Bella Union is one of those solid independent labels which has a real knack for uncovering compelling new music (Father John Misty etc.) while signing awesome established acts to give them a second wave of success (Flaming Lips etc.)
We chatted to Simon Raymonde as the label celebrates its 20th anniversary with a series of gigs, including one at St George’s in Bristol.
“The whole 20 years seems like it flew by without me really appreciating it,” says Raymonde. “When you do something like the anniversary shows you’re forced to take stock. It’s good.”
Bella Union celebrated its 15th anniversary by curating some of the End of the Road Festival line-up, filling the bill with some of the label’s finest acts including Midlake and John Grant.
Fast forward five years and it’s Mercury Rev orchestral shows, a Sea Change festival gig in Devon and this special concert at Bristol’s most ornate gig venue on Saturday 14th October 2017. The main draw is Lanterns on the Lake who haven’t played a show in a while – they’re joined by label-mate Holly Macve for whom Lantern on the Lake’s Pete produced their last record. “One of the great things about the label is that we’re all friends,” Raymonde adds. “We get on, I find these people to be great friends of mine.”
Bella Union has received national recognition at the Music Week Awards, bagging the Independent Record Company of the Year four times. Raymonde muses: “You do what you do and you do it because you love it. When you get some sort of recognition it makes you think, ‘I can go to bed feeling all right.’ Sometimes it feels in vain and recognition like that helps you feel like you’re on the right path.”
Raymonde reveals that he’s only ever signed one band from a physical demo sent to him and that’s Laura Veirs. The rest is a mixture of graft and luck. From trawling the internet looking for something new to checking out new bands at festivals across the world, the dad-of-two is always on the lookout for the next Bella Union act.
He says: “These days there’s so many different ways of discovering music, from Bandcamp at 3am in the morning, in the same way that 10 years ago we did with MySpace to seeing bands live. You have to be open to all possibilities.
“On one of my early visits to SXSW, I saw Lift to Experience, it was incredible and I signed the band as they walked off stage. It didn’t work out for whatever reasons but it was great at the time.”
He continues: “Yes we do occasionally pick up bands that are already established. Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Spiritualized etc. You have to be emotionally invested in it. You have to trust your own ears. It’s a foolish confidence in your own capabilities as a curator of this thing. It’s not a personal megalomania project, I do allow other people into my world – there’s about 4 or 5 of us that talk about it. Younger members are always bringing stuff to me and I’m really happy for them to be involved.”
The team has always been a small but focussed collection of 4 or 5 people with Raymonde describing himself as a ‘very detached member’. “I don’t live in London,” says the former Cocteau Twins member. “I don’t go to the office. Everybody knows that, and they’re all happy with it.”
He reveals the challenges of pulling together a series of anniversary shows, as a label that works with bands from across the world. He says: “Once you’ve worked out which bands are able to be involved – we’ve got 50 or so active bands on the label – then you have to work out who is available. Were there no obstacles, I’d have everyone involved. Logistically and cash wise we just can’t do it. So then you’ve got to whittle it down. Having asked Ezra Furman if he’d do the Barbican show, he was up for it so that was easy. Mercury Rev is a really special project, I was playing guitar with them – the first time I’d played live in a while.”
“Lanterns on the Lake, they’re doing this one show – with a chamber orchestra. It’s going to be really special.” Asked about how the Bristol gig came about, he says: “People see that you’re doing one thing and promoters who are fans of the label get in touch. Louise Orchard is a fan of label and is someone based in Bristol – she approached us and asked if we were up for doing something. We’ve got good ties with Bristol. One of our signings, Zun Zun Egui are from there and Liz Fraser from my old band lives in Bristol.”
Speaking of the upcoming St George event, Orchard adds: “The indie giant, Bella Union, was created by the band after their less than positive experience of being signed to a major label. This was their attempt to regain control of their art. The tragedy is that Cocteaus wouldn’t survive 6 months beyond the label’s launch. But fortuitously, Simon went on to create a truly alternative stable and one of the finest in UK music history. Creating a global label that is both nuanced, yet hugely appealing is no mean feat.
“The label is celebrating in style this year, with anniversary concerts up and down the country. At St George’s, however, we like to do things a little differently and I, personally, am so excited because here the festivities are of a particularly noteworthy affair – a complete Bella Union takeover of our gorgeous venue, featuring Lanterns On The Lake with chamber ensemble, plus Holly Macve with full band and head honcho, Simon Raymonde hosting an intimate talk/Q&A ahead of the live music, with a DJ set to close the evening. There will also be an exhibition of Bella Union artwork from across its 20-year history.”
More information and tickets are available here. In the meantime, check out Lanterns on the Lake’s ‘The Crawl’ below.