Martin Aston looks at the revered indie label's present-day highs...

Since its foundation as the 1970s became the ‘80s, 4AD has been one of the most successful independent British labels, and with its history of sumptuous and enigmatic artwork, it’s certainly the most cultishly worshipped and collected. But since the label’s founder Ivo Watts-Russell moved on in 1999, loyalists have questioned whether 4AD has continued to meet such high standards.

In an article exclusive to Clash, Martin Aston, the author of the newly published Facing The Other Way: The Story Of 4AD, here discusses the triumphs of the past and whether the current crop of newcomers such as Daughter can replicate the enduring appeal and success of the acts that made 4AD’s name.

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This Mortal Coil, 'Kangaroo'

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Like a successful band or solo artist, any record label with a reputation has to deal with managing quality control, both internally and based on consumer expectation, should it be lucky enough for its legacy to endure. This is made much trickier if the label is indelibly stamped by its founder, as 4AD has discovered.

In 1980, Ivo Watts-Russell and his co-founder Peter Kent (who only stayed for a year, so his role in shaping 4AD’s identity is minimal) started the label properly, releasing its first material, with a £2,000 cheque from Beggars Banquet, then a chain of record shops and a fairly new label in its own right, with Gary Numan/Tubeway Army an instant, national chart-topping success.

In 4AD’s infancy, the likes of Bauhaus (who only stayed for one album, 1980’s ‘In The Flat Field’, before moving over to Beggars Banquet, who could fund their level of ambition), Modern English and The Birthday Party established the label as a rival to Factory in the post-punk, gothic-(not goth-)tinged arthouse division, a repository of crepuscular creavitity.

But it was with Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance and Watts-Russell’s own collective This Mortal Coil that the so-called “4AD sound” was created: female voices, an anguished version of ethereality, and what Watts-Russell labelled, “the beauty of despair.”

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Pixies, 'Here Comes Your Man'

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Throwing Muses, Pixies and 4AD’s continued shift toward American artists (Ultra Vivid Scene, Red House Painters, Lisa Germano) and British dream-pop (Lush, Pale Saints, Swallow) both changed and embellished that sound, mirrored by the in-house art department (primarily Vaughan Oliver with photographer Nigel Grierson, and subsequently fellow designer Chris Bigg). Even more than Factory’s in-house designer Peter Saville, Oliver’s startling often surreal images (some of those abstract beauties were Grierson’s) and associated 4AD ephemera (such as his 13-month calendar) created a label identity, and a collectors market, second to none.

Oliver’s love of enigmatic visuals reinforced 4AD’s aesthetic, as the core values of the music Watts-Russell favoured (Pixies’ dizzying crescendos and screams aside) was recently labelled by Guardian reviewer Dorian Lynskey, “beauty, mystery, dream logic and emotional fragility.” Any socio-political concerns were conspicuously absent – remember when Richie Edwards of Manic Street Preachers called Home Counties shoegazers Slowdive, who mutated into 4AD signings Mojave 3, “worse than Hitler”?

Watts-Russell was a shy enigma himself, the opposite of Factory Records’ late figurehead Tony Wilson, a media-savvy master of self-promotion. Watts-Russell’s signings had to get used to him not turning up to their shows. But the fact he had his own musical outlet (he chose the songs for This Mortal Coil to cover, co-wrote music himself with TMC cohort/producer John Fryer, and chose the musicians to record it all) and that Cocteau Twins kicked off their 1984 album ‘Treasure’ with a track called ‘Ivo’ ensured he inadvertently had a media profile.

So Ivo was as prominent a part of the 4AD story as the artists he signed, which had an unusually restricted A&R policy. “I was constantly counting our artists, and if we had more than six, I’d get nervous,” he admits, because then he couldn’t commit enough time and love to every signing. This ensured a small roster of trailblazers with no attachment to any trend or movement, from Cocteau Twins to Pixies, proto-post-rock instrumentalists Dif Juz to sadcore specialists Red House Painters.

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Cocteau Twins, 'Iceblink Luck'

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It was also the era when a ‘cult of personality’ was attached to record labels, as opposed to the 1960s when there was no influential music press to speak of, and even in the ‘70s there was no internet to disseminate and cross-reference news and opinion. When Jac Holzman sold his esteemed Elektra Records in 1970, the resulting Warner Bros/Elektra/Asylum (WEA) label merge wasn’t viewed as any betrayal of his original intentions.

But the independent label movement of the 1980s was, in part, a reaction to the facelessness of major label conglomerations, and they were usually bastions of an individual’s trusted taste. With one exception, the most distinctive and enduring of the British indies have all lived or died – with its skipper at the helm. For Rough Trade, see Geoff Travis; for Mute, see Daniel Miller; for Factory, the late Tony Wilson; for Creation, Alan McGee.

That one exception is 4AD.  

In a nutshell, Watts-Russell succumbed to depression, brought to the surface by confrontations with key personnel (Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie, former Pixies frontman Charles Thompson and the lawsuits surrounding M/A/R/R/S’s ‘Pump Up The Volume’, the UK’s first independently distributed number one single in 1987), and disillusioned by a music industry that increasingly relied on remixes, promo videos and formatting to compete in the charts (blame Nirvana for taking the underground into the mainstream).

In 1999, he sold his share of 4AD to his business partner Martin Mills, MD of Beggars Banquet, and disappeared into the New Mexico desert, where he still lives today with his three dogs, still wanting nothing to do with the music industry.

By late 1998, Oliver – who’d gone freelance but was still on a retainer and delivered the majority of 4AD’s artwork – was already not working closely with the label anymore, so take Watts-Russell out the equation too and you can see why people might have a problem with both of 4AD’s iconic figures not being involved. In fact, Watts-Russell claims that after he left, 4AD didn’t make it clearly know that he was no longer involved.

Initially, former Beggars Banquet head of press Chris Sharp (as the business head) and former Mantra (another Beggars-owned label imprint) A&R man Ed Horrox were assigned the task of running the label. Horrox had once given Watts-Russell a copy of ‘Secret Name’, the 1998 album by sadcore trio Low; he immediately wanted to license it from US label Kranky before discovering Rough Trade subsidiary Tugboat had beaten him to it.

But Horrox at least knew where Watts-Russell was coming from. “I was aware of this label that had been as great as any other, and incredibly attractive,” he recalls. “It was a case of just trying to sign the things that you love, or that you see as important. I loved how key records on 4AD went their own way.”

4AD’s first new signing in the post-Ivo era was a sign of how things might be restructured; something esoteric, modern, but still select, with a touch of continuity, dark and restless, jagged and soothing in equal measure. Yet Watts-Russell would never have touched Birmingham duo Magnétophone, because of their penchant for glitch.

“A glitch was something I’d spent hours in the studio, or when mastering, asking engineers to get rid of,” Ivo says. “It just didn’t suit my brain, and still doesn’t, but in many ways that’s good and proper. Each generation should be offending the previous one with its originality and disregard for what is acceptable. Unfortunately, most offend for the opposite reason – a complete lack of originality.”

“Uppermost in our minds,” Sharp recalls, “was that 4AD had squandered its credibility having hit records, with endless remixes, in a desperate attempt to be on the radio and have hits. All previous successes on 4AD had happened organically. Ed and I were into labels such as Warp, so we looked for artists with integrity and staying power to re-establish 4AD as a home for uncompromised creativity. Perhaps we were naïve in signing bands that lacked commercial ambition, but that had been the problem before. At the same time, we were under much more direct financial scrutiny that Ivo ever was. He never needed to seek Martin Mills’ approval. We had to make tiny deals, nothing more than five thousand pounds.”

4AD released albums by the similarly glitch-leaning Minotaur Shock and Sybarite, though Piano Magic’s 2002 album ‘Writers Without Homes’ was styled after This Mortal Coil’s collaborative ventures while Blonde Redhead singer Kazu Makino admitted the trio’s stunning first album for 4AD, ‘Misery Is A Butterfly’, was inspired by gauzy style of Lush, Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil. “Those people made the kind of records you had to make a choice to listen to,’ says Makino. “I’d never imagined I had what it took to make a record like that, with that kind of conviction.”

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Blonde Redhead, 'Melody'

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New signings The Mountain Goats and Cass McCombs represented a new vanguard of folk/Americana for 4AD, following Ivo’s ‘90s spurt centred around Red House Painters, Tarnation, Mojave 3, Lisa Germano and Kendra Smith.

But the first significant addition to the catalogue came in 2005, when multi-racial Brooklyn quintet TV On The Radio, piloted by 4AD obsessive Dave Sitek, signed a licensing deal, which Sharp and followed by the incomparable and strange ‘60s balladeer turned formidable experimentalist, Scott Walker

With the addition of Beirut and a licensing deal with Bon Iver, 4AD was suddenly respectable again, and written about by the press, so the days of esoteric releases and £5,000 deals appeared in the past. So it seemed a bizarre decision to suddenly fire Chris Sharp.

“The Ed and Chris model proved not to be particularly successful in a commercial sense,” says Watts-Russell. “But I’d really admired how, clearly, they were releasing music that they loved. I had appreciated how both, for a while anyway, would send me music that they were enjoying, regardless of whether they were thinking about releasing it.

“But the last time Ed came to visit, I chastised him for not having signed one band or individual that hadn’t already released a record with someone else. In his response, I realised that, once again, the pressure and need to sign something that would sell had raised its ugly head. But that decision was taken away from Ed and Chris by Martin.”

The reason for Sharp’s departure was Simon Halliday, the new general manager for Beggars Banquet’s associated labels. In his formative teenage years, Halliday loved Cocteau Twins, and he calls This Mortal Coil’s first album, 1984’s ‘It’ll End In Tears’, “near perfection”. Halliday had promoted club nights in Manchester and run the New York office of Sheffield electronic specialists Warp before getting the Beggars job offer.

More plugged into the new generation of beats-infused music fussed over by the fresh legions of bloggers, Halliday was hired to provide a jolt in the arm for the revitalised 4AD. His first idea was to unite most of Beggars Banquet’s associated labels. XL, Rough Trade and Matador, which Beggars owned half of, were considered strong enough to stand alone, but Mills agreed that both Too Pure and the Beggars Banquet imprint should be mothballed, those bands deemed surplus to requirements let go, and those worth retaining affiliated under one roof. “Simpler is easier,” says Halliday. “And the strongest element was 4AD.”

That was enough for Mills to make Halliday 4AD’s new label head. “It was just the next phase,’ Mills explains. “The A&R needed to become more dynamic and energetic, and Simon was very ambitious.”

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The National, 'Bloodbuzz Ohio'

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Under Halliday’s charge, Brooklyn’s majestically brooding The National, the eclectic St. Vincent (Oklahoma singer-songwriter Annie Clark), and the indefatigable, gravel-voiced Mark Lanegan moved from Beggars Banquet to 4AD. “New age bachelor pad” faves Stereolab moved over from Too Pure. While stressing how much he felt Martin Mills had done to support him, Watts-Russell admits he was still “very hurt Martin didn’t let me know what he intended to do. I still don’t understand the decision, effectively just to start calling Beggars 4AD. But I can’t deny it’s proved to be a sound business move.”

“Ivo left, and we had no choice but to carry on, and I think 4AD is stronger for having those extra bands,” says Mills. “It’s not like they wouldn’t fit within a broader definition of 4AD. Basement Jaxx clearly wouldn’t have fitted. And [current 4AD acts] tUnE-yArDs, Grimes and St. Vincent are not just female singers but are totally compatible with Ivo’s purist ethos. But 4AD couldn’t have survived without changing. The growth and broadening of 4AD is consistent with its history. And Grimes is clearly a Cocteaus fan.”

The artists that Mills mentions as fitting Watts-Russell’s purist ethos are a wide-ranging collection, and in the case of Grimes and tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus, their penchant for glitchy rhythm and jarring texture make this highly unlikely. Yet Grimes – aka Vancouver-born Claire Boucher – is at 4AD mostly because of Ivo. Her tough, flighty, imaginative ‘cyborg-pop’ has seen her compared to Abba and Aphex Twin, Björk and Enya, though at high school, Boucher was more besotted with Pixies and Cocteau Twins.

“I was really into female vocalists, and I’d started listening to Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but someone said Cocteau Twins were better,” she recalls. “Pixies were big for me too. I didn’t know The Birthday Party was on 4AD, but I’d listen to them, too. Their aesthetic was just so intense and scary, and it was music that my parents wouldn’t like! But Cocteau Twins are one of my biggest influences. If Liz [Fraser] wasn’t singing lyrics, I didn’t need too either.”

With Halliday and Horrox joined by other A&R assistants, 4AD is no longer the result of one man’s enigmatic relationship to music, and though releases such as Scott Walker’s 2012 album ‘Bish Bosch’ are luxurious items, in this modern age of dwindling sales, 4AD can no longer justify the packaging and design elements that Vaughan Oliver would routinely bring.

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Grimes, 'Oblivion'

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Purity Ring, 'Lofticries'

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So the ‘glory’ days are gone. But it’s clear that most of the post-Ivo signings have something individual about them, and with art-house credentials, and there is something to be said for the number of female artists, from Grimes and tUnE-yArDs to Megan James of Canadian dream/synth-pop duo Purity Ring (unlike Grimes, they were unaware of 4AD in their youth) and Elena Tonra of tempestuous rock trio Daughter. Watts-Russell worked with a higher percentage of women than any other label, before or since, starting with Elizabeth Fraser (Cocteau Twins), Lisa Gerrard (Dead Can Dance), the (originally) all-female Xmal Deutschland, Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donnelly (Throwing Muses) and Kim Deal (The Breeders), let alone all the female voices that fronted This Mortal Coil.

But in other respects, ‘4AD Present’ is a very different label to ‘4AD Past’. For example, the feminine was emphatically absent when 4AD released its first rap act in 2012, namely SpaceGhostPurrp, the self-styled leader of underground rap group Raider Klan Mafia. Judging by his debut album ‘Mysterious Phonk: The Chronicles of SpaceGhostPurrp’, Miami rapper/producer Markese Rolle is a master of hypnotic, slurred rhythm, but he’s still a contentious presence among the label’s traditional followers, which have baulked at lines such as, “Grind on me/ I got your bitch on my dick, bitch”.

“I’m sure SpaceGhostPurrp is appropriate for some label out there,” reckons 4AD fanatic Jeff Keibel. “But it simply doesn’t belong in the 4AD universe. It forever taints the legacy of the label.”

“Most great hip-hop has lyrics that can offend people, and some lyrics aren’t to my personal taste, but I tend to be liberal when I like a beat,” Halliday responds. “‘But I think [SpaceGhostPurrp is] insulting other competing rappers and producers, not women. There’s a lot of love for women on that album.”

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SpaceGhostPurrp, 'Tha Black God'

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Alongside Grimes, the acts that Halliday has invested in (as opposed to bringing in from other associate labels) are more typical of 4AD’s original valued currency, whose appeal is less marginalised like Scott Walker and firmly in the flourishing concourse of modern popular culture.

As the frontmen of Atlanta quintet Deerhunter and Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti respectively, Bradford Cox and Ariel Marcus Rosenberg are mercurial, dictatorial auteurs with their own particularly skewed outlook. Deerhunter reveal a uniquely eerie, heavy-lidded and cryptic vision of psychedelia, while Ariel Pink’s loopier Syd Barrett brand is increasingly shaded by soul and pop. Both could fit alongside former 4AD triumphs such as Pixies or the twisted soul blend of The Wolfgang Press, one of the longest-serving bands of the Watts-Russell era that put paid to the idea that 4AD had one sound and vision.

Now that the Halliday/Horrox era has established it can stand apart, the legacy of 4AD during those years can be admired and even embellished. In 2009, Cox and Pink helped compile tracks for a Japanese-only 4AD sampler to coincide with a Far East tour of Deerhunter, Ariel Pink and Blonde Redhead. Showing a more slapdash approach to visuals and the flimsiest of cardboard covers (Watts Russell once told me, “I would rather sack the staff than compromise on packaging”), the compilation had no title, just Cox’s lyric fragment on the cover: “What did you want to see / What did you want to be / When you grew up?” It craftily suggested 4AD’s ability to shape impressionable brains.

Displaying his teen goth roots, Pink chose tracks by Clan Of Xymox, Xmal Deutschland and Cocteau Twins. Ever the Kim Deal aficionado, Cox picked The Breeders, The Amps and Pixies. Blonde Redhead chose Lush, Stereolab and TV On The Radio. Among other choices, The National picked Cocteau Twins and St. Vincent. Past and present combined and, all told, it was a strong sampler.

But you only have to look at the number of artists that 4AD sign to see a gulf between 4AD Past and Present. It’s not that Watts-Russell could make Pixies, The Wolfgang Press and Red House Painters part of any sound, or even vision, except they were mirrors of his own DNA. But the current diverse, fractured community of 2013 is hard to keep tabs on. It ranges from LA’s digi-soul brothers inc. to Oxford folk-pop insurgents Stornoway, from UK dubstep/grime artist Joker to the similarly beats-based Zomby.

And the roster goes deeper and deeper. Scottish indie-pop band Camera Obscura, and American synth-pop revivalist Twin Shadow both call 4AD home. As do Denmark’s orchestral Efterklang, the sombre folk of Indians, Manhattan’s progressive Gang Gang Dance and Iron And Wine’s Americana. Since I wrote my book, Facing The Other Way: The Story of 4AD, Lo-Fang, Sohn and bEEdEEgEE have been added to the list.

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Efterklang, 'Hollow Mountain'

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Lo-Fang, 'Boris'

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But if SpaceGhostPuurp set some cats among the pigeons, all of the above can be appreciated by Ivo loyalists (despite some Facebook grumblings that nothing the label does these days can hold a candle to the past, which says more about their prejudices than anything). “Being spontaneous about decisions seemed the best thing to do,” Halliday concludes. “We didn’t plan Purity Ring being a throwback, for example. I’ve tried to make sure that there is a core running through, but with some deviations from the core, as there were in Ivo’s era. But I’m not Ivo, and so 4AD is a different label, but hopefully our legacy in years to come will match his. And I do believe that 4AD has blossomed again.”

“It’s heresy to say it, but I think the 4AD roster is stronger than it’s ever been,” Ed Horrox contends. “It’s just been a journey to get there. At times, we weren’t in a position to do what we’ve done in more recent years. It’s like a fire – it grew and burned brightly under Ivo, and then it nearly went out. Something that had such a strong identity, to become of your time as well, is a process of reinvention.”

Could even Watts-Russell have kept 4AD’s former identity intact if he’d kept the depression at bay and carried on? The values that he held through the 1980s were already coming under attack in the ‘90s, what with artists and managers expecting the label to compete in the post-Pixies/Nirvana era, when major labels wanted their piece of the indie pie and their budgets forced 4AD to up theirs, to compete – this at a time when sales were dwindling as Watts-Russell‘s tastes favoured introspective Americana when grunge, industrial (Marilyn Manson, NIN etc), big beat and a more pomp-orientated brand of rock (Oasis, The Verve, Radiohead) were taking over.

Besides, MP3 culture is the direct antithesis of the lavish 12-inch-sized formats that Vaughan Oliver had at his disposal, and the kind of money that got spent (for example, £17,000 on a neon logo for Spirea X, a band that only recorded one album for 4AD) now seems absurd. In any case, 4AD feel it’s right that artists are given much more freedom with their own art rather than being strongly encouraged to work with an exacting, domineering Vaughan Oliver.

Watts-Russell’s 4AD was of a time and a place, born from the aesthetic of post-punk independence, when you could launch a label with £2,000, when record sales could justify the expense of the packaging and aiming for only six artists on the roster at any one time seemed right. That said, what might happen if 4AD restored the production values, and cohesive vision, and returned to a more focussed, select roster?

In some quarters, such as online site About’s all-time independent labels, 4AD is deemed the indie label above all others. Today, it has so much going for it, but it’s not quite thought of that way anymore. If Simon Halliday really is as ambitious as Martin Mills says, it might be worth trying for that mantle all over again.

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Words: Martin Aston

Facing The Other Way: The Story Of 4AD is available now via HarperCollins. Click here for more information and purchase links

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