Ian Henderson is the man behind the “micro-independent” psych-pop label Fishrider Records from Dunedin, New Zealand. He started out in 2006 and have since then released a number of records, including the critically acclaimed, self-titled Opposite Sex record. He’s been with the band The Puddle from time to time, as a drummer. He’s also been a freelance writer for the Southland Times and also for the zines Garage and Alley Oop. I took the time to interview him about his label, the studio, pop lib manifesto, New Zealand, what he thinks about other labels and much more!
So, could you tell me something about the emergence of Fishrider in 2006? What made you start it up?
– I had helped a friend record an album I thought it was time he made. When it got ignored by the record label I sent it to I decided to release it myself. This was the Dark Beaks album ”Spill Your Heart”. It was only ever meant to be that one release.
What kind of influence do you think you as a former music-writer have on the label you’re running? What good things came from your background that you put into Fishrider?
– Probably having a fairly extensive knowledge of alternative music and music in general is the biggest influence from that music-writer back-ground. Knowing what makes something good maybe. Also wanting to release things that contribute to the cultural well-being of alternative music. That sounds a bit pompous but often great music is ignored at the time of its release and only becomes significant years later. I guess as a music writer I could see that, so it didn’t deter me from releasing things that were not particularly commercially viable.
You’ve also been involved with the zines ”Garage” and ”Alley Oop”, could you tell me more about them? What zines do you prefer to read now, in 2012?
– These were two ’zines that were published in Dunedin in the late ’80s and early ’90s. They mostly focused on Dunedin and NZ music, mostly from Flying Nun Records artists but also the Xpressway label which was a kind of lo-fi/ experimental off-shoot of Flying Nun. They were edited by local enthusiasts but had a London correspondant who also wrote for the NME. And they were sold all over the world. There were only 6 Garage ’zines. You can get them online from Flying Nun now: http://blog.flyingnun.co.nz/2011/10/09/garage-issue-4/
Alley Oop continued for about 12 issues after that, with many of the same writers contributing.
The only ’zines I read now are Dagger – possibly the longest running US print ’zine: http://www.daggerzine.com/
Also a twice yearly US magazine called The Big Takeover really started out as a ’zine and it is still going: http://www.bigtakeover.com/
There is an emerging young ’zine scene in Dunedin again. Not just music but arts, comic, culture. It is great to see that. Some are print and some online magazines.
What other labels would you recommend that have influenced you greatly?
– I like many labels! In NZ at the moment L’il Chief Records have consistently released great indiepop for 10 years. People in Sweden would love their catalogue. http://www.lilchiefrecords.com/
Arch Hill Records took over from Flying Nun in the past decade as the great NZ alternative music label. http://www.archhill.co.nz/
And for those who like noisier guitar pop sounds, Muzai Records are at the forefront for that type of music: http://muzairecords.com/
The people who run these labels are also big inspirations to me.
The labels that have influenced me most would be Rough Trade Records in Britain, the original version of Flying Nun Records (the first ten years) and K Records in Olympia, USA. I like Domino Records too.
At the moment my partner label in the UK is influencing me. Nick at Occultation is quite similar to me which is why the arrangement to co-release the Opposite Sex album in the UK came about: http://www.occultation.co.uk/ We met on Facebook last year after both commenting about the first Scritti Politti EP.
Probably the main label and person who directly influenced me to start the label was a guy here called Blink who runs a kind of label, event promotion and publishing venture called A Low Hum: http://www.alowhum.com/
Blink’s advice to me and anyone else who listened was always ”don’t wait for someone else to do things for you or release your music – do it yourself!” He is responsible for energising the NZ alternative music scene more than any person I know. The annual music and arts festival he organizes called Camp a Low Hum is the music highlight of the year in NZ. If anyone from Sweden is coming to NZ for a holiday in February they should get tickets. It is unlike any other kind of music festival I know of.
It seems like you’ve got a keen eye on quality instead of quantity, the records you release always seem to get great reviews and have great quality. What would you say is the fundamental thing that separates quality from quantity?
– I can’t afford quantity so I focus on quality. I think quality is something that is honest, unforced and, to me at least, obvious. But I can’t explain it. I’m sure many people think what I release is NOT quality. But they measure quality by production values, hairstyles, who knows what? To me it is people telling their own story in their own way, not influenced by what is in fashion or popular at the moment. I have always had a soft spot for unusual outsiders and iconoclasts in music.
You’ve also made it so that the releases have some time in between, this must also secure the quality that you’re after?
– That isn’t planned at all. It is just what happened. As the label was only created to release one album, each of the following ones has been almost accidental… well, that’s no longer true. The more that were released the more it became a label and a deliberate path. But it is only the in past year, with the Opposite Sex album, that it has become a true label. Before that, after the Dark Beaks album, it was just 3 album’s by my brother’s band The Puddle. And those were just coincidence, with him coming back from years of drug problems and ill-health and becoming amazingly creative again. And Fishrider Records just happened to be there and it made sense to help him.
I only ever release music that I want in my own record collection and that I feel so passionately about that I am prepared to spend the huge amounts of time that they require to release. I also need to know, like and respect the people who make the music I release. It’s not about making money, and because of that, these ”rules” are what makes the label worth the time, money and effort I put into it. I never want to be doing it just as a business.
What differs in between the releases, do you have any certain year with only ”no-wave” and another year with ”psych-pop”? How do you plan the releases?
– Nothing is planned like that. The label was always ”psych-pop” from below the underground. Then Opposite Sex came along and they were more ”no wave” from below the underground. So the label adapted! And this year The Shifting Sands are quite polished and jangly and delicate. But I have always liked them as a live band and no-one else was going to release their album. So there is no grand master plan. Stuff just happens organically, and by chance. The album by Opposite Sex is a perfect example of that. I wasn’t looking for a band to ”sign” or release, I just met them by chance, loved what they were doing, said ”I’d love to record you” and things happened as a result of that. I hoped I might be able to release something by them one day but I didn’t expect I would be releasing an album by them later that year when I said that!
How much time does it take to run this label? Do you have any other projects on the side or is this label your main occupation?
– Too much time! Having 3 new releases within 6 months, one of which was re-released in the UK is too much for one person to do justice to. Fortunately I was made redundant in March so I have more time now! Just not much money for a bit.
I am now self-employed in the learning and development area so I need to balance the label with making a living. Sometimes I spend all evening, most days on the label. And some of the day when I can and if things need attention. But at other times hardly any time.
What release on Fishrider up to now would you deem to be your favorite?
– The extraordinary debut album by Opposite Sex is my favourite. I still love that album so much. It is actually one of my favourite albums of all time, along with Collossal Youth by Young Marble Giant and Ege Bamyasi by Can. The fact that so many people around the world love that album is just so special for me.
My favourite Puddle album is The Shakespeare Monkey because it was the first proper one I recorded and I had a lot to do with the production and adding instruments and sounds to it. It is the most popular of the albums I’ve released by The Puddle. It has such a lot of variety on it and was so much fun to record.
You’ve also got your own studio, could you tell me more about it?
– The studio is the basement room of my house. I use a 16-track digital portastudio so it is nothing special but very easy to learn and to set up and record with. And to take to other locations to record. I have just upgraded to a multi-track USB computer set-up which is a bit of a struggle to learn. I do have some nice old microphones and amps though. But the equipment is just a means to an end. I’m more interested in what the bands play than the recording intricacies as people can probably hear! I am mostly self-taught and like to work quickly. I do get most of my albums properly mixed by real sound engineers who know what they are doing though.
I liked the Pop Lib-”manifesto” which your label goes under, could you tell me more about it than what is written? What inspired you to coin that term?
– I need to finish that manifesto! Thanks for reminding me. I love pop music. But I hate that pop music has become this music industry formula with little innovation. When I look back in history pop music was often the cutting edge of new sounds and experimentation. Joe Meek getting those sounds for ”Telstar”, The Beatles, The Kinks. Then the post-punk period with bands like The Associates, Human League, New Order and so on. Pop music was the laboratory for trying new things and moving music forward.
Even commercial radio once used to play not only The Kinks – a raw garage band really – but quirky things like Jona Lewie’s Always in the Kitchen at Parties. There is no risk taking now other than bad language, violence, sexual explicitness and sexist themes.
Today it is like the music industry has worked out what the formula is and commercial pop is fairly bland and fits that. Even the supposedly ”outrageous” stuff is actually just style, fashion, marketing… it’s not the music. No one seems to care about the song or dare to take a risk. Why? Because money speaks louder than art. It’s business not music.
So Pop Lib was this idea that pop is legitimate music, and it exists outside the machine of commercial radio music. It needs to be liberated. The idea of subersive pop – which is what I see Opposite Sex doing – is part of that. Music can still be accessible and popular but have substance and a soul and take risks and challenge people. Sweden is good at producing subversive pop music!
Pop Lib was also the first record you released on Flying Nun Records, do you have any other anecdotes about it? How did this ”manifesto” influence it musically?
– I wasn’t in The Puddle at that stage. But I designed the label and took the photo on the back of ”Pop Lib”. At that time I was the reserve drummer. I played for them the week before the album was recorded when their regular drummer couldn’t make a show.
The Pop Lib album or mini-album was so flawed and incompetent it is remarkable it was ever released. But the songs are amazing. It may well have been responsible for the whole lo-fi movement around the world although Swell Maps were probably ahead of The Puddle. There were never many pressed or sold but it is talked about around the world still to this day. It was one of the Top 3 NZ albums in a Spin (US) magazine list of NZ albums last year.
We have just located the original 4-track tape so it can be re-mixed and re-released now. People will be surprised how good the actual recordings sound. Most of the problems were with the way it was mixed.
I always liked the name ”Pop Lib” and thought it was brilliant, conceptually. That is why I wanted to keep the idea alive. The liberation of popular music from the shackles of the evil music industry seems a good cause to spend a life championing!
If you hadn’t released that first record, do you think that Fishrider wouldn’t have existed? Or would you have found another way of influence for it?
– Without the first record it may never have happened. Hard to know. I would still be listening to music, going to shows, writing about it, helping people release it I hope even if Fishrider hadn’t happened.
Since you don’t seem to pop up under credits on Discogs for The Puddle, I still wonder when you came into the picture?
– I am the younger brother of George D. Henderson who is The Puddle essentially. I played in early versions of the band occasionally when they didn’t have a drummer but didn’t become a member until about 2007. When they started I lived in a different city and George’s drug lifestyle at the time conflicted with me. I had a career and a family. I only joined when he sorted himself out. It took him a while!
What would you say was the major difference for The Puddle being on Flying Nun Records and now on Fishrider Records?
– Flying Nun Records gave them an international reputation and notoriety for which I am always grateful. But I don’t think they did much to help them other than release the records. When they finally reached their potential and recorded their classic album ”Songs for Emily Valentine” in 1993 Flying Nun didn’t seem to be interested any more. Had they released that album the history of The Puddle, Flying Nun and NZ music would have been very different. That album wasn’t released until a small label put it out in 2006: http://thepuddle.bandcamp.com/album/songs-for-emily-valentine
I think the last thing George received from Flying Nun in the 90s was a statement telling him how much money he owed them. But there is a Puddle song from ”Pop Lib” on the new Flying Nun compilation Time to Go.
Because there were so few artists on Fishrider Records I have been able to spend more time on them than Flying Nun could. But being on a smaller label makes it harder to get noticed too. In NZ and overseas. It has been a lot of hard work to restore The Puddle to the consciousness of a small but ever-growing number of fans around the world. I was pretty happy when The Shakespeare Monkey album was reviewed in UK music monthly Uncut and made the Top 20 for 2009 on San Francisco radio station KUSF. I thought those were pretty good achievements for a small label with three albums at that stage.
It seems like you do quite a lot of work being such a small label, do you do this all by yourself?
– Yes. I can be a bit obsessive at times. I do need to delegate to helpers but I don’t like to ask people to give up their time for it and no-one has volunteered to be an unpaid intern yet. Also I don’t even know what I am doing myself most of the time so how do I explain to someone else what to do to help me?!
What would you say is the best thing about New Zealand when running a label like yours?
– I’m not sure. It is a nice place to live and that is inspiring I suppose. But it is a hard place to release music from when it is being sold all around the world because of the distances and freight and postage costs.
The commercial music industry in New Zealand is quite unsupportive and even obstructive here. Few people here understand how much the little bands on tiny labels like mine are appreciated overseas. It is also really hard for alternative bands to survive here, particularly with the current recession.
There are too few places to play in a country with only 4 million people, it is expensive to travel to tour here because of big distances and the price of petrol. So it is often not financially viable for bands like The Puddle or Opposite Sex to tour. It is also very expensive and difficult t travel overseas to play. But still, adversity breeds resilience!
You asked for the best thing and I’ve given you mostly negatives. So the best things are the uncrowded spaces, the coastline, the forests and mountains, and the people involved in not-very-commercial music are mostly supportive and crazy and dedicated to making and playing amazing music rather than becoming famous or making money.
You’ve also got two channels, one on Vimeo and one on YouTube dedicated for your videos. Who produces them? Could you tell me anything about the creative process behind them?
– I make most of the videos there. Although some of The Puddle videos were filmed and edited by friends who know what they are doing. I have a real DIY approach and I enjoy making videos. I don’t think I’m particularly good at making them and I wish more creative people would volunteer to do them for me!
I think a video presence is really important particularly when we are so far away and people aren’t seeing the band playing live. But as with music I think it is the honesty of the idea and the imagination that is more important than how slick it all looks. My favorite video is the one I made for the Opposite Sex song Sea Shanty. That was so much fun to do. A lot of hard work and time for the animations but it worked out being pretty perfect for the music.
Lucy really makes that video. Her presence, with nothing more than a bit of smelly seaweed as a prop, is what holds it all together. She is such a talented artist, songwriter and musician, and a lovely person. She also knows her own mind, has strong principles and has no desire to make compromises or become part of the music industry machine. I respect and admire her for that. I hope Lucy and Tim will start to make their own videos too one day too. They are both very creative.
I have another channel for live music videos: http://www.youtube.com/user/poplibnz
In what way have Flying Nun Records influenced you? Apart from your band being on it, and on for a long time?
– The biggest influence was on opening doors to new music. And to local music. And, for many New Zealanders like me, it made us feel like we were more than just observers in the world post-punk music scene. We were contributors, and sometimes quite important ones. That may not have been recognized at the time but the influence of Flying Nun bands have had, particularly on the US scene has been immense. And in some Scandinavian bands too I think.
And the first decade of Flying Nun was about taking risks, releasing a very diverse variety of music with little or no commercial potential and creating a sense of a music scene where none had existed before.
Speaking of your band, could you tell me anything about it? What kind of impact do you think you’ve made on New Zealand as a whole?
– The Puddle have made no impact on New Zealand at all. Very few people here have even heard of the band, even people who know of Flying Nun Records, The Chills, The Clean etc. More people overseas know of The Puddle than in NZ. We are always talked about as ”underrated”. WXDU radio in Durham, North Carolina, USA recently e-mailed to tell me the new Puddle album was in their weekly playlist Top 10 and said ” one of New Zealand’s most underrated bands ever, ever, ever.”
What band do you have in eyesight that you’d like to sign to Fishrider? Do you have any plan of signing any new band this year?
– There is one band I really like who I have talked to but no commitment yet to do a release. Dunedin’s finest jangle pop band. There is another band called The Blueness I would love to release but they will do their own release which is great. Otherwise I would need to add the new genre they invented called ”technopopgaze” to the Fisrider description: http://thebluenessisblue.bandcamp.com/
I am also looking at doing a co-release in NZ later this year of a new 10” EP by one of Occultation Recordings bands Factory Star. That’s the band formed by Martin Bramah, a founding member of The Fall and also the Blue Orchids.
So, when a band is signed to Fishrider, what makes you different from major labels and other labels around? What defines your attitude towards the artists and creativity?
– Bands don’t really ”sign”. We just talk and exchange e-mails confirming the arrangement. In general I work on the Rough Trade 50/50 profit share after expenses model. But with pressings of 500 CDs and 200 LPs there are not a lot of profits to share! So mostly what bands gain from being on Fishrider is only not having to pay to record or release their music. They also get some promotion and sometimes some help with expenses and stuff.
Each arrangement is different depending on the circumstances. The label exists to help the artist release their music. Of course I want to cover production and marketing costs and get a little return to help finance the next release. But the deal should alway favour the artist over the label.
If I have made or paid for recordings myself Fishrider still doesn’t own them exclusively. They belong to the artists, although they usually insist Fishrider at least co-owns them, which is what Opposite Sex did when I tried to give them ownership of the recordings I made for them.
Vinyl is hard because a 200 pressing will often just recover costs if you sell it all because of the freight. There is no pressing plant in NZ, Australia is way too expensive, so I get records pressed in Nashville get them freighted back to NZ so I can post them around the world! It’s crazy. That’s why I’m so happy about the UK pressing and release for Opposite Sex.
I think it is important for labels to have these discussions upfront and for everyone to be aware what is happening and to be happy with it. My arrangements might be unusual and not very business-like but the business part of the label is just a necessary evil and a means to an end. My goal is to mix altruism with commerce and for Fishrider to be ”music arts & crafts” more than ”music industry”. I hate the word ”industry” used in conjunction with music. It is art, not industry. Sadly most commercial music labels are ”industrial”.
I read a lot about labels and managers being irrelevant now. Musicians don’t need them and can do their own thing now. Yes they can and, if they want to, then they should. But not everyone has the time, skill or self-confidence to run their own business and market and promote themselves and their music. Few in NZ can survive on music alone so they have to balance work and/or study with music. Opposite Sex and The Puddle don’t want to do the business side of things, or maintain websites and don’t have the time or skills to do that. I would rather they concentrate on making music and trust a friend to be a partner to help with the non-musical stuff for them. I can’t make the music they do, yet I want to hear it made. So I offer the skills I do have so they can make and release their music. I said it was altruism, but really it is selfishness! I do it to get the rewards of pleasure and satisfaction from it.
So, I think there is still a role for labels and managers but it has to be for the right reasons – a partnership to facilitate the artists’ art, where everything is transparent, fair and done with mutual agreement
I also believe the artists have artistic control. I still like to have ideas and make suggestions but in the end it is the artist’s decision. It can be a fine line between being encouraging and pushing too much. Sometimes I do things that need to be done without checking with the artist to save time or not to disturb them. Opposite Sex have strong ideas on visuals and this caused a bit of tension once. I know what they expect now.
What do you think are the main things that other labels tend to miss out on? What would you like to change the most in the world of labels?
– I think most labels, because of the focus on business, are conservative and don’t take risks on new sounds. They sign new artists because either they sound like someone else who is selling OK or they have an established fanbase.
No other label in NZ would have taken on Opposite Sex. They had only played a handful of shows to small crowds in a small town in rural NZ. They were playing music unlike any other young bands in NZ or anywhere in the world. Even their friends who came to their shows didn’t really know what to make of them.
But they instantly had my attention. I was intrigued by their sound and their songs. All those years of listening to weird pop told me straight away that somewhere in the world, there were people who would love what they did as much as me. They were also the kind of people I wanted to help make something happen for. Underdogs, outsiders, bright and modest young people who dared to be different and risked ridicule to make original music. I really love reading all the views and fan mail from around the world saying what an extraordinary sound they have and how fresh people find them. That makes doing it worthwhile.
I know labels have to make financial decisions, but I do wish more would take risks and then do the work to find the audiences for their bands.
What would you say is the best thing about running your own label and having your own studio?
– With the studio saving money and convenience are the two big things. Being able to record when I want. So many songs have been recorded on the spur of the moment, at a practice. Without having to book studio time with other people it is just so much easier. Plus there is no pressure when I record bands.
The best thing about running the label is seeing music that would otherwise never be released get played on radio stations around the world and bought and loved by fans all over the world. I always love posting Fishrider music to people overseas and knowing they are listening to Dunedin music in Tokyo, Melbourne, London, Edinburgh, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Madrid, Berlin, Stockholm… and all the little places in between.
So, what bands and artists do you prefer listening to at the moment?
– Connan Mockasin’s Forever Dolphin Love has probably been my most played album this past year apart from Opposite Sex. Another New Zealand outsider, better known in Europe than NZ. It was only after I got it that I found out Lucy played on a few songs on it. She said she’d forgotten. Also recently Bill Callahan, Real Estate, The Go-Betweens, Ed Kuepper, Dear Times Waste… you should listen to Dear Time’s Waste and interview Claire some time. I wish she was on Fishrider but she releases her own stuff: http://deartimeswaste.bandcamp.com/album/spells-2
Spells was my favourite album of 2010.
What do you do in your spare time when you’re not working with the label?
– I surf all year round in Dunedin. Very cold in winter but it keeps me fit and fresh. I also have a day job to try to earn a living.
Thank you for this interview! Do you have any last words?
– Thanks Jonas – really great questions!