Ivo Watts-Russell/4AD interview, 1988

In 1988, inspired by my first real job, in an office with a photocopier capable of multi-colour printing, I decided to start a fanzine.  I had a name for it, The Rosenberg Summer (taken from the first line of Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’) and I had an obsession: the music, flowing prolifically out of Ivo Watts-Russell’s 4AD label.  In those days, it wasn’t unheard of for indie label MDs to accept interviews with mere mortals like myself and it only took a postcard for Watts-Russell to invite me to the label’s office in Wandsworth, South London for a chat. 

Ironically, I was to not only sign to 4AD twelve years later (he’d long gone by then), record in its basement studio but also live just a few train stops away.  But in 1988, the trip to the previously unvisited backstreets of SW18 from my home in Nottingham, particularly to meet such a personal idol of mine, was daunting, to say the least.  For support, I asked my lifelong friend and mutual 4AD obsessive, Stephen Wood, to accompany me.   Without him, I’m not sure I would’ve had the courage to see it through. 

Although I’ve searched high and low through my archives, I’ve been unable to unearth a finished copy of the first issue of The Rosenberg Summer but this week, prompted by the sudden passing of Stephen, I was inspired to check my diaries from the time.  And there, in a mottled grey WH Smith bumper book, the original transcript, albeit missing a few sections.  Our questions, most likely hacked out on the train journey to London, are what you’d expect of twenty-one-year-old fanboys – naïve, uninspired and frankly, one big, missed opportunity.  The Rosenberg Summer only lasted for three issues and with each, the 4AD content petered out, possibly because I wasn’t at all fond of the Pixies or Throwing Muses new material in 1989. 

Still, here’s the interview – well, all I could salvage – unabridged.  Rest in peace, Woody.       

Ivo : What’s this all for then?

Glen : We’re starting a new fanzine called The Rosenberg Summer, which is probably going to be rather 4AD-fixated.  I’m also trying to get an interview with Gordon Sharp (Cindytalk). 

Ivo : Have you got his number?

Glen : Well, I’ve written but I’ve not had a reply yet.  I only wrote last week.

Ivo : Oh, right.  I’m sure he will. 

Glen : I didn’t actually get the impression that he was friendly?

Ivo : I suppose he’s a bit unapproachable but once he’s approached, he’s fine – especially if he’s talking about Cindytalk.

Glen : I was just going on what you said about him recently in a magazine concerning ‘Kangaroo…’ (a song on the first This Mortal Coil album) – that he initially wasn’t interested in singing it until he read that last line, “Oh, I want you, like a kangaroo….”

Ivo : This is something that since that day, probably, it’s been like a bit of a tease between us, whether he will or whether he won’t sing again and it’s happening now.  I mean, the day before yesterday, I sent him a tape of something that I’ve asked him if he’d like to sing.  Because a year or so ago, he told me that he’d really like to do more singing.  Jarboe from Swans – they’d met a couple of times and they got on – I’ve met Jarboe and Gordon and there’s talk of them doing something together.  He does want to.  It’s just him.  If he decides he wants to talk, he’ll talk.  If he decides he wants to sing, he’ll sing if he likes it.  It’s just Gordon.  He’s a really nice person and as I say, if you can get to him, it’ll be good. 

Glen : I assume his main obsession is Cindytalk?

Ivo : Yes, it’ll be safe to say he’s obsessive with Cindytalk but he’s obsessive with how and where he uses his instrument – his voice. 

Glen : What’s his relationship with his voice?

Ivo : He always said that the This Mortal Coil things that he did were the first things that he’d ever sung that his dad liked.  And that would be a kind of way of pushing him away.  But so many people have said, “Gordon, how come you don’t sing like that?  How come you always seem to use your voice as a weapon?”  I think it’s the passage of time.  I think it’s just become appealing again to Gordon.  You should really talk to Gordon about this, but it seems that’s it’s just becoming appealing to him to use his voice in a melodic way.  Did you ever hear The Freeze?  That was the group before Cindytalk.  They did a couple of John Peel sessions which were absolutely brilliant.  I’ve tried to persuade him to release them.  I wanted to release them, suggested that he re-record them.  I hoped he might actually do that.

Glen  : ‘Abstract’ magazine gave the impression of Cindytalk signing to 4AD at some point…

Ivo : The first day I ever met Gordon Sharp was the same day I heard the first Dead Can Dance demos and there was a real similarity in the way that Gordon and Lisa (Gerrard) were using their voices.  Which was a really peculiar coincidence.  And it was either Dead Can Dance or Cindytalk then.  But I got involved with Dead Can Dance, then I kind of got to know Gordon.  I wouldn’t actually want to work with Gordon on a long-term basis.  I like him a lot, but he is difficult…awkward….really difficult…

Glen : A perfectionist?

Ivo : Probably.  Yeah.  Well, only he could answer that.  Perfection is to your own standards. 

Glen : Did you hear the new Cindytalk albums (editor note : this would have been referring to the two albums Midnight Music released by Cindytalk in 1988, both under the title of ‘In This World’)?

Ivo : Yeah, but not as thoroughly as I should, out of respect to him.  I do have a problem with Cindytalk – the first album, ‘Camouflage Heart,’ in that it’s a very, very difficult record and I’ve always said that if I want music to be that difficult, I’ll listen to Tim Buckley’s ‘Starsailor,’ as it’s kind of similar in its intensity but not in its style of music.  I do find it very difficult and Cindytalk’s music is incredibly personal.  I guess people are either really passionate about these records or they have a really hard time with them.  Sadly, I fall into the latter category.

Glen : ‘Camouflage Heart’ is probably the most violent record I’ve heard – the sort of record you have in your record collection and only get out once in a while…

Ivo : Cindytalk records have very specific listening moments.

Glen : A quote from the Catalogue magazine, “Will Ivo ever sign a British band again?”

Ivo : I was actually trying to sign one the other day.  A group called The Sundays but they’re going to do a couple of records with Rough Trade, so the answer very definitely is : I really want to work with a British group right now – we’ve got the time, we’ve got the space – I think we’ve got the money.  We’ve got the energy to work with a British group that wants to work. 

Glen : Do you think there’s enough interesting talent out there?

Ivo : No, that’s another problem.  That’s an immense problem.  The interesting talent certainly isn’t coming to me.  I’m not getting to hear it.  I mean, maybe I’m not hearing it through the demos ‘cos that’s primarily the way I get involved with things – the demos in some shape or form.  Maybe I’m just not hearing the English tapes in the same way that I’m hearing the American ones.  Ultra Vivid Scene – that was an accident.  Kurt (Ralske) was living here when he sent me a tape last year.  It was only an accident that he turned out to be American and went back to America to do the record (the eponymous debut album released on 4AD that year). 

In half an hour or so, I can start work with three of the groups I work with.  I mean, I can’t start work before 3pm because of the time difference.  Thank God, we don’t have to work with any bands in Los Angeles – otherwise, I wouldn’t start work until six.  I’d love to get involved with another English artist, group, whatever…

Glen : Do you basically look for innovation?  Something that’s not been done before? 

Ivo : Something.  The definition of that something…that is a personal thing.  The tape I heard of Kurt’s was….it really was The Jesus & Mary Chain.  It was very, very distorted guitars. 

Glen : Syd Barrett meets The Mary Chain?

Ivo : I wrote a note to Kurt saying, “Please give me a call.  Perhaps we can talk about Syd Barrett and Suicide?”  And it wasn’t the Mary Chain.  But what that first record evolved into was those two, the Velvet Underground, Peter Perrett of The Only Ones and a lot more but no-one has – no-one I’m aware of anyway – approached the guitar the way Kurt approaches guitar, which is an incredible combination of an understanding of melody and counter-melody with really peculiar noise, using very, very old distortion pedals and things.  Brilliant little layers of sound on that record.  I think they’re his forte.  Plus fourteen great pop songs.

Glen : It seemed to me that he could churn these “pop songs” out forever….

Ivo : I completely agree.  I can’t really talk about that record because it’s too good.  It’s like a record I’ve always wanted to release that feels timeless when you release it and you know that it’s somehow going to remain timeless.  But because perhaps that’s because it does transcend the decades, ‘cos it could be a record of influence from the ‘60s, other influences from the ‘70s but it’s a sort of very personal, very individual effort of the ‘80s. 

Glen : Were you fond of Matt Johnson/The The’s ‘Burning Blue Soul?’

Ivo : Oh God, yeah!  Yeah…because I was involved with it.  I remember…we still joke…well, it’s not such a joke anymore but Matt and I used to joke around a lot.  That album was done in twenty-hour recording sessions to get cheap time.  We’d go into Spacewood in Cambridge and hire out the studio for overnight sessions and at the end of the day, you’d hire out the multitrack so that you record and mix on that and then erase it afterwards.  Matt and I sat there watching ‘Burning Blue Soul’ being rubbed off!  Quite remarkable.  In a sense, that’s great.  I’m sure that Robin Guthrie would argue that should be done with everything – after it’s mixed, erase it. 

Glen : Were you pleased with how the Émigré magazine 4AD special turned out? 

Ivo : I was pleased and flattered during the talks that I had with Rudy (VanderLans) about it : this is what he wanted to do and devoting a whole issue of any magazine to work that was done between 4AD and 23 Envelope was flattering.  I was pleased at his approach to laying out the magazine.  I didn’t feel comfortable with the way I came across and therefore, some aspects of the way 4AD came across but maybe that’s because of things being taken out of context or trying to do things on a transatlantic telephone line.  Ultimately, I probably find it’s hard as the Cocteaus to explain what it is, if it’s anything and why it is – if there’s a why.  So, I don’t really mind.  As long as it gave a bit of relevant information to people who didn’t know it beforehand, that’s fine.  More importantly, I’m just really flattered by the amount of attention and the time that guy put into it.  That’s nice. 

Glen : I read that the Wolfgang Press are popular in Poland.  What would you put down as your main attribute to 4AD’s popularity in countries like America and Poland right now?  Do they actually get to hear a lot of 4AD music?

Ivo : Yeah, the Wolfgang Press are currently number twenty-four in Poland, without any records actually being available.  This is just through listeners’ letters or requests.  One position lower than Michael Jackson.  It’s ridiculous.  To a certain degree, they’re very similar. 

They do get to hear our music.  There are some DJs out there who we’ve continued to send records to over the years.  There is exposure and a lot of people will listen to….there’s something like two million listeners to certain radio stations.  Because records aren’t available, there’s a really bizarre kind of black-market thing that goes on or people borrowing or hiring from each other – CDs, albums and doing (mix) tapes, so it’s all kind of passed down.  It’s not through generally buying records like it is here. 

There’s a similar thing in America.  Because of the size of the country, there is college radio throughout the country that is incredibly supportive of what we do but it’s a restricted radius that they will reach.  There is an outlet, there is exposure for our music but because I haven’t licensed a great deal in the last three or four years, there’s a difficulty in finding the records again.  So, it’s going to be through import shops.  They’ll get five copies of something and they’ll go in an hour or a week and it’ll take another week or 10 days to get more records back in.  If you have to make a greater effort to find something, that’s ultimately more rewarding.  If music is rewarding to these individuals, then that makes you think a lot more strongly about it – some would argue, more precious about it, which is not necessarily a healthy thing.  And maybe it’s a bit elitist but I think that’s where it stems from.  I, personally, have gotten years of pleasure out of the music we release, so it’s not wrong to think other people get a similar pleasure, perhaps even an intense pleasure out of it.  Fuck it, sometimes it’s hard enough to go down the road and find our records in London, so you can imagine what it’s like in Minneapolis or wherever.

Glen : How many demo tapes do you get a week?

Ivo : Not that many.  It seems to vary as well.  A maximum, I would say, would be fifty.  A minimum, say, twenty. 

Glen : Do you get a lot of bands trying to be the next Dead Can Dance or Cocteau Twins?  Or simply trying to sound like a 4AD band? 

Ivo : It’s almost got to the point where I’d wish we’d get more because the quality of the things or the character of the things we get are just so completely ludicrous.  You know that they’ve been sent to every other record label.  Heavy metal, pop songs…

Glen : I would’ve thought that, two months after a Cocteau Twins album comes out, you’d get multitudes of demos trying to copy that sound?

Ivo : It’s not that easy to sound like Cocteau Twins.  Which is a good thing.  I mean, yes, you get tapes….a few waltzes come in…but there’s a tape now which has turned into an album’s worth of material from an American group called Simon’s Ghost, which is definitely the first real attempt at copying Cocteau Twins.  Some of the song titles and things are a little bit familiar – certainly the guitar sounds very much like ‘Tiny Dynamine’-period Cocteaus and the girl has a very, very good voice. 

There’s a group called Bel Canto from Norway and they released one album on the Belgian label, Crammed Discs, which is really, really good.  I met them here – they were on their way back out to Belgium.  They’d had a really bad time in England with record companies and stuff.  I listened to their tape, which was probably more like Dead Can Dance than Cocteau Twins but there were elements of both in their music and I thought it was really, really good but it would have been absurd for me to get involved.  It wouldn’t have done anybody any good. 

So, they went to Crammed afterwards and did the thing with them.  I still listen to it.  I listen to the actual record that came out (editor note : I think he’s referring to ‘White-Out Conditions’) and in terms of the quality of the record, I would have felt really comfortable if we’d released it but at the time of making the decision, it would’ve been wrong.  People will mimic an approach of both of those groups but I don’t think it’s particularly easy to song like them.  There used to be a lot of Birthday Party soundalikes…

Glen : Would you dismiss them on that count?  I mean, do you need another Dead Can Dance on 4AD?

Ivo : No, we definitely don’t need another DCD on 4AD but I’m an absolute sucker for voices.  Voices do things to my body that other things don’t.  I’m always drawn to that.  No, if something had no character of its own but was trying to emulate, then it wouldn’t be worth talking about but if it had character of its own and had been influenced by them, that’s fair enough.  Even Cocteau Twins would admit influences in their early days that aren’t so evident now. 

Glen : If someone walked in now with a tape as innovative as say, ‘Burning Blue Soul,’ but was obviously influenced by it, would you listen to it?

Ivo : Of course.  I’d listen to anything.  I’d be excited to think that somebody could make a record in 1988 as innovative as that record was when it was recorded in 1980 but so much of that has got to do with circumstances.  It’s got to do with the fact that the budget was virtually zero and things were done very, very quickly and spontaneously.  Have you got a tape in your pocket or something?

(Editor note : a question is missing here but I can assume I’m discussing the new, fantastic Wolfgang Press album, ‘Bird Wood Cage,’ released on 4AD that same year). 

Ivo : I knew at the last stage of recording there was just a couple of tracks and they had changed the album as much as they needed to.  It happened with the Cocteau Twins album – the last two recorded tracks were ‘Blue Bell Knoll’ and ‘Floatboat’ and those two tracks really gave it strength.  Same thing happened with the Wolfgang Press.  But it is weird – you’re thinking about this music all the time as opposed to just simply listening to it – enjoying it or not enjoying it. 

Like you said with the Cocteau Twins, you got closest to hearing it last night, the Wolfgang Press album I heard for first time a few weeks ago and once you get there, it never goes; when you really enjoy something, you don’t lose it.  So, it’s great!  It’s the most mature Wolfgang Press album to date, it’s the sparsest Wolfgang Press album to date and it doesn’t sound like anybody else.  Though I suppose the ghost of Talking Heads is floating around somewhere. 

Glen : Are you still fond of the early This Mortal Coil stuff like ’16 Days?’ 

Ivo : No…well, yeah, I’m fond of it because it was the reason I started the project but I think it sounds bloody awful.  Really it sounds like you’d expect it to sound, to be perfectly honest – by taking individuals from different groups and putting them in a studio at different times, working with material which they may or may not know.  It sounds like this sort of hotchpotch, put together.  It’s passionless.  Rigid. 

Glen : I still think Gordon Sharp sounds great on it…

Ivo : Yeah, he sings well.  Liz was wasted.  It certainly was an experiment.  I think it was fine for the time.  I haven’t listened to that for a long, long time and I ought to, actually.  But it’s bound to happen.  You, yourself, talking to Matt Johnson might say, “’Burning Blue Soul’ was a brilliant record – better than ‘Soul Mining’” but Matt wouldn’t begin to understand that.   

Glen : Do you think Matt Johnson went to the dogs?

Ivo : No, I don’t think he went to the dogs…but something went wrong…

Glen : Money perhaps?

Ivo : He’s got more money certainly.  Perhaps he got more money, which meant he spent longer in the studio, which meant that a lot of spontaneity and feeling went from it.  But within that, there’s still some really good songs.  ‘Perfect….’

Glen : Do you draw This Mortal Coil inspiration from what’s happening around you? 

Ivo : No, not remotely from what’s happening around me.  It’s what I choose to listen to at the time really.  Inspiration to do a cover version or something comes from the enjoyment of that song.  The music that I’ve done myself – I suppose it’s more relevant to the next record (‘Blood’) because at the moment, it’s like an album’s worth of unfinished material that I’ve done and to kind of help me get that into perspective, I’ve now decided to go and do some more cover versions.  I’m not prepared for anything when I walk into the studio.  It’s just like a naïve search for a sound – a naïve attempt at a thought I’ve had to combine sounds.

With ‘Filigree And Shadow’ (the second This Mortal Coil album), it was really very much music from around 1969 that I was listening to.  You can do anything and have that in your mind all the time.  Anything can happen.  It was probably the drugs that people were taking at the time that allowed them to do it but the imagination that went into a lot of the records of that time, then working on 4 track machines – in other cases, 8 – was amazing.  It’s playing really.  There’s nothing more exciting than knowing you have a song that is full of different parts; they all make some sense to each other but you can play with them.  Not to feel afraid of using any of them, of taking them off and putting them on the other way round – that’s the luxury I have with This Mortal Coil.  That’s why I don’t produce anyone else (editor note : this wasn’t entirely true) because I don’t have that luxury with anybody else because it’s their material. 

Glen : Are you prepared to disclose the immediate future of 4AD?

Ivo : Yeah, there’s no secrets at all.  It’s more of the same.  It really is.  For the first part of the year, there’s a Throwing Muses album (‘Hunkpapa’), which is being finished as we speak.  Should be out in January.  A Wolfgang Press single (‘Raintime/Bottom Drawer’), which is a remix of one of the tracks on the album plus two new tracks.  A Pixies single (‘Here Comes Your Man’) and album (‘Doolittle’) and potentially, Cocteau Twins, Ultra Vivid Scene, Dead Can Dance singles.  That’s all in the first three or four month.  Beyond that, I don’t know. 

Glen : So, nothing with new signings?

Ivo : No, not at the moment.

Glen : Hanging on for the next big thing?

Ivo : What else can I do?  There are a couple of interesting ideas which I don’t really know how to make work and it’s not really worth talking about until I do but they would be one-off things like the Pieter Nooten and Michael Brook record (‘Sleeps With The Fishes’) last year. Records like that don’t sell or cover your costs but it’s important to do them, to have something that perhaps someone will find in a couple of years’ time and just enjoy it. 

Glen : Any chance of another Nooten/Brook collaboration?

Ivo : I can’t see it, to be honest because of that Xymox situation.  I can’t see that Polygram are going to be at all inspired by the idea of the keyboard player in Xymox doing a record with Michael Brook and funding it.  Michael Brook has some bloody brilliant stuff that he’s recorded which I’m sure will come out on the Land label – really, really good.  I think he’s going to record it with Jim (James Pinker), the drummer with Heavenly Bodies.      

Stephen : What of Frazier Chorus?

Ivo : They’ve signed to Virgin.  They’ve done an album.  Cost about…I shouldn’t know how much it cost but it cost a lot of fucking money!  It might be out this year but more likely next year.  Again, that was a completely honest working relationship.  ‘Sloppy Heart,’ I loved as a song and wanted to record that.  ‘Typical’ and ‘Storm’ were okay and the other things they had.  If they can succeed – which I’m sure they will – it’ll be because someone will market them as the Pet Shop Boys.  A) We can’t afford to.  B) We’re not very good at it.  And C) Everybody else does it so why should we?   

Footnote : If my (foggy) memory serves me right, once the tape machine was clicked off, Ivo, extremely generous with his time (we were there for a good two hours), continued to answer our questions, however off-the-cuff they were. There was definitely a discussion about how two 4AD bands had squandered recording advances on illegal substances and that the likelihood of either ever releasing music again was minimal, at best. History tells us that this, indeed, turned out to be the case.

On a personal note, I consider 4AD to have peaked by 1987/1988. For me, ‘Blue Bell Knoll’ was the last truly great Cocteau Twins album and ‘Bird Wood Cage’ marked the last time I truly loved The Wolfgang Press. Salvation came, however temporarily, in the shape of His Name Is Alive’s 1992 4AD debut, ‘Livonia’ and later, the first Red House Painters album, ‘Down Colorful Hill’ (1992). In 1999, Watts-Russell sold his share in 4AD back to the Beggars Group, signifying, absolutely, the end of a golden era for the label. It continued, of course and although sporadically successful, like many other great indie labels of the era, has become somewhat less refined in its tastes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s