Music interview: Simon Raymonde talks about the Cocteau Twins and Bella Union

Simon Raymonde has run Bella Union records since 1999.
Simon Raymonde has run Bella Union records since 1999.
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Simon Raymonde played bass in Cocteau Twins between 1984 and 1997. He launched the record label Bella Union in 1999, since when it has gone on to release albums by Fleet Foxes, John Grant and Father John Misty among others.

On Wednesday May 10 he will be in conversation with Chris Madden at one of his Chinwag events at Outlaws Yacht Club in Leeds. On the eve of that event, he spoke to the Yorkshire Evening Post.

Your father was a well known songwriter and arranged records by Dusty Springfield and the Walker Brothers, among others. How big an influence did he have on you wanting to pursue a working life in music?

Maybe more than I realised for many years. He died relatively young, certainly before I was old enough to truly appreciate the breadth and depth of both his career and his influence on me growing up. He wasn’t the pushy competitive Dad type, he was quietly encouraging but let me work it out for myself. He was from a very working class family and was a busker in the East End of London when he was young and despite his successes, as kids we didn’t get spoiled in any way, so the morals and the attitudes of humilty to others are the important lessons I learned from him. It was more the arrival of punk rock in my life that defined the career path and some luck along the way, but his part in it cannot be denied ;)

As well as the tracks you mentioned and the other more well-known things, I discovered in the last four or five years when I got deeply into the research, that he had just done so much cool stuff that I had no idea about. Even my Mum wasn’t aware of all of it! Working with Joe Meek on a lot of the great Northern soul records as well was great to see and I began thinking how great it would be to put out a compilation like a Best Of... and that is what I’ve been working on for the last few years with my friend Kieron Tyler and it will come out later this year on double vinyl which is very exciting.

You joined the Cocteau Twins in 1984 after a spell in the post-punk group Drowning Craze. Did you feel straight away the band was something special?

Four Calendar Cafe was in many ways, the flowering of Elizabeth as a human being, with her writing being her way of dealing with some serious personal situations. It led to some beautiful songs, some pretty heartbreaking, to be honest.

Simon Raymonde

I was friends with them for a while before I was asked to become part of the band, and was a fan too. Ivo Watts-Russell, the boss of 4AD, and I drove up from London to many out of town shows on the 1983 tour and I could see there was something very special about Elizabeth for sure.

Cocteau Twins were 4AD’s first big commercial success. How did you feel about finding yourselves in the top 10 of the mainstream charts?

I think even then, as it is now with my own label, the satisfaction of breaking into the major-dominated charts of the 80s and 90s was not for the rewards it may bring, it was more more in defiance of the mainstream. It felt like a two-fingers up to the establishment, and petty though that is, I still get a kick out of that now! Haha. Seeing our records, or Father John Misty’s albums in Tesco next to Ed Sheeran or Simply Red or whoever it might have been back in the day makes me both laugh at the absurdity of it all, and rejoice that our band and our fans have a legitimate voice, when society tells us that things are meant to be done this way or that way.

After Heaven or Las Vegas the band moved to a major label. The two albums you made for Fontana, Four Calendar Cafe and Milk and Kisses, were recently reissued on vinyl for Record Store Day. How do you look back on those records in comparison to your earlier releases, and did it feel like things were changing significantly within the band during that time?

As with all our releases, there are some really good moments and then some other moments. As our music was mostly improvised, hard though that may be to fathom, it was always going to be hit and miss. We never had any songs ‘ready’ when the label(s) asked, we just went in the studio and pressed ‘Record’ and made it up as we went along. So I think the final two albums, while made in the same way, have significantly different emotions and context behind them that all the previous ones didn’t. 4CC was in many ways, the flowering of Elizabeth as a human being, with her writing being her way of dealing with some serious personal situations. It led to some beautiful songs, some pretty heartbreaking, to be honest, and while I imagine our fanbase, still reeling from us leaving 4AD, would much rather have had more of Elizabeth’s singing style of the previous albums where lyrics were hard to decipher, I found it liberating to be part of her journey. I think musically we were developing too, well I certainly felt I was, and despite the craziness going on in the background, our music was still thrilling me. Milk and Kisses felt different, sometimes it felt like progress and other times it felt like retreading the same ground. It felt like we wanted to move on but we didn’t quite know how.

You once said you were “in mourning” after Cocteau Twins broke up. Did founding Bella Union Records provide some form of compensation, creatively speaking?

Yes indeed. Not the founding of it per se, but the growth of it, and working with bands I have an affinity with. It provided ultimately too much for me creatively, as I totally ignored my own music for way too long, but I think it was worth it!

Bella Union has enjoyed considerable acclaim for records by the likes of Fleet Foxes, John Grant and Father John Misty. What, for you, has been the most enjoyable part of running your own label?

Well, I get just as much of a kick out of watching a band like Lowly, grow from month to month, show to show, as I do from seeing Fleet Foxes sell a million records. If you aren’t learning new things every day and aren’t looking forward then, I figure you should do something else. My label has been my family for so many years, the bands are all like my brothers, sisters, cousins and nephews and nieces, and helped me get through some very tough personal situations. If I had to pick one, I think seeing the Lazarus-style rise of John Grant would have to be the most pleasing, but ask me another day and I would likely give you a different story.

You have only released, I think, two albums of your own since Cocteau Twins – one solo record and the Snowbird album with Stephanie Dosen. Have you felt it was important to concentrate on running the label, rather than your own music, over the last 20 years?

I just finished my first proper record since 1997. Snowbird was more Stephanie’s record than mine, though for sure, it got me back in the swing. I started a band called Lost Horizons last year with a drummer I’ve loved for years called Richie Thomas.

He’s been my favourite drummer all my adult life and I was thrilled to have stayed in contact with him even though we never had the chance to work together with him as drummer (he did play sax with Cocteau Twins and we were in This Mortal Coil together also back in the early 80s)​. Richie and I got together last year and have been snatching days here and there to record wholly improvised pieces, as the template for this record. The bulk of the record was improvised in a four day session, starting on the day Bowie died. We almost didn’t make it to the studio, as I didn’t think I could do it. Richie was in pieces too and we texted just before we’d both set off for the studio and I’d offered a get out: “I don’t know about you, Richie, but I am feeling awful, shall we postpone?”, Richie considered it but said: “No, brother, we must go in, we must use the energy of these feelings” and boy.....did we! We wrote about eight of the pieces on the LP from those four days.

I then brought the recordings home and began making sense of them, and building them into the songs that are on the album. Yes, for sure I have very limited time to work on my music, cos of the label and how all-consuming that is, but I love what we’ve done and it’s the most excited I’ve been about something I’ve done musically for way too long.

What do you look for in artists that you want to worth with at Bella Union?

Humility, vision, talent and work ethic.

How do you see the future for independent record labels? Has the vinyl revival made a difference?

Honestly I think it’s going to be tough but I think that’s a good thing. There’s too much NOISE out there right now and not enough channels or portals to sustain it. something has to give and labels, who are the big investors in this, some will certainly lose.

I love the vinyl revival but I think one should get excited with great caution.

Chinwag, featuring Simon Raymonde, takes place at Outlaws Yacht Club, Leeds on Wednesday May 10 at 7pm. For tickets visit http://outlawsyachtclub.bigcartel.com/product/chinwag-with-simon-raymonde

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