Indie-pop uber-club and record Label How Does It Feel To Be Loved? fits into what you'd describe as a fairly niche market, with as much reliance on Motown and Northern Soul as on Belle And Sebastian and Hefner. The club built up quite a reputation before Former Melody Maker journalist Ian Watson decided to found the label – despite saying he'd never do it. A few years on and their impressive roster is continuing to grow, with releases from Pocketbooks, Butcher Boy and Cats On Fire lined up for 2009.
DiS spoke to HDIF head honcho about Pat Nevin, piracy and the ethos of a successful club night.
DiS: So, it's coming up for seven years since the advent of How Does It Feel To Be Loved? How did it all start?
I’d been doing a monthly club at the Buffalo Bar with a friend called Club Beer, playing Music That Only Sounds Good When You’re Drunk – basically we were School Disco/Guilty Pleasures but without the success, acclaim and guitar shaped swimming pools. It was a fun night, but it had been slowly growing less and less popular as the joke had worn steadily thinner, so we decided to do it every two months to see if that would revive our fortunes. We needed to come up with something to plug the month that we weren’t doing Club Beer. So I said I’d do this indie pop/northern soul club thing that I’d been thinking about. I expected it to last for one night, and to be frequented solely by my friends and some Club Beer die-hards. Instead some people that I didn’t know showed up, and then started dancing. The first song that anyone ever danced to at How Does It Feel was 'Therese' by The Bodines. I spent the entire three or so minutes staring at the person in utter disbelief.
DiS: When and why did you take the decision to move into starting your own record label? Was it always in your plans, or was it more of a supplementary project?
I always said I’d never put on gigs, or start a label. That’s what Track And Field had done, and I wanted HDIF to be different. We were lucky that HDIF started up just as Track And Field ended their club night, so suddenly there was an audience looking for somewhere to go dancing. But even so, when bands started asking to play at the club, I turned them all down – including some Swedish upstarts called Peter, Bjorn & John, pre 'Young Folks'. I’m a huge huge fan of club nights and just the notion that a night of music can build throughout the evening, and to my mind a band would just destroy that. With a band, people mill around waiting for the band to start, watch the band, then most of them go home – that’s just how gig-goers are programmed. I love the first hour and a half of How Does It Feel... because I get to play slow songs without caring if anyone’s going to dance or not, and I really enjoy the slow build of the night. It's what makes the club work.
After a couple of years of doing the club and becoming more and more immersed in the indie pop world, it felt natural to want to put on a gig. But I wanted to be clear that it was about bands rather than dancing. The gigs went well, and really once you’ve started putting on shows and meeting bands it’s inevitable that you’ll want to put out some records. Simply because putting on a gig is a way of helping out both the bands and the music that you love, and doing a label is an extension of that. So the label was never in my plans at all, in fact I was very much against the idea, but it was something that happened anyway, despite everything.
DiS: How tough has it been for a label like HDIF to survive? I mean if Touch and Go can go under...
I think it’s been easier for us than if we just started from scratch because there’s a HDIF audience that, hopefully, is interested in what we do. But that said, it is tough running a small label, especially when there are so many blogs out there who feel it’s their right to give away entire albums for free. Sites like Pirate Bay like to pretend that they’re fighting the good fight, but their sites are still plastered with advertising, and really that’s the bottom line. They’re using the traffic they gain by giving away albums for free to bump up their ad revenue, and who cares if a couple of tiny DIY labels are put out of business in the process.
In general, I think music blogs are a fantastic thing, and the good ones really help to promote bands, labels and music as a whole, by writing about a band and then giving away a couple of mp3s. I have nothing but admiration for the people who tirelessly run amazing blogs like Skatterbrain and Lostmusic and the like. But the blogs that give away entire albums without even writing about them are kidding themselves if they feel they’re doing anything other than taking a baseball bat to the bands and labels they feature.
DiS: You've taken the club to Sweden and Denmark recently. Any plans to take the club on tour in the UK or further afield?
I would love to, but I’m a father of two now, so it’s not really practical. The Swedish and Danish dates last year were really a last hurrah before my second son was born.
DiS:You've had famous footballer Pat Nevin DJ at the club, how did that come about?
My friend Paul works for Chelsea FC and he knew Pat from that. When I was growing up, Pat was famous for being the only footballer to have any taste whatsoever, and even though I’m not a football fan particularly, even I had heard of Pat Nevin. Pat came to the club, enjoyed it, and said he’d be up for DJ-ing. He’s a lovely guy. I’d love to have him back, but I’ve lost his email address. So if you’re reading Pat...
DiS: The label side of things is obviously still a fairly small and growing operation, are there any ambitions to scale it up at all, or are you happy with the way things are working at the moment?
I’m very happy with how things are right now. We’ve been getting a terrific response to the three albums we’re putting out this year – Butcher Boy, Cats On Fire and Pocketbooks – and there’s just so many exciting things coming up. All three bands are playing at the Luminaire on Saturday April 25. It looks like all three bands will be playing Indietracks. Butcher Boy are doing a night in June at the Glasgow Film Theatre, providing the score for a couple of films and then playing a short set, and then hopefully they’ll be taking that around the country (if you’re involved in an art house/independent cinema, please get in touch!). And any of those bands could just suddenly take off. So it’s not really a case of having ambitions to scale up the label, it’s more that we’re ready to do whatever has to be done if lighting strikes. But ultimately, my ambition is just to be able to continue putting out records. That’s a triumph in itself.
DiS: Where do you see HDIF as a label, and club in 5 or 10 years time?
No idea. That’s part of the fun of it.
DiS: I've heard that there's no written contracts for any of the bands on your label, how does that work? Does it work?
I have a contract between myself and the label I’m licensing the Cats On Fire album from, but everything else is just done on a handshake. The classic indie deal really. Which means the bands are free to move onto another label if they want to, or stick with us. I want the best for the bands that we work with, and if that means them signing to a bigger label then so be it. If we’ve managed to help a band get to a point where a bigger label is interested in them, then that’s something to be proud of I think. Although, ideally, the label will grow with the bands, so they won’t have to go anywhere else.
DiS: Butcher Boy's debut seemed to get good reviews around the board (including here), they seem to be your flagship band; what can we expect from their new record?
The thing that people say most often about the new Butcher Boy album is that they loved the first record and thought there was no way the band would be able to match it, but they have. And then some. I’m always in awe of Butcher Boy when they send over new songs because they usually do something that I never dreamed they’d be capable of. The harmonies in 'Carve A Pattern' are amazing – so understated but so evocative. I really do think that people will look back at these records in years to come and view them as genuine classics. I’m remarkably proud of having released them.
DiS: Are there any labels and clubs out there that you admire and try to model HDIF to?
I admire lots of clubs and labels but I don’t model myself on anyone really, just pootle along in my own world, doing everything my own way. I like the fact that HDIF is slightly apart from the other indiepop nights in the UK – even if it’s just because we play more soul, it still feels like we’re off on our own tip. I spend most of my time with my head in the clouds, so I suppose it’s natural that the club should do the same thing. But for the record, I have huge admiration for Fortuna Pop, WIAIWYA, AC30, Slumberland, Track And Field, Domino, and really anyone that’s brave enough to support indie-pop with their time, money and optimism.
DiS: If you absolutely had to choose between the club and the label, which would it be?
No question. The club. I love putting out records and I would love to do the label full time, but it could never be at the expense of the club. I just love putting on nights and seeing people dancing, and helping to create what I hope is a welcoming, unjudgemental, unpretentious atmosphere.
There's something really exciting about hearing a great song that you've never heard before - whether it be old or new. And even if you're not quite sure how to dance or what to do, there's still that adrenalin rush of going "What is this?!?" I'm sad enough to admit that I live for that moment. But equally there's something really uplifting about dancing and singing along to songs that you know inside out - from cheering the first few chords, to punching the air if you're so inclined, to singing every word of the chorus, usually seeing your friends doing exactly the same thing. Hopefully we get the balance just right at HDIF. The new songs aren't played in the spirit of "Hey, we're so cool, we know this obscure music you've simply got no chance with", more just as a way of saying "Have you heard this? It's amazing!". I'll never be ashamed about playing the biggest songs in the history of music, if that's what the moment requires. No song's ever overplayed in my opinion, just played at the wrong instance. A little bit of imagination can breathe fresh life into anything.
DiS: Outside of your own record label, which of the current crop of indie-poppers excite you the most?
I love The Wave Pictures. Such loveable songs, fantastic lyrics, lovely guys, just poetry through and through. I adore Crystal Stilts. I grew up on the Mary Chain, and I love that gloomy, atmospheric sound. The thing that excites me about doing the label is that there are so many records that I’d like to put out. If we ever hit big with a record, I’ll be like a kid in a sweet shop with my share of the profits, putting out records left right and centre. I love the way that Lawrence from Domino has done that, putting out albums by the TVPs and rereleasing old Orange Juice and Young Marble Giants stuff, as well as supporting so much fantastic new music. It’s very heartening to see that you can become a big label but still retain the enthusiasm that drives every indie label in the country.
DiS: Finally, sum up what HDIF means in one sentence.
Dancing is dreaming with your feet.
The HDIF records website can be found here.
How Does It Feel To Be Loved? takes place on the first Friday of every month at The Canterbury Arms in Brixton and on the third Saturday of every month at The Phoenix in Central London.