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Escape Velocity

The Upward Trajectory: An Interview With Memorials Of Distinction
Ben Sargent , January 16th, 2023 10:01

As Memorials Of Distinction's ‘house band’ SUEP release their debut mini-album, Josh Cohen tells the story of his label and management company's rise from scrappy roots in Brighton’s DIY scene to a connecting point for some of the most exciting musicians in Britain

Photo by Georgie Stott

“I’m an embarrassing David Brent friend first, manager second kind of thing,” laughs Josh Cohen as we chat in a chilly Southwark Park. There’s a self-deprecating sincerity behind Cohen’s joke which offers an early insight into how his record label and management company, Memorials Of Distinction, has found so much success in recent years. Managing a range of artists notable for both their success and their astonishing diversity from one another - from Porridge Radio’s angst-ridden indie and the heartfelt experimental folk of caroline and Naima Bock to the sweaty dancefloor hits of Grove, Memorials Of Distinction has quickly become one of the most exciting labels in the country. Often collaborating with other labels, they were responsible for some of the best records of last year, including caroline’s stunning debut, Naima Bock’s mesmerizing Giant Palm and the captivating aquatic-folk of Shovel Dance Collective, all of which featured in tQ’s top 100 records of 2022.

Cohen’s emphasis on relationships is clear. This is typified by the label’s next release Shop, the debut LP from zany London five-piece SUEP, which was recorded in Cohen’s house, an old youth centre guardianship in Surrey Quays, where members of the band have resided at various points. SUEP’s Georgie Stott tells tQ: “The space is so big that we were able to build a makeshift studio there with Matt Green [Head Cold Recordings, Sniffany and the Nits] and bunker down for a couple of days.”

Cohen’s excitement about the record is palpable. He explains, “I think they’re an incredible band. They’re really fun, and I don’t normally like fun music, and they’re kind of funny, and I normally don’t like funny music. They’re kind of funny in a way that reminds me more of the B-52s or Devo or Jona Lewie; pub rocky in an absurdist artsy way, and it’s all kind of stupid but they’re definitely not laughing at anyone else. They’re kind of laughing at the world.” SUEP’s goofy joviality is evident in their strange pseudonyms SuepLord (Georgie Stott), Brian Wastefield (Josh Harvey), T-Mr.9 (Ollie Chapman), GN (George Nicholls), and Freakin’ Deacon (Will William Deacon).

“I would consider SUEP the house band of Memorials Of Distinction in a funny kind of way.” Cohen continues, “the characters in SUEP, or at least a good few of them, have always been around.” He and Stott have been friends since the pair met at university in Brighton. In the early days she would aid with the label, while Cohen would reciprocate by helping Stott run regular parties at The Green Door Store under the name Fat Dog Party. Harvey has been around from the beginning too. “He used to live in Georgie’s bedroom in Sussex and would drive us all to car boot sales in his Morris Minor that he’d wired a speaker in the back of, and he would blast music really loudly.” Cohen also used to play in Ollie Chapman’s band O. Chapman who went on to release their music via Memorials Of Distinction. “It’s been like a friendship group, co-inspiration thing along with Dana from Porridge Radio,” he explains. Stott adds, “a lot of the same faces from the early days are still involved. I think everyone’s ability to write and record music has had an upward trajectory, as has Josh’s ability to release and promote music. It feels very sentimental to grow as a group in that way.”

The bond between Cohen and Memorials Of Distinction’s biggest commercial hit, Mercury-nominated Porridge Radio, is equally tight. He and frontperson Dana Margolin met at a friend’s birthday party in their teens and immediately bonded over Pixies. Later he and Stott would persuade Margolin to move to Brighton for university where she would share weird musical experiments with them. Cohen remembers going to see Margolin perform at open mic nights in Brighton, “She would turn up without a guitar. There would be a bunch of old blues guys playing. She would borrow one of their guitars, go on, and then just scream her weird emotional songs in a way that was so inappropriate to the audience and so weird. She’s just always been someone who just does her thing and expresses herself so purely. You’re almost like, does she even understand what’s going on around her? Because that is crazy! But it’s amazing!”

“She played the first Fat Dog Party solo and that was the first thing she’d played that wasn’t an open mic night. Afterwards everyone was like, ‘that was fucking amazing! That’s probably the best thing here’,” Cohen recollects. He reaches to the back of his mind for an anecdote that he admits may not be fully accurate; that after the show Porridge Radio bassist Maddie Ryall cornered Margolin in the toilet to ask to join the band. She didn’t play an instrument but had just bought a bass.

Backstage at an early Porridge Radio show in Brighton, 2016. Photo by Georgie Stott

It was from this excitable, wonky DIY world that Memorials Of Distinction first emerged in 2014 with a compilation tape, How To Organise Your Life & Get Rid Of Clutter, recorded over old self-help tapes and featuring Porridge Radio alongside Stott’s old band Lizzard Bleach, Cohen’s own solo project Satanic Ritual Abuse, and other deliberately peculiar artists. “Memorials Of Distinction doesn’t have a concrete aesthetic anymore beyond just things that I like, but initially there was this idea that I really wanted to explore, quite depressive lo-fi stuff.” Cohen explains, “Dana had already written the song ‘Eugh’, which is now the big hit from her first album, and I decided not to use that for the compilation because it was too cheery and almost made too much sense as a song. So, I chose two of her weirder earlier songs that where uncomfortable and worse recorded because that’s the aesthetic I was trying to build.”

Cohen has always been drawn to strange peripheries of music. He discovered JPEGMAFIA while scrolling through 4Chan music download communities. After Cohen reached out online the pair developed a distant and irregular entirely online relationship, working on two early mixtapes, Communist Slow Jams and Black Ben Carson. “He’s done incredibly well and is an incredible artist,” reflects Cohen, “he’s managed to be really successful doing his own strange thing.”

He was similarly attracted to the peculiarity of Naima Bock’s demos which he affectionately describes as “skronky”. “They were just so strange, there was something captivating about them, they were so odd and the oddness was incredible, detuned violin, psychedelic and messy, weird percussion with found things because her drum machine broke or something. It was all really wonky and weird,” he explains. “I emailed her saying I was a fan of her music and ran this label and would love to release a cassette or something. After I sent that email, I was clicking around her SoundCloud more and I was like shit, I think she’s in Goat Girl, how embarrassing!” The pair met and quickly got on without making any concrete plans, even almost starting a gardening business together before eventually Bock’s stunning debut Giant Palm was released with Memorials Of Distinction and Sub Pop in 2022.

With Bock, Cohen again builds a working relationship around what is first and foremost a friendship. He lists to me his three reasons why anyone should work in music; “one of them is you’re in love with the music and it drives you crazy and you have to be involved in it. Another is having a nice time. Going to a festival and having a nice time or going to a gig and having a nice time. The third thing is being around nice people, working with nice people and building nice relationships. I feel very lucky that these people that I work with and these labels that I work with, pretty much everyone I work with, I genuinely really like.” He continues, “If you’re in it for cynical reasons, you’re misapplying cynicism because obviously pop stars make a lot of money, and people are trying to develop pop stars that make a lot of money, but that’s a very small percentage of people who make music, even pop music right? So, if you’re applying your cynical hard nose brain power for financial ends in the music industry, you’re actually quite stupid, there’s plenty of other ways to exploit people and make a lot more money more easily. Whereas I am kind of pretentiously really obsessed with the people I work with. And I think that they make some of the best art of any form right now.”

This mantra that has served Memorials Of Distinction so well was fostered when Cohen began emailing and subsequently meeting music industry figures early on in his career. He had recently completed an internship at Mixcloud where he received some advice: ‘email someone for money, they give you advice; email someone for advice and they’ll give you money’. “I thought, this is the hack. I’m going to email everyone for advice, and they’re going to give me fucking money!” Cohen laughs. After scouring the internet for email addresses, he began contacting people from various indie labels, 4AD and Moshi Moshi among them. “I started meeting up with these people semi-regularly and they actually gave me advice, annoyingly!”

In the Brighton bedroom where Porridge Radio recorded some of their debut album, 2015

These meetings helped assure Cohen he was onto something and that his relentless appetite for music was his greatest weapon. He explains, “I’m going out and meeting Ed Horrox [of 4AD] and when you come into the office, he’s drumming on the table to a Miles Davis record saying he thinks he’s going to play this on his NTS show. And you’re like, well this guy really likes music. In an identifiable way, like how I like music which is in this weird spiritual way that doesn’t make any sense. And that’s the point of it all because trying to make a living in the music industry is horrific and so hard, especially now. If it’s not driven by that then it’s pointless.”

It is through bonding over parallel musical affections that collaborating with other labels has become a large part of the Memorials Of Distinction process. Cohen began working with Bristol’s Grove alongside his brother’s label Spinny Nights. “I saw Grove at a gig he put on in Bristol. I was like, ‘this is the best thing I’ve seen in ages, what are you doing with it?’ He was like, ‘we’re thinking about it’. I said ‘no you’ve got to do it and you’ve got to let me be involved!’” This practice of small, one or two person run labels coming together has continued, most recently with the co-release of Shovel Dance Collective’s mesmeric The Water is the Shovel of the Shore with Double Dare.

It's easy to look at the Memorials Of Distinction discography and see a disparate collection of rag-tag artists. From depressive DIY cassettes to collaborations with established labels, Cohen has fostered a family built on an infatuation for the weird and wonderful. At the centre of this community his obsessive love for the music his friends are creating.

SUEPs debut mini LP Shop is released on January 27 via Memorials Of Distinction