INTRODUCTORY NOTE FOR PEOPLE WHO DON’T UNDERSTAND A WORD OF THIS
Basically, SHINKANSEN is the label that’s risen out of some of the ashes of SARAH RECORDS, which was probably the greatest record-label that’s ever existed, despite what everybody tells you, and we’ve so far released records by two bands: TREMBLING BLUE STARS, whose singer Bob used to write the songs and often sing them in THE FIELD MICE and NORTHERN PICTURE LIBRARY, and TOMPOT BLENNY, who are named after a fish and come from Ilkeston, Loughborough or Leicester depending on what point we’re trying to make. Plus we also seem to have got BLUEBOY, who recorded lots of singles and albums for SARAH before undergoing partial dismemberment towards the end of last year. And SHINKANSEN is the Japanese name for the Tokyo-Osaka Bullet Train.
[taken from Shinkansen newsletter]
How much of a plan did you have when you started Sarah?
With Sarah, our agenda was not just to release brilliant pop records but also to show everybody else up and score a few cheap, smug points. Because it seemed to us that every other record label, once it had got past the initial guileless enthusiasm, customer friendly DIY kitchen-table stage, and suddenly realised that making money was FUN (and not that difficult), seemed to fall into the trap of looking at things from the label’s point of view, and planning strategy accordingly. And if the business plan involved screwing the The Kids by making them buy everything twice over, or on a 12″ when it could be fitted quite happily on a 7″, then so be it. Whereas we wanted to run Sarah from The Fan’s point of view, and give people the things we’d want from a label.
To some extent all this was an extension of my old fanzine, which had always done things like use the 7″ versus 12″ argument to demonstrate the sad kow-towing of every other record label to industry pressure (aka Capitalism), and then to extend that into attacking the general political lameness of the world at large, especially the way people seem unable to take responsibility for their own actions (strange how the word ‘responsibility’ seems to have been hi-jacked by the Right, when it should be the basic cornerstone of socialism…everybody working together for the Common Good and all that). I always had a particular gripe against the hypocrisy of so-called ‘political’ bands (or even politically indifferent ones who’d still mouth de rigeur anti-Thatcher line for credibility’s sake), who never seemed to put their politics into practice when it came to selling records to their own fans. Nothing much changes: you’d be hard pressed to find a band that would own up to voting Tory, but most seem to abide by a totally Tory ethic when it comes to their own livelihood. And then they blame the system, as if they weren’t in some way part of it themselves.
Although I’ve gone on about politics above, there was obviously far more to Sarah than that – all the words and pictures and board games and so forth that surrounded the label were just as important to us as the music or the politics and, although some of it only developed with time, we’d definitely known right from the start that we wanted Sarah to be something more than just a record-producing machine…I just wish we’d had time to do more fanzines and stuff like that…but we didn’t.
The idea behind Shinkansen was that it would be a smaller scale set-up than Sarah, thus giving ourselves time to do other things with our lives (Sarah was basically 12 hours a day, 7 days a week), so far this hasn’t quite worked out.
What made you carry on after Sarah?
Basically because I enjoy it – I still like putting out records, and getting letters and sitting in pubs waiting for soundcheck – and even lugging rucksacks full of CDs and 7″s round from gig to gig…especially when people are willing to fly me to Spain or Japan in order to do it. Although Sarah had to stop when it did (for reasons of perfection), it seems silly to simultaneously stop doing something I was still enjoying…
Which labels do you take inspiration from?
Any label that has a strong identity, a definite agenda and a bloody-minded determinism to do things its way rather than the way everybody t ells it it should do things. Any label that demonstrates it cares about each record it releases, and the way in which that record presents itself to the world. So: Factory, Postcard, 4AD, early Creation – fairly obvious names really. Or JSH, the Hit Parade’s own label before they signed to Sarah – eight 7″ singles in eight matching die-cut sleeves and matching labels. Fierce Records for their glee in ripping people off who deserve to be ripped off.
Which bands would you have liked to sign?
Um…The Fall circa ‘Grotesque’, the Pet Shop Boys, the Go-Betweens, Microdisney when they were still based in Cork, Talulah Gosh, Orlando.
Have you any plans to sign any other bands?
Our door is always open, our hearth rug always freshly hoovered…we’ve always sat at home and waited for things to come knocking, to be honest with you, rather than actively going out on the pull – not that there’s anything wrong with the latter approach, it’s simply that (a) we don’t have enough time, and (b) we live in Bristol not Camden.
Is it difficult running your own label in such a Capitalist industry as the music business?
Woo…I ought to let Clare answer this, as she’s the one with the economics degree (any questions on particle physics on the other hand and I’m most definitely your man…) – but she’s not here right now, so I shall have to cope.
So…any business that makes things and sells them at a profit is, by definition, part of the Capitalist system…we need money to buy food and pay the mortgage, and everyone who buys a 7″ helps us do this (and can we just take this opportunity to say a big thank you – we love you all!). But even if we weren’t ourselves in business, we’d still be supporting the Capitalist system every time we bought a pint of milk in our local newsagents – it’s a fairly inescapable thing. And employers and employees are all cogs in the same machine – one isn’t necessarily worse than the other, and I certainly don’t subscribe to any misplaced idealisation of The Working Class along the ‘workers=good, bosses=bad’ line, or believe that some sort of industrialised utopia would occur if the workers owned the means of production. I don’t have that sort of faith in Human Nature, people being by and large lazy, selfish people with sticky-out ears.
To be honest, I actually find Capitalism in the music industry less offensive than in most other walks of life, largely because everybody’s so completely inept at it. In the same way that labels and bands get themselves embroiled in all sorts of sticky situations not because they’re trying to deceive, but because they haven’t a clue what they’re doing. Obviously pop-stars are paid ridiculous amounts of money compared to their actual worth to Society, but since most of them seem to spend it on daft haircus, going to parties, throwing up expensive drugs and taking out meaningless adverts in the music press and, in 99% of cases will be back in the real world again in five years, it’s hard to get too worked up. Even those who spend their wealth on private planes and tacky mansions are almost worth it for the entertainment value (entertainment as in laughing at them, not enjoying their music, obviously).
What I do hate is when bands make their money basically by abuse of their fan-base – 2 part digipaks, exorbitant ticket prices – people always blame the labels (‘The Bosses’?) as if the bands (‘The Workers’?) are poor naive wee things who are being manipulated by evil men in suits. This is, of course, rubbish. Any band can get what it wants written into its contract, and if the label refuses – well, they don’t have to sign. I think I genuinely just don’t understand the bizarre masochism of the typical music-fan…how can they admire someone who is so clearly completely contemptuous of them?
What is your opinion of the current ‘alternative’ scene?
Oh heavens yes. I think the saddest thing is the way the scene has polarised – rather than having all sorts of labels right through from the very small to the quite big, you’ve now got a handful of kitchen-table outfits that no distributor would touch with a barge-pole, and a few huge indies who aren’t indie anyway (or have so much money coming in from outside sources that the fact they have ‘indie’ distribution is irrelevant). There doesn’t seem to be much of a middle-ground any more – which is where Sarah obviously used to exist. And this isn’t good because, although the likes of Lamacq/Whiley and whoever’s behind all those dreadful ‘Shine’ compilations can go on about how great it is that Indie bands are having Chart success, it isn’t quite like that – because it’s just a handful of bands having all the success at the expense (literally – there’s only so much money to go round, and it’s all being thrown at a few big names) of all the rest. It’s like water-lilies on a pond; the surface is healthy but underneath everything is dying through lack of oxygen. Hey, politics AND similies…
There also seems to be a current trend for bands to sign major deals (record or publishing) but then keep quiet about it while they go off and do ‘one-off’ singles on a couple of ‘indie’ labels first for credibility…which all strikes me a bit pathetic of the labels concerned because, even if they do end up with an impressive looking back-catalogue, it’s not exactly something to be proud of, is it, letting yourself be used by a Major in return for a bit of glory-by-reflection. I think I just don’t understand their motivation. Which is why we didn’t join the queue to do a one-off bis single…
Have you got any information about the activities of the ex-Sarah bands?
Last I heard, they were all involved in building some manner of giant ‘living sculpture’ together in a field in Warwickshire, just outside Rugby – as far as I can gather, it’s some sort of elongated cage structure, rather like a lobster-pot, with various members of the Sweetest Ache arranged at regular intervals along the top so that, as dusk falls and they each in turn begin to slowly rotate and flash, the whole thing appears to writhe and shimmer. But I think it’s supposed to be a surprise so I’d better not let on that I know.
Anything else you would like to add?
Good God No…
Additional questions by Marceline Smith