In the first of our two-part investigation of Rob Hayler’s role in shaping the last decade of UK DIY music, bootlegger/blagger and Wire website tech guru Pete Coward reminisces on the skewed jigsaw puzzle of the ‘No Audience Underground’ that Fencing Flatworm Recordings and the oTo tape label presented to the world.
One of the prime entries in the (admittedly relatively small) canon on UK fire music is The Three B’s by the trio of Mick Beck, Paul Hession, and Pat Thomas. It sits in a long line of poorly recorded live jazz albums, characterised here by clumsy stop-button editing, deafening applause (as in recording levels, not purely enthusiasm) and a sound that is rough, raw, sweaty, abrasive. It’s punk as fuck and I love it. It’s hard to imagine this album coming out on any of the usual suspects: Emanem, Incus, Leo, etc. Instead it was released by the Leeds-based fencing flatworm recordings (FFR) label.
FFR was not a jazz or improv label by any stretch of the imagination, but The Three B’s does typify the label in certain respects. It’s an album that sits uncomfortably in any capitalised, hyphenated genre. It’s defiantly low budget and high quality. It’s music made with no ambitions nor pretensions but purely for the love of…
It is also decidedly non-metropolitan. The three musicians involved come from Sheffield, Leeds and Oxford respectively. It was recorded at that legendary thorn in improv music’s side, The Termite Club in Leeds. Such geographical origins of the music and the label that released it is one facile explanation for why FFR seemed to lead such an under the radar existence, at least to me. I came across FFR relatively late in its’ four year lifespan which ended in 2004. I can imagine I was led there by one of the several Neil Campbell releases. Skimming through its’ website at the time (which still exists in cyber-mothballed form at www.fencingflatworm.connectfree.co.uk/index.htm, with a rather poignant “new!” prefixing the top four releases) I was taken aback by this fully formed, fully realised project, that I had been pretty much unaware of. A label with a long list of intriguing releases but something that even at first glance seemed to be more than that. It would be the opposite of truth to say that FFR had pretensions, more that all aspects of the label seemed deeply considered. It had a manifesto, for one thing. It had a tongue-in-cheek slogan, “loss leaders of the neo-radiophonics”. Everything from the explicit references in the manifesto to the extensive online links list to the collab & split heavy back catalogue seemed to support the concept of FFR as a node in a vibrant network of like minded musicians and artists.
The high standards of quality were instantly apparent. The website was pretty slick, a rarity among micro-labels now, certainly then. It looked designed, as I’m sure it was. Likewise the thematically related cover art. It was something that made you think…thought has been put into this, effort and love, it is deserving of your consideration, as it still is.
I’m sure it was my jaded metropolitan hubris that was largely responsible for FFR not having impinged on my consciousness prior to that. Back then, that was under assault from the nagging sense that I was stuck in the self-regarding backwaters of London when what was really musically interesting was happening down in Brighton, up in Glasgow, and, most fertilely perhaps, in Leeds. FFR seemed to confirm that. But even now I come across serious music lovers who are only vaguely aware of the name. These are interesting times for people who produce and consume music (both terms chosen by default; they fit very oddly in a piece about FFR) and it seems apposite to reflect now on a label that was thinking deeply about those practices in the first few years of the 21st century, years that seem almost ancient history now at times.
Some facts…which can’t be put more concisely than the first paragraph of the manifesto:
“fencing flatworm recordings is a microlabel run by Rob Hayler (who makes the final decisions, soaks up what little glory there is and writes about himself in the third person) and Sean Keeble (who runs the website, does design and provides crucial backbone). We release great music in the genres of shimmering beauty, neo-radiophonic electronics, out-there improv and mutant pop (i.e. stuff we dig). FFR is for us, for our artists, and for those interested in edge-music produced and distributed outside channels compromised by non-artistic concerns.”
Its ending came with a typically honest announcement from Rob in 2004, explaining that “due to continuing problems with rob’s health, and the general difficulty we are both having maintaining a reasonable work/life balance, it is with great sadness that we have to announce the closure of fencing flatworm and our tape label offshoot oTo.” In the four years prior FFR had released 29 CDRs, 5 limited editions and 50 tapes (through oTo). Even in these days of diarrhetic CDR labels, that is a pretty epic catalogue for a relatively short timespan, which I think stands as testament to the monomania of the label founders. And also makes the mention of work/life balance issues even more understandable. Of course I mean monomania in an unequivocally positive sense, as most of the art that I love seems to have been born out of such bedroom obsessiveness. In terms of this article, I can only skim through a few personal highlights but I would urge all to visit Robs’ blog at radiofreemidwich.wordpress.com where there is a very generous amount of FFR mp3s.
Neil Campbell is credited by Rob as being instrumental in the label’s inception and a number of the releases are by him or feature him in collaboration. Excerpt From The Never-Ending Bowed Metal Song was the third release on FFR and strikes me still as a key work in Neil’s oeuvre. A 74 minute drone piece which Rob sliced in half and overlaid, a doubling of the infinite which here created a 37 minute piece of disorientating, vertiginous beauty. The Hearing Force Of The Humanverse is in large parts more akin to the industrial disco sound of Astral Social Club, if the beats were only hinted at rather than realised. Likewise the krautrock pulse that carries forward the collaboration of Neil and Rob, In Luck.
Setting a similar course towards the infinite as Never-Ending Bowed Metal Song is Nurse by Birchville Cat Motel, and built on a similarly queasy constantly shifting drone foundation. There was a time when Campbell Kneale of BCM seemed like an Antipodean alter ego of Neil Campbell, in ways beyond the obvious name mirror image. Even recently, they’ve both moved further into electronics and beats at similar times, Campbell with Our Love Will Destroy The World, Neil with ASC. The formers’ live collab release on FFR, Cicada Shrines, with Craig Monk and Jeff Henderson, has an oddly fragile discordance heard in many Vibracathedral Orchestra jams of around the same time. Of course, they both exist as branches of the same putative Pete Frame drone family tree that stretches, well, back to the first utterance of om. Or to the first tree falling in a forest with no-one around.
Campbells’ releases on FFR highlight the geographically elastic nature of this network of which FFR was a nexus. A New Zealand-er, his Celebrate Psi Phenomena label was another entry point to the sought after unknown by those interested in connecting the dots. It likewise had an instantly recognisable visual style which drew you towards its releases wherever you came across them (if you frequented the rare places where you might), unsure what you would find but knowing that you wanted to hear it. Likewise, to sow the acorn of another Pete Frame family tree of adventurous sonic curators, Andy Jarvis and his First Person label.Andy’s own FFR release, Thread (Uproot And Scatter), is a 21 minute barely-there series of exquisite miniatures, gossamer delicate and endlessly rewarding.
Rob’s own musical project, midwich, still active, obviously featured heavily in the FFR catalogue. He produced intricately constructed soundscapes of hum, whirr, bubble, and echo, imagined nostalgias, hypnagogic pop before the over-hyped fact. midwich was as carefully considered as the label. Rob has spoken eloquently of his interest in “the mechanics of coping with the everyday”, as explored in his music, something I take as an awareness of thebeauty in mundanity, where minor variations in repetition appear with the weight of explosions.
This permeates the labels’ output way beyond midwich. I can’t do justice to the oTo tape project in this article, for reasons of space and because I’m helpless with laughter and admiration at the casual ambition of it. 50 tapes, editions of 50 each, single-sided C90s, contributions from among those musicians named above, many others working in the same arena, artists working under pseudonyms, one-off projects. It is typically true to the ethos of FFR that Rob insisted that anyone wanting to buy the Thurston Moore tape needed to buy a certain number of others also. The conception extended to such atomic details as oTo 50 being composed so as to segue as seamlessly as possible (within the tape format) into oTo 01. So the thought was obviously there in Rob’s mind that people existed who would a) buy 50 tapes, & b) listen to them back to back. Ad infinitum. Consider that fact and then consider who wouldn’t love a label that could conceive of that??
There is so much more to FFR than what I have outlined above. My own tastes veer towards the drone-improv-skronk areas of the labels’ output so that is what I have concentrated on, but the breadth covered is even wider than what the manifesto paragraph quoted above outlines. FFR provided (as many like-minded labels continue to do) a receptive, supportive environment in which musicians could experiment, a sandbox. And so the catalogue is full of surprises, of randomness; musicians that you think you know trying out new ideas, odd collaborations, drunken mucking about which has moments of magic. For the listener, it being a non-corporate, indeed anti-corporate, label, costs were cheap so you could afford to just pick up things that sounded intriguing, that had names that made you smile, that Rob’s wry and concise website blurb made it sound worth a punt on. And it generally was.
It also took seriously its position as a node in a network, as an active participant in a community. For those listeners who were receptive to that, FFR was a very rewarding label to devote time to. You could start with a FFR CDR, follow the tracks, move on to Celebrate Psi Phenomena or First Person, end up back at Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers after a wonderfully tangential voyage of discovery. Or start with the austere machine drone of the Kapotte Muziek release, get diverted into Korm Plastics territory and end up listening to The Hafler Trio. The starting point and destination didn’t really matter, it was the journey that was the thing for any active listener, and FFR was an intricately connected hub on that journey.
That does beg the question, what now of that network? It is easy to fall into negativity when surveying those years, just a few years back but in these hyper accelerated times seemingly an era ago. Most of the labels mentioned are past tense, as with FFR. They were all created and existed for their own reasons, and ended likewise. With FFR, those reasons are very specific and personal and remain to be read on the website, as quoted above, so it is wrong to extrapolate from those to any signs of the times. However wrong, it is still a temptation. Even at the time of FFR’s winding up, Nidnod, a microlabel with similar commitment to experimental music and similar high standards of releases and packaging, closed within months if not weeks, leading to obvious if simplistic apocalyptic thoughts.
Does the current climate discourage such labours of love, with all the required effort and time, when music is increasingly distributed online? I think the economic aspect to that question, while definitely worth discussing, can be largely discounted in the case of FFR, a label which was resolute in avoiding profit, for both practical and purist reasons. An attitude I imagine shared, with greater or lesser purity, by the artists it released. But talk of cold hard cash is just part of a wider debate about how music is distributed and received, one beyond the scope of this piece. I’m pleased to see Rob is still actively participating in that debate, with a very active blog, which is also a growing repository for the FFR archive. I personally remain positive, and I believe Rob’s online presence would support that, that this community still exists, even if its form and means of communication may be changing, as they must. The world may be a better place when rid of object fetishism. But, until the analysis kicks in, I would like to shake the hand of anyone with the commitment to spend hours over a tape duplicator, CDR burner, laser printer, silkscreen, to create something tangible, something that says, this music is worth more than the few seconds it’d take me to post a mp3 on myspace, something worth spending time on producing, and worth spending money to listen to.