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Rock and Pop: Bella Union

An exclusive LondonNet feature by Catherine Chambers.

Dec 8th 2000

Bella Union
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 flows.

The Dirty Three"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."

Catherine Chambers

Further Info:
Bella Union -
Home site of the label including bios, discogrophies and interviews.

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