Interview: Rocket Recordings

"we have always been influenced by a lot of different things and I suppose we are happy to not be stuck under a banner of one style of music so we just release what we like. We love the 'heavy', we love the 'pop', we love the 'free', we love the 'repetition'"

It really seems like only yesterday that we interviewed the guys from Rocket for their 15th anniversary. Five years on, the label has gone from strength to strength; releasing more consistently incredible music than pretty much any other label we know. On the weekend of March 9th – 11th they celebrate their 20th orbit around the sun with a three night extravaganza at The Garage featuring more or less all of the great bands on their stellar roster. Ahead of that, Dan caught up with Chris and John to talk about the label’s past, present and future.

(((o))): Ridiculously, considering how much of the label’s output we’ve covered in the intervening period, this is the first time we’ve interviewed you guys since we did one for your 15th anniversary back in 2013. How have those years been for you? From the outside it looks like it’s been a pretty good time for you guys.

John: Yes a lot of our releases have seemingly hit a (good) nerve with your writers. I think the last 5 years have been great, not everything completely worked but some albums released have been really strong Rocket albums with bands stepping up their game, and Rocket too. We’ve been branching out & pushing ourselves as a label more, reflecting the more diversity of musicians tastes, our own widening tastes but still keeping the core of the label ethos there.

Chris: Yeah, it has been a busy 5 years tbh, we have released some of our most commercial records as well as some of our most out-there. But we like that, we like to explore different areas, we would get board if we just released lots of bands that sounded like Spacemen 3 or Electric Wizard you know?

(((o))): When we last spoke, GOAT were just beginning to get traction with their first album. Since then they’ve got huge (in relative terms!) headlining places like Brixton Academy. How has that impacted the label & your own outlooks?

J: I don’t think that’s affected us in attitude, I think if anything it taught us to be aware of the Industry Machine based around some success, we were in the spotlight & then that spotlight moved on to find something to chase, we know what we are about & that is a strong bases to lead from, whether people are on the ride with us or not, its up to them.

C: Yeah, as John said it hasn’t affected our attitude or ethos one bit. And i would say we have always learned more from our mistakes than our successes. With Goat we have never tried to get too carried away with it. But tbh, the band aren’t like that anyway, they are not an ego driven band at all. The anonymity is real, they want to keep things off the grid in a way, it just can’t be helped that lots of people love their music and their live performances

(((o))): You are curating / hosting a full three night weekend at The Garage next month. Did you ever imagine, 5-10 years ago, that this is where you’d be by this point?

J: In 2013 we released a double album compilation called ‘Crystallised’ to celebrate of 15th year. In 2008 we did a one day festival in Kings Cross in London with some of our roster at the time which was a success. So 2018 felt apt to co-host with the great Anthony Chalmers from Baba Yaga Hut & DHP an event which once bands agreed to, landed up being spread over 3 days.

C: No, of course not, we had no idea we would still be going after our first record let alone after 20 years…still can’t believe it really!! I mean we are still here because we have met some great bands along the way who have trusted us with their amazing music. So as long as we still keep on getting sent great albums we will continue to release them in whatever listening formats grace us next!

(((o))): On a similar note, just down the road from me in Dalston is a massive billboard with the poster for the show on it. What does it feel like to have your name ‘up in lights’ like that?

J: Its amazing in context simply being what 90% of what billboards are mostly associated with, but it was the promoters decision, the fact that an label releasing the type of music we do can have one. We watched John Carpenters ‘They Live’ film again recently & it doesn’t go unnoticed how we are constantly being over sold stuff so its at least nice knowing that its coming from an angle of the label, and yes great to see my own personal name up, but equally little surreal. Its also fascinating that within 5 minutes of it being put up someone had fly postered on it!

C: Ha ha, bit funny really, I mean…we didn’t ask for that, it was the promoters who did it but it is a nice thing to do, something to show our mums! 🙂

(((o))): 20 years is a long, long time to be doing anything. How do you keep it fresh & exciting for yourselves?

J: Yes it is a long time, but I think the first 10 years were very different to what its like now, we didn’t really fully get going until we left our working with Invada (Fat Paul/Geoff Barrow) who helped us out for a few years as someone pulled the plug on us. Invada were great at the time and we fully thank them for their help through that time. After Invada that was the moment the whole direction changed, before it had mostly been local based Bristol bands, then with the birth of the net and through websites like the ‘head’ turning power of Julian Cope’s ‘Head Heritage’ and Myspace we’d started to try and work with bands from further afield, definitely helped by connections online.

C: I suppose it is the music we release that keeps it exciting, I mean we never know what kind of album bands like Gnod or Teeth of the Sea are going to deliver, so that is always exciting!

(((o))): In that time, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry since you started and what’s the best / most important thing fans can do to support their favourite bands/labels in the current climate?

J: Well the internet, simple as, its totally changed the rules of the game, how people consume music, the much debated streaming of music, we are all working it out across labels, large or small, local or international. One things for sure people still send us lots of their demos so there is still a demand for some sort of label help in releasing people’s music.

C: First big change was the death of Peel. He left a massive void that has never been filled! 6 Music tries but that whole station is half of what Peel was. Though 6 Music and especially NTS has made radio vital again and it wasn’t for 10 years. Obviously in those 20 years we have seen the fall then rise of vinyl, the decline of CDs, the rise and fall of digital downloads and now the rise of streaming. Each one of those things has impacted us! Also Brexit is creating financial change. We have always pressed our vinyl in Czech Republic which wasn’t in Europe when we started, now they are and now we are going to leave. All those changes have effected our outgoings which obviously effects our profits.

(((o))): Over the last 5 years or so the UK’s psych scene seems to have just gone from strength to strength with ‘psych fest’ type events springing up all over the country now. From our perspective, that’s in no small part down to you guys & the incredible quality of your output and the bands you’ve nurtured. Do you ever take a step back & think “Christ, what have we done?!!”.

J: Well that’s kind of you to say, maybe not completely true. As an example when new first started being involved with bands like The Heads; at the birth of Rocket, Indie Rock & what turned into Britpop became huge in the UK. The Heads stuck out like a saw thumb (their 1st album even got 0 out of 10 in VOX), but we were looking to the US underground early Sub Pop & the sixties / 70’s heavy bands. I had nothing against pop & the crafting of the song, but the Americans seemed to be pushing Rock boundaries more.

So while some the UK was going mad over Britpop a new scene from under it emerged & we were a part off that. What came out of that is fabulous, from your All Tomorrows Party events bringing a lot of bands I wanted to see live, to new labels, new festivals at all levels, maybe to the point over over saturation, but you can’t deny the DIY spirit, it will probably the only thing to survive.

Of course everything happens in cycles, I see it again in Bristol with The Bristol Psych Fest people, similar heads starting something up, in fact it has happened all over the world, probably has in all genre of music. The hardest bit to be different to everyone else, to not repeat yourself, people want change, but also want the same. We like what the Liverpool Psych Fest team are about, bringing in the contemporary feel to it all, but they are taking a year out, Austin Psych Fest changed their name to ‘Levitation’, a smart move, Rocket as a label doesn’t want to be just stuck in a sub-genre, I don’t watch one type of film why would I only listen to one type of music.

C: I would say the current psych scene sort of started out of Myspace, it brought lots of international bands together and we were part of that. Then it sort of went overground, but what went overground was a bit more of the retro scene which is something we have tried to avoid? We always wanted our bands to sound and be original, so borrow from the past but re-present it in their own way. So yes, we are part of the psych scene but also we don’t really fit in it as we are doing it our way and not a way to fit in a scene if that makes sense?

(((o))): In the last few years there has been an increase in output from you guys of stuff with an electronic, almost dancey, vibe. Has that been a conscious move on your part or have the bands lead that & you’ve just gone with it?

J: Again thats always been there in the background with our tastes, In the beginning we might have started out as a more Psych Rock based label, influenced by people’s record collections a few record shops in Bristol in the late 80’s- 90’s. Members of The Heads staffed Replay Records, Revolver Records who were manned by Flying Saucer Attack & Third Eye Foundation members, Bristol’s Fat Paul & his ever increasing hand over the Bristol scene, running everything from musical art events to nightclubs playing great 60’s music, Portishead, early Tricky & Massive Attack, being in a city living around the fringes of Rave culture, Reggae & Dub, all the way to Metal & later Grunge exploding on the back of Punk, it all feed into our subconscious. My first obsession with buying records was early Hip Hop that ran side by side with Thrash Metal, electronic music was always there. so for Rocket to release some well it wasn’t an issue as it plays by a lot of the rules that psych/krautrock do, its all a heady mix, that European angle on music.

C: As John said we have always been influenced by a lot of different things and I suppose we are happy to not be stuck under a banner of one style of music so we just release what we like. We love the ‘heavy’, we love the ‘pop’, we love the ‘free’, we love the ‘repetition’.

(((o))): There seems to be some cracking stuff coming out of Russia right now, including my personal faves Gnoomes. How do you hear about bands in places like that?

J: And why not, I love the fact that some people have preconceived western ideas about Russia, or even any music that falls outside of a world they’ve grown up with, we don’t, we feel the boundaries are completely down and open. Its brings to mind a story I heard that The Beatles music were banned in Russia so people used to press up their own copies on old x-ray acetates, ultimately good culture gets through in any direction especially for the curious, the internet brings it right into your psyche.

C: Well tbh, I am not that aware of a lot of what is coming out of Russia but for us Gnoomes are a bloody clever bunch of people. Really passionate and exploratory which is something we love. And they are lovely people as well, they have become very good friends and we always look forward to them coming over.

(((o))): There is an enormous variety sonically in the records you put out, but very often what I can only describe as a shared headspace. What are the criteria you look for in a ‘Rocket band’?

J: Yes indeed, we love that a lot, we can sit happily with some scuzzy noise recorded in a more ‘Garage’ way as much as more considered production, all art forms are up for grabs as long as there is some sort arching ‘headiness’ that relates each of them. I loved the cinematic production of the recent ‘Dunkirk’ soundtrack, Hans Zimmer & Nolan’s interest in ‘The Shepard Tone’ as much as something where the amps are at breaking point in a back room of a pub, they all share a sonic space to me.

C: Tricky, but I would say they have to have their own sound. You know, we love the sound of fuzz wah and repetition, we can’t get enough of it. But we don’t want a band that has great fuzz wah but is a carbon copy of a band that has gone before, they have to bring something of their own identity forward. Another important factor is personality, they have to ‘fit’. We don’t want to work with egos or rock star types, we don’t believe in that bullshit. But yeah, personality is very important

(((o))): In your opinion, which other labels are ‘getting it right’ at the moment and why?

C: There are loads of great labels out there at the moment I would say, I mean we have our friends at Cardinal Fuzz, BOX, Fuzz Club, Hominid Sounds all doing good things. I personally like Diagonal, I like how they approach design. I think Instant Classic out of Poland are releasing some incredible records of late, that BNNT and Zimpel Ziolek are two for example that blew us away last year.

(((o))): Are there any bands on the current scene that you think “damn, we should have signed them!”?

J: No never, we are not like that at all, there are bands I’ve heard on record & even seen live that I’d loved to have released a album or even work with them, but seriously we don’t get hung up on it, we have quite an organic approach to it & that’s worked well for us over the years.

C: We have all the best bands on Rocket already, no joke!!! Ok, if Stereolab reformed and wanted to explore the music from the Mars Audio/Simple Headphone mind period again then we would love to have them on the label…and of course Butthole Surfers have reformed and we have already thrown our hat in to release it ha ha, It will never happen but you have to dream eh?

(((o))): So, we need to talk about Gnod. The general consensus among our writers is that Gnod have grown in the last few years from being a really good band to probably the most vital & important band in the country right now. In the last 4 years they have delivered 3 extraordinary, and extraordinarily different, albums. What’s it been like to have front row seats to watch them mutate like that?

J: Well GNOD, we first saw them in Trowbridge of all places, they headlined a small festival and started their set building motifs around hand bells, of course it eventually built into a very GNOD thing, but we were hooked, that felt different to just pummeling rock which was big at the time. They just knew how to take you somewhere unexpected and we always loved that in music, they just threw so many curve balls over the years we loved it. They could be equally great mellow or heavy, with guitars or electronics, dance or drone, repetitious or free, I think the only stone unturned with them is a massive pop album, now that would be something totally unexpected…ha, but seriously, not many bands can stretch across genres & have their own sound.

C: It is amazing, they are a band that blew us a way since the first time we saw them in a barn in Trowbridge. We are definitely along for their ride and we believe in them and what they do, and we believe in them as people.

(((o))): It occurred to me the other day, in the wake of the sad loss of Mark E Smith, that there is something of The Fall about Gnod; if not musically then ‘spiritually’ & in their fervent need to push the boundaries of what they do. Would you agree?

J: Ha, well it must be something in the spirit of Manchester aswell then, I can see totally it, Chris even tried to hook them up a while back, but then again that would have not reflected who they were and its would be like trying to rub two magnets together with likeminded poles repelling.

C: Ha ha, well I did try and get a collaboration to happen with Mark E and Gnod several years ago…got an email to Mr Smith but he never replied ha ha…imagine!!!

(((o))): If the label was on fire & you could only save one album from the catalogue, which would it be? (I realise this is akin to asking you to choose between your children!)

J: Ha, let them all burn, it might slow the fire down & help me get out, I’ll still have a memory of it all, there is still the future to rebuild on, unless I get dementia then we’re good.

C: I would go and grab the gasoline…

(((o))): So, as you enter your third decade, what is on the horizon for Rocket? What can we look forward to in the next year or so?

C: Well we have an amazing album by Anthroprophh, which could well be one of our best ever releases. Debut Rocket releases by MIEN, Bonnacons of Doom, VED and Gum Takes Tooth. There is a new Gnod in the works and a new Lay Llamas album on it’s way. A couple of releases by your favourite Swedes, And we have Teeth of the Sea, Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, Housewives, Josefin Öhrn, Shit and Shine all working on new material as we speak. And we also have a handful of new projects in the early stages with plans for 2019 releases, so we are keeping busy!

J: As Chris says, everything we have coming out doesn’t sound like the record we released before it, the new Anthroprophh is one of the greatest ‘Weird Britain’ records we’ve ever heard, full to the brim of layers upon layers of Fuzz/wah bursting out of every orifice, but so much more aswell. The new Mamuthones which I saw someone describe as sitting comfortably between the art-rock angularity of Devo and the spoken word aesthetic and visceral drive of Sleaford Mods – as well as Talking Heads and Miles Davis influenced weirdo rock. Not that we are trying to be a weirdo label by any means.

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