Occultation Recordings is an Exeter-based label that puts a strong emphasis on both packaging and, while it also does CD and download editions of most of its releases, particularly vinyl. It was established by the versatile Nick Halliwell, who as well as running the label, also doubles up as a producer, a musician-for-loan and fronts his own band, the Granite Shore.

Occultation Recordings, which Halliwell first established in 2008, includes on its roster the Wild Swans, whose first album in twenty one years, ‘The Coldest Winter For a Hundred Years’, came out last year; the June Brides whose recent single ‘A January Moon/Clouds’ was their first in twenty-seven years, and the Distractions whose just released second album, ‘The End of the Pier’, follows on thirty-two years after their debut, ‘Nobody’s Perfect’.

Occultation’s other two main acts are Factory Star and the Granite Shore. Factory Star is the band of Fall founding member and ex-Blue Orchids front man Martin Bramah, and have released both an album, ‘Enter Castle Perilous’, last year and a six song EP, ‘New Sacral’ ,this year through Occultation Recordings. The Granite Shore have now had two releases, a 10” single, ‘Tomorrow Morning 3 a.m.’ in 2009 and a 7” single, ‘Flood of Fortune’, in 2010.

Nick Halliwell took time out of his busy schedule to speak to Pennyblackmusic about his label.


PB: You have become quite well known in music circles over the last three years through Occultation Recordings. What was your musical background before then?

NH: I formed my first band in 1978 and have always been involved in one way or another, but I’m not sure I’m that well-known, not outside certain very limited circles, anyway.

PB: Mick Middles has described you as being “the guitar playing, song writing, uber-enthusiast of great lost bands.” Alongside being the boss of Occultation Records, you front your own band the Granite Shore; play guitar for the Distractions; have written songs for the June Brides and the Distractions and have also worked as a producer. What do you see yourself as first-a label boss, a musician, a songwriter or a producer-and then what comes next?

NH: Mick’s being very kind. The answer is that if I weren’t a songwriter I wouldn’t do any of the other things. Steve Perrin (Distractions guitarist and main songwriter-Ed)reckons the Distractions are one of the few bands in the world with a dual-rhythm guitar attack rather than two guitarists fighting over who takes the lead parts because we’re both songwriters who happen to play the guitar, rather than guitarists who also write songs.

If you look at the label’s output, it’s all about the writing in one way or another, although we’ve a range of very different songwriters. The last four years have brought many rewards, but the moment that’ll stay with me was the first time I heard Mike Finney from the Distractions – one of the all-time great English vocalists – singing ‘Oil Painting’; before that I wasn’t even sure I was capable of writing for someone else. ‘Cloud’ was written for the Granite Shore, but I didn’t feel it worked. Phil Wilson from the June Brides put a vocal on trying to persuade me to finish it so I said, “Why don’t we finish your version and put that out?” and I think the June Brides made a better job of it than I would have done.

As far as production goes, I always think that if the material’s strong enough and you’ve got the right people, recording ought to be straightforward. All the records I’ve produced have been done very quickly, the Factory Star album in three days, the Distractions LP in four, while the June Brides and Granite Shore took a few hours.

PB: Why did you form Occultation Recordings? The first two releases on it in March 2009, which were the Wild Swans’ ‘English Electric Lightning’ and the Granite Shore’s debut ‘Tomorrow Morning, 3 a.m.’, were both on 10”. Was it simply to provide a voice to both these acts or were there other factors?

NH: I started the label in late summer 2008 as I found myself with a bit of money and no real responsibilities. Paul Simpson had reactivated the Wild Swans, writing the best material of his life, and we’re friends so it made sense to join forces and we planned our initial assault together. We went way over-budget, but those two insanely ambitious 10" singles set out our stall and we followed them with the ‘Liquid Mercury ’(Wild Swans-Ed) and 'Flood of Fortune' 7”s, both of which did well. We’ve been building on that foundation ever since.

PB: Pretty much all your releases since then have come out on vinyl, with only the Wild Swans’ album, ‘The Coldest Winter For a Hundred Years’, not receiving any sort of vinyl release. You also make it the primary format for most releases, even with something like ‘The End of the Pier’ which was also given a CD release. Vinyl is on the rise again, up 28% last year, but still very much a niche market with many even older fans not owning a record player now. Does it worry you that you are releasing material in such a constricted format and how do you get around that? Is that one of the reasons why you throw in a CD copy with most of your recent vinyl purchases?

NH: I don’t see vinyl as “constricted”, quite the reverse. The CD’s 1980s technology, and it’s as though the Beatles had been forced to release their records on wax cylinders. ‘The End Of The Pier’ was recorded at approximately three times the quality a CD can handle, whereas the vinyl’s cut from the original 24/96 masters. It’s only in the mass market that “convenience” has become king, but the reverse is true in our niche. Most of our audience tell us they want quality across the board, from recording through to packaging so that’s what we try to give them.

The vinyl + CD thing is an example of listening to our audience. People told us that, although it’s the vinyl they really want, they like having a CD “for the car”. A lot of thought goes into our CDs as well. We use our own format of inner sleeve/outer wallet, and, although that costs a bit more (it’s “non-standard”), people like it. The CD inner sleeve of ‘The End Of The Pier’ is different to the LP inner but people who buy the LP from us get the CD thrown in anyway. A great piece of music with a thumbnail on a computer is still a great piece of music, but in a gorgeous, beautifully printed sleeve it’s more: it’s a great artefact. For instance, ‘The End Of The Pier' is 180g vinyl in a heavy-duty sleeve, and. although the image is black-and-white, we used four-colour printing on the reverse of the board for the matt effect. The LP inner sleeve has the lyrics plus some visual clues – it all feeds into the record.

For Factory Star’s ‘New Sacral’ we decided on a plain black disco bag for the 10” and the information on the CD outer wallet, then a CD inner which is again plain black... except for one sentence. All quite deliberate, as it’s about designing the packaging to augment the record. If you look at our records over the last four years, I hope they all look as though they belong on the same label.

It always bugged me not being able to do ‘Coldest Winter’ on vinyl, so I’m thrilled there’s a reissue coming next year. Current thinking is a 2x180g LP deluxe edition and maybe a seriously limited "super deluxe” version if enough people want it.

PB: Three out of the five bands on your current roster-The Wild Swans, the Distractions and Factory Star-are from the North West and either Liverpool or Manchester. You don’t, however, live in Manchester, but in Exeter. Why have you gone for so many Northern acts? Is that something which happened consciously or unconsciously?

NH: Initially everyone assumed we were based in Liverpool because of the Wild Swans. Now they think we’re from Manchester because of Factory Star and the Distractions. I suppose we’ve probably gained a reputation for "reviving” post-punk bands but that makes it sound very backward-looking which it isn’t. None of us made many records or had “careers” to revive, and I’d like to think we’re all writing about the here and now and still have something to prove. I think the answer to your question is that Liverpool and Manchester are two cities with a strong sense of individual identity, but also with strong links not just to the rest of England but to the rest of the British Isles and the world.

I’m very proud so many people think ‘Coldest Winter’ is the Swans’ best album; similarly reviews of ‘The End of the Pier’ compared it favourably to ‘Nobody’s Perfect (The Distractions' 1980 debut record-Ed), an album let down slightly by its production – though there’s no denying the quality of the songs and performances on it. I thought Factory Star’s ‘Enter Castle Perilous’ was the best album of 2011 bar none, with Martin’s strongest ever set of songs, and ‘New Sacral’ is another step forward. All these records share a strong sense of place and that’s very important.

PB: Your main release for this year is the Distractions’ second album and first album in thirty-two years, ‘The End of the Pier’. Apparently you first made contact with Mike Finney after he sent you a thank you email after you published an article about the Distractions online. How did you go from that to being their label boss, guitarist, co-songwriter with Steve Perrin, producer and presumably the prime instigator in their reformation and comeback?

NH: I’d say "facilitator” rather than “instigator”, Steve was the prime mover behind the direction taken in the songwriting, I just played a supporting role. It started in late 2009 with me bemoaning the fact that Mike, one of the finest singers this country’s ever produced, had made so few records. Steve said "stick him in a studio when the label makes you a million” but I suggested doing it straight away. Steve was living in New Zealand (though he’s now in Australia), so I asked if he’d fancy writing a song or two, but he spoke to Mike then e-mailed back saying “I’ll be in the UK in June,” so I booked a studio and wrote ‘Oil Painting’, though at that point I had no idea it’d be a Distractions record.

Steve’s version of the story is that I thought I was commissioning a Mike Finney solo record but even I’m not that daft. I hadn’t got as far as thinking what name it might go under, that had to come from them, but ultimately the Distractions is what happens when you put Mike and Steve together so it made perfect sense. An album was the logical next step and we needed a bassist at short notice. I’d worked with Arash Torabi on Granite Shore and June Brides records and knew he’d be perfect, then a mutual friend put us in touch with Mike Kellie of the Only Ones who did an amazing job on drums and has become part of the family.

PB: Ian Henderson, your counterpart at Fishrider Records in New Zealand, has said in an online essay that the critical ingredients for running a small label, even more than money, are time, expertise and passion. Would you agree with him?

NH: Ian and I agree on a lot of things, which is why we work together so well. Obviously some money’s required, and you need to be prepared not to see it again, otherwise I’d change the order to 1) time 2) passion and 3) expertise – if you have 1) and 2) you can pick 3) up as you go along and if you have enough of 2) people will often offer you 3) anyway. 1) poses the biggest problem, I find.

PB: On the subject of Ian and Fishrider Records, you have recently co-released an album together, the self-titled debut album of New Zealand band Opposite Sex. You’re also selling some of Fishrider’s other albums through the Occultation website. You met online after discussing the merits of Scritti Politti’s first EP. Why did you decide to go into partnership together for this album and will there be other co-releases?

NH: Fishrider have now released Factory Star’s ‘New Sacral’. We’re making releases by the Puddle and the Shifting Sands available in the Northern Hemisphere with Fishrider doing the same for Occultation material South of the Equator. There are also plans for a joint label compilation of some kind, though that’s only at the discussion stage so far. I see this as a key part of our long-term strategy; we may not be huge but, between us, Occultation and Fishrider genuinely do span the whole wide world.

PB: You’re about to release a June Brides record, ‘Between the Moon and the Clouds’, in another collaboration, this time with Slumberland Records. How did that collaboration come out? That album includes both tracks from the recent June Brides/Occultation 7”, and various Phil Wilson demos and acoustic tracks. Do you see it as a rarities compilation and did it take a long time to put together? Why also has the Granite Shore’s second single ‘Flood of Fortune’ crept onto there?

NH: We released the June Brides single, ‘Moon / Cloud’ in June (the press release almost wrote itself...) and we always try to do something extra for people who buy directly from the label, so Phil went through his archives and we came up with ‘Between the Moon and the Clouds'. For now, that’s only available to buy together with the 7" from us or Slumberland.

‘Flood of Fortune’ is there simply because Phil, Arash and Andy are all on it. Occultation is a family, so a lot of the same people crop up: The June Brides’ new drummer, Steve Beswick, was in the Wild Swans and played on the first Granite Shore single, The Wild Swans' keyboard player Richard Turvey has engineered Distractions and Factory Star records, Arash plays with the Distractions, a lot of the sleeves use photos by Jim Donnelly and most are laid out by Andy Chambers... We all work together. I’ve always loved labels where you get that sense of a family.

Slumberland had released Phil’s solo album, ‘God Bless Jim Kennedy’, in the States a couple of years back, so they’re his US label, simple as that. Phil put me in touch with Mike Schulman who’s a gentleman and everything went very smoothly. I’m convinced that the only way forward is to work with other like-minded labels; with Fishrider it’s an ongoing, long-term thing, in other cases much more ad hoc, but I’d like to find partners in other countries – if anyone’s out there I speak French, Catalan and Spanish fluently and my Italian’s not too bad so please get in touch.

PB: The Granite Shore have taken something of a back seat over the last two years, and since the release of the ‘Flood of Fortune’ single. Is this because things with the Distractions and the rest of Occultation have taken off? Have you got more Granite Shore releases planned for the future?

NH: Oddly enough, the longer the Granite Shore spend in the back seat the higher the profile seems to rise. Both singles are still selling and we get more e-mails asking when the album’s coming out than about anything else, which is nice for my ego. Trouble is something else always seems to come along and, with my label hat on, I’m constantly trying to juggle everyone’s interests and it all takes up a lot of time.

I did a version of Martin Bramah’s ‘When Sleep Won’t Come’ for the B-side of Factory Star’s ‘Lucybel’ single at Christmas but this year I’ve focused on the Distractions and running the label in general, but I hope this’ll prove to have been the right decision as I’ve learned a huge amount from working on all these other records. I want the Granite Shore album to be a coherent, fully-rounded record, with the packaging as part of the concept from the start, so the whole thing needs thinking out properly and I’m planning to take a bit of time to do that over the next few weeks. I think I know what the album's about now. Once it’s all properly written I’ll aim to record it quickly as usual and I’m hoping for contributions from various Occultation family members.

PB: This year has been Occultation’s busiest year. What other plans have you got for the immediate future? Have you got more releases planned for the next few months?

NH: Realistically there probably won’t be anything major before Christmas – though you never know, things do come up unexpectedly. Aside from the Granite Shore album, there’s the Wild Swans reissue, a DVD of the ‘End of the Pier’ shows featuring the Distractions, Factory Star and the June Brides, and that joint Occultation-Fishrider compilation album I mentioned earlier, but these are all still in the early stages. Occultation is now larger than it was, we’ve got various partners. Each release is ultimately down to the artist so I’m talking to Paul about the Wild Swans reissue, to Phil about another June Brides record, we’ve just done new Factory Star and Distractions records but there’ll be more from them too, I hope.

We’re at something of a crossroads. We were badly let down last year, although I can’t actually discuss what happened for now, it was touch and go for a while but we pulled through and, as you say, 2012's been our busiest year, punching well above our weight with four albums in as many months. That’s a big investment, a lot of money sitting in boxes dotted around the planet. Sometimes I wonder how on earth we managed it but it’s largely been by building partnerships with like-minded people and organisations and by everyone involved – artists, partners, the various people who help out behind the scenes – all pulling together. As Ian says, if you've got the passion and can make the time there’s always a way.

PB: Thank you.















Related Links:




Commenting On: Interview With Nick Halliwell - Occultation Recordings








ie London, England

tick box before submitting comment
 


First Previous Next Last