The Renaissance of 4AD By Christopher Waters
Born in 1980, British independent label 4AD has come a long way in the past 18 years. It developed a cult following during the '80s thanks to unique albums by the Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil, a house band formed by label founder Ivo Watts-Russell. It crested waves of success thanks to hit records by the Pixies and the Breeders, but has also released albums by obscure artists like Heidi Berry and Colourbox that failed to create even the slightest ripple in the Top 40. That's the past.
Now, 4AD has embarked on its most ambitious release schedule since the late '80s. Creating its own renaissance movement with a onslaught of releases by new signings and old favourites alike, 4AD is looking to capitalise on its legacy as an artist's label.
Combing through the vaults, the Pixies and Throwing Muses are represented by collections that showcase their stunning indie rock. And new albums by Mojave 3, Cuba, Thievery Incorporated, and the Hope Blister - a This Mortal Coil for the '90s - follow in the wake of two solid albums by Lisa Germano and His Name Is Alive. The label has made its stand. Germano, His Name Is Alive's Warren Defever and 4AD's Watts-Russell wonder if the world has had enough of silly love songs.
Lisa Germano's Better Place
Lisa Germano has come a long way from her days playing in John Cougar Mellencamp's backing band. A long way from sold-out stadium shows and roars of approval. But it's doubtful that the gifted multi-instrumentalist misses the tumultuous second hand applause received trotting out "Pink Houses" for the umpteenth time. When people applaud her now, the singer/songwriter knows she can take all the credit. Like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, she's the only one there.
She describes her newly released album, Slide, as a "pretty record" and hopes aloud that "there's room for that somewhere" in the music industry. Distributed by Polygram in Canada, Slide was delayed for almost a year while 4AD, no longer with Warner Bros., searched for a new distributor. Germano's records over the past decade haven't been released so much as set adrift to wander in search of like minds. It's not that she's looking to be rescued, although sometimes you get the sense she could use some company. The music she records is more a friendly beacon sent out to others, a gentle reminder than entertains her listeners and lets them know they're not alone.
"It's the same old thing, but happier. Hopefully it'll keep going that way." -Lisa Germano
Having built a career out of soul-searching pop ballads that are passionate and frank self-portraits, Germano says she wasn't about to change her tune this time around. "It's the same old thing, but it's happier. It's called Slide because it's about trying to get out of this bad place and going to a better place... and you can really see that better place in this record. Hopefully it'll keep going that way."
Prior to Slide, Germano's most recent foray in recordings was a featured guest of Giant Sand-offshoot, OP8. She contributed four songs to the project, including "If I Think Of Love," which she reworked to include on her new record.
It wasn't the first time that Germano has adapted her recordings. She actually released her debut album, Happiness twice. First for Capitol, and then again for 4AD, which signed Germano as an artist after an ill-timed corporate shake-up at Capitol shortly after her album was released in 1993.
"I saw the demise of my whole record," says Germano, who remembers the uncertainly surrounding her meeting with new label boss, Gary Gersh. "Without saying so, the new president said, 'I really don't like you or your music.' And I said, also without saying so, 'I really hate big labels and I don't like you either.'
"So in a very nice way, he said, 'Your record is getting some good reviews. We would really like you to take it somewhere else if you want.'" Free to find a new home, Germano called 4AD founder Watts-Russell, who had talked to Germano's management about obtaining the rights to release Happiness in the UK. Watts-Russell says he was happy to get the album and ecstatic to get the artist as well. Happiness was re-modelled, then re-released internationally by 4AD in 1994. Albums Geek The Girl, Excerpts from the Love Circus and now Slide have built on that foundation and established Germano as an enticing songwriter who has only flirted with the pop charts, never gone steady.
"She's Lisa," Watts-Russell says with obvious admiration. "Her personality is in her records. She creates a little world of her own that I think those that hear her have a lot of affection for. But that one track that gets on the radio is evasive."
Coming over to 4AD, Germano says she wasn't sure where she fit on a label roster that, at that time, included ancient-rock ensemble Dead Can Dance, power pop group Pixies and swirling Brit-pop outfit Lush. "As a label, it does so many different things, it's funny that people pigeonhole 4AD as this atmospheric label. Sometimes, in the past, I've thought maybe I don't belong on the label, but that's not true."
"Ivo's musical tastes are very wide. There's something similar to everything 4AD releases - there is some sort of cohesive thing there somewhere."
His Name Is Alive's Michigan Magic
His Name Is Alive founder, Warren Defever sent out his demo tape, entitled I Had Sex With God, to the usual major label suspects and to some selected indie labels in 1990. Not surprisingly, no one responded - and probably never made it past the unsolicited tape's title - except 4AD, who came calling with a record deal. "It was meant to be," says Defever pointedly.
Eight years later and Defever is totally happy with his relationship with the label and its founder, who quit foggy London town for smoggy Los Angeles five years ago. Although Watts-Russell set up an L.A. office, 4AD's base remains in England.
His Name Is Alive have been allowed to wander wherever Defever's creative brain takes it, including the Motown soul meets Hendrix-soaked rock jam excursions featured on Ft. Lake, released last month. "Ivo understands where we're coming from," explains Defever, who appreciates the creative hands-off status afforded him by the obliging label head. Given some of Defever's more outré ideas in the past - including his recordings for another label with hillbilly punk band Elvis Hitler - Watts-Russell's hands-off approach comes with a large degree of trust and respect.
"I don't want to bandy these words around, but I think Warren's a genius - he's so clever," Watts-Russell says. "He draws from all over the place. The new album is Hendrix, very definitely, with elements of late '60s pop." Coming from a record company publicist, terms like "genius" and "clever" are a dime-a-dozen. But from a label owner, such highfalutin words retain their currency. Watts-Russell enshrined his high esteem for Defever with the dedication of the box set of his 4AD studio project, This Mortal Coil, which was billed as "a conglomeration of musicians he had either signed, knew or admired" playing cover versions of songs he loves.
When it comes right down to it, 4AD remains as one of the few enduring artist's labels. Because more than being label president, Watts-Russell's principle occupation seems to music fan - at least to a point.
In many ways, Watts-Russell serves as a grand enabler to the factory of creative talent he has acquired. Defever gleefully admits that he has "no legitimate producing skills," but that hasn't stopped him from producing all of His Name Is Alive's home recordings in the past. Self-production isn't that rare in the world of independent labels - some critics would argue that sound engineering by producers without any legitimate skills is the norm in indie rock circles - however, few artists have as strict guidelines as Defever when it comes to who they'll work with. House rules state only Michigan natives need apply. For Ft. Lake, His Name Is Alive charted its new sonic course with the help of Funkadelic and Aretha Franklin producer Steve King.
"We were venturing into new territory - heavy rock - so getting someone in seemed like a good idea. The fact that he was born in Livonia scored him bonus points."
Watts-Russell says that it was Defever himself who adapted his sound in the hopes of attracting a broader audience. "He was very specific about sending tapes of stuff that he was working on to us to try and get them to being as close to being workable on the radio, without losing his own individuality. He was prepared to go down that route," says Watts-Russell.
"Whether he's achieved it... No, I think most major companies that would hear it would go, 'Oh, God, there's loads of potential in all these things but it's not commercially recognised.'
"But it's a rawer mix than previous albums...probably the first time he captured on record how good a guitar player he is. It's just a gem of an album," exclaims Watts-Russell, who seems like he wouldn't want Ft. Lake to sound any other way. "One song after another, it's an album of really excellent songs."
JEFF KEIBEL TORONTO, ONTARIO CANADA