|Now They Are 10|
Fortuna POP! Records and its founder Sean Price has been the key to a great many musical advancements over the last ten years. More than listeners may initially realise. As well as having a massive roster of indie-pop sensations and Casio legends from the C-86 hey-day, Fortuna POP! is a haven for a different kind of star. They come from far away and down the road, from Americana and Britpop, and any other polarities you wish to name. It's a diverse label that has, however, been saddled with a Track & Field-esque 'twee' image. It ain't true. It's punk as your mum and uglier. As well as that all that diversity, there's the standard laudable dedication to putting good records out that you'll find in any small independent label. But with Fortuna POP!, it's more of a loved labour than most. Three days spent in the hub of the label's tenth birthday celebrations at The Kilburn Luminaire is more than enough to realise the potential and the heritage involved therein.
Arriving during Bearsuit's soundcheck, I make my first journalistic lunge. We arrange to do an interview about Fortuna POP! as soon as the soundcheck is done. Downstairs to a rather swanky bar we descend, sit, and get food (I don't, I already had a Mars bar today). After flannelling around for ages talking about new Bearsuit material (other members are now contributing songs, sounding 'more bear, less suit') and eating food and waiting for the lady bears to get changed, we turn the tape on.
Tell us about your involvement with Fortuna POP!.
Jan (Flute, guitar, other stuff): They're great, aren't
What would you say is the defining feature?
Richard (Bass): It's got a good logo.
You see, I was told not to say that.
Lisa: Well, it is twee.
You're bored of Fortuna POP! already! Why are you even here?
Iain (Shouts, Guitars): We're here to pay our very
great respects to Sean and his amazing label. I don't think anyone else
would release our records.
So what, no matter how small and frivolous, can be learned from this exchange? That Sean Price works very hard. That the label releases some of the most interesting work presented to it purely because no-one else will. And, oddly, we also learn in the ensuing conversation that one of Bearsuit's new songs is about wanking. Ah well. But most importantly, it becomes clear that Fortuna POP! is cultivating personalities. Bands that have identities of their own, that will actively scorch the remainder of the music industry without compromising themselves. This is a rare thing.
The first night itself is a complete joy. Compere Doktor
Coca Cola McDonalds eventually wins everyone over with his Cutler-esque
skits and a hilarious interpretation of a Wham! classic. Oh, and he's
only wearing pants. With a tube map on the front. Oh… The
Loves look like Blue Peter presenters playing Beatles songs
having fired Ringo for indecent exposure. By which one can deduce that
they have no drummer. Their tunes are pretty though, sung by a lad like
a drippy but defiant Mick Jagger who's been spurned for the last time.
The sweet guitar plops are joined by sensitive synths and the kind of
front-woman who'd make Sophie Ellis-Bextor cry, probably because Janet
Ellis would prefer The Loves to Murder on the Dancefloor.
Then, an utter hero in more ways than one. Darren Hayman (best-known for his work with semi-legendary lo-fi indie-folk saucy-worded foul-intentioned but entirely lovable bunch Hefner) steps in to replace Cannonball Jane who wussed out because apparently there's terrorists in America. Hayman's set is a delight, mixing his solo material with rejuvenated versions of Hefner classics like 'Breaking God's Heart' and 'As Soon As You're Ready'. He seems supremely confident and refreshed after the whole Too Pure record label debacle (details of which are a bit taboo, apparently) and delivers consummately. Skip to Day Two to read about how he thinks record labels should work. He should know, he's been burnt by the industry big time.
Headliners Bearsuit are one of the more successful alumni of Fortuna POP!, having since signed to Fantastic Plastic Records alongside all those fashionable fellers like the Guillemots. Tonight, they dedicate a song to Fortuna POP! named after the label's slogan, 'More Soul Than A Wigan Casino'. But of course, this band would probably be laughed out of Wigan for being too loud and too soft all at the same time. They shouldn't though, that's just Wigan. The more one sees Bearsuit live, the more they resemble psychotic primary school teachers fixated on nothing but the destruction of nice noises. Punky, violent, melodic once every five minutes and possibly on the run from 'The Breakfast Club', Bearsuit kill this evening.
Arriving at the Luminaire in time to hear The Lucksmiths soundcheck, I take a seat. Soon I am approached by Tali White, Lucksmiths drummer and singer, who turns out to be an utter gent. As with yesterday, we arrange to do an interview as soon as the soundcheck is done. This time, by jingo (maybe dingo?), we do it. We grab some beers from the bar and blabber on for longer than is journalistically necessary, but hell, it doesn't matter. Also, look out for Mark Monnone's uncanny impressions of F-POP! boss Sean Price.
How did you get involved with Fortuna POP!?
Tali (drums, vocals): Through the Interweb, wasn't
Where do you think The Lucksmiths fit into the Fortuna POP! roster?
Mark: Think of it like a club sandwich… I'd
say possibly the bottom layer, thanks to their own doing, is Airport
Girl. I think they're happy to be at the bottom.
As I've been speaking to people over the last couple of days, the word 'twee'…
Mark: I think Sean wishes we were a bit more twee, because then we'd fit on the label a bit better. We're pretty muscular when it comes down to it.
So there's a resistance to categorising everyone on the label as twee?
Louis: I've no problem with the term, just the accuracy
of the application. And I don't dislike any of it…
What separates Fortuna POP! from other labels you've been involved with?
Mark: It's Sean, right, right, yeah, right, right…
So The Lucksmiths not only solve the twee issue, but they also offer a theory for F-POP!'s success so far. The label is not twee exclusively, but there are a lot of twee bands on there. It's the non-twee bands that tend to stand out more because of their non-conformity. For example, Cannonball Jane who was due to play last night if there weren't terrorists everywhere (Tali: 'I've got two word for her, Chicken Shit!' Mark: 'Cannonball LAME!') is garnering plaudits for her unstable juggling of electronica and girl group doo-wops. But the main knowledge to be gained here is that it takes unspeakable vision and dedication from one central figure to get a label off the ground, let alone make it last ten years.
Now I'm not one for stalking celebrities. But I knew it was my journalistic duty to follow Darren Hayman around the venue like a one-eyed puppy with the instincts of a homing pigeon at least for a moment. The one time I did follow him, I lost him instantly as he squeezed backstage. So I nipped to the loo. Which is where Mr. Hayman really was. Whoops. So I inappropriately asked him for an interview in the bogs. We agree to do it later, between his stints as compere.
Some time later:
How did you get involved with Fortuna POP!
Darren: Sean ran backstage at a Hefner show in Dingwalls in Camden Lock and gave me a pile of records, and he had blonde hair, but he doesn't have blonde hair, quite obviously. So I don't think I connected him with Fortuna POP! until a few years later, maybe three or four years ago.
As someone who has had their fair share of record label difficulties, what would you say makes the ideal relationship between label and artist?
Darren: I occasionally get asked to lecture, and I always say to would-be musicians that it's a deal. The more you get paid the more they expect. So it's always easier to get on with labels like Track & Field and Fortuna POP!, cos they're all skint. The band's skint, the label's skint, the distributor's skint. My wife said that after I had all the difficulty with Too Pure that 'once you got dropped, you hung around with much nicer people'. I might not be sniffing cocaine off the whores' bellies any more…
What separates Fortuna POP! from other labels?
Darren: Sean's personality, I guess. I think most good labels have an identity because it has somebody's stamp on it. I've never really been interested in eclecticism, it doesn't really bother me. What impresses me is someone who can stick to one thing and do it well.
Mr. Hayman illuminates
rather eloquently the importance of the central figure once again. And
all that talk about sticking to one thing and doing it well – are
we back to the twee issue? Because I think we've all had enough of that.
Whether the label is overtly twee or not, the eternal measure of its
quality emerges over these three evenings' performances. First act of
the night are slightly avant-pop baby-faced geniuses Fanfarlo,
who's set is as perfectly judged as it is snappily written. It's the
trumpet that makes it rather special, seeping into most pores of the
songwriting and adding a bit of soul and ballast to the fey guitars and
drum machine backing. Never anything less than joyous, they are babies
of the label set for small stardom. A very precious bunch.
From one veteran to another, The Would-Be-Goods boast former members from legendary bands Tallulah Gosh and the Monochrome Set. And their pedigree shows in a set of the twee-est order circa 1987. Sung partly in French, it is an abject lesson in the value of pure songwriting craft and canny guitar textures. Pretty songs with a sheepish glance to the sky.
Headliners The Lucksmiths have a nine-album back-catalogue to draw upon (though that figure was somewhat disputed in the bar) and they do so with customary zip and poise. Harmonies always sound sweetest when there are smiles on the faces of those who sing them, The Lucksmiths are blessed with some of the loveliest in pop music. Harmonies AND smiles, I mean. 'Camera-Shy' sounds effervescent as always, indicative of their sunny-but-still-slightly-nervous-and-cloudy-while-still-managing-to-be-quite-self-effacing sort of charm. If you leave without a smile on your face, you're either horrible or you've got no face.
Over so soon? What have we learnt? Well, we've learnt that Fortuna POP! is the product of intense hard work and artist co-operation. We've learnt that a maniac at the centre of the label certainly helps. We've learnt that certain international acts need coverage over here, and that Fortuna POP! can provide it in many cases. But that’s true of most indies, isn't it? Day three tells us all we need to know about F-POP!.
Arriving a little later today means that I miss The Butterflies of Love soundcheck. No bother. I meet up with old chums Finlay, who introduce me to the unfeasibly tall Jeff Greene, guitarist with Butterflies. Not only is he unfeasibly tall and seemingly constructed from pipe cleaners, he is also a thoroughly odd man. At first rather quiet and distant, he takes me backstage where the rest of his band are lounging in spectacularly comfortable leather armchairs. As soon as I meet the rest of them, it all makes sense. They are not so much a band in character as a band with character. Read on…
How did you get involved with Fortuna POP!?
Neil (Drums): We sent a 45 to John Peel and he started playing it on his show. Sean heard it on the radio, got a copy of the record, wrote to us and said that he wanted to put it out. And that’s where it began, with that 45.
What makes Fortuna POP! different to any other label?
Neil: Well… I was wondering that. I was wondering last night as I was leaving here 'is there another label somewhere from a whole different scene also celebrating their tenth anniversary', and I couldn't think of anyone doing the same thing. It's the pop sensibility that I think is great.
Lets get into the twee issue.
Jeff (Guitar, vocals): It's problematic, because there
are twee bands on the label. We're the exact opposite, we're 100% sex.
The Chemistry Experiment are, like, 35% sex. Finlay [who are looming
in the background], what are you in percentage of sex?
Speaking to the Lucksmiths yesterday, we came to the conclusion that the success of a label is partly attributable to one maniac at the centre of it all. Thoughts?
Jeff: Because of Sean my landlady died, you broke your front teeth [points to Neil], Scott's [keyboards, organs] car won't start, and Danny's car was repossessed. So yeah, he is responsible for a lot of big, big events. Perhaps also involving the label… horrendous things have happened to us that wouldn't have happened if it weren't for Fortuna POP!
Where would you be without Fortuna POP!?
Neil: We'd be on Top of the Pops, and there still would be Top of the Pops.
Have you got a birthday message for the label?
Jeff: Who's birthday is it? Fortuna POP!? Really? OK.
What's the birthday message… cos mine would be to get out of the
Who do you not like?
So The Butterflies of Love teach us that the head honcho does count. And that sex is more important than twee (well duh – ed.). The one thing that The Butterflies are an excellent example of is the massive characters that the label has produced and nurtured over its existence. Be it their po-faced anti-schtick, or The Lucksmiths' pure effervescence, or Bearsuit's rodent-like tittering, this is a label that holds its bands closest of all to its heart. And if there's ever an argument to prove that, one need only stick around for the third night's musical celebrations.
Finally, Finlay play a gig. They always seem so reluctant to do so. They have, in fact, only played once since I spoke to them a few months ago and even then it was in-between a load of DJs. But it doesn't matter when they play a set so astonishingly fresh and pulsating, full of monstrously brutal rock songs with the odd bit of casio grinding in the back somewhere. 'Theme' is fucking fucking fucking brilliant, and the lolloping swells of nine-minute continuous melting-butter-on-your-forehead tantric blusterer 'Mary IV' are pretty much perfect as well. Singer Adam Straw's hilarious somersaults are also alarmingly well-practised, complementing some formidably aggressive playing from his band-mates. Should've been headlining. Should be signed to EMI or something. Hell, if I was the boss of Matador I'd have them touring with Dead Meadow before you could say 'white schmindie is great isn't it Mr. Malkmus'.
The Chemistry Experiment are a joy as always. Their subtly caressing and curving chord progressions are reminiscent of a slightly less anguished Spiritualized, but they play it so soothingly its easy to just find yourself with a grin slathered across your stupid accepting face. And it don't matter cos it's good.
Comet Gain are every inch the scuzzy pissed-up pop 'n' roll heroes of middle-league indie. Forgetting half their songs and giggling through the ones they remember, this is like a night at Sarah Records HQ when the pear cider was going cheap. When they get their act together, they are entertainment in the vein of a poppy-as-hell Monochrome Set.
And then Butterflies of Love come along and out-pop everyone with their sweet, sweet songs that are as exploratory and psychy as they are purely jangly and sing-a-long-a-Spector. Butterflies conjure up all those lazy REM comparisons you read when you were fifteen, but with more weariness and woozy resignation. They have become so much more than the 'Rob a Bank' single everyone always associates with them. The Butterflies have matured into a coasting pop waterslide filled with honey. Which makes it slower, I suppose, but still ludicrously sweet. A classy and illuminating end to a whirlwind celebration of Fortuna POP!
Ultimately, it is impossible to know exactly what separates Fortuna POP!, what makes it quite as special as it is. One can approximate, however. From what's been displayed over these three days, it is abundantly clear that the man at the centre of it all, Sean Price, plays an integral role. His guidance and passion has led to the discovery of gems that might have been lost otherwise, relegated to the doldrums of a non-gig circuit somewhere rural. He has effectively given careers to artists from across the seas, unleashing them on the UK so that they might have a reason to come here. But that’s the same with every label, isn't it? So it has to be the bands that separate F-POP! from everyone else. No-one has a roster quite so jammed with kids and adults, indie-kids and grumpy alt-rockers, queasy experimenters and slightly unhinged legends. It is a DIY label in the grandest sense, one fixated entirely with its own world and nothing else. Insular as that may be, it also makes for some of the most entertaining events one is likely to witness in amongst the hipster chic and Camera Obscura-obsessed discos of London. Truly, Fortuna POP! is a vintage label to be cherished, but one with the wits and heritage to be fully forward-facing.
© 2006 Daniel Ross