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Friday, November 9, 2012

The Occultation Interview (part 1)

There is a lengthy interview with Occultation boss and Distractions guitarist and songwriter, Nick Halliwell, by John Clarkson over at Penny Black.  In this first part Nick discusses the label's origins...

Occultation Recordings: Interview With Nick Halliwell 

Author: John Clarkson

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 3a.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. 

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