As the festival season draws to a close there is one staple event in the diary, aptly titled End of the Road, that for those of the independent musical persuasion, has come as a welcomed indulgence, ending the close of summer with a staggering array of artists established, emerging and relatively unknown. Now in its seventh year the 8,000 capacity gathering has marked itself as a triumphant success with the likes of The Guardian and the Independent showering it in praise year on year. Truly a festival created for music fans by music fans it’s a championing that is all thanks to friends Simon Taffe and Sofia Hagberg, who surprisingly had no prior experience of working within the music or festival industry. Perhaps it is this most of all that seems to be the key to their successes.
The same rule of thumb may be applied to Bella Union‘s co-founder and runner Simon Raymonde. Formerly the bassist with Cocteau Twins, Raymonde and bandmate Robin Guthrie initially set up the label as a way to self release their own recordings, but soon saw the project spawn into something far larger. ‘Coming from a musician’s background, to start running a label you’re like, “What am I doing? I’m doing what I never expected”. You have moments where you think “I don’t know if I can do this”, and I’ve had a couple of those over the years, of trying to figure out what role to play: “Am I the friendly guy or the record company guy? And if the latter does that mean I have to be a dick?”‘ he jokes. ‘When you have some success with something, even if it’s tiny, say from selling a few thousand records rather than a few hundred, it gives you that little bit of confidence and you start to think “Ah, I’m not too bad at this”. I think signing Lift to Experience (2000/2001) was probably the moment that I thought “I can do this, because other people seem to really like it”. So it was that moment I think where I realised that this could be a job, that I could do it properly, and then I suppose that feeling just carried on. I never had a particular plan as to which direction the label would go. I still don’t. I just go on what I hear, like “Wow I just love that so much let’s try and sign it”. That’s the driving force; just being so excited by something that you can’t stop listening to it. Of course you can’t sign everybody you think is amazing, it’s just physically not possible. The way I do it now? I wouldn’t sign anybody I wouldn’t want to have round for dinner, and anybody that my dog would bark at!’
Now in their 15th year Bella Union is one of the most notable, influential and desirable labels for musicians and music lovers alike; and chatting with Raymonde, whose passion is undoubted, the adjective friendly crops up frequently. ‘It’s a friendly label,’ he informs, the musicians he signs are the people he counts as friends; solid, humble individuals. ‘I want it to be a label that I would like to have been signed to,’ he continues as he outlines the pros of Bella Union’s unique ethos which stands them apart from larger labels and certainly many of those encountered personally as a member of a band himself. ‘Another thing about [us] that differs from a lot of other labels is that we don’t tend to sign a band for a long, long time, and own their masters. We don’t own any masters, I personally don’t agree with it so our deals are very short licenses.’
It’s a love and joy for this work that is shared in the way in which End of the Road make festivals comprising their dream bands; their wish lists. And why not. It seems to be for this reason that they work so well, and with such parallels between the two it’s no wonder a collaboration at this year’s festival will see some 30 Bella Union bands performing on four stages across the festival site on it’s opening Friday. Other than the logistical nightmares which Simon outlines: ‘Keeping the agents happy, the billing, trying to make it musically work so this doesn’t clash with that, wondering “Are these people going to be annoyed about being on before these guys?” It’s been super fun. I mean what a privilege’, he beams, ‘to take over my favourite festival. For one day! It’s like a dream come true’.
With their successes seeing them sign the likes of Fleet Foxes back in 2008 – ‘Who could’ve predicted that?!’ he reflects – a move which made the band a household name and gave the record label a wider audience, Bella Union have subsequently gone on to win the Independent Record Label of the Year award in 2010. As well as their curating for End of the Road, the Shoreditch based label featured artists at the recent Hard Rock Calling Paul Simon show, which saw the legendary half of Simon and Garfunkel perform Graceland alongside Ladysmith Black Mambazo; while later in the year they will make an appearance at industry festival Iceland Airwaves. In addition there’s a compilation coming out: ‘a kind of double disc of my [Simon’s] selections from over the last 15 years…of course there’s gonna be loads of great things I’ve left off. I didn’t think it would go on this long, [that] I’d be sitting here at the age of 50 signing bands. It seems a very strange thing to be doing, but here we are.’
And if all this seems like Christmas has come early…well their traditional Union Chapel show will be waiting for you in December too.
Bella Union’s End of the Road line up includes some of the following wonderfuls:
Cashier No. 9
I Break Horses
Lanterns on the Lake
The Low Anthem
Our Broken Garden
Van Dyke Parks
Interview by: Melanie McGovern
Listen to Simple Folk Radio: End of the Road Festival Special which was broadcast back in July.