Friday, 25 March 2011

Interview with Spencer Hickman, UK coordinator of International Record Store Day

Its four years now since international record store day was conceptualised by a group of store owners in the USA. In that time it has changed significantly - from participation by a handful of stores through to one of the key events in the music industry’s year. The record labels increasingly recognise the day as an opportunity to open the vaults and unearth rare and unreleased tracks onto vinyl or CD and thousands of stores from around the world participate. It has its critics, many of the rarer items (most notably an unreleased Blur track last year) are soon found on eBay where they command a premium but the simple fact is that the day brings thousands of people into record stores who might otherwise shop online. For one day at least people can experience the joy of combing through the racks, chatting to fellow music lovers and buying something that they might not of otherwise discovered – a simple but profound joy.

Spencer Hickman of Rough Trade Records is the UK face of the day. Responsible for overall co-ordination plus organising some of the very best events at the Rough Trade stores in London. Last year he hosted thousands of record buyers with a number of acts instore including an excellent set by Caribou. I was lucky enough to speak to Spencer as this year’s event approaches on Saturday 16th April

So, how are preparations for the big day going?

Yeah, good though a bit hectic. There are so many releases this year – over 200. We’ve got about 170 announced and another 60 to be listed in the next week or two. We’re finding it easy to get bands and labels on board. The first year we just persuaded Piccadilly Records, Spillers and a few others to sign up and we didn’t have any special product. We just got a band in to play and had a bit of a celebration. This year, in the UK alone we’ve got 177 stores involved already – more than ever before. I’m already doing lots of interviews and hopefully we’ll get some TV coverage set up this year.

My only worry is overkill. We have no control over what the labels put out on the day. It’ll be interesting to see what sells and what doesn’t. For small stores it’s such an outlay on product which they might then not sell.

What are the notable vinyl releases you’ve got lined up?

The Queen one is the big one – two unreleased demos. We’ve already got Queen fans emailing us. We’ll be limiting that one to one per customer. The Vaccines are releasing a live bootleg. There’s a sort of New York legends tribute to Franz Ferdinand with LCD Soundsystem, Debbie Harry and ESG doing covers of Franz tracks. The first track on the Wild Beasts album comes out on the day too.

Why is the day so important?

The whole point is that I know that once you get someone inside a record shop and give them that experience they’ll come back. We all use blogs to find new music but you can’t have that real interaction – a chat.

What have you got lined up in the stores on the day?

At Rough Trade West we’ve got Pete and the Pirates. At East we’ve 90% confirmed Soundtrack of our Lives, Wild Beasts and a Chilly Gonzales piano recital! We’re actually having less in-store appearances this year. We’ve learnt a lot from last year and we want to make it a more pleasant shopping experience. Instead, when the store closes at 8pm we’re having a free party at 93 Feet East with Gyratory System, The Mazes and Soundtrack of our Lives.

We had people almost fighting over releases when the store opened last year and we’ve learnt a lot since then. We’ll have a street party outside and face painting and that sort of thing to entertain people in the queue.

How does a record store survive in these days of digitalisation and internet shopping?

You need to widen your horizons. Gone are the days when you could expect people just to walk in and buy. We hold film nights, screen painting classes, in-store signings the list goes on. It’s important not to be afraid to fail sometimes. We did a Saturday morning kids club to enable parents to shop in the store but it simply didn’t work.

Also, concentrate on stocking great music and provide great service. People don’t mind paying a bit extra for that experience. One of the great things about the day is that it gets the stores enthused as well. One owner said that last year he had queues like he hadn’t had for 15 years. It gets stores thinking about things they can do the rest of the year too.

How do you feel about people buying rare stock and then sticking it on eBay at a profit?

Its really unfortunate and no-one dislikes it more than me. We had a situation last year where we looked on eBay at 8am on the day and there were already people posting up the Blur single with our sticker on it. The thing is though that short of questioning everyone who comes in you can’t really stop it- it’s just another example of how people use eBay . We’ll be limiting sales of the rarer items to one per person.

Can you see vinyl surviving?

Well its only a small part of the market but vinyl sales have increased in the last four years and it’s still growing. Bands like the Mystery Jets will release a song on 7 and 12 inch and 12 and 13 year old kids will buy it, see the band play and get it signed. People still want a physical product.

Well, I’m really looking forward to the day. I wish you all the best of luck and keep the dream alive!

Cheers man.

To find out where your nearest Record Store event is and to find out more about the day go to

Friday, 18 March 2011

Rest in peace: Smiley Culture (1963-2011)

Like many I was shocked by the death of Smiley Culture. Only last month I was watching him on BBC4’s Reggae Britannia talking about his influences and legacy. It’s possible that Smiley was actually the first MC I was ever aware of. Growing up in rural Gloucestershire in the early 80’s I wasn’t really in the core market for rap or hip hop as it became known but I do specifically remember seeing Smiley on Top of the Pops performing his second hit Cockney Translation. I’d be lying if I said it changed my life but I remember being charmed by its jaunty melody and humorous lyrics.

It’s clear to me now that Smiley’s legacy is far greater than I gave him credit for as a youngster. For many years it was accepted wisdom for UK urban artists that if they wanted to make it they had to ape the American stars of the day. Smiley took a completely different route. David Emmanuel (for that is he) took the tradition of ‘toasting’(or chatting) over the soundsystems of Jamaica (having come through the legendary Saxon soundsystem himself) and transplanted the ethos to South London. He struck chart gold with Police Officer and a re-release of Translation, scaling the upper reaches of the charts. Perceived wisdom was immediately challenged and young MCs increasingly had the self belief to embrace their Britishness. Its not too grand a statement to claim that the likes of Roots Manuva, The Streets, Dizzee Rascal and Tiny Tempah have all benefited from Smiley’s breaking down of doors as well as countless MCs from the worlds of reggae, hip hop, grime and drum and bass. Its also fair to say that Smiley was years ahead of his time and one can only begin to wonder what sort of career he might have had if he was a young artist now.

The other key element of Smiley’s influence was that he brought black politics to the heart of the pop charts in such a way that people (both black and white) could laugh together at the absurdity of the treatment of the black community. 'Cockney have names like Terry, Arthur and Del Boy...we have names like Winston, Lloyd and Leroy' he reflected on the black experience of not being regarded as ‘true’ Londoners in Cockney translation while Police Officer talked about a scenario where Smiley was arrested for drug possession and then let off because of his celebrity status. It’s important to remember that this was a time when relations between the Metropolitan Police and the Black Community were at an all time low following the Brixton Riots and the police’s hardline stop and search tactics. He brought home the reality of London's streetlife while being completely accepted by the mainstream - he even met the Queen as part of a Commonwealth musical event!

It would be wrong to regard Smiley’s career as solely about these two records although his other music didn't have the same commercial success. He produced a wealth of excellent material closer to the heart of the reggae movement and worked with other stalwarts of the British reggae scene including Maxie Priest and Tippa Irie. It’s fair to say that he didn’t have the strongest voice but his talent was on finding humour in the everyday and articulating the absurdity of modern urban life. There is little doubt that Smiley was an inspirational figure for many – particularly black kids - who could see one of their own able to articulate his experience to the public at large and for that alone he deserves significant recognition.

Questions clearly need to be asked about Smiley’s death during a police raid but for now let’s celebrate a man who undoubtedly helped change the face of British music for ever.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Round up: 5 great albums you really should hear

So, we're nearly a quarter of the way through 2011 already and there's already been some excellent music. Jamie XX has provided some great remixes (most notably of Adele's Rolling in the deep) and Kingdom's That Mystic EP on Night Slugs is also worth checking out if you like electronica. Radiohead have had too much coverage elsewhere to warrant inclusion in this list but their new long player King of Limbs is well worthy of investigation. Fujiya and Miyagi returned with Ventrilloquizing. Its probably not their best work but its still head and shoulders above most guitar pop. Here though are my favourite albums of 2011 so far...

Space is only noise - Nicolas Jaar

There won't be a more atmospheric record than this released all year. This debut from 21 year old Chilean (but now Brooklyn resident) Jaar brings to mind Massive Attack, Carl Craig, Serge Gainsbourg, Mulatu and Ray Charles without really sounding like any of them. Dubby baselines are interspersed with minimal glitchy techno beats but don't think for one minute this is a dull muso's record. Strong songwriting is evident throughout as spoken word samples and Jaar's own singing drift in and out of the mix. Its not all downbeat., Variations takes snatches of sound and weaves it into a dancefloor filler (not dissimilar to techniques used by Mount Kimbie)Is it trip hop? Minimal Techno? Lo-fi? Ambient? Nu-Soul? It's all and none of the above.

Let England Shake - PJ Harvey

Believe the hype! An extraordinary record that manages to tackle the pointlessness and misery of war without once sounding hectoring or worthy. Lyrically its spot on and its musically diverse. Polly is not afraid to use humour - sampling reggae, hunting horns and tipping a cheeky wink to Eddie Cochran's Summertime Blues. A work of maturity and a songwriter at the peak of her powers.

James Blake - James Blake

The backlash has already started in relation to James Blake. After being tipped for greatness by almost every media channel he didn't deliver the album the hipsters wanted. They're missing the point. Blake isn't the future of dance music, instead he's a major songwriting talent who's not afraid to use modern sounds to enhance his songs. Appropriate reference points are as much David Bowie and Morrissey as they are Mount Kimbie and Burial. Limit to your love is one of the most beautiful pieces of music of this century and Blake is brimming with talent. Embrace his slightly divisive voice and you'll find much to enjoy. Difficult and all the better for it.

Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam - Ghostpoet

Like Nicolas Jaar, Ghostpoet is fairly unclassifiable but his music is very different. The rapper's most obvious reference points are Bristol's Tricky or perhaps Roots Manuva. Ghostpoet has that lazy mellow drool which sounds so good over mellow beats but its the production here that is such a revelation, employing the sort of variety you might find on say a Mos Def album. Dubstep, house and even rock are employed but it all hangs together very nicely with Ghostpoet's alluring vocal taking you to the twilight hours where every sound and movement is intensified. Despite having recently signed to Gilles Peterson's Brownswood label, Poet feels little need to brag, claiming only 'got some A-levels, ain't dumb' but he hits some real high points - most notably on torch song in the making Survive it. You won't find a more original and enticing hip hop record all year - and he's British. The best thing to come out of Coventry since the Specials!

Last - The Unthanks

Northumberland's Unthanks are a rare thing indeed. A traditional folk troupe with modern taste. This might sound like a bit of a car crash but they know just how much modern sound to bring into their arrangements of traditional songs. Their Bairns album a few years ago was wonderful and rightfully earned them a Mercury Prize nomination. Their latest features covers of songs by Tom Waits and King Crimson and is an excellent entry point to thier music. Its their most expansive record to date featuring strings, brass and piano but its the voices of sisters Rachel and Becky that draw you in every time.

So there you have it - if we carry on like this 2011 will have been a great musical year indeed. Have a record you've enjoyed this year? Leave details below so that others can enjoy...

Friday, 4 March 2011

Hidden Gem: Osjan - Osjan

The dream of any vinyl collector is that you’ll turn up a gem at a car boot sale. In reality it rarely happens. Most of what is sold these days is junk (Mantiovanni, Paul Young, Phil Collins) and the good stuff goes at the crack of dawn if at all. I’ve wasted many a Sunday morning only to come home with a couple of disco 12s. One of the few gems I did find however was this record by Osjan. Walthamstow might seem an unlikely location to churn up a classic Indian-influenced polish jazz record but that’s exactly what happened.

Collectors in the know have long known that Poland was and is home to an excellent jazz scene. Cracow’s Osjan (or Ossian) were founded in the early seventies by two members (Jacek Ostaszewski and Mark Jackowski) of a previous group called Anawa. They’ve been playing as a key part of the underground Polish jazz scene ever since and are widely regarded as the act that brought world music to Poland. This isn’t world music in the conventional sense however. What Osjan do is incorporate influences from various cultures and assimilate them into their core sound of avant-garde jazz. Focus is on rhythm rather than melody. If you love three minute pop singles this is not the record for you. If however you like rambling, stoned twenty minute ethno-jazz epics featuring only a handful of notes then you’ll find yourself right at home. This is a band that is truly uncompromising and undoubtedly spiritual (they used to regularly perform with Black Horse Cheavers, a Cherokee shaman).

Osjan made intuitive music, mostly instrumental, and were clearly influenced by music from elsewhere in the world including Africa, Arabia and India. Their music is uncluttered and the emphasis is clearly as much on the space between the notes as much as it is on the sound itself. "We would play for half an hour on two or three notes," remembers Ostaszewski. "What fascinated me, not only in the sphere of music, was the search for forms that would allow free expression, not limited to the conventions of jazz, pop or classical music."

This 1982 recording starts with just snippets of sounds - a double bass here, an acoustic guitar there before the guitar picks up the melody and one can almost picture rainfall. Xylophone, didgeridoo, flute and bongos enter the fray one by one until finally after about 12 minutes a vocal can be picked out. Even now, full words can't be identified as the vocalist simply applies a la-di-da over the tune. The track (which fills the whole of side A) culminates in a battle between a flute melody, strong bongos and what sounds like a Guiro (the wooden scraping instrument of our schooldays). The track is essentially a cycle, starting slowly, peaking and then dispersing into a single guitar and vocal.

The track on side B peaks far earlier and is quite different although it features much of the same instrumentation. It has a slight Cossack feel as vocals are literally yelped over the fray.Eventually the instruments fall away to leave a solo bongo playing furiously. A folky flute is introduced to bring the melody back - its all quite entrancing even after repeated listens. The final movement is more melancholy and wistful as once again the flute and 12 string guitar bring us home.You've probably gathered by now that this is not a record you can dip in and out of, it demands the listeners attention if they are to truly appreciate it and doesn't really bear comparison with anybody else.

Osjan's legacy lives on through occasional (and almost mythical) live performances and their influence on others such as Maanam (a group formed by Jackowski) and Voo Voo. A truly original band and a story worth 50p of anybodies money I reckon...
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