When Alan Trench, who currently lives in Greece, co-headed the well-known record distributor World Serpent, many people only gradually realized that he was also a musician. He made little fuss about his folk group Orchis, whose first CD came out in 1994, and so the mysterious trio became an insider tip, mostly missed by casual music consumers. When this era ended at the turn of the millennium, only few would have expected that the musician, who masters a variety of (not only) stringed instruments, would experience a second spring with enormous output only a few years later. With the Black Lesbian Fishermen, whom he founded with friends in his adopted home country, he plays a beguiling ritual psychedelic whose cross-genre compositions show a great musical subtlety, whereas Temple Music stands for a rougher, spontaneous music, which often leans toward spacerock realms. With his wife Rebecca Loftiss aka the Gray Field Recordings, who also participates in the Fishermen, he runs the changeable duo Howling Larsons. And then there is Twelve Thousand Days, the folk duo with Martyn Bates that goes back to his English days and still exists. You can talk about Trench without falling into name dropping, but luckily you don’t have to, because the multi-layered mosaic of his music can use a few signposts. In the following interview, we address all the above and it becomes clear how much the cosmos of underground music has changed since the early 90s.
Since our last interview you released music with quite a number of groups, most recently with Black Lesbian Fishermen. What was the idea behind this album about the metaphysics of natron? Does this salt have a symbolic connection to the music?
Natron is the hermetic term for salt, but used in the metaphysical (that is, as a first principle) sense it represents the physical body that remains after combustion… in hermetic terms, this refers to the physical remains which survives after death in order to instigate new life… so in the sense we are using it, the ideas, the creativity, the writing are the combustion, and what is left behind is the finished work. Rebecca had been studying the PGM, the Ancient Greek Magical Papyri (PGM I & II are in the Berlin Museum, btw) and had been inspired by that; Nikos Fokas is very deeply involved in various aspects of the occult in Athens, and then I had a dream that this was the title of the new album – so it seemed fated to be – especially when we played through the first sequence of the unborn album – it was exactly right.
All members of the Fishermen play in other groups, some for quite a while already. How does writing and recording work in this band? Is there a main driving force or rather some sort of creative chaos?
I think all our personal projects come first, but it isn’t like we have to leave spaces in our diaries for BLF recording. Rebecca and I are about 2 hours away from Athens, and we have a 5 year old; the rest of the Fishermen work in Athens, have kids, and from the outside it looks impossible, timewise. But we (that is Rebecca & myself) have learned to be somewhat Greek about this… so, when any of us come up with something, we seize it and record it in some way immediately – you have to be immediate in modern Greece. No planning can take place. Then it’s sent to the others, who will either add parts, or write parts to be recorded when we are together, and this way we end up with quite a lot of new material. When we do all get together to rehearse, we’ll try the fragmentary stuff, which usually changes completely, and also come up with at least one new piece. The problem, as I see it, with the Greek experimental scene isn’t that there aren’t opportunities to play, to record, to perform – it’s that everything is very ephemeral – a project comes together, does some fabulous stuff, then everyone disperses, and that’s that. With the BLF we have two non-Greeks, and we are the driving force that makes sense of the creative chaos, as Rebecca and I will individually select material and work on it, then get the rest of the recording process underway. With Metaphysics, I have to say it’s an album mostly shaped by Rebecca… once we had broad agreement on the tracks, she dragged us kicking and screaming to the final versions. For instance, with ‘Third Rubric’ that was originally about 30 minutes long… the ‘surf’ section was about twice as long as it is now, and was purely instrumental – personally, I really liked the long droney first part, which had some great mad bass & keyboards – but Nikos had me cut it and cut it until it was more an intro to the main song, which he said Rebecca should sing on… which she did; but said that part had to be cut down as well. And they were both right. So when I considered that track finished, I gave it to her, and she mastered it; and it sounded great. ‘Pigs Before Strawberries’ was about 40 minutes initially, and went through much the same process; on the other hand, ‘You Find The Noise’ is pretty much as it was first recorded.
Do you see yourselves as some kind of supergroup or as something more firm?
We’re all really good friends, and I think that comes first. There’s definitely a Black Lesbian vibe when we’re all playing – I mean there’s a definite sound, so the BLF has a discrete existence of it’s own – and also a pretty respectable catalogue of songs, so I think we all view it as an entity in it’s own right, despite having other projects we’re involved in. Sometime those come first; sometimes they don’t, depending on what we’re all doing, which seems pretty healthy to me – so I think the BLF will be around for a while!
Of all your music groups, Temple Music seems to be the most open one when it comes to any stylistic approach. If you compare several albums, you find a wide range of styles from space rock to ambient or ritualistic pieces of an introverted nature. What would you say is the frame that holds them together?
Before I met up with Steve, TM was my solo project, and the starting point of most pieces is still usually something I’ve come up with, or am currently researching / obsessing over. Steve plays a lot with his old time/bluegrass project – they do a lot of live dates; and he comes up with the material and arrangements for that; Dan has his new Duty project, and is doing a lot of remix work, so the first steps in any TM recording project are always down to me. Sometimes, these tracks have an air of completeness about them early on, so they proceed with minimal or no involvement from others; sometimes the skeleton is just that and I have no real idea where the flesh will come from, and those are the ones that head off to Steve. Ideally he’d be in the studio with me; but distance has intervened! Steve has always brought a pop twist to anything he’s involved in, so if he’s not there TM is certainly lacking that. So what connects everything is me, for better or worse. I like a whole range of music and have a pretty wide range of interests; sometimes a song presents itself, and when I start playing it, it takes on a certain character, stylistically. The longer, more introspective pieces tend to be idea based, and the music is written down before I play it; and, as I’m not classically trained, that’s very based on what I don’t know how to do but go ahead with anyway. Basically I make music that I like to listen to.
Is “Io”, the track in the latest Dark Ambient compilation, a singular piece, or does it belong to some bigger framework? It’s mythological content at least implies a wider context..
Well, when it was recorded… or actually, before it was recorded – it wasn’t; it was a standalone piece for the Dark Ambient compilation. I approached the poet Giorgos Kariotis, with whom I’d worked previously, and asked him if he knew of the local Evian version of the Io myth, and if he could write a short piece based on it, and to my surprise he didn’t know it; and then to my surprise I could find no reference to it, so I don’t know quite where I got it from, and I don’t think Giorgos quite believed me. He ended up bringing in other aspects that I, in turn, wasn’t aware of, and wrote the piece – a lyric poem -on the boat over to Evia, then recorded the words. Around two weeks ago the poem was published in his fourth collection of poems, and will be played at the book launch at the beginning of February; we might do it live, but that’s a bit problematic as there are a number of instrumental themes… it could be done via laptop, but would be rather better as an ensemble piece, but I can’t see there’s time for that. Certainly, though, there will be a selection of treatments of Giorgos’ new works – Temple Music did this for the last two – but not til much later in 2020. As well as this, I see no reason why there shouldn’t be a ‘mythological collection’ of some sort in the future, pulling together various tracks, plus new ones, but it won’t be any time soon!
The two pieces on the latest “Split Frequencies” release seem to correspond each other in their narratives. Was there a common concept between you and Akoustik Timbre Frekuency, who recorded the other track?
There wasn’t a collaboration as such – I had my piece completed before P23 heard any of it, but he then worked on his piece with mine in mind.
In some of the recent Temple Music releases, Stephen Robinson was not involved. Is he basically still part of the group?
Steve is always present! Sometimes in spirit only, but he’s always part of TM!
The last Temple Music album “The Unquiet Mind”, which you recorded solo, seems to be quite a personal work, and it also appears like a spontaneous eruption. What can you tell us about it’s formation?
It’s both… the whole thing was written, recorded, mixed and mastered in less than a week – a track a day, and it’s an album I’m really happy with – and one that has struck a chord, getting radio play in quite different places from previous works. I had a bunch of ideas I’d been playing around with for a while, and there was nothing very firm about any of them, but I had the title – I’d known that the album would be called that for a while. I’d been reading some psychology books – although not Kay Redfield Jamison, who I later found had a book of the same title – and I knew I wanted the ‘sound’ to be very internal… I mean very much a thematic journey, but everything that became the album was linked already in my mind. It’s a story of sacrifice, a journey with a specific but unknown goal… now I write it down, it’s very hard to put into words, but I knew what it was on some level. ‘Jungle In The Night With Tigers’ is what triggered the recording… my young daughter was doing a class performance at school, and we had no idea what it was about, but her part included the mass suicide of the Souliote women under Ali Pasha, which was tied in to the Greek War of Independence, and to see a bunch of five year olds re-enacting this as a dance – it’s accepted as fact here, and just part of the culture – was quite affecting. I asked her later what it was all about, and she replied ‘Jungle in the night with tigers’… well, she was 5, and who knows what question she was answering, but that was the beginning… the idea that you are in the dark, you see nothing, you are surrounded by obstacles, and danger is all around. So with that in mind I decided to record a song a day for 5 consecutive days, mix and master them, and see what the result was. The tracks on the album are in the order I recorded them, so I hope, and believe, that the journey from non being (in the sense of just being alive, but not really aware) to some sort of introspective peace is apparent. Stylistically, there’s a sense of unity, I think, but it’s a little far from what Sombre Soniks usually release, so I was pleased that they did, and liked it so much. They’ve always been very supportive of us.
All of these pieces seem to deal with your home in Greece, where you live now for some years. What brought you to dedicating an album to your chosen place at this moment?
They definitely do. Before I moved here I found it very easy to write songs inspired by ancient Greece, and when I did move here melodies and music were fine, but lyrics were a different matter. When I came to writing songs for the new Twelve Thousand Days album I found it incredibly difficult to come up with anything that resonated with me; and nothing seemed to work until I worked out that well, of course I’m in Greece, but I’m not Greek, and I had to mentally place myself back into the English tradition or my English tradition anyway, and I immediately wrote ‘Maid On the Moor’, which is one of the favourite things of mine that I’ve written. It wasn’t suitable for TTD at all, but it fitted right in with ‘Further, Faster, Closer, Slower’ which I was working on at the time. Anyway, it made me realize that my inspiration comes from within, not without; duh. But with ‘The Unquiet Mind’ I was able to use where we live, and how we live, put it through that internal process, and be at peace with it. It meant, I think, that I’d fully arrived. Not that there are lyrics on that album, but that was because they were unnecessary rather than because I couldn’t come up with any!
Can you explain the historic background of “Jungle in the Night with Tigers”, that you’ve mentioned before?
The specific event is now known as ‘The Dance Of The Souliote Women’, or ‘The Dance Of Zalongo’. I didn’t know anything about Ali Pasha other than the name until a couple of years ago when we drove up to Ioannina in the North of Greece, and then across to Gyrokaster in Albania, and it was almost as if we were in the footsteps of Ali Pasha, who was a particularly brutal Ottoman ruler – although in the end, he over-reached himself and was assassinated by order of the Sultan. The Suliotes had almost impregnable mountain defences, and fought against Ali for many years, until they finally had to surrender; the conditions of their surrender were not observed, and they were slaughtered. The specific story of the dance is that surrendered men were escorted into a compound under a flag of truce; once inside, the doors were closed, and the Pasha’s men opened fire. The wives of the slaughtered were said to be watching this from a safe distance atop a crag; on seeing it they started the dance, and, one by one, threw themselves over the edge, some still holding children. When this event became known, it was the catalyst for European support of the Greek War of Independence, or so the story goes.
‘Farewell poor world; farewell sweet life
And you, my wretched country, farewell forever
Farewell springs, valleys, mountains and hills
Farewell springs and you, women of Souli
The fish cannot live on the land, nor the flower in the sand
And the women of Souli cannot live without freedom’
Is how the the song goes.
It seems you’re also very much involved in the music scene of the greater Athens area, and of cause Black Lesbian Fishermen is the most obvious result. What can you tell us about the scene around Underflow Records?
It’s all down to Vassilios Filippakopoulos, who owns Underflow. One of the things I always found… regrettable, I suppose, was that there are a huge amount of really talented people involved in experimental music in Athens; they would come together to rehearse or do shows, but there were never really any concrete results – or not many; there are MMD and the excellent people involved in them, for instance. The Greek people live and breathe music – it really is everywhere, and whilst a lot of the modern pop stuff is essentially indistinguishable from that of anywhere else, there is a really huge amount of non-mainstream. Something like Villagers Of Ionnina City are incredibly popular here, and I think will go global this year – the new album, whilst Greek, fits in anywhere. There’s also an understanding of the spectrum of music; people from the classical sphere will also be playing in experimental ensembles, and the audience is very open to that. It’s great. But, like I said, frustrating, because it was all going undocumented. Vassili is a dj and huge music fan – he really knows his stuff, and he loves vinyl… and he has a performance space below the Underflow shop… so it was a small step to releasing music. Everybody was doing shows with him anyway, and he was (and is) getting incredible artistes from all over the world to play there, so he was absolutely not only the guy in the right place at the right time, but, seemingly, the only one to see it as an opportunity. Some great records have come out of Underflow already, and there’s a whole lot lined up – and the Greek music press are taking it very seriously.
I often think that Greek underground or experimental music could be more well known in other places. As there’s a lot going on, do you think that Greek musicians get more of the deserved attention in the future?
Hmm, difficult. I’d like to hope so, but I suspect the knowledge and/or understanding of Greece works against them. Despite Xenakis, Jani Christou, Theodorakis – and even Vangelis – being outstanding and well known in their fields, the general public know only the likes of Nana Mouskouri & Demis Roussos. Not that I’ve anything against them, but the idea of them outside Greece contributes to the sort of maudlin / plate smashing image. I suppose there is the language barrier – which is considerable. Hopefully people who are into experimental / underground are less blinkered, but I think it’s still a problem. Eventually! Let’s hope so!
As you first moved to Greece, how much did your expectations fit with how it became? What was the greatest surprise over the years?
Surprisingly, it actually surpasses my expectations. Although I’ll never be Greek, there is a huge amount in the Greek mentality that I like, but, being English, cannot fully embrace … most of all is the general ‘fuck you, I am the prince in my own country’ attitude towards authority, and as this sits atop the attitude of an oppressed people – and there are few peoples who have been more oppressed than the Greek – towards authority that leads to a general lawlessness that I find rather appealing; although it can be irritating too. However, any irritation is surpassed by ‘kefi’ (κέφι), which doesn’t easily translate. The Greeks as a people are by nature, cynical and somewhat fatalistic, and very aware of the ridiculous legal hoops they have erected for themselves and the contortions they have to go through to to avoid them. ‘Kefi’ is akin to ‘the craic’ amongst the Irish, which probably doesn’t help as an explanation, but it’s something like the feeling of joy in ‘just being’ despite endless tribulation. It can come from drinking coffee in the kafeneio, or being with friends in a fish taverna, or possession of a perfect orange, or the blue of the sky and the blue of the sea. So, I guess my biggest surprise is experiencing kefi, despite being a ξένος (foreigner, non Greek).
In which way did your life abroad change or influence your personal link to the UK or Englishness in general?
It’s strange… I’m English, and always will be; the history of England, the landscape, the mythology, is deeply ingrained in my psyche, but I’m done with it as a place. I went back a couple of years ago for my eldest daughter’s graduation, and whilst it was great seeing old friends, and the lost and hidden parts of Lincolnshire were as wonderful as ever, I never need to go back again. The people at large – and I’ve never had much time for them – just depressed me. Because I’ve lived outside England a fair bit, the parochial, little Englander attitude has always rather annoyed me; but now it encompasses complete idiots taking credit for great things of the past. All the great achievements of individuals that make up English culture are now claimed as theirs by people who’ve never read them, and never will. Mainly, modern life in any country is just annoying, full of insidious and meaningless distractions… and because I’ll never be a native Greek speaker, or anything like it, I can thoroughly ignore it here. So my personal Englishness is set in stone, but the ‘real’ country – that has moved on, and I haven’t; and don’t intend to. Maybe it’s just an age thing, exacerbated in my case by being here, because most of the people I know think more or less the same.
Without intending to go too deep into politics, do you think that the new developments in the UK will have a negative impact on your life and work?
Are you bringing up B****t by any chance!? Which, for the record, is the most stupid thing any single country has done in my lifetime. I don’t think it’ll make much difference to me personally… I’m an official Greek resident, as is Rebecca, and we have a child born here and in the Greek system. But you never know what’s around the corner… the Greek state wants us here (well wants our money) and made their position clear about two years back. The UK seems bent on diving into an ocean of flaming shit, but obviously I hope it actually does work out – I still have family and friends there, after all. I daresay the UK will rejoin the EU at some point, but not for at least a decade. Meanwhile, I’ll just get on with my own life!
Together with Greek scholar Nikolaos Lymperopoulous, you and your wife as Howling Larsons recorded an album based on the Proem of Parmenides’ text On Nature. Do you still plan to set the other two parts of the text to music too?
That’s up to Nik, really… he wants to, but he also wants to do a lot of other stuff, and any one of the things takes a pretty huge amount of preparation on his part. Because he does Byzantine chanting, each tone is a musical absolute, and each syllable is a tone. So once he’s settled on a text, the initial tones give us the musical outline… then we plan where it will go according to strict musical theory, then map it out according to how the text changes. That bit is pretty straightforward. Then, the only way we can proceed is to perform the actual piece, because Nik isn’t comfortable doing it ‘cold’ in the studio; so we might have, with false starts etc, 2 hours or so to edit downs so that the piece is correct… then the actual work starts. So the current project is Poimandres from the Corpus Hermeticum, which can be translated as ‘mind’, or, perhaps, ‘universal mind’ … which has taken around 8 months so far… then, if he wants to return to Parmenides we will! We’re also doing currently doing something from the Greek Magical Papyrus with him which will be a future BLF piece.
As Twelve Thousand Days and even Orchis had albums not so long ago, are these groups still active?
Orchis has accomplished everything we planned for it; there were to be four ‘proper’ albums, one for each season, and the final one was really hard to do, as everyone was busy with other things. We did a few live shows, and that gave us the impetus for finishing at least the recordings for ‘A Dream’, but it still took what seemed forever… we had so many equipment changes during the recording that it was almost like starting from scratch each session, but we got there in the end, and I’m really happy with it. There were also tech problems with the last TTD, ‘Insect Silence’, for the same reasons, but at least all the parts had been recorded, albeit over a nearly ten year period. I was producing and engineering solo albums for Martyn, so we had the opportunity to revisit the TTD material, do any overdubs, and finish it. Then it sat around; the company that were going to release it went bust… the Final Muzik heard it, loved it, and it came out, and was incredibly well received. Martyn and I had already started writing songs for the next one, ‘Field’s End’, and Final Muzik are already down to release it – it’ll be out in 2020. All the songs are done – it was a few intense, really productive sessions at our Bridge House studios here in Evia, really good fun; it just flowed. Maaan. It’s very nearly all mixed and completed… I have to do a few overdubs, but Martyn has already started sequencing it – we actually have maybe double the amount of material we needed, and it’s all really good – so yes, TTD are very much active!
Back in the early nineties, before Orchis released “The Dancing Sun”, people mostly knew you as one of the owners of World Serpent. Do you still feel a strong connection to these times?
Oh, yes. That was a great time. It’s a time that’s over and done with, but I’m incredibly proud of what we achieved over a period of, probably, seven years. We released a lot of really great, very influential albums that defined a whole subculture and made lasting careers for all involved – not that most people weren’t already doing things, of course they were, but WSD took everyone to another level – both in recognition and financially. And whatever anyone may say now, everybody was very close in those days, very collaborative. It was a lot of fun, as well. I still think WSD doesn’t really get it’s due; but then I would say that, wouldn’t I!
For a lot of people, WSD was more than a company and stood for something almost like a subculture of its own. On the other hand, the company’s name was hardly mentioned in the book England’s Hidden Reverse or also in the context of Antony and the Johnsons, who put out their first stuff there. Where would you localize the company’s place, seen from the distance of almost two decades? Do you think that the misconceptions about the whole endeavor were worth a book of its own?
Well, Antony was quite open about what he wanted, which was a traditional record company type deal, and we just didn’t do that sort of thing. He was fine in that respect, and also right – he would definitely never have done as well with us as he subsequently has. Sure, we helped him on his way, and the evidence is out there… and I think the album we did is, in many ways, better than the one that broke big; but I wish him nothing but well! The book, though, is a different matter; the written word tends to set everything in stone, whether it’s true or not, and England’s Hidden Reverse is most definitely not true; although it contains truth. I said at the time that it was a missed opportunity, and looking back, it’s really sad how much a waste of paper it is. Keenan originally pitched it to SAF as a Coil book; and that, really, is what it should have stayed. Keenan is, after all, a jobbing journalist; he has to sell his work, so I don’t blame him for shifting the focus when he became tight with Dave Tibet, but, in the same way that Coil promoted Coil, Tibet promoted C93, so it really became a book about the scene as viewed though the Current lens, which was a shame, because there was so much omission, so much glossed over, so much ignored, that it could never be what it ultimately purported to be. Keenan was mates with Gibby – well, Keenan was mates with everybody for as long as it suited him, I suppose, so that doesn’t really mean anything, but he did interview us all, he had all the access he needed, and still it came out as it did. It was at the time that Doug & Tibet had fallen out badly, so Doug & DI6 wasn’t in it at all – he was asked, despite what he says, but declined – still, Keenan should have been able to work around that. He just didn’t. The book wasn’t about WSD, so sort of fair enough that we weren’t in it much; but, again, we should have been mentioned a hell of a lot more than we were – and that’s not sour grapes, it’s just fact. There have been a number of suggestions about a WSD book, but I don’t suppose it will ever happen… and a true story – well, a true story from my point of view, anyway, probably wouldn’t please anyone!
With the benefit of hindsight, are you happy that World Serpent existed at a time when people still bought and appreciated physical releases compared to the ubiquitous streaming nowadays?
Oh absolutely! We could never have done it without that! CDs had just started, and they cost very little to press, and retailed, in the UK, at around twelve pounds. They cost around 50 pence to make, so we could wholesale in the UK at seven pounds and retail retail via mail order at ten. We gave a certain amount of discount on export wholesale, but not much – people often said our titles were expensive to buy; but that was down to shipping, plus profit margins at the other end. Anyone buying directly from us got a good price. And WSD operated as a profit share, so all the bands got paid, and could make a decent living. Streaming – well, it’s great in that you can find anything; and shit in that no one actually listens to anything any more. In a way, I actually do long form tracks out of bloody-mindedness… to try and force people to listen for an extended period. Doesn’t work of course… Sombre Soniks do a weekly radio show which shows what can be achieved with streaming, but mostly the stuff that’s being produced is just toss.
I remember visiting WSD once (must have been about 1995 as I bought the limited edition of ElpH’s “Worship The Glitch”-CD) and enjoyed my brief stay very much. Did you have a lot of personal interaction with customers dropping by?
Oh, yes, if anyone managed to find our den in deepest darkest South London we were always pleased to see them! We were always very much aware who paid our bills, and apart from any other consideration, direct feedback is the best thing you can get!
Did you see yourself as a typical World Serpent musician at that time, or were you indifferent to such stereotypes?
Oh, there weren’t any stereotypes musically, I don’t think. To me, the similarities were in mindsets; the people we dealt with were ‘real’ in that what they did was part of who they were. I think there was a fairly common set of interests that we all had, but they were pretty broad, and everyone took from those sources to differing degrees. I think we were all pretty punk at heart, the diy ethic and all that as well, though that might not be in the music… so, for instance, Tibs knew Maldoror back to front, but most everyone we knew had read it. We all liked kosmische music, but Steve Stapleton was the one who travelled over and met people, and so forth. I never much liked the strummy strum guitar style that came to epitomize neofolk – or indeed, the name neofolk, but everyone was open to experimentation, to finding the best way to express ourselves – and our poor, angst-ridden psyches, of course. And it did all become very po-faced, as we say in England – but everyone at that time had a great sense of humour, and whilst they were serious about their work, they didn’t take themselves all that seriously. Doug Pearce was a great laugh, great company; everyone was. I think at that time, as well, everyone had formulated their world views, and were able to express them perfectly, so there was a unity about that as well. But the stereotypes – and I know what you mean – certainly weren’t any of our making. When the scene as a whole got bigger that didn’t seem to be the case any more. There was also a certain pagan element to everyone at that time, lest we forget.
Is there something like this one underrated WSD related artist or album you would like to recommend?
Probably Reptilicus. Their stuff was great, and really didn’t sell. Honourable mentions go to The Rainfall Years and Zone. Zone should have been huge, and I honestly don’t know why they weren’t.
I remember that in the early days of World Serpent there weren’t any ads (at least in Germany) and a lot of information was just spread by word of mouth. Was it a conscious decision to do that?
Definitely. It wasn’t as if we didn’t try. In the early days we tried advertising; we tried employing a publicity guy; over the years we ran campaigns around cheap compilations, and nothing made any difference – we sold what we sold. If it was good album, it sold well; if it was run of the mill, it didn’t. If a distributor – say, Discordia in Germany – wanted to run a campaign we might give them a better price, but they didn’t sell any more. In England from the very beginning we supported magazines like Music From The Empty Quarter, Fractured, Judas Kiss… and in Germany we always ran stuff in Black while Thomas Wacker was there. We never bothered much with the likes of The Wire, Zillo, Orkus and so on. They reviewed things anyway, so why advertise? Mainly, as I said, the thing was that every time we tried it, it made no difference. Word of mouth worked much better!
That is maybe related to the last question. You always stressed that World Serpent was not a label but a distribution. Would you still say that that is true or that in the end – despite the small labels of the respective artists – you became some kind of mother label (for want of a better term)?
Well, of course we were a label in all but name, as far as the public could see, or at the very least, an umbrella – or as you say, mother label. However, we weren’t a label in that we didn’t generally finance recording, so all rights remained with the artiste; we negotiated all the manufacturing – everything from the moment we were given the finished audio we took care of, we took care of all the sales, and we collected all the cash and accounted to the artistes, and then actually paid them. I did experiment with publishing, but it didn’t pan out, so I knocked that on the head. So we were more than a distributor, and not quite a label. When it was working at it’s best, it was a co-operative system; and it was strong because we were able to get economies of scale on the manufacturing, and, because we were, on the whole, picky about the titles we picked up, each reinforced the other; so being a ‘World Serpent Band’ guaranteed a few sales. Which was good for the newer, unheard bands, but did sometimes lead to bad feeling from the major acts.
Are your two co-owners also still involved in the music scene in some way?
Alison Webster trained to be a doctor and is now, I believe, qualified and working in a hospital, according to mutual friends. The last I heard about David Gibson was via Tibet; someone was trying to meet up with him, and Tibet was in contact and conveyed the message that Gibby didn’t want to see anyone, so, as far as I know, nothing to do with music!
Do you think that there would have been a way to keep the whole thing together much longer, or would you rather say that it had to end at a certain point for good?
Well, WSD finished for two types of reasons, personal and financial. On the personal level, the tripod may well be a stable structure geometrically, but as a way of running a company it more or less sucks. Gibby & Alison were friends with each other in any case – I mean they saw each other socially, but had both previously worked for me and were deeply suspicious that I was acting behind the scenes in some way in order to be The Boss – and of course to spend as much time as possible down the pub (which I’d certainly done in the past, ha ha). Also, I’d financed the start-up of WSD with the best emergency loans I could get from an uncle, and though we couldn’t have done it without that I think there was some resentment there for some reason. English class stuff, I suppose. There was also a certain amount of needle to do with Orchis; I initially had no intention of putting ‘The Dancing Sun’ through WSD, but Gibby insisted I should – it was actually at the manufacturers at the time, and I had to add WSD details to the artwork… but then it actually sold, which meant they had to pay me, which meant I got more money than they did. If you were to ask them, I’m sure you’d get a different story; but in any case there was a lot of 2 against 1 stuff, which meant that we acted a lot more cautiously than I would have liked, which was probably a good thing, but which pissed me off mightily, which meant that as soon as I was able, I left. The financial problems were mostly the same that affected the whole industry – declining physical sales due to the advent of online music sharing/sales, which meant there was simply less income, and therefore less money for the artistes. We had to renegotiate our profit share arrangements – otherwise we couldn’t have continued at all – and nobody was happy about that, so the writing was on the wall from that point. You mentioned visiting us, so you know we were hardly in the lap of luxury; and the rent there was low enough that we could justify the space taken up by stock when it was selling consistently, but when the sales dropped and the rent started going up – Seager Buildings is a whole new shiny world these days – we needed to move, and, realistically, move out of London. Alison wasn’t going anywhere; so there was a period of time when Gibby & I spoke of moving North – not necessarily Glasgow, where his family were, and not necessarily Lincolnshire where mine were, but some sort of compromise, but in the end he bought a new place in Glasgow, so I thought ‘fuck it’ and sold my place in London and resigned. It was completely the right thing to do, and I should really have done it earlier, but I had to sort out the whole legal mess with Doug Pearce first – which is another story, and one I still find pretty funny when I think about it. So actually, I think we went on a bit longer than we should have done, which didn’t really end up benefiting anyone – but, it is what it is, and je ne regrette rien! I suppose it’s just possible that we could have set up digitally, like State 51 did, but it absolutely wasn’t part of our skill set; so, that was that.
(M. Göttert, U. Schneider, N. Seckel)
Fotos by R. Loftiss and Dimitris Eliadis