When Rhys Harper and Benjamin Watson, head honchos and collaborators in Norwich’s finest label, the Sickroom Collective suggest that we do the interview backstage, my mind span. My imagination is running wild. I envisage us all sprawled on a chaise lounge with a bevy of dusky beauties attending to our every whim and bringing us anything our heart desired, while soft piped music and opulent heavy velvet drapes set the scene perfectly. So imagine my surprise when faced with a sweaty, 10 by 10 room piled high with amps, guitar cases, assorted drum pieces, some rucksacks, coats and the debris of an evening's frantic activity. Instead of plush carpet, my ankles are lapped by a sea of what seems to be spilt larger and a curious blue coloured washing softener, the empty bottle of which was offered to me as some kind of keepsake - a memento of the evening. I digress; I guess you would like some kind of background on the Sickroom Collective. I’ll let Rhys explain.

Rhys : It started when I was at University in Leeds. I was spending around £30 to £50 per week on singles and loving what I was buying. Then NME ran a piece saying there were no good bands in the UK and I thought that they were not listening to the right stuff, so I thought it would be good to release a compilation CD of all the best singles of the year. It was such a good idea that certain bands on certain labels thought they should do it. They then said if we didn’t deal with their label then we couldn’t use the bands, so it wasn’t worth doing at all. I wanted to do it on my own label, because I figured if I didn’t do it I’d never start something. Releasing records is such a scary thought and there are a lot of unanswered questions. How much will it cost? Where do I get it pressed? Where do I find bands? Studios? Artwork? Even as you progress you send this money off and you might never see it again. Then after a year I released my first record, which was a split single by Cato and Kaito.

PB : What labels have inspired you?

Rhys: Subpop was always a very big thing for me when I was growing up in the good old days. A lot of American indie labels were releasing great records and I realised you shouldn’t just accept the mainstream as the be all and end all. There was so much music out there if you look at all these indie labels most were doing split singles so that seemed like the logical starting place. Subpop have kept doing what they were doing but with new bands, keeping to the original ethic instead of the same old bands. They weren’t scared or releasing stuff that didn’t sell or get radio airplay. When I started releasing records, we decided that we should release stuff that was feasibly unsellable. We would print 300 copies and sell them over a long period of time, say 2 years. The idea being that we might sell 100 though the shops and the rest at live gigs. That was based on the fact that as a punter, I would buy a record based on a band I liked or the artwork on a particular label. I would sometimes buy everything on a certain label I liked.

PB : Do you have a policy of signing bands from Norwich or are you a national label?

Ben: We don’t have a policy to sign bands from Norwich it’s just that, being based there, we tend to see Norwich bands first.

Rhys: You can’t miss Norwich bands when you’re from there. If a band comes down from Scotland and we see them play and talk to them, then we may decide to put a record out by them. If they don’t come to Norwich that probably wouldn’t happen. Basically, if you’re good enough, you can join the club. If we like it we will put it out.

PB : Talking of clubs, tell me about your club, Wombat Wombat.

Rhys: It started about the same time as the label. There used to be a really good Indie club in Norwich called the Wilde Club but that closed and the indie club scene was dying so we started Wombat Wombat. Some of the regulars from the Wild Clube joined us. There was a time when only bands who now appear on Sickroom GC were playing. We were putting them on, liked how they sounded and signed them. People started asking what was going on so we had to broaden our approach. Idon't book the bands anymore. I'm just too biased!

PB : Has Bearsuit’s popularity surprised you?

Rhys: It surprised me. The mix of 'Hey Charlie, Hey Chuck' was a mistake. It took 3 nights to get that song recorded and the last session finished at 4am. I did a quick mix to see what we had, after that I erased the lot! So what you here is 15 minutes worth of mixing with shit loads of reverb. I always argue that the song is the crux of it. You can have press agents and all that, but a good song should be heard if the right DJ gets hold of it.

PB : That’s right, but in the case of your records they are certainly not precise or clinical, are they ?

Rhys: Not at the moment they’re not. But trust me if we sell 3,000 or 4,000 records then things will change. Things have to grow. They start off sounding rough then you build a following but as I was saying it is all about the songs anyway and the more money we get back from selling records the more we can spend on recording. We’ve been quite ambitious this year, releasing a record every three weeks. That can be detrimental to some bands whose releases may get lost among the more popular bands and the attention that that popularity demands, but hopefully people will discover the lesser known bands sooner or later. Hopefully people like good pop and good sounds.

PN : How do you approach promotion of the bands and the label?

Rhys: It is difficult at the stage we’re at because you can’t expect a promoter to put on a band that hasn’t had radio play and will consequently attract punters. So with Bearsuit we got lucky with all the radio play we got. As things progressed we met John Peel at a gig in Norwich and gave him a demo. He played Bearsuit and now we send him the records and he plays them, but we intentionally left NME out of the picture. We figured rightly or wrongly, that if we could make this work without them, then we would be onto a winner. We are not, however, as naïve as people believe. I’m obsessed by units - you need units to get the money to make the next record and if one band is selling 5 times as many records as another one on the label they justify more promotion. We target certain people to send records to but we do boycott certain areas of the press that other labels would not. There is a hardcore scene out there- fanzines, web sites, online magazines, internet radio stations abroad. We send them records and they tend to like everything we do. We get good press there. They play it a lot and it works for us. It is nothing personal against the NME but they’ve got bigger fish to fry.

PB : How do you see the Indie scene at the present time?

Ben: There are some really good labels out there releasing some fantastic records. One of the best bands I’ve seen recently was a band called Terrashima from Derby. They’ve got so much energy they sound a bit like MC5 meets Mud Honey meets The Stooges. They are superb live.

Rhys: Terrashima got lucky because a couple of management companies got very interested and put up the money to make an album that they would sell to a major record company. What I hope doesn’t happen is that they can’t sell the album and shelf it, so that nobody can hear the songs. With Bearsuit , if a major company wants them they can have them as long as the deal is fair and good, I manage Bearsuit and handle management duties for Fixit Kit so I have to make sure that they’re well looked after but if something’s good for a band, we’re not going to stop them. They’ve got to move on and leave us and find their niche, but at the same time they mustn’t be ripped off or lead up the garden path.

PB : Is there anything you’d like to add?

Rhys: Yeah, I tip Motel to be a bigger band than Bearsuit. We’re going to be releasing 4 singles and an album with them and more people will like them instantly. Buy the Tweet single, it’s the most interesting instrumental pop record I’ve ever heard. It’s a garage tune about a lady at a club who’s off her face. She sees herself in a mirror and takes all her clothes off. It is the most beautifully orchestrated song, but it’s noti ndie at all.

Rhys and Ben from Sickroom Gramophonic Collective seem genuinely nice and sincere about their label and it’s place in the music industry. It’s good to have people releasing records who have equal measures of maverick spirit, sharp financial realism and a nurturing concern for the bands they sign. It was refreshing to meet and to know that some people care passionately enough to put their money where their mouth is and release records they like before assessing the market. This of course, has to be tempered with one eye on the bank balance and a necessity to travel along a very sharp learning curve. Their idealism and enthusiasm is certainly not blinkered by any form of indie elitism or notions of stagnated planning. I guess what I’m trying to say is that they acknowledge that as the label grows then different strategies and ideas have to be adopted. They are also a very nice way to wile away a Saturday night and deserve your attention and ears.

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