Q&A: Simon Raymonde On Lost Horizons, 20 Years Of Bella Union, And Why Cocteau Twins Will Never Reunite
Over the past 35 years or so, Simon Raymonde has left his mark on the music world in several ways. First and foremost, there was his time as the bassist and keyboardist for Cocteau Twins, still one of the strangest and most unique bands of the ’80s, no matter how much people try (and mostly fail) to mimic their sound. When the Cocteaus disbanded in 1997, Raymonde was left with a then-useless new record label, Bella Union, which had initially been started to simply release new Cocteau Twins albums. Since there wouldn’t be any of those, he set about signing bands and running a label. Bella Union is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and along the way Raymonde discovered Fleet Foxes, as well as bringing us Father John Misty and John Grant. First from London and now from Brighton, Raymonde’s been the at the center the whole time, his hands-on vision defining the label throughout its existence.
As part of the label’s 20th birthday, Raymonde himself released a new album, too. Under the moniker Lost Horizons, he and drummer Richie Thomas put together Ojalá, a record featuring a slew of guest singers — some signed to Bella Union, some not — including Marissa Nadler, Sharon Van Etten, ex-Midlake frontman Tim Smith, and lesser-known singers Raymonde wanted to highlight. It is often a dreamy and twilit album, in a far different and more weathered way than the Cocteau Twins were dreamy and twilit. During Iceland Airwaves last weekend, Raymonde and I met at a mutual favorite lunch spot in Reykjavik and talked about everything from his experience with Lost Horizons, 20 years spent running a label and watching the music industry mutate and disintegrate, to his memories of the Cocteau Twins years (including why a reunion would never, ever work).
STEREOGUM: I’m really interested in all the nitty-gritty stuff of running a label over the years, but I do also want to ask about your new project Lost Horizons. Now that you have 20 years of running Bella Union, how does it come around that you decide you want to make your own music again at any particular point? Was there a specific impetus?
SIMON RAYMONDE: A bunch of different things that are significant things that all came to a head at the same time. I have a health issue, a brain tumor that was diagnosed a few years ago, and I don’t have any hearing in my right ear as a result of it. I dealt with the news, and then I got divorced, and there were a whole lot of chaotic things going on in my life, right in the middle of still running Bella Union. Last year was our 19th year, and we started thinking we should do something special for our 20th anniversary. So we started putting all these things together and I started thinking “Well, this is great…There’s something missing. I don’t know what it is. Oh, fuck, right, I don’t make music anymore! What the fuck have I been doing for 20 years?”
I mean, I’ve been doing bits and pieces. I play guitar with Mercury Rev. I keep my hand in. But I haven’t been writing music. So, once the light bulb had gone back on, I was like, “That’s why I don’t feel totally fulfilled.” I thought, well, I don’t want to be in a band again, I don’t necessarily want to make a record, I just want to have fun. Like when I was 15 years old and I’d just gotten my first bass and just played with friends for the love it, not for any reason of a record coming out. I got in touch with an old friend, Richie Thomas, who was in this band Dif Juz, and he hadn’t played any music really for 20 years either. So it was just a good thing — he was a great drummer, I knew what I was going to do. And we just messed about. Pretty much the whole record came together out of that.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I was wondering about the writing process behind an album like this, where you have so many different voices involved.
RAYMONDE: It is weird, for sure, because it’s all improvised. The germs of the songs all came together in eight days. Because, you know, I’m busy. I have a label to run, I have all this other stuff going on. I don’t like to be in the studio for weeks on end. I used to do it, but I can’t do it anymore really, with like 50 bands emailing me at various times and I have to keep an eye on that shit.
STEREOGUM: So you’re really hands-on still.
RAYMONDE: Oh, yeah, totally. I sign pretty much 99 percent of the bands. It wouldn’t really be the same if I wasn’t. I mean, I’ve got people there now who have been there for a long time so I do trust them with bringing in bands they think are amazing, but if I don’t like it I won’t sign it. It won’t work that way. It’s not like it’s an egomaniac thing, it’s just that if I’m not into it, it doesn’t have the same weight and it doesn’t feel like what Bella Union is about. It’s an artist-run label, it’s about close relationships and knocking down the barrier of thinking the label has to be over here and the band has to be over there, with the managers stuck in the middle. Fuck that. It’s just nonsense. You can be great friends with your bands. Sometimes it’s not going to work out. But most of the time it does, and you can have really healthy, great friendships that last forever. The Dirty Three for example, Warren Ellis. John Grant’s been with the label for 20 years. Took him 10 years — well, longer — to have any kind of success, but when it happens, it feels even more special because these are your mates.
STEREOGUM: Some of the people on the Lost Horizons record are on Bella Union, but I was still wondering…you worked with one of the most distinctive singers ever back in the day. What is it that hits you in younger singers that makes you want to work with them on new music?
RAYMONDE: I think it’s all about the voice and who’s right for this piece of music. The way we worked — which goes back to the Cocteau Twins, exactly how we worked then — was jam. We never wrote songs, ever, in a traditional way. We literally pressed “record” on the tape machine, I’d be playing the bass and Robin [Guthrie] would be playing his guitar, and we’d just jam to the beat. Then we’d rearrange it a bit, and if it didn’t happen in 20 minutes, we’d go home or we’d go bowling or do something else. We didn’t ever sweat it. It either had to happen naturally or it wasn’t going to happen. Music finished first, ten fully finished instrumentals almost, and then Liz [Frasier] would come in and do the vocals on top, write the melodies to the existing music.
I’ve always done that since, and it’s exactly how this record was done. So I pretty much finished all the music and layered it up and when it got to a certain level I’d go, “I know, that’s for Karen Peris, that’s for so-and-so,” and yes of course there’s going to be some people on my label because they’re in my network of close friends, so it’s easy. But I didn’t want it to be solely that, and I certainly didn’t want it to be loads of famous people. I wanted it to be lots of unknown people, because there are so many people out there who never get breaks who are amazing.
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting, a label head making a record that way, it’s almost curatorial in a similar way to signing artists to a label.
RAYMONDE: It is, a bit, yeah. It happened very naturally, never a “This should be this” or “That should be that,” just, “I think this would be a good person to sing.” As I was creating the music, the person would come into my mind immediately. So I’d go home and message them and 99 percent of the time they were like “Sounds cool, let’s do it.” And they’d do it at home on GarageBand or something. It’s very lo-fi, even though it doesn’t sound it. It was really done at home on Ableton, on the cheapest shit ever.
STEREOGUM: What are the logistics of touring a record like this?
RAYMONDE: [laughs] That’s a whole other can of worms there. Someone said it would be great to do live and I was like, “Yeah, it would but it’s not possible.” It’s certainly not possible to do it in the way the record was made because people like Marissa Nadler and Sharon Van Etten are in America. Most of the singers are American. I thought maybe if I got three female singers and one boy, because there’s a split of male and female vocals, and the people were near to where I lived, it’d make rehearsing easy. Richie comes down from London every day so that’s quite a pain for him. It’s manageable. Next year we will do a show in [London at] Southbank in the Royal Festival Hall with as many of the people as we can get. That’s the dream.
STEREOGUM: Father John Misty is probably my favorite artist in the Bella Union world right now. I was pleasantly surprised when he started talking about a new album again so soon after Pure Comedy.
RAYMONDE: He’s on a fucking roll, he really is. I couldn’t believe it.
STEREOGUM: It’s really impressive that he’s almost on an album-a-year pace considering the scope of his last two releases.
RAYMONDE: I think bands should do that more. I’ve been saying it to a lot of our bands. This whole 18 month cycle, it’s just nonsense. The money doesn’t justify it anymore. [Cocteau Twins] used to make an album every year and like two four track EPs that weren’t on the albums in between.
STEREOGUM: Maybe it’s just my age and the weight of history and nostalgia or whatever, but you look back on these artists who have these revered, monolithic discographies and they were churning those out, one or two a year, and then today bands take like, four years between albums all the time. It feels like there’s a disconnect there.
RAYMONDE: Well, life gets in the way sometimes. But, yeah, you look at Talking Heads, you have four of the best albums a band could ever make in consecutive years for the first four years. I don’t know if that’s ever going to be repeated. I say to my bands, “What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with making a record every year? What else are you doing? You wanna be in a band? Write some songs.”
STEREOGUM: I didn’t realize Father John Misty was still on Bella Union, actually.
RAYMONDE: Yeah, he is. Fleet Foxes aren’t. Signed with a major. Very sad. We put the first two out and then Nonesuch signed them last year.
STEREOGUM: You’ve spoken about this before…sometimes there’s this perception of Bella Union as Americana-ish. I actually don’t always pay attention to labels and I think the first time I became aware of Bella Union was through Ballet School, which was rather indebted to Cocteau Twins, actually.
RAYMONDE: Well, I think you’re always going to be defined by the bands that get the most popular. People say that about the label being an Americana label because Fleet Foxes, John Grant. But we’ve got a Korean noise-rock band, Jambinai. We’ve got Explosions In The Sky. We have classical piano records. We have a Congolese artist. It’s just those artists don’t necessarily break through in those ways. People love a label, so they just say, “Oh, well they’re quite an Americana, folk-y thing.” Well, not really, but whatever. It doesn’t bother me. It’s nice that people talk about it all, because as you were saying, people don’t really give a fuck about labels anymore.
We have a little Bella Union shop in Brighton and people come in and say, “Oh, I didn’t realize this was on Bella Union.” We get that every day. It’s a different climate. When I was a kid, you used to know what label everything was on, because it was all so new and it was all so exciting. You used to follow things. But now there’s too much to follow. There’s just an insane amount of music out there. You can’t keep up with, I can’t keep up with it, and this is what we do for our living, so god help the general public.
STEREOGUM: What are your parameters for what you sign? Is there an “a-ha” moment?
RAYMONDE: There has been, yeah, obviously with Fleet Foxes, “White Winter Hymnal,” when I heard that I was like “Holy shit.” It kind of saved my life, in a way. Quite often it’s seeing a band. You can listen to something on headphones and it’s “You know, it’s pretty cool,” and then the next night you happen to see them and it’s “Oh my fucking god, this is a wholly different thing.” Jambinai’s the perfect example of that. On record, it’s fascinating with curious instrumentation and very noisy. But when you go to see it and you’re fucking battered by this barrage of sound and you see the physicality of these instruments being played, then you’re like, “Oh, I think that’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen, I want to work with them.” It’s not one thing or another but it has to have a “Holy shit, what the fuck is that?” moment, and also I’m trying to find a band that doesn’t sound like any other band I’ve already got. That seems to be pointless, to sign bands that sound the same.
STEREOGUM: Obviously there were plenty of lesser Fleet Foxes through the years.
RAYMONDE: That’s the thing, the minute you have success with a band like that, you’re going to get a thousand emails from bands going “We love the Fleet Foxes, we thought you might like us.” Before I ever listen, I think, “Well, I probably won’t,” because it’s probably not going to be as good. Sadly, that is how brutal you have to be with these things. I know literally within 30 seconds of a song if I’m going to like something or not. It’s all about instincts. I don’t ever sign a band because I think, oh, they’ll do well. Because I haven’t a fucking clue what will do well. I have no idea.
STEREOGUM: It’s a strange timeline for you. Bella Union was started with one purpose in mind in 1997, to self-release Cocteau Twins music, and that reason quickly evaporated with the subsequent breakup. Then it was time to sign some bands. Bands could still get big and really sell records in the late ’90s and early ’00s —
RAYMONDE: Right up until Fleet Foxes, probably.
STEREOGUM: You’ve weathered a few rounds of contractions within the music industry. How different is it running the label now to 10 or 20 years ago?
RAYMONDE: It’d be easy to say it’s not that different, it’s still the same, the process of finding bands is kind of still the same, being excited about music is still the same, but there’s no doubt…there’s a big change coming.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, it seems like something’s gotta give.
RAYMONDE: Yeah, because this industry has been run so pathetically for 50 years. We’re still using contracts where the templates are from the ’50s. They’re not that different. You read the language and it’s so old-fashioned and so antiquated. Managers and bands are usually the last people to notice these things, and they should be concentrating on their music, but they’re a lot savvier these days because of the internet. You look at these [contracts] and you go “It’s just not fair, it doesn’t make any sense.” So as soon as the contracts change, the industry will start to change. People, even now, are giving indie bands and new bands way too much money to start with. It has nothing to do with whether they deserve it or not. They deserve ten times more than they’re getting, but the business model doesn’t support the number. What’s happening is what happened with the major labels back in the ’80s, where you’re going to get signed for a million pounds because they want to stop this other major label from getting you, and some other A&R dude comes in and goes “I don’t get it,” another guy comes in and says “I don’t get it, let’s drop them.” Band gets dropped, never put an album out, two million pounds gets spent.
The same thing is happening in our world but on a much, much smaller scale. A label will sign a band for 20 grand, they’ll sell 200 records, and then the option will come up for the next record and they’ll go “Hmm, we spent 50 grand on this band through tour support and videos and we’re never gonna see it back,” then they get dropped. That’s not what the independent scene is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be about helping young bands get a leg up and get a start in the world.
Young bands are getting smarter. They’re not coming and saying, “How much are we gonna get for our advance?” They go, “Oh, you want to put our record out? Amazing! Of course!” I’ll say “How much do you want?” “We’re not really bothered, we already made the record.” Well, that’s the right answer.
I think things are changing for the better, and they’ll be slow, and there’ll be some casualties. I will probably stick it out as long as people still buy records, vinyl. As soon as they give up on vinyl altogether — which hopefully they won’t — I’ll give up. I’ve got no interest in running a digital-only label. It’s too dull. I do still love what I do, I do still get excited about new music the same way I did 20 years ago. Whilst I still wake up with that feeling, I’ll try and make it work financially. I might not, though. Someone might come to me at the end of the year and say, “This isn’t really working, you’re making literally nothing.” And I’ll go, “OK, I’ll do something else.”
STEREOGUM: I know before the Fleet Foxes revelation, Bella Union was on the brink. You’ve done life after a famous band, life in the label. Did you ever think about what life after the label would be? Would you try to be a producer?
RAYMONDE: Not in a band again. I don’t know. I don’t really plan ahead much more than tomorrow. There’s not much point. You could get run over by a bus. I just go with the flow and go with whatever I think is right to do. Sometimes I get it horribly wrong. Luckily, with the label I’ve gotten it slightly more right than I’ve gotten it wrong. That’s the balance. A lot of that comes down to plain luck, being in the right place at the right time. Fleet Foxes certainly was. Had I not heard that band at that moment in time, we’d most likely not be sitting here. They were a game-changer. For a lot of people. They sold a million records. Who sells a million records anymore? If you knew the numbers labels sell now — you wouldn’t know because no one’s telling you — but the reality is it’s terrible. We’ve got bands that — you would think by the fact they’re selling out the Roundhouse or whatever that they’ve sold 50 thousand records. Not even close. It could be seven or eight thousand.
STEREOGUM: I’ve seen this from the media side: There seems to sometimes be a very, very significant gap between the perceived bigness of a band and the reality. They could seem to have a great year on the blogs or whatever, and that doesn’t always trickle down to tangible changes.
RAYMONDE: Absolutely. That’s why streaming has been a bit confusing for everyone. Especially because the money isn’t there. A band might have 10 thousand streams, they aren’t buying a fucking Mercedes and a swimming pool, you know? If they sold even a million records, they probably would be. But, you know, this is only ever going to happen once. The first Fleet Foxes record? I knew it would never happen again, regardless of the record. That was just momentum like you couldn’t believe. It could only ever happen to us once. You go to radio with a track. Normally it’s “Yeah, yeah, we’ll give it a couple plays in the evening, see how it goes.” [Fleet Foxes] was straight on the A list, on Radio 1 and Radio 2. I can’t tell you how significant that is in the UK. Radio 1, you’d never get on the A List with Fleet Foxes today. Not in a million years. You wouldn’t even get on the C List, you wouldn’t even get played on Radio 1. The landscape for music has changed in the UK, to the point that music like that hasn’t got a fucking chance at selling. I don’t know what Fleet Foxes new record has sold in the UK, but I’d bet you it’s a tiny amount. I don’t care. But I’m just saying, that’s where the business has gone.
STEREOGUM: It really blows my mind how big a band like that got at that time, but the one that really still shocks me is how big Father John Misty’s become, putting out ’70s singer-songwriter type albums in 2017.
RAYMONDE: He’s the exception to the rule. He’s what the world needed actually. Somebody who sat on the fence between showing us a mirror to the absurdity of it all but also writing fucking killer tunes that were also emotionally connecting. That’s his magic. That’ll continue forever, because he’s just a super-smart guy who’s on a roll with his songwriting. Everything he does seems to be amazing.
STEREOGUM: As someone in the media these days, I enjoy his engagement with the whole mess of it. How different was it for you interacting with press in the ’80s?
RAYMONDE: Oh, we were awful. We were the worst band to interview. Robin was very gruff, chip on both shoulders. Just the fact we were doing an interview was sort of an antagonistic interaction. We didn’t have much to say. People would say, “Why does your music sound the way it does?” We literally did not know why it did. We made it up as we went along. People would say, “That’s nonsense, why does it sound like it does?” It became this “I’m going to get it out of them” challenge. It was a nightmare, and it always ended in a bad interview. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: It’s easy to forget how avant-garde some of the Cocteau Twins stuff was for the times. I don’t know that the sound was ever uncool at any point, like some of the other ’80s sounds —
RAYMONDE: [laughs] Yeah, we got off lightly, I think.
STEREOGUM: Well it bled over into the ’90s a bit, and it wasn’t that long until there was that sort of shoegaze/dreampop revival kicked up in the late ’00s. Was it weird to watch that, the recurrence of those sounds and retro culture and all that?
RAYMONDE: Sure, sometimes I hear things and I’m like, “Wow, I know what references you’ve been listening to.” But I guess that’s probably always been the same.
STEREOGUM: I think it’s more severe now. And I don’t mean that as a negative.
RAYMONDE: I think with vocals it’s a bit obvious, though. If anyone sings in an unusual style and has a really beautiful voice, they get compared to Kate Bush or Liz Frasier. If you go up the scale and down and do something unusual with your voice, that’s going to be the comparison. It’s a little bit unfortunate, because I think it paints bands into a corner they don’t deserve to painted into. Liz does have one of the greatest voices in modern music. It’s absolutely incredible. That has hindered me, for sure, in my music-making. I’ve always thought, well, I’m never going to be in a band with anyone as good as that. So what’s the point in being in a band? That was my fucked up way of thinking for so long. And whatever I do, people will say “It isn’t as good as that,” and they’re probably right, so let’s not bother. [laughs] That was my negative framing of the situation.
STEREOGUM: Another change the industry has undergone in your years, another trend, is that pretty much everyone reunites. At this point Talking Heads are one of the only holdouts —
RAYMONDE: And us.
STEREOGUM: Right. Does it ever cross your mind today?
RAYMONDE: No. It would never happen. It almost did in 2006. I think it was the year Coldplay headlined Coachella, and we were supposed to go on after them.
STEREOGUM: And then it just fell apart?
RAYMONDE: [laughs] Yeah, it was inevitable. I’m glad it fell apart before we started rehearsing. I mean, we should’ve split up years before we did. Even if you don’t know the people involved, you know, somebody who has a massive drug problem, his ex-girlfriend, together in a band with a baby and they haven’t been together for two years, in a bus for seven months with me stuck in the middle. It’s not something you’d look at and say “That’s bound to work.” That was after Heaven Or Las Vegas. Four-Calendar Café was the first one we did outside of 4AD and that was the recovery record, and then Milk & Kisses was the one after that and then Liz was like, “I’ve just had enough.” I was obviously sad and upset about it, but I wasn’t surprised.
So the reunion was very strange to even consider. There’s a guy named Marc Geiger, who runs music at [talent agency] William Morris and was our booking agent in the ’80s — he was a real pioneer in America, actually, because he was working for Triad Artists Agency. He was like, 25, and he said he was going to go to England to see some bands and everyone was like, “Why? British bands are just awful, they don’t sell anything.” He went. He came back with New Order, the Smiths, and the Cocteaus. When there was not anything here, and a couple of years later they became quite big bands.
STEREOGUM: That’s quite a productive trip to England.
RAYMONDE: He put Pixies back together again. A really wonderful and generous fellow. He called us up and said “If the Pixies can get back together, you can.” We were all like “Nah,” and he said, “What’s the harm in meeting up.” Because he’d stayed on good terms with all of us individually, we said “Alright, let’s meet up.” It was actually really nice to see everyone, up in Bristol where Liz lives. It was good to see everybody, because it was a controlled environment, like family therapy where everyone’s respectful of boundaries. But you know. Whatever happened in the months following before the tour, old baggage, emotional stuff. You just can’t turn it on and off with a switch. It’s going to be there. I know now how I don’t want it to end up. It doesn’t matter about the money. I would rather be happy than stinking rich. It would not be worth the aggravation — and it would be fake, anyway. We’d be standing on the stage not feeling good about it.
STEREOGUM: Even if you can’t bring that band back, do you ever miss that life?
RAYMONDE: I miss the music, playing live, the hour and a half onstage. I never used to totally enjoy it with the Cocteaus in the last few years, probably because of all the drama, every day was a drama. It was a three-piece band and I was stuck in the middle of these two, trying to be his friend and keep her cool. It was quite draining emotionally. The stage was actually a relief, for all of us probably. That’s probably why we stuck at it, kept the band going. Maybe if we’d let the band go everything would fall apart. So I have missed that bit. But being in a band? My only experience of being in a band, really, was them; I didn’t have a very positive idea of what bands are like.
STEREOGUM: A slightly traumatizing one, I’d imagine.
RAYMONDE: Yeah, but working with all these cool bands on Bella Union — of course, not all of them get on amazingly all the time, but a lot of them are so lovely. I’d say, “I wish I was in a band with people like that.” And now I am. So it does feel like…there is life, there is hope. [laughs] I’d do more of it if the option came up. But [Lost Horizons] is never gonna be a big band or anything. We’ll have to entertain ourselves with the odd Christmas gig in Brighton.
Ojalá is out now via Bella Union.