Thursday, 20 November 2008

Max Lennert

The tape label Stop Scratching was crafted together little over a year ago in and amongst the bedrooms of Benjamin Savva and Cassandra Merrick. A stream of quality assured cassettes have been unleashed since then, containing the cultured sounds of Gently Friendly, Talibam!, Teeth!!! and Human Hair to name but a noisy few. Coincidentally Chinese Democracy is released on Myspace today also, let's celebrate and read Benjamin's lovely answers to my questions!

-First of all, in the 21st century, why have you decided to create a tape label? Was it because of their malleability? Would vinyl or CD simply not cut it? Or is Stop Scratching an experiment, in a sense, to see if a UK tape label can work? Were you inspired by American contemporaries such as Fuck It Tapes

Boredom has to always be a prerequisite for anything that's good that gets done I suppose. Boredom definitely played a big part, we (Cassie & I) we're both living in Coventry at the time, I don't know if you've ever been there but since all those bombings in the 40s Coventry is a bit of concrete wasteland, devoid of much culture at all, living in a place that you need to have something to keep you positive, you know? It wasn't a conscious effort to test the UK's market or anything like that although the notion of whether this would/will all work is one that often plagued us, I guess it still does in a way. As for why we chose tapes, I guess they were the only medium we could really do it on, I've never been a fan of the pre-packaged, soulless, jewelcase CD release and for what we were trying to achieve i don't think vinyl would be appropriate at this stage either. We aimed to create much more than a medium by which to release music, we wanted to put out something that - to an extent - embodied mine and Cassie's very different personalities and hand packaged tapes was always going to do that better than anything else.

As for inspiration, I've always felt that anytime a label releases a tape I always take notice of it and think it is something worth getting hold of. Fuck It Tapes in particular is something very distinguished to aspire to. Over the years they've built an amazing name for themselves just by sticking at what they do and consistently releasing brilliant, cutting edge music. If we can stand the test of time like they have and are still here in a few years doing what we do then I'd be a very happy person.

-I admire how you've only released UK bands so far; was this a conscious effort to focus on homegrown talent?

This is a question that's come up a couple of times already, Talibam! (our second release) are actually from New York. Haha. Other than that release, yes, we did consciously choose to focus our efforts on championing British talent. Running a label like ours, which was founded on the principles mentioned above, having a relationship with the bands is very important to us. It's not the deciding aspect or anything obviously the both of us actually loving the music enough to want to invest all of that time into it is always going to be the most important factor but we definitely hold relationships and personalities in high regard.

Talibam! we asked them after we'd already confirmed a show for them and after swapping numerous e-mails and realising they had an amazing attitude towards psychical releases, and despite them being allergic to cats, we knew that they were the kind of band we wanted to be working with. I won't name names, but we've already decided against putting out one band we asked because we didn't think they represented themselves in away that suited what we're about, which is friendly, hardworking, music enthusiasts. Or something like that.

-Have you entertained the thought of releasing some overseas bands, any particular ones that you feel would work as a SS release? Have you had any orders from overseas for SS tapes?

We have thought about it a lot actually. Since you sent me these questions we've actually confirmed our fourth release to be with a band from Baltimore called Baby Venom. I speak to the guitarist Dave all the time on the Internet, he's such a cool guy and has very similar beliefs and a great approach toward music. I bought a tape off them that they self-released and am still totally in love with it - so I asked them if we could re-release it over here and they were only to happy to oblige. Everyone I've played it to, or who have heard it off their own back loves it too, I think it's going to sell really well. Other than BV we don't have an immediate plans to release anything from overseas but there certainly will be more in the future.

-How did you find setting up the label? Getting that first release out there must have been fantastic...

It's actually been a lot of hard work, we spent so long talking about it and planning every little detail out in our heads by the time we actually came to making the tapes we thought we'd be able to breeze through it and have them all ready in a week. Truth is, it's almost a year since we put out Mirror! Mirror!
and there are still a few tapes that remain unmade. There are just so many little set backs all the time, then obviously the biggest one is always going to be finances. We use a dymo label maker to print labels to stick onto tapes and as well as being very difficult to come by they cost so much money (about £40 or more per release we have to spend on dymo tape), there have been a few times we haven't been able to post peoples cassettes waiting to get the tape, or afford the postage etc. We like to think that's part of the charm of running a d.i.y label though and it certainly feels like at the end of completing each and every cassette that we've put as much as ourselves into them as we possibly can.

Handing the first release to the band was an amazing moment, you realise at that point it's not all talk and wishful thinking, you've actually done something really positive and that makes us so happy. I think it helps a great deal that once the bands actually get their tapes and realise how much
hard work has gone into them all - from the cutting and sticking of the comics, the card, the brown paper, to the hand typing of all the inlays and the covers, the recording of the tapes, the making of the labels and the tying of string - well, it makes it worth while just to see the appreciation the bands have. Then to think that people we've never met in cities and countries we've never even been to are buying our tapes, there's just no feeling I can compare it to.

Comic Strip from Mirror! Mirror! tape (part 4 of 4)

-Although it would be unfair to ask you to pick a favourite release so far, but is there any band that you would love to work with again?

So far we've really enjoyed working with all of the bands. We were good friends with Mirror! Mirror! before we started Stop Scratching so they were a great choice for our debut release as it means they were a lot more patient with us because they already knew what we are like and it meant we could be a bit more relaxed and not have to rush anything. Musically I think Gentle Friendly is my favourite of the three releases we've done so far and they are causing quite a stir at the moment around the UK so we're very proud to have put out their first official release and it's so pleasing it to consist of music of theirs that might not have necessarily been heard if it wasn't for the tape. They're both super sweet guys too. In terms of working with anyone again, we don't have any plans to do any tapes for a band once we've done one, what we aim to do is to make unique releases, either for bands we think have the potential to go onto bigger things, or in the future maybe for bigger bands to do one off back catalogue rarities, so for this reason i don't think we're going to be doing more than one tape for people.

-Have bands you've contacted always fully supported you? Obviously you don't have to name names but have any responded negatively?

It still surprises me sometimes how positive some people are, I guess they just see that what we're doing is honest and sincere, it's hard to respond negatively to those qualities I think. Occasionally bands don't really understand what we're doing with the whole tape thing and they think we're just looking to make a mixtape with a track of theirs, or a compilation or something of that sort. We've had a few crossed wires and one band that said yes originally only to turn round and say they didn't have enough material but these things can't be helped. Generally, we have no complaints about the way we've been treated and mostly people have fully supported us, yes.

-Running an independent record label is hardly ever done to make a profit, but how have you been coping? Have finances ever held you back?

I can't imagine it ever been done for profit, there just isn't any money to be made, at least not on the scale we're doing things right now. As I mentioned above, financial problems are constantly a set back for us, it means it takes a lot longer than we'd like to get the releases out and sometimes a lot longer to post to people than they should have to wait. Overall though, we're coping I guess. I mean, we've never come to the point where we've had to consider not doing a release because of money, or packing it in all together. Life would be made a lot easier if more people were into buying physical releases though. Although, I don't think a label our size at the moment has to worry to much about the downloading phenomenon, partly because they're on tape and thus a lot harder to get hold of (although we do send out the mp3s once somewhere has brought the tape) and partly because our releases are hopefully something people can cherish and you certainly don't get that sense of worth from an mp3. I think once we get a little more organised and actually take some tapes into rough trade and start doing a distro at shows then we'll being to sell a lot more simply because of the aesthetic, once we get to that stage i think we won't have to worry about money so much, at least in terms of putting our own cash in all the time.

-You write quite a loquacious (but all the better for it) blog, how important do you feel it is for keeping people interested in SS?

I don't think it's vital for keeping people interested in Stop Scratching, I hope that as long as we keep putting out amazing music in amazing packaging that will be enough to keep peoples attentions. I do think the blog is very important however at getting new people to take notice, instead of maybe just seeing our name somewhere and not checking it out, they actually go and read our blog and see a bit more about what we're about, what music we like and what we've been up to. It helps the keep the label personal and we're again back to the whole notion of wanting our personalities to be a part of what we do, the blog is intentionally loquacious because of this. We don't want to be condescending or obscure with our writing, we want people to read it and think that we're just normal people doing something we love and hopefully everyone can relate to this much easier.

-How do you currently see the state of the UK underground music scene? Bands/Audiences/Recognition etc

I think at the moment we have a very healthy underground scene maybe it just lacks the unity of our American counterparts in some senses. There are a lot of people working to bridge these divides (especially in London with people like no pain in pop and this is music) and I sincerely hope that one day soon there is a much closer knit community. I think that's what British music lacks sometimes, a real sense of community, everyone has there affiliations and other than the occasional nod to their contemporaries in the form of a support slot, or a DJ set or something along those lines, there isn't much unconditional, wholesome support. In terms of music there are definitely bands in the UK now that are equalling and in some cases even surpassing that of the talent that's coming out of America right now. Something we try to do as a label is to put out music that can rival what's going on in America in terms of sound. Even if we don't talk about it and it's somewhat subconscious hopefully the music we put will one day fall on the ears of those who slate the British scene for not being contemporary or experimental enough, or for following American patterns, when in fact there are bands here who are making sounds that are easily as exciting and forward thinking as the rest of the world, all off their own backs.

-Name 3 bands that readers of this simply HAVE to hear:

Baby Venom, for sure, they're one of the best new bands of 2008 for me. You can go here and read what I wrote about them last month and even download a free mp3, they're definitely worth checking out, no matter what type of music you're into. From reading the blog, it's got a very neu-disco vibe going on so I think you readers will really enjoy Nite Jewel. Sexy, bass heavy, lo-fi italo in the vein of Glass Candy if they were fronted by Mary Pearson of High Places. For something completely different, Food For Animals, a political glitch-hop duo from DC who use powerful and punishing electronics and lyrics similar to Dalek but with a more IDM edge. Like Jay-Z rapping and Otto Von Schirach dropping the beats. You can't listen to that shit loud enough.

-You've recently moved from Birmingham to LDN, can I ask why? Apart from your accent, how much of an impact has Birmingham had on you?

Haha! I always like to think I don't have to much of a Birmingham accent, although working in my bar the other week a cockney geezer seemed awfully pleased to have been served real ale, in an old mans jug by a northerner. That's kind of when it hit me, I'm a northerner now. How depressing. Haha.

I'll always have a soft spot for Birmingham, it helped shape me into the person I am today but musically I think I personally just hit a brick wall there. Don't get me wrong, there are people doing some amazing things, I mean it's the home of
Supersonic after all, but for what I'm into and for meeting people who share the same interests London is so much bigger and so much more open minded. It's not like I'm some young, excited girl with delusions of being a fashion designer, I didn't move here for a chance to make it in the big city and all those cliches, it's just something I wanted to do. I'm 22 now and I'm not getting any younger, it seemed pointless to live a few hours down the road from a city that musically I can relate to so much more and just sit around moaning about.

The Flyer for Stop Scratching's launch night featuring the Talibam! cassette

-Getting music out there, djing, putting on gig/clubnights, releasing tapes seems to be a staple of SS, ever thought 'sod it' and just went and read a book instead?

Oh yes, of course! I often just sit around and pay no attention to any of the things I'm doing currently, I think you have to once in a while, so much is going on in my life right now if I just constantly put all my efforts into everything I'd be a very tired boy a lot of the time. It's definitely got to be more about balance, if you can find this and you believe in what you do it makes it a lot easier to handle doing 100 things at once. It's again down not wanting to sit around moaning about things, I'd much rather go and get things done myself. None of the bands I was listening to were playing in Birmingham, the answer? Put on shows. No DJ's were paying music that I wanted to dance to, the answer? Play my own. A lot of bands I really liked were going relatively unnoticed, the answer? Start a label. As I said, if you just believe in something completely and fully, it doesn't seem as daunting, I genuinely enjoy doing all of the things I do.

-What have you got in store for us in the future?

That's the golden question isn't it. Well, after Baby Venom we've got our next four releases coming up that are all going to be linked together by a four piece poster special, one poster coming out with each release that when put together will form a comic strip of it's own. We're showcasing some of the British talent I was talking about earlier in the form of Human Hair from Nottingham and Teeth!!!, Male Bonding & Chupacabra all from London. We'll be working with four different artists for the packaging this time as apposed to just one, but still in keeping with the uniformed theme. We should be able to get started on that in the new year and we can't wait.

After that we're thinking about doing the same thing, only showcasing raw underground American talent and artists that we think would be relevant to the British scene. Bridging the divides. After that maybe put out some vinyl, try to get our comics in the Tate, run for first black
Prime Minister of the UK, take over the world? Who knows.

Stop Scratching are having a christmas party going on at the Lock Tavern in London next month - details here

Delectable cassettes can be purchased from their Myspace here

Stop Scratching blog with updates and anecdotes here