Mark Barrott is the man from International Feel – the biggest Balearic success story of recent times, and an important part of DJ Harvey’s rise into the stratosphere. He is about to release an album, but as Mike Boorman and Pete Gooding found out when they ambushed him at his villa in Ibiza, he has plenty of other things to talk about.
I worked bloody hard to make this interview happen - it required the use of a plane and someone else's car - but not because the world doesn't already know about International Feel; it was more because the creative environment and the process behind it has basically been ignored. I wanted to be the first man to lift the lid on International Feel Towers; to put the ingenuity into some kind of day-to-day context, and also; while there are some good pieces out there about label boss Mark Barrott - inspirational in fact - none of them seem to ask 'why?'.
So it operated out of Uruguay did it? But why? Why put out records that sell thousands, but pretend that they weren't made by you? Why set up a label that basically pisses all over the rest of the genre, but show no interest in being part of the wider scene as a DJ or public figure? Why, at the height of success, did you announce that International Feel would stop releasing music?
That there were so many unanswered questions is partly due to Mark's original elusiveness at the point of building the brand, but he is not an inherently elusive man… although it certainly helps if you like cricket, and it also helps if you appear at the gates of his villa.
So he opens the gates and lets us in - 'us' being me and Pete Gooding (the all-important provider of vehicle, for Mark now lives in a remote villa in the northern hills of Ibiza) - and plies us with some absolutely splendid, Ayurvedic Tulsi tea, before talking a bit of shop about his EP on International Feel, Sketches From An Island [which he has just followed up with an album – buy it here]…
Mark: I really don't feel like doing any more interviews! Unlike everyone else in the music industry, I don't desire or need or want to get anything out of anything or anyone anymore. So let's just chat and see where which back alleys and country lanes we end up down…
Hang on, I'm going to have to teach a Geordie how to pour from a tea pot…
Mike: Look - my Dad sometimes listens to Radio 4. I can handle this kind of upper-class thing, ok?!?
Mark: Anyway, what were you asking… ah yes, the conundrum of how to market proper chill out / downtempo / slow music after it got pillaged, sacked and left for dead all those year ago.
Pete: By not calling it chill out!
Mark: Yes, exactly!
Mark: The kind of music I want to make now is the kind of stuff that Jose Padilla would have played 30 years ago… I want to make really bizarre, one-off, quirky pieces, the kind of record that somebody might find in a charity shop in 20 years and go "wow".
Pete: This to me, when I got this [the original Sketches From An Island EP]…I didn't know it was you… it does sound like Andreas Vollenweider or something like that. It could be old but the overall sheen of the production is new… there's a bit of Vangelis in there.
Mark: Yes - that's the whole thing… quirky, weird and when I say Padilla that's just an example… many others play music like this… but the name Padilla frames it for people of our generation.
I did the 300 and they sold out in 2 hours. People were like 'oh, you've only done 300, here we go with another super limited Int Feel release, but I genuinely thought nobody was going to be that interested in it…
Pete: By doing something you treasure in your mind, your audience find you. Looking for your audience is almost a dead end.
Mark: Exactly. So then I saw people who bought that in the first 300 run and were starting to re-sell it on Discogs… a bit like what happened with the Parada 88 record (it came out on International Feel in 2011, with only 30 hand-stamped copies)
… shit, I nearly said who it was that did that then… anyway, that's when I decided a repress was in order and there's still enough demand out there to do another… but let's at least keep it a little bit limited, a bit special… let's not make it too easy for everyone. But it is very rewarding to make what is basically 'obscure' music in this day and age and see it connect with a lot of people in the same way Guetta does.
Pete: I started to believe that you were making all the records by the way.
Mark: Most of them!
Mike: I knew you did Adventure Party, because of our email exchange about it.
Pete: The one I love is Boys From Patagonia - It's So Exciting, I thought "God, that's just so Ibiza, but in the right way. I thought "fuck me - what a record".
Mark: Thank you. Well one of the whole reasons behind starting International Feel was because I don't want to make albums any more, so for example, it's very rare for me to contemplate doing a follow-up to a release… Sketches From An Island being the exception, because it's so much fun to make these kinds of records. But if you take Boys From Patagonia as an example; I'm totally into that sound and it feels like my entire musical world, but only for three weeks, and then I'm into something else. And the trouble is, if you then try and develop that as an artist, it doesn't work.
Pete: No, because that goes against why it was good in the first place, i.e. it wasn't thought out.
Mark: Yeah, so you've got to have some kind of an umbrella brand, and that's a record label.
Mike: It was interesting you were saying how you don't want to be making albums any more… at one point you were desperate to be making albums - you went out on a limb to do that in the D & B world in the 90s where others were not… what changed?
Mark: I think it's just periods of your life. I'm not 28/29 any more, I'm 45. My priorities have changed.
Pete: You know, when I first discovered your label I heard about it from other people, and I was like 'how the fuck does this label make music that's more right for me than anyone, and I don't know about it?'
Mark: I wanted the label to be discovered by word of mouth!
Pete: Yeah, you're playing the game the opposite way around. Normally somebody has a good idea in the music industry, then everybody copies the idea until it's dead, but off the back of that they might get DJ gigs or whatever. You don't want to DJ off the back of it, so your reason for doing it is for the sake of the art itself.
Mark: Yeah - how people get careers has turned around completely. I did my first Future Loop Foundation album in 1996 which sold 25,000, and you played live and broke even or lost money on playing live, but it was a shop window for your album… you didn't release 300 vinyls as a shop window for your transient DJ career, and I know I just released 300 hand-stamped vinyls, but I don't want a DJ career!.
As is evident from the last statement, Mark has had a pretty long life in the business before the current venture that I and most R$N readers will know him for. He has told the story elsewhere - it would have been journalistic suicide to go all the way to his villa and ask him to repeat it - but for the purposes of understanding why International Feel is International Feel, here it is in short:
- As Future Loop Foundation, he was a highly successful Drum & Bass artist, and was in fact the first man to perform Drum & Bass live on Radio 1.
- He then spent some time in Berlin, doing the Bohemian thing to the sound of Kruder and Dorfmeister et al, earning a pittance DJing/performing as Future Loop Foundation.
- During this time, he wisely said 'yes' to his publisher when asked to compose music for TV in the UK, and struck gold when a late-night world football roundup paid him healthy royalties every week.
- He composed some successful pop music, but will not admit what it was.
- He then ended up in Italy, DJing in a trendy hotel bar/celeb hangout. This eventually led to him programming the music for the hotel's parent group across the country. Thanks to early iPods, he was effectively able to replicate his DJ sound by programming-up a playlist and posting it out to each hotel.
- This expanded into a worldwide business that he sold a few years ago for a substantial amount of money. He says the business is 10 years-old this month, employs 60 people, and turns over approximately 10m per year.
- Once he was free of his business, he wanted to get into a space where he could be creative again. His brief was somewhere that had sun and had the internet, so he chose Uruguay, which is where International Feel began its life.
- Remotely, he approached DJ Harvey's management, offered a good advance, and got him on board to remix IFEEL001, which was the start of a very fruitful relationship.
- He recently moved to Ibiza so he could be closer to his parents in the UK, but he plays no part in the scene on the island whatsoever - he has basically replicated his Uruguayan lifestyle.
So we resume; as I attempt to make sure that the intimidating greatness of International Feel is justified by more than just "good music" or "DJ Harvey":
Mike: It's interesting how International Feel has been created almost wholly because of your past, some of which is quite corporate. So what's the creative solution for the industry now? It seems like you created International Feel as a reaction to the corporate world - you call it contrarian, maverick thinking - and yet you were only capable of creating it because of what you had done previously to inform it.
Mark: Yeah, I learnt how to build a brand. The first brand I built was a cash cow, but it did happen by accident, although once I saw the opportunity I did 'design the accident' somewhat, but also bear in mind when you call it corporate, I still walked into board rooms and sat with billionaires in a pair of flip-flops. Actually, when people started to suggest that I swap the flip-flops for a pair of shoes, that’s’ when I knew it was time to sell.
Mike: So for all the people in the world that don't have the opportunity to make the cash cow first-up, what should they do?
Mark: Well I did have a pretty good music career before the 'cash cow' and I think that it's pretty easy to generate a fair amount of cash by applying some simple, natural laws - that's all I did, and do, and it turned out to be a Music Consultancy Business as opposed to a... I dunno…a fishing trawler fleet based in Hull.
Anyway, to answer from a music perspective… make great, melodic, unique, memorable music. It's that simple. And if you can't do that, stop copying Larry Heard basslines and pretending you've got a career, because you're going to end up as a bitter call-centre worker in two years.
Aphex Twin did that out of nowhere for example. If you listen to the sonic quality of Selected Ambient Works it's atrocious, but nobody focuses on that if the music and melody and atmosphere is so good.
Pete: We Are The Music Makers (from that album) is one of my favourite songs ever… it's actually on the Cafe Del Mar cassette tape that was on in the background when I lost my virginity! The bottom end is such a mess.
Mike: Bahahahaahaaa! "The bottom end is such a mess". That's quite a phrase to use in this context.
Mark: The mastering's terrible, but no one cares. And the whole purpose of International Feel was to set this brand up that was bespoke, to make sure we did stand out from the crowd… and it worked… we have sold a lot of vinyl… most releases over a thousand… Bepu N'Gali sold two thousand, Rocha the same, Harvey more.
Pete: Yeah, Bepu was you as well, wasn't it? I remember putting it on a compilation. And there was that whole made-up story about bumping into some guy in a Buenos Aires Flea market and calling a number written on the back of a cassette tape!
Mark: I remember promoting this quite intensively because I knew it was good, and it actually got to something like number 2 on the Mixmag Big Tunes chart, and they said 'we need a picture of Bepu N'Gali', and I remembered I'd seen a picture of a guy in the Zambian Space Program in the 1960s… and so that became Bepu N'Gali!
Pete: Todd Terje's version is great, but it's the original version that will stay.
Mark: That's one of the things that I'm really proud of - in fact, I actually trampolined to it today! I think some of the stuff I'm most happy with on the label is the stuff I've done, but then again, I'm bound to say that. But Gatto Fritto is someone who has an immense amount of talent that he may or may not get his head around exercising at some point. But yeah, most of the EFeel's were me, like the 10cc edit etc. Rocha was me.
Pete: I actually discovered you after that point, and I had this perception of the label, 'the guy's gonna never reply, or if he does he'd be really arsey' and you replied within about three minutes!
Mark: Manners, courtesy and all that, cost nothing!
Mike: I can imagine it's really nice to surprise people by being helpful and by giving a good service, but I see that you're trying to cut label-activity back a bit.
Mark: It's really weird that you just keep releasing music and suddenly we're onto thirty releases, three years in, and you know, I will honestly be very surprised if there will be another release on International Feel before the summer, although I am working on a track with Gerd Janson that might be ready to put out before then. I don't really wanna release other people's music anymore because now there's this expectation from artists that it will not only sell but that their career will jump. You know, like that Gonno release we did - he's just DJ'd in London two years after, off the back of that release. But rightly so - it was a great track!
Mike: Just to go back a little bit… you're sounding a bit weary. At the point when you started it, with the ethics you had, i.e. paying people up front and trying to generally treat people better than most labels, did you expect that, despite having run a label with a model you believed was for the greater good, that you'd end up being weary?
Mark: I think it goes back to where we were earlier - I'm not quite so immersed. Now where I am in my life, music's just a part of my life. If you asked me 'what gives you pleasure?' I'd say: 'yes, music gives me pleasure, but so does listening to Test Match Special.' It's not music or die. And also, I'm very much an only-child, I like working on my own, so when you're releasing other people's music and they deliver it late or they don't like the artwork, and they have expectations because the last track sold 2,000… you get to the point where you'd just rather be responsible for myself.
And I still get sent a load of fucking demos! And actually, I've never signed anything off a demo (but he listens to all of them), and you know, I think my desire to release other people's music isn't there at the moment. I'm not saying 'never again', because who knows what tomorrow may bring, but at the minute I'd rather make my own quirky one-offs, those future charity-shop pieces I mentioned earlier! I'd rather just make a bit of music and release a bit of music here and there.
Pete: I think that attitude might be what's bringing you the better releases… when you're on that treadmill you've gotta stay on it - that's the problem.
Mark: Yes. When you're doing one vinyl release a month and you're doing it on your own, you've got to be the shop manager, the factory manager, the branding consultant, the bank manager, the psychologist… it's pretty much a full-time job, but even then, International Feel didn't really make a profit - it basically broke even. Obviously we were doing very high-end releases with full-colour art, and 180g vinyl and expensive mastering… your break even is about 800-1000 sales per release!
Mike: So you've taken a bit of a step back… have you been more productive since?
Mark: Where as Bepu N'Gali took three weeks, Dr Nimm's Garden Of Intrigue & Delight took two days. All the tracks on the Sketches From An Island EP took two days in fact, because they were all formed as pieces in my head, and so part of the quality vs quantity debate is me making the self-determination saying 'unless I've got a really great song in my head and I'm waking up with it every day for three weeks, I'm not going to start it'. The best things I do come from an idea in my head, not from finding a particular sound. It's not me going "I need some inspiration today from this plugin".
Pete: I tell my artists all the time, 'don't just sit down with a kick drum and a bass line rolling because you'll make generic shit'.
Mike: That's what the sound engineer/producer that you're paying good money for wants you to do in their studio, because then they can shine… but they can fuck off!
Mark: Yeah. But there's still nothing wrong with pulling up a 303 and playing with the filter knob for four hours… that's still an enjoyable pursuit, but it's not a song!
Pete: I always say to my artists, 'find the idea first, then make it, and as you're making it with the kick drum etc., you'll recognise it for being the idea that you had.' If it's not the idea you had, then it might just be a load of crap.
Mark: That's so true. And you'll be glad to know that there is a follow-up: Dr Nimm's Mysterious Island is in my head. I'm kind of building this character… Dr Nimm is actually a really well respected Uruguayan… what do you call a guy that's an expert on trees and plants?
Mark: Like that, but not. Anyway, there's this very famous forest in Uruguay - I think it might be a world heritage site because of all the different species - and Dr Nimm is one of the curators of it; so I'm kind of getting this whole character for Dr Nimm, genetically fucking around with plants in a kind of 60s, Sci Fi, Lord Summerisle kind of vibe… dark and twisted but with good intentions. So, every one of the Sketches From An Island release I do, there'll be a Dr Nimm track. It's all about the story in your mind… it's not about the kick drum or the bass line that's current. Remember children, you do still have your own imagination, TV and Iphones didn't steal all of it… yet.
(Dr Nimm’s Manor)
Mark: The biggest truism now in music, is that good is the enemy of great. It's very easy to make good music now… Ableton, Logic, loop packs off the internet… it's impossible for me to make bad music. If you know your way around music software then you can make a 'good/average' record very easily.
Mike: The feeling for arrangement cannot be so easily acquired though.
Mark: Yeah. That's actually a very very astute observation.
Pete: I say to a lot of my artists at my management company a lot of the time, great music is always going to be hard to make… I have artists coming to me and saying 'Axwell and the like are doing well at the moment, I might go off and make EDM', and I say to them 'look - you may have observed a formula, but someone like Axwell is not copying anything; that's his thing'.
Mark: They're not musicians, they're programmers. Richie Hawtin is not a musician - he's a programmer. As Sherlock said 'Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognises genius'.
There were now a good number of debatable points in the air… I couldn't let this spiral into negativity. I decided to let Hawtin go, but the availability of software/loop packs etc. needed further qualification, so I interrupted.
"Surely there is a big silver lining in all of this though…"
You should have seen the look on his face. "Oof, go on - this is gonna be good!" he guffawed across the table.
"Well," I said. "Obviously cracked software, freely available music etc. has created this mire of dross, and yet, the volume of dross has prompted a big reaction to it; so suddenly labels like International Feel; vinyl-only labels etc, people prick up their ears and say, 'well hang on a minute, this is different so it must be good!'
Mark: There are two sides to this. If people want to get Fruity Loops or whatever and make music for the joy of it, then that's fantastic - music at its basic level is a form of therapy. But when those people inhabit forums and have an opinion without any justification, and they've not learned their craft, then that's bad… I mean, I could just take your computer now and download plugins for three compressors, but it doesn't mean that I know how to use them, but you can bet I'll have an opinion as to how 'analogue' they sound!
Mike: But you're ignoring the positives! What if you did know how to use them?!? And doesn't it mean that the people that can use these things properly can still win?
Mark: Yeah, the idea still trumps everything and that is why at International Feel I always wanted to have very high standards because I knew that is the only way you were going to be able to jump out of the pond.
Mike: But do you acknowledge that if you were to have done this in, say, 1998, when the only medium was vinyl and music was not so accessible in general, that if you'd have come in and said, 'right, this is International Feel, we press 180g vinyl, we've got unbelievable artwork etc.' it wouldn't have made much of an impact, because there was not the same context of dross back then?
Mark: No it wouldn't have done, that's true.
So he finally cracked - creativity may not be so dead after all, not if the likes of International Feel keep reacting to what they perceive as a dead creative environment. If you read David Byrne's latest book "How Music Works", he continually makes this point, and this is a man who appears from a distance to be the ultimate maverick artist that's in his own world and has his own style, but according to the man himself; what prompted him to create what he created with Talking Heads etc. were the different creative spaces he built for himself in reaction to the bland norms/process of the industry. To use Mark's earlier pond analogy, Byrne would have had no pond to jump out of if it wasn't for the banal.
It's actually the creative environment that Mark has built for himself that fascinated me the most before our meeting - I've never seen him discuss it publicly, so that was one good reason for me to move hell and high water to get out to see him in situ. We get onto it in part two, as well as some of the wider issues that face modern society, government control mechanisms, and whether Bobby Robson’s spell at Ipswich Town provided the blueprint for the future of creativity.
You can read sketchesfromanisland.com
Mike Boorman and with thanks to Pete Gooding.
Part 2 next week.