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Unpopular Records

Alistair Fitchett has been around on ‘the scene’ for a long time now. Ever since my own personal early days of exchanging fanzines, tapes and records through the mail – the postal mail, not electronic mail – in the early 90s we’ve been sporadically in touch. He has been keeping the spirit of 80s independent pop music alive through a variety of fanzines and projects for all of this time, in between teaching art and maintaining strong links to many aspects of modern underground music.

Unpopular Records is his latest exploit – a series of numbered 45s in limited, hand-numbered editions of 500, with a different artist on each and a different artist providing the sleeve artwork for each. Alongside this there have been a number of beautiful little handmade photozines in editions of 100, badges galore, mini CDs, and so on. Besides this he’s been keeping up the running of Tangents online, a fantastically well-written and researched online fanzine covering all aspects of pop music and, for want of a better term, the ‘pop life’.

Alistair kindly answered my questions below. .

Is it just you running the label on your own?

Yes, just me in my Geek Lair with my Macs and piles of books and paper.

When did you start Unpopular, and why?

The idea was there for years, ever since I read Are You Scared To Get Happy. Matt’s excitement in the words “I’m a record label!” really got to me, though it took around sixteen years for me to do it for myself. The idea though really began to take serious form in the winter of 2003, and was implemented at the start of 2004. Why? I guess if I’m honest it was largely about ego. I wanted to be able to say “I’m a record label!” But I’m happy with that because ego is a major ingredient in the make up of Pop. Of course I also wanted to put out great records with uncompromising style, but that goes without saying, surely?

How have you decided on your releases so far – have you approached artists, or have they approached you?

I wanted the first release to be a live single, because the first Esurient single was a live Jasmine Minks 7″. Those kinds of details are important. And I wanted it to be a band I was really infatuated with, so it made sense to ask The Clientele. I’m just lucky that they, and the other artists I’ve approached, have said yes. Of course technical issues meant that the first single to see the light of day was actually the Lovejoy single, but I kind of like the fact that the release schedule is sort of confused. It keeps collectors on their toes. Ha ha. So yeah, all the releases so far have been me asking the artists if they’ll do something, though that doesn’t mean I’ll never do it the other way round. I’m always open to hearing new things, of course.

Are there any labels (now, or from the past) which you have found an inspiration – and in what way?

Of course, yes. Esurient was a major influence, as much for the way Kevin Pearce, who ran it, did things as for the music he released. And the music was earth-shattering, for me at least. My life would have been so much poorer without the likes of the Hellfire Sermons, The Claim and Emily. Other than that, Postcard of course, and it would be churlish to deny the importance of the early Creation scene. Sha-La-La and then Sarah, naturally, because they were so pure, even though I hated more than a few of their records. More recently, Slumberland and Johnny Kane would be important. Others that maybe are less obviously influential would be Warp and Ze. The current Ze reissues series is exemplary.

Do the releases you’ve put out reflect your own personal musical tastes? What other things do you like musically?

The singles represent just a fragment of what I like to listen to, but then whilst it’s pretty easy to have a genuinely eclectic record collection, I think it’s difficult to have a truly eclectic label. I’m not sure I would even want to hear a really eclectic label, to be honest. Plus, I find it difficult to tap into some scenes because I feel insecure and kind of ignorant.

Packaging and artwork – and the idea of ‘7″ as artefact’ – is obviously important to you. How did you come to decide upon getting a different artist for each sleeve? Do you have an input into the sleeves? And how important is it for the sleeves to reflect the music within?

I’ve always thought that the artefact was really important to the whole appeal of Pop. It was always about so much more than the music. I always loved the sleeves of my records. When I was a kid I would make charts of my favourite record sleeves… fuck the music, right!? So I knew that if I started a label, the visuals would have to be a really important part of the whole package. Having the right visual artist is as important to me as having the right musicians. Plus, I’m a visual artist myself, so I guess I would say that. As for deciding who gets to do what, again it’s a case of me asking some of my favourite artist friends if they’d be interested in doing something. Again, so far they have all said yes. And no, I don’t think it’s particularly important that the sleeve reflects the music per se. It has to look right, but that’s not necessarily the same thing as reflecting the music.

With Unpopular as well as with your previous exploits, you seem to have been into the idea of making subsidiary ‘items’ – mini-fanzines, badges etc – to go along with the releases. What’s the thinking behind this, and with fanzines in particular, which have you found inspirational in the past?

For me, Pop has always been about the whole jigsaw of elements. The ‘zines, the badges, stickers, whatever, they are just as important to me as what the music sounds like. And I love how saying that pisses of a lot of musicians. I guess it’s partly about the whole collecting nature of Pop consumption, which I do kind of like, although I’m nowhere near as obsessive as some in that regard. Heck, I don’t even have copies of all the things I’ve produced myself.

Fanzines, in particular were always crucial for me. I rarely listened to the radio, not to Peel or anyone else really… I read the music press, yes, but more importantly I read fanzines. That’s where I got my education from. People are right to have deified Peel, but for me, well, I found people like Kevin Pearce with his Hungry Beat/The Same Sky and Matt Haynes with Are You Scared To Get Happy immeasurably more inspirational. And in the more mainstream press, people like Paul Morley, Everett True and Chris Roberts made me want to hear the records they wrote about.

You’ve obviously shifted your fanzine-like activity from print to the internet, to a large extent. What impact do you think the internet has had on the indie pop and independent music scenes – and what do you miss about pre-web days?

The internet has had a massive impact on so many aspects of our cultural lives. There was a good post on the indiepop list recently from Steve Thornton talking about how no-one can now say they are isolated in the same way some of us felt in the ’80s, stuck away in small towns where it seemed like no-one else was on the same wavelength. The internet has made it possible for us all to feel less alone and to forge international connections and networks that used to be all but impossible. It’s democratised and demystified the whole creative process, and I think that’s a fine thing. Having said that, the thing I guess I miss most about the pre-web days is the very fact that to make those kinds of connections you had to really make a big effort. You had to scrabble around, and I think the thrill of discovery was that much keener as a result. But maybe I’m just being an unbearable old fool. Plus I miss the thrill of getting hand-written letters. The immediacy of e-mail and IM is great, sure, but there’s something special about an envelope dropping on the doormat.

Do you have precise plans for expanding the label? Or for other ventures in the future?

No precise plans at all, aside from the idea that I want to keep it rolling somehow. I’m not even devoted unstintingly to keeping it as a 7″ format label. I’ll change my mind when I get bored, and that’s the way it should be I think. At the moment I’m actually more thrilled by the I Wish I Was Unpopular sub-label, which is currently doing a series of 3″ CDRs. Those are so sweet, and I like the totally hands-on aspect of those. They are all burned on my Geek Lair Mac and come in hand-stamped generic envelopes with inner sleeves printed out on my colour laser printer. I think they should start having a logo that says “Burned in the Geek Lair”. That would be cool. The great thing about the 3″ label is not really having to worry about cashflow. That’s the biggest annoyance with Unpopular: having to run it as a business, at least in part, because I’m not some trust fund kid with money to burn. And I hate the whole business thing… I just want to do Art Projects.

Finally, what would be your dream release on Unpopular – which artist, which format, which packaging, and so on?

I’m not really much good at that kind of thing. Maybe a single track 3″ CD. I remember talking to Clare Wadd when she was running Sarah with Matt, and she was saying how Sarah would love to do just that: one track mini CDs. It would have been magic, but commercial suicide of course. Maybe that’s why I like the idea so much. So yeah, a one track 3″ CD. No idea of the artist, I couldn’t pin it down to one artist or one song. There would be a series of them, all branded The Most Unpopular Pop Single In The World Ever. Maybe. No idea about the dream packaging either… maybe they should come sleeved in chocolate. Or little tin cans. I loved the Metal Box of course. Or sandpaper, like that Durutti Column album, although the sandpaper idea loses a bit when it’s a CD and not vinyl. Or have them buried in various locations around the globe. See, I have to swipe everyone else’s ideas! I have no imagination of my own. They would have to be sealed with a sticker or something too. I love having the conflict of wanting to keep the artefact intact and wanting to rip it open to see what’s inside.


Unpopular Records: some releases

The Clientele: Lacewings/The Violet Hour (live) 7″

Two live recordings of warm, melodic pop, with Alex Chilton-esque vocals over intricately textured guitar lines like Felt once used. What are probably referred to somewhere as ‘Sunday morning songs’.

Lovejoy: Strike A Pose/Someone To Share My Life With 7″

One side is like the introspective/feeling-sorry-for-yourself end of Sarah Records’ output – gentle, chiming guitars, quiet lyrics and soft melodies. The other is electronic-centred, mournful pop.

The Playwrights: Dislocated/Welcome To The Middle Ages 7″

Upbeat, stroppy-sounding, relentless guitar pop which is excellently brief. It brings to mind many confident mavericks from days gone by – Hellfire Sermons, Josef K – with definite-sounding vocals and cheeky hooks.

Check out www.unpopular-records.com and www.tangents.co.uk.