Label Love #51: Tici Taci
Born in the suburbial confines outside of London, a group of friends that would go on to provide inspiration, exasparation and excitiation inside the M25 included young men & women that would influence club music, dance culture and magazine direction for time to come beyond that orbital.
Duncan Gray talks about how the gang he knew and shared with, influenced and motivated the birth of his label Tici Taci. Fast approaching it's 30th release, it has soundtracked A Love From Outer Space and more, and he has gas in the tank, and fuel in his pipe in 2016.
Tiki- taki, a European football ideology now championed by SOME of the best Premier League teams. Was Duncan influenced by this, Barcelona and Johan Cruyff? He choked on his smoke.
"It did actually, at one point I did ask people to speculate where it came from. It's from a Pete Seeger song really, 'Little boxes on the hillside made of ticky tacky'."
"A friend of mine Bobby Nuffink, always refers to cheaply made things as 'ticky tacky'. I changed the spelling, so it looked more 'European'. Plus, you know I like cycling? The cog, the logo, that's noise from a chain drive as it whirs…"
Duncan swerves the footballing references to Everton and Deulofeu, like most other Premier Leaguers do. Where did the label come from then, and how so?
"I suppose when it comes down to it, back in my twenties, I had a job in IT. I was earning great money, became freelance, and you know I fucking hated it. Then suddenly I was 30, and it was like 'shit or get off the pot'. I’d always totally been into making music, and I had enough money put away from the earnings, I just jacked the job and went 'right, music full time'. I quickly went through all the money I’d saved. The first label I started was called Scatalogical in about ’96, and shortly after that I met Ian Weatherall through Andrew, and we started doing Sons Of Slough, and that was a great motivation to me."
"Ian was great to work with. We did loads of gigs, it gave me enough of an income, and we signed records on various labels, it was cool. We did that through to 2005, and at that point I got sick of the whole music business. I wasn’t really enjoying the sound of what we were doing, the tempo was all fast, about 130 – 135, which suited electro at the time."
"I basically took a break for a long time, didn’t do anything other than go see loads of live bands, and sort of rediscovered a joy of music through going to see lots of DIFFERENT music. Leaving electronic music well alone really"
Taking some holiday time away from the four-four is something many long-term dancers and house/ techno followers do. Recharge, find solace. Not usually is that sojourn spent following anarchistic American punk bands the length and breadth.
"Oh yeah, I'm a big fan of The Melvins. During that 8 year period of not doing anything electronic I must’ve seen them 15, 20 times. Love ‘em! I’d go see rock, some classical concerts, just to cleanse my mind out really. Must’ve helped really, because just at the time I was thinking about what would become Tici Taci. I was more open to the idea that it must be “real” instruments, “live” instruments. I had been making music in that period, just not stuff to be shared, but it was more rock & guitar based. I took what I’d learned from that period, and had grown as a producer and understood how to record live instruments. I then had the confidence to mix live with electronics."
"I guess the other TT motivation was down to Neville Watson, the techno DJ and producer. Nev's an old friend of mine and he gave me a kick up the arse to work on music again. I was out of work and kicking my heels. Nev sent me a track to remix, and what I did was replace all synth with guitar and bass. It kind of worked, was a bit too fast for my playing, but it made me realise how I could approach dance music different. I just slowed everything down and started working at 110 bpm which really suited my playing style. And did what I normally do when I've made music, stuck it on a CD and sent to Andrew Weatherall. In this case he called Monday and he said 'I've played your tracks and they are really working'. Bloody great surprise and a bonus. I kept feeding him more and he said, 'You know you are going to have to start a label aren’t you?' He offered to help, took me to meet Above Board distribution, which was excellent."
So in 2013, Duncan took the leap with the label and put the first three releases out on vinyl. Time consuming stuff.
"I couldn't keep up with the expense and time planning. Rather than give up I thought why not release tracks digitally. The idea was originally to release only the ones Andrew was playing. After five releases I thought, 'I actually want to release stuff by others'. I put calls out. The first ones I did were Will Pierceys ‘Jolt’, and Future Bones. I was blown away that they would be released by my tiny label!"
Live instruments. Slower tempos. We were all just getting older then? Duncan has for most been the man for the 'mot juste' guitar licks, in 2013 providing the six-strings on Weatherall's Moby remix and others.
"It was a combination of different things. It was better for my playing style. I’m not a skilled guitarist by any means, my guitar playing has got better, but I still feel in the slower tempos of 100-120, I can really play well and express myself at them. There is a much wider range of styles electro, slo-mo house, post punk, indie dance. And slower tempos are funkier, no doubt about it, more room for the groove. That would be the ethos, live instruments, 'cause any damn fool can get synths on a laptop now. If you got something you can do that's unique you should do it".
"It so happens I found a niche with it now".
Successful showmanship breeds inability to fulfil label requirements and the rent?
"I no longer get to release my own tracks as much as I should have. It's great, other labels will take my tracks, but originally I thought 'I'll put out my on stuff on Tici Taci every month, got no one else to pay!' Sort of what Rich Lane does with Cotton Bud, but once I got Future Bones and Will I started attracting great tracks, great stuff. People kept sending me fantastic stuff".
As the cogs keep turning in Duncan's head, and no need to scout, what's the initial response to prospective artists? Is he a diplomat like Trump or Sugar?
"Do your research really. The phrase is 'It's too techy for Tici Taci.' So if it sounds like slowed down trance I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. I didn’t like the sound when it was fast so I don’t like it when its slow. Over synthetic is not really my thing."
Sometimes the cogs grind stuck though, when daWad & Mokic despatched an Ableton bomb.
"Having said that, if someone send me something very techie but its undeniably brilliant like 'War Inside' (exhales)… when they sent me that I was like 'I fucking love it'. I had to have it, was so pleased I was able to release it. They then came back with remixes with guitars too, did all".
"People respect that the label has a sound. Somerville & Wilson had been sending me stuff for over a year, and I kept saying no, it's not for TT. The history says it's not just standard 'tech-chug'. It's something a little bit different, and they took that. I pushed them into putting guitars on their music. That's what a producer should do, they've modified their sound and come up with something new & unique".
When not donning the Spector hat (wig), does he find it all the liberating experience he hoped for?
"I'm just happy that I bothered. The main thing why I’d recommend anyone starting up their own label, is that there are now 29 records out there, over a hundred tracks. Yeah, they could’ve got picked up elsewhere, but I bothered and they’re out there and someone can buy them somewhere and that’s good for everyone. Just getting more music out there, something exists where it didn’t. That’s the most satisfying."
"Admin and doing promos, is the worst grind. I do it all myself. Sending ‘em out, chasing feedback, compiling and getting back to the artists. I could pay someone to do that, but if we want to see any return, gotta keep it in-house."
From the beginning, keeping it in-house was important, and utilising mates skills and passions filled the design brief.
"Bobby Nuffink from the outset, a pal of mine who’s a music software designer (he created the Chordspace VST plug-in) has been responsible for the overall look of the label. In recent times Nick Towers has been involved. I met him at the first Weatherall Festival in Carcassonne, said he’d like to get involved and he came back straight away with some finished designs."
Born on vinyl, grew up on digital. Would Tici Taci come back to the black stuff and satiate the posterity and posturing of vinyl collectors?
"Definitely. I have been considering, all last year I kept promising people a 'Best Of' on vinyl, but I think it’s probably been wise to wait. All last year the only vinyl release I had was the Bird Scarer stuff, which sold out everywhere in a couple of weeks, which is a great mark of faith from Andrew again, and it gives me the confidence that with the right release we could be successful. Bird Scarer was 500 copies, so happy with that for myself. Mebbe I’ll speak to the distributors about doing 2-3 a year, the best tracks. To start with I’d really love to get Rich Lane’s remix of Chugboat out on it, and maybe back it with Club Bizarre’s remix of my own track “Slidden”. They were both big ALFOS favourites."
"People get all het up with it don’t they, and there’s a geek fetishism with vinyl and it’s warmth, which is understandable. But I was an early adopter of CD’s, bought my first varispeed players about 20 years ago. It’s all about techniques, if you are playing the CDs and not using any of the features or gimmicks on the players/ software then the process is the same really. I think I mix the same way I always have, vinyl or CD. I’m not a fan of laptops, but people who give credit to CD over MP3 on USB, what’s the difference? Anyone who wants to discuss the sound qualities should read “Perfecting Sound” by Gregg Milner. All just hype and bullshit, there’s been format wars since the birth of music recording."
Tici Taci packages come replete with remixes, much like most releases these days. Is this harming the album concept, or is that unnecessary in the electronic genre? Back when we were all younger, the B-sides and extra tracks on EPs were often the notable, critical content.
"It’s important to keep things in perspective. The newer stuff is considerably ephemeral, it’s dance stuff of a time. Occasionally things stick around, but it’s a moment in time generally. Albums certainly have a place, but for me that's being away from a vast library of digital music, iTunes certainly discourages that. I've recently rediscovered the joy of doing that. Playing CDs and not flitting between tracks, I'm getting a great CD every night, or in the car, hammering Steely Dan and Weather Report".
With promo-lists, Soundcloud and the minimal compensation received through digital labels, is it really possible to keep things going in the current scheme. There are avenues to explore and ensure that music still gets out there.
"I’ve probably broken even. Only make any money from DJing, so I have to keep pushing that. Some don’t make any money, depending on the remix package and the money that goes to the mixers/ mastering. I could make more money from t-shirts. This year I’m gonna start a subsidiary of TT solely on Bandcamp. More my own Duncan Gray stuff, just for a month at a time. Maybe with my Tici Taci quarterly reports, tie in with some merchandise. Put that money back into the label. It’s a good deal for artists, decent return on Bandcamp, not the way it works with iTunes/ Juno."
"I keep promo issues to a minimum, and I’d expect to get some feedback, that’s what I would do. Or they’re off the list. You have to speculate to accumulate. Soundcloud is the main shop window, despite it’s faults, it's the best way of digital crate-digging. But we need to be careful that the sound doesn’t become formulaic, as we all work with each other, in a socialist way. I know that labels are keen to avoid that currently."
"Some things happen by accident though, without that initial response from magazines or websites that wait for things to fall in their lap. 'Weak Nuclear Force' almost ended up in the bin, but sent to Rich ('my brother from another mother' he chuckled) and he remixed it, it was brilliant and to think I was prepared to throw it away. End up on some erased partition of my hard drive."
With the hard drive encrypted, Duncan has the rest of the year panned out. TT's 29th issue is out now and the rest of the year is plugged in. Next up is testimony to the connection with Andrew and ALFOS in particular, with a peculiar debut record from the Welsh Valleys from longtime cadets Lloyd & Delyth.
"March is The Long Champs (a corruption of the French). Very original, strange as they come, definitely going to go down well with ALFOS is my feeling. Somerville & Wilson will be getting a release and Future Bones too. If that all pans out, then that is the year. Happened just like that to the end! I also have a track of my own called “Clean”, which Andrew has been playing which will be a TT release. Just have to get a certain gentleman to remix it…"