Simon Raymonde (formerly of The Cocteau Twins) is celebrating 20 years of his revered label Bella Union which in its two decades has signed an extensive catalogue of singular artists including Father John Misty, Beach House, Explosions In The Sky, Andrew Bird, and Fleet Floxes, among many more.
In addition to the landmark anniversary, Raymonde is releasing his first record since the label’s launch. Pairing up with bandmate and drummer Richie Thomas, the two form Lost Horizons. The duo release their gorgeous debut, Ojalá, on November 3rd. The bewitching LP features a heady mix of guest singers including Sharon Van Etten and Marissa Nadler among others.
Below Raymonde shares his journey back to the recording studio, lessons learned from running Bella Union throughout the yeas, and his hopes for the twenty.
Culture Collide: It’s been nearly 20 years since either you or bandmate Richie Thomas released music, what made the two of you want to create this record together?
Simon Raymonde: After spending the last two decades helping other bands realize some of their dreams, I started to plan for our 20th anniversary and noticed that while I was proud of the label and how far we’d come, I felt something was missing. Once I’d worked out that I hadn’t really ever grieved the death of Cocteau Twins and hadn’t really moved on, it felt like a huge pressure was lifted. For sure i hadn’t wanted to jump from this amazing band, which had consumed me during my twenties and thirties, into just the first band that came along, and for sure the label was a massively convenient distraction, one that i was only too willing to dive head first into. Once I had moved past this stumbling block (okay so 20 years was probably a bit too long!), I knew that I wanted to make music but only if it satisfied the following:
i) That Richie would be the drummer and the band would really just be me and him. I would probably deny being a control freak if accused of it, but I accept that for this, I am sure I can plead guilty,
ii) It could only ever be fun. If it wasn’t we had to stop.
iii) If we never recorded anything it didn’t matter.
iv) There would be no talk of a ‘record’, no talk of ‘a band’ and we just must wholly enjoy it and the second we didn’t like something we had to say.
I knew I wouldn’t have much time to work on this and wanted to ensure every minute, wherever possible at least, was pleasurable and not any kind of chore or obligation!
Once we’d had a few days horsing around in the studio, I realized what i’d been missing! It was such a hoot working together and we improvised for four days and came up with about seven songs for the album in that first session. It carried on in this vein and was a dream record to make.
CC: How did you end up collaborating with some of the artists on Ojala (Sharon Van Etten, Marissa Nadler, etc.)?
SR: Maybe my ‘job’ doing what I’ve been doing this past 20 years running the label, and doing my radio show for four years, gives me a confidence to know what I want and what works for me musically. The minute the music reached a point where I felt I could send it to someone, I knew exactly who I wanted to sing on a particular piece. Thankfully I got very lucky that every singer I asked to participate really wanted to be involved. As I said, a dream to make! Of course with some of the singers being on Bella Union, I didn’t always have to stray too far, but these are voices I know intimately and love, and knew instantly how they could work on my own tunes.
CC: You’re celebrating the 20 year anniversary of your record label, Bella Union. How have you navigated all the changes in the music industry in this time?
SR: I am actually not sure! It feels like we capsized at least three times, so how we are still floating is beyond me. I think perhaps because I’ve never changed the ethos (if indeed there is just one) of the label, which is simply ‘to be a label I would like to have been signed to myself’. The other important part is that I’ve never once signed a band for commercial reasons. I knew straight away that I had NO idea what the cool bands were, what bands would do well, what bands wouldn’t and was pleased to discover that I really didn’t care to know! If the buzz A&R gig was tomorrow at the Water Rats say, I would avoid it like the plague and ensure I was on the other side of town seeing whatever I wanted to see! That remains the same today.
CC: David Bowie indirectly played a roll in the recording process. How did that energy take shape on the record?
SR: He died the morning of that first session and of course it was both awful and yet inspiring. I’d met him, got his autograph when I was 17, saw him play live, and own about 20 albums. Having this session booked on the day he died seemed initially the perfect reason NOT to go to the studio, but to instead stay at home and mope. But after chatting to Richie, we knew that we HAD to go in and use the energy (whatever it might be) to channel those feelings into new music. As we came to the studio with literally NO tunes, or ideas, this was in hindsight, the spark that got us going. We wrote a piece of music first thing which I called “On The Day You Died,” which is an instrumental piece with me on piano and Richie on sax and I can hear the influence of Bowie on every note. After a few months I mixed it and sent it to Richie and he hated his sax playing and said he’d like to redo it. I had to just tell him, “No chance Richie, that is one of the greatest improvised moments of the whole project and you’re not fixing a thing. All that emotion and humanity in your playing will not be there if you redo it, six months after the event. I won’t let you!” He laughed and conceded. Our improvised take, warts and all, is how I wanted it to be left. That goes for pretty much everything on the record too. (That track isn’t on the LP but on a bonus disc which will be released as part of the Rough Trade Album Club).
CC: You’ve been involved with every aspect of making music (songwriting, producing, mixing, etc). Do you have a favorite part of the process?
SR: I do like all the bits but I truly love writing music and recording most. Because I don’t record much and because I don’t have any instruments at home (deliberately), when I am in a studio I don’t want to leave because I know given my other work, I might not be back for a long time! I feel the best of me comes out in my music. That can mean, all the drama in my life, or the horrors in my brain can come out in my music, ‘the best’ of me doesn’t have to mean it’s all sunshine and laughter, it most often isn’t! As i have only ever worked in this improvising way (with Cocteau Twins too) I LOVE the NOT knowing what I’m going to come up with. It’s both terrifying and liberating.
CC: Ojala translates to “hopefully” in Spanish. What do you hope for?
SR: It is a hugely important word in the Spanish language because it is about so much more than the literal meaning of the word as we might interpret it. It is about having hope where there may be none. If we don’t have hope, we are really lost. I hope there is a seismic shift in our culture, our politics away from the extremism, away from the right, to a more radical but caring society. It may be forlorn, but it’s important to retain that.
CC: You’ve signed so many innovative, singular artists to Bella Union. Is there any advice or words of wisdom you share when brining them into the label family?
SR: Be humble, accept that signing to the label alone means pretty much nothing to most people, and regardless of how much work we put in, you put in, everyone involved puts in, there is a good chance that you still won’t sell records. But we love you and if you are making music because you have to, and you’re not going to be sitting around wondering “where’s the money?” then we can have some fun with this.
CC: What do you envision for the next 20 years?
SR: I’m going to get started on the next Lost Horizons album in December. Apart from that, I have no real vision for the future. I know that there is incredible music out there, more than ever before, and should I retain the excitement I have now, and have had the past 20 years, then we will endeavor to give as many bands as we can, a chance.
As for music in general, the status quo may get a shake up every now and then when a band like Fat White Family comes along and ruffles a few feathers but for all my life, the shit stuff usually dominates and sells the most, and a few of us poor fools are down in the trenches fighting for the scraps. I don’t see any change there. But I also wouldn’t have it any other way.