Label Focus #14: FatCat
Based in Brighton, indie label FatCat Records has grown into one of the most celebrated stables for emerging and established talent in the UK. With a roster that takes in artists from across the world – Múm are Icelandic, Nina Nastasia a resident of New York City; The Twilight Sad come from just outside Glasgow, and Ensemble’s Olivier Alary is a native of Toulouse, France – the label’s provided a platform for a selection of bands to take their music to a wider audience. Sigur Rós began their UK career with the label, and it seems likely that No Age will benefit greatly from their involvement with the LA duo’s Weirdo Rippers LP.
Started in ’97 – so says Wikipedia, anyway; the below interview suggests a founder disagrees – the label has a great 2008 sketched out, with forthcoming albums from Frightened Rabbit and Our Brother The Native expected to meet with critical acclaim and Charlottefield’s second LP, What Are Friends For, already garnering a great many plaudits (review here).
DiS caught up with Dave Howell to discuss FatCat’s past, present, and future.
Video: Múm, 'Rhubarbidoo'
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Who are you?
My name is Dave Howell, I have been working here since the start of the label, and I'm currently doing about half the A&R work – I look after the likes of Vashti Bunyan, Nina Nastasia, Vetiver, Silje Nes, Hauschka, Songs Of Green Pheasant, Crescent, David Grubbs, and previously Animal Collective – as well as running the Split 12" Series and Splinter Series imprints. I used to do a lot of the artwork for the label, but not so much now, and I oversee all the demos we get sent.Why did you start FatCat?
FatCat was actually started as a record shop by Dave Cawley and Alex Knight back in 1990. I used to do a fanzine, called Obsessive Eye, that was stocked in the FatCat shop in Covent Garden. When the shop was forced to close down, in autumn 1997, Dave and Alex were offered space and support by Björk / One Little Indian to start up a label, and they asked if I wanted to come in part-time and help with that.
What were your aims for the label at the beginning?
I don't think we had any long-term aims at the time, it was all really about trying to just put out some great quality records and to build something exciting that could grow and develop with its own life, without being governed by the restraints of any label 'style' or 'sound'. I think that after the shop closed, a lot of people thought that the FatCat label would be some kind of a vehicle for house and techno, which was what the shop was best known for, I guess, alongside electronica. It would have been really easy to go down that route, and that was definitely something that was reacted against. We wanted instead to build a label that was a lot more open-ended and adventurous, and would be able to draw on a whole range of music, and to kind of keep people guessing at what's coming next. Myself, Alex and Dave C had all come from different musical backgrounds, so it was a good time of learning from each other, and I also remember that mid- to late-'90s period being a very exciting and open time for music, too. There were amazing things happening in electronic music and a very healthy 'post-rock' scene – before that term became lazily co-opted and vulgarized into actually denoting a particular style – which was drawing on lots of different sources, and a kind of sense that lots of different music styles were intermingling and infecting / inspiring one another. We were all listening to these different things so it just felt pretty natural and exciting to be starting a label at that time and mixing things up.And what are FatCat’s aims now?
I think they remain searching out and trying to help develop and promote talented artists whose music and ideas we believe in, and hopefully consistently releasing great quality music, regardless of genre or style. We'll also be launching a new digital section of our website soon, where we'll be able to expand the scope of what we are releasing and to respond a little quicker to some of the new things.
Video: Frightened Rabbit, 'The Greys'
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You work with a wide range of artists that encompass indie, minimal techno and more abstract stuff – is this a reflection of personal or collective tastes? What makes a FatCat band?
It's actually a reflection of four or five different people's backgrounds and continually-evolving tastes. A good FatCat band needs to have a strong sense of integrity and of their own identity, and not just be some identikit populist band or someone grabbing at the coattails of some latest 'scene'. We always like to find people doing something that's distinctly their own thing, who are approaching things from interesting angles, and who are hopefully also a really good live act.
Animal Collective left FatCat for pastures new with some success, as did Sigur Rós before them – is this simply part of the nature of running a smaller label? What do you make of the latest Animal Collective album?
Yeah, I guess it does seem to be the nature of being a smaller / independent label. We don’t have the same kind of finances of those bigger companies, so consequently we can't offer the kind of advances that they use to lure artists. So, we'll probably always be that company that puts the effort in and discovers good artists and builds them up from nothing before some bigger label comes around with the chequebook.
And yeah, I really like the new Animal Collective album. I still am a huge fan, but I don’t really know how much more success they have got with Domino, though. I mean, I don’t feel like they’ve got more press coverage or are playing much bigger venues than they did around Feels... I definitely feel that we worked really hard here and helped build a really strong base for them - with each album seeing them grow more and more - and that they would have continued to grow if they'd stayed here.
If you can pick one, what’s been the most satisfying release on FatCat?
There's been a fair few, but personally I'd say it has to be Vashti Bunyan's Lookaftering, just because of what that record actually meant to Vashti; the insane journey she'd been on to get there, and the way we'd been able to play a part in advising, piecing things together and helping her realise that. It's so pleasing to see her doing so well.
Also, I'd say the split 12"s like Amm / Merzbow, or Konono No.1 / The Dead C have made me feel pretty good, ‘cause I just see them as kind of high watermark releases on the label. I expect everyone else here will tell you a different release, though!
Have you been embracing this new digital age? Or holding grimly onto vinyl and CD? Is it harder for independent labels in the modern age?
It's really hard for a lot of different reasons. We still love vinyl as a format and will continue to release on it. But I think you essentially have to make a decision between either embracing it or finding your own way to work with the digital changes, or to just eventually die off. There are great things about digital – the speed, ease of access and dissemination, portability of information, ability to check out a huge range of music without paying, et cetera – and some bad things, like inferior sound quality, loss of the physical object and lack of care about artwork or liner information. And then you’ve got to consider the sheer amount of music out there that's mediocre or poor, or put out before it's really ready. People expect to get stuff without paying nowadays, and you must factor in the ever-quicker turnover / obsolescence of different formats by people who want you to buy back your record collection again and again. The biggest worry is that there's now a whole generation growing up accepting shitty MP3 sound quality and expecting not to ever have to pay for their music. We're all for people using Soulseek and for giving certain stuff away for free, but at the end of the day, there're a lot of artists you have to invest in and fork out money to get decent quality recordings and to help them with touring costs.
So I don't know, but it's definitely difficult. I still hope and believe that there's a place for labels like FatCat, ‘cause I believe we do function as a quality filter or a place that people can put some level of trust in that is nurturing and curating a really strong and interesting body of music... I guess time will tell!
We are currently working on a digital store for the FC site, which will hopefully be ready soon. Like I said earlier, it will hopefully give us the freedom to explore digital releases, and to react quickly to music we receive... we will also be looking to start ‘niche’ partnerships in this area, i.e. to work with digital music providers that genuinely care about the music rather than the bland, homogenized sites like iTunes. We feel that there is a huge gap for specialised download stores and that we can form partnerships with other labels and download sites as an alternative to these corporate supermarket music outlets.
Video: No Age, 'Boy Void'
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What advice would you give other people starting up their own label?
We have always totally advocated and tried where possible to give help and advice to people who choose to go down that DIY route. Alongside the demo section of our website, we set up a 'DIY resource' section especially for this purpose.
But look around you. There are a million labels and an absolute bewildering deluge of music already out there. Why start another label? Are you gonna just add to the morass of mediocrity, in every scene, that everyone has to wade through to get to decent music?
I'd say that fundamentally you need to have a really strong sense of who you are and what you're trying to do and how you can be different from everything else out there. It's actually a really great time to start a label if you have some good ideas and spare time or a job that allows you a bit of freedom. I'm envious of those great labels like Not Not Fun or Jewelled Antler or Lal Lal Lal or V/Vm or whoever, who don’t have big overheads and staff to pay and who are able to do things like small burnt-to order runs and really cool hand-made packaging, and to just respond quickly to things. That's total punk spirit and hats off to em!
Do it for the right reasons - for the love of the music and being creative. Don’t expect to make money.
Find allies and build networks.
Don’t be afraid to approach artists and labels you love - most people are pretty humble and happy to help. But always be polite and don’t be a pest - most people are also pretty busy.
Be brutally honest with yourself.
Be passionate about what you do and try and push yourself to set the highest standard you can.
Be prepared to say “No” to artists. Be prepared to turn things down and to not put things out until they are ready and you are fully happy with them.
Get yourself some legal advice.
Have someone who can keep your accounts and help you with budgets.
Do you think part of the reason for your success at FatCat is due to the current malaise at major labels?
I don’t think the “malaise in major labels” has really had any impact on how successful we've been. Without wishing to come across as arrogant, I think that's pretty much down to our own hard work and wilful sense of purpose, as well as having good ears and looking in the right places... and to a certain amount of luck.
Do you see yourself as a flagship label for non-London-orientated record companies?
No, totally not at all. We don't see ourselves as a flagship for anything - that would be incredibly presumptuous! We just get on and do what we believe in. It's irrelevant really where we are based.
What do you hope for FatCat in the next five years?
It would be nice to stay surviving doing what we're doing; to stay true to our beliefs and ideals without having to make many compromises, and hopefully for some of our artists and their records to start selling a few more. Basically: to be able to keep pushing through good new music and for some of that music to have an impact. I would hope that a band like The Twilight Sad or Frightened Rabbit, or someone like Nina Nastasia, would be connecting with a much wider audience. I mean, you hear their records or go and see people like those and they are such top quality artists that it's baffling they aren’t selling more when you look around and see some of the other mediocre crap around that people buy into and are spoon-fed.
Personally, I would also like to get to finish the Split 12" series. There are more releases to come.
Any ideas on what’s going to be hot in 2008?
Frightened Rabbit totally should be if there's any justice. Their next album is an amazingly killer pop record. It's probably the catchiest album we've ever released. There's also going to be new albums from Vetiver, Rank Deluxe, David Karsten Daniels, Our Brother The Native and Nina Nastasia, amongst others. 2008 is also the18th birthday of FatCat, so we'll be celebrating that to a fanfare of disinterest!
DiS loves you. Respect.
Cool. Hope these are okay answers.
Video: Sigur Rós, 'Vidrar Vel Til Loftarasa'
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Previous Label Focuses:
#13: Thee SPC
#12: One Little Indian
#11: Big Dada
#9: Holy Roar
#8: Big Scary Monsters
#6: Upset! The Rhythm
#5: Gringo Records
#4: Dance To The Radio
#3: Bella Union
#2: Fierce Panda
#1: Drowned in Sound