Rock and Pop: Bella Union
LondonNet feature by Catherine Chambers.
Dec 8th 2000
Originally intended as an outlet for 80s band Cocteau Twins releases,
London-based record label Bella
Union has become a launch-pad for diverse musical talent.
Co-founder and erstwhile Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde reveals
the inner workings of the label he helped create
"AT THE time I was like,
f**k, what am I going to do now," reflects Simon Raymonde
on the break-up of his former band. "I'd been in the Cocteau
Twins for 14 years and the first thought was what the hell am
I gonna do without it. It was the reason for being in life. To
have that core not be there anymore it was like, what's next?
Everything was something you never questioned."
Rain trickles against the windows
of the small café which is situated on a cobbled street
in Twickenham, South London, where we are about to conduct our
interview. Less than a few yards away is Bella Union, the label
that Simon runs with ex Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie. With steaming
cups of coffee in order and a quiet location at the far corner
of the café, Simon talks candidly about the complicated
life as a member of the Cocteau Twins. And while he doesn't seem
tired of discussing them, ("it's all inter-related")
at the mention of Bella Union, his eyes light up and the conversation
"It happened totally by accident,"
he says in between sips of coffee. "After parting company
with Mercury we decided to set up our own label in order to control
our own affairs. Then we split up and that was a bit of a problem!
We had this label but no band." Rather than consigning the
label to the dustbin, Simon and Robin decided to invest in Bella
Union, whilst Cocteaus singer Liz went her separate way. Raymonde
released a solo album, which he says, modestly, did 'fine', and
adequately filled the coffers enough to start BU mark 2.
The first band to sign to Bella
Union were Aussie instrumentalists Dirty Three who were then
tied up with another label, Big Cat. "We found them through
a friend of ours and heard they weren't having a good time on
the label they were on, and since we're both big fans of the
band it was natural to sign them" explains Raymonde. Dirty
Three's latest album, Whatever You Love You Are, varies between
cacophonous noise and caustic splinters of sound. It is by no
means what you'd call an easy listen. "It can be hard for
people to get their heads round instrumental music," he
nods. Avant-noisiks Rothko are another case in question that
go against the grain. They have three bass players for a start.
"The actual idea of having three bass players in a band
is insane. But it does work! I like bands that push the boundaries
of things. That's what this label is all about."
It also involves wading through
lots of demos -not a task for the faint-hearted. Raymonde smiles
wryly. "It's very demanding but there's no better feeling
than discovering a band who have potential." One such band
happened to be Denver-based Czars, whose debut album, Before...But
Longer, was released earlier this year to critical acclaim. It
also caught the attention of one of the UK's prominent singer
songwriters - David Gray, who took the band on tour with him.
"For us to believe he'd even heard of them was amazing,"
Simon recalls with an excited quiver in his voice. "I didn't
think it would work musically but it did."
Raymonde is no stranger to
label dealings; he has, after all, been on the other side of
the fence as a member of the Cocteau Twins. In 1996 the Cocteaus
signed to Mercury which, he admits, was a 'big mistake.' "We
were friends with 4AD but the relationship had got strangled
by this friendship. We went into this major label deal like we
were going to put our foot down and stamp our artistic identity,"
he recalls. Things got to a head when the Cocteaus released,
against the wishes of the record company, a ballad, Evangeline.
It flopped dramatically. "From then on we weren't a priority
any more. Rather than starting the relationship on a positive
note we were really antagonistic."
The conversation diverts temporarily
to the rip-off regime of the music industry. Having experienced
label difficulties first hand, it's a subject that Raymonde easily
gets riled about. "We were antagonistic with our record
label bosses, which is fair play as they were ripping us off.
The music industry is designed to rip the artist off. For the
first couple of years we loved being in a band, we didn't care
about the money and just signed the contract without a second
thought. We weren't business people and got walked over."
It's a far cry from Bella Union,
which Raymonde refers to as 'artist-friendly.' "We are trying
to be a label that we as the Cocteau Twins, would have liked
to have been on," he says thoughtfully. "Rather than
a label that rips you off, all our deals are 50/50. The artist
always gets half. Most record labels give you 20 per cent if
you're lucky." He says he takes on as much or as little
as the bands want, acting as their A&R, manager and booking
agent. One of his tasks is finding suitable venues for gigs.
Among his favourite choices is the intimate confines of The Spitz
in East London and the Union Chapel in Islington, the latter
of which he says: "It's the only venue in London where people
don't spend the whole time chatting which I absolutely hate."
He adds: "I'd love to see the Dirty Three play the Scala
as it's an old cinema I used to frequent in my punk days and
I see them as very cinematic."
One pitfall of being an independently
run label can be lack of finance. As a result, many labels that
have begun life as independents run out of money and link up
with major label. Despite his hatred of industry tactics, Simon
doesn't rule it out completely. "I don't think I would say
it's never going to happen, but it's a very fragile existence,"
he sighs. "It does come to a point where bands get to a
certain level and can't carry on because they've got no cash.
Of course there's a temptation to sell out to the devil and that's
what most labels do. But if we can make these bands successful
on our own then we will."
Bella Union - Home site of the label including bios,
discogrophies and interviews.
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