Interview by Scott Mcready.
“There are good things in Glasgow right now.” James Murphy’s response in this month’s Q to being asked, ‘What’s the best thing you’ve heard this year? Night School Records are a part of what’s going in Glasgow. Formed in 2011 an initially eclectic approach to releases has since settled on a core sound of emotionally charged electronic music. But within that sound signature there’s a wide, wide diversity. This is not another electronic label putting out repeat versions of the same record month on month.
The curation of the roster and the depth of each individual releases are the reason Night School are the label I’ve listened to most regularly over the last year. Happy Meals were the first thing I heard, picked up on from Glasgow-based friends raving about the 2016 ‘Fruit Juice’ EP – this is as good a place to start as any.
The two AMOR releases from this year are probably the most ‘on-brand’ Testpressing releases. Arthur Russell, ish ++. Amazing avant-disco from now. At the other end of things, check out the “movies for ears” of Ela Orleans’ layered electronic and acoustic sound-art/songs. 2016’s ‘Circles of Upper and Lower Hell’ justifiably nominated as a Scottish Album of The Year. And between those two outer pillars sit various hues of uplifting and/or unsettling electronic pop – Molly Nilsson, Patience and the afore-mentioned, soon to be massive Happy Meals.
This interview is a bit of a random one. Had ordered a book from Monorail, the Glasgow record shop where label head Michael Kasparis works. He mailed to say it’d be late. I responded with “….eh, here, are you that Night School guy? Would you answer some questions for us?”. Thanks to Michael for responding and answering in full. Dive in.
The James Murphy quote about good things in Glasgow right now. Is that how it feels there? For want of a less wank phrase, is Glasgow having ‘a moment’?
-I actually think it’s having a continuous moment, it’s just the media attention that wavers. There’s always exciting things happening here, it just depends when people happen across it and bring it to a wider attention. When I lived here as a kid the whole Mogwai thing was getting off the ground, Chemikal Underground, all that stuff, and it was really exciting for young ears. There was a concurrent punk scene that was really awe-inspiring too, at the time. I think one thing about Glasgow that it shares with many other places of a similar size is that people here do their own thing and often just for the sake of it, not to get some sort of national or global recognition. I’ve often found that bare ambition in Glasgow can be scoffed at, or maybe it’s just me that scoffs at it. I’m basically expanding the “we just do what we do and if / when everyone else likes it, it’s a bonus” ethos onto a whole city.
Glasgow has a long tradition of off-kilter guitar pop. There’s a thread that runs through the decades from Orange Juice, Pastels, Belle & Sebastian, Yummy Fur, Franz Ferdinand, The Royal We, Spinning Coin. With your label and the Green Door stuff its more electronic. How did Glasgow turn into Sheffield? Optimo?
Ha. This relates to what I was saying before. Glasgow’s always had a strong electronic music scene, it’s just that the guitar pop seam has always got more attention. If you go back, Optimo started in 1997 but there was a vibrant techno scene before that with Soma, Rub-A-Dub Records, that all started up in 1991. I think maybe it didn’t have a big industrial scene like Sheffield because punk didn’t happen here til the 80s, because it was banned by the council. So punks had to travel to satellite towns like Paisley, which incidentally is where Rub-a-Dub started, so go figure. Without a doubt though, Optimo has had a massive influence on the city, they introduced me to so much electronic music in my late teens / early 20s that had a profound influence on me. I saw the possibilities of it from them. I met all the people from Green Door at Optimo in the 2000s too. It’s a small scene.
In your day job you work at Monorail. Can you explain Monorail and Mono and its significance for all the non-Glaswegian folk reading?
Monorail and Mono are part of a lineage, a sort of extended family. Monorail, for a long time, was the only independent music shop in Glasgow where you could buy really interesting music, avant garde or guitar pop or techno or whatever, in the same place. It’s run buy two crazy people, one of whom is the singer in The Pastels, and it’s really at the centre of a lot of what goes in the city, music-wise. It’s been here for 15 years, a direct result of both managers/owners moving on from other independent stores. Most of the indigenous groups and artists in Glasgow got a lot of their music education by coming by and hanging out there. There’s a band from here called Happy Meals, for example: as teenagers they used to shop there with their parents and then on their own. When they started the band I loved it and released their first two records, one of which became album of the month in the shop. That sort of story and evolution multiplied by 1000 is a basically a big chunk of the Glasgow music scene. Maybe I’m self-aggrandizing here. Mono is a vegan restaurant the store is inside, started by another mad dude who is basically responsible for Glasgow being the vegan capital of the U.K. It’s a nice place to hang out.
How did Night School come about?
It came from a time when I was just really frustrated with everything. I was at the end of my tether with the music I was doing, feeling like I was just stuck. I came out of a big relationship and had a few kind of, bleak winter months, before deciding I should sell all my own records to fund a couple of 7”s. Golden Grrrls were my friend’s band from Glasgow who didn’t have anything out, and I was a massive fan of Terror Bird, a band/solo-artist from Vancouver, so I asked both of them if I could put their records out. I made a lot of mistakes early on but somehow managed to keep going and here we are.
The releases on the label through the last couple of years…though they’re quite different artists there does seem to be a thread that runs through them, a spectrum of melancholic electronic pop. Fair assessment? And if so was this a conscious decision on your part to curate a particular sound?
Not a conscious decision really, until fairly recently? When the label started I was adamant that I’d release whatever I really believed in without worrying about consistency, just go with my instincts. I think everything I do is instinctual and so in the past couple of years I realised, instinctively, that you have to have a small, small degree of consistency to serve the artists. So before, I released my friend’s band DIVORCE, who were a really important Glasgow noise-rock band, but I wouldn’t do that now. I’ve had to turn down stuff that just wouldn’t work now. Maybe it’s a bit sad, because ultimately I have to follow a kind of capitalist, consumer-driven structure tobe successful… like brand-building or something like that, which I was always adverse to. I still like to shake things up, I don’t want to curate a lifeless, airless label that releases the same record every time, so I still like to release a “WTF??” thing every now and then, because I have that luxury. Hopefully there’s a small core of people who appreciate that element and aren’t pissed off that I’m not just releasing sad synth pop all the time, as much as I love that.
Where do you find artists?
Increasingly, closer to home. There’s a great scene here. I’m also not adverse to just messaging people I admire and just seeing what they think about doing something. I’m pretty brazen. I almost released the first Grimes record, the first Death Grips record and have had a polite decline from Neil Young (back in the day when I just wanted to release anything I like).
Ela Orleans – You Go Through Me
The AMOR records are utterly amazing. We did a piece on the first one mainly because we were struck by how complete a sound it had for a first record. Everything about the two records feels absolutely right – like they’ve just nailed it straight from the off. I know Paul from Franz Ferdinand is involved but who else is? Who are they, and what’s coming next?
They’re so joyous right? Every member of the band has a rich lineage in music and art. The singer, Richard Youngs, is a legendary avant-garde (he’d probably hate the term) musician with over 100 releases in his discography. This is probably the most straight up thing he’s done and it’s all the better for it. Michael Francis Duch is well respected and critically acclaimed in the improv world as a bassist and Luke Fowler is an award winning film-maker who’s been nominated for the Turner Prize, amongst other things. I think it’s brilliant that none of that matters, it’s not really about the egos involved, which is as it should be. AMOR are currently working on a full album and they’re going to be playing select festivals next year, which is pretty exciting!
AMOR – Higher Moment
Happy Meals was the first thing I heard on Night School, through friends in Glasgow posting about ‘Fruit Juice’. They seem to be really gathering momentum quite rapidly. They’ve premiered ‘Tomorrow Could Be Heaven’ but not seen a release date. What’s happening with them?
Yeah, I’m really excited for them! I don’t want to talk too much on their behalf, but they’ve been enjoying touring a lot, reaching bigger audiences, getting to new places. They have a bunch of stuff recorded, I suppose we’ll see what happens with it! Spoiler: It’s incredible.
Happy Meals – Live at Green Door
You’ve worked with Molly Nilsson for several years. She’s another artist, like Happy Meals, that though really unique has a lot of commercial potential. I used to run a distributor. One of the big problems our labels had was that as soon as they had something with high sales potential, labels with bigger budgets came in and stole the artists. I’m guessing you and your artists have had that too. How do you manage that?
It happens all the time. I suppose there’s just a limit to what a label like Night School can do for an artist. I’d love to get to the point where I can do this full time and compete with bigger labels for an artist, but ultimately if an artist has the opportunity to get a big advance and quit their day jobs and follow their dreams then who am I to stop them? That would be churlish and selfish. The music industry is like any other industry, it’s inherently immoral at its core and big labels will steamroll over the small players if they can, they have wages to pay, shareholders to satisfy, profits to plump. The way I manage it is to try and not get too bitter, it’s just business at the end of the day, for those big labels. To me it’s a lot more than that, it’s my life, it’s what wakes me up in the morning. Unfortunately, I’m in the habit of finding great artists that eventually bigger labels will want to capitalise on, so I have to be realistic. I should start invoicing for A&R services rendered haha.
Molly Nilsson – About Somebody
The Patience singles are some of the best things you’ve released. Great pop music, and I’m a sucker for that New-Order-when-they-were-good guitar sound. Who are they, and what’s next?
Patience is one lady, Roxanne Clifford. Roxanne is a cult figure because of her previous group Veronica Falls but they’re on a break of sorts so she started making music on her own to keep going. Those songs are to die for. Incidentally, they were engineered by Lewis from Happy Meals, who is a production genius if ever there was one. They’re a dream production duo together, though Patience is really just Roxanne. Roxanne’s writing new stuff at the moment, watch this space! I’m hoping she’ll finally come over to tour (she lives in L.A.) – I saw her first shows in Japan in July and it was incredible.
Patience – White Of An Eye
Pretty much all your releases come out on vinyl. Despite the much vaunted vinyls revival, sales of new acts on record are a lot less than they were in the early 00’s when underground twelves could still sell in the 20, 30k mark. It’s pretty hard to breakeven on sales of less than 1,000, never mind make money. So it must be a conscious commitment to stick with records. Your choice, the artists, both? Why?
Mine + the artists. All the artists involved come from a similar place to me really, we listen to records and increasingly digital music, so those are the formats I use mostly. It would feel disingenuous to release on a format I don’t use myself, if you get what I mean? I’m often in the business of trying to break even on 500 sales, so selling 1000 is pretty luxurious for Night School haha. I like the ritual of a record, the sense of purpose, the time you have to set aside, plus I think they’re just beautiful objects and I get a buzz from realising these things.
The Strawberry Switchblade demos seven, particularly the version of Trees and Flowers. Also amazing. And I really wasn’t expecting that Velvets 3rd-Pastels -Galaxie 500 spectral guitar sound. Is there any more where that came from?
I believe there is, but not on Night School (watch another space?). Switchblade were the perfect post-punk pop group, in that they were enabled and inspired by that movement without actually sounding like Buzzcocks or whatever. I think a lot of those early songs are actually quite Garage-y, like those moody, stomping 60s songs you get on Pebbles compilations. I suppose there was an element of limited musicality to those recordings but I live for that. It’s primitive and just pure, you know? I hate that as a descriptor but I think it’s apt. Those were the early, only, recordings of the band in that state but they did BBC Sessions and all sorts after this period, they were essentially an indie-pop group until they released their debut on Warners as the shiny, pop group we all know and love. I have a close relationship with Rose and we’re working on stuff for the future.
Strawberry Switchblade – 1982 4-Piece Demo.
What’s the plan for 2018? More broadly, is there a plan to what you do or is it release by release?
As I mentioned, I seem to be kind of unplanned, instinctual most of the time but I’m trying to get more organised at least. Night School is at this point now where I can push it further if I had the time and resources and I want to get both of those. I do long-term planning, of course, but I have to be open for something that falls in my lap and demands released, you know?
Last question – what does LSSN mean in the catalogue numbers?
Ha it’s a bit embarrassing now but when I started the label I worked (still work) in a record shop and often saw labels be kinda crumby to artists – I came and still come from an artist/musician’s point of view – so I thought I should entitle the cat numbers as LESSONS. Also I suppose it ties in with the label name. Ironically I could have done with a few more lessons on how to run a label but I suppose I’ve learned a lot since then…