The Enduring Magic of Sarah Records

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Record labels get a bad rap sometimes and, usually, they deserve it. They call it the music business for a reason, and while one might expect the big corporate conglomerates to rip off their artists and fans alike, far too many “indie” labels have been prone to draw from the same well of dirty tricks, crummy choices, and bumbling mistakes. We’re here to talk about one of the labels that never did any of that stuff, never put out a duff record, and always stayed true to the beliefs they held when they first came up with the mad idea to start a label that revolved around the making of music, not money. Claire Wadd and Matt Haynes started Sarah Records in 1987 and ended it in 1995. In between, they helped define what it meant to be an indie pop band in the years directly following the initial wave of C86. Definitely independent from major label bullshit, free from macho posturing, dependent on hooks more than looks, the label had a visual style bordering on none, but they knew how to find great bands. If you were around at the time and were lucky enough to be clued in, the label released some life-changing songs by timeless groups like the Field Mice, the Orchids, Heavenly, Brighter and so many more.

Here’s the song that launched the label – a true pop classic for the ages.

Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey were both in Heavenly — and quite a few other good bands — so they are quite familiar with the workings of Sarah. They are running a label called Skep Wax and just put out an exciting collection titled Under the Bridge. It’s a tribute to the ongoing influence of the Sarah sound and the bands who recorded for the label. Many of them – the Wake, St Christopher, Secret Shine, Even as We Speak, the indefatigable Boyracer, and my personal favorites, the Orchids — are still making music and sent along new tracks.

The record also catches up with members of Sarah bands to see what they are doing now. Beth Arzy of Aberdeen has two really good groups, dream pop favorites the Luxembourg Signal and noise poppers Jetstream Pony; members of Secret Shine and Action Painting! teamed up in Useless Users; Peter Momtchiloff of Heavenly leads the delightful Tufthunter; and Josh Meadows, half of the Australian duo the Sugargliders, reappears in Leaf Mosaic. Also on board are Paul Stewart of Blueboy as Sepiasound, Simon of the Sweetest Ache making noisy shoegaze as Soundwire, and Amelia and Rob in their excellent band the Catenary Wires. The album is a smashing success that carries on the joyous tradition of Sarah while staking out a space for Skep Wax to follow in their footsteps if they choose to. I thought it would be a good idea to shoot a few questions over to Amelia and Rob and they were kind enough to answer them!

AllMusic: What was the impetus to make this project happen now? Was there a point at which a vague idea became a concrete plan?

Rob: I think lockdown has a lot to answer for… We suddenly had a lot of spare time on our hands. We spent most of it on music. We started a new band (Swansea Sound) and we started a label (Skep Wax). And, for me, personally, it was preparing photos and sleeve note information for the reissue album of the Heavenly singles that made me wonder what all our old Sarah Records labelmates were up to. It didn’t take long to find out that lots of them were still making great music. Some we knew quite well (we’re mates with Beth Arzy of Jetstream Pony, for example) but there were others I’d hardly known at all.

Amelia: What was clear was that, for all these bands, the dream and the ambition was totally alive, even if many of them had become more sophisticated musically. The thing that united bands on Sarah Records wasn’t a dogmatic idea of what independent music should sound like. It was a determined insistence on prioritizing creativity over commercial success or fame. None of the bands had “grown out” of that.

Rob: That’s what made me think a compilation would be good, and would sound as fresh as anything those bands put out in the 1990s.

AllMusic: Were there any bands that were hard to get involved in the project? Anyone who surprised you by saying yes?

Rob: To be honest, I got thirteen nice surprises, because that’s how many bands said “yes.” Not all of the bands were in a position to offer brand-new unreleased tracks – this was in the middle of the pandemic, and recording together was not easy. So a few of the tracks are available elsewhere. But that’s ok: we weren’t trying to be exclusive, we just wanted to prioritize the new over the old.

AllMusic: What do you think it is about Sarah Records that still captures people’s imagination after so many years?

Rob: That’s a really good question. I think that it might be to do with the point about prioritizing creativity over commercial concerns. So Sarah didn’t die a horrible slow death as an unloved fake corporate indie imprint. It just decided to stop, on its own terms. So it still seems pure, always will. Also, the label was ahead of its time politically. It didn’t use images of women to sell its products. It stayed away from London and the “music business.” It ignored the music press. It created its own space, and thrived. In some ways it anticipated what independent music would become in a digital world – no-one needs London and the “official” music press is long gone. What seemed like weakness turned into strength, and I think that’s what a lot of people appreciate more in retrospect. The downside of the label’s ongoing popularity is that records that were designed to be cheap are now fetishized and sold for lots of money. There’s nothing to be done about that: and I guess it’s a back-handed tribute to the brilliance of the label.

Amelia: I think people also appreciated how much Sarah honestly reflected Matt and Clare’s taste in music. They never put anything out because they thought it might do well. They only put things out because they liked them. They also created a real community of people who loved the music as much as they did. Running our own label now, I have renewed amazement about all the letters they wrote to people who were buying records, but I think it was all part of building a community of like-minded folks.

AllMusic: What keeps you going – what still excites you about making indie pop records?

Rob: It’s hard to say, but I think that making music keeps you in touch with a better, more naïve version of yourself. All of us have had to endure day jobs of various kinds (that’s the downside of sticking to the independent route with your music!) and we’ve taken on responsibility, probably made compromises, had to do things we didn’t want to. But the music (and the label, and the whole scene) is a more optimistic place. With the label and the gigs you can get a handle on a different world: one that isn’t profit-driven. The really deep sadness about Indietracks festival ending is because that weekend gave you a very strong sense of a better, more generous world. So there is definitely a political aspect to it all, but it’s also fun. It’s still as much fun as it was when I was 17, to be honest.

AllMusic: Can you talk a bit about the Catenary Wires track? I feel like it’s the most Heavenly sounding song you’ve done under that name. Is that a direction you might pursue further or was it just to make a track in the Sarah spirit?

Amelia: “Wall of Sound” was written and recorded at the same time as the other songs on our most recent album Birling Gap. But it didn’t quite fit. A lot of the songs on that album were quite intense, and in one way or another they were about the state of the U.K. “Wall Of Sound” is lighter in tone, very poppy, but with lyrics that conjure up the toxic relationship between a male producer and the female singer he has power over. It reminds me a bit of Heavenly songs like “Hearts and Crosses,” where a dark message smuggles its way into an apparently upbeat pop song. So it definitely felt at home on “Under The Bridge.”

AllMusic: Apart from some of the bands on the collection, are there any new indie pop bands you have heard recently that are carrying on the Sarah tradition of perfect pop mixed with a little bit of righteous mystery?

Rob: I like the phrase “righteous mystery!” There are a lot of really good new bands around, particularly ones with women taking the lead. I like Panic Pocket and Nervous Twitch right now – they are really entertaining, write great songs, but aren’t scared to use those songs to convey anger, scorn, sarcasm and contempt. All the best pop emotions.

Amelia: There are a whole bunch of great bands on Slumberland at the moment who have obviously listened to a fair few Sarah Records, such as the Jeanines and Chime School. We also had a fun t-shirt swap recently with the Linda Lindas, after they nicked (with permission) a Heavenly t-shirt design. But probably my favourite indie pop band these days is the Just Joans. I spend days on end with their songs stuck in my head.

AllMusic: This is sort of corny so you can totally skip it, but I’m wondering what your five favorite Sarah songs are?

Rob: OK, I’m going to try. My choices are naturally skewed towards early to middle Sarah bands – the ones we overlapped with at the time.

The Sea Urchins – “A Morning Odyssey”

The Orchids – “Something For The Longing”

Even as We Speak – “Falling Down The Stairs”

The Field Mice – “The Autumn Store (Part 1)”

The Wake – “Firestone Tyres”

Amelia:

Another Sunny Day – “You Should All Be Murdered”

Even as We Speak – “One Step Forward”

East River Pipe – “Helmet On”

Secret Shine – “Temporal”

The Field Mice – “If You Need Someone”

Tim:

Might as well sneak in my top 5! (subject to change if you ask me again tomorrow…)

Action Painting! – “These Things Happen”

St Christopher – “Say Yes To Everything”

Heavenly – “Shallow”

The Orchids – “Carole-Anne”

St Christopher – “Pristine Christine” or “Please Rain Fall” (can’t decide!)

The compilation album Under the Bridge is available from Skepwax on CD, digital download, and limited edition vinyl LP, with the CDs and LPs including a 16-page color booklet.

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