling Bells?

Thankfully not all 30 are active at once! There is a point and a lesson in here, though. Once upon a time, I probably DID sign too many bands. I think I would get all excited finding a band, getting the record right, releasing it, and then getting on with being all excited again about the next band, without probably spending enough time developing the band. I learnt from my mistakes and now plan meticulously to try and set things up right and have a full campaign in place, wherever possible. I only sign bands rarely when I am 100 percent sure they are good people who love me as much as I love them. As I said before, I ain’t always going to get it right; similarly I am sure Bella Union won’t be 100 percent right for all the bands we sign, but we do our best to make it work!

The Dears thing didn’t really work out. Sometimes things don’t. I think the band was great but maybe made a couple of wrong turns along the way. We all do. They released an album on Dangerbird last year and have another one ready soon, I believe. Howling Bells, again long story. They released their second album on Independiente last year and have been in the USA touring with bands like Coldplay and The Killers a lot. I wish them well.

Talking of finding time to look after artists, how many staff do you have at the label? Do you do everything in house, or outsource things like CD production or marketing/PR?

There are two staff, Mark and Luke, and then there is Duncan who does all the press for the label (apart from some things like Andrew Bird who already had a great press person when we signed him), and then we have a deal with a company called Co-op who help us with our marketing, distribution, and all the production things. We have worked with the same radio/TV folks since day one, 13 years ago, and I like the loyalty, team stuff. They do exceptional stuff for all our bands, and I love working with them. Duncan, who has been press officer here for 10 years or more, is just as responsible for the success of the label as any of us. He loves the label so much and cares enormously about his job. That kind of loyalty is rare. Mark and Luke are both crucial too, with A&R, with online marketing, with day to day, with artist liaison, with everything. I would be nothing without these people.

You recently hosted a showcase with 4AD at SXSW. How did it go? What did you get out of it, and was it worth the carbon footprint?

Good question. It started off more as a convenience to help one of my artists, Peter Broderick, who is also a member of one of THEIR artists, Efterklang, play on the same bill, to avoid a potential clash of timings, but it ended up being a super-fun night. 4AD only had a couple of their bands available, Efterklang, who I love and [am] good friends [with], and the band Broken Records. We had Heidi Spencer and the Rare Birds, Mountain Man, John Grant, and Midlake. John stood in for Lawrence Arabia, who had trouble getting into the USA – a long story again!

The issue of what do you get out of a showcase at SXSW often depends on how well it went?! Ours went really well. The year before we didn’t have as much luck. It can be like that, SXSW …


What’s the best thing about running a record label?

Working with wonderfully gifted people, being part of something bigger than all of us, trying to make a difference, to release music that can make us feel better, that can reflect who we are, how we are feeling, how we relate to the world.

And the worst … ?

When a manager is threatening to fuck the whole thing up, and you can’t just call the band and say, “Erm chaps, do you realize that your manager is actually ruining your career?”

What’s more important – being impossibly cool, or making shed-loads of money? Can you have both?

I don’t think either are very important, are they? I think I fulfill the former without trying, though! Seriously, I don’t think it’s possible to make a shed-load of money unless you’re in publishing, or in the band.

How “big” would you ever want Bella Union to become?

Small big. One day I may have wanted to have our own distribution, our own marketing, our own everything, but I accept now that BUSINESS is not my driving ambition; empire building is something for another age, and I know my strengths are listening to people, and to music and connecting the dots. I don’t want to have my head in spreadsheets all day long. I mean, I accept I need to look at them every now and then, but I am basically still just a musician who is trying to balance the divide between us.

Low Anthem

Music is ultimately as subjective as things come. How are you able to bring objectivity into the process when considering signing a band?

Mark and I discuss most things together now. I decided a couple of years ago that I loved Mark’s taste and would be happy to hear any of his suggestions. So while it is ultimately my decision on who I sign, I do involve Mark in the process. I respect his take on stuff. He found Lawrence Arabia, Wavves, and Abe Vigoda, and I will continue to give him the opportunity to bring things to the label if I like them as much as he does. I am not particularly objective about music, but if I do need a second opinion, so with certain things I will ask Stephanie Dosen, my girlfriend, or Mark. With certain bands like Fleet Foxes, Midlake, Andrew Bird, Laura Veirs, I didn’t need a second opinion! These days, more important than finding great music, which is a given, is ensuring that the bands/artists we find are good people. Would I have them over for tea? That’s kinda the crucial question here!

Do you pay advances when you sign someone?

Yes, in nearly all cases.

In principle, do you prefer a band initially to bring along a finished product you can simply package and put out there, or be closely involved in the development, recording, and mixing of the record?

I don’t have a preference. With Lift to Experience, they had a recording but no studio to mix, so I provided my studio and I mixed it. I mixed Fionn Regan’s album, The End of History, and produced two albums by The Czars, Stephanie Dosen’s album, and did mixing for The Dears, Howling Bells, etc., but increasingly I am happier to stand back as I am conscious that this could all seem like one big vanity project for my megalomania and me! That’s not what I want so if the band knows what they want to do, then I will just try and help them get there, at arm’s length, but if they need more from me, I will do whatever it takes.

How important to you is it that a band sounds great live as well as on record?

Crucial. It will be the one element of the band’s career where they could make some serious money, so it is in THEIR best interests to be as great a live band as possible. I feel with Explosions in the Sky, Fleet Foxes, Bird, Vetiver, Dirty Three, Stephanie Dosen, John Grant, Midlake, Beach House, we have some incredible live talents out there.

Most bands have to go it alone these days, make a record and get it out there. That bit isn’t too costly but getting it heard is. What three things would you suggest a band tries to market themselves on a shoestring?

1)     Be an incredible live band. If you’re not then you’re not ready, and you may only become moderately well-known.

2)     Have a blog or band site, not a MySpace.

3)     Make a little film of the band, not in a pub, but in a cool location. Watch and be inspired by their films.

How important is music journalism (print and the web) these days in helping to promote new music? Are there too many, too few, or about the right number of music sites around?

It’s a vital way to promote new music. This is our window to all the wonderful (and shit) stuff out there. Perhaps the monopoly one of the sites has had in the last few years will fade as the cream of these new sites rises to the top. Like labels, the success of the site will depend on the quality of the content and the passion for the subject, pro or anti. Bella Union wouldn’t be well-known if it wasn’t for the smaller sites that support new music. Pitchfork hasn’t ever seemed to like the label much, but I really couldn’t care less. There are enough people who love what we do, and I think the fact that after 13 years when many independent labels have fallen by the wayside, we are still going, stronger than ever suggests we are doing okay. There is A LOT more music to cover/discover than there’s ever been before, so the proliferation of new sites is probably the result of some kind of natural supply and demand.

The ease of downloading music (both legally and illegally) and cherry picking individual tracks is having a profound effect on how the traditional album is perceived. What future do you see for the album? Personally, do you still prefer to listen to a record from start to finish in the order as listed, or dip in and out?

Personally, I love albums. I don’t think that will ever change. I can say I like “a song by … “ but I would only ever say I like “a band” if they’d made a great album. I am sure it’s generational in part but I love hearing variety, stories told, themes, etc., and I will only likely find this through an album. I don’t like five-minute TV shows, but I love two-hour movies, I guess it’s the same. Albums are the band’s movie.

Do you have a favorite time of the day, or place, to listen to music?

I like listening late at night and early in the morning. In the car, in my office when it’s empty. But I listen all day long, I think!

What, outside music, inspires you?

Film, architecture, art, Stephanie, and my sons. And I do find a good cup of coffee quite inspiring.


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