Euan McMeeken

Fred Nolan recently caught up Euan McMeeken, the man behind The Kays Lavelle, Glacis and the fantastic mini50 records...

Even though the first mini50 release was Be Still This Gentle Morning, it seems like the idea was also something that transcended an imprint for self-publishing your own material. Discuss?

The Kays Lavelle and glacis will release on mini50 in the future, but the decision to start the label was never to release my music but to focus on musicians that I loved who were looking for a home from which to release their music. Be Still This Gentle Morning was initially released via Wiseblood Industries, a great independent label based in Glasgow. That record actually ended up being in the mini50 catalogue because I felt that I had to take back ownership of The Kays Lavelle if I wanted to get the attention I felt the album merited.  On reflection, I would definitely have self released that record through mini50 if I had to do it all over but that’s no reflection on how awesome I think Wiseblood are or me boasting about mini50. Running the label has been a massive learning curve for me, even now I feel a little out of my depth at times, so I am not sure I would have been able to push the record more than Wiseblood did at the time and I am hugely grateful for their support when I felt nobody else was interested in what I was doing. mini50 actually owes a lot to Wiseblood as I felt that the way they treated their artists was brilliant and a massive influence on me starting the label in the first place. It felt like a place where you could release your music and be supported in doing that and it felt like it was ok to be a bit different and not fit in with a scene or a style. It felt like it gave you a place to exist as a musician without feeling alone.  I know being attached to a label shouldn’t necessarily matter to an artist but I think it does hold a certain weight, especially when you are starting out.  So the initial thought behind mini50 was that I wanted to create a label with music by artists that I loved but that felt like more than just a label.  I wanted it to be a home for their music but also a support network where the artists could get to know each other a bit better and maybe work together in the future and help promote what they were doing collectively.

I see, but what was the initial spark that caused you to decide to launch mini50?  It seems the best way to make a small fortune with a record label is to start with a large one.  So what inspired you to take such a risk?  Or what was the last straw, so to speak??

Initially, I had planned to do download only releases so I didn’t see it as a massive financial risk to be honest. I suppose my business model was that we would do downloads and then when we made money on those we could then revisit them and produce limited edition physical copies of each release. Somehow it just morphed into more when I decided to do a physical release for Caught in the Wake Forever.

Hiva Oa’s record is a great example of what I think a physical release should look like. I take no credit for the art or packaging, but I am proud to put the mini50 name to both the music and the art. Ideally, in the future mini50 will sustain my own music but that was never how I saw mini50 developing when it began. It wasn’t the final straw, just the beginning of an adventure.

Not to set one artist from your stable apart from the others, but your eyes must really have dilated when you first heard The Awkward Hello, Handshake, Kiss.

Well, I first saw Hiva Oa live and knew I was watching something special.  But it was very different live than on record. When Stephen first gave me a CD of demos I was kind of blown away by what I was hearing. “Badger” and “Urban” were two of the tracks on that and I got the same feeling listening to them as I did when I first heard Conquering Animal Sound.  I knew something special was going on and I knew I wanted to be a part of it and to work with them.  There is something so different about their music and the way they think about music.  And they are by far the most professional, dedicated and passionate musicians I have worked with.  They work incredibly hard and whilst I think this debut record is stunning I cannot wait to hear what the future holds because I believe they are going to get better and better.

So I take it you approached them after watching them live?  Do you ever feel like a permanent talent scout?  Meaning the objective enjoyment of seeing live bands is somehow lessened?   It’s not just a hat you can easily take off for a song or two.

Yeah, I approached them after the live performance and said I was interested in working with them and we took it from there, and we find ourselves where we are now.

I do find it hard to shut off my critical ears, yes.  I think it’s something that exists with everything you listen to.  I mean, I not only run mini50, I write a music blog too and sometimes contribute to Fluid Radio as a writer so it’s very difficult to just listen to music purely for enjoyment.  But I do think it’s essential to try because otherwise it all feels like work and that’s hard to deal with.  I don’t actually go to that many live shows anymore so I don’t have that problem but when I find something new to listen to I always have the record label ear on.

You mentioned they are hard-working, professional and dedicated.  Could you cite an example or two, just to illustrate the point?

Well, you just have to take all the packaging and art for the record. That is all their idea. All the hours of designing and planning and making sure everything was just right suggested to me that they are complete perfectionists. And man they rehearse all the time. They practice so much. Even the way they work as a band on new stuff is incredible. They get in a room and just play and record it all. They then sift through hours of rehearsals to see if there was anything special in there. So I think they are focused. I think they are hard working. And I think they have a huge amount of talent.

I’m listening to Conquering Animal Sound right now. The best way I can explain it in a single word is “precise.”  This is one of the most precise albums I’ve heard from the genre, and I wonder if that’s a way to describe the mini50 sound. It also agrees with what you’re saying about Hiva Oa. Thoughts?

Precise is an interesting way to describe that record and that act. When you see them live, and I hope you get the chance now they are on Chemikal Underground, that term becomes even more relevant. The way they build songs from nothing using pedals and loops kind of suggested to me immediately that the detail of a recording would be exactly what you’d expect and what you’ve said; precise.  I have to be careful with CAS though.  I think they were a Gizeh act.  Yes our name is attached to that record and yes it was mini50 who first approached them but due to things happening in my life at that time I wasn’t able to commit enough time or resources to that record and their success is really down to them and Gizeh.  I adore that record and CAS.  I think they are one of the most interesting acts about at the moment and I hope they go on to big things.
But I don’t really think mini50 has a particular sound.  I mean, there is instrumental stuff, and there’s Hiva Oa and Chris Tenz but I think Lozninger is a wee bit different.  I guess in a way it’s all alternative pop but I hate genres and I hate classifications.  I just want the music to be fucking great and I think and hope that we’ve got that right so far.

Which of the artists on your Bandcamp do you consider current mini50 artists, to whom you’ve committed the proper time and resources?

Well, I’d say the only real mini50 artists at the moment are Hiva Oa. The way I operate is not to tie artists to the label. Caught in the Wake Forever is the perfect example.  I’d have loved to release his album and he’s my best friend, but he wanted to go with Hibernate and that’s both understandable and completely fine.  Even my own stuff as glacis is not really mini50.  The animation piece will be released on mini50 but the first EP was released on Fluid Audio and there are 2 other EPs coming soon both to be released on different labels.  I have no issues with artists working with other labels.  mini50 is a small part of it all.

If I do my job well, then I imagine bigger labels showing interest and if that happens and they choose to move on then they go with my best wishes because I believe in their music.

I really am getting the impression of a label that is DIY at its heart, but with the musical taste that punches far higher than its weight class. Fair to say?

Well the weight class is dictated by the time and resources available. I’d love to run the label full time but have to work so it becomes something I do in my spare time. and the weight class is also dictated, to some degree, by media support. I mean, if Pitchfork wrote about Hiva Oa I am sure sales would spike. It’s hard to be anything more than DIY without support, promotion and money. We do what we can but yes, I feel the quality on our label far outweighs our size.

What are some of the challenges that have most surprised you along the way?  Say, anything from phones ringing constantly to graphic designers throwing their weight around.

Ha. I’d love to say that I have my phone ringing all the time!  I guess I’ve been really lucky so far with the people I’ve worked with.  Artists and companies alike.  Most of the artists design their own art and have the skills to produce the templates for their work and although there are the odd hiccups most of that side of things is normally plain sailing.

The largest challenge I face really is convincing people to write about the music we release or buy the music we release. That to me, and I think many other small labels, is a mystery which would be wonderful to understand.  I don’t think anyone really ever will understand it though.

Given that today I have just been sent a link to an illegal download of the charity record we released I think it’s a constant battle to be an artist/label these days.  It’s at moments like that that you wonder why the hell you waste your time. Some people are willing to spend lots of money to support artists and the work they spend hours crafting and some people are not.  But the people who think it’s ok to put a charity release up so people can download it for free, and the people who download that record for free, that’s just wrong.

I guess what I was saying was: shock us.  It’s common knowledge that music writers are aloof and illegal downloads are pervasive.  But what have you come across that isn’t common knowledge?   Musician dating sites?  U.S. senators submitting demos of ambient music?  

I guess your imagination is an amazing place!  Seriously, I wish that my world was as shocking and amazing as that place! Sadly, the only demos I receive tend to be from people who have clearly never listened to mini50’s roster and think we would want to release an Oasis style indie rock record.  Running a label and being a musician is far less exciting than you imagine it would be…especially if it’s ambient music! Sorry to disappoint!!

How did you come to be involved in the Jamie Mills project?

Jamie was an artist that my girlfriend found on the internet.  We both fell in love with his work and bought some of his art.  From there we started chatting because I had this idea that the art for all Graveyard Tapes records should be uniformed and done by the same artist — a bit like Stanley Donwood and Radiohead’s arrangement.  So he agreed to be the exclusive artist for anything Matt [Collings] and I release as Graveyard Tapes.  From there I think he had listened to Lost Again on Waking, the EP I released on Fluid Audio, and he asked me if I would be interested working with him on the animation.

This was your first soundtrack, if I’m not mistaken?  How does writing in an unstructured way differ from writing from soundtracks?

Yeah, it’s my first piece of music for any kind of film but that is an avenue I am really keen to explore further and develop.  I think some of the most powerful pieces of music are born from film — thinking of the soundtrack to There Will Be Blood by Johnny Greenwood and some of the stuff Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have done — The Road for example.  So it’s something that fascinates me and I loved the process.  I guess with glacis, so far, a large amount of what I have done has been structured.  The debut EP Lost Again on Waking was a study of photography, translating the images that I was sent into music based on the emotions they raised in me.  The collaboration piece I have just completed with Ed Hamilton was an exploration of death and the associated emotions from a very exact period of my life, so there was a structure and purpose there to the record.  And then the EP that will be coming out on Soft Corridor was a deliberate attempt to understand man versus machine, acoustic versus electronic in some way.  So I always try to have a purpose and structure to my work. I don’t think you can sit with a film, piece of work and try to write to it.  I tried that and it just didn’t convey the emotions properly or connect with what was happening on screen.  The way I approached the animation was to watch it over and then go away and let it sink in.  It created this idea in my head of Yellowstone National Park and a BBC documentary I had watched about the park and its animals.  The seasons in the park are extreme and I came to this idea of creating two distinct pieces for the animation.  One addressing the spring and summer months and one addressing the cold, harsh and sometimes brutal autumn and winter months.  From there the music just came together and Jamie was then able to complete the animation and adapt it to tie in with the music – so it was a bit of a collaboration in some ways. And I suppose that is a very different way from working compared to The Kays Lavelle and Graveyard Tapes, which often just happen without a theme or purpose.  So in a way, glacis allows me to be more structured in thought, if not in the writing of the music.

But specifically what methods are different when writing commissioned music, say for a short film?  And is writing commissioned music more difficult because you are writing for two people — yourself and the director — as opposed to writing in the traditional way, only for yourself?

The methods for me are not that different.  It’s just that with song writing for myself I sit down and just play.  With song writing for somebody else I sit down with a vision, creation, existing idea in my head and play.  I mean it can be really simple.  A label recently asked me to do an album for them but it had to be pastoral in feel because of the nature of the label.  That immediately gets my mind thinking about the ideas behind a piece which makes the creation of that piece a very different thing.

As for more difficult? I don’t think so.  You are more acutely aware that the work is for somebody else and therefore you must not only please yourself but also them.  It’s not just about you.  But then, that’s often the case anyways as you’re working on something for a label and whilst you want to be happy with what you’ve done you need them to be also.  So I guess it’s more difficult in one sense but not all that different really.

What can you divulge about the forthcoming Guy Gelem album?  His contribution to your benefit album was truly beautiful.

Guy is somebody I know through Quiet Design and the album he released through them Tides.  I was completely captivated by that record.  I am a massive fan of cello being a bit obsessed with Richard Skelton, Danny Norbury and the recent record by Insa Donja Kai is also brilliant.  The EP we will be releasing kind of happened out of the blue.  Guy had done some cello for me on Kays and glacis pieces and he dropped me a message with a few tracks from the EP asking if I’d be keen to release it.  Of course, I was, but couldn’t offer a physical release at this time so thought that would be the end of it.  He has decided that a digital release is fine though and so we will be releasing that in mid November. It’s very much a product of the mini50 ethos as Matthew Collings has agreed to master it and Jamie Mills will hopefully be behind the artwork.  So that community spirit I spoke of earlier is very much tied in to this EP.  As for the music, well, it’s pretty special.  It’s only four tracks but I think it, like his debut album, will highlight Guy as somebody to keep a close eye on.  He’s so talented and this new work just hammers that point home.

What does a solo cellist (or solo pianist, for that matter) need to do to differentiate himself?

That is a very hard question to answer. I have struggled with this a lot.  I think it’s hard with those instruments to be completely different and to stand out. And I think it’s inevitable that you will be compared to other artists no matter what it is you try and do.  I have never heard anything by Brian Eno but sent Matthew a piece I was working on and he said “it reminds me of Brian Eno.” Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but when you want to do something to stand, out and differentiate, is not really what you want to hear.  I think like anything, you will always have influences but if you take somebody like Nils Frahm, you can always tell it’s Nils Frahm.  Goldmund always sounds like Goldmund and I’d argue that you can always identify a piece of work by Richard Skelton.

I think Guy has definitely managed to differentiate from other cellists with his EP. The best compliment I ever received about The Kays Lavelle was when a magazine said “it sounds like The Kays Lavelle.”   I think when people stop comparing you to others and start talking about your sound then you’ve done something right. Then again, without the comparisons it’s often difficult to sell work to people – so it’s a vicious circle.

Certainly there is a way to articulate what makes, say, Richard Skelton’s music unique.  Arrangements?  Technique?  

I guess technique and arrangements are both important.  If you think about Nils Frahm — and I only go back to him because it’s the instrument I know best — he is a seriously brilliant pianist, but what he does best, for me, is simplistic piano pieces where the instrument is allowed to be front and centre.  “Felt” and “Screws” are both examples of how stunning the piano can be without being flamboyant or over the top.  There’s a place for Lang Lang in the world but I think his gift is different.  Being capable of creating something simplistic and beautiful has always fascinated me more than having the technical ability to play something complicated.  That’s not to say technique is not important but I think there is a lot of truth in what E.F Schumacher said that “any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”  So sure, technique plays its part but understanding what you are trying to achieve and what works with what you are doing is key to me.  So arrangement is more pivotal in making something yours.

Fantastic quote. Not to get too esoteric too early in the morning, but what we as musicians, listeners and writers seem to be going through now is a push against the very definition of music.  I don’t mind things “bigger, more complex, and more violent,” but I might define music differently than you. Other listeners might prefer “to move in the opposite direction,” and might define music as tones, textures, snapshots, and many other less-than-traditional qualities.  Comment?

Comment:  Fuck, it’s only 1pm here!  But seriously: My girlfriend is a writer so the past year has been packed with literary theory — Derrida.  Try reading some of that stuff.  It’s a head fuck.  But the one thing I have learned from her is that although what is being said may seem “bigger, more complex and more violent,”  it’s actually really simple and once you understand it then everything kind of falls in to place.  It just needs more time.  More thought.  I guess I see music in the same way.  There are artists out there who go for the ” bigger, more complex and more violent” approach and it’s challenging and difficult and requires a greater degree of time and effort.  But ultimately the aim of the music is the same — to engage people?  No?  I guess often people think that to be innovative or to differentiate you have to push things in that way.  Whereas the opposite is often true.  The most simple things are often the hardest things to create and yet the most obvious things to do.  Martin Creed the Turner winning artist, for example, is held in high regard throughout the world of art — not for his complex or abstract work but for the simple ideas that everybody else sees and then thinks “fuck, why didn’t I think of that?”  But ultimately the aim is the same, to engage with people in a positive way and create something beautiful.  Brenda Ueland once said this: When Van Gogh was a young man in his early twenties, he was in London studying to be a clergyman. He had no thought of being an artist at all. he sat in his cheap little room writing a letter to his younger brother in Holland, whom he loved very much. He looked out his window at a watery twilight, a thin lampost, a star, and he said in his letter something like this: “it is so beautiful I must show you how it looks.” And then on his cheap ruled note paper, he made the most beautiful, tender, little drawing of it. ??When I read this letter of Van Gogh’s it comforted me very much and seemed to throw a clear light on the whole road of Art. Before, I thought that to produce a work of painting or literature, you scowled and thought long and ponderously and weighed everything solemnly and learned everything that all artists had ever done aforetime, and what their influences and schools were, and you were extremely careful about *design* and *balance* and getting *interesting planes* into your painting, and avoided, with the most astringent severity, showing the faintest *acedemical* tendency, and were strictly modern. And so on and so on. But the moment I read Van Gogh’s letter I knew what art was, and the creative impulse. It is a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something, and in a direct, simple, passionate and true way, you try to show this beauty in things to others, by drawing it. I think that’s as true in music as it is in art and it’s something I hold close when working on my own music.

You mention the aim of music being to engage people, presumably the listener.  I firmly believe the aim of music is to engage the composer.  Anything else is disingenuous.

I guess I don’t have much to say on that other than that as a composer music starts with you and for you and should be about you.   Writing music is no different to reading or learning.  You are constantly striving for more.  To understand more.  To know more.  To be more.  And if you are not trying to always be more then you are simply standing still or treading water and have nothing of value to offer. I don’t think the aim is ever simply to engage a listener — that’s how shit music gets made!  If you sit and think “how many people will like this” then I think you’re making music for the wrong reasons. Lozninger is one of those artists that I think has been criminally overlooked, for one reason or another for too long.  There is a wonderful Sparklehorse feel to his work that just sucked me in the moment I first heard him.  The new mini album is seven tracks long, mixing lo-fi dark, pop music with some instrumental work and really is a lovely bit of music.

Now here is a new name, at least for me: Old Earth.  Tell us about them?  

Old Earth is an American artist I found via Song By Toad just over a week ago. After checking out his work I was blown away and I contacted him about doing something with mini50.  His immediate response  (and I mean immediate because when he said yes he told me he was going to head to studio and start work immediately!) was yes he was up for it.  I think we’re going to release an EP similar in style to some of the things he has going on his Bandcamp. You really have to check out his work. It’s so interesting and different.  A real exciting release for mini50.  It will only be digital to begin with but it’s going to be great.

That’s an unusually fast negotiation, I take it?   How long can they take, worst-case? 

Yeah!  I mean it was literally “thanks, checked out the label, here are my terms, off to the studio if you’re cool with them”…   We don’t really hold people to contracts so negotiations are usually pretty easy.  And most of the artists don’t really speak about money because it’s not why they do it.  So negotiations have never been too difficult.

You’ve mentioned one last forthcoming album, the next Kays Lavelle release.  Your time management skills must be unparalleled.  

The Kays record is the biggest problem for me in terms of time as it depends on the help of others whose time is precious. Some of the tracks can be worked on remotely but some require me pulling together a live band to tease out the tunes and develop them.  So it’s the most time consuming and hard to manage.  Other than that though it’s fairly straight forward.  I am doing what I love to do so whilst it is time consuming it’s not a hardship.  Just got to get my head down and get on with things really.  Hard work is the key to all success if you ask me.

I’d say that establishing and adhering to a creative process is hard work, absolutely.  But surely you can’t make great music with sweat alone.  Otherwise bodybuilders would be the best composers.  Thoughts?

Absolutely agree in some ways but I think in any walk of life real ability and hard work will always result in good things. And it’s like everything else in life, you need to know your subject.  So if you are a musician, immerse yourself in music. I think it was Will Self that said the best writers are great readers.  And I think this is relevant to music too and art and mathematics and golf and any other thing you want to think about.  Know what you’re discipline, work hard and good things will happen. I believe that.

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