I don’t think it is too grand a statement to say that the importance of 130701 on the development of the current Modern Classical scene over the past two decades is incredibly important. Influential artists such as Max Richter, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka are names that have appeared on the label and gone onto influential careers. Their current roster with the likes of Shida Shahabi, Emelie -Levienaise-Farrouch, Ian William Craig, Clarice Jenson and others are continuing the fine work of their predecessors. With a little over a year away from their 20th birthday the label has no sign of slowing down. Label boss Dave Howell graciously answered the questions I posed to him.
*Set Fire To Flames was the inaugural release. According to the “Eleven Into Fifteen” compilation liner notes there was no set plan for the label. What made this release stand out to be the first release for the new label rather it coming out on FatCat, which by that stage had released Sigur Rós and the eclectic Split series of releases.
++ It was purely down to ethical reasons. We would have released it on FatCat, but at that point we had a joint venture deal with a bigger label (which helped provide the funds we needed to work with Sigur Ros) and one of SFTF’s requirements was that they wouldn’t release the record through a set up that had any kind of links to the arms trade (maybe you’ll remember the back cover of Godspeed’s Yanqui UXO?). When they looked into our joint venture partner at that time, they found they had business links somewhere along the line with a company linked to the military/industrial complex. So we set up 130701 as a separate label that would circumvent that.
*The 130701 alumni includes names such as Max Richter, Jóhan Jóhannsson, Hauschka and Dustin O’Halloran who have all gone on to major successes in both the film world and through major labels. Is it bittersweet to lose such artists, or do you see the label as a nurturer or developer of talent?
++ The answer is yes to both, really. We’ve always looked to find people early on in their career and to build teams around them and try to help nurture and develop them as artists. But that doesn’t mean we have to be a stepping stone between them and major labels. And yes, absolutely it was more than bittersweet to have lost all those artists. Jóhann especially, as he was an old friend who shared a lot of similar interests and we had only got to releasing the first album of the three we’d signed him for.
*The label has been described as “Something of a blueprint outlet for instrumental based musicians based worldwide whose creations don’t quite safely fit into any genre or roster”. How important is this openness to the label? Is being classified as a particular style something you are conscious about?
++ An openness to different sounds and approaches is absolutely fundamental to 130701. It’s always been about working with a set of different artists who each have their own strong, singular vision and approach and never about fitting a particular sound / style. I’d like the label to be known for the consistent high quality and adventurousness of what we do, not the sound or style. I’m really conscious about this whole modern piano phenomena that’s developed over the past 10 years or more. It’s become a swamp and the world is flooded with pianists, the vast majority of who are drawing on a really narrow set of influences. Ever since FatCat started putting out records we’ve tried to evade the traps of being identified as a certain genre. 130701 was the same and over the past seven or eight years I have very consciously tried to navigate the label away from that obvious piano territory. I do still love the piano and I’m sure we’ll always be working with at least a couple of pianists on the roster, but it’s incredibly tedious and draining to dredge through 4 or 5 demos I get every day of people trying to replicate Olafur Arnalds or Max Richter or Nils Frahm. There’s so much more interesting and adventurous different stuff out there to be found.
*In the close to two decades of existence the music industry has gone through the biggest period of change never quite seen before. What are the major changes have you noticed and how have you adapted to them? What is your opinion on streaming music? Have things become more personal in your relationships with artists and punters (ie: does it feel more intimate and real)?
++ Well, remembering back to when FatCat started as a label back in the late ’90’s, there was virtually no internet and email, let alone any idea of digital music distribution. Communication back then entailed picking up the phone or posting letters. Since then, it’s been a continual period of huge change and as always there are both pros and cons and you always have to try and adapt and utilise ways of working with those changes in ways that work best for you. Obviously the growth of social media and changes in communication technology have made it so much easier to reach people and to communicate directly and instantly. I can now work remotely from my home and be in close contact with the office down in Brighton and all my artists just a click of an email or a Skype call away.
Having almost unlimited access to the history of recorded music available to stream at your fingertips is also incredible, though I think there’s a downside to that and a big thing about our attention spans shrinking. Partly it maybe down to it being my job to find and know about stuff, but I seem to spend most of my time these days skipping through vast acres of crap rather than listening to things I actually like, and my relationship with individual records now generally doesn’t have the same depth as years ago.
I don’t feel like digitally-streamed music has the same quality or value as a physical record that you might’ve saved up for a couple of weeks to buy and then would just play repeatedly whilst poring over the artwork and liner notes and really try and get inside of. You had to physically put that record on to the deck and put the needle down and then turn it over at the end of the side, so you have to be there listening in the same physical location. With streaming you can obviously carry your whole library with you and listen whenever and wherever you want, but because most of us are streaming from our phones, which we’re addictively locked into fidgeting with, we’re now using other apps or messaging from that phone at the same time listening so the focus on the music is often less.
From the production side, the relative cheapness and ease of access for people to record and release their own music now has enabled that old punk DIY ideal of everyone starting a band to be possible. What that’s lead to though is a situation where there’s just too much music out there (and too much stuff released without the quality controlling filter that labels can provide). So the competition is now massively increased and you have to shout twice as hard for a quarter of the sales.
Largely, I’ve just tried to carry on through these changes trying to keep ethics and vision intact. Personally for me it’s always just been about releasing music that I love and trying to represent both the label and each artist’s vision with as much integrity and coherence as you can and to share that with as many people as you can. I don’t have any personal social media and there’s much about it that I dislike or am uninterested in, but you can’t ignore it and you have to just think of it as another medium to be creative within.
*Back when the label was formed could you foresee the change in attention to more Modern forms of classical music or do you feel that the likes of yourself and labels like Erased Tapes helped re-frame and expose the music to a generation of new listeners?
++ There was really very little indication when we started back in 2001 that there was any interest in it or space for it. We always had open ears as a label. I mean, the first few years of FatCat alone, before we started working with the post-classical stuff, we were putting out electronica, noise, indie, drone-based stuff, all sorts. So I think that kind of adventurous, open-eared background of ours helped us to give some different kind of frame of reference for stuff like Max and Sylvain and Hauschka. I think maybe people could see this progressive agenda of FatCat and how the 130701 stuff fit in somehow. But we never began releasing this music because we could foresee a scene forming. I mean, there was absolutely no indication that might be a possibility. It happened very organically and we just started working with these artists because we loved what they were doing and it seemed to fit together and just felt like an interesting angle to push alongside everything else on FatCat. When we picked up Sylvain and Max in the early ’00s there were literally just a handful of pianists doing interesting new things with electronics that I became aware of (people like Ryuichi Sakamoto who was collaborating with Alva Noto or Kenneth Kirschner with Taylor Deupree). They were just these few interesting things that were sprouting up between the cracks in the edge lands of certain forms of late ’90’s music that had already been healthily fractured and intertwined. There was no idea of a genre or scene for this stuff though. There were no sections to rack it in at record stores and very few writers or DJ’s who would give it space. We were the first label to really start bringing this stuff together and once we started giving some kind of definition to what 130701 was and of course, especially having Max Richter getting some traction, that’s when you started to gradually see more and more similar artists appearing and other labels like Type and then Erased Tapes popping up and some kind of audience slowly building around it. And now of course, since you have all these Spotify muzak-style piano playlists garnering millions of plays and everyone seeing how lucrative the streaming can potentially be, you have a bunch of labels coming in and just spread-betting by digitally releasing a flood of similar stuff; and big old labels like Deutsche Grammophon eventually waking up and starting to cash in on it by cherry picking all the bigger artists.
*The style of music associated with the label is conducive to film soundtracks. Indeed Jóhannsson released “The Miner’s Hymns” with you. With a renewed interest in Scores and labels such as Invada, Lakeshore, Milan etc…releasing Scores, is this something that the label will explore?
++ If the right thing comes along then maybe, but it’s not something I’m desperate to chase. I think it depends on the project – how the music is linked to, and works within, the film; how strong and coherent the theme is and how well the music stands on its own. Personally, I’m just more interested in artist albums as standalone works, that have been considered and defined by the artist as an album rather than being created to function as one element around the narrative (and dialogue) of another format.
‘The Miner’s Hymns’ was just a perfect fit at the time because apart from being a big fan of Bill Morrison (who made the film), I was looking for something that shifted the label sound away from a reliance on the piano and I really love the way Johann used brass. It was pushing the label away from the piano. Also, Jóhann’s score on that film wasn’t something that fit alongside dialogue and sound design. It literally was the whole audio element of a true audio-visual collaboration. We were working with the BFI on that project and up until the last minute we were actually were going to be releasing the film on DVD alongside the album, but it ended up not working out. All our covers at that time were based on black and white photos, so the idea of this great film made from black & white archival footage also felt really solid and a great fit for 130701.
*You had a few years of inactivity on the early to mid ’10’s. What was the cause(s) of this and what brought about the re-invigoration of the label?
++ I don’t really want to say too much here, but basically we were in a joint venture deal and then that relationship went toxic, to the point where the other party just completely cut off all our funding, meaning we had no income, couldn’t pay or even account to our artists and ultimately the fallout of that period meant that we lost Johann, Dustin, Hauschka and Max. That happened just weeks after we’d put together this really amazing tour in May 2012 with Dustin, Johann and Volker at which point you could really feel the crest of a wave building, with Nils Frahm and Olafur Arnalds just coming through on erased Tapes. Within a year we’d lost the whole of our roster, which was pretty devastating and then I think I didn’t really want to contemplate 130701 for a couple of years after that, because interest in that whole scene that we’d spent 10 years helping develop was just snowballing with us completely absent. Then in 2014/15 we started getting a few more interesting demos and I realised the following year was going to be our 15th anniversary, and so we just decided to use that as an impetus to rebuild again from scratch. There was also a bit of sheer bloody mindedness about re-addressing things and proving ourselves again… and it kind of built momentum from there and 130701 ended up becoming more of a full time focus than it ever was before.
*As a label that listens to all demo’s sent, how hard is it finding the real gems? Do you search for artists yourself or has the label got such an influence that the artist’s come to you? Do you prefer artists that will ‘work’ (eg: tour to promote) their records?
++ It’s not easy finding real gems and they’re found through several different means. Through having managed to curate a great roster and trying to maintain a really high sense of quality control we do have a lot of artists who approach us, whether that’s known, established artists looking for a home for new work or unknown people sending in demos. There is a lot of effort that goes into listening through stuff and trying to find new stuff. I’m always looking for good new music, regardless of whether it’s something for us to release or just something great to play in a DJ set or just enjoy at home. I subscribe to a bunch of retailers mailing lists – Boomkat / Bleep / Honest Jon’s / Sounds Of The Universe – and I’ll spend almost the whole of each Friday listening through to everything on those new release lists, regardless of genre. I’ve found a few great things that we ended up signing from artists whose early releases I heard that way. I also get 4 or 5 demos every day, sometimes more, and they all get listened to. Of course, historically, that’s where FatCat as a wider label has found its niche. A lot of labels just ignore demos, but we still try and listen to stuff and have released a lot of things that were sent to us as demos from at the time unknown artists. It’s been our niche – finding things before anyone else and developing those artists from scratch. It’s always a bit hit and miss, but we’ve had some really big successes this way with artists like Mum, Frightened Rabbit, Twilight Sad, etc. It is like panning for gold though and the downside of the process is I’m spending so many hours listening – often just hearing 20 or 30 second of a track and then skipping to the next – just to find the occasional nugget here and there. For me, that’s always been the biggest pleasure of the job – finding someone unknown who’s never released anything but who’s doing something amazing and then trying to help them find their wings and to develop them as an artist and watch them realising their potential.
It’s always better to work with artists who can tour and who are up for providing tools to help promoting themselves, though that isn’t always easy or possible. I still get a huge buzz out of watching live music and that direct presence and energy exchange is really important and the artists who can do that well will always have a better chance of growing more quickly.
*What about your own taste in music. Is there something you would love to release but it doesn’t fit the vision of 130701?
++ I have very wide and varied tastes. You should listen to the monthly radio show I do:
So yeah, there’s so much stuff that I like that doesn’t fit into the relatively tight remit of 130701. I used to A&R probably half of the stuff that came out on FatCat (inc. Vashti Bunyan, Animal Collective, Nina Nastasia, David Grubbs, Crescent + many others, plus all the wildly varied stuff on the split series) but over the past 5 or 6 years, I drastically reduced that and have more or less just concentrated on 130701. If something came along that really blew me away that didn’t fit on 130701, then I can stick it on FatCat, but at the moment 130701 is taking up all my time and I’m really happy with where it’s going.