“It’s easier to not compromise these days” – A guide to PRAH Recordings

10 years of a label built on true artistic freedom and a slower approach to appreciating music

Just as some people are destined to be in bands their entire lives, others are compelled to start and run record labels. Stephen Bass already had one (the beloved Moshi Moshi Music, which he’d co-founded in 1998) when he decided to launch another at the end of 2013. PRAH Recordings was born into a very different world to the one that Moshi Moshi was, but PRAH is a very different record label.

Moshi Moshi helped to launch the careers of Hot Chip, Kate Nash and Lykke Li throughout a decade when a seven-inch single from the right label carried substantial influence at indie-friendly manufacturing costs. By 2013, seven years after the launch of Spotify, everything was different, including Stephen Bass’s relationship to music as a whole. Punk rock and club music had always been his thing, but the accessibility of music through streaming had had a familiar, if counterproductive, effect – it had lost its value, and therefore its excitement. The efficiency in which new bands were being marketed at the time didn’t help, as Bass asked himself where all the mystery in music had gone.

He found the answer in east London’s contemporary classical and experimental scene, at DIY venues like Dalston’s Total Refreshment Centre and the little known Old Cholmeley Boys Club, where musician and teacher Steve Beresford would host a free improv night called Miss Havisham Presents in what felt like a living room. “And the London Contemporary Music Festival was another thing I went to,” says Bass, “which was in a car park in Peckham one year.

“When I used to hear classical music I thought it was so boring,” he says. “And then I was hearing all of these contemporary classical artists and I just thought it was really exciting and thrilling. I started meeting all of these kids who trained loads and knew loads, and they were so much more bold and ambitious than hipster bands you’d meet around Dalston. It was like, ‘Oh, there’s all this music that makes me feel like all the music I like does – like punk rock or acid house.’ I thought: ‘I’ve missed out on this whole world of music because it’s been presented so badly.’ But any good music makes you feel the same inside.”

Bass particularly liked how hard he had to work to first find the music, and then to get something out of. “It was more rewarding for it,” he says, “– to sit through a performance and wait to work out if you liked it, or find the bits that you did like. Because it was at a time when we had access to everything. Music was free for the first time and I had this thing that it was too easy. This was bothering me at the time.

“I mean, it wasn’t all great,” he says. “You’d go to something and people would say: ‘that was a bit challenging’, which I soon realised is a highbrow way of saying, ‘That was boring, wasn’t it?’” He laughs. “But some of them were so thrilling, especially at the Miss Havisham Presents shows.”

Through this new community, away from the structures he knew within the more promo-savvy world of indie music, Bass was introduced to Anna Meredith – a contemporary composer who had already had original pieces commissioned by the BBC Proms and broadcast to millions, but who also had an electronic side hustle going on. He signed her to Moshi Moshi, who to date have released two startlingly singular album’s of Meredith’s and a raft of her other projects, as she’s also stepped into the world of film scores (most notably Bo Burnham’s excellent 2018 movie Eighth Grade) and picked up an MBE in 2019. But Bass was discovering too many classical and experimental artists to sign them all to a label that already had its own, long-won identity. When he became just as excited by a young cellist called Oliver Coates as he was about Anna Meredith, he founded PRAH as “a desire to release something without the concern of if it will be commercially successful.”

PRAH has stuck to that ethos ever since the release of Towards the Blessed Islands by Coates, an eight-track album of repertoire, slow and minimal, featuring Coates’ cello interpretations of music by artists as varied as Max de Wardener and Squarepusher. Not a radio friendly unit-shifter. “I was lucky that the Oliver Coates record was really good, and really extreme,” says Bass. Together with a following release by experimental electronic artist Bryce Hackman (a house record called Fair) it perfectly set out PRAH’s stall, which can be loosely categorised as a home for contemporary classical musicians and electronic experimentalists working within ambient and minimal music fields; although, over time, PRAH has also released music from snotty punk band Sniffany & The Nits, art pop trio Pozi, and “post-clown” outfit Gentle Stranger.

What all PRAH artists have in common though, is a disregard for easily digestible (and easily definable) music, which is encouraged by Bass who says, “I wanted artists to be as free as possible.” PRAH has a luxury item to help facilitate that: a writing and tracking retreat in Margate called the PRAH Foundation – a creative space where artists (not just those signed to the label – Giant Swan, Squid and Porridge Radio have all taken advantage) can hole up and work for free, undistracted by their everyday surroundings.

“It’s so much fun to do, and it’s really handy for the bands,” says Bass of the studio, which was as inspired by classical music retreats as it was Motown’s legendary in-house studio. “The Umlauts, for example, someone from the Crow’s Nest at Glastonbury knew them, and he had one song – a demo of ‘Boiler Suits and Combat Boots’ – and I loved it, so I invited them to come to the studio. They didn’t have any songs at that point.” Bass signed the collective as soon as they had more songs, which was by the time they left the foundation.

This old fashioned romanticism that most of us thought was no longer possible within the world of record labels filters through the PRAH aesthetic too. The Fraser Muggeridge cover design of that first release, Towards the Blessed Islands, was also adopted as the record label’s logo, while the sleeves of all releases (particularly their back covers) have a templated and cohesive feel, making them the sum parts of a greater collection. Bass’s inspiration was library music label Bruton Music, although what he’s created with PRAH is just as reminiscent of ideological greats like Factory, and as sure of its identity as its neo-classical and ambient peers Erased Tapes and RVNG Intl.

Ask him how PRAH Recordings is possible, as it sales into its 10th year and past its 100th release, and Bass will simply note how much fun it’s all been, facilitating and encouraging those who gave him a new excitement for music. “It’s easier to not compromise these days,” he says when I ask him what his advice would be for anyone crackers enough to start a record label in 2024. Makes sense.

The PRAH Foundation, Margate
The History of PRAH in 7 Key Releases

Oliver Coates – Towards the Blessed Islands (Released 25.11.13)

The very first release from the label, Towards the Blessed Island was ardently not the sort of thing Stephen Bass had been releasing via Moshi Moshi – a collection of minimal cello pieces that quickly had fans labelling Oliver Coates as something of a modern day Arthur Russell, while giving the label its perfectly architectural logo quite by accident.

Stephen Bass: “Oliver was someone I was meeting at that time who felt different enough and that he had a breadth of music to release. And he was up for it. We worked together on how to make the record. He’s very particular, Olly. It was the perfect first release. I guess he’s a bit of a legend these days. I also think the second record [Upstepping] is really brilliant. Our fourth release was a cover that Olly did of ‘Another Fantasy’ by Bryce Hackford, which was on our second release. It was Olly making house music with his cello, and I think that made him realise he could make that type of music too, because he already had a very broad knowledge of electronic music. But he was the perfect first release, and it was fun trying to get fancy photos done. I always stole my photographers from Loud And Quiet actually, and it was fun to say to Olly that we’re going to do photos and release this like you’re a musician. Because that was the other thing: in the classical world it’s so different, on every level. And I could tell them that we don’t need to do things that way. It could be more fun.”

Group Listening – Clarinet & Piano: Selected Works Vol. 1 (04.05.18)

Without chasing commercial success, PRAH found a little with this first collection by Stephen Black (aka Sweet Baboo) and Paul Jones. As the title suggested, the duo chose a number of ambient pieces (by the likes of Brian Eno, Arthur Russell, Roedelius and Robert Wyatt) and performed them on clarinet and piano with very dreamy results.

SB: “I think it’s a perfect record. An amazing Sunday morning record. They just chose such brilliant stuff to play. I occasionally suggest stuff to them and my suggestions are never as cool. They live in their own little world, so I didn’t know most of the songs that were on that record. So this one was a real moment, and I’m so proud of it as a record. It was the first record where we pressed up 300 copies and it sold out and we pressed more. Can you imagine! It was a such a simple record to do.”

Pozi – PZ1 (05.04.19)

London trio Pozi might be the most “indie” act on PRAH, combining the blunt drums and bass sound of Prinzhorn Dance School with a barked vocal that recalls the straight talk of Ian Dury. For Bass to have not signed them, though, wouldn’t have been a very PRAH thing to do. It is, after all, a label about music without rules, which is an ethos that can easily become a rule in and of itself if left unchecked.     

SB: “This was the first record that went onto a playlist [at 6Music – the track ‘KCTMO’], and I’d say that Pozi were the first artists who were a bit outside of the brief, although they have an unusual set up, of drums, bass and violin. No guitar. But it was slightly broadening the brief for the label. I knew Toby from the band, who used to be in a band called Totem, who we’d released a single for on Moshi. He sent me the music and it was weird enough to be on PRAH, and yet was pop music in a way. But actually it’s a really political record that’s beautifully written, and really hard-hitting. It’s quite leftfield, obtuse music, and they’re really not compromising at all. I don’t know if you know but it’s all about Grenfell, and KCTMO is the council there.”

The Umlauts – Ü (11.06.21)

The PRAH Foundation in full effect, The Umlauts are perhaps the label’s biggest return on investment where their creative studio in Margate is concerned. The Ü EP gave fans of the label something to truly dance about, as the art school four-piece (made up of members from the UK and mainland Europe) took the label into a world of industrial techno pop.

“At Glastonbury I work at The Crow’s Nest. And Harvey that does that gave me a demo of ‘Boiler Suits and Combat Boots’, and I chatted to the band after that and they came to the studio. The Ü EP is a record where I had a very active role in corralling them into making an EP and putting something out. It’s a very satisfying thing as a label person or A&R person to get involved and encourage people to do things. Again, The Umlauts aren’t a contemporary classical thing in any way, but in my mind they’re very arty. They’re PRAH’s Velvet Underground, and you can hear that ‘Boiler Suits…’ is wild creativity. You can hear that they’re mucking about, and it’s better for it.”

Falle Nioke & Ghost Culture – Badiare (05.11.21)

Falle Nioke – from the Republic of Guinea – and UK producer Ghost Culture released their debut EP on PRAH in 2020 (Youkounkoun), but it was on Badiare – and particularly the EP’s opening track ‘Leywole’ – where they really locked in. Another pair of artists where Stephen Bass first questioned whether this type of deep, pulsing music was right for the label, he decided it was, partly because it was his doing.

“Falle feels like such an obvious key release, although we’ve released three EPs of his – Badiare is the most recent and features ‘Leywole’, which is one of those songs where I remember hearing the demo and thinking, ‘Oh my god, that’s incredible.’ And then it coming together and being brilliant when it comes out. That’s another playlist record, and I’m very proud of what he’s done. I knew his wife, and he’d moved to Margate from Guinea, and she told me he was a musician and that he needed some shows. So I introduced him to Alabaster DePlume and said he should come and play as his Peach nights [improv nights at London DIY venue Total Refreshment Centre]. I then introduced him to James Greenwood [producer Ghost Culture], and they made Badiare together. Maybe if I wasn’t there that wouldn’t have happened. And what more do you want on your deathbed?”

Donna Thompson – Something True (22.07.22)

The EP is something of the preferred format at PRAH, giving artists enough space to experiment without the pressure of feeling like they’re making their career-defining debut album. Jazz drummer and singer Donna Thompson made full use of that support when she made the delicate four-tracker Something True after a time away from music. It added a leftfield R&B anti-star to the label’s roster.

“Donna is such a wonderful, musical being. I love being around her. I’d had a cancellation at the studio, and I’d probably seen her play with Alabaster DePlume, and I think I asked him, “Do you think Donna would want to go into the studio?” And he was like, “She’d love it.” I think she’s so brilliant, and I’m really proud of this release and how she’s growing in confidence. She could be so many things. A Minnie Riperton character. Or really psychedelic. Or really soulful.”

Tony Njoku – Sketches & Noodles of Bloom (14.07.23)

If PRAH has been about one thing over its 10-year history, it’s trying things out. On the face of it, Sketches & Noodles of Bloom could be mistaken as the demos that became Tony Njoku’s 2022 EP Our New Bloom. Instead, it’s the British-Nigerian artist breaking down songs from that collection (and others) into their raw, simple form, as if adapting them to fit the early days of PRAH, and putting himself in Frank Ocean territory in the process.

“‘Lost Forever’ from this EP is almost the label coming full circle. Here is an artist who’s been releasing a lot of music, but he’s also got this side that is almost classical. He’s not a classical composer, but it’s really nice that he’s back to releasing really simple songs that can fit into that world. I’ve done a couple of EPs with him now, and it’s ‘Lost Forever’ that’s unlocked a bit of a different audience. I guess it comes back to ‘any amazing music will make you feel the same way’. And again, it’s just another place to experiment – the previous EP was much more Tony’s electronic side, but he’d play a couple of songs at the end of shows that were just piano, and they sounded so great. So I told him he should record more like that. Sketches & Noodles of Bloom came from that conversation, and there’s going to be a follow up which unpicks ‘The Reset’ once more, and it’s almost as if the weirder you are the more brilliant it is. And it’s my job to give artists like this the space to experiment. Music’s a serious business – even when it’s fun you’ve got to take it seriously. And you’ve got to give these people a chance. This EP brings us back to the original ethos of contemporary classical and experimental.”