Label Love 107: Five Years of weird jams with Phantom Limb
Based out of the UK’s south coast, Phantom Limb was founded by James Vella. Over the past fives years, it’s released a diverse range from the experimental, electronic and avant-garde. Vella is a music producer and performer in his own right as A Lily and yes full disclosure, we’ve released two of his beautiful albums on our Bytes imprint. The label has released albums from a broad range of artists and received critical acclaim. It’s also grown various other, ahem, limbs over the years including The Earth Thanks You, its green initiative and resource within the independent music industry.
“I started Phantom Limb in 2017 after a few long years in A&R at other independent labels. Save for a small, DIY, bedroom label I formed when I was a teenager, this was the first time I had set out on my own.
Luckily, the amazing people that continue to staff the label joined fairly quickly after its formation.
This wonderful team has achieved fantastic things over the past five (now almost six!) years, and it’s been a joyous, challenging, and immensely rewarding journey.”
Rather than us interview them all we asked the artists on the label to ask the people behind the label to ask the questions they always wanted to ask.
MC Yallah: What are the advantages and disadvantages of running a record label?
“As someone who’s only ever worked at independent labels, the disadvantage is probably there’s so much to do especially running a small/medium-sized label as you might be juggling several roles, it’s neverending! Advantages? It’s a rewarding experience being involved that much, seeing a label and artists grow that you won’t get at major labels… well not the same experience at least.” – Ken Li
Eomac: What is the main thing you look for in signing a new act?
“I like to think of this in terms of biology. For me, music needs certain characteristics that align with the human body, which is probably no coincidence given how innate it is. I listen for music with guts, teeth, brains, heart and a voice. Guts refers to courage – the desire to push boundaries and resist conventions; to create art that stands aside from preexisting institutions, trends or scenes and backs itself to stand out. Teeth are important too – music needs contrasting textures to truly land; it needs grit and texture, or it will float away like air. It will need brains – intentionality, something considered and understood, a purpose. It needs heart – a core vulnerability that affords the expression authenticity. Lastly, music needs to voice something true to the creator; it needs to express a truth about the soul or the cosmos that we have not heard before. As complicated as this might sound, it is a real foundation of Phantom Limb’s A&Ring process.” – James Vella
WaqWaq Kingdom: What is your best three favourite food?
“I’m always guided to traditional Maltese food. I have a lot of favourites but if I had to choose, it would be braġjoli, imqarrun il-forn and qagħaq tal-għasel. But I also love to cook, which I find to be a similar process to creating music. Adding a pinch of marjoram is not unlike nudging the bass up by 0.5dB at 100Hz. I like cooking Maltese, Spanish and North African food best.” – James Vella
WaqWaq Kingdom: Which country have you ever had the best inspiration from visiting?
“Japan! I discovered what happens when ideas and aesthetics are taken beyond the boundaries of western culture, the culmination of which I perhaps stumbled on in Naoshima where art, nature and architecture combine to create utopia.” – Dean Wengrow
WaqWaq Kingdom: Which country would u like to visit in future? Why?
“My first answer is definitely the UK! I’ve been discovering the world of music for pretty much my whole life, and the British scene has been my main source of inspiration and provided idols through each phase of my life – the Beatles, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and other classic stuff as a kid, then there was some punk & electronica in my teen years, and finally the vast ocean of British indie I can’t stop loving. We book and produce lots of shows in the UK, so it will be fun visiting the venues and meeting all the beautiful people I collaborate with.
And then there’s Iceland. I need to experience the ambiance that makes people create such amazing otherworldly music that reflects a kind of delicate balance between the environment and human nature.” – Oleksa Shatskii
Bryan Senti: Phantom Limb is an eclectic, pro artist label, which I’m sure all the artists are truly grateful for – how has running a label in the current music economy shaped your opinion of label stewardship?
“It’s been a challenge, sure. It was already difficult enough to run a small independent creative endeavour, even before we start adding Brexit, the economic recession, the environmental crisis, war, and rampant greed into the mix. Now it feels like there are new hurdles every month. It makes A&Ring much more difficult. There is a smaller and smaller margin for error, to the point where a single failed release can spell disaster. But it has also enabled us to dig deep into the questions of why we do this and how we make it sustainable. Of course, we’d all prefer to be able to do this without stress or worry, but my A&Ring and risk assessment has probably improved manifold because of it.” – James Vella
"The current music economy has created an environment in which our intuition and intentionality needs to be honed, razor sharp and always re-evaluated."
Ellen Zweig: What is your relationship to language and music? what do you see as the relationship between language and music? is poetry music? is language music? is music a language?
“For me, language and music are inexorably bound. We express ourselves. We’re at once inordinately complicated and blissfully simple beings. We need to say what we feel. Sometimes we do it in song; sometimes in words. And there exist fascinating examples of languages expressed in song. The whistling language of Catalan mountain farmers and Pirahā of the Amazon, for example. However, I suggest that language and poetry are not defined as music, or vice versa, because there is a qualitative distinction. I feel that ultimately music precedes language. Can you imagine Miles’ trumpet expressed in words? I think the soul calls for music before word, in the same way, the subconscious calls for allegorical dreams before clarity. They’re the same, but different.” – James Vella
Hekla: What drove you to start Phantom Limb?
“I started Phantom Limb with a desire to form a musical institution to celebrate the weirdos. I’m so inspired by platforms such as Cafe OTO or the Wire Magazine, in which strange and wonderful music is given the opportunity to express itself freely. Someone asked me recently: what is Phantom Limb’s biggest hit? My answer: “all of them.” Everything we do is a hit because it is a hit in the heart. That’s the most important thing for me, and for all of us here. To celebrate that which makes the creators we believe in happiest. Starting a small label from the ground up is a challenging experience, of course. Especially in recent years. The independent music industry has faced significant obstacles that we’re all well aware of – Brexit, capitalism, climate change and economic downturn being the biggest. But we do this work from a place of love, and that has carried us well so far.” – James Vella
Hekla: Do you have any favourite labels?
“Quality Control HQ, La Vida Es Un Mus, Freedom To Spend. All three of these labels have such a strong sense of conviction in the music they release. They each welcome in a broad church of artists, and manage to world-build from a label perspective without diluting either the artists’ or the label’s work. Heroes!”- George Clift
Hekla: What is the best part about running a label?
“Honestly, it sounds a bit corny (and probably is) but working with music I truly believe in is probably the best part.” – Ken Li
Hekla: What are some future plans at Phantom Limb?
“Wow. There are many. I can’t speak for absolutely everybody, but 2023 is already very busy for the agency. We’ve spent a lot of time on administration and processes in the last half a year-ish so moving forward it would be a picture of more effectively showcasing label acts to stronger effect; more effectively working to deliver to the bigger end of the artist roster in terms of the demands of artists with quite huge careers which is sort of the other end to what we have done a great deal of already in developing artists… covering ground in both strategic domains is pretty demanding and quite different in the approach.
The successes of the label keeps coming so we feel like we’re in a good place and benefit exponentially from that in a huge positive whirlwind of the tide going up and all ships rising. Covid recovery is ofc ongoing… the current economics and global conditions are possibly the most challenging ever. Are we experiencing the early days of catastrophic global decline? Every day we ask ourselves if booking tours is the right thing to do in terms of the environment and ever-increasing list of capitalist multi-corp welding and marching towards one world one global takeover merger but every day these are the same forces which drive us in some paradoxical swan song that hopefully at least creates some resistance to the eventual collapse and inevitable cyber-toxic cesspit the human effect will likely end up as. ” – Andy Halliday
Miguel Noya: I have followed the fact that your products are the line alternative and syncretic in a way. Do you consider after 5 years that there is a growing market for this kind of music? Maybe you wanted to take a high-risk path from the beginning of the style and the product line was developed as time passed by.
“Personally, I think they’ll always be a market for interesting music that doesn’t fit with the norm/mainstream and will continue to be. Maybe there is a growing market for more challenging music, to counteract the homogeneous stuff you see in the charts, but this has always been the case for decades. I don’t think Phantom Limb set out to be an ‘experimental’ label when it first started, it just happens to be an area we all have a special interest in or have previously worked at other labels/companies established in that field. It doesn’t have to be left-field, avant-garde, etc, just something we’re all into and want to share with the wider world.” – Ken Li
Miguel Noya: Has Brexit done any harm to your plans? How do you feel now Europe is still close or far? Has this affected the relations to our communities, what I call the periphery of the world? Countries outside the ring consider 1st (inner planet)
“Our work has been impacted massively. Pre-Brexit globalisation meant that you could build a cottage industry on a global scale. Low bureaucracy and import/export tariffs meant that incredibly small enterprises could find tiny, incredibly sparse communities and be sustained much quicker than before the EU and post-90s global trade agreements. We’re now operating in a retrograde way, with lots of opaque processes to import and export, and with that comes more costs. This has rippled around the world and caused trouble for tiny enterprises in all walks of life, not just music.
I think going into 2023, we’re all starting to have found our workarounds, there seems to be an appetite for global partnerships and reciprocal collaboration between small labels, distros and artists to try and mitigate costs and risk across borders. This recalls my very first experiences of DIY punk as far back as 2000, and perhaps shows some glimmer of hope that counterculture will always flourish in the face of larger societal issues.” – George Clift
Miguel Noya: How about the process during the pandemic? Did you manage to hold the line?
“The one thing that keeps coming up in conversation with other live ‘industry’ folk is the open conversation which sparked from the pandemic. People suddenly started talking about what was happening, how are you doing etc, as opposed to strictly talking business. Holding the line became a bit like trying to hold onto a thin stream of water dribbling from a tap that keeps moving. Not much was happening but you just kept booting things along to the next window of ‘maybes’. For bigger companies, there was even more stress than usual in keeping things viable. We are able to move fast and flexibly, given the shape of our business model – we had no office, we had no FT employees and no National Insurances to worry about. These things are all +/- types of issues and honestly, it was an opportunity to go do some gardening while the whale thing blew over. What was clear was that the bigger entities had been planning, plotting, same as everyone else – leveraging to make the most of the build back effort post-covid, moving as fast as possible. But overall, we’ve come back looking pretty good and the appetite from artists to tour, be represented, share air with us and what we do is absolutely stronger and more fervent than ever.” – Andy Halliday
Miguel Noya: Do you feel there is an opening again with growth and expansion after the opening post-pandemic (are we already out of it?)?
“I feel budgets have had to be cut quite a lot at the festivals I attended in 2022. It does show we are adapting and still producing great shows, and hopefully there will be growth this year! So yeah, we are slowly getting out of it. :)” – Reny Hristova
Miguel Noya: How about booking and promotion during and after the pandemic? Any comments?
“Obviously, booking in a traditional sense was impossible during the pandemic. We were wondering if gigs would ever come back and what they’d look like if they do. Every cloud has a silver lining, though, and things started to evolve towards the online domain. A lot of concerts were streamed and it was suddenly possible to listen to a live performance of an artist from their bedroom, which was quite a fresh and exciting perspective. So I guess the pandemic contributed to that kind of technological development, as we can see even now that there are more online events and some music industry conferences and workshops moved to the Internet as well.
After the pandemic, the venues started to open, but there was a lot of uncertainty and caution. Organising travel got more complicated and expensive, shows got cancelled, guarantees were lower and the industry generally seemed more competitive. It was as if everyone was trying to make up for lost time, without taking too much risk.
Now, the situation is gradually returning to normal. People want to see artists play and artists want to perform and be seen. The main problem now is the economic crisis and the way it impacts venues, specially the smaller ones, as well as bookers and promoters.” – Pawel Gozdziewicz
Miguel Noya: What do you consider the best outcome and more gratifying experience of your 5 years? Economics, emotional, humanistic?
“For me, the most gratifying experience has been the relationships developed. Music is such a deep, unfiltered form of expression that it’s impossible not to share something intensely vulnerable in allowing other listeners into the experience. We get to share and reciprocate that vulnerability and powerful communication with our artists and the listeners that enjoy their music every day. It’s truly heartening, and so important for us all. Economically, we’re in the same quicksand as everyone else in independent music. It’s a tough climate out there. But we’re a tough label. – James Vella
"There seems to be an appetite in 2023 for global partnerships & reciprocal collaboration between small labels, distros and artists"
Infinity Knives: What’s Ken’s skincare routine?
“It’s pretty simple! Just non-fragrance soap and occasionally some Palmer’s Cocoa Butter. Keep it simple. Also, there’s that saying “Asians don’t raisin”… I got that advantage.” – Ken Li
Alex Camilleri: Favourite film?
“This week it’s Ti West and Mia Gore’s slasher film Pearl, which begins as a twisted homage to Golden Age Hollywood and ends up with a comic ‘Carrie’ style 1970s horror aesthetic. Its setting in 1918 during the flu pandemic gives it resonance to the present day. Pearl’s naive, murderous personality is absurd yet disturbingly believable. Historically, it would be Herzog’s Aguirre or Charles Laughton’s expressionistic, Southern Gothic masterpiece Night of The Hunter, starring Robert Mitchum and featuring beautiful music by Walter Schumann, once covered by Fantomas”
– Dean Wengrow
Alex Camilleri: What is your favourite film score?
“I have a lot of answers for this question, but a handful that always return to me are Akira by Geinoh Yamashirogumi, Seven Samurai by Fumio Hayasaka, Tron: Legacy by Daft Punk, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai by RZA, and Life on Earth by Edward Williams.” – James Vella
Alex Camilleri: If you could release a re-score to a classic film (define classic as you like!), which film?
“I think Chungking Express. The music plays a big part in the film, capturing the vibrancy and kinetic energy of its characters and Hong Kong as a whole in the 90’s. Shout out to Faye Wong’s cover of “Dreams” by the Cranberries, it’s one of the best.” – Ken Li
Alex Camilleri: What’s the best/most useful thing you own that costs less than €50?
“Ha, this is a good question. For a person that overthinks regularly but doesn’t own much, it is surprisingly difficult to choose. I am very happy with my recent purchase of Four Tet’s New Energy. It is the album that cures my depression whenever I play it.” – Reny Hristova
Richard Skelton: What are your thoughts on the future of music formats? CD, vinyl, cassette? What about streaming, algorithms, AI, interactivity?
“I’m a big fan of listening to whole albums and I feel that streaming is making this obsolete, music on the big platforms seems to be organised to be nothing more than the OST of daily life, which is sad because it assumes that music can’t exist for itself. From my experience, the algorithm inevitably makes you listen to unwanted popular but ordinary pieces that prevent you from being amazed. The tech and resources involved in streaming are also dramatically unproportioned (excuse-me, is that a word?) regarding the benefit of the user. Sometimes I dream of a low-fi Napster-like peer to peer system retributing artists fairly and that wouldn’t involve the use of huge servers running day and night
I feel like some part of the hallowed dimension of music listening is dead somehow, maybe because the physical object to worship disappeared from the shelves? We could think that streaming is so easy that no one will use physical supports anymore. On the other hand, when photography appeared, everyone said that painting was useless, but it actually mutated into something even more exciting. Our relation to music on physical supports might mutate too, I feel like we need to touch things to empathise and really love them. The aura of physical support has never been so strong, has it?
AI composing music is a real novelty but as long as it’s only mimicking our actual ways of making music with tags and moods and prefab chords, it won’t become a real innovation. Robots were invented (by Asimov, in his novel I mean, not physical invention) initially to take over tedious tasks from humans, but making music is not one of them! I’m more intrigued by humans making music out of machines or inspired by them than the other way around, but this being said, i love when a machine tries and derails, it gives me hope that they’ll be able to detach from the human ways of describing music, giving us a new perspective on it. Just like the wheel, it might become obvious before our eyes when we will need it. Maybe music will be the ultimate way to communicate with machines!” – Elise Boennec
"I feel like we need to touch things to empathise and really love them. The aura of physical support has never been so strong, has it?"
Paul Schütze: We can see what happens in the natural world when finite resources are exploited with no thought for their real value or the precarity of their supply. How does Phantom Limb balance the supply of music to streamers (and their criminal remuneration models) with the future ability of artists continue making work. Shouldn’t we all reject the convenience model for one that properly invests in the artform that drives its profits?
“Phantom Limb as a broader organisation, in conjunction with its partners and colleagues hope to create an autonomous ecosystem within which artists that work in marginal music can flourish. With the augmentation of having a strong live agency, publishing, sync and publicists in-house, we at least have the opportunity to listen to an artist’s broader values and goals, and try to be a part of that larger, longer conversation. In 2022 it feels a little retrograde to be siloed off into fractured ‘services.’ We have a chance to build a team that artists can be part of in all parts of their careers, not just relying on one or two revenue streams. We have high aspirations for our artists and ourselves for working past antiquated models.
The Phantom Limb label has a track record of prioritising and experimenting with manufacturers that are doing work to minimise carbon impact. There are no winning industry-wide solutions at present, and so within Phantom Limb and our wider network of colleagues, labels and distributors, we’re constantly reviewing how to best keep our own supply chain as lean as we can, using reciprocal collaboration with friends labels internationally when we can.
RE: Streaming, The interesting thing is, it’s not compulsory, both we and our artists have autonomy in whether new material goes to DSP’s. It’s a conversation I have with artists all the time, and the decisions are still coming back overwhelmingly in favour of using them as the outlet for releases. With this in mind it can often feel like we’re doing our job with one hand tied behind our backs. As you say, the remuneration is criminal for what the DSP’s are getting from the artists. But let’s be clear, in 2022 this is a begrudging consenting model for most artists and labels at the point of entry. Personally I think that if the artist and label are bold enough to try new ways of audience engagement and building outside of homogenised platforms, they should! Whether that’s just using amazing infrastructures like Bandcamp, Using DSPs for longer, staggered roll outs like in the Film, TV and Gaming industries, or moving to Patreon style models – but all must remember that new, collective and truly countercultural models will also be slower to build and anecdotally, the evidence suggests artists and labels at large aren’t willing to wait, or hold their ground. What Spotify et. al. are charging its users for (and I’m talking about artists and labels here) is audience access, and that model is the same across all app-based user-to-user ecosystems, AirBnB, Just Eat etc. the platforms charge what they like for your access to their audiences. But I’d argue with the ever-growing saturation of Spotify (hundreds of thousands of hours of content uploaded every day), unless you’re at the very top of the repeat-play monoculture, Taylor Swift, Kendrick Lamar, Ed Sheeran – actually the entire model is intrinsically damaging to the value of more niche music and marginal artists – but until artists and labels feel empowered by the truth – that we are the means of production, and we do have power – I can’t see huge improvements simply ‘coming along.” – George Clift
Jon Natchez: What are the top 3 things you’d tell a visitor to Brighton to check out?
“The food. Brighton has an amazing restaurant culture. There are highest grade chefs from all over the world here. You can complete a world tour in a few days. There’s also a healthy live music scene with a handful of fantastic venues. And lastly Phantom Limb stockist / main hangout / auxiliary meeting room Puck, in Sevendials. Best coffee in town.” – James Vella
Jon Natchez: If one of your artists were asked to score a film for the first time, what advice would you give them?
“I would advise them to watch Her, Gummo, Holy Mountain and Sound of Metal and then study the PL label and publishing rosters in order to gain a full overview of possibilities…” – Andy Halliday
Jon Natchez: What is a musical collaboration (that hasn’t occurred yet) that you’d love to hear?
“The Body (experimental metal duo) and Liz Harris a.k.a. Grouper. I think that could be quite interesting and probably will sound like the world will cave in…” – Ken Li
Catch Phantom Limb on the road this spring:
March 3rd: Cafe OTO, London
WaqWaq Kingdomm, Swordman Kitala x Soft-Bodied Humans
March 31st: St. John’s on Bethnal Green, London
Richard Skelton, Francesca Ter-Berg, Ibukun Sunday.
April 1st: Iklectik, London
Iggor Cavalera, Sabiwa, Cameron Graham
April 15th: Musiekgebouw, Amsterdam
Loraine James & the London Contemporary Orchestra perform Building Something Beautiful For Me
Joining The Circus
What to do for British politics?
Solidarity with Ukraine
URL vs. IRL
Do DJs Today Need Social Media to Be Heard?
I Hear (Borusiade Remix)
Mother of MarsShop Now
Hologram TeenShop Now