Simon Raymonde lives and breathes music. It’s been around him all his life. His dad, Ivor, was a very noteworthy producer, arranger and musician. Simon played bass and helped produce the work of the Cocteau Twins, a relatively successful and influential indie band of the 80s and 90s. He’s run a record label, Bella Union, since the late 90s, produced and mixed bands such as Brighton’s Clearlake, James Yorkston, and Fionn Regan, and more recently opened a Bella Union shop in the heart of Brighton, selling almost exclusively Bella Union music (as well as his son’s fledgling label Opposite Number, some of Colin Newman’s – of Wire fame, who lives locally – recorded ouput, a few books, and some high quality screen-prints). He’s also taking to the stage again with Lost Horizons, a band he formed with former 4AD label-mate Ritchie Thomas, formerly of Dif Juz. Even though he’s well into his 50s, he’s more immersed than ever, and remains a massive fan of music, old and new.
Meeting him at his shop in Ship Street Gardens, it’s immediately apparent. As well as selling some great music, and having music-loving conversations with a number of customers while I prepare to talk to him, he’s particularly excited about Paradise: The Sound of Ivor Raymonde, a compilation of songs that his dad was involved with in the musical wild west frontier of the 60s and 70s, and which is being requested by many of the customers that morning. His dad’s work no doubt helped propel him to where he is today, music at the forefront. “It’s a really beautiful thing. I always knew it was going to be,” he says of the album he has put together and released on his label. “He was an arranger, a songwriter, and producer. It’s a very small fraction of what he did, and I’ve got volume two already done. This one has Billy Fury, Dusty Springfield, David Bowie, Tom Jones, Walker Brothers, and then loads of people no one has heard of. There were so many incredible things in the 50s and 60s that disappeared without trace, and I’m still discovering stuff that he did now. He worked at Decca and Phillips as a producer and arranger. Every week he would do something different, he was a jobbing musician. He worked with Joe Meek. My dad was his go-to arranger. He had this little flat in Holloway Road where he did all his pop records. He would get my dad to come by, play him a beat, a melody on the piano, and would say what he wanted, maybe a string quartet, a bass player and something. He would go away, score it all out, bring the musicians in, come back the next week. And to think it was done in a room probably half the size of this room (little more than a bedroom). It’s a really beautiful package, stories about each track, a bit I wrote, loads of photos. I thought if I am to do it I may as well do it properly. And I can, can’t I!? It’s my label, I can do what the fuck I want! It’s a really great record, and it makes me happy, as well as my brother and sister, too.”
This Wednesday morning has been a “Remarkably busy one so far,” Simon says. “You could be in here for three hours and no one comes in, and on other days it’s packed. It’s really random. Brighton is really hard, retail-wise, to understand what the pattern is. If it’s rainy, you would imagine no one would come out shopping, and some days that might be true, and other days it will be packed when it’s pouring down with rain. The same with hot days. It’s very hard to get a read on what’s the pattern. It doesn’t seem there is one.” The resurgence of vinyl must have been good for you, for the label and shop, are CDs holding up? “We didn’t make vinyl for every release until 2008. I think CDs will come back. In America lots of labels don’t bother making them. In certain territories the CD is dead. In Britain it won’t go away. Because of price, CD players in cars, the whole thing of generations: fathers, sons, daughters, passing on your collection. That’s where a lot of the vinyl resurgence with teenagers has come from – their parents. A lot of kids didn’t know what a record player was until the last few years. Now that they are all getting into it I think what will happen is, because vinyl is very expensive, CDs won’t go away. We sell five to ten CDs every day now. And those people who have been buying CDs since the 90s who have a massive collection, aren’t generally willing to go, ‘OK, we’ll junk it all. Because I junked all my vinyl to start my CD collection, and now I’m going to junk my CD collection to get back into vinyl.’ It would take forever to get this collection back.
Over the years, Raymonde has also been very happy with much of Bella Union’s output, a label originally formed with fellow Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie, in order to release their own material. “We set up the label in 1997. It started in the studio where we made our records. Then the band broke up, but we stayed in the studio running the label for another five years. Robin got married, and moved away to France. He was only interested in the label to release Cocteau records. And when the band split up, he was like ‘what have we got this label for? I can’t stand labels’. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I did the label. And here we are, still doing it.”
What were the key moments as far as the label was concerned? “The ones that do well,” he says with disarming honesty, “and bring in more money, and enable you to not just wear the same shoes for 12 years. Those records will obviously be slightly more important. In 2001 we had the Lift To Experience album, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads. That was when America started to like what we were doing, and there were some great reviews. It got us on the map. That led us to working with more Texan bands, this whole Denton thing, like Midlake. Their The Trials of Van Occupanther was the next key release, a significant album, then and now. It was genuinely loved. Then there was the Fleet Foxes album (their debut), which went bananas, probably never to be repeated.”
Now up to release number 748 (B.C. Camplight’s Deportation Blues – “One of the best records of the year, I believe”), this year alone has seen some top notch releases by the likes of Father John Misty, Jonathan Wilson, Ezra Furman, Beach House, and John Grant. “John Grant is a wonderful story. He’s been with the label almost from the very beginning, with The Czars, starting in 1998, and we still work with him. Our third ever release was by Dirty Three (Ocean Songs), and we still work with them, too.
“There are parallels between Father John Misty, John Grant and BC Camplight, and their dark takes on life, and the humour that sits atop quite bleak situations. They are all a bit older, too. Bitterness and cynicism which can create humour is quite prevalent in their releases, and I am quite attracted to that, and I know a lot of people are. You have to be, today. You’ve got to laugh at this black apocalypse,” he laughs, darkly.
“We’ve got Spiritualized’s (Jason Pierce) new album coming out. He was working with a producer, got half way through, but it went all horribly wrong, and he scrapped it and started again from scratch. We signed him in 2013, I think, so it’s been well over four years in getting his record finished. I didn’t really care how long it took him, because having met him and talked to him I could see his determination to make a record as good as Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. That was his over-arching ambition. ‘I’ve got to do it. I have to do it’. When you hear someone saying that, who has been doing this an awful long time, you have to take it seriously. I think it is a brilliant record, and there’s a lot more to come from him, too.” Will there be any live dates in support of the album? “There’s a lot of orchestration on the record, and I think his ambition is to do it as much as possible with an orchestra, quite grand-scale. He wants to go out all guns blazing, and I really admire that. But, it all comes down to logistics, money and budgets. He got new management, to try and get him in a better position to be able to do what he is best at doing, to make music and go out and play shows, and not losing shedloads of artists.
“Sometimes these brilliant artists, they don’t care that they don’t make money. They just want to put on a great show. So, all the money they could walk away with if they did a less extravagant production, they don’t care. There are a lot of artists like that who could have been quite wealthy, and made a good living from a live income, but haven’t because they wanted to put on great shows. Jason falls into that category. Now he’s worked out a way of doing exactly what he wants to do but not losing.”
So, running an independent label is still a viable thing in this day and age? “I don’t know about that! We survive. You can’t be paying people what you paid ten or even five years ago. Everything has to be re-adjusted. It is what it is. Despite the vinyl resurgence it’s still not enough sales for an artist to make a living. This is an incredibly stupid business to be in if you are just starting off. Because we have this catalogue there is a gentle trickle of income coming through. That means you can just about pay the bills. Look at Domino. They’ve got Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand, and then everyone under that. We don’t have that but we have John Grant, Flaming Lips, Ezra Furman, Beach House, Jonathan Wilson. They don’t sell huge numbers but do good business, and thank the Lord they do. They are the ones that keep you in business. I couldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have people in my business who knew how to look after the numbers.”
Perhaps more surprising is the story of Lost Horizons, a project that Raymonde put together with Ritchie Thomas, with only the idea of jamming and having fun. However, it’s become much bigger than a band in its own right, releasing a great album and performing gigs regularly, garnering much acclaim. The unexpected interest in Lost Horizons has enabled him to take to the stage and tour, something he hasn’t properly done since the days of the Cocteau Twins. “I’ve got a little place in Hove, a basement room underneath a cafe, where I did most of the recording. The initial drums and piano were recorded in a studio in London. It’s all just jams, made up and nothing prepared, just for the love of playing together. We played four days and recorded it all, had about seven pieces. At the time we had no idea what they were. We had such fun doing it, had no name, no ideas for a release, and we decided to do it again, another four days, and equally had as much fun. I took them all back on my hard drive, to my studio in Hove, and went there every night after work. ‘This one is quite cool, I’ll put a bass on that.’ Slowly but surely they started to sound decent and sound like songs, despite all the mistakes on the piano parts. But we never did fix those mistakes. Once I put all the other instruments on you couldn’t really hear the mistakes anyway. And I just started to send them out to singers, imagining I couldn’t hear back from anyone, Ghostpoet, Tim Smith, etc. We still never imagined we would play it live. It just seemed fanciful. The thought of playing it live never occurred to me. I would have to teach the parts to the band, and I couldn’t even remember how I did them. I can’t read music, and I tune the guitar until it sounds cool, to me. Each song has a different tuning. So, I have to play the guitar on stage.”
Whilst touring with the band this autumn, (along with new signing, the Brighton-based Penelope Isles, who are presently recording their debut album for Bella Union) he’s arranged a big one-off show at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, with all but one (Karen Perris) of the singers who guested on Lost Horizons’ debut album of last year, Ojala, including Ghostpoet, and ex-Midlake singer Tim Smith. “It’s been a long time since I made music, or been out on the road. It’s the same with Ritchie. He was on the road with The Jesus and Mary Chain, but he got disillusioned and butted out and, in a way, so did I. We both realised we would like to do it, just for fun. We never intended for it to go this far. We’re all up there having fun, and the kids we’ve got in the band (such as the brilliant singer Beth Cannon, Helen Ganya Brown – aka Dog In The Snow – and Ed Hilang) are just the best bandmates possible. We love each other’s company, even though there is a massive age difference between me and Ritchie and everyone else.
“We have to do it once,” he says of the Queen Elizabeth show. “This is like throwing money down the toilet but, like Jason, I feel I’ve been given a second chance with making music, and I want to enjoy it, and if I lose a bunch of money, I actually don’t care.” Especially when he’s managed to cajole Tim Smith back on the stage. “It’s his first time singing live since End of the Road Festival in 2012. I can’t believe he even did the record, let alone is coming here to sing live. He’s been trying to make an album. He’s got lots of brilliant bits of songs, and he’s getting there. He came to Brighton recently to work with someone, which was a big change for him, which helped him work out what he wants to do. I had this idea to get him out of his comfort zone, getting into a rut with his music. He came here and had a great time. It helped him work out what he needs to do. Whether it ultimately happens I cannot say. He is a massive procrastinator. But, we’ll see. I rate him very highly.”
So, are you enjoying being on the stage again? “I feel more fulfilled, more complete as a human. I don’t totally enjoy being on the stage. It’s your band and you feel a sense of responsibility, and that everyone is happy, the gig goes well, fed and watered, etc. When I’m on stage I’m trying – although I’m still working on it – to just enjoy the moment. I’m used to having my brain full of a million things – what record is coming out tomorrow, who is looking after the dog, who is in the shop… it gives me that 45 minutes of freedom away from my life, which is amazing.”
Will there be another Lost Horizons album? “We’ll definitely make another album. I’ll probably work with a lot of the people who are in the live band, because we have a really good thing there, and I trust them all.”
Along with the recent opening of the Bella Union shop just over a couple of years ago, which Simon mans occasionally, like today, he’s busier than ever. “We’ve been open a little over two years. Literally, it was just a whim. My wife (Abbie, a superb photographer, and who helps Simon manage the business) was walking down here to get her nails done, and she saw the rent sign, found out it was super cheap.
“We had talked in our dreams about having a record shop one day. That’s my background. My first job was in a record shop. We pretty much spent our first few dates in record shops. We spend all our money on vinyl anyway. It’s a place we feel comfortable in. We thought it would be nice to have a little HQ.”