1. Who are you?
Elvera Butler. I started promoting gigs as Ents Officer, while an Arts student at UCC, and developed the Downtown Kampus which became an important venue on the Irish music scene in the late ’70s, and from which the label grew. When we relocated the label to London in ’83 I continued to promote live music, mainly at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, but also in other venues around London. I also helped set up a couple of London-wide Irish festivals, running the music and film programmes, and was also responsible for the Irish content on some large multi-cultural open-air festivals under the auspices of the GLC. My interest in film led me to undertaking an MA in film studies in London, which reawakened an interest in the subconscious, which in turn led to extensive study in hypnosis and NLP, so I have been fortunate enough to spend my time immersed in areas of great interest to me, music, film and the unconscious, (which I find all closely related).
2. When was the label set up? And why?
The label came into being in 1981 for the release of Kaught at the Kampus. At the time there was no great plan (or plan of any sort!) for further releases, but then I fell in love with Big Self’s music, released a single of theirs, and one release led to another. ’82 saw releases from Big Self, The Blades, Some Kind of Wonderful and the Camino Organisation, and with the response from the UK to Big Self’s music, when we were offered a base at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, London, in return for promoting gigs there, we decided to relocate the label to London.
3. For people who might not have heard of Kaught at the Kampus, can you explain what that is and the background.
A great local music scene grew out of the Downtown Kampus gigs I was promoting for UCC Student’s Union at the Arcadia (a now defunct venue, originally the CIE workmen’s club, opposite the train station in Cork – Ed.) from November ’77 – I made a point of using local bands as support where possible, and some of them, such as Nun Attax, got to play at the venue frequently. By 1980 there were growing opportunities for airplay with demos on shows such as Dave Fanning on RTE 2 (now 2fm); this was a very influential show at the time as RTE1 and 2 shared the signal late at night, which meant that Dave had a big audience. Cork bands didn’t have the facilities locally for recording, nor the money to travel to Dublin to record, so we hit on the idea of putting on a night of local bands at the Kampus, and bringing in a professional mobile recording studio from Belfast to capture it, and then we mixed it in Windmill Lane. And once we had done that it seemed logical to commit the music to vinyl.
4. How would you describe the music policy of the label (if there is one)?
There’s no very overt policy, but I have to like the music; there are three of us who have a say as to what’s released, but I couldn’t work with something I personally didn’t like.
5. Name two/three favourite/notable releases on the label and say why.
Big Self were a big personal favourite of mine in the early days; they had great songs and a great sound, and the singles ‘Surprise Surprise’ and ‘Don’t Turn Around’, and album Stateless, got terrific reviews from all the UK mainstream music press. When we relocated the label to London, they moved to London with us. I worked closely with them, and I get the same buzz from Sweet Jane’s music these days. We also had some other great releases in The Blades – ‘Downmarket’ has to be one of the best Irish singles ever, and of course we released Aslan’s first single ‘This Is’, which still gets lots of airplay today. And The Radio were another favourite; I loved their sound, and their song ‘Whatever Gets You Through Today’ has been used in several leading TV shows and films in the US.
And a completely different challenge was doing the book we published, ‘It Makes You Want to Spit’ – punk in Ulster ’77-’81. One of the authors of the book, Sean O’Neill, had got in touch with me to get some information on Big Self, as he and co-author, Guy Trelford, were updating a fanzine they had produced on Northern bands. They were trying to make the fanzine a bit more professional but couldn’t get anyone in the North to give them support, and I found myself offering to get involved. Having been involved in music back in the day, I had contacts for music journalists from the North who had been writing for UK magazines in the late ‘70s, and they all contributed chapters to the book. Then we got contributions from various UK bands that had played in Belfast during the Troubles, including one of the last interviews with Joe Strummer, and John Peel kindly let me interview him too; his contribution was a last minute thing, as he’d tended to avoid getting involved in retrospectives but then made an exception for me, which was brilliant, as he was aware that I was involved in music at the time – Big Self had done at least one session for him. And then we found a couple of people who had taken some great photographs at the time. The whole thing was done over the internet, back in the days before broadband, which was quite a challenge, and writing parts, editing and laying it out took substantial time, but it was interesting being so closely involved. So the project grew from a photocopied fanzine into a great looking 280 page book, which got terrific reviews, and still sells from our website to practically all corners of the globe. After that I was asked to get involved in several books, but it was hugely time consuming, and for me, music comes first.
6. Where do you stand on the Vinyl/CD/Digital debate?
I come from the vinyl generation, and besides the sound of vinyl, I love the visual, and tactile element too. Anything that is processed in several senses is much more memorable, and digital music is very one dimensional; a physical album makes so much more of an impression in that you see and feel it, as well as hearing it, and that’s important. From this year many of our releases will be on vinyl, as well as the other formats.
7. What would you say is the one key thing an independent record label needs to do to thrive/survive?
Enthusisam for the music is crucial, as the chances of making a good living from running a label these days is extremely slim. I would think that most indie labels are run by enthusiasts, and some get lucky with a breakthrough act. Having someone in the business relationship who is financially focused is a good thing, but the balance for me would always have to fall in favour of the music.
8. Apart from your own, what is your favourite Irish label? Favourite non-Irish? And why in both cases?
My favourite label was Stiff, which probably ticks both boxes as it was based in the UK and run by an Irishman. I loved the vibe of Stiff, the eclecticism of the acts, the multi-act tours they ran.
9. Do you think of Reekus Records as operating on the spectrum of pop music? Underground? What? Or does it matter?
Is underground pop a genre (We think so – Ed.)? I suppose almost everything I like is song-based, so good songwriting is key to our releases. But that covers a very wide spectrum – indie pop? Alternative rock? Does it matter indeed?
10. How do you reflect on the label’s releases gathered on the retrospective compilation Too late to stop now?
It was actually really interesting hearing the album completed: we had a lot of material to select from, and there had to be a few tunes omitted that I would like to have included. Sequencing the tracks was an interesting challenge, as there is a variety of styles, but I think they flow well. We intentionally chose releases that had been unavailable on CD before for the retro album, and I was a bit surprised to see how many bands we had worked with this century when doing CD2,– twenty one in ten years, although we only included nineteen on the CD.
11. What Irish music are you recommending to your friends at the moment?
The music I liked enough to spend serious money and time on – Sweet Jane, Keith Moss, Deetrich, Saccade…
12. What Irish artist/band would you love to release and why?
Any current artists that I’d love to release are already on the label – if I love something I go for it! Non-Irish? We currently tend to focus on Irish acts only.
13. What Irish artist/band do you love but couldn’t/wouldn’t release and why?
As I said above, if I love something I’d go for it regardless ….
14. Do you consider your label part of the Irish music industry?
It’s part of the Irish music industry insofar as we are based in Ireland, but we are increasingly working internationally. Does it matter? If there was more support from the government, radio etc., for Irish music, and the Irish music industry, then it might well matter, but as it is, it probably doesn’t. The Irish music industry suffers badly on a number of fronts; Irish bands tend not to be valued at home unless they are validated abroad, and the Irish music industry gets no real government support. For the first time, this year, we had no Irish representation at Midem, the biggest music industry conference in the world; the Enterprise board withdrew support a few years back, as the value of exports in music isn’t as quantifiable as widgets. And some countries get tremendous support from their governments in helping to bring bands to play at such industry events – for example, the Canadian government funded twenty-four bands to play at Midem this year, and ironically, the venue they used was Cannes’ leading Irish pub, Morrisons. And there were no Irish bands at Midem.
15. What ambitions for the label over the next year/5 years? Or just upcoming plans… We have a lot coming up this year, with a number of albums currently being recorded and due for release this year. A key release this year is the Sweet Jane album, which is slated for release in September at home and in the UK. We are currently running a very successful college radio campaign in the US with Sweet Jane’s current album, as a precursor to the new one, and are looking at tours in the UK, the US and Europe in the Autumn with Sweet Jane. Our latest signing, Keith Moss is in the process of putting the final touches to his first album with us, and that’s due for an Irish and UK release in late summer, while Deetrich is almost finished recording her debut album; all three albums are very different, which for me is interesting. And then there are a couple of other albums waiting in the wings …. And we have a lot of recordings from the early years to sift through, digitise and make available. We are increasingly setting up networks to help make it viable to make our releases available, and for our bands to tour internationally, and that’s very exciting. And then I’m pondering the idea of turning the book into an e-book with music links – that could be interesting.