HEAVENLY RECORDINGS founder JEFF BARRETT speaks to Richard Lewis about his humble beginnings doing favours for Creation Records, Heavenly’s heady 90s heyday, the turn of the music industry mid-noughties, and the label’s recent resurgence, all ahead of a celebration of the London-based label’s 25th anniversary at The Kazimier.
“There’s two things that mean a lot to me; that’s conviction and tunes, and I think all my groups have got that.” – Jeff Barrett, 1991
“Do you know what? That still rings true,” Jeff Barrett states on his mobile, striding between appointments in Portobello, West London, when reminded of the quote from BBC2 yoof TV show Rapido.
Barrett has been at the helm of Heavenly Recordings since its inception, and the label has blazed a trail for independent artists since 1990, bringing retro futurist pop group Saint Etienne, folktronica pioneer Beth Orton, Mancunian indie rock doyens Doves, and the Manic Street Preachers’ incendiary early singles into the public domain. The label also spawned the legendary Heavenly Sunday Social (in-house DJs: The Chemical Brothers), which ran for the last quarter of 1994, and survives to the present day at the label’s own Fitzrovia venue, The Social. The new-look Heavenly Social has helped the label achieve something of a renaissance in recent years, the regular Friday night event hosting a run of curated gigs and club nights, making it an essential stop for ascendant bands.
That Heavenly’s distinctive monochrome bird logo has, in recent years, adorned discs by Toy, Temples, H. Hawkline, Eaves and Fionn Regan points to the label moving with the zeitgeist, if not actively setting it. Our own STEALING SHEEP and HOOTON TENNIS CLUB are fellow Heavenly bodies, and both feature in July’s HEAVENLY 25 all-day event with Harvest Sun at The Kazimier, celebrating twenty-five years of magic on the label. THE WYTCHES, KING GIZZARD AND THE LIZARD WIZARD, THE VOYEURS, KID WAVES, DUKE GARWOOD and GWENNO complete the ridiculously star-studded line-up for this party, with BERNIE CONNOR adding the cherry on the top as he DJs alongside the resident Heavenly Jukebox turntablists. 2015 has already seen a number of specially-curated label events to mark their first quarter-century, with this Liverpool event featuring the biggest love-in of label acts since January’s Heavenly Weekend in Hebden Bridge.
Going back to the primordial soup era of Heavenly, Jeff Barrett began working as an assistant at Creation Records in 1985 after making the acquaintance of label supremo Alan McGee. “When I first went to Creation it was a one-desk office; it was a tiny, corner room,” Jeff recalls. “I worked for them, then rented office space off them in return for doing press for My Bloody Valentine and House Of Love. I started picking up quite a lot of clients, like Factory Records and The KLF.”
Ensconced above world-famous jazz club Ronnie Scott’s, Soho’s bohemian environs were perfect for the fledgling label (“It was the only office I could turn up to at nine o’clock in the morning and there were people dancing on my desk from the night before”). Saint Etienne, a band strongly associated with the label from its inception, became its flagship band in the early to mid-90s. “They were the first LP we released,” Jeff explains. “Only Love Can Break Your Heart was a really big club tune down here [in London] in 1990. I think they helped to define us: from that moment I knew that I had a record label, basically. That was a really big decision when I thought ‘Hang on a minute, you’re fucking doing it!’”
Heavenly’s fortunes took a notable upswing in the late-1990s, with Beth Orton scoring huge critical praise and impressive sales. “For the first time, I had a record out in America,” Jeff recalls of the period around Central Reservation. “Working with Beth was a period of real learning for me. It was like putting your passion into practice. With proper support we had a bit more money, we had a bit of wage, we had more security on the office. That deal [with dance label Deconstruction] did that for us, allowed us to keep going. I think that got us more standing in the industry, so when it came to signing Doves after the untimely death of [Joy Division/New Order manager] Rob Gretton, whose label they were on, we were confident enough to step in and it coincided with us getting a deal with EMI.”
Doves’ arrival saw Heavenly begin a run of unprecedented success, with the Mancunian trio racking up acclaim and platinum discs to boot. However, after The Magic Numbers’ mega-selling 2005 debut LP, the label was beginning to look increasingly frail by the end of the decade. With illegal downloading cutting a swathe through profits, the entire music business began to change almost beyond recognition.
“There came a time when the music industry took such a fucking; the decline in record sales coincided with a very healthy relationship my label had had with EMI being terminated due to it being sold,” Jeff recalls of the years 2009-10. “I can now look back in hindsight; we’ve survived it and weathered the storm. One thing I’d say about the [era of the] majors is that we almost found ourselves in a bit too much of a comfort zone. Having to learn again these last few years, I realise that we were probably very, very lucky.”
All that said then, has Heavenly got through resurgence in recent years? “God, yeah,” Jeff states emphatically. “We’ve never gone away. There was a point there five years ago when it nearly went, to be honest with you. It was very hard for me. I was forty-eight and I had kids; I’d got a West London mortgage. When this EMI thing ended and I had to make friends redundant – one guy had been with me for fourteen years – it scared the shit out of me. In the past if anything had happened like that it was like ‘Fuck that! Let’s go down the pub!’ There was a time when it was really bad and I was a bit confused. I couldn’t work out, with the limited funds available, how we could survive. How could I pay these advances and these recording costs?”
The inspiration for Heavenly’s second wind came, aptly enough, from this very city. “One of the things that helped me out of that dilemma was Stealing Sheep,” Jeff explains. “I just absolutely fell for their DIY work ethic and they really inspired me, seeing how they operated with such enthusiasm. I went back and thought, ‘Hold on, this is what it was like before all those years with the majors!’ OK it’s gonna be tougher to sell records and there’s not as many sales to be had, but we’re all in the same boat,” Jeff says. “They were a really big part of any resurgence in our visibility, and my enthusiasm as well, to be honest. Coming up to Liverpool to spend some time with them when they were making Not Real, sat in a practice room above MelloMello, demos being played to you whilst a couple of girls from The Kazimier are in the corner making masks and costumes: it’s pretty hard to beat!”
“We’ve got sixteen groups now,” Jeff says of the current roster. “They’re all as different as everybody on our label has ever been. What we’ve done this year with celebrating and it calling it Heavenly 25, it’s basically the roster at twenty-five.” Much of this current roster will be showcased at The Kazimier all-dayer, which, admittedly, took some pulling together alongside the work of promoters Harvest Sun. “Trying to co-ordinate diaries and bands is a pain in the arse, so you just have to seize your moment,” Jeff says of the eight-strong bill, but he still retains a boyish excitement at events like this. “Doing something with them in Liverpool this year couldn’t have been more right.”
In a brilliant piece of serendipity, the label’s most recent signings return to the venue that holds particular significance for them. “I first saw Hooton Tennis Club in the Kazimier Garden,” Jeff says of the slacker pop crew. “Not only did we end up signing them, we’ve ended up going back to do the party in The Kaz.” “We were playing at the Garden under all the fairy lights, just as the sky was going purple-y, and Jeff appeared in this cool-as-fuck long cream mac. Carl Hunter introduced us,” HTC guitarist James Madden (who also did the title illustration for this piece) recalls of their initial meeting with Jeff in 2014. Alumni of The Label Recordings – the project launched by Edge Hill University lecturer and bassist with The Farm – Jeff states that Carl “deserves a blue plaque… his enthusiasm for music is irrepressible.”
With a special and secretive Stealing Sheep set slated for a late-night slot in the Garden, pitch-dark surf pop trio The Wytches are imminently well suited to headline the club (“Yeah, we get a bit lost outside when it’s sunny,” bassist Daniel Rumsey laughs). Signed in February 2014, the group quickly released acclaimed debut LP Annabel Dream Reader that August, which was co-produced by Bill Ryder-Jones. Currently bunkered down writing the follow-up, the band first appeared on Heavenly’s radar via their support slot for Metz at the NME Awards Show in London. Previously signed to indie label Hate Hate Hate, Dan cites the liberty of working with Heavenly as an essential asset. “We’d done everything before that ourselves; we’d made our own decisions on things, booked tours, done our own or found friends to do artwork,” he explains. “The freedom Heavenly said they could give us, when we looked at record labels, we knew if we could keep control of everything then we’d be happy.”
Similarly, Hooton Tennis Club credit the label with allowing artists to handle their own affairs. “Signing to an independent like Heavenly has allowed us to just carry on doing what we love to do. I think labels help preserve the fact that behind a download or stream there are actual humans doing, making, and thinking about their music. Heavenly are part of a minority that value artists, their music and the physicality of music.”
The final word, fittingly, is left to Jeff Barrett. “No, I don’t ever think like that,” he replies when asked if he expected the label to last this long. “I just do what happens when I get out of bed, and try and enjoy my day. I never learned how to put records out; I had to pick it all up myself as I went along. There was no formal training at all, and there shouldn’t be either. Fucking hell, it’s music,” Jeff laughs. “It’s all supposed to be spontaneous, right?”