Sarah Records is magical. The consistently gorgeous songs have stuck with me since I picked up my roommate's Air Balloon Road, scanning down amazed that out of so many songs by so many bands, not one was less than beautiful. I inevitably started to take the label for granted, which is just a measure of how natural and engrossing their overall feel has been, from songs to bands to pictures to package. I've always gotten a little gasp of exhilaration from their finest moments... The Orchids, the Sugargliders, Another Sunny Day, the Field Mice. There's been no end to the finest moments, no end to the crucial songs. Let's hope other labels can inspire the same trust, the feeling that you'll love the new release, whatever it is. It's never going to be quite the same.
Were you discovering the bands all around the country who fit with your, sort of, aesthetic?
By the time we 'd had several issues, we were getting sent demo tapes. They became basically the groups we put out flexidiscs by. The first band on Sarah was the Sea Urchins. We'd both individually had a flexi with that band, so when we went to set up Sarah, they were the obvious band to work with.
I know one of, maybe, the jokes has been that the Sarah roster could just be a bunch of people [that the bands could have] members in common, vocalists in common. But they're really all distinct...?
(MH chuckles) One of the problems they've had is that most of the bands have never been career-based, if you like. They've just been people doing it as a hobby, for fun. Which means they've never really bothered in some cases getting a proper gigging band together. A lot of the bands on the label have never actually played gigs, or certainly never had by the time they actually had a record out. ... I think for everything we release, the only criteria we have for releasing it is that Clare and I both like it, so everything is going to have something in common. I guess we tend to attract people who are in tune with our way of thinking. There's going to be that common link, bands who like the idea of Sarah, fans of the Sarah aesthetic, whatever that may be, are the bands who are going to send us demos.
So you two aren't actually "producing", acting as producer?
I mean, we do sometimes... when a band's never been in the studio before, we've gone in and shown them how things work ... There is a link between all of the bands, I really couldn't say what it is or why it exists. I suppose it's a state of mind more than anything.
Well, that's a fitting thing, I'm wondering if you think it's a particularly English thing...
I like to think so, English as opposed to ... I think very un-American if you like...
Maybe English pop culture is more willing to accept wistful men...
I think that's true, I think the big rock bands, big stadium bands are the opposite of what we stand for with Sarah, and in the last few years there seems to be a swing toward, even before the sort of Nirvana-type bands, a moved toward bands who are loud -- the noise, rather than the actual feeling behind it. We'd rather go to the quiet wistful English extreme if you like. The whole sort of rock and roll aesthetic isn't something we aspire to, we'd rather react against it... stand out from that.
Yeah. As far as the ideas, that's all the bands' ideas?
We'd never interfere in the actual songs at all. The only thing we do is if we think a song could be mixed or recorded better we'll make them go and do it again. Blueboy ha a new single - they did it themselves, and we think it could use some tweaking here and there, so we're going back in the studio with them to do that. But as far as the songs go, it's all their own ideas. We wouldn't dream of interfering on that level.
How would you describe the criteria that you and Clare have had in your own heads to make this "feel?" It's obviously hard to say because it's kind of a poetic thing.
Ummm... when we first set up Sarah, it was because we looked around at all the other labels that were around at the time and just felt that these people weren't doing it properly. My old fanzine in particular had always taken a strong stance of being anti-12 inch singles. We had always sort of had that political angle to it if you like, very much anti the music business and the way the fans were manipulated by being made to buy 12-inch singles when they didn't want to. Unnecessary marketing devices like that seemed to get in the way of the actual music.
On your old compilation album _Shadow Factory, there's a little editorial on the back about how it's nice to be able to get a little item [because low prices make it possible to buy a unit without thinking it through.]
This was all part of it. When we actually set up Sarah, it was very much to prove a point as to how a record label should be run and could be run, from the fan's point of view rather than the record company's point of view. That's , I suppose, the most important aspect of Sarah, that political aspect. As for the general feel... (chuckling), all the little notes in with the records, it's just us writing. And we've always played up the Bristol angle, because we've always hated the idea that anything in Britain has to be based in London. All the record labels move to London and we've made a point of that, not moving to London even though I'm from London originally. We've been proud of the fact that we've stayed in Bristol, which is why all the 7-inches have a picture of a part of Bristol on the label, and subtle things, like the compilation Lps are named after Bristol bus routes.
Oh, like Glass Arcade, and Engine Common...
Yeah, _Shadow Factory_, there's a factory on the north edge of Bristol and the bus that goes there is the 587, which is why the catalog number is Sarah 587. Little things like that.
I know I have a very unrealistic picture of Bristol, but it rhymes with crystal...
It's a lovely city. We both came to university here and stayed on because we liked it so much.
How are you received by the students there?
We have this big Bristol image as far as the label goes. Butt there are just the two bands, and Tramway doesn't exist anymore, so we don't really get involved with the Bristol music scene at all. We have had quite a following when we put bands on in Bristol. We seem to get a better turnout here than in other parts on the country. I think secretly there must be a lot of people who are quite proud of us, who like the idea that there's this label just working out of a house in south Bristol.
Do you think what you've been releasing has changed since you began [in 1987]? I have a recent Action Painting 7-inch and it strikes me as very different...
There's not been any overall plan. Right from the word go, we've just released things according to what the band was writing and what we get sent. If there's been any overall trend, it's been purely coincidental. The original fans were people who liked the Sea Urchins, they were our biggest band and that's what caught the imagination at the start. And then the Field Mice came along... and once the Field Mice split up, Heavenly became our biggest band. A lot of people think Sarah isn't what it used to be a couple of years ago, but they're basically the people who got into the label when the Field Mice were big, who really liked the Field Mice, and now they don't like Heavenly very much. Now there's younger bands like Boyracer and Action Painting! on the label, who are much louder and faster and writing shorter songs compared to the swirly things the Field Mice used to do. That's just the way it's changed.
It's funny, I have some records, they've made it into the United States, but I've read practically no information or discussion of Sarah.
We have great trouble getting the press to take us seriously. I don't know what it's like in the States, I think a few small magazines are quite keen on us, but the States are strange because they have no national weekly music press.
Like Melody Maker and the NME.
Yeah, it's those two, they come out every week. If you can get reviews in those, that's 90% of your publicity done over here. Obviously, in the States you've got loads of magazines and you've got college radio stations, whereas here our job is a lot simpler if you like. Once you've got Melody Maker, NME and Radio 1 playing your record, your job is done. But if you don't manage to get that, you're stuck, so it works both ways. I don't know what the press has against us. Frankly, I think they don't like the sort of English, wimpy, whatever, image that we have. They like their rock starts to be in the traditional mold. It's still a very male-dominated scene and we don't fit in with that at all, which we're very pleased about and proud of.
It's weird because there are lots of individual journalists on both papers who like us a lot, and who in private would say how much they like us and would give individual records good reviews. But we can't get beyond that to where they're actually willing to write large articles. We just get the odd good reviews, excellent reviews sometimes, but nothing follows on from that. You get a "single of the week" one week, and with any other band, any other label you would think "right, there's been a single of the week, next week there should be a double page feature, a month later there should be a cover feature." But with us, there's nothing to follow up on it. I think journalists are sort of wary of becoming associated with us, because we have got this fairly strong image. And they are fairly wary of being typecast as a journalist who's into Sarah, because once that happens to them, they think no one will take them seriously again, I guess. They'll be very much the Sarah person on the paper, a joke around the office. It's very frustrating for us.
How about John Peel?
Umm, I think he likes us more than he likes he music. He seems to sympathize with what we're trying to do with Sarah and the attitudes that we have to the music business. So he seems to like the idea more than he likes most of the bands, but he will give most of our releases at least one play, and the ones he likes he'll play a lot. He's had bands in for sessions and things. It's the sort of early evening shows on Radio 1 we need to get ,because he's on so late at night that it's a much smaller audience. If you can actually get the early evening shows, they're on every night of the week, 7 o'clock to 9 o'clock, that counts for far more really.
Over here, the media coverage seems to be stratified, Rolling Stone and MTV wouldn't know anything good if it bit them, and it's mostly the fanzines that write about K records, Slumberland records, labels like that. I suppose you have a fondness for that sort of fanzine coverage?
Yes, because that's the scene we both came from. We have sympathies with that, but sadly, over the last few years most of the English fanzines have disappeared. Very few good fanzines here. It's terribly sad because five or six years ago if you went to a gig, you'd be hassled the whole time by people trying to sell you fanzines, where if you go to a gig now, even the sort of "Riot Grrrl" gig, which is supposedly very fanzine-based, there's no one trying to sell you anything at all. It's very sad - it seems the whole scene is in danger of dying. I think over here there's always been less need for it in a way, because we do have a weekly music press, which is very much in tune with changes week by week. In America, in the monthly magazines, there's just no way they're going to know what is going on. The grass roots is going to take three or four years until things actually start to filter through. Whereas here a lot of people writing for the music press are fanzine writers and are very much with what's going on in the clubs and pubs and so forth, so it's quite easy for bands who never had a record deal or anything to get written about in the weekly independent press. There is less need in a way for the traditional review-type fanzine.
What do you think of the whole phasing out of records as a format, and their replacement by Cds?
Originally, we wanted to press 7-inches as the opposite of 12-inches. They seemed a waste to us. If you have the idea of one song on a piece of vinyl [rather than have a 12-inch single with two songs and three remixes, or some kind of extraneous material]... on a 7-inch, for the band to write a song, and make it the best song ever, is what we stand for, more than the fact that it happens to be seven inches across, really. I'd love to do a one-track 3-inch CD or something. It would have the same feel as a 7-inch to some extent. But it's not actually economic to do that. We actually lose a lot of money on the singles. But now we've started doing CD singles as well. The CD singles make money, the 7-inches lose money. The two sort of balance out, so the singles all break even. Which in a way is sad, because it means we have to do the albums, the compilations and so forth to actually make any money and to keep the label going.
Do you think you've spawned imitators?
Certainly in England there are a lot of labels out there who I think we influenced, caused to start up. Sadly, a lot of small labels who did start up seem to not like us anymore because they perceive that we are now the corporate enemy, and they are the sort of young, pure label doing their first 7-inch.
I notice that East River Pipe is from New York
Yeah, a one-man band from New York. He and his girlfriend released their first two singles on their own label, Hell Gate and a friend at a record shop said they should send them to us, and they did, and we took it from there. We've probably had a better response to their LP than to almost anything we've ever done, I think. Everyone seems to love it over here. They're getting press in Japan as well, through us, and the NME did a double-page article on them... They were on their own little label in New York, and now they seem to have smashed across the whole world.
They sound to me as though they're destined to be a Sarah band.
I think so. It's quite weird I mean , they were just out there in New York, and they fit everyone's idea of what a Sarah band should be, and they'd never heard of us.
How is it that Heavenly is signed to K Records?
Basically because Amelia and Peter from Heavenly have always been big fans of K Records and Beat Happening especially, and because of that, Calvin was made aware of Heavenly, and of Talulah Gosh. It's sort of mutual admiration- Calvin sang on a track on their last LP. Did the Orchids sample [4AD band] This Mortal Coil on their song "Thaumaturgy"?
(MH laughs) Umm, we'd never actually heard the This Mortal Coil track, but when we released the Orchids single, lots of people wrote to us to say, there's this This Mortal Coil sample at the end ... but then we mentioned it to the Orchids and they denied this! (laughter) They said what it actually was was a tape of a local band in Glasgow, which had been sort of lying around in the recording studio, so they admitted it was a sample that somebody else had recorded, but they denied it was This Mortal Coil. But whether this other Glasgow band had sampled This Mortal Coil in the first place, I don't know.
I don't actually have a copy of Saropoly, the board game, but I've read about it.
Ah, well when people say what's your proudest moment or what you think is the best thing Sarah's done, I always say Saropoly. I think it sums us up better than anything else. It was this board game which involved moving around the board, getting components to make a record, going forward four squares and it would tell you the things that were going wrong to make you go back six spaces. It was generally just to sum up the frustrations of running a record label. Every time you'd actually got your plastic bag and your sleeve and the record pressed, something else would happen, and you'd have go off and do something else. It was the fun side of the music... I think the music press, they like their music serious, and [they don't like] the idea that we're doing all these silly things, like putting pictures of train stations on our sleeves.
What were the playing pieces in Saropoly?
They were all heads of record companies. Ivo [of 4AD] was a sort of vague blur. (laughs). Alan McGee [of Creation] was a pair of shades. Then we couldn't think of another indie mogul type, so we made a hot air balloon for Richard Branson, who used to be the head of Virgin Records. Someone actually showed the game to Ivo, and he thought it was good.
I understand the Field Mice have broken up, and turned into Northern Picture Library?
Yeah... they are signed to Vinyl Japan now, and they sent us a demo before they were. We didn't think it was very good. It was like the Field Mice only not as good, and to put out things that were like them only not as good seemed rather sad, I'd rather have them being at their best and then stopping rather than a watered down version.
I've got a couple of Sugargliders as well...
I just think they are absolutely a stupendous band. I think everything they do is the best ever done by anybody - ever - and the press just seems to ignore them. I can't understand it at all. The press, the fanzine writers, the indie kids, whatever, they don't dislike them but they don't seem to capture anyone's imagination like they should. It's very disappointing because we think they're absolutely wonderful. They should be huge.
Now, have you got a new distribution deal for the USA?
Um, it's just licensing for a few individual albums. There's a company called Widely Distributed Records from Chicago. It will be nice to get something proper in the States because it's frustrating to have such poor distribution.
Well, it adds to your mystique to be so rare.
(MH chuckles) I suppose there is this, but at the same time it would be nice to reach more people.
Are there any musical movements being written about in the weekly press.... do you know of some good sounds that are just now happening?
Um , the big thing now is the "New wave of new wave". I think the NME has invented it, it's all those bands who are supposed to take their influences from post-punk bands at the end of the '70s, the Buzzcocks and the Jam. There's all these bands coming up, heavily influenced by this, and most of the ones I've heard have been absolutely dreadful. But the bizarre thing is that the NME have picked up on Action Painting!, one of our bands, and decided that they're part of this as well, which is quite ridiculous because they're far too young to remember the Buzzcocks or the Jam, and they're quote oblivious to it all.... But there are very few bands that I actually liked (Laughter), I don't know who I've really been excited about going to see. I hope it's just a passing trend. The last band I went to see was the Tindersticks.