Record Heads: Bella Union boss and ex Cocteau Twins member Simon Raymonde is addicted to signing bands

The label founder in conversation

“I went to a doctor in New York and they told me I should be dead.” Simon Raymonde is quite matter of fact. “I only went to get an inhaler for my asthma and then they checked my blood pressure – I didn’t realise as I don’t feel stressed out about anything.”

Simon certainly doesn’t seem like a man on the edge. The 51 year-old head of Bella Union – and ex Cocteau Twins member – drinking mint tea and smiling out of the window looks pretty content to me. “Well I got married and moved to Brighton last year,” he says. You’re settling down then? “It looks like that doesn’t it, the old slippers and pipe. When I can look out to sea or walk the dog on the beach it sometimes feels like that too.”

Really, it’s a stupid question. Simon is far from settling down; quite the opposite. He tells me that he’s been making his own music again, for the first time in a while. “I have a recording studio in Hackney where I put bands in and I do a radio show every week, so I am quite a busy bloke. My wife is American and she lives in New York. I’m constantly on the move.”

Despite decades in the music industry, the convivial Simon Raymonde shows no real signs of letting up. From his time in the Cocteau Twins to running Bella Union he’s helped shape independence and our perception of it. “I am not an empire builder,” he says, “I am not a Martin Mills, you know, although I think he is brilliant at that. He is a real music man too and we are similar in that respect.”

As the Founding Chairman of Beggars Group, Martin Mills has around 150 odd employees; Simon has just four. “It’s tiny, yeah. We have a sort of extended team at PIAS who help us execute the plan so I go there a lot, but yeah, we’re a really small family.” So the Bella Union house must be a cosy one, with Simon in charge of the coffers and the kettle. “No, I am never in the office!” he says. “I am always out meeting people or going to see bands or going abroad. I’m not one for sitting in the office anyway. We have a big label meeting every Monday and I speak to everyone every day, but I can’t really sit still for very long.”

Bella Union might be relatively small scale, but it’s a label that thinks big, with bands like the Flaming Lips and Fleet Foxes on the books. Most remarkable is the company’s breadth of taste and sheer size of its roster, the mention of which leaves Simon grinning from ear to ear.

“The industry keeps telling me that we have a lot and we’ve got to slow down a bit,” he says. “I think everyone has got a way they like to do things and I am not saying my way is right or wrong or Richard Russell’s is right or wrong.”

I suggest that perhaps XL – Russell’s label – are just plain lazy, noting that where their success with The xx and Adele has been followed by a pairing down of releases, the financial freedom afforded to Bella Union in the wake of Fleet Foxes’ two albums thus far has seen Simon’s roster balloon. “Well, XL only sign one or two bands a year, which as a model you can hardly fault with the incredible success they have had. I am a bit of fidget in the way that I get obsessed about music; I love it so much and I do have to temper my excitement about some things.”

You have to be a real nut job to do this 

It’s difficult not to get swept up in Simon’s gentle enthusiasm and amongst the clank and rattle of a nearby kitchen we discuss Bella Union bands, from recent signings Horse Thief to the acquisition of Xiu Xiu (even Simon has his own pronunciation). It’s a joyful conversation that boils down to one mental state: “You have to be a real nut job to do this, really you do, you have to be obsessed with music, discovering music and helping people, those are the three things you have to do.”

Sat opposite him it’s easy to see a band succumbing to Simon’s charm, and the philanthropic side of the man, and his past experiences, must really inform many an artists decision. “Let’s be honest,” he says, “I have been on a few labels in the past as a musician and I always say Bella Union should be the label that I would have liked to have been signed to.”

This familial atmosphere clearly drives Bella Union. It applies to any record label, but when you’ve been at the coalface yourself, a band can appreciate that. “You know, when I was in the Cocteau Twins there was always this distance between label and artist, it was unspoken but it existed. Maybe because we were antagonistic but there was always a slight edge to conversations – they’re taking our money, they’re ripping us off, we’re the cool artists doing what we are doing and they can’t be trusted. That’s generally what artists are supposed to feel about labels but I don’t see how that’s very productive.”

For a label so low on manpower, Bella Union really do get around. Simon acknowledges this more than anyone and his answer to managing expectations is patience. “There’s so many fucking bands out there it’s impossible to get the attention you may have got 4 or 5 years ago without a slow drip of information about a band. It’s a huge world, sometimes it’s small but most of the time it’s fucking enormous.” He ends with another contradiction but you see his point. So in a world obsessed with the now, Simon believes strongly in the art of nurture. “That’s what a lot of my job is doing,” he says, “trying to explain to people why you do things in a certain way. Money are a very good example of this. They’re incredible kids, super talented and ‘The Shadow of Heaven’ is the first time they have put a record out. Just because they’re not in the papers every 5 minutes it doesn’t mean that nothing’s happening; on the contrary we are doing everything we can to make sure this band are around for an awful long time.”

Beach House are a similar case in point. The Baltimore band broke through with their third album, ‘Teen Dream’, in 2010. “You can see similar things with Money,” Simon says. “They’re super intelligent and they do know all this stuff so that is why they have been gently gearing up with their touring and playing a lot of shows out of town. They’re off on tour with Wild Beasts very soon and that will be perfect for them because they’re a band that have gently and organically grown.”

Being an A&R man is the easiest job in the world

Simon Raymonde’s considerate treatment of bands may have remained the same since he co-founded Bella Union in 1997 but the act of signing acts has changed dramatically over the last 17 years. “The way you hear and discover music is quite different. I can sign a band every day!” he laughs with his entire body. “I do a new music radio show for Amazing Radio and it’s really good fun. We can only play what exists on the catalogue, so if you’re a band, a PR or a label then you can upload your track with a bio and within five minutes I can put it on my show. I have learnt more as an A&R man doing that than I ever have before.”

“To be quite honest, being an A&R man is the easiest job in the world ­– as long as you have confidence in your own taste it is simple!” Simon cracks up again, loving to talk about his passion. “I tell you what, we don’t care about the competition; we tend to not go to gigs that everyone else will be at. For example, at South by Southwest you hear there is an industry gig for so and so and all the A&Rs are going to be there, well, I would just run to the other side of town. In the old days we wouldn’t have had the money to sign a band – if it was Beggars, 4AD, Domino and us, I mean, who would they sign to? Before Fleet Foxes anyhow, they would have gone to those other labels, so there’s no point in playing that game; we find our own bands!”

Five guys from Seattle transformed everything for Bella Union in 2008. “It was a game changer,” says Simon. “It coincided with a loads of other changes and to be honest just before I signed Fleet Foxes I was seriously considering just jacking it all in as I wasn’t really enjoying it. I was really frustrated with the lack of investment I was able to make in great artists like Midlake and Laura Veirs. It is incredibly difficult to get to selling 10,000 records, but then from 10,000 to 30,000 isn’t too hard; once you’re on a roll and your band starts selling shows you think wow, I can really achieve something and then you have to be an idiot not to take that on to 40, 50 and 100 and that’s what wasn’t happening and I was really frustrated by that… and then our distributor went bust and we lost a whole lot of money.”

Rescued by Co-Op, a distributor formed in 2005 from the ashes of V2 (one of the biggest indies around at the time), Simon’s label was able to flourish but it was a close run thing. “You have to be really dogged and determined and one to take the knocks,” he says. “I thought I have fucking worked for this for so long I am not giving up because someone can’t do a job well and luckily I have made some good friends in this business.”

Oh my god, what have we done?

Simon now chooses to work with a truly independent outfit in PIAS, a no brainer given his background. “You have to think of it from the artist’s point of view and major record labels aren’t designed to do that, they’re designed to do things from a business point of view.”

But the Cocteau Twins, they signed for Capitol after being with 4AD for so long didn’t they?

“Well moving to a major has to be regarded as one of the most stupid things we did.”

The question definitely throws him, at least for a second. “At the time our relationship with 4AD was so claustrophobic and personal, Robin [Guthrie] and Liz [Fraser] lived with Ivo [Watts-Russell, 4AD co-founder] for a while and everyday they were our best friends and our family, very like what Bella Union is today. It all just went horribly wrong; you know financial stuff and contracts. We thought we should have no relationship with our record label at all as all we want is money from them. That was a very naive fantasy, within three months we were like, ‘oh my god, what have we done?’. It’s a long story and you have to remember there were a lot of drugs around at that time.”

He’s laughing now but Simon insists it changed his outlook. “Nobody ever came to the studio to listen to a Cocteau Twins record being made, ever. It was a bluff, we had this bubble you see, which is great in a way, but for a major, they don’t understand this bullshit. You have to remember though that if a major label gives an artist 300 grand they do have some right to try and work out how they are going to get that back and we didn’t really understand that; we understood art and doing our shit and being left the fuck alone.”

And are the band left the fuck alone nowadays? Is there any truth in the rumour they got asked to play Coachella for £1.5 million?

“The Coachella thing was the first time it seemed like a real possibility, rather than just an email saying do you want to. The only reason it looked a remote possibility anymore was that the guy who put it together was our booking agent from the old days who now runs William Morris – he put the Pixies back together again so he knew it was possible to put a bunch of dysfunctional reprobates back in a room. We were probably only a few weeks away from getting into rehearsals and talking about songs, but you know, I am really glad it never happened – you can’t just wipe away all the emotional drama of not just the 15 years when I was in the band but all the stuff before I was in the band and all the stuff since.”

We get the bill and I mention the one and half million again to rolled eyes. “You can’t just forget everything by waving a big fat cheque in someone’s face, but you can try! I would have retired, slowed down and bought a flat somewhere rather than having to rent a two bedroom flat in Brighton.” But slowing down is not an option for Simon. He would have sunk at least some of the money back into his passion for music, back into Bella Union.