Interview with Home Assembly Music
Home Assembly Music is a small record label based in Saltaire, West Yorkshire, which is run by brothers Barrie Cummings & Martin Cummings, along with Richard Adams. Martin releases music under the pseudonym Northerner, while Richard records as The Declining Winter. I recently spoke with Richard about both the label and his band.
Paul Lockett: Can you describe whose idea it originally was to start the label and what was the inspiration?
Richard Adams: It was Barrie’s doing, really. He came up with the concept behind it. The inspiration was a long-term love of labels such as Factory Records. I guess that it was about wanting to put our mark on the world, which might sound like a pretentious thing, but it was about leaving something behind, I guess, and curating a label that, for him, is his taste and what he wants to do. We spoke about it for a few years but didn’t really do anything about it until Martin grew tired of all the procrastinating and put the finances in place, found a web designer and kick-started the process of releasing the debut Northerner record, The Ridings.
PL: Was the Northerner album release a product of wanting to start a label – or perhaps out of frustration that Martin was approaching other labels and not getting a firm interest – or a bit of both?
RA: It’s probably a little bit of both, but I don’t think that Martin had really put his music out there. Years ago, I’d helped out with a label called Misplaced Music, which had released the first Northerner EP and that had given Martin a start. From there, he’d carried on making his music but he wasn’t really sending it out there. It was more a case of: “We don’t have to deal with anyone else here, this is all in-house and so if it goes horribly wrong then we’ve only got each other to blame”. It felt risk-free because Martin was just wanting to get his music out there and we were just trying to test the water in terms of starting the label.
PL: Who came up with the label concept – the name, logo and image etc?
RA: It was all a concept right from the beginning. Barrie came up with the name, the imagery and the logo. In the beginning, we had a lot of images of Saltaire as it was felt important to try to represent the area where Barrie comes from – this was all intertwined in the aesthetic of the label.
PL: The thing that stands out right from the earliest releases is the professionalism of the product, i.e. the artwork and quality of the recordings. It certainly doesn’t feel like a handmade, home-assembly product. Was this a conscious decision?
RA: You’re spot-on with that observation. This was one way in which we differed in the beginning in that I come very much from a DIY background, i.e. cobble it all together, make it all cheap and get it out there, but Barrie was adamant that he wanted it to look pristine. There’s a label called Touch which we looked at, which are all high-end products. There was also the case that we wanted to do something different from the DIY approach of handmade CD-Rs or low-run vinyl, we wanted our releases to look no different from records that are issued on much bigger labels with much bigger budgets.
PL: Do you think there’s a chance that you’ll maybe release something which has your personal stamp on it, possibly like a Home Assembly Homemade range?
RA: We’ve talked a little about this. Without giving away too much, there may be a couple of releases next year which will be much smaller runs. A couple of the things we’re going to do, we’re going to do it in very limited runs of 100 or thereabouts, however I think that we’ll try to still make it look really good. It’s just a necessity with some of the people we’ve been putting music out by, like people such as Yuri Lugovskoy, who Barrie absolutely loves and is completely obsessed by, but we’re not really going to sell large quantities of records by him, so we have to try to think of a way of doing it where the records can come out but we’re not going to lose loads of money.
PL: You mentioned Factory Records earlier. Are there any other record labels which inspire you?
RA: Barrie probably has a whole host of labels, but the two which spring to mind would be Factory and Touch. It’s labels which quietly go about their business and build up an aesthetic over the course of a number of releases. An important point is a label which doesn’t stick purely to one genre. We wanted to be more bold. Some people start a label and put out 6 – 7 – 8 releases of the same ilk and then start a different label if they want to put something else out. Our thing, which was probably commercial suicide, was wanting to release music regardless of genre or type. In this regard, there are not that many labels which you can look to and say that’s what they do. If we’re ever stuck in terms of thinking “What do we do with the label?”, we just think “What would Factory have done?”, and there’s usually some kind of ridiculous money-losing idea.
PL: I heard that Factory lost money on New Order’s “Blue Monday” 12” single because the sleeve contained a bizarre array of holes cut into the sleeve…
RA: Haha, yeah, it meant that the more they sold, the more they lost!
PL: But more than anyone, Tony Wilson (Factory Records’ boss) bought into the whole idea that music is art rather than a business.
RA: That’s exactly how we looked at it, really. I’d be lying if I said that we didn’t tear our hair out, in terms of the amount of money we sometimes lose, but at the end of the day we want to look back on it in however many years’ time and think “We did it”, rather than doing something purely to make money or doing something cheaper which might result in a bigger profit margin. If you look at the way that Factory is remembered now, it’s remembered as something entirely different. Yeah, they lost money on things, but they built up a way of doing things which was like art in concept.
PL: I know several people who have done their level best to collect every single Factory catalogue number including all the foreign releases as well. Slightly problematic, as The Hacienda had its own catalogue number!
RA: Haha, yeah! Wasn’t there even a table in the boardroom which even had its own catalogue number?!
PL: As a kid growing up as a teen in the eighties, I look back on labels such as Factory, 4AD and to a lesser extent, Creation Records. What I loved about those labels echoes what you’ve just said in that, certainly when you look at 4AD, the sheer amount of time & investment that went into the sleeve artwork was unmatched.
RA: I was going to mention 4AD as another one actually, those records just look fantastic and you know it’s a 4AD record. Many of the acts were unique propositions in terms of their sound. For example, who did Pixies sound like? They kind of sound like Pixies, I guess…
PL: This disparate bunch of bands collectively became the ‘4AD sound’. If you look back to some of the acts, e.g. Pixies, Throwing Muses, Cocteau Twins etc., there was no real pattern to the bands being signed to the label. Nobody else sounded like Cocteau Twins – and still doesn’t – but what amazed me is how these musical misfits became the bands which everybody wanted to listen to.
RA: That’s exactly it, isn’t it? They’re so much of their own entity that you couldn’t market them particularly. There’s something strange and otherworldly about them, but they’ve inspired so many people, it’s just incredible.
PL: What it definitely did do – and I’m extending the scope to wider than 4AD here – was open the doors to underground music.
RA: Yes, that DIY aesthetic still comes through to labels now. It’s kind of a little bit not doing it with the help of ‘The Man’. It’s amazing to think that in 1979, none of us could release records. We’d have had to have gone through a record label.
PL: Home Assembly has released a varied number of different acts on the label. Do you think there is such a thing as a Home Assembly sound – or are you open to pretty much anything?
RA: You could perhaps define it, but it’s basically Barrie’s music tastes I guess. As strange as it might sound, everything goes – but not everything goes – because there are certain things we’ve been sent which are perhaps just not right or we wouldn’t have a clue how to release, so there’s some kind of aesthetic there but within that, he’s not bothered what genre it is as long as it’s someone he wants to work with and someone he likes, something he thinks which needs to see the light. It could actually be anything within reason, I couldn’t imagine that we’d release a death metal record, for instance.
PL: You’ve dabbled releasing a handful of singles which were all by The Declining Winter, but there haven’t been any single releases in quite a while. Do you think there’s a future for singles at any point?
RA: We’ve talked about doing another single, but the amount of money which we’d lose on it makes them challenging. There have been discussions about doing something, and I guess that if you need a lead track from an album, you can just release it legitimately on its own, but I’d like to do it and it might happen, it’s a case of having the right thing and accepting that you’re probably going to lose loads of money on it. With an LP, it can go either way, but with a single I’m pretty sure that it will struggle. I guess that it’s tricky convincing people just to buy 4 tracks, whereas people will buy an album.
PL: Just on this same point, most of your releases right up to 2014 were typically on CD with the odd 7” and so on. But then there was suddenly a switch to vinyl and all releases started appearing on vinyl. Was that a conscious decision or something driven by the resurgence in vinyl?
RA: A bit of both. It was driven by the vinyl revival and we sat down and discussed a point where we were going to stop releasing CDs and start releasing vinyl. We then swapped over from one format to the other, I guess. It was driven by market forces, I’d say. We just felt that it would be more interesting doing a run of 200 vinyl than a run of 500 CDs. It’s been difficult because some things work better on CD than on vinyl, but we decided to just make the decision and go for it and hope that eventually it would work out.
PL: You mentioned about Barrie obviously having a big influence, but there must be some kind of meeting of minds and if someone naturally disagrees with working with a certain act while somebody else is passionate about it, then how do those conversations normally work out?
RA: There have been two or three releases that I’ve felt shouldn’t have been released, but I guess that Barrie and Martin are the decision makers in the collective and they have their own passions. I’m the voice of caution, I guess, because I’ve run labels before, but their idea on it is that if one of them is really into it then unless there’s a massive change of view then it happens. Generally, it comes from Barrie, but sometimes I’ll send something to Barrie that I’ve heard, which is what happened with A New Line (Related) in that I’d heard some of Andrew’s stuff, sent it to Barrie and the next thing you know, he wants to put it out. If I don’t want something putting out but Barrie really wants to release it, then I have to accept that that’s the nature of the thing. We don’t really fall out about it, that’s just the way it is.
PL: I’d just like to touch on a few questions about your band The Declining Winter. Were you first of all surprised by the success of last year’s Home For Lost Souls album and the subsequent tour which followed?
RA: In terms of sales of the record, it was just great, I was really surprised by it. I guess that we hadn’t made an actual album for ages, we’d done a few EPs and stuff, so it just seemed to take me ages to get the goods to put an actual album out, so I was really happy to see it do well and it gave me the confidence to then go and play the shows, which I really wanted to do to promote it a little bit more. I was definitely encouraged by it and really pleased with how it went.
PL: Were you pleased with how the band came about and how that all worked out because you’re effectively taking your ideas and projecting them onto other individuals?
RA: It’s really weird, yeah. I didn’t know quite what was going to happen. Apart from Paul, who’d been in the band previously, it was all new people, so I went into it not having a clue as to whether it was going to work or not. Between the four of us, we kind of just ‘got it’. It’s weird because you’re teaching parts to people and they then put their own interpretation on that, but there’s a trust within the people in the band that they’re not going to over-elaborate. They come from the background that they know what we’re all about. It was reasonably pain-free to bring it together.
PL: Are you continuing to work with these guys – or are you simply working together when playing live shows?
RA: We live in all different places in the country. Paul’s now in London, so he’s unlikely to remain involved unless we play down there. I’m still writing, it’s the same format as last time in terms of doing it all myself at home. There are odd bits of playing from different people – I’ll send an idea to them and they might put something on it, but generally it’s all the same process, I’m doing it all at home and then rehearsing it. There’s not a situation where I’m making an album as a band, but there will be the odd guest appearance from them.
PL: Where’s your starting point for a song? Is it a story, a chord structure or a melody?
RA: It’s a chord structure. My guitar sits in the corner of the room gathering dust and then I’ll just suddenly get a burst of inspiration. When that happens, I’ll put that down and work with the ideas. Sometimes, nothing happens for months and then two or three ideas come at once. It’s generally a chord structure which I’ll experiment with to see where it goes to. You have to be careful not to write the same song several times, I’m certainly aware of not doing that. I might try to mess it up a little bit, so maybe start with a drum beat or something else.
PL: Do you think there’s the sound of Yorkshire in there somewhere? I recall seeing The Sisters Of Mercy years ago who talked about their guitars having an ‘M62 Sound’…
RA: (laughs) I know what you mean, there is a sound. I don’t know why, but there is. I’ve no idea how this comes about, there are certain moods which I try to create with it, but really I’m just playing to my own taste, I’m just writing stuff that I think I might like. I do like the wistful, slightly rural, sort-of pastoral sound, so I guess that it just heads in that direction. In terms of inspiration, I see the beginning of making music with the Yorkshire countryside being a part of it.
PL: Where does the inspiration for a song come from? Do you think about memories or moments or could it just be anything?
RA: There are a lot of relationship songs actually, as much as I’m not obvious about them. There’s also a lot about things which have happened in my life, stuff which has happened in the past, such as things which go back to childhood and odd things about creating a mood, like a place you’ve been or something like that. It comes from all different angles really. It’s just what flows out, there’s no real thought process behind it, that’s just what happens.
PL: When I listen to particularly ‘Home For Lost Souls’, there’s a definite reflective edge to it, like you’re looking back at yourself as a young boy, happy beyond your wildest imagination, and when you look back on your life, you’re almost wishing to get back there in some respects.
RA: Yes, that’s quite true. A lot of the thoughts that were going round at the time I was writing some of that were about how you get back some of that joy that you had when you were a child. I’m the same person, so how do you break through all the day-to-day stuff to get to the core of what it is you enjoy about life? I was a very creative child and a kind of odd child in that I had some of the obsessions which I still have now, such as trees and stuff like that. There was a lot of thinking about that – in terms of what made me happy when I was a kid, strange things like watching the lamppost outside switch on at night, which made you happy as a kid. If you start thinking about the feeling which that gave you then it’s a really nice feeling to remember those sort of things. Life was a lot less complicated and you didn’t have to worry about the stuff you worry about when you’re older. There’s a little bit of trying to tap into that, and tapping into those feelings.
PL: Finally, if The Declining Winter could play on a stage with anybody else, alive or dead, who would it be and why?
RA: Oh my goodness!! Well, I fulfilled one of my dreams by playing with The Durutti Column one time, which was a great one. (Pauses) It’s a really difficult question to answer, all these questions and you’ve stumped me with this one! I’m going to say Prefab Sprout because they’re one of my favourite bands and they never ever play live. I was really inspired by their last album, Crimson Red, so if only just to see them play live, that would be my dream choice.
Many Thanks to Richard Adams and the guys at Home Assembly Music.