Fruits de Mer Records (FdM) is possibly the world's smallest vinyl-only psych/prog/acid folk/krautrock/spacerock record label. They release several new disks each year designed to whet the appetite of the vinyl junky and music officiando. FdM is joint venture between Andy Bracken and his cohort in crime Keith. Andy is a wonderful chap, whose personality blazes forth in this interview. His energy and enthusiasm are contagious!
by Henry Schneider, Published 2011-06-01
What is your background? How did you get started with a vinyl label?
It all started when I was three years old. No really... Dad had his Cat Stevens and Bob Dylan albums, and I took an unhealthy interest in them. I blame Cat for putting bloody cartoon characters on the sleeves, and my parents for buying me crayons... So, dad wasn’t best chuffed and disappeared up the attic. After a few days he re-appeared with a box of 7” singles and an old rack ‘em, stack ‘em and scratch the crap out of ‘em record player. I fell in love with music, especially the 7” single. The collecting started in the 1980s. I think it’s inevitable that if you collect records for long enough, you’ll eventually start thinking about releasing them. Isn’t it?
Who are your favorite artists?
As if to demonstrate my eclecticism, the four 'vitals' for me are (chronologically): Eddie Cochran, Syd Barrett, Nick Drake, and The Fall. Beyond that, all things psychedelic and krautrock, quite a lot of acid-folk and folk more generally from rural to neo, some neo-classical stuff, post-punk, C86 etc. Mixed old bag, really. A good tune is a good tune, at the end of the day, irrespective of genre. Keith’s current crop of favorites include Spirit, Pretty Things, Caravan, Small Faces and Pete Namlook/Fax label, though this is subject to change at any time.
How large is your record collection?
As I keep telling Keith: it's not how large it is, it’s whether you can do anything with it that counts. I have somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000, split about 50/50 between pre-punk and punk era and beyond. Keith's is quite obscene. My guess would be somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000, but in no logical order whatsoever. We've made a deal that whoever pops their clogs first; the other gets their collection. I hope I go before him...
Where are you located, the US or the UK?
I’m in the USA, but I’m a Brit. Label-partner, Keith, is over in the UK, though, so we’re UK based, really. It’s just geography!
So what brought you to the US?
A Boeing Triple Seven... sorry, I couldn't help myself.
How is Bracken Records different from Fruits de Mer? Why did you change directions?
I started Bracken over five years ago, releasing self-penned material by unsigned bands. It’s a fairly typical indie set-up — a hobby-business, I suppose, operated solely by me. It’s a fairly thankless task, doing that, but I met some great supportive people along the way. I’d known Keith for a decade and more, and we’d sit in pubs for countless hours discussing music and life. Keith’s been avidly collecting vinyl for 40+ years, and we always had a commonality in 60s psych and 70s acid-folk music. Despite my best efforts to dissuade him, Keith was adamant that he wanted a piece of the action. There was no mileage in setting up another Bracken type label, so the idea of re-releasing obscure or under-appreciated psych, prog, kraut, and folk tracks on 7” was mooted. We chose two tracks we both loved, and that crossed the psych-prog boundary — “Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake” from the Small Faces, and “Theme One” by Van der Graaf Generator (penned by George Martin). We applied for a license — got it, and then approached the publishers to see if we could get access to source material. They didn’t want to know, so that was that. We were out of pocket for the license, and had no product to show for it. At that point we were ready to walk away, but I suggested getting a contemporary band to cover the tracks. Keith wasn’t so keen. I remember the moment, sat in a pub in Surrey, England, when Keith relented (probably just to shut me up), and agreed to ‘give it a go.’ I called in a band, Schizo Fun Addict in New York, who I’d worked with on Bracken, and, for want of a better word, commissioned them to cover the tracks. Commissioned implies we paid them, which, of course, we didn’t. I don’t pay for anything if I can possibly help it... Anyway, Keith loved the results and, by happy accident, a concept was born. Crumbs — I went on a bit there, and I think I even managed to answer the question!
How do you go about finding artists for your releases?
We don’t any more — they find us. We did track down Alison O’Donnell of Mellow Candle, and Mark Fry of, well, Mark Fry, and they’re both lovely people, but the rest found us. Bless ‘em.
How are the bands finding FdM? Via Facebook? Via MySpace? Some other means? On the other hand, can you tell?
When we first started, it was through social networking sites such as those you mention. My perception is that it's now more via reputation. We're definitely drawing a different kind of artist now — people who are more like us, insofar as they're record collectors with a deep appreciation for music for the era we cover. A good few of the people we're now dealing with, for example, started out as customers buying our releases. In the early days of running Bracken, it came as quite a shock to learn some of the artists I worked with didn't even have turntables! No, really... they just thought it would be 'cool to have a record out on vinyl.' Hmmm. The coverage we get in magazines such as Record Collector, Classic Rock, and Shindig! definitely help on that. Yeah, they help pull in customers, but they also pull in bands. I hope that this interview will do the same.
You are obviously having a lot of success as many of your limited edition titles have sold out. What do you attribute your success to?
Hang on — album needs turning over... Irmin Schmidt’s “Kamasutra” soundtrack — have you heard it? Bloody brilliant. Right, where were we? Success — yeah, I suppose, but then we don’t press many. 500 discs are the most we’ve done. Mind you, the latest release by Vibravoid sold out in 72 hours. We do well, though, and I think it’s down to having a novel concept and keeping the standards high — Keith and I both have to love a track before we go for it. We’re also extremely fortunate in having a very loyal and brilliantly knowledgeable customer base. We sell 80% of our records direct to customers, so only 20% are going out to shops on a sale or return basis. And I won’t touch distribution. You know, I hope a reason we’re successful is because of the way we treat our customers. We look after them — we value them. The emails I get in scores from customers every time we have a record out, and often when we don’t, are a marvel to behold. People seem to love what we do and how we do it. There’s nothing better than that.
What artists do you currently have signed to your label?
We don’t sign them in a traditional sense. Its all one record deals. We encourage all our artists to pursue ‘bigger deals,’ so we give them the freedom to do so. At the moment we’re working with (deep breath)... Vibravoid, Aritomo, Haruko, Cranium Pie, Us & Them, Hausfrauen Experiment, The Chemistry Set, Permanent Clear Light, Geese, Rob Clarke and the Wooltones, The Marshmallow Staircase, Sidewalk Society, Zombies of the Stratosphere, The Campbell Stokes Sunshine Recorder, The Swims, The Luck of Eden Hall, and a load of other bands Keith’s working with on a Space Rock compilation I’ve not even been able to get my head round yet. Blimey — no wonder we’re busy. And we’re still looking for bands for the Space Rock compilation, so anyone reading this fancies having a stab please get in touch.
Up until now FdM has been releasing 7-inch records. What are your plans for the future?
Most of the bands listed above are featured on a 12” LP we have coming out in June 2010. Yeah, the 7” single is such a lovely cuddly format, we’ll always have that as our primary medium, but the sheer number of quality bands we had contact us meant an album was the only way we could work with more of them. Always limited — always vinyl — always quality — always done with a smile on our faces. That’s the future, I reckon.
How were you able to sign Vibravoid to your label? Their releases are difficult to find and your editions have sold out rapidly, even the re-presses.
Christian, the man behind Vibravoid, is a diamond. I can’t even recall how it came about... I think he heard about us via the early singles, and got in touch. Not sure, to be honest. He’s immensely talented, a smashing guy to work with — all German efficiency, and what have you. But he also has this prolifically creative mind. We’ve done two EPs with him, and are already planning the third, plus we hope to rope him in to the Space Rock compilation. Terrific guy, who I can’t big-up enough.
Who designs the packaging for each release, vinyl color, etc.?
I do the vinyl color and most of the labels. If a member of a band has an artistic thing, we encourage them to use it, and if not, I cobble something together. I’ve stated this a few times lately, but I had no idea until a few months ago that people really rated our artwork. It came as a bit of a shock. No budget forces us to be creative, but there is a real fondness for our sleeves and silly inserts. That’s great, that is. Makes my day. I have to say, a guy called Brian Langan of The Swims did the sleeve for the psych LP we’re working on now, and it’s one of the top ten record sleeves I own. They arrived yesterday, and I was blown away when I saw it in all its 12” glory (sounds a bit dodgy, that). I had a notion that I wanted to replicate the classic LP sleeves of the 60s (July, Andwellas Dream, Pussy Plays, The Zombies Odessey and Oracle etc), so briefed Brian on what I had in my mind, but could never hope to create. He grasped it and nailed it — brilliant cover art.
For each new FdM volume, do you specify a theme and ask the artists to record the cover tunes? Or do you leave it up to the artists to decide the music?
On the albums it works like that, to a degree, but we always have a say, both in the track selection, and the way it’s done. For singles and EPs, a band or artist gets in touch, and we check out what they have done in the past. That gives us a feel for what they might be able to cover, how they might be able to cover it, and what they can bring to the party. We’re not interested in putting out reverential covers, like some pub tribute band. It is much more about re-interpretation. So, the tracks we choose have to be malleable, and the band covering them has to be sufficiently akin to the original band, but at the same time, sufficiently different. Does that make sense? We then brainstorm the potential tracks with the band, and come up with an idea. The best example is probably Us & Them, a Swedish boy-girl duo. They already had Jackson C Frank “Dialogue” and Tudor Lodge “Home to Stay” in the can. Aside from a little tweaking, mostly with the mix, we had our single. It should have been simple. But Keith decided we needed a bigger name covered. I don't know why — he’s just like that. It’s a good thing. I suggested Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd. Keith threw in a Barrett solo track or two. The band mentioned a fan had once suggested they cover “Julia Dream,” not Barrett, but not far off. I remembered reading that Roger Waters had ‘borrowed’ the melody for “Julia Dream” from a traditional nursery-rhyme “All the Pretty Little Horses,” so suggested the two tracks could be merged to make an epic track. The band got it straight away, and came up with, I believe, the most beautiful track we’ve done thus far. And it came from nothing.
On the latest Vibravoid “What Colour Is Pink?” EP, Christian had put together a long “Saucerful of Secrets” that would serve as the A-side and B-side clocking in at the full 12 minutes, or thereabouts. I wasn’t keen on that, so asked him to condense it back to three to four minutes. Christian and Keith then wanted to pair it off with some later 70s Floyd stuff, but I’m not much of a fan, so I pulled it back to very early Syd-Floyd — I even suggested “Lucy Leave” at one point, and it doesn’t get much earlier Floyd than that. A bit of an argument took place about the merits of Syd-Floyd versus non-Syd-Floyd, and I won, so we chose three tracks from Saucerful of Secrets, because Christian thinks he managed to convince me that Syd was standing in a corner clapping his hands, or something, when that album was recorded. Keith and I also (when needed) steer the bands/artistes during the recording process — add this, take out that, drop that down in the mix, or whatever. We are both pretty involved a lot of the time. Anyway, that’s sort of how it all works, really... The point is: it is all about the dynamic involved, and if bands are not willing to go through that, we usually end up not working with them. I’ve never asked the bands we have worked with, but I believe their records are better because of that process. Don’t get me wrong — we have a laugh, as well...!
If you had a magic wand and could change one thing that has been challenging you, what would that one thing be?
In all honesty, nothing. It has been tough getting to where we are, and we still do not make any money from the records, but that is fine. We really don’t do this for the money — it’s all about the fulfillment of a life-long dream for both Keith and I. The challenges we’ve hurdled to get to where we are, make getting there all the sweeter. We’re creating something that will be listened to and valued long after we’re dead and gone, and that’s a super notion. It’s as close as I’ll get to immortality! Actually, now I’ve thought about it, I’d wave that wand and get Keith to always remember to put the vinyl in the sleeves before he posts them. Oh, and to send the right records...
What has been your greatest success in the last 12 months?
It’s threefold, but all are related. Attracting such a brilliant bunch of customers. Releasing such consistently great music from great bands. Growing the business to a level where we sell-out of everything very quickly. Okay, so it’ll never make us rich, but I don’t want it to get much bigger, as I feel, if it does, we’ll be in danger of losing the three things I list above.
It certainly sounds like FdM and the bands are keeping you and Keith fairly busy. So what do the two of you do in your spare time?
Yeah, as I said, it's a lot of work for little reward in financial terms, but I know from customer feedback, that we make a lot of people very happy with our releases. That makes it all worthwhile. Spare time is spent 'living.' Keith and I are a good team; as we're sufficiently alike to get on well, but sufficiently different to 'bring something to the party.' And it's a party a lot of the time. Being on different continents (he's incontinent...), we only catch up a couple of times a year, and despite our plans to the contrary, those usually end up being fairly gregarious drunken sessions following a day shopping for vinyl records. Aside from that, I try to avoid human contact as much as possible, with the obvious exception being my wife. A perfect day for me would be spending it with my wife, listening to music and drinking copious amounts of tea, a good walk amidst nature, far-far away from all the self-serving ugliness that blights my daily existence via technology and the modern world with its self-important, self-obsessed crock of arse, drinking a few beers, eating good fresh food, smoking cigarettes without having to hear some patronizing spiel from some do-gooder idiot who wants me to be as unhappy as they are, watching the sun set with my guitar and my wife, before going to bed for a good sleep. I’m a simple soul. Sounds good, eh?
Filed under: Interviews
Related artist(s): Alison O'Donnell, Van der Graaf Generator, Spirit, The Pretty Things, The Luck of Eden Hall, Sidewalk Society, Mellow Candle, Caravan, Syd Barrett, Vibravoid, Us & Them, Schizo Fun Addict
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