An Introduction

I first became interested in 4AD, a UK independent record label founded in 1980, towards the end of the '80's. I was falling in love with the music of Dead Can Dance, Clan of Xymox, Pixies, Bauhaus and The Birthday Party and was surprised when the 4AD label sampler "Lonely Is An Eyesore" came out in 1987 that all these bands were from the same label.

After visiting a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition of some American's collection of art, I came to thinking of all this musical art that 4AD have released that may one day drift into obscurity unless someone shows it as art. So now I'm on a crusade, to collect the first ten years of 4AD's releases and exhibit the collection on 4AD's 50th anniversary in 2030. This is a big task which will have some interesting twists and turns along the way.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Martin Aston - Facing the Other Way, the Story of 4AD

Your humble Jonny is on the usual rollercoaster ride of ups and downs. The pickings of late have been thin on the ground. Well actually, there’s plenty of stuff out there to buy, it’s just way overpriced and I am several million short of being a millionaire….

But then Martin Aston has agreed to do an interview with me for my little blog, such a wonderful chap, and to top it off he has mentioned me in the online version of The Wire magazine. Wow. Typically I’m up and down like a shy girls rollerblind. So I shall shut up and let you read the interview. If you haven’t purchased Martin Aston’s book, then I strongly advise you go and do it now.  It’s the first comprehensive history of 4AD, and it is, because 4AD say so, alright?

Facing the Other Way at 4AD

Purchase here :


Why choose 4AD, when there are safer and more covered label histories such as factory?

I don’t know what you mean by a “safer” label history; I only know that Factory had a shorter history than 4AD. But as you say, it’s “more covered” so why repeat someone else’s book (in this case, by James Nice)?  4AD is one of the most admired and adored record labels, independent or otherwise, and had never had a biography – so to be the first was a perfect opportunity.

Why do you think 4AD survived when the other great iconic indie labels died off? Factory / Creation?

You’d have to know the histories of Factory and Creation to really know what happened there. Like 4AD, both labels had single-minded spearheads, but Factory – under Tony Wilson’s ‘management’ - was run democratically between its founding partners, while Creation boss Alan McGhee had co-founder Dick Green, so neither were autocratic in the way that Ivo Watts-Russell ran 4AD. But Creation sold half the company to Sony, McGhee admitted he had drug problems and disappeared from the industry, whereas Green eventually wanted to work with another A&R cohort. Factory went bankrupt, but Tony Wilson – with Factory Too and F4 labels – couldn’t get anything going and then died of complications from cancer. When Watts-Russell sold his share of 4AD to his business partner Martin Mills of Beggars Banquet, there was a structure (ie Beggars) in place for Mills to carry the label on with new people running it for him.

What has been the greatest surprise discovery from putting the story of 4AD together?

Some of the earliest records had escaped my attention; I didn’t know every single record that came out on 4AD, and when I started writing about music in 1984, I didn’t go back and revisit what I had missed - I wasn’t a collector of labels (I’m still not). So hearing the likes of Rema-Rema and Dance Chapter was a thrill and an education. I was also surprised by the level of dysfunction at the label during the Nineties when there were two offices, one in LA having joined the one in London, and the lack of communication between them. But they were very trying times due to watts-Russell’s mental frailty and the difficulty in running a label with a figurehead who was unavoidably absent during that period. It’s what led to him finally giving up and severing all ties to the music industry, and heading off to live, in relative isolation, in the New Mexico desert.

Did anyone, anywhere, artists or label staff make any money away from a very basic cost of living from the label at any time during the first twenty years?

I didn’t discuss money/profit with anyone. I guess the more commercially successful bands such as Pixies, The Breeders, Dead Can Dance, Cocteau Twins and Belly made more money than lost it, but who knows? And who knows who else did? You’d have to ask them.

Do you think that the way that music has moved to a virtual format will kill off the physical format altogether eventually? Can you explain to a younger generation why this would be a shame?

The resurgence in vinyl sales shows there is a market for the musical artefact, and the beauty of artwork. I have no idea if following generations will feel the same, but limited runs can be 500 or one thousand, so it doesn’t need to be a huge audience. I just hope they do. There’s something wonderful about a beautifully designed and produced object, same as with books. Likewise the experience of watching a film in a cinema rather than at home. It’s more of a complete experience. And there is something more tangible to own.

Do you still afford time to just sit and listen to music? How do you do it and do you share the experience?

It’s harder to find time to “just sit and listen” when you have to write about the music you hear, and to consider it from the perspective of a job. There is the need to keep digging for “the next thing” – which is also a pleasure, as I do love hearing new music, especially if it’s new unto itself, ie a trailblazer rather than following a trend. But if you don’t make room for something that’s a pleasure and a release from work duties/stress, that’s not a good state of mind. So I will put music on mp3 and go for long walks, and listen to music in the car, when it feels much less like “work”. Though even then, your mind can process what you’re hearing, sometimes you find yourself “writing” something in your head without meaning to; it’s a habit that’s hard to break. As for sharing, yes, through making compilations (granted, not often, usually an end-of-year round-up or two) for friends, or via email/Facebook. I find that part of the emotional package surrounding music is to share it with others, to see if they have the same reaction as I do.

Are there any plans to move to a 4AD documentary? Have you heard of any plans from anyone else to?

There are plans for a documentary, but I can’t reveal exactly what at this point. But I had to get the book written and them promoted first, and also have a little break from 4AD: it’s not good to be totally obsessed with one project for too long a time. But I’m returning to it pretty soon. I’ve not heard of anyone else’s plans.

As a journalist, do you find the artist more flawed than the “man on the street” and if so, how have you found that affects your objectivity? 

The only way to answer that is, I have more information at my disposal about an artist, so I have more evidence of a state of mind or approach, which can include “flaws”, but it can also create a positive and empathic reaction to their situation/condition, where “the man on the street” sometimes has to rely on what the media tells him, and that viewpoint is sometimes clich├ęd, or sensationalist. I try to keep a balance of objectivity and subjectivity, to present the facts as they are, and my opinion of those facts, and my own hopes for what art should achieve, but also know the commercial conditions under which the production of art takes place. 

How, as a journalist, do you find the right level of publishing knowledge in the public interest and not going over the line of invading privacy or getting too personal about an artist or subject?

It’s a personal decision every time. I don’t like to sensationalise, and to keep asking the obvious questions about an artist’s most headline-grabbing piece of news. Sometimes I have no choice if I am to continue writing for someone who wants that kind of material, in which case I stop writing for them or I find ways of writing about what I want to. But the creative process fascinates me, and I want to know what artists create the way they do, it can be in intellectual and emotional reasons. They can answer my questions, or not, that’s their choice. I won’t keep nagging.

How have you found the whole experience? Would you tell your former self (before starting the book) to go ahead and do the project?

It’s been an intense, and labour-intensive, project, and you generally don’t write books for the money. But it’s also been exhilarating and extraordinary, to talk to 120 people or so, who are all connected to one central theme, and then weave it into place. I have been very lucky to have a publisher who was happy for me to tell the story of 4AD as I wanted to tell it, so I had no editorial interference, from content to word count. I don’t know how often that’s the case. So no regrets

Any new works in the pipeline?

In my head, yes, but again, nothing I want to share at this moment. I’ve said before that writing a book means you don’t get to leave the house much, and I don’t enjoy too much isolation in this way, so maybe I need more a prolonged break before getting lost in something again. The end usually justifies the means, so we’ll see.  

1 comment:

  1. Great interview! I still have yet to pick up the book (a little pricey given all my record collecting craze as of recent). Hopefully soon though. Thanks for the update!

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