At the start of this month, Simon Raymonde released his debut album with new project Lost Horizons. The ex-Cocteau Twins bassist-turned-boss of illustrious label Bella Union has spent twenty years signing bands – and with the label now undoubtedly standing as one of the UK’s most important indies, Raymonde can look back at two decades of success, near-disasters and some incredible releases.
But speaking to him from his home in Brighton, it’s clear very quickly into our conversation that Raymonde isn’t one to spend too much time reminiscing. Standing for so long on the business end of the industry, Raymonde’s now sought out to quench his thirst for making music. Reaching out to drummer Richie Thomas (Dif Juz), they started jamming in Raymonde’s studio. Eventually the jams warped into fully fleshed-out songs, which eventually formed the 15-track record Ojalá. Featuring guest vocals from the likes of Tim Smith (Midlake), Hazel Wilde (Lanterns on the Lake), Marissa Nadler and Sharon Van Etten, Ojalá is the product of a man rediscovering the joys of creative musical exploration.
With a run of UK live dates coming this week, I spoke to Simon about the process behind the album, the incredible but-bumpy-development of Bella Union – and the advice he’d give the young unsigned bands of today:
What brought you back to making music after so long on the business side of the industry?
I was just so deeply involved with the label that I’d almost completely forgot about my own music. Owning a label is all consuming. We generally release about twenty-twenty five albums a year on Bella, so there’s not really much time to have a life. I took a step away a little last year by moving down to Brighton and found the move away from London to be good for me both physically and mentally. I set up a studio down here in a basement below a café, and just found that I really missed making music. The label was going great, but I was missing that creative process.
So I contacted Richie Thomas – one of my favourite drummers of all time – and he was up for it. The premise of the band is that we do this for fun. If we’re not enjoying it, we wouldn’t make a record. This is all about having fun in the studio first and foremost – playing together in a room with somebody. It’s been an absolute delight from the beginning.
Tell us more about the writing process. How did the many collaborations come about?
The record started with jam sessions, which eventually turned into fully formed songs. That’s how we used to write with Cocteau Twins too – we’d create a whole album of instrumentals and then Elizabeth [Fraser] would come in with her vocals. We had no prepared tunes when we went into the studio. We literally just made it up on the spot. Of course it was terrifying – but also very exciting.
After recording everything I brought it all back home, listened through to it and started filling it up with bass and guitar. Then I just tried to picture who’d sound right on the songs. Once the tracks were finished instrumentally, I’d send them onto different vocalists I love, who would then improvise their vocals on top.
Did you get many opportunities before this to experiment in the studio at all?
I did – but maybe I didn’t have the confidence, or brain power, to focus on it. It’s a weird thing. I was in a band that meant an awful lot to me, and was with me for around 14 years. It was my life. My kids were born during that time. I got married during that time. I think the breakup of the band, even though I wasn’t aware of it until more recently, really affected me quite a lot. Working with someone as talented as Elizabeth is incredible – but then after it was gone, for so long I thought “well, nobody will be able to sing like Liz”. In my mind, nothing could live up to her vocals, so I just didn’t bother.
Having said that, in around 2011-12 I produced for a project with Stephanie Dosen called Snowbird. It definitely felt like it was more Stephanie’s record, but that was me dipping my toe back into the water, putting some oil in the engine. That project really made me realise how much I missed making music. It also made me realise that I didn’t have to be in a project with Liz to enjoy it.
You could still get Liz to feature on a track?
Oh, I’ve tried. Believe me! I’ll never give up.
So, twenty years ago you formed Bella Union. Did you really think it could be where it is now? Did you foresee the success you’ve had at all?
No. I am not a man with a vision. I’m a day by day sort of guy. I don’t plan for the future. Everything happened so quickly back then. We set the label up so we could put out our own music. Then when the band broke up, we still had a label. We had to do something with our life! After having the label set up, the logo designed, a staff member, an office etc. we had to put something out there. That’s kind of how the label’s gone since then. I’ve just stumbled through year by year to get the point where I think, “yeah, I can actually do this”. It probably took me 5 or 6 years to feel like I knew what I was doing. I know now that I’m meant to be doing this.
If you just looked at Bella Union’s releases, you’d just think, “there are some really great, interesting records in there”. That’s all well and good, but then behind the surface there was an awful lot of turmoil and struggles in there. It really is a miracle that we’re still here.
Now we’re here 20 years later, you do tend to look back and assess how far you’ve come. I feel good about it because we could easily have gone under several times. We’ve recovered over and over from some horrendous mishaps, so it feels good to still be here.
“I like extremes of weather because when you go out for a walk you know you’re alive. It’s the same for me with music; I want to experience the extremes of it.”
When it comes to signing bands, is there any sort of criteria you look for?
It’s all on a personal level really. I have no idea what sells or what is cool or not. I’m not really in the know in that sense. I don’t care about sales per se. I’m not trying to find a band that could sell millions. That’s the furthest thought from my mind. All I’m listening to music for is to be enthralled or affected emotionally or spiritually. It’s like weather for me. I like extremes of weather because when you go out for a walk you know you’re alive. It’s the same for me with music. I want to experience the extremes of it. There are pitfalls with this way of working of course, but I just love listening to different kinds of music. I still wake up every morning excited about music. I dread waking up in the morning and not feeling that way.
What advice would you give to unsigned bands trying to make it in music?
In terms of bands trying to submit music to the label, just do it. Just write to me personally. I’m the easiest person to find. I’m on Facebook, Twitter etc. I am one of you – I get where bands are coming from. I empathise with the struggle. But you’ve got to be smart and savvy today. The most important thing is to probably have a fucking great booking agent. Logistically and financially it’s difficult, but you’ve got to get out there and play to as many people as possible.
In the old days, labels were there to give you some money so you’re not always losing out – covering you for travel etc. But now that’s becoming harder and harder because labels themselves aren’t making any money because nobody is buying records anymore. The pie is being cut up into tinier and tinier pieces and quite often the band is getting no slice at all. I’d always suggest not giving up your job, even if you get signed to a record label. Signing to a record label means fuck all. Even if you’re selling a thousand or so records and selling out 200-300 capacity rooms… maybe then you can cut down your hours but I still wouldn’t give up the day job. That’s a huge change for bands. It’s so much harder now. It’s a struggle to make it work, but if you want to be a musician that bad and you want your band to get there, you WILL make it work.
One thing I will say, when it comes to submitting music, don’t just write a generic letter. As soon as a label like mine full of passionate music people receive a letter like that they just delete it without even reading it. If you’re not taking enough care to get the label’s attention, why should we take any care in listening to your music?
You also can’t be afraid to reach out to people directly. Five minutes of routing out names on the internet and you’ll find the people you need and their emails. Do your research and think about what the label would want from you.
Who have you been most excited to watch develop and grow on your roster in recent years?
Lanterns on the Lake haven’t received the recognition that I’d like them to have received. They’ve consistently put out great records, each one 25% better than the last one. As a label boss that’s something you want more than anything. The most recent album Beings is extraordinary. They were the first British band that I signed in a long time. I can’t recommend them enough – they got me back into British music.
Another band is Lowly. I just think they’re the most exciting new band around. Their live show is phenomenal. I was fucking blown away by them. Every time I see them, every time I hear a new song, I fall more and more in love with them. They are one of those bands that have that ability to take you off into another world.
Do you think your time working on this project will impact how you go back into work at the label?
Yes and no. It certainly makes me happier. And that’s important. It makes me feel more complete as a human being. Music has been my life since the age of about fifteen. To be able to make a record now, one that I feel really stands up there and makes me proud, that has been really great for me.
At the same time, it certainly won’t dilute anything I do with the label. Whilst it is a big album, it didn’t take me away from my job. We were only really in a proper studio for about 10 days. I really do think it’s made me better at my job with the label.
What does this project now signal for your future? Are you now settled back into the process of writing and making music?
I really hope so. I’m not quite ready to start another one just yet though. Maybe in 2018 when I’ve got a bit of down time I can think about going back into the studio and doing a bit more.
But you’re right. I’ve made that first step. Lost Horizons is not a one-off, it’s not a flash in the pan side project. I do feel I’ve hit on something working with Richie. It’s straight forward and easy to fit into my life without disrupting it too much. We set up Bella Union originally so that we could release music ourselves. It was a vehicle to put out our own music. So in a way it’s getting back to what the original notion of Bella Union was about.
18 BRIGHTON Rialto Theatre
19 LONDON 100 Club
20 LEEDS Brudenell Social Club
21 MANCHESTER Soup Kitchen