If indie music were a university, Stephen Pastel would be the tenured department chair whose class everyone wants to take. His band The Pastels is one of indie music's long lasting and most loved bands, and his 1980s label 53rd & 3rd is a shining example of how just how much impact even the smallest of labels can have on the course of music. Now running Geographic Music, a division of Domino, Stephen is again in the position to introduce the world to the music it didn't know it loved. Here, he talks about the label and what he's learned from his experiences with The Pastels.
Question: How did you start out in the 'industry'? When did you start playing and how did The Pastels come about?
Answer: In the first place I never imagined that what I was entering was an 'industry'. At school the kind of music which I had come to love seemed somehow 'ad-hoc' and 'outside' and maybe even against the idea of a music industry. This was the first wave of music and fanzines which had followed on from punk and I felt it was open and I wanted to participate in it. I had the idea of a group and then, very quickly, we were a group and we were called The Pastels. It was 1981/82 and almost immediately (maybe too soon!) we were making records too. I was also involved in making fanzines with some friends, including Annabel (Aggi) who then joined The Pastels.
The Pastels worked with several small indie labels before signing with Domino. How did you find it working with different small labels? What problems did you encounter? How did the deal with Domino come about? Were you ever looking to sign to a major label?
Small labels offer something extremely personal - that's good and bad. In most instances it's one person, the label owner's vision, and if it's a strong and good vision it can very much enhance the identity of the group joining the label, particularly a new group.
The Pastels very much benefited from having records out on Whaam! and Rough Trade as those labels had very strong identities which helped consolidate our audience's sense of where we belonged and what we were about. Rough Trade was my favourite label and Whaam! was the Television Personalities label; their listed address was the Kings Road, I couldn't think of anything more glamorous.
I suppose the kind of problems we encountered with labels like these, and with other labels like Creation and Glass, were a general lack of money, the volatility of the people running those labels and our own lack of discipline. When we eventually came to Domino we were older and more disciplined, and Laurence Bell, who was running Domino, was a lot more tuned into what our group was. Domino was just starting up and didn't really have much money to spend on groups and we needed a label, I think we both knew we needed each other. I never felt we could get what we needed from a major label.
The band has now been going for over 20 years, what's been the hardest part of keeping the band together for that long?
We've never really been an on the road band. We've been really active and then not so active. And the group's changed personnel a few times. We've tried to stay quite fluid, in a way just making it up as we've gone along.
How did the Illuminati album come about (remix album of Pastels songs)?What difficulties did you face putting it together? (I'm thinking about from a business angle - how did you approach the other artists, did you need to get permission from other labels, did you pay the artists a fee or a royalty or did they do it for the exposure etc - a few hints for bands looking to get remixes of their work done!)
Domino were enthusiastic for us to get a few different mixes done, maybe to open our eyes to different ways that our sound could be, and to be surprising to our audience, I suppose. We paid everyone a flat fee and chose only musicians whose work we respected, who we felt had respect for us and our music. We already had an 'in' with all these groups but I think Domino worked really hard to keep the project on track. I suppose groups participated for different reasons but I'd say there was a basic togetherness.
In terms of hints for a band looking to get a remix done, all I can say is it's good to reach out and other musicians appreciate it. But be polite and clear in instruction and always give someone the space to say no without it becoming embarrassing for them or for you.
How did Geographic come about? Was it something you wanted to do or something that Domino suggested? What’s the relationship between Domino and Geographic?
The idea of us having our own label was instigated by Domino and at first we weren't too sure, but then Katrina and I thought if we ever did have a label we'd call it Geographic. Eventually we came to see what the label could be, and knowing that music like Maher Shalal Hash Baz was out there gave us a sense of purpose. In a way we're always aware of what a great label Domino is, and we're always trying to provide a slightly different style to everything else going on. We very much see Geographic as complementing Domino.