INTERVIEW: Rocket Recordings
, March 12th, 2014 10:25
With the Eindhoven Psych Lab on the horizon, Christopher Torpey talks to the Bristol/London label's Chris Reeder and John O'Carroll about the changing face of psychedelic music
A generation is a long time in music, a timeframe that spans a lot of growing up, moving on, taking time out to spend more time with the kids, reconnecting with your art. Over the course of 15 to 20 years a band may run the gamut of growing pains as they traverse adolescence, unless they're a stubborn child who prefers to stick resolutely to their guns, even if the furrow they're ploughing is a relatively lonely one.
For record labels, a generation is positively a lifetime, spent traversing the high seas of fads, and negotiating the swell's trends – both in buying and listening. In the case of Bristol/London-based Rocket Recordings, their existence has spanned a period of particular fertility in all things 'psych', with the label championing artists at the forefront of challenging psychedelic music's traditional boundaries. From the baby steps of initial 7" releases by The Heads, Lilydamwhite and Sawdust Caesars, to the tremor-inducing adult stomps of Goat's World Music LP, the men at the helm of the Rocket mothership have helped to add industrial drone and voodoo space rock to the ever-growing pantheon of what constitutes the mind-bending end of the musical spectrum.
The journey is one felt most keenly by those people at the helm. "We never saw the label as being anything more than a 7" label," explains Rocket founder Chris Reeder. "But it is hard to survive as a label solely releasing 7"s, as even back then there weren't many places that reviewed them or gave them exposure: John Peel playing a release was the sign of success and not how many we had sold!"
John O'Carroll runs the label with Reeder, and he agrees that Rocket's original philosophy has morphed somewhat over the past 15 years. "It would have been impossible to survive if we'd carried on how we first started it. The nature of how we ran the label, how decisions were made from both musical and financial perspectives, like throwing money at obscure 7"s and other doomed projects. You have to learn a lot in 15 years or you fail and it's such a different industry to when we first started that we knew the only way to survive would be stick to what we believe, no matter what was in vogue or how people criticised us at any given time, and people were listening, so slowly it started to work out."
It's this fearlessness and genuine dedication to the cause that has established Rocket as a stamp of quality in the world of cortex-frying psych and experimental rock. "We LOVE what we do," explains Reeder. "We aren't a business we are a record label… if that makes sense?"
Constant forward motion is the mantra here then, so it's not entirely surprising to see that they're setting their sights on two ambitious projects this year that will see them expand on the Rocket ideal and take them into physical performance spaces at two of this year's most anticipated events. The Counterblast Experiment at Eindhoven Psych Lab in June, and Transmissions From The Outer Realms at Liverpool International Festival Of Psychedelia in September, hint at further boundary pushing from the Rocket men, though details are what they entail are being kept under wraps for future announcements.
Ahead of this, we asked Chris and John to look back over the past 15 years since Rocket began, and assess the changes in psychedelic music they've seen over their particular generation. To accompany their thoughts, the two have curated a playlist for us: one track from each year since their formation in 1998 - have a listen below:
15 years is seen by many people as a generation: do you feel that Rocket's body of released work over this time represents a certain aspect of a re-emergence of psychedelic music (in popular consciousness anyway)?
Chris Reeder: The attitude to psychedelic music has changed considerably in the last 15 years. When we started, "psychedelic" was a dirty word, thanks to band like Kula Shaker, etc [laughs]. The psychedelic music that was about when we started was stoner rock and trip hop. Even though we never looked stoner rock, we got lumped into that scene because The Heads were lumped in with that scene too. And as our first 7" was by The Heads we were classed a "stoner rock" label and it took us a while to shake that tag. The funny thing is not one of our releases was a stoner rock record!
So, to be honest, we have always operated outside the fringes of popular music. We still do really. I mean, Teeth Of The Sea and Gnod don't fit in any boxes. Neither does Goat, but for some bizarre reason Goat's World Music album struck a chord and opened us as a label up to a far bigger audience, and luckily for us it has happened when psychedelic music is in vogue. But we aren't stupid, we know it won't last for long! But that won't change what we do. We never chase genres, we just release the music we like, and most of that music has a psych tinge somewhere within it.
You've always championed music from rock's heavier fringes - do you think listening habits have changed much since Rocket's formation that make people more open to trying more challenging music? The success of your Crystallized compilation would suggest that this is the case.
CR: Well, when I met John in third year art class in secondary school, I was into thrash metal and he was into hip hop and we both got into each other's music. I think that has meant we have had very open ears all our lives. We have always liked music that was different, and that can be from pop to noise to drum and bass to classical. Genres don't really matter to be honest.
John O'Carroll: [laughs] Well in reality our musical tastes are much wider than that: for me it's how the mood takes me, I'm very much driven by that and that comes in the form of many genres. I have however always adored the buzzing sound of electricity amplified in highly-distorted sound spectrums. It just seems so fitting to hear instruments like that; when I hear some nice fuzz or distortion, it's an aural manifestation of electricity itself, and being a visual person, I can't help but see it visually.
Over the past five years, what constitutes "psychedelic" music has undergone something of an overhaul, at least in the way music listeners perceive it. Has the broadening of the psych umbrella helped you in reaching new audiences?
CR: I disagree with this comment, I think psychedelic music has always been broad and has always been prevalent in many different genres from all over the world. If anything it has become restricted in the last five years as psychedelic music has been put in a box and people are mainly just climbing into this box and copying their record collections and not bringing anything new to the table. That is why for us, Teeth Of The Sea, Goat and Gnod are the best psych bands out there today, as they aren't playing by the "psychedelic box" rules, which is a good thing!
JO'C: It might have had a resurgence in the mainstream, but what's been interesting to watch is how the bands who started out being more traditional in sound have shot off in various directions, but still under the "head music" banner. I think many people's listening habits get stuck into a thing with the music they like and they stay there for years as they identify with the subculture and that is totally fine. So as much as the word "psychedelic" may be branded upon us, we do see ourselves as something beyond that, or at least not treading the same old ground.
Do you think that there's a danger of the essence of psychedelia becoming watered down by mass popularity? Does psych music work best as a niche form?
CR: As said, it has always been watered down. I used to love a motorik groove, now I find it predictable, which is a shame as I love it, but everyone is doing it now and not painting it in their own colours, just doing it the same. After this new psych popularity dies off, psychedelia will continue through bands that aren't deemed "psychedelic" as they won't have the clichés, but the influence and ethos will always be there.
Has your own view on what psychedelia is changed over the past 15 years?
CR: It has got wider.
The psych community is very much a global one now, tangled together across the web of the internet. Is this a good thing for the expansion of musical boundaries in your opinion?
CR: Definitely, I think it is great… just as long as bands bring their own identity to the table and not just sound the same as other bands!
JO'C: The internet has helped tremendously and the psych community seems a very loyal one. I love the fact that somehow we are releasing music from all corners of the globe; that wouldn't have happened many years back.
Do you think the breaking down of geographical boundaries could ever be a negative thing? Reducing artists' isolation from each other could result in a homogenisation of things, with everyone starting to sound like each other.
CR: See above.
JO'C: I think we have such a rich historical musical culture that people can tap into, it's hard not to sound like something someone has previously heard, and dissolved geographical boundaries probably don't help that. But the more interesting people will always hunt down something different, and we salute you.
You have worked with some particularly interesting musicians over the period of Rocket's life. Have you noticed any shifts in the way they approach the music they create?
CR: We have been lucky to work with some great people, everyone has their own way to approach music, but I don't think it has changed during the 15 years. The only thing I have noticed is that bands don't need labels any more. With Bandcamp, SoundCloud and a good European live network, bands can just go and do it on their own.
JO'C: The only real change is the access to music. In the past, it was through amazing people who introduced us to new music via record shops and everybody had to learn through word of mouth, and we thank countless people for turning us onto so much good stuff. Now though, the internet has opened it up, the web has released the constraints of music being attached to any given time period and genre, so that really mixes it up and I like that. I think the most interesting bands understand that, I've always liked bands that mix it up.
Are there still more boundaries for Rocket to push over the next 15 years of releases?
CR: Well seeing as we never expected to last more than one release, being here in the first place is one hell of a boundary! So, every release we make is an achievement in our eyes. As for the next 15 years… well, a 100-piece orchestra all rigged up to fuzz pedals and modular synths is the goal!
JO'C: There are always boundaries to push. I think because we are both visual-based people we've always wanted to see the relationship between the music and the image as inseparable, so through print, film, lighting and beyond, whatever it may be, if the music still stands up, then it pushes us too and we look forward to that.