Dave Cawley – Co-founder and Director – Fat Cat Records

What is your job, and what does it entail?
I’m the co-founder and Director of Fat Cat Records, along with Alex Knight. I do a bit of everything; I do some A&R, some of the website, I listen to a lot of demos, computer bits and pieces. What do they call it? Jack of all, master of none!
Tell me about your background.
I used to work for sound systems. I left school and I wanted to be a sound engineer, and did a bit of electrician stuff for a while, but that didn’t work out. I ended up getting a job in a disco shop, in 1987, a proper old school disco shop, doing weddings and rainbow lights… The guy who had the job before me went to work for Blue Box in Horsham, who were attached to Turbo Sound, and they had a turbo sound rig. He asked me to come out at weekends and hump boxes. From there the world of sound systems opened up for me. This being 1987/88, the acid house scene was happening, and I was busy every weekend for a long period of time, from illegal raves to legal raves. I loved it, there weren’t that many of us doing that. It was a lot of fun and I loved the music.
Tell me about Fat Cat, the record store.
Alex wanted a sound system – I already knew him, I grew up in a town outside Crawley, called Horley, and we did a party that was particularly unsuccessful, and then we did one that was really successful. He said he was being made redundant from Gatwick, where he worked as an electrical engineer, and he asked me if I wanted to put some money into a record shop. And with another friend, Andy, the three of us put £1000 in, and we opened up Crawley’s first dance music shop. Alex worked in the shop, I carried on doing sound system parties, Andy did the accounts, and it went amazingly well. We were blessed, really, because of the other people that lived in Crawley, people like Lee Purkis (Insync) Matt Cogger, Luke Slater who dictated the sound that we listened to, the sound of Chicago House and Detroit Techno. That was all the kids listened to. Those guys were like an education to me. Somebody said we needed to go to London. So we moved there (to Covent Garden), and took the sound we had already. Also, my experience of buying records up in London was awful. I’d get treated like shit, they’d try and sell me a load of nonsense, while keeping the good stuff under the counter. I never wanted any of my customers to have that kind of experience; I wanted them to be treated fairly and equally, whether you’re the biggest DJ in the world or the guy who travelled from wherever with his hard earned cash. Often, the guy with £10 knew more about music than the big DJ. Those guys would be like me, literally obsessed with electronic music, and they would tell me about music that I didn’t know, which I thought was brilliant, so I would end up getting them a copy and stocking some in the shop. The shop took off and I was very proud of what we did. We were helping to develop the British electronic scene; Black Dog, Aphex Twin, To Middleton, Mark Pritchard, buying records directly from Peacefrog, B12, Evolution…
And Fat Cat, the record label…
When the shop shut in 1997, we had already put out one record, and we thought it was a natural progression. When I got the record shop I started to educate myself in other music, people like Slint, Tortoise, Fugazi, krautrock and post-rock. And what I wanted with the label was to be free musically, releasing exactly what we wanted. There were labels that were amazing at doing one thing, but I want to be all over the shop, reflecting my musical tastes. I’m not sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing, it just felt like the right thing to do.
The big thing was finding a band with a vocalist, and the first one we found was Sigur Ros. That was an amazing signing for us; right place, right time, great band, wonderful vocal, and we are proud that they were on our label
And some of the team that work there…
We have five working here in the Brighton office, and then a couple working in our tiny American office. We also have various interns who come in. Fat Cat is a collective effort, of all the people who have come in through the door. All those people have helped shaped and give the label direction. If it had just been left to me it would have been dead years ago!
How do you decide when to take an act on?
Of course, first of all we have to look at the financials, which every business has to do. If someone here really believes in it then I let them get on and do it. We still do demo submissions, although it’s a real labour of love. But we put some up online, and it’s great to see them get thousands of plays. Sometimes I think, ‘Oh God, I’ve got 600 tracks to go through’, but some of those interns who come in help go through them. We are full through to next year, but we’ve always got our ears open.. there’s always that bit of room if something comes along…
With physical sales falling generally, is this a particularly difficult environment for a label like Fat Cat to operate in?
Vinyl is making a hell of a resurgence, and it’s impossible to get it cut fast enough. It’s bonkers! But that can only be good, vinyl is on an upward trend… It’s wonderful to see, but a nightmare to get it done. We badly need another pressing plant. CD sales are dropping, but they won’t die. They’ll drop off, and then it’ll become a collector’s format. And downloads have tailed off, people are streaming. That’s all I do is stream… I’m loving Apple Music. It’s kind of re-ignited my love for music, because it has allowed me to access and discover things really quickly.
We’ll just carry on; it is what it is. We are too small to make a stand, we’re not Radiohead. It’s alright for them to make their stand, they’ve got millions in the bank. You say that to an artist who is up and coming, who just wants to make a living! They just want to have a career as a creative being. What I hope happens, is that there will be another streaming service that will be looking at more of the leftfield music out there, stuff that sits on the margins, and have good editorial.
How do you view Brighton, as a place to live and work and its music scene?
I wanted to get out of London, and we went on a day trip to Brighton, and I fell in love with the place, and we moved everything here in 2000. There were personal reasons why I wanted to be here. I felt hemmed and claustrophobic in London. I remember turning up in Brighton and there was this internal sigh in me. Breathe… space… the pace slowed down. There is something magical about this city. This place is utterly unique, there isn’t anywhere like it in this country. And I love the creative energy here, and all the cool bands come past here. I love how we are accepting of other cultures, I love the fact we have a green MP, the alternative cultures, how you have the mix of the mainstream shops and the Laines. I love how you can get together with a group of people and get something going. I’ve seen it a lot with my own eyes. I also love that you can disappear into anonymity if you need to. I love the transitional population, all the students… And then you have the sea. What a gift! If you’re ever feeling stressed you just need to go for a walk along the seafront, and everything seems OK again. Or you get a bus, go to the Downs, and see some of the best countryside the south has to offer.
Do you go out to gigs?
I do, when someone comes along that I like. I’d like to see Sufjan Stevens, but I couldn’t get a ticket. I love his last record, I’m obsessed with it. I think it’s one of the best records I have heard in many years. It’s perfect from beginning to end. If it’s not at the top of the end-of-year lists then I think a crime will have been committed!
Any plans for the future?
Loads of good records coming out. We’ve re-launched the 130701 label (a subsidiary of Fat Cat); everyone is looking at this modern, post-classical, whatever you want to call it, and the rise of Max Richter, and Nils Frahm… This label had a bit of a hiatus recently, but we have signed a couple of artists Dmitry Evgrafov and Emillie Levienaise-Farrouch. C Duncan has being going amazingly well for us; such a beautiful album, took us all by surprise. We’ve got an album coming out by a band called Shopping, a three-piece post-punk band, very much like ESG. Just very cool. We have a new Traams album which we are excited about. Next year we are super busy, with the re-launch of 130701, a new C Duncan album, a new Honeyblood album… Busy, busy, busy.
If you could see any artist(s) dead or alive, tonight, who would that be?
Sufjan Stevens (alive) and The Doors (dead). I’d like to go and see Jim Morrison. I watched a show of theirs on the TV not so long ago. I can’t say I am a massive Doors fan, but this live, black and white performance, when they were in Sweden… my mouth was open. I would love to watch that.