Of all the many items that have passed through Pennyblackmusic over the years, there have been very few that have had the intensity of beauty and the depth of presence as that of the new vinyl edition of The Wild Swans’ ‘The Coldest Winter for a Hundred Years’. An exceptional achievement, it has been just released on Nick Halliwell’s Occultation Recordings in a Standard, Deluxe and Super-Deluxe edition.

The Wild Swans have had a chequered, unhappy history. The brainchild of singer-songwriter and former The Teardrop Explodes keyboardist Paul Simpson, The Wild Swans formed in 1980 and burst out of Liverpool at the same time as other bands of that era such as Echo & The Bunnymen, The Icicle Works and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Their unique blend of celestial, euphoric art rock drew them a cult audience, but after touring across Britain in support of Echo & The Bunnymen in the notoriously freezing cold winter of late 1981 and releasing just one 12” single, ‘Revolutionary Spirit’ they broke up suddenly and abruptly.

While other members of that first line-up of The Wild Swans went on to chart success with The Lotus Eaters, Paul Simpson went on to briefly form Care with Ian Broudie (who would later go on to fame with The Lightning Seeds) before resurrecting The Wild Swans in 1986. That era of The Wild Swans went on to release two albums, ‘Bringing Home the Ashes’ (1988) and ‘Space Flower’(1990). Both albums, however, met with record label interference, and lacked the spark and promise of the early Wild Swans. Simpson, a perfectionist, has always been dismissive of the results, and became so disillusioned that, breaking up The Wild Swans again, he spent the next twenty years not writing songs and focusing instead on his ambient and instrumental project, Skyray.

He only finally resurrected The Wild Swans again in 2009. The resulting album. ‘The Coldest Winter for a Hundred Years’, which followed in 2011, after a 10” single ‘English Electric Lightning’ and a 7” ‘Liquid Mercury’, both on Occultation Recordings in 2009, was in every way a triumph.

Featuring the new line-up of the band which includes guitarists Ricky Rene Maymi (Brian Jonestown Massacre) and Mike Mooney (Spiritualized, Lupine Howl, Julian Cope); bassist Les Pattinson (Echo and the Bunnymen) and young keyboardist Richard Turvey, ‘The Coldest Winter for a Hundred Years’ maintained the exuberant and ardent sparkle in its sound of the young Wild Swans.

While previous lyrics had, however, often been vague, ‘The Coldest Winter for a Hundred Years’ stepped up here, and the album found a world-weary and middle-aged Paul Simpson looking back on that bitter winter of 1981 at which time he shared a flat with the original Echo & the Bunnymen drummer, the late Pete de Freitas, with both nostalgia and yearning at its lost promise and hopes. Tracks such as ‘Falling to Bits’, ‘My Town’, Lost at Sea’ and ‘The Bluebell Wood’ found him mourning his father, lost friends, his disintegrating home town and the woods of his childhood (which had been replaced by a shopping centre), all of which were gone or irretrievably changed. It was a bittersweet masterpiece, which at long last delivered on all The Wild Swans’ potential of thirty years before.

Occultation owner Nick Halliwell is a songwriter, musician, producer and the front man with his own project The Granite Shore, whose long-awaited debut album is due for release next year. He formed Occultation Recordings in 2008, which puts an emphasis on high quality packaging and, while it also does CD and download editions of most of is products, specialises in 180 gram vinyl. Other acts on its small roster include The June Brides whose recent single ‘A January Moon/Clouds’ was their first in twenty-seven years; The Distractions whose second album, ‘The End of the Pier’, from last year followed on thirty-two years after their debut, ‘Nobody’s Perfect’, and Factory Star, the new band of Fall founding member and ex-Blue Orchids front man Martin Bramah. Halliwell also has ties with other labels, including the New Zealand label Fishrider who Occultation has been a distributor for and done co-releases with including avant-garde trio Opposite Sex’s eponymous debut album last year. ‘The Coldest Winter for a Hundred Years’ has always been the oddity and exception to the rule in Occultation’s roster as until now it has been it only release to come out on CD and download only.

The new vinyl edition of ‘The Coldest Winter for a Hundred Years’ builds on the original CD. Ex-Wild Swans’ keyboardist Ged Quinn’s lavish artwork is even more spectacular on 12” vinyl. The album has been expanded onto double vinyl. The first two sides consist of the original CD. The third side features the single rather than the album versions of ‘English Electric Lightning’ and ‘Liquid Mercury’; three songs which appeared on a 2011 tour only EP ‘Tracks in the Snow’ and a new song ‘Maybe it’s You’. The fourth side consists of ‘The Coldest Winter for a Hundred Years’ and ‘The Wickedest Man in the World’,two spoken word songs which originally appeared as the B-sides of the singles, and ‘Half Life’, another spoken word recording.

Pennyblackmusic spoke to Nick Halliwell about the new vinyl version, and its making which became a battle against adversity.


PB: ‘The Coldest Winter’ came out in 2011. You have done concurrent vinyl/CD versions of most of your releases. Why was there not a vinyl edition for ‘The Coldest Winter’ originally?

NH: The initial reason was that it arrived out of the blue. The band had started work back in 2009. We released ‘Liquid Mercury’ late that year, and then in early 2011, I asked Paul if it were likely to be ready any time soon, as I’d need to plan for it. He said, “Well... maybe Christmas...” I knew better than to ask which Christmas but assumed we’d not be releasing before early 2012. Two or three weeks later, he rang to say a UK tour had been booked and asked if there’d be any chance of getting the album out in six weeks’ time. After weeping silently for a bit, I asked whether the record were at least finished. “Well... nearly!” It then struck me that having a deadline was the only way it’d ever be finished, so I said, “OK, if I’ve got finished masters next week I’ll do my best”. It meant using the Granite Shore album budget because all the label’s other cash was tied up in Factory Star’s ‘Enter Castle Perilous’, our first LP which was just coming out, plus I’d booked studio time to record The Distractions’ ‘The End of the Pier’.

The album cost several times as much to record as any other Occultation release, which is why ‘Coldest Winter’ doesn’t come over like an album on a small independent. CDs are fairly quick to manufacture and I needed to get copies to the band to sell on tour, plus we were doing the ‘Tracks in Snow’ EP at the same time. I’m not sure how we managed it but we did, and we needed the money back quickly as I’d used the Granite Shore album budget as a deposit on manufacturing with the rest on credit. So we agreed to licence the album to a US label and sent half the CDs we’d pressed over there on trust, but they took the CDs, never paid and refused to return them. I can’t say too much for obvious legal reasons, but the result was that not only was there no money for a vinyl edition but the Distractions album took a year to come out and the Granite Shore LP’s still pending. We simply didn’t have the money.

So at this point in the story things were looking pretty bleak... But, in true fairytale fashion, there was a distant sound of hooves and a knight on a white charger appeared on the horizon...

PB: You said the last time we interviewed you a year ago that that it “has always bugged” you that there was never a vinyl edition of ‘The Coldest Winter’. While there are CD versions of a lot of your products, Occultation is known primarily as a vinyl label. Was that the initial reason for doing the vinyl edition of ‘The Coldest Winter’, simply as something to satisfy Wild Swans and Occultation completists?

NH: We had a great-sounding record with beautiful packaging, so not being able to do it on vinyl always rankled.

Getting back to our fairytale... We left our heroes hanging onto the cliff by their fingernails. Would help arrive in time? Let’s pick up the story...
2012 was one hell of a struggle. I’d come to the conclusion that the only way forward was to work with like-minded labels in other countries and, although we’d picked the wrong one for ‘Coldest Winter’, I still felt the idea was right. We did a June Brides single with Slumberland, who were great, and that did well. Then I’d got talking to Ian Henderson of Fishrider and agreed to co-release the Opposite Sex album which was attracting a lot of attention over here. Fishrider later released Factory Star’s wonderful ‘New Sacral’ mini-LP in NZ, and we’re doing the Trick Mammoth LP together in 2014.

Then there was The Distractions’ ‘The End of the Pier’, plus I’d ended up promoting the Distractions/Factory Star/June Brides gigs in Salford, as well as performing. It was a busy year but, after the disappointments of 2011, a very successful one and we’d clawed ourselves back from the brink.
This is where the white charger appears. Every now and then I used to get e-mails asking if there’d ever be a vinyl ‘Coldest Winter’, and one of these came in just after I got back from Salford. I wrote back with my standard response, i.e. I’d love to but that we’d never broken even on the CDs due to the US problems.

The e-mail turned out to be from a fan called Siward. He replied, “What if I financed a vinyl edition?” Initially I didn’t take it very seriously as people rarely realise what all this costs. So I said, “Well, that’d be fantastic but do you realise it’d cost several thousand pounds just to do something fairly simple...?” To my astonishment, he turned out to be a lawyer with some music industry experience, so he knew what was involved and was prepared to invest a sum which would allow us to do something pretty nice... I couldn’t believe it.

PB: Most fans would have been delighted simply that there was going to be a vinyl edition. You have gone far beyond that with both a Deluxe and a Super-Deluxe edition as well as a Standard edition. How quickly did the idea of doing these additional editions take weight and precedence, and why did you decide to these as well? Was it something that you planned from the outset?
NH: Not quite from the outset, or not on that scale, anyway. The idea of a double was almost immediate as I’d been toying with the idea of a Wild swans singles compilation for a while. For instance, I’ve always thought the original 10” ‘English Electric Lightning’ is up there with ‘Revolutionary Spirit’ and ‘No Bleeding’.

In the meantime the label’s fortunes were looking up in other ways. The Distractions album did well, the back catalogue was ticking over nicely, the partnership with Fishrider was becoming established and we’d got other things in place so, all in all, the label was starting to get taken seriously. The sensible thing would’ve been to consolidate but I decided that, as there was little chance of doing the Granite Shore album at the time, we might as well do it in the True Occultation Tradition, which is to think in terms of what we’d really like to do and worry about financing it later. At some point we thought, “Why don’t we just ask people what they’d like?” and came up with a questionnaire offering three basic options:

1) Keep it simple and the cost down
2) Go completely mad, never mind the cost
3) A “third way” - nice but not hideously expensive.

We got a big response. Only a few wanted it simple, the majority wanted utter madness but there was also considerable support for the controlled insanity of 2).

The sensible thing would’ve been to do 3) but talk it up to look like 2) whilst keeping the price well below £50. That would have been an almost sure-fire money-spinner so of course we didn’t do it. Instead we decided that as at least some people wanted each of the three options, we’d do them all. I look back now and wonder what we thought we were doing and by this time the budget was insane, but... what the hell. It’s a Wild Swans album on Occultation, for goodness’ sake.

PB: Perhaps you could explain what fans are getting for their money with the Deluxe and Super-Deluxe edition compared to a Standard edition. The Deluxe and Super-Deluxe editions are more limited in numbers in comparison to the Regular edition. How many copies of each have you manufactured and also of the Regular edition?

NH: The Standard is “just” a double LP in a full-colour heavy-duty gatefold sleeve with inner sleeves featuring all the Ged Quinn artwork from original CD and singles but blown up to 12”. Ged was incredibly supportive when I rang him. The painting on the front cover sold at auction shortly after the original release for somewhere close to £200,000, so this was really generous of him.

The Deluxe edition adds a full shrinkwrapped CD (not just a disc in a generic plastic wallet), poster, postcard, badge and separate ‘Coldest Winter’ insert, all in a special full-colour box with the album cover printed on it. They’ve come out beautifully and are only available from our website, details at: http://www.occultation.co.uk/Occultation_Space/Releases/DIONE7DD029
/cw_reissue_main.html.

The Super-Deluxe is sold-out, but we’ve held a few back in case of any shipping issues so there might be one or two more available, but then that’ll be it. If anyone’s interested e-mail us (info@occultation.co.uk). The Super-Deluxe contains everything in the Deluxe plus a hand-printed letterpress insert, a signed photo of Paul and a gig ticket but the real difference is that it comes in the box to end all boxes. Words can’t convey how stunning these are. They were made for us by a bloke called Warren in Manchester who did an astonishing job. They’re individually made and laser-engraved - it’s the antithesis of the conventional mass-produced boxed set. You can see all the work that’s gone into it. We’d planned to do a really small run but the minute we announced them so many people signed up that we had to double it.

There are pictures of all the various editions at http://www.occultation.co.uk/Occultation_Space/Releases/DIONE7DD029/
cw_gallery.html

PB: It has taken you a whole year to get this record in its three editions ready for release. You would have inevitably met with some problems along the way as one always does with anything this creative. You have done something with the Super-Deluxe edition that many even major labels would not have conceived of. Has it been easier or more difficult putting these releases together than you thought?

NH: Well, the fact that it’s taken a whole year is a bit of a give-away, isn’t it? I’ll never learn. I vividly recall an early conversation with Siward during which I said, “This’ll be really simple. All the music and artwork already exist!” Then the project took on a life of its own. To start with Siward became very closely involved and made enormous contributions in all sorts of areas. For instance, he was the one who suggested including ‘Maybe It’s You’, which was a great idea and rounds off side three beautifully. He, Paul and I went over everything in incredible detail, exactly how we wanted it to look and feel and sound.

Then we had to think about practicalities. For instance if you’re going to charge over £50+P&P (as it became clear we’d have to) for a huge, heavy Super-Deluxe boxed set you can’t just stick it in the post and hope for the best. So we had to get protective packaging designed and manufactured specially to fit the Super-Deluxe edition but allow room for ‘Incandescent’. Then we had to do deals with couriers to deliver them to all corners of the Earth as the original quotes were £50+ for some destinations - though we got that down quite a lot and passed the savings on to fans. This was a vast amount of work, months of negotiations, calculations... the unrelenting glamour of the music business.

At this point another fan offered his services and he runs a printing firm, so he produced the poster, postcard, inserts, badges and outer box for the Deluxe edition, giving us credit for the whole lot, which made it possible to do more than we might otherwise have been able to manage. They’re still limited but we still have a fair number left for left. You get an awful lot for your money and they’re absolutely gorgeous.

When you look at where we were in 2012, after being let down so badly over the original album release, and then at where we are now... You need to believe in what you’re doing and then find the right people.

PB: The sequencing of this is superb. You have the two sides of the original album on the first two sides of the vinyl, the 7” and 10” versions of the singles and the tour only ‘Tracks in the Snow’ EP on the third side, and the spoken word tracks on the fourth side. Did a lot of planning go into what was going on where or did all it come together very naturally?

NH: Sequencing is crucial, and a lot of thought always goes into it. Most albums work better split into 15-20-minute sides, I always think. Side one ends naturally with ‘When Time Stood Still’, then side two opens with ‘Underwater’, it makes far more sense like that – ‘The Bluebell Wood’ should always have been at the end of side two rather than “track 12” on a CD. Let’s face it! Everyone front-loads CDs so people often don’t even listen to them all the way through.

We could’ve done the second LP chronologically, but we wanted to make it a great record to listen to in its own right. So we put all the “songs” on side three i.e. the two singles, the whole ‘Tracks’ EP and ‘Maybe It’s You’ and they flow beautifully. I’d always wished we’d had more spoken-word tracks, so when Paul recorded ‘Half Life’, side four pretty much sequenced itself. ‘Coldest Winter’ (the track) has become a huge fan favourite, and is another of the great Wild Swans pieces. I think side four works as well as any side of vinyl I can think of. There’s a narrative there stretching from the winter of 1981 to the winter of 2012.

PB: ‘Half Life’ was recorded especially for the vinyl edition. Was it something that Paul had had written for a while or was it something that he had written specially for the occasion?

NH: ‘The Coldest Winter for a Hundred Years’ was recorded in November 2008 at joint sessions for the Wild Swans’ ‘English Electric Lightning’ and The Granite Shore’s ‘Tomorrow Morning, 3 a.m.’ 10”s. So I was there and asked if I could add a bit of acoustic guitar. The Wild Swans were all playing on my record, after all...

‘The Wickedest Man in the World’ is odder: it started out as a track of the same name from sessions involving Paul, Ged and me at Henry Priestman’s place on Anglesey back in 2004. When Paul delivered that ‘B’ side in August 2009 I had the peculiar experience of hearing myself coming out of the speakers, even though I hadn’t been at the sessions.

‘Half Life’ was done by Paul and Richard Turvey in Liverpool in April this year. We’d decided to include ‘Maybe It’s You’, which was the first demo done for the album in August 2007, before Occultation even existed, so I love the symmetry of something old at the end of side three and something
new finishing side four.

PB: As you have said, the Deluxe and Super-Deluxe edition come with a full-colour outer box and custom-made laser-engraved box respectively. You run Occultation from home. How easy has it been storing all this and your other vinyl products, which come in bulkier 180 gram vinyl?

NH: You have no idea. People usually assume Occultation’s at least a medium-sized label. They may realise we don’t have an entire office block, but often seem to assume we’ve offices, warehouse and staff. Although we’ve come a very long way and there are various people involved, essentially it’s me and operates out of my terraced house. For the last month our house has been stacked full of boxes, although they’re now disappearing at a rate of knots, thank goodness... Although there’ll be more coming to replace them soon as we’re due to get stock of the Fishrider Males LP and then the
joint Trick Mammoth release before long.

PB: You are also selling the Wild Swans compilation LP ‘Incandescent’ which, while it has been out for some years on CD, has just been released on double vinyl by Vinyl180. Was it complete chance that they should decide to release this at the same time? How quickly did you decide to go into partnership with V180 when you found that one another was doing this?

NH: Actually it was the other way around... We were already working with V180 as they handle our manufacturing - quality pressings are vitally important to us and they were recommended to me by someone whose opinion I trust. They’re a reissue label whereas we focus on new material, so it’s what the business types might call call “synergy”.

I put together the original Incandescent for Renascent back in 2003 and the CDs now sell for £100+, so it’s something we’d been thinking about for a while. It wasn’t right for Occultation, but. although we had interest from a few labels, V180 were perfect as we already have a close working relationship. They’re already doing a Bunnymen reissue campaign. ‘Crocodiles’ is out now as a hardback book and gatefold double, with the other albums to follow over the next year or two. I hope we’ll be doing more together soon but I can’t say too much more for now.

PB: Paul Simpson is notoriously self-critical and a perfectionist. How has he felt about these vinyl releases? Is he happy with the final product?

NH: “Self-critical and a perfectionist” is putting it mildly; in all the years we’ve been friends I’ve never known Paul happy with anything. Then again I’m the same about my own stuff - that’s the way it should be. I’ve perhaps become more realistic about it over the five years I’ve been running Occultation: essentially when you plan a release you know how it should look, sound and feel. The reality is almost never like that - it’s not necessarily that it’s not as good as you’d hoped, just different... sometimes after a few weeks you realise that what you have is better than what you’d originally thought of. The only record I can think of that came out almost exactly as planned was The Distractions album, but The Distractions are deeply strange in all respects.

I sent Paul a package containing a Super-Deluxe and a Deluxe then braced myself for the “phone call”. To my utter amazement he just said, “Wow, they both look absolutely amazing!” I waited, then prompted, “Yes, amazing, but...?” expecting he’d then find half a dozen or so things that weren’t exactly as he’d imagined them, but he answered, Bbut nothing! I’m absolutely thrilled!” Paul Simpson “completely happy with record”. I don’t suppose that’ll happen again.

I must give Siward a huge share of the credit for this whole project. It wouldn’t’ve happened without his incredibly generous offer to fund a vinyl edition in the first place, but he’s contributed far more than mere money. There’ve been times when it’s been really hard going but he’s always been full of enthusiasm and ideas, and has helped out enormously with practical matters, and of course his legal expertise is invaluable.

The thing about Occultation is that I always wanted it to have a “family” feel - most of my favourite labels have that. For instance, this week Phil Wilson from The June Brides came round to help pack ‘Coldest Winter’ boxes up to be shipped.

PB: Paul has suffered with a lot of health problems during the last year. He told us in 2011 that he was planning to do another Wild Swans fairly quickly. Is that liable to happen now still and is there any news of when his long promised autobiography is liable to come out? If the spoken word tracks are anything to go by, it will be very much worth reading when it does come out.

NH: Obviously Paul being unwell is a private matter but we’ve all been pretty worried... I’d certainly have liked to do another Wild Swans record quickly but... “WS record” and “quickly” don’t really belong in the same sentence.

Paul’s been working on his book for as long as I’ve known him. I’ve read lots of passages and it’s wonderful; the spoken-word tracks all started life there. I’ve a particularly vivid memory of recording the vocal for ‘Coldest Winter’ (the track). Everyone else had gone to the pub, so it was just Paul at the microphone and myself and Ashley, the engineer, in the control room. We were transported back to that winter of 1981.

PB: What is next for Occultation now that you have finally got ‘The Coldest Winter’ out? How are things progressing with the Granite Shore album?

NH: Next up is another Fishrider/Occultation co-release, ‘Floristry’, by New Zealand band Trick Mammoth in early 2014. It’s a terrific album, one of the best new things I’ve heard in ages, and we’ve high hopes for it.
The Granite Shore album is written and demoed. I’d hoped to be recording it around now. but ‘Coldest Winter’ has taken up so much of my time over the last year that we’ll be in the studio early 2014. My method tends to be to put the time in on writing the material, then record an album in 3-4 days, plus a bit of post-production in my own studio.

There’ve been so many false starts to doing that album, and each time it’s changed into something different - I know what it’s about and what I want it to do, but I expect it’ll change into something else along the way. We started doing demos for it back in February 2011, then along came ‘Coldest Winter’ and I had to use the budget to finance that. I still feel that the Wild Swans album has plenty of life in it; this time we’ve got the right people behind us, whereas the original release was hamstrung due to the American business, although that should be sorted out soon.

We’ll also be doing the third Distractions album, and I’m involved in the Hidden Masters retrospective of their back catalogue which’ll be out in 2014. That should be properly announced over the next few weeks and our friend Neil Storey has done an astonishing job in unearthing all sorts of gems.

It really is astonishing what can be achieved - as you say, our new vinyl and CDs editions are more lavish than the kind of thing even the majors have produced, and we’ve managed to pull it off, by a team effort. It’s been by far the maddest thing we’ve ever done but there is always method in our madness and we’ve come a very long way. Although Occultation still doesn’t have those offices, warehouses and staff, people take us seriously now. We’re working with people who really know what they’re doing, building up something designed to endure. Right from the very first day we’ve always had huge ambitions - I think back to the insanity of those first two 10” singles and it was all there in microcosm. We’ve always reached for the skies.

PB: Thank you.


The photographs of Paul Simpson that accompany this article were taken by Darren Aston.











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