Interview with Matt Haynes from Sarah Records

Recently I had the honour to chat to Matt Haynes, co-founder of the legendary Bristolian Sarah Records, founded by him and Clare Wadd. Sarah Records was active between 1987 to 1995, and became one of the greatest indie labels ever. The label has been experiencing renewed popularity due to book and documentary releases, and there seems to be a strong resurgence in all things “twee” at the moment: a reawakening that seems to go hand in hand with a leaning toward the nostalgic and the simplicity of the past. In this rippleless, digital age we have fallen in love all over again with the imperfect, the grainy and the ramshackle. We are rediscovering DIY ethos, growing our own vegetables, hugging our vinyl, smooching our cassettes and 8mm films which Kodak, appropriately, is bringing back

I had 5 questions for Matt about bedroompop, bandcamp, covers etc. which doesn’t seem very much, but considering the length of the answers, I am glad I didn’t put the good man through more of it…. The floor is all Matt‘s:

1) Can you briefly refresh our minds about the now legendary Sarah Records ? How why and when did you and Clare start the label and how
that developed in a nutshell?

That’s a big nut, but… deep breath…

Both Clare and I first got involved in music through writing fanzines – this would be in the mid-1980s. Fanzines were really important in those days (there’d be two or three people selling them at most gigs), and were a great way for people who didn’t have the desire or talent to be in a band to still be involved – whether you were onstage holding a guitar, or down in the audience holding a handful of fanzines, you were still part of “the scene”. But we both soon decided we wanted to move from just writing about bands to actually releasing music, and so we started including flexidiscs with copies of the fanzines (I was actually part of a flexidisc label called Sha-la-la with a few other fanzine writers – working together meant we could press more copies and distribute them more widely). Clare had just moved to Bristol at this point to start at university, which meant we finally met each other after only having previously swapped fanzines in the post (I was already in Bristol, as I’d also gone to the university), and, by complete coincidence, we’d both decided to release songs by the Sea Urchins – two songs from the same demo, but we’d come across them completely independently – and I ended up taking the master tape for both discs up to the pressing plant in London.

So that’s how we got together, and the idea for a “proper” record label, with “proper” distribution, came pretty quickly – we’d proved we could sell flexidiscs through the DIY fanzine network, so getting “proper” records into shops was the next challenge. And the obvious band to launch the label with was the Sea Urchins. So we approached them, and they said OK, and “Pristine Christine” came out in November 1987. The Orchids had a song on the same flexi as the Sha-la-la Sea Urchins track, so they followed… and Harvey Williams had been buying the fanzines, so he sent us a tape of his band, Another Sunny Day… and by that stage other bands were already starting to send us demos, and it all took off from there.

Both our fanzines had been political, with both a big and small “P” – alongside the music, Clare’s had featured lots of left-wing and anarchist politics and pieces on associated issues such as feminism and veganism, and I’d spent a lot of time attacking the capitalism of supposedly “right-on” record labels and bands, who just seemed intent on exploiting their own fans (this was the era of 2-minute songs on 12” singles, and singles appearing in two or three different formats/packages, so you literally had to buy the same record three times to get all the songs… and then it would turn out that one was just a remix or instrumental version of one of the other songs anyway…), and we were determined that Sarah was going to put our politics into practice. Hence our policies of releasing 7” EPs wherever possible, with no “cute girls” decorating sleeves, no limited-editions, no “unreleased bonus tracks” on compilations… and so on.

Another side to the label was promoting Bristol by putting pictures of the city on sleeves and centre labels, naming and numbering our compilations after local bus routes, making a board game based on the city’s road layout… and so on. We wanted to make the point that you didn’t need to move to London to be successful.

2) What brought about the recent decision to put the whole back-catalogue on Bandcamp? Was it an act of rebellion?

We stopped Sarah when we reached Sarah 100 and, in the press adverts that announced the label was over, we said there would be “no encores” – no more Sarah releases (and no permission for anyone else to issue compilations using the Sarah name). And, although we were determined to stick by that, it had two unfortunate consequences: people could mostly no longer hear the music if they didn’t already own the records, and nasty little capitalists (aka “record collectors”…) could start charging ridiculous amounts for the original releases… which we found really frustrating, as we’d made anti-capitalism such an important part of Sarah, and we hated the idea that only rich people could hear the music. So when digital distribution came along, it seemed like the perfect solution – suddenly, everyone could hear the music again, and if someone still complained about having to pay $700 for a copy of “Pristine Christine”, then we didn’t need to have any sympathy, because they clearly wanted it for the wrong reasons (because it was “worth” $700, not because they wanted to hear the songs… or because they wanted to buy into someone else’s youth, which is just weird…). So, yes, in a way Bandcamp seems to have brought us back full circle to the first days of Sarah, when anyone with £1.50 to spare could buy a copy of “Pristine Christine” and have three great songs to listen to whenever they wanted…

3) Do you believe that the term independent has evolved? In the sense that even “independent” labels have become obsolete and DIY/ bedroom pop is taking over?

I certainly think there’s some truth in that – though I’d emphasise the DIY rather than the bedroom, as “bedroom” makes it sound a bit deliberately small-scale and unambitious! When Sarah was around, record labels still had a purpose. We were the ones hiring recording studios and engineers, paying for mastering, paying for records/CDs to be manufactured and for sleeves to be printed… and we were the ones mailing out promo copies (which also had to be made and paid for) and photographs (which also had to be printed… and paid for…) to the magazines and radio stations, or licking 2,000 stamps to stick on 2,000 envelopes hand-addressed to 2,000 people on the mailing-list, which was the only way to get the music more widely known. But these days… you can record a lot of stuff at home for free, and mix and master it on your own computer… for free… and you don’t need to actually manufacture anything if you’re happy with a digital release… and, if you do want a physical product, it’s much easier to make only as many as you need, because of digital printing (and don’t get me started on digital design… we had to pay £50 for every monochrome photo we used, because no one had digital cameras or scanners in those days, and £50 for a track listing to be typeset, because all we had were typewriters and Letraset…)… and most publicity is done via the internet without any need to buy stamps. So it’s difficult to know what the role of a record label actually is, any more. A lot seem mostly to be PR companies…

4) Do you have the feeling that there is a renewed interest in tweepop and C86/jangle music lately?

Deep breath… I’d actually argue with the word “renewed”, because there was hardly any interest in the first place, outside of the fanzines and the people who read them or listened to John Peel on the BBC – it was a pretty small scene, with most gigs only attracting 50 or so people – maybe a couple of hundred at most. Most of our records never got reviewed, or played on the radio by anyone other than Peel, and, in those pre-internet days, the three weekly papers and the BBC was pretty much all there was for publicity – we couldn’t afford to send promos outside the UK, so 90% of our publicity was UK-only. Actually, it was worse than that because, when our records did get reviewed in the weekly press, the reviews tended to be vicious. “This isn’t music, it’s cancer” was the entire NME review of Secret Shine’s second single, while Blueboy’s “Clearer“, a song about homophobic government legislation, was described as “a limp-wristed song about being sad”. Heavenly’s second album was given a 1/10 rating – nothing ever usually got below 4 or maybe 3. And so on. Obviously there are exceptions, and individual journalists occasionally stuck up for us, but the general rule was to ignore or attack. I don’t know why. Sexism? Homophobia? The fear of not being thought “a real man” if you liked music that was a bit sensitive (the staff were mostly male, and this was the time of leather trousers, grebo and grunge… and riot grrl being ridiculed when it finally came along…)? I don’t know. The NME released C86, but most of the content wasn’t what we think of these days as C86 music, and they disowned it almost immediately. Twee wasn’t used at the time as a genre, only as a term of abuse (as it should be… see also “shoegaze” – it’s an insult!), e.g. “Ten years this awful label Sarah have been going and still they can’t work a simple recording studio. Or sign a good band. Or stop using twee female singers. Or anything. This one is no better or worse than all the other awful records Sarah put out.” (NME review of Ivy’s Avenge – I’ve just copied the text from our website, it’s not imprinted on my brain!) What’s a twee female singer, and why would it be such a problem? You’d need to ask the NME staff in 1994…

So, no, there’s not been a renewed interest… I think it’s just that people now aren’t being told on a weekly basis what being a fan of Sarah or The Field Mice says about them/their sexuality, so they can just treat it as music without being worried about what their friends will think. Also, with 20+ years of history having now passed, they probably don’t even know it was ever an issue. One of the nicest things for me, actually, is reading the comments on You Tube postings of our songs, because often it soon becomes clear that the commenter knows nothing about the band or the scene back in 1987-95 – as far as they’re concerned, The Field Mice are just another band like The Smiths or The Beatles, just part of a big jumbled-up history of pop music. Which is just how it should be…

Going off at a slight tangent… this is partly an age thing, because a lot of the people commenting weren’t even born when Sarah was active, but it’s also an accident of geography – because of the lack of internet (so no digital files, no message boards, no blogs… and no Paypal or credit card payments…), and the sheer cost of international post, Sarah (sadly) really wasn’t very international. Unless we had a licensing deal somewhere (which basically meant France and Japan), or someone was prepared to take a bulk shipment for distribution (e.g. Parasol in the USA, or later Elefant in Spain), sales outside the UK were minimal. Music these days is so international, it’s probably quite hard for people growing up now to grasp how different things were. I suppose my point is that the internet has sort of done away with history and geography, and if you live in the middle of Kansas or Krakow and want to be a fan of jangly music, then you can with just a couple of clicks, and nobody will tell you that you shouldn’t… in fact, lots of people all over the world, of all ages, will tell you that you should, because they’re fans too…

5) What do you think of covers of your roster’s bands? Do they add anything new? Do you think tributes and cover compilations get people to start listening to the originals again?

I think it’s different for bands and labels. For a band, it’s obviously hugely flattering when someone covers your song… and also it’s interesting to see what the other band has done with it in terms of arrangement, recording technique etc. For a label, neither of those things really apply, and it’s more a chance to judge a song from the position of an outsider. One question we’re often asked is “what’s your favourite Sarah song”, and it’s always impossible to answer, because every single song is more than just the sound that comes out the speakers – we’ll remember receiving the original demo, and the discussions/arguments about recording, and maybe everything that happened in the studio, or out of it, and maybe we’ll remember why the song was written, and what it’s about, or remember seeing the band play it live for the first time, and what else was going on in the world at the time… it’s very difficult to process all that! But with a cover, all we hear is the song, in isolation, with none of the emotional background, and no direct link with any of the people involved… so we can judge it just as a song. And they usually sound pretty good!

As for whether they encourage people to listen to the originals… I hope so!

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