[sic] Magazine

Label focus – Unlabel

Tunbridge Wells doesn’t exactly conjure images of a thriving contemporary music scene with its 17th century roots, royal patronage, posh shops and Georgian architecture but for many years an underground music scene has been flourishing there thanks to a band called Joeyfat and the wonderful and eclectic Unlabel. As a fan of the labels considerable output and attendee on more than one occasion at the labels spiritual home, a venue called ‘The Forum’ in Tunbridge Wells, Si Higgs thought it was about time he discovered what was going on in darkest Kent with John and Jason who run the label..

Si Higgs: What influenced you to start Unlabel and how have your values differed from your original aim?

John/Jason: Unlabel is currently run by two people, Jason, and me (John) but it was set up by Jason’s band Joeyfat to simply release a one-off 7” single back in 1996 after they’d turned down offers from other larger labels through a lack of trust and general hatred of the music business. Then in May ‘98 a south-east bands compilation appeared on Unlabel courtesy of Jason and a chap called Phil (to tie in with a 3 day live event at The Forum venue in Tunbridge Wells) and then the Unhome album followed in 1999. Unhome were the band that evolved from Joeyfat when they took a 4-year break and also featured Jason and Phil. I was an Un-suporter from the start and got actively involved in 2000 or so, taking Phil’s place, having run my own label, Awkward Silence, for a couple of years by that point.

The purpose of Unlabel from the earliest releases has been to document and give a home to interesting music from the south-east of England. The Forum venue in Tunbridge Wells is our spiritual home (all of us have or still do work there) and of course it’s a great place to see bands develop and evolve. Over the years we have gone well beyond the confines of this small corner of the UK, having released music for artists from further afield (such as Princess Headbutt from Stoke on Trent and Eiger from Yorkshire) as well as bands from all over the country on our annual compilations and then in 2006 we decided to release an album a week in a project called ‘series52’ and that involved artists from all over the world.

Essentially though our objectives remain the same – to recognise and give a home to interesting local music and music being made by folks who grew up here.

Si Higgs: How difficult was it to get your label established and what does it take to survive and prosper?

John/Jason: We never really set out to officially establish the label or to prove anything; it simply started as a small collective releasing music for local folks and this built up a healthy regional following and then through playing shows in other towns, word of mouth and most of all in recent times through the Internet, the label has grown significantly and is hopefully now considered to be one of the most interesting of its kind in the UK. We prosper by having a thriving local music scene and a healthy following of people who still enjoy buying limited edition hand finished physical releases in shops and by mail order.

Klaus Says Buy The Record (by Mackenzie Worden Hodge)

Si Higgs: I always associate Unlabel with wide variety of artists not particularly one genre. When signing new acts, are there any particular attributes or factors that you look for?

John/Jason: I think some people would say that there is an ‘Unlabel sound’ or certainly that older Tunbridge Wells bands like Joeyfat, Cove and Unhome have influenced the next generation (Headquarters, Lakes, Klaus Says Buy The Record etc.) but from an outsider’s view we have released a diverse range of music, especially on the annual compilations and with the series52 project, where there were suddenly quite a lot of electronic releases from a label that had previously been considered quite a guitar based post-rock / math-rock stable. For us to release something, Jason and I both have to like it (although this could be for very different reasons!). I guess we like to see local artists that were influenced a bit by what we’ve done in the past and we like interesting new things and encouraging young people to do something a bit different. I’d like to think that there’s an automatic quality control built in to what we release in that even if someone doesn’t like a particular release they can still say that it’s been done well.

Si Higgs: If money was no object, which artist or band would you most like to work for and why?

Headquarters (by Arron Dennis)


John/Jason: Headquarters. Because they’re ace. I guess we’re lucky as we already are. Check their album: They should be the biggest band in the world, but invariably, they won’t be. They make an amazing racket.


Or, Casino Versus Japan. He’s got it going on.

Si Higgs: I’m aware that you’ve recently entered into partnership with Boomkat and put much of the back catalogue up for digital download. With so many formats now available, do you think the death knell has sounded for physical media?

John/Jason: Yes and no. Yes in as much as the music business and larger record labels are dying and their mass produced physical products aren’t attractive when the modern consumer can simply download music into their busy lifestyles without the hassles of having another CD sitting on a shelf cluttering up their space.

But no in that the labels that release music on interesting formats and package it in an aesthetically pleasing way and in limited numbers are still followed and collected by folks that care about that kind of thing. A package with artwork that’s been cut out, stuck together and numbered by hand, and has numerous inserts etc. will always appeal to a certain group of people.

We are of course aware that some people just aren’t buying records and CDs anymore and so we chose to work with Boomkat direct for digital downloads as they’re independent, very supportive of small labels and offer DRM free content in both FLAC and 320k mp3 formats, which are about as good as it gets for downloads.

Si Higgs: Illegal file-sharing is obviously a major issue in the music industry right now. Should labels embrace or distance themselves from it?

John/Jason: As I type this, the outcome of the Pirate Bay folks’ court case was decided earlier today (a multi million pound fine and 12 months each in prison, although they’re sure to appeal); and despite their “we didn’t host any illegal content on our site” defence, I think what they did do (building the world’s most popular illegal torrent database) was wrong and they knew it too but simply didn’t care.
I feel that illegal file sharing is wrong and the excuses about downloading and listening to music before ‘buying it properly’ simply don’t cut it. I’m not anti folks listening to music for free, just against them obtaining it deceptively. Things like Spotify and Last.fm are great as you can listen to music but are not able to freely download and keep it unless the owner has decided to give it away. Illegal file sharing doesn’t really affect Unlabel directly (we’re too small a label) but I feel that labels of any size should fight against it if they can although I also believe that major labels have been ripping people off for years by charging too much for the music they sell. Gradually there is a happy middle ground developing where albums are available to buy in the few shops that are left and by legal download relatively cheaply.

We have always tried to sell our music on physical formats as cheaply as possible (usually £8 or under for a limited edition album including postage) and have only ever charged over £10 for a limited edition vinyl album release because it cost so much to have pressed in such a small run, and they cost a fortune to post these days!
With so many torrent and file sharing sites out there I don’t think the public will stop stealing music and if anything it will only increase but that’s only dictated by human nature.

Si Higgs: The series52 project where in one year you released 52 albums in a single year (2006) was quite an ambitious project and generated some special records. Would you ever do something like that again?

John/Jason: The series52 project was indeed an ambitious feat and many hours were spent pressing and assembling the releases here at Unlabel HQ. When we started the project in late 2005 we had less than 10 releases confirmed and ran it to a very tight schedule, often deciding what the next disc would be only a week or so in advance! We were lucky to release some frankly amazing records as part of it (discs from Verbose, AM-Boy, Milieu, Fieldtriqp and Romance of Young Tigers were personal highlights). We have talked about doing something similar again and now that downloads are taking over the world, it would be nice to do it again – release just 100 (or maybe 200) copies of an album on CD each week with beautiful hand-assembled artwork, but it really does take over your life for 12 months. We may well give it a try again in the future though…

Si Higgs: I know that Joeyfat are still around and playing. Are there any plans to release any new material or interesting collaborations up your sleeve?

Joeyfat December 2005 (by Rachel Jones)

John/Jason: Yes indeed Joeyfat are still alive and kicking. We’re down to just three original members (one of whom lives in Nepal at the moment!) along with four other folks but we’re working hard on finishing the next album for release this year. We’re talking about releasing the record in an interesting way – maybe one track at a time, on different formats, each with an accompanying short film, to form a box set of some kind – all depending on the timescale and amount of work involved…

We’re lucky with this as we have another recent addition to the Unlabel ranks in the shape of R.L. Wilson, who relocated to Tunbridge Wells from the north west of England a year or so ago to make a film about Unlabel, Joeyfat and our little world down here. We also intend to start up a film division of the label with him soon, releasing other people’s documentaries, short films and other works of interest on limited edition DVDs.

Si Higgs: Is it true that you (John) spent a Joeyfat John Peel session painting?

John/Jason: Yes indeed. We did a live Peel Session at Maida Vale in July 2003 (as part of Jonson Family Records’ Tenminutemen project), which meant that unlike most Peel Sessions it went out live on air and also John Peel was there in the studio at the time (along with an invited audience of 50 or so guests). I’ve been doing performance art live with Joeyfat since 2002 and it felt right that we should do something visual on the radio so I did several large paintings on sheets on the studio floor while the band played. Mr. Peel actually came out of his little booth and stood right over me looking at what I was painting and later asked if he could take the finished pieces home at the end of the night! It was a great day and he was a wonderful man in every way.

Si Higgs: What advice would you give to budding label owners?

John/Jason: Firstly, to want to release whatever the music is because you believe in it and secondly to not think you’re going to make much money from doing so, because chances are, you’re not! No matter what path you take, arranging. releasing, promoting and selling music takes quite a bit of work. Many spare hours can be lost on all aspects of it but hopefully you’re doing it because you want to and because you enjoy it, in which case it’s always a very worthwhile and rewarding experience. There’s nothing better than meeting someone at a gig or receiving an email from a stranger with them saying how much they’ve enjoyed something you’ve released.

Si Higgs: Finally, in five years time, where do you see your label?

John/Jason: Daft as it may sound, it’d be nice to still be doing something along the lines of what we’re doing now. Personally we’re not hugely ambitious (we gave up on being famous years ago) but we always encourage folks we work with to move on and take a step up the ladder if that’s what they want to do. Bands like Jason and the Astronauts (who John Peel adored) and more recently Klaus Says Buy The Record (who won the Red Stripe Awards last year and were a finalist in the recent Orange Unsigned Act on Channel 4) have had interest from bigger labels, which is really nice, but for now they’re happy to remain with us.

Sutcliffe Jugend live in Japan

If people want to buy limited editions then we’re one of the small labels left that’s keen to continue working on that level. We’ve recently released another 34 track two CD compilation along with limited edition albums for Klaus Says Buy The Record, Hunter’s Loaf and Kyote (this last one being on cassette only).
I’m also now running a sub-label called Between Silences on behalf of Paul Taylor and Kevin Tomkins (better known to some as legendary ‘80s power electronics outfit Sutcliffe Jugend); for them to release their own work how and when they please. They’re local folks and like the way we work and we admire them for their dedication and experimentation. We’ve released six albums on this new label already this year (all by just them in various forms, and it’s only April!) and next up is a 15 disc box set of Kevin’s Autoharp recordings, to be followed by a highly anticipated reissue of many early and long out of print Sutcliffe Jugend releases over the summer. Also coming up soon on Unlabel is the final album from Charlottefield on vinyl and CD, an album from Smith and Baker aka Kevin from Reynolds and Gavin from Billy Mahonie’s new project together and of course the long awaited Joeyfat LP. We might just have that ready for the world in five years time…

[sic] would like to thank John and Jason for taking the time to talk to us.