Bella Union celebrates 20th anniversary in 2017 – Simon Raymonde interview
What started as a vehicle for Cocteau Twins to release their own records has become – via a million-selling album – an award-winning indie label with a remarkable list of talent and impeccable ethics. Yet the Bella Union story nearly ended prematurely…
It was nearly all over nine years ago. With mounting debts after a pair of cruel financial hammer blows, Bella Union was in trouble a decade after its formation. Deciding to get away from it all to Norwegian festival Øya, label boss Simon Raymonde lay in his hotel bed wracking his brain, ready to pack the whole thing in and get a ‘real’ job. But that was for tomorrow. Before that, it was headphones on, Myspace on his laptop, one final demo to listen to, then sleep. The music swirled around his head. The as-yet undiscovered band were Fleet Foxes. The song was White Winter Hymnal. Life-changing. A year later, the Seattle folk giants’ debut was platinum-certified, going on to sell more than a million records on Bella Union.
A decade has passed and Fleet Foxes are gone, departed to Warner subsidiary Nonesuch. But Bella Union, a nurturing home to a line-up of outrageous talent handpicked by former Cocteau Twin Raymonde, is still going strong, having weathered some of the most transformative storms the record industry has ever seen. The label now has Father John Misty, John Grant, Mercury Rev, Midlake, Explosions In The Sky, Holly Macve and others on its roster. Speak to any one of those acts and they’ll tell you – Bella Union is special.
The label’s bands and artists tell Long Live Vinyl why they couldn’t have done it without the support of the label…
“Simon Raymonde took a chance on me after my producer (and now husband) sent him my second album Troubled By The Fire in 2002. I was so happy Bella Union released the album and I was able to do my first tour in the UK in 2003. Simon picked me and my band up at the airport, took us to a roadside stop and introduced us to Thai crisps. We’d never heard of ‘crisps’ before. Duncan (Jordan, the label’s publicist) hosted us at his apartment many times in those early days, when we were a hard-working, non-showering, funky-smelling group! My album Carbon Glacier took off in the UK and gave me the springboard for an international audience. I signed to Nonesuch worldwide for a couple more albums, but after they dropped me, Bella welcomed me back with open arms. Simon has curated a truly fantastic roster of artists; he knows what it’s like to be an artist… And, after almost 15 years of working with Bella Union, I’m happy to be delivering them my 10th album, later this summer.”
Midlake, Eric Pulido
“It all started with some boys and a dream… and then we were thankfully awoken by Simon Raymonde of Bella Union, who made it all come true. “To say he’s been pivotal in our career would be an understatement. Every band needs someone to believe in them and help forge a path through the muck and mire, and Simon and the BU family was and is that very thing for us. No matter what ‘hat’ needed to be worn, it was perched upon his head until we could find a willing candidate to fill the shoes of agent, manager, publisher, driver! Our first album tanked; we had huge shifts in personnel; we began to age and start our ‘side project era’, and Bella Union stuck with us. Record labels often get the rap for being the bad guys… Well, if Bella Union is supposed to be an indication, we need more bad guys in this industry. “Ever since we received that 2003 email with Simon saying he ‘wants to have Midlake’s babies’, our lives have never been the same. It’s taken a family to raise this ‘baby’, and thank God for the Bella Union family doing so!”
“I used to consider myself something of a realist, someone who might roll his eyes if I heard a record label referred to as a ‘family’. But Bella Union come as close as anyone I’ve met in the music business. They acknowledge the absurdity of celebrity and the steep odds against most forms of success. They seem most motivated by a genuine enjoyment of their artists’ music, and continue to put out records by people like me, musicians whose potential album sales are an unknown quantity. I don’t know of another label in the world that would decide to put out a reissue of Clang Of The Yankee Reaper by Van Dyke Parks alongside new albums by Radiohead’s Philip Selway and the brilliant New Zealander Tiny Ruins. Bella Union’s careful eclecticism means that, despite the dizzying amount of music they release for a small-ish independent label, there seem to be a lot of people out there who are fans of their work as well as being fans of their individual artists. I’m one of those people, and so to be one of their artists
is an honour.”
Paul Gregory, Lanterns On The Lake
“We’d already started recording our debut album when Simon Raymonde first got in touch with us. We had just finished recording drums for a song called A Kingdom (in a living room no less, we were beyond DIY in those days!) and checked the band email to see a message from Bella Union. Nobody could believe it, they’d released some of our absolute favourite music and we really looked up to them. We were so fiercely independent at the time, and they totally understood that; they didn’t go in like a hammer and take over what we were doing. They gave us the opportunity to continue making the music we wanted, to remain true to ourselves. They’ve never tried to change who we are, or influence our musical decisions. Most importantly, they are some of the loveliest people you could ever hope to meet and a joy to work with. At the centre of it lies Mr Simon Raymonde, a person with superhuman ears and a superhuman heart. Signing to Bella Union was an incredible thing for us, they opened up so many doors and allowed us to grow, and for that we shall forever be thankful. Happy anniversary Bella Union!”
It’s a label that cares deeply about its artists and doesn’t interfere with their music. Independent Record Label Of The Year Awards in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016, voted for by the UK’s indie-music sector, underline the love for Raymonde’s close-knit family.
“I was on the verge of packing it all in. I’d had a particularly bad period, with our distributor Pinnacle going bust owing us a load of money. We ended up signing a licensing deal with V2, which was a huge indie label at that point. They were going to be licensing our records all over Europe, and then they went bust owing us a load of money, too. I was, like, ‘I don’t know if I can keep recovering from these catastrophic events. How am I going to get to the end of the month? How am I going to pay the bills and staff?’.” – Simon Raymonde
Around this time in 2008, Simon got an email from a booking agent friend who’d just seen this cool band and sent him a Myspace link. Whole at Øya festival in Norway, Simon clicked on the link and everything changed. He said: “I was just sitting by this fjord, ruminating about the situation and thinking maybe I should just go back and quit the whole thing. It was draining, 24 hours a day, and I didn’t feel I was getting anywhere constantly fighting the economic situation. I went to bed, opened up my laptop and thought, ‘I’ll listen to some music to cheer myself up.’
“I clicked on the link, which took me to the Fleet Foxes Myspace page, which only had one demo on it – White Winter Hymnal! It was almost biblical. ‘Oh my God’. Within 10 seconds, I thought: ‘I’ve never heard anything this good, so quick. Fuck, I have to sign this band. If I don’t sign this band I’m going to give up the label. This is my job, I’m on this Earth to sign this band’. It was almost a spiritual moment.” – Simon Raymonde
Bella Union started in 1997, with Raymonde and Guthrie frustrated by their experiences of being signed to 4AD and latterly Fontana – a subsidiary of the Universal-owned American label Mercury. “It was never an intention to sign other bands,” explains Raymonde. “It was just a vehicle to put out our own music unhindered, without having to talk to too many of the stupid people we’d encountered at previous labels. We thought it would be much easier if we did this ourselves.” The plan to use the label solely for their own music unravelled, however, when Cocteau Twins split up later in 1997, with bandmate Robin Guthrie moving to France.
“When the band was all of a sudden no more, it was like, ‘Crumbs, I guess we should put something out,’” says Raymonde. “We were in our 30s, you think you know it all. We thought it would be easy, and of course it wasn’t. We were awful at it for quite a while and Robin hated it from the start. Once the band had broken up there was no real reason for him to have a label, it was just a pain in the arse. I thought, ‘‘I haven’t got anything else to do right now, I might as well do it’. It felt stupid having gone to all the trouble of getting a logo and a desk not to give it a go. It was exciting, although terrifying.”
Bella Union HQ emerged from Cocteau Twins’ base at Pete Townshend’s Eel Pie Studios, on the banks of the Thames, before moving to the current premises in Shoreditch via spells in Twickenham, Hammersmith and London Fields.
“Around the time we were getting fed up with our 4AD relationship, we moved from our little home-built studio in North Acton to this fancy-pants studio that was Pete Townshend’s in Richmond,” says Raymonde. “It was the most incredible place. We took over the top floor, but then Pete moved out and we took over downstairs, too – and we were running three studios at once. It was like a dream… We did Heaven Or Las Vegas there and the following two albums on the major label. That’s where we started the label.
“When the arse-end fell out of the studio business and our studio went bust, we ended up losing pretty much everything we’d ever earned and all the equipment we’d ever bought. The studio went out of business and we ended up owing shedloads to the tax man and VAT man. We went from being quite well off with all this awesome shit, to having nothing – but it was quite liberating, I suppose.”
With the label up and running, Raymonde’s first signing was Australian instrumental band Dirty Three, with Bad Seed Warren Ellis on bass and violin, and Ocean Song, produced by Steve Albini, was one of the first releases – along with Raymonde’s debut solo album, Blame Someone Else. “We played with them at the Phoenix Festival – the year Bowie played,” Raymonde recalls of discovering Dirty Three. “We bumped into them and they were looking for a home to put their records out. We saw them live and thought they were incredible. We signed a French artist called Françoiz Breut, and the first release was my solo record, which a lot of Cocteau Twins fans bought. It brought some money into the label in the first few months. Dirty Three went pretty well and we didn’t get off to a terrible start.
“The early years were a bit odd, and we didn’t really know what we were doing. Some of the releases were awful, but things slowly started to make sense.” – Simon Raymonde
Americana and American indie bands played a huge part in the evolution of the label – with the State of Texas proving a particularly fertile hunting ground for talent as the Bella Union line-up expanded over the next decade.
“In 1998, I first went to Austin for SXSW,” says Raymonde. “In those days, you could go to Texas and walk into a bar with five or 10 people in and see some of the most incredible artists. I went there because I was fed up with British music and was enjoying mostly American bands, so I thought, ‘I’ll go and find some’. Midlake came through that, Lift To Experience, Jetscreamer, The Autumns, Devics… “You look through the early part of the roster and 90 per cent of the bands are American. Sometimes we do get put in a box as an Americana-y, folk-y kinda label… we’re not, really. It’s just that those bands are the ones that have done pretty well. We’ve released classical records, hip-hop records, instrumental noise records, but the most well known are the John Grants, the Jonathan Wilsons, the Fleet Foxes…”
The vast majority of bands on Bella Union are discovered by Raymonde himself, and the fundamental quality he looks for when searching for talent is a simple one, he explains, citing a trip to Manchester for an explosive early show by Savages, who were then being courted by most of the country’s A&R people.
“Listening to a demo, I’m just looking to be affected emotionally, or challenged. I’m looking for something I haven’t heard before. Live, I have to be blown away, because if a band is just ‘alright’ live, I have to think hard about it. I do sign bands that aren’t the finished article, because you’re not always going to find bands who are shop-ready straightaway.” – Simon Raymonde
“Take PINS. The whole of the London A&R scene were at the gig to see Savages. I went up to see PINS and it turned out Savages were headlining. Geoff Travis was there, Jeff Barrett, everybody from the scene. I tend to avoid gigs that other A&R people are going to because I know I’ll never win. I loved PINS way more than Savages, who were great. PINS were terrible, but amazing. They were really shambolic, they hadn’t really got it together yet, but there was something extraordinarily exciting and I could see this band could be amazing. I took a punt on them and didn’t even bother making an offer for Savages.”
Among Bella Union’s many highlights over the past two decades, Raymonde points to the story of John Grant – one of the earliest singings to the label with his Denver alt-rock band, The Czars. Following the band’s split, his well-documented struggles with alcohol and drug addiction and discovering he was HIV positive, Grant returned as a solo artist in 2010 to release the critically lauded Queen Of Denmark and follow it up with the incredible Silver-certified Pale Green Ghosts in March 2013. The album was named Rough Trade Records’ Album Of The Year, with Grant nominated for Best Solo Artist gongs by Q and The BRIT Awards.
“The John Grant story is one of the most beautiful, having signed him in the first year of the label. We put out three [Czars] albums and no one really gave a shit. John had some massive personal problems and to come back with a solo record at the age of 42, at the level he’s at, feels like one of the most beautiful things to be involved with. We were there at the beginning and we’re there 19 years later.” – Simon Raymonde
“Obviously, Fleet Foxes, because of the level of success they had with that first album, that put us on the map at a higher level. With Fleet Foxes, it was heartbreaking, because we’d been there from the very beginning and did an incredible job. We sold a million records in our territory. For them to leave, for whatever reason, it feels really sad and took me a long time to process that.”
We ask Raymonde – who’s about to release a new album with his own band, Lost Horizons – which current acts on Bella Union have got him most excited. “Will Stratton I’d put up there with Robin Pecknold and Elliott Smith,” he replies. “But it’s a different climate to how it was then. Is he going to get the same attention as Fleet Foxes? No, of course he isn’t, but hopefully, in time, people will recognise his talent.
“I’m excited about Jambinai, Lydia Ainsworth, whatever happens next. I spend my life trying to help these bands move from A to B and it’s always exciting. They’re all at different levels and you have to be patient, but patience isn’t something bank managers have.”
The label celebrates its 20th anniversary with a series of shows across the country. A trio of the Bella’s acts toured the UK in May; Mercury Rev headlined dates with Royal Northern Sinfonia in July – with Raymonde on guitar. In October, one of Bella’s great unheralded acts, Lanterns On The Lake – accompanied by a chamber orchestra – join emerging Brit country star Holly Macve at St George’s, Bristol. However, Raymonde is more aware than ever of the need to be pragmatic – and he treats the heady highs of million-selling records in the same way as the lean periods.
“There’ve been so many ups and downs, the whole thing is hanging by a pretty thin thread all the time. Regardless of who you’ve got on your roster, your expense is all up front. You’ve got to make the record, manufacture it, print the sleeve… and if no-one buys it, that money goes down the toilet. It’s a precarious business and every time you sign a band, it’s a massive gamble.” – Simon Raymonde
“You have to take a deep breath and be super-honest with all the bands you meet at the early stage of their career, where they’re excited. You have to tell them, ‘Listen, it ain’t what it was’. Even two or three years ago, a new band might sell 1,000 records in week one, or the first two weeks. Now that’s significantly less – maybe 10% of that, sometimes.
“The talk is of how vinyl sales are increasing exponentially, but on the ground level for new bands, it’s a massive struggle. You have to take those challenges on and not be dwarfed or depressed by them. It isn’t what it was before, but what it was before was shit anyway – so let’s create a new music industry that isn’t so dull, boring or regimented. People don’t like change, but I quite enjoy it. I’m not worried about the music business, because I’ll be fine. If all this goes wrong tomorrow, I can go to my little home studio and make music and I’ll be happy…”