Monday, 5 August 2013

Mat Fowler and Spillage Fete Records

From his part as co-producer of pivotal UK skate video Playing Fields to his current role as a graphic designer with Playarea (sharing an office with legendary UK skate photographer Wig Worland, no less), and running a boutique independent record label with his friend Matt Hunt, it's fair to say Mat Fowler likes to keep himself busy. Since curating the first Blank Tape Spillage Fete event in 2006, the exhibitions have evolved into Spillage Fete Records, one of the most interesting labels - or communities - straddling the boundaries of art and music today, with artists/exhibitors/musicians all being encouraged to provide music, artwork and performance on their own terms. The DIY label releases beautifully experimental other-worldly music on vinyl, cassette and sometimes even CD, packaged in (and amongst) some very fine artwork; recently The Wire magazine described the label as "a delightful outpouring of outsider audiovisual art" while The Guardian declared it "A lo-fi celebration". Mat gave us his time to tell the story.

Mat Fowler's Playing Fields section, 1997

What did you do after Playing Fields? It must have been such an all-consuming task, what did you do afterwards? Were there other projects you could move on to, or did you take it easy?
Playing Fields was the last independent skate film I was involved in. Three years before that, myself, Mark Channer and Mike Manzoori made a film called Jello. All three of us had just left school and were studying at Amersham College on the outskirts of London, I was doing art while Mark and Mike were studying film and media. We hand duped around fifteen VHS copies and distributed them very carefully! I think Ben Powell might have the last copy left standing, my own nurtured mold in my cellar under the house! Jello documented some great footage, especially of a very young Tom Penny and Toby ShaulI. I continued skating up until my late twenties, at which point I became self-employed and starting creating design work under the name Playarea. Being self-employed allowed me to start focusing on my design work as well as playing music which had become a real passion since easing off skateboarding.

Did you feel you'd reached a bit of a peak in skateboard film-making with Playing Fields? I don't know where you could have gone from there anyway, it was quite 'defining'.
Looking back it definitely felt like a journey, a one-off project, at least for myself and I think for Ben, Mark and Frank also. My mum had passed away that same year and being involved in Playing Fields, spending time and forming bonds with Mark and Frank really helped me through a challenging time in my life. When it came to editing, I was interested in the final film, but the year spent making it was an incredible time where I had the privilege to meet some great people and get to know our small Island that much better. I met up with Frank recently to pass on the original master tape of Playing Fields - which had been in my dad's garage for over fifteen years - and it was so good to see him, he's still killing it on a skateboard!
'Snowsteps', by Bons

How far down the line did the idea for a label come along? Was it always your plan to take such time and care with the music you released - and its presentation - or was that a by-product of the artists you ended up working with? Tell us about it.
The 'Spillage Fete' record label was a result of a pipe dream both myself and musical collaborator Matt Hunt dreamt up called 'The Blank Tape Spillage Fete'. I had becomes friends with Matt while we were both studying at Norwich Art School and when we eventually moved back to London we shared mix tapes and started recording music together under the moniker of Bons. Both myself and other Matt loved the warm, and sometimes unpredictable, sound quality of tape and the four-track was our own weapon of choice when it came to recording. So we came up with an idea for an sound/art exhibition based around our passion for the cassette.
We invited musicians making art - and artists making music - to compile and create their own musical/sound material and record it onto a cassette tape, then asked them to produce the artwork to accompany their cassettes. The brief was left intentionally open, leaving the participants to explore all musical possibilities as well as creating artwork that could transcend the plastic cassette case. The varied and eclectic contributions formed the content of the first Blank Tape Spillage Fete exhibition at the Cecil Sharpe House in 2006, where visitors could listen to the cassettes at individual listening posts whilst also being able to peruse the artwork. A week long exhibition culminated in an evening of performances from selected participants. The project was a happy success for everyone involved and we ran a second exhibition with new contributors in 2009. These contributors included Luke Abbot, David Thomas Broughton, Sue Tompkins, Luke Fowler, Kirsten Ketsjer, Mike Lindsay of Tunng, Mac McCaughan from Superchunk, Merge and Half Cousin. After the two exhibitions it seemed a natural progression to release music by ourselves and people closely involved with the Blank Tape Spillage Fete projects. The name 'Spillage Fete' pays homage to the eclectic sounds of the fete, the spills of the tape, but also to emphasise a village community spirit of people making and doing.

Contributions from Luke Abbot & Marcus Oakley for the Blank Tape Spillage Fete exhibitions.

What about the other events you do?
Since the exhibitions we held in 2006 and 2009 we've also curated a number of evenings showcasing a line-up of artists who have released on the label or taken part in the exhibitions. Due to the often organic nature of these 'happenings', we label these gig nights as Spillage Fete 'Occasionals'. We've also released our first publication under the same name - 'Occasional' - which features artwork from label artists and a sampler CD.

It's a beautiful artifact, yet very few people will see it. Would you consider doing bigger runs, or do you like that it's so limited?
I think for us the small runs are almost a necessity, cost being one reason and the other is actually getting the things we make into the wider world! We don't run the label through any distribution agents, we do it all ourselves, so our market is pretty niche, at least for now. Doing limited runs also allows us to hand customise releases which we could never do if the quantities were really high. The artifact is really important to us, there is so much 'stuff' in the world, that we hope our time, effort and goodwill puts something positive out there.

Harry Deerness live recording

Do you think skate videos today have such longevity, what with file sharing and so on? Would Playing Fields have ended up such an important part of UK skateboarding if it was released on iTunes? You obviously value the physical artifact, rather than things existing just on a hard drive.
I never thought about that, interesting. Since Frank Stephens is re-releasing Playing Fields on behalf of all of us this year, I think he would have more to say on this topic, now having to reconsider the best options to get it out there in a digital age. Although a fan of physical artifacts, I think it would still have the same impact, mostly due to the collective and community driven feel of the film. It encompassed and documented the whole UK skate scene at that particular time and did so
with the pure blind faith, positivity and good will of everyone involved, void of money or sponsors. But yes, I am interested in the artifact and document, especially within music. It feels like archeology to me when rifling through record racks, and I think the artwork chosen to represent someone's music is equally significant and intriguing.

A Blank Tape Spillage Fete listening post

Could the aesthetic of modern skateboard videos ever match stuff like the old Powell videos? Or the first three Alien Workshop videos? Can that be replicated these days?
That's a hard one to say, I'm not up to date with modern skate videos but I should imagine that people could create films to rival those old classics. I think it's hard though, as skateboarding in those old Powell days was at such an early stage that those videos were introducing huge leaps in what was physically possible on a skateboard, as opposed to variations on existing tricks. Although I do think the accessibility of modern technology, like phones and internet combined with cine, Hi-8 and video could create some really interesting results. I'm interested in using 'generic' mediums in unique ways, there's a lot of potential and things seems to be really opening up.

Do you see parallels between self-producing a skateboard video and starting a DIY record label? To an extent both are based on hard work, little reward and trusting others to perform...
The motivations are definitely similar, with Playing Fields and Spillage Fete, and
the emphasis was and always will be the process of creating and releasing something you feel is both positive and authentic. When we made Playing Fields we were unsponsored, signing on and using affordable low budget Hi8 cameras, we saw it as an opportunity to create a complete scene video without any bias from the skateboard industry. The limitations of both money and equipment were often more a catalyst for creativity and ingenuity than a hindrance. The label runs off not such a different philosophy, the rewards being the creative process, the journey involved and the relationships that follow. Both myself and Matt work full time and the label runs parallel to this, it's self funded and all sales go directly towards future releases. Most of the artists and musicians involved in Spillage Fete are friends or extended family met through the Blank Tape Spillage Fete exhibitions we curated. Kevin Cormack - aka Half Cousin - is a musician we originally approached to take part in the BTSF projects, since then we have put out two wonderful releases by him, one being a mini album under his Half Cousin moniker and a second titled Harry Deerness, a psychedelic celebration of decay.

Why do you think so many skateboarders eventually move into creative industries?

Skateboarding really teaches you to pay attention to your surroundings, 
to really look and observe, then from this to make creative marks. I feel this is more relevant to street skateboarding than park or ramp skating; street skating was so much about exploration and curiosity, questioning the landscape and architecture, making it submit or release some untold secret that would otherwise be held in its everyday functionality. I remember first seeing a sequence in RAD magazine of Ged Wells doing a wallride just off the flat, and I found it hard to believe. It made me rethink the realms of possibility, and not just on a skateboard.

Half cousin

You've mentioned enjoying the feel and sound of cassettes, but why do you think DIY and cassette-culture is enjoying such a comeback just now? Ultimately, it's a very impractical medium.
That's an interesting one, the cassette tape was the first format of music I bought when I was young and the only medium
I've used in recording my own music, so although I know they are considered a retro format, to me they feel very normal.
From my point of view the cassette and four-track is a cheap and tangible home recording method. I like the limitation of having only four tracks and no computer after effects, as it's really forced me to dig deeper and uncover new sounds, textures and processes. And of course I love the natural warmth of sound that tape attracts. I think perhaps it's had a comeback as there are a whole generation of new music makers who are new to analog recording and are curious to explore, which is exciting as they will have a totally different approach to using the medium having grown up in a digital age.

Do you see this as something that's growing, developing out of just being a niche? A lot of people are deleting their facebook accounts, going back to old phones, that kind of thing. Do you think technology has gone as far as it needs to for now, and would you encourage people to embrace techniques used for decades rather than trying to keep up?

Wow, that's a good question, and it's something I think about a lot. I'm fortunate to have grown up in a time without the internet and computers. I feel this places me in a position to observe and use the technology as a tool, but not become 'plugged in'. I don't have internet or email on my mobile, for me it's a distraction from engaging with the life around me and it just suits me better. I think technology will always be pushing forward and it can be wonderful and useful for creating, but I value imagination and curiosity far more. Whether it's four-tracks or computers, either way I'm interested in scratching beneath the surface. When I make music, it feels like lifting pebbles in rock pools, that same excitement, trepidation and discovery.

'The Occasional', the Spillage Fete publication

Describe the music you put out on the label.
That's a tough one! Generally we're attracted to - and release - music that somehow fills the grey-areas between genres and styles. I've always loved the records that become definable by being almost unclassifiable, the ones you've never heard of, but are drawn to in the record racks by their curious covers. Both myself and Matt invited musicians to take part in the BTSF whose music we'd discovered through years of second hand record shopping. Some of these records being the unknown gems of our collections, prime examples being Half Cousin's Function Room and Position Normal's Goodly Time albums. We like the label to have that same diverse feel, to echo the eclectic and experimental nature of the exhibitions.

You discovered Half Cousin through second hand record shopping? That's really cool. Was it easy to get him involved in the BTSF stuff, and get two full length releases out of him?
My friend Matt first introduced me to Half Cousin, he would make me the most incredibly obscure mix tapes, and one featured a few tracks off the Function Room album. Following this, we both went to watch a Hood gig and Half Cousin played support and blew us away! After one of his gigs we passed him an invite to contribute music to the first BTSF exhibition and he kindly obliged with a track titled after fellow Orcadian George Mackay Brown. Since then we have become great friends, sharing a similar aesthetic and collaborating on musical projects. Myself and Kevin - Half Cousin - are collaborating on a project called Jam Money, which is recordings I've made to four-track then re-recorded onto Kevin's four-track for him to work with.

How did Spillage Fete move from being an idea to a fully formed label/project/community? How did the first few months of it shape out?

In the words of my fellow cohort, Spillage Fete is a slow burner!
We started it with a viewpoint to creating something that both ourselves and - hopefully -
other people would enjoy being involved in. We see it more as a community or vehicle for friends to create and release interesting music and art. So releases on the label generally only happen as and when they are fully realised and ready for the world, no deadlines or schedules. One release that has been threatening to grace the record store shelves is Medallions by Bons; a collaborative album by myself, Matt and a sound artist called Benji Fox.
Our original recordings made using four-track, keyboards, guitar, pedals, voice and percussion have been reappraised and removed from their analogue context, then reconstructed, destroyed, tampered with and ultimately redefined to create a curious bedroom-pop-post-punk assemblage. All being well this should be completed and out by end summer, there is a taster on our site!

Would you recommend building a project like Spillage Fete to the curious creative types out there?
Without a doubt; creative projects are a rewarding and healthy release, be it music, art, writing or anything else. And involving and engaging with other artists in a community based project really expands, colours and feeds you imagination.

Outside of Spillage Fete stuff, what are you listening to just now?
Maher Shalah Hash Baz, Flaming tunes, Tall Dwarfs, Dustin Wong, The Books and Broadcast to name just a few.

More to listen to at the Spillage Fete SoundCloud

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