After reviewing Snowbird’s amazing new album ‘Moon’ released earlier this month, in which Simon Raymonde collaborated with songwriter Stephanie Dosen (and which I can’t stop listening to), I got the opportunity to to interview Raymonde, ex Cocteau Twins member and founder of record label, Bella Union.
Raymonde gives generous insight into being the owner of a record label and the complexities of the signing process, and about the nurturing of new talent.
We also spoke about the value of having good neighbours (as all musicians know) when you’re writing at home… “When you have neighbours you get on with, you don’t want to start making a racket at midnight”.
Taking it right back to where it all began, I asked him what inspired him to play bass in the first place, and what kind of music most interested him as a lad?
In the beginning, well, my first bass lesson was at the age of 14 years old listening to Never Mind The Bollocks by The Sex Pistols in my room and playing along with it. Within a couple of hours, I was like… “Oh I can play the bass!” I formed a punk band at school the following week and that’s the start of it all. In ‘76/77 I was listening to the Clash, The Slits, PiL, Wire, Buzzcocks and anything that could be described as PUNK! I haven’t really progressed that much since 😉
I was interested in the name of Simons record label, Bella Union, I asked him where the name the originated…
In the days of the original Native American settlers, the houses for “entertainment” were called “Bella Union’s”. In the TV show ‘Deadwood’ (Which came many years after our label started by the way;) ) The “Bella Union” saloon, is actually a whorehouse, and some believe that’s what Bella Union’s are, but I don’t buy that one! You could also say that ‘Bella’ = beautiful, and ‘Union’ = marriage, which also feels like a good reason for the name.
I went on to ask him about what’s it’s like as a small record label in these times and if he can compete with bigger labels or if it was just about exposing a band because he loves their music.
Competing isn’t something I am interested in. The struggle is important because finding anything easy doesn’t really help you long term. I genuinely believe that having had years of struggling along, it is those years that give me the perspective I now have, and the humility to realize that any minute now, we could be back there at the beginning, struggling. The business is fairly unforgiving and if I signed 20 bands in a row that everyone hated and no-one bought, I guess the struggles would return Big Time and who knows, I could be packing shelves in Walmart, but I am very determined, clearly having done this now for 16 years, and I think the band we have are pretty fantastic!! Yes my motivations are more about helping new bands getting a foothold and a very tricky arena and welcoming them into our family. Family is an important word here, we feel like adopted parents sometimes and we love that aspect of it all.
When he signs a band, does he know there and then that this particular band is going to go far, or is it for the love of their music? What is the relationship between these two factors?
The two things are not mutually exclusive. And there are more complex subtleties to signing a band than just one, or both of these factors. Yes, first and foremost, it is all about the music. Without that spark, we wouldn’t be communicating with a band. They could have made an incredible record, or played a stunning show, but at various points, some contact can be made, and we use our experience to determine if we want to listen more, let them grow more alone, do a single, an ep, or if we are 100% sure they’re ready, ready for us, and us ready for them! But of course there are many external variables that come in to play which ultimately determine if we sign a band. If the band is the greatest band I ever saw, but their manager is impossible to work with, then I wouldn’t sign them. If the band themselves don’t get what we’re doing, who we are, and what we’re trying to build, and if I can sense that they’re signing to us as a stepping stone to something else, I wouldn’t sign them either. Life is too short to work with people who are not 100% into being team players. The best ‘campaigns’ are when artist/label/management/agent are all working at 100%. If one of these elements isn’t working out, then it can only go so far.
I asked Raymonde if when he signed Stephanie Dosen, he had any idea at the time that he might be able to collaborate on a project with her down the road.
No, not really but life is pretty odd, so I don’t think much beyond tomorrow, because too often something happens unexpected and I like the unexpected. We lived together for a few years, so the longer we were together, the more likely it was.
I asked Raymonde about the cross over between this project with Dosen and his previous work with Elizibeth Fraser in the Cocteau Twins. There is a notable resonance between Dosens vocals and Frasers – How conscious was this and was it something that arose naturally?
Stephanie was always a fan of Elizabeth’s but then so was Madonna, Annie Lennox, etc. Certainly no music we would ever make would be intentionally imitating someone else’s; there would be no point in that. The fact that I was in CT for 14 years was clearly going to be mentioned in any press, so we would have to be pretty stupid to try and make an album that sounded like CT deliberately. But I co-wrote all the band’s music for 14 years and I’d like to think people can hear the difference in Cocteau twins between garlands and treasure (my first record writing/recording with the band), so if musically I write music that sounds a little like CT and inspires Stephanie to sign a certain style then I guess we just have to accept it, and be glad it didn’t sound like maroon 5. She arranged the music for choral groups when she was younger so she does have a wonderful harmonic ability that Elizabeth also had. But I don’t compare music or singers; it serves only to diminish not to embellish the listening experience. In the same way, I never read film reviews. I don’t want someone else’s opinion, a person I have no knowledge of, telling me what a film is like.
I found it very interesting that for the new album Moon, Raymonde made all his piano sketches at night and that he was interested in how light hits objects at night.
Initially it was due to circumstance that I recorded/wrote at night. Remember I have a pretty full on day job, so by the time I would get home and do all the other stuff, it may be 11pm before I finally sat down at the piano. When you have neighbors you get on with, you don’t want to start making a racket at midnight so the environment and the skylight above the piano certainly affected the mood. If I was writing in bright sunshine at 9am I think it would’ve sounded a bit different!
Do you find that your musical instincts are more honed in the dark?
No, I can write at any time. I have 17 years worth of music to get out, so I don’t need any particular environment, I just need the discipline, and the time. Neither are always forthcoming 😉
Would you say you are signing more English bands at the moment than American, or is there a balance to be struck?
I think I am just balancing it up a bit! Yes, seriously the UK is producing some phenomenal bands at the moment, but I don’t think you can say I am signing more English than American, as Horse Thief, Marissa Nadler, Arc Iris, all recent American bands, would suggest that there is no specific ‘swing’ occurring! Also just signed one from New Zealand and one from Australia so I think I have a good balance!
So to finish up I asked Raymonde who he thought was going to be the band to watch for 2014.
That’s an unfair question. Snowbird of course 😉
If you’d like to find out more about Snowbird and Bella Union it’s well worth your while chekin’ them out!