Bearded Label Love: Bella Union

A continuing look at some of our favourite independent record labels sees Bearded delve into the workings of Bella Union numero uno Simon Raymonde.

Posted on Jan 21st, 2011 in Features and Interviews, Bella Union / By Peter Clark
Bearded Label Love: Bella Union Back in 1997, Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie, also making up two thirds of the band Cocteau Twins, put together a record label to help guide their creative passion and release their own music on. Despite Cocteau Twin's disbandment shortly after the creation of Bella Union, Simon and Robin decided to keep the label running, and during the intervening 14 years have seen bands such as Midlake, Laura Veirs, Explosions In The Sky, and Fleet Foxes lift the label to critical acclaim and worldwide appraisal (the label won the 2010 Independent Record Company Of The Year at the Music Week Awards).

With Robin moving to France in 2000, Simon has been taking the reigns ever since, so Bearded decided it was high time we had a little one on one time with the label boss, record producer, musician, and all round swell chap.

Hello! Who are you and what do you do?
Simon Raymonde, and I run a small independent record label called Bella Union, and in a nutshell I find and sign bands I love and release their records. I am a musician, a producer, a publisher and a manager. I am here to provide refuge and succour to the poor and needy souls who, contrary to what everyone told them for years and years, decided to turn down working in Tescos and start a band instead.

What's with the name? (Bella Union, not your own)
Oh I was looking forward to dissecting my own surname a la Who Do You Think You Are, shame....Bella Union- the original American settlers had Bella Union's as their places of "entertainment".. A cowboy show with Ian McShane came along and the series had a whorehouse called Bella Union which is a slightly different 'entertainment' than we originally intended but hey who cares! Pleasure is given, good enough for me.

How does the average day for you pan out?
Not very average. Easier would be to describe a week than a day but let's take the last two days for example.
Saturday; awoke in a new york hotel, my label buddy Mark and I met Fleet Foxes mainman Robin Pecknold for breakfast with his sister/manager, following our all-day meeting with USA label Subpop to discuss the forthcoming plans around the astonishing new album. Fly back to London in the evening. Arrive home in the morning and go straight into the office to collate all the last few days information. Drink lots of grade six coffee. Adrenalin running very high after NYC and this will keep me going till bedtime. Sleep at 10pm and awake at 10am, so all good. Tying up plans for SxSw, organising a day party and an official showcase so lots of organising for that. Long chat with John Grant who I also manage, to discuss the year ahead, and how he's feeling about the upcoming schedule, he's excited cos he's in Sweden and making an album with Kleerup. Long may it last.
Meet the manager of Zun Zun Egui, the greatest of uk live bands and a band I have been trying to sign for a year. We're close to agreeing stuff with them so the meeting was very much about constructing a sensible and realistic timeline to release music.
Have to write a speech for my presentation at TED this evening which is a little nerve-wracking, and after that's done I have to come back and do a two hour radio show! (do you think I am maybe doing a bit too much?)

foxes
How did you start out?
That's a rather broad question. I could be facetious. I started out as a very mature egg. Etc, but I assume you really mean, as a Label man. It's a wonder to me too. Never was in the plan, not that I ever had a plan though! As a musician in a band who'd signed to a big Indie label initially and ten years later moved to a huge major label, I did at least have a view on the 'biggest' and 'best' of both worlds, and this meant setting up a label wasn't perhaps as daunting as it may have been for some.

This will be your 14th year in operation. How has your job changed from when you first started out?
Not much. I don't take this business that seriously despite how serious I approach what I do. There's a lot of hot air blowing around the business but I don't listen or pay attention. I can't stand the music that's in the charts or on Radio 1 so naturally I make no assumptions that I understand how a band becomes successful, what makes a hit band. Don't know don't care. I stick to my principles that have worked for me to date. I don't go to gigs that other A+R men are going to (knowingly!) and I only sign bands I like as people.
I don't want to expand, and I don't want a bunch of staff, I have two and that's fine. I like small and manageable and I know what I like. I trust my guts and I trust the people I work with. That's all I need.

What kind of bands/artists do you look for to garner your time and effort?
I don't really "look for bands" as that implies I know what I am looking for, and I absolutely don't. I don't WANT to know. If I listen to enough, something will jump out at me, and lead me to the next stage. I have signed hip hop artists, classical pianists, soundtrack albums, french chanteuse, australian instrumental trios, country, folk, surf punk, space rock.....whatever I love at that moment. No criteria needs to be filled other than band and label are on same page, more than that even, I see no reason why a label cannot be close and as close to an artist as a manager. To my mind, we all want the same thing.

grant

What drives you to keep pushing to discover and promote new music? How do you measure success?
I don't know what it is about music but it really is like the battery for my soul. I have to find amazing music all the time or else I am not happy!
Success should never be measured by units alone, for that in isolation means nothing. Expectation is the enemy of success because without it, a measurement wouldn't be required so readily. My expectation is more about us doing the best job we can do for the band and being there for them, regardless of how well it goes sales-wise.

What have been some of the highlights and lowlights of Bella Union?
Highlights:
signing Dirty Three in first year 1997 and still working with them 14 years later.

Discovering John Grant 12 years ago and having the patience to stick with it till today when he now is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

Hearing Lift To Experience in a taco shack in Austin at 4pm under black sky in a thunderstorm. Utterly perfect.

Watching Dirty Three and Nick Cave perform Ocean Songs at the Barbican.

Standing on stage at the huge 20,000 capacity gig over the lake in Austin for Explosions In The Sky's first Austin gig in 5 years, as 20 grands worth of fireworks exploded behind the band on the lake.
On the same night re-signing with Beach House just prior to them making their career-defining album Teen Dream.

Working with Midlake for 8 years and counting them all as best friends and family.
Meeting my partner Stephanie Dosen, now singing with the Chemical Brothers and recording with me on our own band project Snowbird.

Finding and developing the Swedish artist I Break Horses and seeing all the work pay off so wonderfully with the music she has made.

Meeting and watching the delightful Lanterns On The Lake. Music that brings me to my knees.

Working with Peter Broderick, easily one of the loveliest people I have ever met. And so ridiculously talented.

Working with Dan Rossen and Fred of Dept of Eagles.

Discovering Fleet Foxes and the days spent working for them, with them count as the most enjoyable ones. They are humble, caring, lovely people who I am honoured to know.

Playing bass on my favourite Midlake song 'Bandits' onstage WITH Midlake at their Royal Festival Show.

Playing piano for Jose Gonzales and Stephanie Dosen on their iTunes Festival collaboration.

Getting an email yesterday from Mark Stewart of The Pop Group, (one of my fave groups) asking me to play on one of his tunes!

Working with The Low Anthem, such adorable people who make the most special music, and seeing how the European audiences have fallen in love with them too.

Corny though it may sound,
Working with Mark, Luke, Duncan and Anika in our office is a hoot and a permanent joy.

lantern

Lowlights:
Our distributor going bust owing us 200k, the demise of Lift To Experience, my own sadness at not dealing with that as I would have done now (my own marriage was going down pan at same time so it was hard to be focused), the rest of the lowlights are private and personal ones so not relevant here.

√Źn an ever changing world of music formats and distribution, how do/are you evolving and keeping current with the current scene, and where do you see the future of Bella Union heading?
Ew, I am really not able to answer that one. We are always looking to try different things, never standing still but life is moving so fast it would be pointless to discuss what we're doing as it changes every day. The only limitations to what we can do are in the historical mindset of our peers, I say anything is possible with great relationships and a full heart.

midlake

Any advice for someone wanting to start up their own record label?
Is there a label out there you think are doing a great job and you would like to do the same? If so, don't. There's only room for you if you think all labels are shit and you can do it better. Oh yeah? Show me then.
Etc.

Do you have an ethos or a mantra?
The label ethos is so tied up in my own personality mixed with my prior experiences as a musician, I can sum it up simply like this:
Bella Union is in existence because I wanted to run a label that I would like to be signed to myself.