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Pickled Egg

Not too long ago, I received an e-mail from a member of The Inecto School – a group of master improvisers from Leeds (whose new LP St. Vitus Dance is a particular beauty that you should keep your ears open for). In his e-mail, Stewart quizzed why diskant hadn’t yet been graced with a chat with the semi-legendary, Leicester-based Pickled Egg label. Personally, my contact with Pickled Egg had previously been pretty much solely a couple of encounters with Volcano The Bear LPs at friends’ houses, and many tales of the weird and warped stuff they had been unleashing upon an unsuspecting public. Luckily, Stewart was on hand to give a much fairer impression of one of the UK’s most adventurous and consistently excellent labels. He said:

“Pickled Egg really is one of the most sharp-eyed, adventurous independent labels around. They are releasing some of the best albums at the moment of any GB label.”

“Need New Body in particular, have on their two Pickled Egg LPs tapped into a rich musical mine, mixing jazz, a lack of guitars, brass, lyrical surrealism, a punk rock approach and grooves that pull you up out of your seat and move your arse for you! Please, if you haven’t heard them, check their LPs out. Everyone I know here in Leeds who has heard NNB is loving them. Along with Bablicon, NNB are creating a new way of putting LPs together. Theirs is a cut and paste approach, a little akin to Zappa’s We’re Only In It For The Money, and NNB’s latest LP has 23 tracks in under 42 minutes… it’s a new format for a new sound mentality.”

“George released their debut LP The Magic Lantern last summer on the label. Theirs is a different affair from those bands I mention above. George are a duo of great sensitivity and originality both in their composing skill and their choice of instrumentation. The music is aesthetically similar to Low, fragile and heart-rending in places, male and female harmonies, but very English and underplayed, never overblown. I feel they are one of the only visionary, quality acts coming out of Manchester!”

“Volcano The Bear have released their latest LP The Idea of Wood on Textile Records, a label based in Paris. However it was Pickled Egg who gave them a chance to air their first inspired folk/psychedelia collection Yak Folks Y’Are, a 3/4 length LP that has become a marker in the territory for all other likeminded groups to navigate towards (and beyond). VTB continue to outdo themselves with every release.”

“One of the newest releases on Pickled Egg is to be Surprising Sing Stupendous Love by Scatter, based in Glasgow. Scatter were picked by Stuart Murdoch to support Belle & Sebastian on their London & Edinburgh dates in their December 2003 tour. Scatter are also part of the inspired school on Pickled Egg, imbued with the spirit of traditional folk and free-jazz, unusual instrumentation including brass, flute, conta bass, accordion drones, featherlight freestyle drums and eastern European Bouzouki. For reference for the uninitiated, Scatter might be placed somewhere in between Sun Ra, The Watersons, Vibracathedral Orchestra, and Balkan wedding music! Yet again we hear in this Pickled Egg LP an original, fresh, heartfelt and exciting excursion in sound.”

Well, after such high praise, it was the least we could do to cajole Nigel Turner, Pickled Egg mainman, into talking to us. Nigel was good enough to devote a lot of time to giving an excellent interview, and a fantastic introduction to the world of Pickled Egg.

So why the hell did you call your label that?

I like the name, because it doesn’t sound like a ‘proper’ record label, and therefore stands out. And what more can you ask of a name? I know that it’s not to everyone’s taste (much like pickled eggs), but who cares. People can read into it whatever they like. That’s fine with me. It was label co-founder Colin who came up with the name (we jointly ran the label for the first release, after which Colin got cold feet!), and when I heard it, I knew instantly that was the right name. (If you must know, I’d recently been on a camping holiday with some friends in Cornwall, during which, for reasons not too clear to me now, everyone developed an unhealthy interest in pickled eggs – possibly on account of their sheer abundance in that part of the world). Incidentally, I toyed with the idea of calling the label Little Gary Records, after my pet cat at the time (who sadly disappeared, but that’s another story). However, that didn’t receive Colin’s approval. But I think food is a good metaphor for music, and one that I’ve pursued through various endeavours, including occasional club nights, ‘New Potatoes’ and ‘Red Leicester’.

How did you get the whole thing started? How long have you been running now?

I played the bass guitar for a couple of years in the mid 90s with the indie pop band, The Melons, who’s main claim to fame was that Mark Radcliffe was a fan. We were fortunate enough to be invited to play two sessions on his ‘Out on Blue Six’ evening show on Radio 1. Largely because of Radcliffe’s patronage, the band had enjoyed a number of modestly succe ssful 7″ singles, on a variety of indie labels, including Damaged Goods. However, when we recorded what was to be the band’s ‘farewell’ single, Damaged Goods seemed to have lost interest. But having harboured ambitions to start my own label for some time, I saw this as an ideal opportunity to get a label off the ground. Starting the label with a group who’d already released several records, made it relatively easy for me to get distribution (through Cargo). Although this first release didn’t really reflect the kind of music I wanted to release, it served its purpose of getting the label up and running, enabling me to persuade other artists that I had a proper record label with proper distribution. It was really the next two releases that in a way defined the label. These were 7″ singles by the Japanese experimental pop duo, Pop-Off Tuesday (whom I’d heard in session on John Peel, and were criminally without a label at the time) and Birmingham-based Francophile space-pop quartet, L’augmentation, both released in the summer of 1998.

Have you been inspired by any labels in terms of style/ambition/enthusiasm?

I wouldn’t say there was any contemporary label that particularly inspired me, though I guess if there was one label that I looked to as a role model, it would have to be Rough Trade from the ‘classic’ late 70s/early 80s era, in so far as they had a brilliant and eclectic roster, not to mention a strict quality control policy. Going back even further, the Electra label in the late 60s/early 70s were similarly ambitious. I’ve never really been inclined towards a strict aesthetic policy, in the way that many other labels – particularly nowadays – seem drawn. I guess my tastes are too eclectic for that kind of thing. Besides, I get bored easily, and have a pathological hatred towards copyist bands!

What kind of a role has the internet played regarding your label? Some people these days operate exclusively via the net, whilst others are still very much mail order based. What’s your stance?

I’m happy to promote music any way I can! Clearly the internet is becoming an ever more important tool, but the bulk of my sales are still made through the more traditional means of distribution – i.e. record shops and old fashioned mail-order. But it’s becoming more and more apparent that these kinds of outlets are in decline (especially shops), and digital/online distribution is assuming a greater importance, perhaps countering the decline in these other outlets to some extent. I’ve recently added Paypal buttons to my website to enable secure online ordering, and these have proved reasonably successful (they also cut out the middle man, allowing me to keep prices down). Digital downloads is an area which I have explored in the past, through companies such as Vitaminic, but I think these technologies are still in their infancy, and I probably dabbled with this a little too early for it to bear any real fruit. I’m more from the old school myself, in that I prefer to have some kind of material product to hold – preferably vinyl (though even CDs are not without their charm!) In a way that’s not really typical of me, in that I’m not generally a materialistic kind of person. But clearly digital downloads are here to stay, and this is certainly an area which I intend to investigate further in the near future.

Is downloading killing music? Do you harbour any strong feelings sympathetic to or against the RIAA?

Now there’s a question! It’s definitely true that sales are getting harder to come by – certainly for a purveyor of leftfield music – though I think this process has been in motion for 10-15 years, maybe longer (contrast sales expectations of underground bands nowadays, with those of say 10-15 years ago). Whilst the reasons for this are clearly complex, I do feel there’s a growing expectation amongst younger kids that music is something that’s there to be downloaded for free. This obviously isn’t going to kill music – people are still going to be driven to make music, but it’s certainly going to have a dramatic effect on the means of distribution. I can’t see many more labels like Pickled Egg starting up in the future – certainly not labels that manufacture records and CDs for leftfield artists. There simply won’t be a market for this, possibly even in five years’ time.

Do you feel an affiliation with other labels out there? Is there any kind of community or so-called ‘scene’ – be it local or not – that you feel linked to?

To a certain extent. There’s a few labels, such as Textile in Paris, or Cenotaph Audio and Cloud Recordings in the US, who are operating in territories with a fair degree of overlap with Pickled Egg. I guess you could call this a global scene of sorts. There are certainly pockets of creativity in the US, particularly in Chicago and Philadelphia, with which Pickled Egg are proud to align themselves. Indeed, the label has tapped into these pools, releasing artists such as Bablicon, Need New Body, Icy Demons and Butchy Fuego.

There’s not much of a local scene going on in Leicester (my adopted hometown) right now. Of course, Leicester is also home to Volcano the Bear, and until recently, Jeremy Barnes (A Hawk and a Hacksaw, Bablicon, Neutral Milk Hotel). However, I think their music was a little too eccentric to spawn any kind of local scene (I believe that they have had an influence – and continue to do so – but over a much wider hinterland). But I like to think that it was Pickled Egg who first brought these artists together, so in that sense, you could describe it as a local scene of sorts.

Also, there is a small (and growing) network of like-minded promoters scattered around the UK, who have always been more than happy to help out with organising gigs. Pickled Egg artistes, such as George, Scatter, Jeremy Barnes, Big Eyes and Zukanican, often find themselves sharing the same bill (whether this is because no-one else will work with them, I don’t know!), and already there has been evidence of cross-pollination. Scatter (from Glasgow) and Zukanican (from Liverpool) are both big fans of Bablicon, so it’s probably no surprise that they ended up on Pickled Egg.

Has there ever been a time when you felt like calling it a day, that the label was too much trouble?

Yes! Barely a day goes by when I don’t wonder why I continue doing this! It does so often feel as though I’m banging my head against a brick wall – especially when it comes to getting interest from the music press – and you can only do this so many times without questioning your sanity! I realised quite early on that this was never really going to be more than a labour of love – a glorified hobby, if you like – although I still feel a great injustice out of all this. When I started the label, I did expect that things would get easier, once the label became ‘established’. But it would seem that the opposite is true. For a release to break even is something of an achievement these days, so from a financial perspective, it can be hard to keep things going. I certainly can’t see the day when I give up the day job, although in some respects, not having to worry about making a living out of it can be a good thing. After all, I never need to concern myself about the commerciality of my releases.

Where have you found bands you’ve released stuff by so far? Do you get demos etc sent to you? Do you ask the bands or do they ask you?

They tend to find me, for the most part, either by way of recommendation from other artists, or simply through sending me demos. I guess there aren’t too many labels prepared to take risks these days (certainly not in the UK), so it’s probably not too surprising that these kinds of artists gravitate towards Pickled Egg (and let’s face it, the label has been around for six years now, so I would like to think that it has built up some kind of reputation amongst leftfield artists). For the most part, demos are reasonably well targeted (that doesn’t mean that they’re all good, but at least you get the feeling that most of the artists have at least heard stuff on the label). I suppose this might also imply that Pickled Egg is something of a ‘specialist’ label! However, every once in a while I receive a gloriously mis-targeted demo. For example, I recently received a CD from a girl band (that’s girl band in the Spice Girls sense), by the name of Niche (without any sense of irony, one assumes). It contained all the usual manufactured band clichés – and not much else – so clearly they had yet to find their niche!

Speaking of which, do you have any hot musical tips for us at the moment?

One band who have yet to take off in the UK, but could and should be huge (and I can’t for the life of me figure out why they’ve been so ignored by the UK press) is Philadelphia’s Need New Body. Ferociously eclectic – their music draws upon such diverse influences as free jazz, krautrock, new wave, vaudeville and bluegrass – but it all meshes together so beautifully, and not without a commercial edge. I’ve released both their albums on Pickled Egg, which have both been almost universally shunned by the UK press. However, I’m planning to bring them over to the UK this September, which should hopefully raise their profile. Don’t miss them – by all accounts they’re truly amazing live. Another new band, operating in broadly similar territory, are Scatter, from Glasgow. Not really jazz, not really folk, not really avant rock, yet blending elements of each, they exude a freshness and sparkle that I find truly inspiring. And they’re another great live band too.

Who decides the artwork for your releases? Do you have a major say in the matter, or do you let the bands decide?

I guess I’ve been quite lucky when it comes to the artwork. With one or two exceptions, the bands have always supplied their own artwork (either done by themselves, or some artistic acquaintance), which has seldom been anything less than awesome. Sometimes I need to do a bit of layout work, but in the main I’ve been furnished with complete, or near complete artwork. I’m not really sure how this has come about, given the diversity of artists involved, but there does seem to be some sort of homogeneity at work here (vaguely surreal, usually quite colourful, and an almost complete lack of photographic imagery), giving the label a vaguely unified look and feel. Perhaps the artists now feel obliged to offer artwork in a particular style? Who knows?

What’s the one release that you are most proud of? (Say more than one if you like)

This really is impossible to answer! Quite genuinely, I’ve been proud of just about everything I’ve ever released, so to single one out would be extremely difficult. The first Pop-Off Tuesday album will always be very special to me, though – it was the first album I released, and remains one of my favourite records of the past 10 years or so. But to single it out would be unfair (Pop-Off’s most recent album is possibly equal to it). Bablicon are another band who helped shape the label, and I think they will come to be seen as a very influential group for years to come. No-one seemed particularly interested in a band playing post avant-jazz in the late 90s, but nowadays it’s creeping more and more into the musical language, and I think that Bablicon’s three albums (all on Pickled Egg) will in time be regarded as milestones in that particular branch of musical evolution. You can hear their influence in bands such as Need New Body and Scatter, who have themselves also recorded albums which I would say compare to anything released in the past three or four years. But I am also equally proud to have released great and diverse albums from the likes of George, Oddfellows Casino, Marshmallow Coast and Big Eyes (something of a Pickled Egg house band now!). And of course, it was a great privilege to release Daniel Johnston’s ‘comeback’ album – something I would never dared to have dreamed about when I first started the label. Also, having organised Daniel’s first ever European tour is a source of great pride to me – proving wrong all those doubters who said it could never happen!

Who do you use to make and print your records? Would you recommend them to others?

I get my vinyl made at GZCD in the Czech Republic (as does just about every other indie label, it would seem). Their prices are so much cheaper than anywhere else, and they’ll handle very small runs too (as few as 100 – although I’ve yet to go that small), which is very important, given the low level of vinyl sales these days. Their quality is pretty good too, and I’d certainly recommend them. I currently use Key Production for my CD manufacture. They’re not the cheapest people around, although they offer a good service. But I’m certainly on the lookout for cheaper options on CDs, especially given that my production runs are also tending to decrease in size (a sign of the times?).

What’s your opinion on the importance of press and media coverage? Do you have any particular policies on how to get it?

I think you’re talking to the wrong person here! If only I knew how to secure press coverage for my releases! (Well, I do know how really, but I can’t afford their advertising rates). However, I still send out promos to all the major music magazines in the UK (as well as Europe and the US), but I can’t help feeling that I’m wasting my time and money, given the almost complete lack of coverage. This is a constant source of annoyance, because I know that my releases are better than 99.9% of the crap that they peddle. Needless to say, I don’t buy any music magazines – and that includes The Wire – because I have no respect for their opinions whatsoever. But I still send out promos, because occasionally there’ll be a review in the most unexpected place, and let’s face it, people do read these rags, regardless of what I think of them.

Do you have any Grand World Domination plans for the label, or is it a case of natural evolvement?

Yes, well of course I would love it if Pickled Egg dominated the world, but I think in all honesty, this isn’t very likely! The label has tended to develop in a somewhat organic kind of way, and I see no reason why it won’t continue in that vein. You always hope that the next release is the one that’s going to break big – although after 50 odd releases, I no longer allow my hopes to get raised too high. But I would never compromise the artistic integrity of the label for the sake of commercial success. Mind you, I’m not sure that I’d know how to, even if I wanted to (which I don’t).

Got any advice for the prospective new label mogul?

I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable offering anyone any advice. Running a label can take up a lot of your spare time, so make sure you know why you’re doing it. Personally, I only release records that I genuinely believe in, and I couldn’t envisage running a label for any other reason. Expect to lose lots of money, and to become extremely bitter!

Finally, what would be your dream release – which band, which format, and how would it be packaged?

My dream release would be by an artist who I’ve never heard of (or indeed, no-one else has heard of), and who has yet to release anything, and it would be the greatest record ever made. I don’t look around at what other labels are releasing, with any desire to poach their artists. It’s not like, “if only I could release a record by Stereolab, or Low, or Yo La Tengo, or w hoever, then I could feel the label was successful.” As I’ve already stated, I’m very proud of the records I’ve released – which I believe stand comparison to the output from any label – and also of the label’s genuine independence. Though I guess if there was one contemporary artist (not already on Pickled Egg!) who I would most like to work with, it would have to be Jeff Mangum (Neutral Milk Hotel). By all accounts, Jeff is still recording some amazing music, but doesn’t feel it’s good enough to release. So Jeff, if you’re reading this, drop me a line!

As for packaging and format… I still have a soft spot for vinyl, so if we’re talking ‘dream’ release here (and nowadays I can pretty much only dream of releasing vinyl), then I’d have to go for a gatefold sleeve, 220g double vinyl LP. The sad fact is that I’ve previously released a number of LPs in this format, but in the six or so years that I’ve been running the label, such releases have become completely unviable, from a cost point of view. Sorry to finish on a down note!

Pickled Egg website