Purveyors of the finest in emotional electronica, mystical blasts of drone, long lost post punk masterpieces and beautifully packaged records, CDs and cassettes, the splendidly-named Blackest Ever Black have long been on our list for a Label Love feature. After some chasing we got label owner Kiran to reveal their deepest secrets and wildest desires. And also why we shouldn’t expect “exclusive colour-ways, fold-out posters,” or a “free donut” with any of their releases any time soon.
What was the first impetus for starting the label?
Heartbreak of course! And penury. Both great motivators. It was time to become someone else.
And who was first behind it?
The very first, and the most important, was Karl O’Connor [Regis]. I sent him Raime’s first demo early on and his reaction was quite something. We all finally met face-to-face in the summer of 2010 and got on famously, notwithstanding a “frank exchange of ideas” between Karl and Joe Raime regarding the true spirit of the KK Records catalogue. A special moment. Soon after he agreed to remix Raime’s ‘This Foundry’ for their second 12”, also the second release on Blackest. I remember asking him what the fee would be. His response: “Fee?! The fee is £0. You can pay me in installments if you like.”
What sort of stuff were you listening to at the time?
I could talk a lot about the old music I was discovering, or re-discovering, around that time but to be honest in retrospect it doesn’t seem especially relevant (and anyway the early Blackest Ever Black mixes, most of which are still available online, give you the headlines). What’s actually important, or telling, is what contemporary music I was enjoying back then… and the answer is: not a lot.
And did you begin with a fully formed idea of your aesthetic – as in ‘we will be this, we won’t be that’ or was it less planned through?
There was no masterplan per se but certainly I spent a lot of time – on my own and sometimes with Raime too – agonising over what the label should and shouldn’t be. I still do. That’s the job, isn’t it? Though it often causes me embarrassment, I do think the best thing about the name Blackest Ever Black is that it’s so horrendously loud. As soon as people hear it, they immediately think they have a handle on it, on what it means or stands for. This can obviously be quite frustrating, but on the plus side it gives you something to pivot on – there’s a lot of opportunity to play with it, to both subvert expectation and meet it, to have your cake and eat it.
Were there any labels you sort to emulate, and if so, how do you think you’re doing?
Not directly. Actually, I’m being disingenuous. Of course there are dozens of labels, living and dead, that I’m in awe of and whose example I’ve tried in some way or other to follow – but I’m hardly going to list them here. I’d sooner itemize my underwear drawer. But yes, when you try to emulate someone or something and you completely balls it up that’s the first seed of individuality, isn’t it? I don’t know. In the end you have to be yourself, really. Otherwise what’s the point?
You started life in London, and then moved to Berlin – has the change of location been matched with a change of direction for the label?
Berlin is a strange place, but moving here was hardly an enormous shock to the system. Berlin is a lot more similar to London than London is to, say, Hull (where I spent the first eighteen years of my life). Also yes, the internet has demonstrably shrunk the world: I still fall asleep in front of Newsnight most evenings. And anyway, I’m too old and stubborn for a new city to seriously affect my habits, let alone my worldview. Still, I do believe place exerts an influence on you at some level; it can’t not. I just think it probably manifests in ways that aren’t necessarily obvious until long after you’ve moved on.
The Officer! reissue was one of my favourite records of last year – how did that project come about?
I met [Officer! mainman] Mick Hobbs a few years ago, when I first approached him with the idea of releasing a vinyl edition of Gareth Wiliams and Mary Currie’s Flaming Tunes (another story for another time). Some months later, our mutual friend Andrew Jacques furnished me with digital transfers of Mick’s entire Officer! archive. In amongst the known stuff was an abundance of previously unreleased material, including these mysterious 1995 album sessions, which I immediately fell in love with, and which I was able to convince Mick to let me tidy up and compile for release. I’m glad you like it. I mean, the idea that a record this good, that’s this much of a lifesaver, might never have found its way into the public domain, is pretty frightening. I’m unashamed to say I’ve done the world a kindness there. I’d also like to take the opportunity to pay my respects again to Julia Brightly, who mixed the album brilliantly back in ‘95, and who passed away just a few weeks before its eventual release. I really wish she could have seen the finished article, but I’m pleased at least she was able to join us for the mastering session early last year – a very emotional day.
How important is the physical object to you?
Very, and I put a lot of effort into making records that I hope look and feel good. But as a fan, I still consider the physical side of things a luxury – it’s something I routinely and happily pay for, because that’s the culture and tradition I grew up with, but it’s not something I consider an absolute necessity. I could live without a record, but I couldn’t live without the song. Nonetheless, cover art is crucial to the aura, and the identity, of a record. I’m obsessed with it. Materials too. I love a handsome edition. But for me the most important thing is that the cover image should be evocative, should resonate with the music within, and should have some sort of impact whether viewed on an LP sleeve or a CD booklet or as a pissy thumbnail on a computer screen. It’s all about the image. The lavishness of the package is, for me, a secondary concern, in fact generally I loathe over-elaborate packaging… all this super-deluxe reissue and toytown “collectible” stuff that’s more popular than ever….exclusive colour-ways, fold-out posters, free donut…. fuck off, Dad.
How do you source material for the label? You ask for submissions on the website – have you released much that has come through unsolicited?
I suppose I keep my ears open, and I strike up a lot of conversations. Sometimes you find people, and sometimes they find you. I’ve released quite a bit of music that has come through unsolicited, actually, but even in these cases the artists have generally been been friends of friends, or people whose work I was already familiar with. Most of the demos I receive from strangers are dreadful, but I live in hope.
What do you make of the response the label has had? Despite releasing cerebral, occasionally ‘difficult’ music, you’ve developed a strong fan base – were you expecting to?
“Cerebral”’s a horrible word, don’t you think? It implies a lack of feeling. And I’m very old-fashioned: no matter what else I ask of music, and no matter how that music is made, I think it has to communicate feeling - or it’s not really music at all. I think it would be much fairer, and more accurate, to call Blackest “sentimental” than “cerebral”. Although I agree with the old wisdom that says there’s no such thing as sentimentality: a sentimental person is just someone you don’t like, who feels as strongly as you do. I’m very grateful for the fans we have, and I certainly don’t take them for granted. I’m particularly the fond of the mailorder crew – the people who buy everything direct from me, many of who have been there from the start. Their loyalty and support is what keeps the wheels turning, spiritually and practically.
And I guess, on a similar theme, what has been the label’s happiest accident?
I can’t really answer that question without getting quasi-mystical, and that wouldn’t do at all.
How financially viable is it to run an independent label today? Can you live off BEB alone?
I can’t speak for all independent labels, only mine. For the last two years I’ve lived off BEB alone, yes, but it’s been far from comfortable. I spend most of my days trying to work miracles with cash-flow, fantasizing about robbing grannies at knife-point, that sort of thing. But I wouldn’t have it any other way: I get by, and I’m hardly the first person in the world to decide that constant financial anxiety is a price worth paying if it means you can run your own life.
We’re often characterised as living in a time where people have shorter attention spans, and shallower engagements with culture, but I’d say the existence of a label like BEB disproves that – having said this, how do you feel about the need to present your product as easily marketable social media soundbites?
I use the social media to announce releases and things like that, but I’ve never knowingly generated an “easily marketable social media soundbite”, more’s the pity. Maybe I’ll try it. “IS THIS THE MOST DEPRESSING RECORD EVER MADE?”…“YOU’RE NOT GOING TO BELIEVE HOW LONG THE NEW BREMEN ALBUM IS…” Joking aside, the only pressure I feel, entirely self-imposed, is to release interesting and durable stuff. It’s there for people if they want it, and I’m not going to ram it down their throats. How short someone’s attention span is, how deeply or not they engage with culture – that’s up to them. People must suit themselves.
Have your ambitions for the label changed much over 4 years?
I should think so, yes. When you achieve a certain goal, especially if it once seemed impossible, it’s only natural to identify a new one to torment yourself with. It’s all about desire, isn’t it? Not being satisfied with what you already have – that’s what spurs everyone on, though not necessarily to better things.
What’s the difference between the three main branches of Blackest? What made you start the cassette label? How much of the decision was born from nostalgia?
You mean the sub-labels? The short-lived Confessions came about because Raime (as Moin) and Pete Swanson wanted to do a split together, and I wanted to release a 7” with a dink in it. I wouldn’t rule out a CONFESSION002 materialising at some point. A14 is meant to be an imprint for club stuff, but it’s identity still alludes me a little bit… that’s the thing about a label, it’s often hard to know what it is until it’s a few releases old. Krokodilo Tapes is primarily an opportunity to do something handmade, to get the scissors and Pritt Stick out and embrace my own amateurishness. I fear nostalgia is part of it too, but not a huge one.
Which BEB releases do you feel have been the most successful? Either commercially or aesthetically.
Any release that I sense people have really enjoyed and taken to heart I consider a success. What I would consider a commercial success, most right- thinking businessmen would call a failure…so I’m not sure it’s worth highlighting anything particular.
New Raime album in Autumn. Tropic of Cancer, Regis, Dalhous and Secret Boyfriend will also be returning soon. A whole raft of new additions to the family, including F ingers, Rat Columns, Ossia and Six Six Seconds. Oh, and it’s the fifth anniversary of the label in September. As you can imagine I’m not a fan of birthdays but in spite of myself I’m going to mark this one with a modest retrospective compilation and two events: one in London, at the ICA, and one in Berlin, at Berghain. I hope you can make it to one of them.
Find out more about Blackest Ever Black here.