Strange Navigations: The Story Of Southern Records' Latitudes Label
, January 24th, 2013 10:55
Alison Schnackenberg and Tony Sylvester talk John Doran through the history of Southern's Latitudes Sessions. Chelsea Wolfe in session pictured by Tony Sylvester.
Recently I've picked up a habit; a dirty little habit. I've been waiting 'til everyone's gone to bed before getting my fix at 2am. That's when you know you're a junkie, when you start using on your own in secret; making up excuses why you have to stay up dead late at night. I know it's bad as well but I have no intention of stopping. I don't see why I should. But like with any habit, you have to keep on upping and upping the dosage just to get the same hit. Last time I got in touch with my dealer I ended up doubling my order. “Better to have a gun and not need use it”, I thought to myself grimly. There have been some panic ridden moments waiting to find out if stocks have run dry but all of it is worth it when the latest package gets delivered and the cardboard wrap is unfolded revealing (a) sweet release inside…
Still, having given up all illegal drugs, I find that buying vinyl EPs in the Latitudes series to be much more nourishing for the soul, the intellect and the ears and a lot less punitive on the liver, the psyche and the wallet (fuck you: I had expensive taste in drugs). The only problem is this: can I really wait until May for Arbouretum's addition to the series? And will they ever ask NOMEANSNO? And can anyone really judge me for buying the Circle Tyrant double vinyl with picture disc and The Haxan Cloak's The Men Parted The Sea To Devour The Water on white plastic at the same time? The latter is of course a rhetorical question. (Unless you happen to be my girlfriend.)
Latitudes was founded in 2005 by Southern label boss Allison Schnackenberg. It is an imprint on the venerable UK independent which was set up by Crass associate and legendary sound engineer John Loder in 1992. The eight year old label has one primary function: to encourage acts to record “sessions”; that noble exercise in recording a small set of songs quickly and without fuss in the studio that acts as a snapshot of where a band or artist is on that particular day. As these sessions represent a strange hinterland between orthodox releases and live bootlegs they can be very good at distilling the essence of the band or artist. In fact hardcore fans of some groups can end up preferring these recordings to the official releases: try asking a full-on fan of The Fall what his (or, in the unlikely event, her) favourite of the 100 Peel Session tracks the band recorded is – rest assured they will have one. ('Jawbone + The Air Rifle' from the band's third session, broadcast on 24 September 1980.)
In fact the Latitudes sessions were at once designed to be a tribute to the DJ while also being a surrogate. (Peel was in the process of being marginalised to ever more unsuitable, shorter slots when he died in 2004.) The rules that governed the recordings were simple: approximately 20 minutes of music were to be recorded and mixed in one day and released on CD; vinyl versions came later on in 2007. All of the recording sessions would take place at Southern Studios, the London recording facilities set up by Loder in 1974.
In the last eight years, the series has gone from strength to strength, attracting such names as Daniel Higgs, Ariel Pink, Circle, Gang Gang Dance and Grumbling Fur. Current releases include an EP of Rudimentary Peni covers by Chelsea Wolfe and Yntra by Bardo Pond. I met up with Allison Schnackenberg and fellow Southern employee (and lead singer of Turbonegro) Tony Sylvester to find out more about the addictive series.
What are the Latitudes releases?
Tony Sylvester: Let me take you back. There are two reasons why the Latitudes sessions started. One of them is we used to work with a very small number of independent booking agents back in the day bringing bands to the UK when there weren't that many people interested in putting on shows by our bands [signed to North American labels]. And with every passing year each UK tour seemed to work out as a case of diminishing returns. We'd be going down from eight or nine dates per tour down to two or three days but always with one day booked in to do a Peel Session. This was standard. They worked in conjunction with our press office: we'd say to them, these are the dates try and get a Peel Session around these dates. Back in the mid-90s, it was standard that any touring band on Southern would get a Peel Session and, over a period of time, it just stopped…
Allison Schnackenberg: It was because they [the BBC] cut him back. He went from doing three shows a week to two shows a week to one, while he was alive. And then he was gone and they stopped altogether. And then in conjunction with that while that was happening. The studio that we owned that a lot of the records that we have released over the years [Songs About Fucking Big Black; Margin Walker Fugazi; To Mother Babes In Toyland], was getting used less and less. So we wanted to get those two things sorted out. We wanted to offer bands the chance to do something like a Peel Session and to get our bands back into our studio.
TS: Honestly though, and this is the great secret… it was as a fuck off to Peel. He wasn't giving us the sessions any more. And, sacred cow status aside, in the last few years it wasn't the same thing. In the last few years he was putting things into slots, he would always play the really extreme drum and bass record, he would always play a grindcore record and I never felt like it was his passion. Fair enough, he still had The Fall in session every month but nothing really other than that. So really it started with the sense of, “Well, if he's not going to do it then we will.” But then in the course of thinking about it he died so it became a tribute to him.
AS: Are we being too honest here? [laughs nervously]
TS: I don't care. We're not Peel haters. It's just that he had become establishment and now he's hailed as some kind of maverick. It's easier to make that case now because everything has become so much more conservative and mainstream. But getting played on Peel was like getting reviewed in the NME, it was an accolade but it was a mainstream accolade, not really underground.
I know what you're saying but we've lost so much ground since he died. He was the person keeping the wolves from the door in a lot of ways…
AS: Yeah, we live in totally different times now but things had definitely changed since the days when I would record every single Peel show off the radio, to the extent that John Loder bought me a reel to reel tape recorder with a timer, so I could tape the show and listen to it in work the next day. Our relationship with Babes In Toyland comes from me hearing their first single on Peel and then me saying to Loder, “I'm not leaving until we sign this band.” But I think it's a different time now and that people just don't have the same level of attention.
Do you give any guidance to bands coming in to record?
AS: I beg to differ! We really did take the leaf out of Peel's book in the beginning and we took that very seriously. If you read the original text that I sent to bands you can see that. I'm more the 'cross the t, dot the i', female, organized one. And he's more like, 'Come in! Do whatever the fuck you want!' But I would send them notes that would say something like, 'We would like it if you used this opportunity to explore something a bit different. If you want to do a collaboration, feel free to bring someone in. Please do covers but check with us first.' We don't tell them, 'You can't just come in and do three songs off your new album' but then, the kind of bands that we choose don't come in and do three songs off their new album.
TS: Yeah, the original blueprint was Peel but that was out of practicality. So we wanted to do four or five songs that would last in total, roughly 20 minutes. But that is down to what the sheer mechanics of what a day's recording is like. Some people say, 'How long can we do?' and we tell them that they can do as much as they like, 'You can do an eight hour live album if you like but it won't be mixed.' And that's because everything has to be done on the same day.
But it all gets done in a working day?
AS: Yeah. There have been one or two exceptions where people have been given a little extra time to do something but usually it all gets recorded and mixed in an eight hour period but we're a bit looser than the Peel sessions were. We'll let bands come back the next day and say, 'We'd like the vocals a bit higher' and adjust the mix. Peel sessions were draconian.
TS: Yeah, not wanting to turn this into a feature on Peel Sessions but they were run in a military fashion. First of all you were being paid to be there as hired musicians so they would want you there on the dot. You would receive Musicians Union rates. There were two good things about this. One, a lot of these bands never got paid properly for being in a band. I never got paid for being in Fabric other than when we did a Peel Session when I got £90. And that was when you got paid for every musician as well so suddenly your roadie was your maraca player and you'd have loads of backing singers. Secondly, Maida Vale was often the closest a lot of these bands would get to a proper recording studio with a professional engineer. The first scene I got into was that Britcore thing, for want of a better word, with Heresy, Ripchord, Concrete Socks, The Stupids and all those kinds of bands. And the Peel Sessions were the best things that any of those bands ever recorded because they weren't done late at night on a mate's eight track, they were done at Maida Vale with a professional engineer.
I wasn't expecting to hear Storm Of Light covering Joy Division…
TS: We have a running joke, with each new band we're wondering which Joy Division track or which Towns Van Zandt track they're going to cover. I think we're up to three of each now.
Everyone in Neurosis loves Towns Van Zandt.
TS: Everyone in the world loves him you mean. Well, every doomed romantic recovering from substance abuse in the world, loves him.
Which are the covers or use of trad. songs that have surprised you?
TS: Really early on, one of the first bands we wanted to do was Grails because we were huge fans, especially the first album. They were one of the first bands we approached. They said we wanted to do an EP of psych covers so they did the Byrds, Gong, Flower Travelling Band and that is still one of my quintessential Latitudes moments because it really set the bar high and set out what we were about. Another one from a bit late on, which is a bit of a hidden gem in the catalogue, is Jenny Hoyston from Erase Errata, before she recorded solo material, recorded for a while as Paradise Island, so she came in and did a few songs. She did this cover of 'Terrapin Station' by Grateful Dead and that stands out for me as one of the best recorded.
When was the first one recorded?
AS: 2004. The first two were Grails and Ginnungagap but we can't remember which one was first.
TS: I can't remember which one.
[It should be pointed out that not only was Tony working at Southern at the time and Grails were one of his favourite bands but also that he was a member of Ginnungagap along with Stephen O'Malley and Alex Tucker. Memory Ed]
Did it go smoothly? Did you have to tailor the concept at all?
AS: I think it went pretty smoothly. We got Stephen O'Malley in to do the artwork. Adrian who was our production guy at the time, came up with this idea of the origami style folded sleeve and we sent that to O'Malley and said this is what it's about and he came back with this artwork which was… boom… ideal. We didn't even have to explain it to him.
TS: The secret weapon in all of this has been Harvey Birrell who has worked in the studio on and off since 1984 or thereabouts. He engineered Rudimentary Peni records, Therapy? records, Babes In Toyland records… He knows that room like the back of his hand. He's less of a producer in that please help us out with the arrangements and song writing sense and more the sort of person who says, 'You play it and I will make you sound as good as you possibly can.'
AS: He's kind of a Steve Albini figure. A lot of these bands sound very different and play very different styles of music and Harvey wouldn't even have heard of some of them but he got the best out of all of them and without fail the musicians tell you, 'I enjoyed the session so much. Harvey was really great.' He is really adaptable and accommodating.
TS: Well… there was one band… who shall remain nameless… who perhaps didn't enjoy it. They said to me, 'What if we don't like it?' That blew my mind. I said, 'Well, it's you doing the session. Why wouldn't you like it?'
The moment the scales fall from your eyes and you're forced to confront the fact that you're the ginger stepchild.
TS: Some people thrive in parameters and some people don't. If you give some bands a blank piece of paper and say, 'Fill this space' then some bands will do really well with that and others won't. But this was a case of a band who were…
AS: …control freaks. A little bit afraid of letting go.
TS: If we had have told them what to do, four cover versions, they need to be so long each, they would have been fine but we said, 'You can do what you want' and they froze. The funny thing is, is that they asked to do one…
AS: We're saying way too much about this band now… you only have to do the maths to work out who it was.
AS: The only one that hasn't come out has been the one by anticon. There are two types of band when it comes to playing. Bands who turn up and can play, and other bands who do a lot of work on their own on computers and the fit it all together. So when anticon. had to be in a room together and work together it just didn't happen and there were all these personalities as well. They were just used to working on their own with laptops. The one band who work like that who did rise to the challenge was Dälek. They understood the analogue recording process enough to deal with it.
I wanted to ask you about Dälek. I wanted to do this feature after reading your sleeve notes to their Latitudes session, which I found very touching and very interesting.
AS: Well… [pause] I started Latitudes when John [Loder] was ill. He was really happy and excited about it as a concept and really delighted that it was going ahead. But unfortunately he didn't have a lot of opportunity to get involved. So we were dealing with all this. It was post 9-11 and the week Dälek were over to record it was the week of the London bombings so it was 7/7. So at this point John was very ill and Southern was in a bad way. We were almost frozen. Dälek were at the end of the tour and were a three piece at the time. They were also kind of falling apart as a band. I asked them if they'd do a session and they said yeah, and could they hang out in London for a few days so they were staying at my house and going into Southern each day.
And on the morning of the seventh I was leaving my house to go and get the tube when Tony phoned and said, 'Don't get on the tube, don't get on a bus, go home and turn on the news.' So I watched it with the three of them and they were like, 'Fuck it, let's go in anyway.' So the whole world felt like it was crashing down around us. And I meant what I said in those liner notes. It was an important session for us. So they'd come in at night and we'd get drunk and I'd learn about these hip hop guys who are into country and western and heavy metal. It became such a real thing for me… a big deal… and such a great session.
And one thing we've always had problems with have been the liner notes. Really early on we wanted to do that really 1950s Ahmet Ertegun thing. You know: 'I have just met with a charming young lady called Aretha…' That kind of thing. So we wanted it to come from the label and to be really personal. We also had this rule that whoever put their hand up at Southern and was the first one to say, 'Let's do so and so', well that person had to be the shepherd or shepherdess of the whole project from start to finish and that included doing the liner notes. And I couldn't do these liner notes because by then John had just died and the studio was in disarray, the label was in disarray and I just didn't know what to do. And also the entire music business was just starting to crash and burn. So it was an epic one yeah.
Is The Haxan Cloak the least 'Southern' session you've had yet?
AS: Not really. Bobby [Krlic, aka The Haxan Cloak] is a Southern kid. He grew up on records we put out. We were fans of his stuff on Aurora Borealis so we went out for a drink with him and he was raving about records we'd put out.
TS: He's like the archetypal Southern kid. He grew up with Godspeed.
AS: And when people know who we are I often think, well it's because of Dischord or it's because of Touch and Go or it's because of Crass Recordings but with Bobby he was into bands actually on Southern. Still has the poster, that kind of thing.
TS: I was really blown away by the album he had out on Aurora Borealis and thought there was a lot of common ground with that cinematic feel and then I loved the 12” he did (The Observatory) that had that more Throbbing Gristle, Coil kind of feel to it. And then when I heard what he did for us (The Men Parted The Sea To Devour The Water) I was blown away to hear him doing a… [pause] dancefloor version of what he does, for want of a better word. The Latitudes session is more like his live show with… [pause] I hesitate to call them beats because it's more like a pulse but what he's doing is processing stuff from the album and 12” in more of a live fashion. I'm really, really happy with that session and it's gone down really well also.
AS: Some magical stuff can happen. We've had the Bardo Pond session which was just amazing. Something just clicked…
TS: One I'm really blown away by is Chelsea Wolfe. I was a big fan of her videos that she did and I knew she was coming over for a tour. I didn't think it would ever happen because she just seems to have her own momentum and her own volition going on and it didn't seem that Southern or Latitudes would be compatible or even help, she just seemed to be self-contained. But I just thought I'd write and she got back immediately and very enthusiastically. Her idea to do Rudimentary Peni covers. I just thought, 'Great, yeah, that makes sense.' But also I thought it was very sweet that she'd thought about us and she'd thought about the format and given us something that really fitted the concept… you know: kudos. She came in and we were sitting here it turns out she has no idea about the history of Southern and Rudimentary Peni, the whole thing was just coincidental. So she was at Southern doing songs from three albums that were recorded in the same room with the same engineer who worked on those albums. She was blown away and the band thought we were joking… That was an example of the great synchronicity of these things. So she is an example of someone who is new who we thought might get something out of it and did.
And the other side of it are the people who we've respected for ages and part of the Southern framework. And the two that come to mind are Daniel Higgs and Dylan Carlson. I've been a fan since Earth 2 and I promoted his comeback gig he did with Whitehouse in 1999, before he signed to Southern Lord, so he's always been there and he shares the same musical history and touchstones as we do. So he came in and said he was going to do these covers with a female vocalist and an extra guitarist and reinterpreted songs by The Kinks, Richard Thompson, Polly Harvey and when people hear that they're going to… it's not what you would expect at all from him.
What about [Daniel] Higgs?
TS: Well, it's always been a pre-requisite of working at Southern that you be a Lungfish fan. And there was a terrible time when we knew we were among the remaining 500 Lungfish fans left in the world.
AS: You could always tell when a Lungfish fan died or got married because the sales would go down by one.
TS: For me it's a validation. It really feels like we've done something special getting Daniel to do one. It's not that I want it to end tomorrow but if it did, I'd feel like we've done something special.
AS: If the world blew up tomorrow it wouldn't have been in vain!
After much discussion Allison and Tony came up with their top five Latitude releases to act as an introduction to those who have never heard the series before:
Latitudes Top Five (Unranked) Releases:
Grails - Interpretations Of Three Psychedelic Rock Songs From Around The World
Dälek - Untitled
Sir Richard Bishop - Fingering The Devil
Blood And Time - Untitled
Arbouretum - A Gourd Of Gold [due out in May]