Every independent label faces a constant battle of finance versus culture. Simon Raymonde has spent two decades in the trenches of that battle with Bella Union, his boutique outfit that celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year. Bands who have coupled with Bella Union have gone on to create their most fruitful epochs (The Walkmen’s bow-out albums Libson and Heaven; Andrew Bird’s breakthrough pair Noble Beast / Break It Yourself) or become stalwarts in the most imitated movements (Fleet Foxes, Beach House). For that, the label’s reputation runs on the tastes of a small group of aesthetes -- and at 55, Raymonde is still hand-picking a huge swath of the artists.
2017 also marks the platinum anniversary of the dissolution of Raymonde’s former band, Cocteau Twins. With his title immediately changed from "bandmate" to "label head," he found himself with little time or drive to make his own musical statement. “I kind of just forgot about myself for quite a long time,” he told Billboard.
But now, after months of finding spare nights to sequester himself in his “man-cave” studio, Raymonde’s returned with a full-length that is Cocteau-esque in style, but made from a very different vantage point -- and an entirely new group.
As Lost Horizons, Raymonde's drummer Richie Thomas shuffled through studio sessions as dream pop minutemen, chasing their impulses through cut after cut of autumnal arrangements, carefully shaped until they shimmer in an amber afterglow. Their album Ojalá, out Nov. 3 through Bella Union, is an account of one man’s private rediscovery of the thrill of music-making, told with the accompaniment of artists who have guided him to it (Marissa Nadler, new London crooner Hilang Child).
In the midst of a move, Raymonde took the time out to find his phone in a packing box and speak to Billboard about the Lost Horizons sessions and the (slim) chances of him waking up feeling disillusioned by a changing industry.
What moved you to create Lost Horizons? Was there an internal pressure to make these songs, or did people encourage you to record them?
A little bit of all of those, I suppose. I hadn't perhaps realized how the breaking up of the band all those days ago affected me. Cocteau Twins was a special part of my life, and to try and replace it by joining another band wasn't really something that would work for me. Things like that don't come 'round everyday. I sort of retreated by driving myself into Bella Union, investing my time in all these young bands and being there for them as a sort of friend, ally and collaborator. I kind of just forgot, I guess, about myself for quite a long time. It's no secret that running an independent label is not a walk in the park, it's a constant battle of finance versus culture. It's a struggle, and we've had lots of trouble down the line.
I got to last year, and I felt, "the label's going great, I'm really happy with the roster, all the bands seem happy. I've done a pretty good job here." But there was something missing, I couldn't work out what it was. I was feeling a bit unsatisfied. I decided that what I would do was just get back to what it was like making music when I first started, when I was 14/15 years old. I didn't even care about making a record, or having a release date, or it being this-or-that, I just wanted to make music, purely for the fun of it, with at least one person I really liked spending time with. I'm 55 now -- I don't really want to spend my valuable spare time with anyone I don't really, really like [Laughs].
Had you been working on music in your spare time before this at all?
No, nothing, but that isn't as unusual as it sounds. This isn't the first time I've made music in twenty years, [but] it's the first time I've had a proper project. I did do something a few years back with an ex-girlfriend [snowbird] and that was fine and whatnot, but it wasn't really me. It was more about her.
I always improvise whenever I go in the studio, because I don't want to have any ideas. I'm just prepared to be excited about music when I'm in the room making it, that's where the ideas come. That's how the Cocteaus did it, and that's how I've always done it. If nothing comes out, well then, who cares? No one's going to know, and no one's interested anyway. It was very selfish, getting together with a mate and just making your noise.
When you came back to these songs, what was the indication that the song was special and was going to make it onto the record?
When I got to about 10 or 11 songs, I thought, "this could be a record," I got a magnetic feeling that I needed to do a second record of ambient noodlings, completely separate to the more song-based tracks on the record. I went and booked two days in the studio, right at the end of the process. I was just making noises, really, but those things became songs that are actually now on the record, like the two tracks with Marissa Nadler, the track "Frenzy Fear" and "Stampede.”
When I started listening back to the original recordings, I didn't think too much. I was just excited to be in my own little studio -- I had just built my own tiny little studio in Brighton, underneath this café, and I had filled it with bits of my gear. It was a nice kind of man-cave -- I had a drum kit, a piano and a mellotron in there. I just enjoyed going there at nighttime and locking the door. It's something I haven't done for so fucking long, I just loved doing it.
If you had tried to make this record 10 or 15 years ago, would it have come out differently?
Yeah. Having the label and have it do what it's done over the past 20 years does allow me some space in my brain to be a little bit more detached than I would've been. Having had so many records that I believed in so much that did so little, having bands leave you when you thought that they would stay forever, just having been through the gambit of emotions and drama that happens when you're as deeply involved in music as I have been -- not just in the Cocteaus, but through the history of Bella Union.
We forget when we're making music as 20 year-olds and 30 year-olds that, quite often, there's another person or other people or kids in this dynamic. It may not be a spoken thing, it is quite often an issue, in terms of how satisfied you can feel about something or how much time you can put into it. Musicians are generally quite selfish people: "I just want to make my music and not be tied down and live my life." I got re-married about five years ago with someone that I loved spending time with that allows me that freedom to be me. Having this relationship enabled me to get back to doing that, so that I felt comfortable being in the studio for nights on end, being selfish and making my own music.
A few months ago, you wrote a blog post dissecting the impact streaming has on an album experience. Could you expand on your feelings?
I'm of an age now where I can embrace new technology, but I use it as a tool to make my life slightly easier. As far as the aesthetic experience goes, I get absolutely nothing out of an MP3 or a WAV file. I'm surrounded by vinyl; I've grown up with that piece of plastic since before I even realized it. I can't just go "ah well, it's just vinyl, let's put it in a box. It's all about streaming now." I know that's how the rest of the world is, but I can't be like that, whether I want to be or not.
I've noted that when you look at the Spotify streams of artists, even artists that would be considered [to earn high streaming numbers] -- like Father John Misty or Beach House or Explosions in the Sky -- the way an album runs, the streams die off by like, track four. We can get people to buy an album that don't even listen to them -- they put them on the shelf, they don't even open them. Why? Maybe they're saving it for a rainy day or when they're older, when they've got a nice record player. Who even knows.
I run a record shop, so I could be forgiven for thinking that's just nonsense, because everyone who comes into the shop is buying records. There is a resurgence, to a degree. But I do feel that 15 to 25 year-olds, maybe even 45 year-olds, have lost interest in the album format. But you know what? Maybe that's not that different to how it was in the '60s and '70s. Maybe they all went to buy a couple of singles first before they invested in an album or artist. Maybe it's not so different, it just feels a bit different.
How much pressure do you feel to shift the way you present albums in the face of that? Do you feel like you have to encourage bands to front-load an album, putting the catchiest songs first?
No. Maybe there are people that do, and maybe that's smart business, I don't know. One thing you should know about me is that I have no business brain at all, really. I just want the bands to be responsible for it themselves and to put their record out in the way they hear it in their head. I'll help them if they can't get a track listing together, but I'm not putting it together with an emphasis on, "it'll sell more if we do it in this way." I don't know what sells, I never had a clue.
I couldn't ever sign a band thinking, "well, I don't really like it, but they're going to sell well so we should sign them." I've never done that in twenty years. I never could do that. I can only sign somebody I totally love, because otherwise I'd feel like a fraud. That might be fine for other labels that just want to have successful records and are not really bothered whether they like them or not. That's the history of record labels, I guess. I don't think you [support an artist] if all you do is put together three tracks that sound good together, and then the rest is garbage. I can't think like that. Thank god [Laughs].
What do you think the next 20 years of Bella Union is going to look like?
Having a 20-year anniversary, we've done a lot of looking back, reassessing how we've done, but also marking it as a line in the sand, to look forward and say, "Okay, that's done now. No point in patting ourselves on the back anymore."
Maybe in the next five or ten years, there won't be too much change. I have a really amazing team of people -- and a very small team of people -- who work at the label, who get involved with bringing bands in. It doesn't have to originate from me anymore. It did for a long time, but they're very connected, I trust them completely to the point where I don't even have a desk in the office anymore. I don't go to the office, I've never been in about 12 years. I just drop in, we sit and talk about stuff and catch up, but I'm not that kind of guy and I never will be. That's not going to change.
I'm obviously still going to be there because the label wouldn't really exist without my overseeing, I suppose, and I love being involved with the artist. The new bands like Lowly and Mammút, bands that haven't connected with the wider world yet, these are bands that I brought in, that I feel just as excited about as when I heard Beach House, before their first record came out. Hopefully, nothing much will change, but I'm aware that I'm not a young man anymore. Maybe I'll want to make more music and maybe I'll want to do the label less and less; I don't really know. [But] I haven't woken up thinking, "oh my god, I'm 55, I don't know anything about modern music! What the hell is it worth, pretending that I do? I should just give up and smoke a pipe!" I hope to god it never does.