Central London is a cultural dead-zone. Sure, corporate venues buy in the best spectacles money can acquire and well-heeled audiences attend quotable concerts at high prices they can boast of later, but the former hotspots of musical creation are long gone. Culture as an act of creation, not posthumous curation, has been culled in favour of £500K flats, estate agents and the same ol’ brands who have purchased their way to ubiquity. There’s not a record store worth knowing left in Camden, while Soho and Kings Road are bereft of their 60s counterculture/70s punk past.
But though the fire may move on, it never goes out. A short bus ride from Highbury & Islington lies Stoke Newington, a gentrified suburb but not yet subsumed into the glossy centre. There’s a new generation, building on far older traditions in the area, forging new sounds and still setting torches for DIY culture. With its numerous small venues – the most visible name being Café Oto – and a community of labels, artists, recording studios and local support, there’s a new scene rising, one worth watching. Here we talk to David Blanco, co-founder of Blank Editions, a label I’ve found good reason to lend an ear to in 2015.
Words & Guitars: Where’s musical Ground Zero for you – what started all of this?
David Blanco: I was 16. I was getting into heavy metal at the time — MTV type heavy metal, this throwback of glam metal from LA. That was my first interaction with guitar music, these larger-than-life figures, like demi-gods, so far away from the types of people I knew growing up in Highbury. I went over to a friend’s house in the late 80s and he had a copy of Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff EP and the cover blew my mind. I got hooked on underground music around that time. The accessibility: kids dressed like they’d just come back from school and gotten up on stage — there was an excitement to go out and do something similar yourself, i.e.: “You’re crap on guitar, I’m crap on drums — we could learn together.” The record label Subjugation from Darlington was run by my friend Ian and he set it up when he was 19, put out about 25 records before it ended in 2000. That was inspirational. They worked in partnership with bands, really developed a relationship with them and ran everything around that.
And that’s where you started to imagine you could set up a label?
I started listening to more hardcore punk, stuff coming out of Washington DC; bands on Revelation Records, Schism, Dischord — then into the mid-West post-hardcore which opened my eyes to how you could make record sleeves using anything round the house, it didn’t have to come from a pressing plant, you could do it all yourself. The only thing that needs to come from a plant is the vinyl — that’s non-negotiable, it needs to play on a turntable — but everything else you could in theory cobble together yourself.
I do Blank Editions with my friend Will (Shutes) — I said to him the other day that I had wanted to set up a label for years but I had to wait all that time, until 2011, to meet someone who was so organized and had their shit together, before we could make it happen. We were really into a band called Electricity in Our Homes, they’re from Hackney, we knew them, both trying to find their first 7″, enthusing over it and we fell into conversation about how there’s a lot of really good stuff happening on our doorstep. But there wasn’t a label that was tying it together, providing an umbrella to house these bands which were all populated by musicians who played in one another’s bands — everyone was in five or six bands, or had produced each other or helped each other out in one way or another.
Is that sense of place important in music? What do you feel?
To me the labels I found most memorable were labels that documented particular times and places. Sub Pop bands had a similar sound and documented a region close to them i.e.: Seattle. Jack Endino would leave the mixing deck all at the same levels so every band had the same production. Dischord in Washington DC, Blue Note in New York, early SST in California, it all had that same similarity. The same designer/musicians and producers putting stuff together — those labels were exciting because they would show me their backyard so to speak. We wanted to keep Blank Editions very much a label that documents activity local to us here in Hackney. If I need to talk to someone I can go and knock on the artist’s door or meet them in the local pub and there’s a friendship, a trust, a sense of loyalty.
I’m assuming it’s not always been the easiest experience? How do you keep it all running?
Well, my daughter was born the same month so it was the worst timing ever to start up a record label! It was going to take up time, a young family too. Now, we’ve been going four years, 16 releases, still trying to figure it out — I can’t sit here and tell you I know what we’re doing. Most bands we’re working with are in that same position. We are kitchen table: we operate literally from our tables. I make the sleeves when the kids have gone to bed. We contact the record shops one by one.
Saying that, it’s something people pay for — so we’re responsible, we believe in what we’re putting out, we love it! We enjoy being with the people and not only do we get a chance to put out stuff we’d want to buy, but we have the good fortune to create a friendship through it. Will and I have that conversation, “If you saw that would you buy it?” If we both say yes, then we have the discussions about whether we have enough money to put it out, how are we going to do our best by people.
Transparency matters — trouble always comes down to money and so we just work out in advance what we’re going to do and if everyone is happy we go for it. If we actually had a business model maybe it’d be different! The label is self-sustaining so far, but it’s really fragile. If we put something out and it doesn’t do well it’d be a very long time before we could put something else out — most things we sell out of, some taking longer than others, but at one point we had to close the online shop because everything was gone! It’s like a hamster wheel, it’s spinning on its own at the moment.
I’ve bought a few things from the label now – a couple of cassettes, two or three vinyl singles, now a pair of LPs too. Is there a structure behind it all?
Housewives are, hands down, one of my favourite things going on right now. Most of our vinyl editions has been Solo Series which is 7” records by people in bands we like. Then there’s the Blank Tapes — which is spontaneous recordings, cassette tapes, instrumental work, stuff people have on the shelf. Then the new element is the Blank Community which is the open-ended series, mostly servicing band work.
With The Solo Series, one of the things Will and I noticed was how many people in bands were recording stuff at home — to us that was really exciting because not only were those recordings not formulated for release, a lot of them were sketches, improvisations. What we did was made a list of bands we liked that were in the neighbourhood or lived in London. We then went to the people we felt were the hearts and lungs of each band offering them a chance to record a 7” with us. We were surprised how many people wrote back! It’s so easy to work with individuals, just one person, no management, no bullshit. If someone sent us something we liked then we’d go with it. Again, in the pub one day, we met our friend Charlie Boyer from Electricity in Our Homes. He said he had stuff he’d like to release so by that evening we’d decided to do it. Near straightaway we had Charlie in the room with a friend of ours called Toby Kidd, from a local band Hatcham Social, who does a lot of recording. A few months later, we were ready to put out our first single. It was a pretty fast process: December we had the conversation, they recorded in January, then the record came out in March.
I was definitely going to ask – the LPs by Tomaga – ‘Familiar Obstacles’ – and the one by Housewives – ‘Work’ – they’re the label’s first LPs and they both came out within a month of each other. A big undertaking?
To be completely honest, it wasn’t a chore at all. Both records had been recorded and art had been created for both releases by the time we approached the artists, so they were all ready to go. We teamed up with our friends at the Hands In The Dark and Negative Days labels to release the records pretty much at the same time. Both Tomaga and Housewives are incredible in our opinion, a true honour to have released both these records with our friends. Housewives are a perfect example of what made us want to set up the label in the first place: good friends who play Brutalist post-punk, uncomfortable abrasive music that has you completely hooked by the third rotation. We first heard the tape that label Faux Disx had released in 2014 and had that on pretty much non-stop. Tim Garratt (a producer and musician friend of ours) emailed saying he had just recorded them and that I should approach them for a record, which we did. They are hands down one of the best live bands I have seen in recent years too. I couldn’t recommend their live show more.
And the aesthetic of the label – what brought you to releasing cassettes?
It’s about the music first and foremost. Everything else is bells and whistles, fanfare. As beautiful as it can all be it really doesn’t matter. So why do we release them on Blank Editions? Cassettes are just beautiful, it’s a format I love. It’s easy, it’s spontaneous, you only really need a week or two to release something.
I’ve fallen in love again with the format – through a really nice amp and speakers the cassettes sound fantastic. I forgot how great cassettes can sound. They’re stripped down, they remind me of a different time and there’s a unique physicality with cassettes that you don’t get with any other format.
The cassette was my introduction to owning and collecting music in the 80s. Every house in the 70s and early 80s had a cassette player in the front room. Mixtapes were a massive part of my life — it’s how I discovered nearly everything i got into as a teenager. I worked in Sainsburys in 1993. I was 17 and a girl I had a huge crush on gave me a cassette that changed it all for me. It was the first time I heard Sonic Youth, first time I heard the Wolfhounds from Essex, Ride, My Bloody Valentine — all the shoegaze bands. My teenage bedroom were full of cassettes and mixtapes.
I’ve managed to miss quite a few of the cassettes you’ve put out under the ‘Blank Tapes’ series – Cop, Niqab, War Room and Neils Children.
We’ve released seven cassettes under The Blank Tapes catalogue so far, with a few new entries planned. They can be very spontaneous affairs and, at times just a few weeks from initial concept to final product. They’re a platform for things like experimentation/offshoot/sketch work/demo and ‘proper’ work. These recordings can unearth really precious moments in an artist’s evolution that you may not necessarily hear on official releases. We have two releases planned for early 2016 plus lots planned for all our catalogues. We’re hoping to do some Housewives offshoot release for The Blank Tapes too. We’re really excited to hear more from [ ] [ ] who we released in the original first run of Blank Tapes. We have had the good fortune to have enjoyed a very smooth relationship with everyone we have released and plan on working with many of them again in the near future.
All our releases have some sort of connection to Hackney. Either the bands live here, record, put on shows, practice here or are just social in the borough. We initiated the label and The Solo Series to issue a 7” by Electricity In Our Homes front man, Charles Boyer. EIOH were one of the label’s favourite bands, so when the label was set up, one of the first things we wanted to do was release a record by either EIOH or an affiliated project. Joseph Coward’s record came fairly organically from Charles’ one as they are friends. Douglas Hart’s record came from an existing relationship we already had. The Blurt/Ted Milton 7” came from Samir Eskanda and Tim Garratt who had been producing new material for Blurt. Thurston Moore had attended the launch for Douglas’ 7” and we asked him at the event if he would be interested in contributing. We knew he had moved into the neighbourhood and was already a resident so he was a perfect addition in every way for the label. We approached Yuki Tsujii after talking to our friends in COP and Niqab who knew his band Bo Ningen personally and introduced us. We knew Yuki was producing solo work, so we released his 7” in 2014.
I admit I was surprised to learn there was so much happening just up the road in North London.
N16, North East London – there’s a lot going on over here, has been for years. If you delve deep enough you’ll find a rich, rich DIY history here. There’s a lot going on here, interesting music — experimental, noisy, rock stuff, odd stuff. The area is producing a lot of undocumented music that is tied up pretty much by the same group of connected individuals and we simply want to document this.
What makes music interesting is progressing — I don’t want to listen to a hundred bands who sound just like Stiff Little Fingers: they’re great, but the sound gets redundant. Real punk was always growing, a space where you could do whatever you want, then you move on and move forward — you can even progress inside that space. Café Oto is just a street or two from here, there’s no stage. Some of our bands have played there like Tomaga. Then we’ve got the Shacklewell Arms– that’s more of a punk, DIY venue. Then there’s a place called Power Lunches, same promoters operate that. Then there’s the Servant Jazz Quarters, a place called Birthdays, there’s even an abandoned fire station starting up stuff now. Surprising how connected everyone is as well — friendships, people helping each other out.
These things don’t happen often in people’s lives and when it does then you should really enjoy it — looking at it remembering you’ll look back on it in twenty years and think “Wow!” and know how fortunate you were to be in that position and do those things. Putting things out there for people to enjoy, for you to enjoy — it’s fun.
For more information about Blank Editions, visit the label’s website.