Dave Howell interview

Dave Howell of Fat Cat Records is also the editor of the UK-based Obsessive Eye fanzine, a publication that has charted the course of post-techno electronics and post-rock since it's first issue in the mid 90s, featuring articles on artists such as Alec Empire, Merzbow, Pan sonic and Labradford as well as labels such as No U-turn, Irdial and Skam. For the last couple of years, however, Dave Howell has concentrated his efforts on his work for the Fat Cat label, helping out with A&R and press-work as well as overviewing the release of a series of split 12"s intended to pair together various musical styles. Dave took care of my more redundant questions by pointing me towards a Fat Cat biography he attached.

Interview conducted by e-mail January, 2000

1. What is your musical background? What was the impetus behind the start-up of the label?

It's kind of difficult to talk about the label in terms of musical backgrounds, because what comes out is the product of three people's separate tastes / histories / trajectories. I guess this is actually audible in our discography. Alex used to DJ at "Lost" and "Blood Sugar", so is well up on the techno / house side of things, as well as being very into hip hop, plus getting more & more into band-based stuff. Dave has come from a similar background, probably focusing more on "classic" electronica, plus lots of post-rock. Personally, after a dodgy youth as a psychobilly (!), I was heavily into US hardcore / post-punk (SST label, Fugazi, Swans, Big Black, Dinosaur, Sonic Youth, Live Skull, etc...); loads of amazing, guitar-based pre-post-rock stuff (Joy Division, My Bloody Valentine, AR Kane, Ultra Vivid Scene, Galaxy 500, Cranes, Butterfly Child, etc.), lots of industrial stuff (especially TG, Neubauten, Zoviet France), then tentatively getting into electronica after hearing Autechre's "In Cuna Bula", then really heavily getting into post-rock as it was happening in '93-'94. These last two events were the springboard for starting to write the first Obsessive Eye.

2. What is going on with Obssessive Eye? Overall, were you pleased with how each issue turned out?

At the moment, it's kind of in limbo. I have done about 6 or 7 interviews over the last year (with the likes of Matmos, Phthalocyanine, Crank, Cobra Killer, Crescent, etc...), and did plan to get an issue out last year, but with things being so stupidly busy here at Fat Cat, plus trying to work on my own material at home, plus writing regularly for the Wire, it's just been too difficult. I am definitely gonna get something out this year though. I am pretty pleased with how each issue turned out. The first was a bit of a breakthrough, and really heavily focused on what was happening as the "post-rock" "scene" emerged. The second was a little more diverse, and I'm not so happy about some of the photos I used, but I think the third looked a lot better. The challenge now is to reinvent things...

3. Some of your recent releases have featured bands with "real instruments" - so I assume you (unlike some people) have not given up on band-based music - any thoughts on the state of bass-drums-guitar outfits? Do you purposely seek out "real bands" or do you just stumble onto the good ones?

Right from the start, it was always our intention to include "real instrument"-based music. Personally, having grown up obsessively listening to this stuff, I find most band-based music pretty lame and old-hat these days. Obviously, there are many exceptions. I do really love what labels like Kranky and Domino are doing. It's difficult because in my experience there still tend to be more cliches and egos involved. Ultimately, it comes down to what you're doing with the format. I'm much more into people who are using traditional instruments, but attempting to get away from the classic "song" structures (e.g. Foehn, Mice Parade).

4. There was a Martin Amis interview I stumbled onto through one of the links at your web site where he says: "I want to go to any bar in the world and have people with my book. You want everyone to read you and no one else, basically". How do you feel about that in relation to Fat Cat? Do you want everybody to be aware of you or do you want to keep things "underground"?

Difficult. It seems to me like it's impossible to get any kind of large-scale awareness, without having to make serious compromises or play the whole idiotic music industry / media game, which really fucking sucks. Obviously, we need to sell a certain amount of records to be able to survive, but equally obviously, a lot of the material we're bringing out is too marginal to have any kind of mass appeal. I'm happy as long as we stay honest and creative, and to keep supporting the people / things / events that deserve it, whilst not having to entertain too many idiots. I think what will happen is that certain projects (particularly Sigur Ros) are going to be really big, whilst others will remain pretty small and unknown. I think we can live with that.

5. The "Faster/Louder" article in the Wire seemed to polarize some people's opinion of the artists featured on the cover. Fat Cat was mentioned as was Obssessive Eye - what was your reaction to the article as a whole?

It seemed a bit strange that the piece came out only a few months after Vol.3 of Obsessive Eye, and seemed to cover so much of what I'd been dealing with in that issue. There's an interesting critique of that feature in Datacide 5, which you should check out. You should also check out Howard Slater's "Post Media operators" text, which we reprinted in Split Series #2, which is pretty relevant. I think most of the stuff covered doesn't actually fit their catch-all slogan of "Harder / Faster / Louder" anyway!! 100% not into Matthew Harden & any kind of glamorization of fascism in any way....

6. What are some of your future plans for the label? Any projects in areas other than music?

This year, as I think I've already mentioned, we are attempting to slow down our output (especially of singles), and attempt to concentrate more on individual album projects. I think people seemed to get a bit saturated by the massive ammount of 12"s we put out last year, to the extent that releases were becoming uneconomical. The only 12"s we're planning to bring out this year will be by Sigur Ros and Grain, plus maybe 4 or 5 (maximum) splits. At the moment, we've got album releases planned for Process (February), Sigur Ros, Dylan Group, Mum (new Icelandic electronica), Grain, a new Various Artists album, a compilation of material received as demos. As well as running the split series, I will be taking charge of a new imprint label series (name to be confirmed), the first release on this will be from Foehn (due in March), followed by others from Chasm (Robert Hampson), and Motion. Also want to start circulating more texts as inserts with the split 12" series, like the "Post Media Operators" one that came with split #2. Need more money!!! Plus more interesting events / nights like the "Open Circuit" gigs in Belgium.

7. Am I wrong or is Fat Cat not a store anymore?

As you can see from the label biography I attached with the last set of questions, the store was forced to close down in the early autumn of '97. There is, though, a new store, owned by our landlords Smallfish (the name is a complete ironic coincidence) which has just opened around the corner from our office, and is being managed by Dave Cawley, and irregularly manned by the rest of us, so you could say this is some kind of continuation of the Fatcat shop...

8. Could you give me a list of some records you're currently listening to?

Right now I'm just checking out a documentary compilation of electronix recorded at a project in Copenhagen ("Xart Hybrid"); a compilation of glitchy digital stuff from Chicago on Gentle Giant records (plus also their split 7" releases - TV Pow v Laminal, and Christian Marclay v Otomo Yoshihide); Sonic Youth's awesome new comp on their own SYR; the new Fennesz on Touch; Foehn's "Silent Light" on SwarfFinger; new Matmos stuff for the split series...

9. Do you have a "wish list" of musicians you'd like to see on Fat Cat?

Still hoping to get tracks through from Fennesz, Pita, Christian Marclay, Main, Crank, Phthalocyanine for the split series, which will be awesome. Otherwise, I'd have to say My Bloody Valentine, Crescent, Jim O'Rourke, Sensational, Sonic Youth, Farmers Manual...

10. Any thoughts on the internet as a means of distributing music? MP3s, RealAudio, and all that?

Not had too much of a chance to check out the MP3 format, so don't really feel qualified to pass comment... I guess as the internet grows, it'll become a standard means of music distribution / consumption, which will obviously come with both blessings and problems. I'm still really into the idea of the object (CD, vinyl, etc) & packaging...

11. Who chooses the pairings on the split releases?

That's my little project....

12. There are some Architecture links at your web site - who's the architecture fan?

me again...

13. I noticed the press release for the De Babalon half of the split 12" features the floor plan of what I think is Daniel Libeskind's Holocaust Museum in Berlin - was this your choice of graphic or Christoph's? What was the significance of it in relation to the 12"?

Yes, it was taken from Libeskind. If you check out the split series discography section of our website, you'll see that each of the press releases for the split 12"s makes use of such drawings / plans. Most are using cut-ups from Libeskind's "Micro-Megas" series of exploded drawings, alongside intertitles from JG Ballard's classic novel, "The Atrocity Exhibition". There is no direct link between these plan-fragments and the music, more a sense of suggestion, of continual play (with structures / dynamics / materials / textures / etc.) which I think is evident in both the music & architecture.

14. There was a series of CDs on the Caipirinhia label that tried to address a connection between electronic music and architecture. The only CD I've heard so far is the Ysatis / Deupree "Tower of Winds", which I considered a success as a piece of minimal techno, but somewhat of a failure at evoking any sense of connection with the architecture it dealt with. Okay, so my question is - as a fan of architecture - do you look for a connection between the music you've championed on Fat Cat or Obsessive Eye and architecture? Any particular architects you'd care to mention? Or perhaps, explain why you specifically linked to those on your site? How about an architecture-themed comp on Fat Cat?

Again, I'd refer to the above answer. For Obsessive Eye, the last issue in particular made considerable reference to architecture (especially the piece on Jega). I am also a (critical) fan of a lot of contemporary architecture. I really like the dynamic structures and new spaces created by practices like Zaha Hadid, Libeskind, Coop Himmelbau, Lars Spueybroek, etc. although I still find a lot of it is built to serve the usual, conformist ends (i.e. - rich private patrons, wealthy institutions, etc), rather than challenging or changing anything socially. At the moment, I'm getting into the work / theory of Lebbeus Woods, who seems to be approaching things from a much more radical, hands-on angle. The links page of the website is really patchy at the moment - expect a massive update soon. I'm not sure about a architecture-themed CD, but I am interested in site-specific recordings. I'm sure you're aware of the documentary-based work on Lucky Kitchen. V/VM's "Pig" record was all location recordings from a massive pig-farm. There was also a really cool CD last year by Anna Planeta (on Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers) which was entirely recorded in a disused school building, and was pretty awesome. I've also been doing a lot of location-based work (alongside electronix) with a mate as Antenna Farm (recordings made during construction inside the millenium dome, disused units in a shopping centre, demolition sites, etc.), so maybe we could do some kind of field recording thing....

15. I don't know if you'd agree with me on this, but there are just too many electronic outfits who sound too much like Autechre (a couple were on the Fat Cat promos you sent me: Funkstorung and Team Doyobi) to the point where even Autechre's music starts sounding a bit cliched and predictable (to a point). With all the variety of analog and digital gear at every musician's disposal it seems disappointing to have so many folks end up in the same zone as Autechre - any thoughts?

Yes, agreed, though I do think Team Doyobi's material is significantly different. You should hear the amount of bad demos we get sent almost every day. Pretty depressing, really. However, I do also think that there's probably a tendency for people to harp on a bit TOO much about Autechre-clones. I don't think that terrain has been totally exhausted yet.

16. Is there too much "glitchy digital stuff" floating around? When listening to demos, how do you differentiate between good and bad glitchy stuff? Peter Rehberg said in an interview in Angbase #3: "There's people who send us tapes with sort of scratchy, glitschy noises on them... they say this would be good for Mego and we go: we've already done that". What kind of demos do you get?

There is also lots of very good "glitch-based" material around at the moment. Again, I think it just depends what you do with it, where you take it. I think differentiating between good and bad demos is kind of the same, regardless of genre. Because of the diverse nature of the label, we get sent so much stuff right across the board - from electronica to noise, post-rock, indie, hiphop, ambient, whatever. But you can just tell pretty quickly, just through instinct, what is good and what's bad, or what's not quite hitting the spot. I'm not really into releasing things if I think they sound too familiar. I'd rather we attempted to move things on, to go somewhere different. I'm not saying that we've never put out a bad record - because I'm sure we have - or that I even like all the stuff we've brought out on Fat Cat. What you have to remember is that there's 4 different people working here - with quite different backgrounds & preferences - deciding on what gets released. There'll always be arguments and there'll always be times when we're not all agreed on something coming out, but perhaps that can help keep things more healthy or interesting...?

17. Let's talk Merzbow for a minute - what do you think of the man's music and how did he come about releasing a split with AMM on Fat Cat? Is Merzbow the only "noise" person you're interested in? Do you have any contact with any English noise folks, like Mlehst, Smell & Quim, Ashtray Navigations, the Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers label, or the Chocolate Monk label?

Merzbow is fucking awesome, and I was just so chuffed to get that split 12" with them & AMM. For me, that's been one of the best releases on the label so far, and its timing in the split series was perfect - don't think there were many people expecting that move! It came about simply through my asking both Masami and Eddie Prevost if they'd be up for doing it & both were very cool and very interested in the project. I think it works real well because both sides are firmly rooted in improvisation, yet both are dramatically different. The only disappointment was that the amazing original Merzbow track was just impossible to cut accurately onto vinyl - it was just so fucking extreme at the top end, and the bass was really out of phase. I could have cut it, but it would have sounded really different, and I didn't want that. Masami was so cool about this though, and really kindly sent over "Tower Of Ghost", which was the track on the 12". Thankfully, we have just released the original track ("Ab Hunter") on the "Split Seties 1-8" CD compilation. It's really nice to get that track out at last, because it's a mighty slice of noise, and, as far as I've heard, fairly unusual for Merzbow. Like I said earlier, I have had a pretty good grounding in industrial / noise music, so this is still an interest, though not nearly as obsessive as most of the people in that scene. There will be more noise on Fat Cat, and I'm still waiting for a collaboration from Pita & Russell Haswell, but it seems to be taking a while! One of the best shows I caught last year was from this Brighton hilarious noise duo, Evil Moisture, but I haven't been able to track them down yet.

18. I've got to ask about this because I just read about it in the Wire - what's going on with the "fake" Pole release? Any idea on who the artist on the phony tape might be? Was the tape any good?

The fake Pole release cost us a lot of cash, so it was a pretty shitty prank to pull on a small indie label like ours. When we find out who it was, they'll receive a worthy punishment... And, yes, it was good - though Pole would obviously disagree. One track was supposedly "live", the other a new composition, which I was happy with because it sounded quite different for Pole - thought he was moving things on a bit. We still have 200 copies of the record sitting here, waiting for a decision to be made on what to do with them. I'm planning on doing something at the launch party for the split series compilation later this month, possibly involving a turntable orchestra using only the Pole side. We can't release them as they are (we'd probably get sued), so I'm either gonna destroy them all in a fire; sandpaper or etch over the Pole side and release them as a one-sided Plotkin 12"; or..................>>>>>>>

19. Psychobilly? Really?

I was very young and misguided!!! and grew up living in Portsmouth, which is a shithole & total cultural dead-end.....!! The Sting-Rays were fucking wild though, buddy!!


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