Andrew Talks About STA At 10

Andrew talks to the Irish News about the formation of Smalltown America, how he missed out on signing Arctic Monkey's and his aspiration to create a STA prog-rock supergroup...

Hello sir, congratulations ten years of STA! What do you consider the actual birthdate of the label and what was your initial plan for sta back then? If Jetplane had landed (ho-ho) a deal with a major label, would that have been the end for STA?

Thank you for the congratulations - we are so delighted to still be here and putting out records at a time when no one is apparently buying them! The first Jetplane Landing album 'Zero For Conduct' came out on September 9th 2001, so we've set our 10th Anniversary celebrations in line with that - finishing with a bang on September 2012. If our band had signed to a major ten years ago I don't think that we could have done what we've done, it wouldn't have worked. There are lots of 'indies' funded by majors out there. They suck.


Who helped you the most in terms of providing advice and support in the early days of the label?


Nathan McGough (one time manager of Happy Mondays) helped us get our first distribution deal with Vital; he had a small label called YogaBoy who we did some singles with and he really steered the ship on the right path from the get go; he introduced me to lots of great people and was really open with his connections. Paddy Davis (Publicist to AshKaiser Chiefs and Arctic Monkeys) is a total gentleman and taught me some core values and what success in the music business is really about - being happy to go to work. Allison Schnackenberg at Southern (Distributor of DischordIpecac and Touch & Go Records among many others) is my hero; she was very kind with her time and gave me lots of inspiration as was Kim Harrison-Lavoie at Monotreme (65daysofstatic's label). The main people I have to thank though are Jamie and Raife (Burchell) and the whole Burchell family, my cohorts in Jetplane. Their sister Kelly designed all our record sleeves, their father helped us out on the road financially and their mum Kathy fed me every weekend for about five years. I really couldn't have done any of this without them.


Having previously been signed to Geffen with Cuckoo, did that experience of the major label world inform the way you did things at STA as the label began to grow?


I really like working with majors, they have some good people - but the architecture of Geffen didn't suit Cuckoo; that act needed more time to develop a sound and work with the correct producers. We had an opportunity to make a more lo-fi record which we should have taken; it would have been a lot cooler. Fundamentally, I learned that there is a very fine balance between getting material right commercially and placating an artist's desire to progress and share their music with people. I would say to all bands that if you feel that you can do everything yourself, then just go ahead - it's much faster. AudacityCubase and Bandcamp are all tools that you can just jump on, right now. You don't really need a label until things become to busy and it's lots of fun learning on your own how things work.


What's the new STA documentary like and how did it come to be made?


It's interesting and bleak at times but ultimately very optimistic about the future. It has interviews with all our bands between 2007-2010 and they tell the story of the label. It has lots of acts playing to empty rooms and a few moments where you think 'why are they doing this?' Aaron Connolly (Director) is an old school friend and he now lives and works in London - he felt our story was one that needed to be told on film. The movie will be released online and on DVD in conjunction with a commemorative book called 'Art Over Everything'.


You've been doing a bit more production and mastering for bands recently, notably a couple of blistering EPs for Event Horses and More Than Conquerors. How would you describe the Andrew Ferris approach to the studio?


I think I'm quite annoying to be honest. I'm very into soul and hip-hop - groove is everything for me. I like working on drum takes for a few days and record everything else very quickly. Guitars and vocals should be spontaneous, drums and bass should be locked and funky. In rock music, bands who get the kick drum pattern right tend to do very well: Foo FightersRage Against The MachineAt The Drive-In. It's all about the kick drum. I did a single with Axis Of and we recorded drums for two days, poor Ewen (Friers - vocalist and bassist in Axis Of) only had ten minutes left to do his vocals. He did it though. 


I loved working with General FiascoDesert HeartsEvent HorsesAxis Of and ASWIFYA over the last 18 months. We did good work - well I enjoyed it anyway - they might tell you differently! I'm very proud of the More Than Conquerors 'Boots & Bones' EP - that was a real collaborative effort between everyone in our team. The band recorded the backing tracks themselves and we recorded overdubs in our studio. There is a lot of love and effort that went into that record, I really think you can hear it on the finished masters. Big thanks to Tre Sheppard who mixed the EP, he's amazing. We enjoy a great relationship with Northern Irish producers, there are so many good guys and lots of great studios: Blast FurnaceStart TogetherManor ParkAmeberville. It's great for the scene.


The recent Public Service Broadcast 10 was excellent (just listening to it again on SoundCloud) What was original idea behind this compilation series and are there any plans for a box-set edition of the first ten for those who missing a couple from their collection? Is it hard to choose tracks for each new PSB? 


During the early days of Jetplane touring we saw loads of good bands on the bill and we just wanted to tell people about them. It was a very easy project to run as everyone did everything for free and the money from each compilation rolled into the next. We then aggregated the profits and made a beautiful, final tenth edition. It's harder to leave songs off compilations; there are so many good ones - what we try to do is cover off each of our tastes at the office in the hope that the records feel eclectic and worthwhile. We won't be releasing a box set of the ten editions as that would negate the limited edition-ness of the originals but we have our entire discography available via SoundCloud from which you can create your own playlists. The series is being replaced by a new concept and we are researching some new digital delivery methods that are exciting for customers and artists.


A couple of my favourite STA releases were the first Calories album and 4 or 5 Magicians' debut. The latter have now split (though I hear the main man has plans for new stuff) while Calories went with another label for their second album. With ASIWYFA having also moved on from STA, how frustrating is it when bands choose not to continue working with you after you've put so much work into promoting them, or they simply disintegrate altogether?


I love 'Adventuring' and 'Empty Derivative Pop Songs' too - they are great, great records. Part of our job as a label is to document a band at that moment in time, people change and aspirations develop and stand in the way of nothing at STA. I would never hold a band back or stop them making music in the way they want to make it, because I'm a music fan first and a business owner second. Arguably, one could say that ASIWYFA's second record was much freer creatively because they made it label-less and found a home for it afterwards. 'Basic Nature' by Calories is a stormer of a record that I wished we could have put out - but the band needed a label that was closer to home. We're a bit like a bus, people get on and people get off - but we keep rolling. Our priority is maintaining good relationships with all our artists outside of our work together and we're lucky that some of the luminaries like ASIWYFA and Frank Turner say such positive things about their experiences on the label.


Is there a particular artist or band who you really wanted to work with but it never worked out?


Ash (Head of A&R at Smalltown) sent me the original Arctic Monkeys demos - I famously said "sorry mate - can't hear it." Haven't quite lived that down yet.


What is the A&R policy at the label. Would you/ could you work with a band who made awesome music yet who made your skin crawl as people?


I love labels like Fat CatPolyvinyl and Sub Pop who simply put out stuff that they believe in, genre is somewhat irrelevant. It makes for some very interesting commercial decisions if your policy is simply 'I love this'. One of my favourite artists on Smalltown is a guy called Alan MX. We sold very few copies of his debut album 'Warpsichord' but I think it's one of the best records that has come out of the UK in the last ten years, he's like a gay-electro-android-Morrissey. Awesome music is really important, but being a lovely person is much more so. Rarely is any money made in this game, so you've got to all be able to go out for pints and have a bit of crack.


Obligatory "looking to the future" style question: What's next for STA and will you still be running the show ten years down the line?


I don't really run the show anymore, we have a fab team now in place across digital, marketing, design, shipping and A&R so there is very little for me to do on a day to day basis (apart from stealing all the glory on interviews :)). I'm now happily able to spend all my time developing the acts on the roster. We are about to sign a couple of rock bands that I'm really excited about and I've been working with two songwriters for the last year on a project that I think is going to be a real game-changer. Alan MX is preparing a six album song-cycle which we are developing an iPad application for; Fighting With Wire are going to release a long-awaited second album and who knows what genius LaFaro will bring to the table in 2012. I could broadly define our first decade as having been a period of doing things for ourselves; I'd like our second decade to be a period of doing things with and for our community. That maps out into touring, app development, retail experiences and interactive connections with our bands. We live in a wonderful period for the music industry, the Internet gives us reach that we could only dream about in the 90s.


If you were to assemble a supergroup from members of bands on the STA roster (past and present). What would they be called and what would they sound like?


Okay - let's get prog. They would be called 'The Infinitude Of Primes' as if you're going to do this it has to be as pretentious as possible; their debut album would be called 'The Egalitarian Has Landed'. Their album would contain a single song and we'd release it on C90 tape. They would sound like ParliamentThe Fall and Porcupine Tree. It's a far-out, psych-rock vibe so I've gotta have Rory Friers (ASIWYFA) on lead guitar, I think Alan Lynn (LaFaro) would be my sticksman, Jamie Burchell from Jetplane on bass, Cahir (FWW) on rhythm guitar, Chris McConaghey from Our Krypton Son and Johnny Black on lead vocals/rants. They would be clothed head to toe in natural luminescent fibres, spun from jellyfish tentacles and all the lyrics would be written in Sumerian. It's a sure fire cross-over hit and will definitely dislodge Adele from the top-spot; she's been there too long!


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