For this label spotlight, we tracked down our UK-based friends at Fire Records, home of bands such as Pulp, Guided by Voices, ESG, Giant Sand, The Adverts, Teenage Fanclub, and more. Label Manager James Nicholls helped us shed some light — pun totally intended — on the label and shared some tips on what artists to look out for in 2012, what tool he can’t live without and what experiences led him to where he is today. Listen and be enlightened! [Oops, did it again.]
Tell us a bit about how Fire Records came to be?
Fire Records was started in the 80’s by label founder Clive Solomon to concentrate on the likes of Pulp, Television Personalities, Blue Aeroplanes and Spacemen 3; All absolutely essential and hugely influential British bands. Later, in the 90s, the label expanded to cover American underground artists like Neutral Milk Hotel, Built To Spill, The Lemonheads, and Urge Overkill.
Fire Mk2 was launched just a few years ago and our style is still fairly sympathetic to the incredible Fire legacy already established. Remaining one of the few truly independent labels left, we embrace carrying that flag forward. From established iconic mavericks like Guided By Voices, Mission Of Burma, Giant Sand, ESG, Cardinal, Half Japanese and Archers of Loaf, to the psychrock royalty of Bardo Pond, the outsider rock of Jackie O Motherf*cker and Bobby Conn, incredible comebacks like Variety Lights (the new project of ex-Mercury Rev vocalist David Baker) and a host of jaw-droppingly amazing new artists like Surf City, Orchestra Of Spheres, Wooden Wand, Las Kellies and Hospitality.
You have such a wide variety of artists crossing a load of genres and decades – how do you guys find and decide what you want?
We get asked this occasionally and we don’t necessarily think of it in those terms. The real barometer of what is a Fire artist, or record, is honestly whether we think it is good. You know what GBV, Wooden Wand, ESG and Hospitality have in common? They are all undeniably incredible and are making vital music. That’s what.
Name a tool you can’t live without.
Soundcloud! An achingly simple idea that became a social phenomenon and soon after an essential multi-functional tool for everyone from bedroom recording artists to established labels.
Tell us about an album that you put out that taught you the most about running a record label.
It’s hard to pinpoint any particular album as such but re-issuing the Giant Sand catalogue was certainly the most challenging and rewarding project for us at almost every level. We were still an incredibly small operation when we began the project – just two people barely scraping together full-time salaries. When we finally completed it 18 months later, and with all the releases we did in between, we felt like we were a legitimate operation – with 8 members on staff and over 100 releases in that time.
It also showed us that dedicating yourself fully to an artist in every aspect (we agonized over every detail, from artwork to audio and everything in-between, for decades worth of incredible records, lovingly assembling everything and giving the full body of work a cohesive feel and proper context – where most would have just put it back in a new pressing of the old sleeve with a mastering tweak) will translate to the consumer. Our love of these records and artists is evident in every release, and people can sense that. We need to treat them with respect and do them justice, and that means doing things that other labels would consider wasted time and expense, and that series taught us that if we spend the time and effort on the records we love, it is never wasted.
You play in a band as well, how do you juggle the worlds of artist and label manager?
I think it’s pretty impossible to be a musician and run a label, so playing in a band is merely a hobby for me now, which is actually pretty great. As soon as your hobby becomes your job it’s no longer a hobby, so I’m keeping everything right where I want it.
Having said that, being a musician does give you an essential sympathetic understanding of what bands go through in the recording process and what they need on tour and I do think artist appreciate that as much as anything else.
What are your must listens for 2012?
The new Josephine Foster album out in October is just incredible. I’m always pleasantly surprised about how consistently brilliant she is, even though she changes her modus operandi with every record. It doesn’t really matter whether she is working with Emily Dickinson’s poems or re-arranging traditional Lorca compositions or, in the case of the new album, simply creating a stunning solo album (albeit with a group of Nashville’s finest). We can’t rave about this record enough.
Outside of Fire Records the record I’m most excited about is the Dive Dompe ”pop” album on Critical Heights called “Moon Moods”. Think of what Julia Holter would sound like if she tried to make a psychedelic dream-pop album with Quincy Jones, or if Bat For Lashes were actually any good. You would be half-way there. Live she is incredible and goes through a seamless costume change for every song. I’m not really one for the stage show, but she wins me over every time!
What piece of advice would you give other label owners?
It’s different for everyone, but honestly, just stay true to yourself; Don’t stretch into releasing music that you can’t stand on a personal level. When you compromise, the marketplace eventually catches on and you wake up one day miserable, dealing with records and people that physically make you ill.