Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives, including the artists on your label?
A really good creative collaboration is something like falling in love, you become smitten in some platonic way, perhaps with the way someone else is seeing and thinking about things, or their ability to do something you can't. It's a rush. But just like I don't have a preferred way of falling in love, I don't have a preferred way to collaborate, it just depends on who it is and what you're doing.
Friendship and projects often overlap. I've been bouncing ideas off James (Ginzburg) and Paul (Purgas) for years now. People I loved working with or bouncing ideas off more recently are: Beatrice Dillon, Keith Harrison and Al Cameron and in fact the entire Ecstatic Material crew; Laura Cannell, Heather Leigh, Natalie Galustian, Jack Howson, Luke Turner, Sami Fitz and The Cafe Oto choir. I also fell for Annea Lockwood's energy, enthusiasm and vitality while she was in London. So deeply inspiring, I am still reeling.
Can you take me through your process on the basis of a release that's particularly dear to you? How do you decide to release it, what did you start with, what sources did you draw from for all tasks related to it and how did the finished product gradually take shape?
It's a combination of feeling – that something is really special and somehow miraculous – and it's not readily available. I ask: can I really get behind this? Can I do right by it? Do I have a right to tell this story? Sometimes the answer is no, so I drop it.
As a music writer, I spent years sucking up info, and it took a while for me to feel like I had something to give back to the scene I had become a part of. I think it's important to think about it like this, as inputs and outputs. It definitely took me years of just inputting stuff, of inhaling music and stories. I get in holes where I just dig and dig around, a sort of trance and eventually I come up for air clutching a collection of amazing music that might all contain hurdy gurdy, or be steel band covers of soul classics. This is how my PhD in foghorns started.
I wish I had a strategy that I could lay out for you, but every release is different, and I try to take cues from the artist I'm working with and their situation. I do not have a god given right to any of this material, it is in my care, and I need to do right by the music and the people. This comes into conflict with the restrictions of time and money, and so I don't think I ever do as much as I'd like on a release. I do ask myself whether I have told them everything clearly – have I communicated with them properly? Have I worked out how they would like to work things and have I asked them this directly? More recently I have been thinking: have I laid out that saying no is an option if they're not comfortable with something? The reissue market is getting really ruthless and saturated, and I really want to take a conscious step away from that. I could be pinging off emails asking for licenses of stuff all the time, but I don't want to be a part of the land grab. I want to say I'm still learning on all these fronts, but what people mean when they say they're still learning in an area with no formal teaching is that they're still making mistakes and rectifying it for next time.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do the label and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I tell myself I'm better at getting up than I actually am. This is what I aspire to: getting up out of bed at 7am every day. I'm just going to tell you that's what I do. Oh, and if I'm lying about that I might as well say I go for a run every morning (almost never) along the Thames estuary where I live. (EDIT: I got up at 7:30 to do this, so am making progress)
There's not so much a feeding back between aspects of my life as a stew of people, places, sound and music. Recently I've struggled to spin plates, and stress and anxiety put me in a sort of stasis, watching things fall, and the feeling of doom is only intensified by knowing you're letting other people down too. I also tend to double down on feeling bad – feel bad because I'm feeling bad and I don't think I should be feeling bad.
Stress shortens my vision, makes me less grateful, less able to appreciate how lucky I am to be doing all the things I do. It takes a great power of will at busy times to step out and take a breath, but I am lucky that it is usually all I need to get back on track. Stress is usually about income versus workload being incommensurate.
To rectify this imbalance, I recently did some temp work to get by which was a clock-in, clock-out remote working job, which had nothing to do with anything I usually do. It was brilliant, I listened to entire back catalogues in order, it was mechanical and repetitive, and really calmed me down. Today I have John Fahey's catalogue lined up, and tomorrow I'm going to do the entire Ut catalogue in order, as a lot of it has recently gone up on Bandcamp.
I have no fixed schedule. I live in Southend On Sea, and I spend a lot of time in London. My partner lives in Sweden, so I go there a lot too. I also have a cupboard in Heather Leigh's home in Glasgow that I go to a few times a year. I love the acoustics in her bathroom, and the view from the window when you're brushing your teeth. It's a place where I talk (shout?) into the night and garden in the day with David Keenan. We build stuff. That place, specifically that flat, is an escape I treasure.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
The Hunger! It doesn't matter how busy you are, when the hunger strikes there's no resisting it. Yesterday I had to drag myself away from a descent into lithophones and I am sore about it. I am planning a show/playlist/something on rock music, by which I mean music made with rocks.
How is listening to the actual music and writing or reading about it connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally?
Writing about music is a translation, a really difficult one that people have often discussed – how do you describe a sound? It means converting a sonic experience into a linguistic one, and the ability to do so is like speaking a language, you get better with time. Writing is a muscle, and the more you work it out the better you get. The idea of literary or artistic talent as a mystical gift that you've got or you don't is a fucking joke.
Writing about music is not just describing sound, it's articulating someone's work, attitude, speech, binding together big ideas. There's a journalistic maxim that says "say what you mean", and it the hardest thing to fulfil. I know when I've got it right when I feel a sentence 'sings'. That feeling is one I can't articulate beyond that idea of a sound like the clear ring of a tuning fork, combined with a fist pump. I know I've nailed it when I get that feeling. Safe to say, it doesn't always happen.
There has been an exponential growth in promotion agencies and there is still a vast landscape for music magazines. What's your perspective on the music promo- and journalism-system? In how far is it influencing your choice of artists, in how far is it useful for potential buyers, in how far do you feel it is possibly undermining your work?
I don't agree that the landscape for music magazines is vast, particularly not in the UK. I think the role of criticism as a distinct form of music writing is in crisis. Promotion and journalism are two different industries with two different aims but similar mediums. One is selling you something, whether that's trying to get you to buy into something or buy something. Journalism should be doing something different, should be talking about sound and ideas, and should be free to be critical or call something out. There is a crossover as the journalist often wants you to buy into their vision or ideas too, so the two things get muddled together, and each party has expectations based on their aims, which is where there's friction.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art?
Distinguishing 'art' and 'not art' is the same as the division between 'noise' and 'music' – it's totally arbitrary, totally personal, and totally political where you draw the line, if you even make the distinction at all. It's all about personal perspective – what do you see? Why do you see it like that?
I often don't feel comfortable in the art world as I've experienced it. It's not that I don't believe in it as such, or that I don't love lots of the work I see in galleries. Unless the exhibition is enough to overwhelm me, I am hyper aware that I don't belong in those spaces, and I often find the language of the art world totally alienating and infuriating. Why is directness and clarity in language so taboo in those spaces? It is a hat we can all put on, but just because we can, doesn't mean we should. I especially don't like the expectations of behaviour in a white box art gallery, it seems to turn everyone boring, up tight, or mad. There are, of course, many exceptions to these bold statements, both regarding gallery spaces and language, and I have probably been guilty of the crimes I am describing at some point.
Saying this, two notable moments from the last ten years include the feeling of revelation I got in the Black Mountain retrospective in Berlin (don't stay in your lane!). Ancient South American ceramics in the Chicago Institute over Christmas blew my mind in that they made time collapse, reaffirmed that the past always has stories to tell that run against an established narrative.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of labels still intact. Do you have a vision of labels, an idea of what they could be beyond their current form?
I don't agree that it's remarkable, and I don't know what their current form is. Artists often don't like being pigeon-holed with genres, and in the same way I don't really like talking in a way that 'label' points to something with a certain function, although both these things are essential signposts for us to be able to communicate and share music and I have no desire to let go of either.
The possibilities for labels might change with digital developments, but I don't know what they are. I do not keep track of developments at the top of the great music industry mountain in order to work out what will trickle down to the valleys where I am. All I can say is that I fucking love Bandcamp, but I'm waiting for them to implement a search tool where I can browse by linking up tags, searching for eg: noise music AND Lagos, because at the moment you can only browse noise music OR Lagos.
Part of the problem in working stuff out is working out what you're trying to do and why. Because everyone's answer to this is different, there should be a vast variety of operations doing things in the right way for them, and there are. If you feel you should do something, ask where that 'should' is coming from.
Responsibility and vision, and a fuck ton of gut feeling are what I try to run off in all my dealings. With one of our releases, I would listen to it one day and think it was the best thing I had ever heard, that didn't sound like anything else. The day after, I doubted the joy I had felt the day before. I went to a friend, Uncle Music, and asked what I should do. He told me to ask my gut feeling. That feeling said YES, so I did it. It was the right decision.
The only thing I pull a face at is stuff that runs off of being elitist and inaccessible. Pure ego is bad karma. So is not answering all your emails but I haven't found a way to do the latter yet.