Mark Wastell is the founder of Confront Recordings, an English label that recently published the latest David Sylvian EP called Playing the Schoolhouse. Thence began our interest in Mark’s work, then deepened in an e-mail exchange that lasted almost a month. But our talk took over so easily, and an interview became a conversation, and this conversation is here, for those who want to read. Enjoy.
[Interview by Andrea Dellapiana]
Q: Hi Mark, thank you so much for your time. I’d like to start our conversation from the present, so from what’s going on for your label in this moment, talking about one of your latest release: the new David Sylvian (and Jan Bang) ep “Playing The Schoolhouse” that you released on cd this October in a limited edition of 300 copies. Being a big David Sylvian fan, I have to admit that I came to know about your label through David’s announcement of his new record coming out. I was intrigued by his choice of using another label to release the album: being the ep the first release in a very long time he’s not putting out on his label Samadhisound, which is due to end this year. Taking a look at the musical cross-section that your label offers (free improv, free jazz, experimental) I began wondering how “Playing The Schoolhouse” would sound, and when I received the record and started diving into it, I was surprised even if somehow I knew what to expect.
There is little much said on the recording itself: what we know is that the ep is based on an improvisation session by Sylvian and Bang that took place in the schoolhouse of Ny-Hellesund, Norway, on March 2015. There are no proper instruments played in the recording itself, in fact, both Sylvian and Bang played “found objects” and used samples (by Otomo Yoshihide, Toshimaru Nakamura, and Dai Fujikura) and field recordings in order to add other layers and depths of sound. So would you tell us a bit more about the record and how the collaboration with David was born? Why an ep? And what did fascinate you about this piece? Long question short, would you please tell us the story behind “Playing The Schoolhouse”?
A: During the spring of this year, David and I had been messaging one another on a number of different subjects, the origin of which had been an order he had placed for various new releases from Confront Recordings. Leading into this period, I’d begun thinking about a sub-series on the label, focusing on shorter pieces. The original intention was to release them on 3″ CDs mounted on heavyweight, printed board sleeves. It was the simple combination of time and place that I happened to ask David to participate. I work purely on intuition: if it feels right, then it must be worth pursuing. As with every release on Confront, the artist is at complete liberty to submit whatever material they feel appropriate. I make no demands or changes, just the initial offer. With ‘Schoolhouse’, David created a piece that’s completely true to his current impulses and totally in line with label philosophy.
Q: I imagine how gratifying is to know that your work is appreciated by such an artist. So was it around that period that you personally came to know Mr. Sylvian or were you already artistically in contact? And how did the proper realization of the release go? The ep is now presented in a DVD-sized tin metal case with no cover (as usual for the large majority of the label’s releases) that includes the cd and a postcard with a photograph by Sylvian itself. So how did your original idea of the packaging change?
A: Between 2001 and 2010 I used to own a record shop and mail order service in London and we used to stock Samadhisound direct from David and his management, doing especially well with “Blemish” when that was first released and eventually Derek Bailey’s “The Blemish Sessions“. David used to order records from our selection too. This relationship continued on and off until I eventually closed the business. I continued to run Confront Recordings but my release schedule slowed down considerably until 2013/14 when I resurrected the label with renewed energy and enthusiasm. Spring 2015 David got in touch and our relationship has accelerated since. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the right feel for the design of the original proposal for the sleeve. I also got a bit of negative feedback from my distributors about 3” CDs, people being unable to play them on computers. So I reverted to the DVD metal tin with postcard format which had proved successful for a couple of other limited-edition releases, “Membrane” and “Contest of (More) Pleasures”.
Q: I noticed how this year the label did very well, both in terms of the number of releases and quality-wise as well. The ep’s success was in fact extraordinary: it sold out in a matter of hours and you had to plan a second release given the huge amount of requests you received in the last couple of weeks. Were you expecting this level of interest?
A: Ah yes, it did sell out very quickly! I must admit, I was completely unprepared for that. Originally it was going to be just 200 copies! I’m glad we up it to 300 …. but in hindsight, it should have been double that at least. That’s my only regret, leaving so many people unsatisfied and ultimately fuelling the eBay market, selling at unreasonable prices. I was ignorant to the demand of this particular release and was measuring it by normal standards for a release on Confront, whereby 200 or 300 hundred would be appropriate for a first edition. But hopefully I’ve redeemed the situation with the second edition, currently, 600 copies have already been pre-ordered with more orders to come I’m sure. So plenty of continued interest in Schoolhouse. I’d like to add that regards the original edition, David graciously donated half of the copies that were due to him for personal use, back to Confront, to help fulfill the demand.
Q: Talking about the music now, I found “Playing The Schoolhouse” fascinating, demanding but at the same time a pleasant listening. It certainly follows and develops the path initially started with previous records such as “Manafon”, “Blemish”, “When Loud Weather Buffeted Naoshima” and “There’s A Light That Enters Houses With No Other House In Sight”, but it actually feels like something different, as if with this release he wanted to push himself into another area of his musical vision, almost at its most extreme point. In “Playing The Schoolhouse” the music, intended here as musicality, disappears and what remains is pure Sound. Only the hands and their actions are left, creating (and manipulating) sound with objects that become “instruments” in the proper meaning of the word: tools between a hand – and a person, and his will – and an idea, a final result. If I should explain the piece to someone who never listened to it I would say: hands playing a space. I think that’s the most relevant point of the ep: as the title suggests, Sylvian and Bang are actually playing a space, a building and its objects, its atmosphere. Do you think (or imagine) that this concept was the original idea behind the piece? And if not (or if so), how do you perceive it?
A: It’s clear from your description that you’ve thought long and hard about the piece. Quoting myself from a previous answer, the piece reflects what I generally meant about “working intuitively”, reflecting “time and place”, the here and now of artistic endeavor. David and Jan utilize the space and the materials within. Other less obvious contributions should be taken into account, their mood on the day, friendship, shared experiences, individual thought processes, the air between each other and objects, the atmosphere within the building, the weather outside …. all feeding the end result. My view is that it shouldn’t be viewed or listened to as a finished article, absorb it more as a feeling or fleeting emotion, a movement or passing, a mood. Just have it touch you as you move through it.
Q: Zooming out back to Samadhisound (Sylvian’s label), how do you see its imminent closing? I’m wondering if it’s simply due to economical problems or to other personal reasons: maybe a fulfillment of its original purpose or a desire to go somewhere else in David’s will.
A: Perhaps that’s a question better directed at David, for a more personal and detailed answer. But as far as I’m aware, the everyday workload and financial expenditure versus actual income doesn’t warrant keeping the label going. Together with David’s management retiring after 32 years, has clearly forced a difficult decision. It’s such a shame, so much love goes into it, but it’s a new reality, as far as recorded music is concerned. There is very little in the way of profit to be made, the most you can hope for is the cover your costs and net a small dividend that enables you to release another album. And so the cycle continues until you stop.
Q: In the announcement regarding “PTS”‘s sold-out first edition, David remarked his admiration for your label and for your way of running it, defining your approach “a labor of love” that “brings to light work which might otherwise never be heard”. Even if yours may be considered a smaller label, I see a strong similarity between Confront and Samadhisound, being both the work and the passion of one person (and a musician) and representing both a very personalized overall musical vision and research, not based on the search for economical success or massive validation by the bigger audiences. So would you please tell us the story of Confront Recordings? How was the label born and out of what kind of necessity? Did the experience of owning Sound 323 (your record shop in London) inform the way you see (or own) a record label? And why is it called Confront?
A: Originally, I established Confront Recordings purely as a platform for releasing my own music. That was the initial idea. It was 1995 and I’d begun playing concerts and making contacts on the local and London scene. One of my earliest associations was with a percussionist and violinist called Nick Smith. He was very encouraging to me and forever enthusiastic. Slightly older, he’d had more experience than I and set about organizing rehearsals, a concert series, and recordings. Out of this relationship came the debut release on Confront, Collision Duo ‘Refraction’ in 1996, an edition of 50 cassettes. It received a couple of reviews in the underground press and I began selling copies on gigs and through mail order. As my connections in the music grew so did the label. The early releases reflect the projects in which I was involved at the time and friendships of the period. All were London centric, the international reach of the label coming a little later, in line with the development of my own career as a musician. The label came long before the shop and has survived long after too. Having the shop certainly helped the profile of Confront and establish it more firmly. Guess the label is here to stay. Hopefully, as the name suggests, still confronting people expectations of music and sound.
Q: So the sound is a crucial point for the label. From what I’ve heard, Confront’s musical offer is so diverse, but it appears to me every release deals with sound and approaches it in a singular way, from the quietest records (I’m thinking of “Foldings“) to the harshest (maybe White Sun Sutra), to the strangest and most daring ones (…and everything inside came down as dust). Being sound – and not notes – the only real vehicle between men and instruments, players and ears, and the only real thing present and alive in a recording, I noticed how important is the recording process for Confront’s records and their sound. In the live CDs sometimes you can almost hear the audience as part of the performance; at times the recording is bright and clear, other times is almost DIY. Would you like to elaborate on this?
A: Environment and atmosphere are two key elements that I often find myself looking for. Be that in a live concert, studio or location recording. I’m keen on recordings that have been influenced by the surrounding in which the sounds were made. The activity, of the performers, that has been nurtured by the feeling within the space. I’m not interesting the ‘recording’ itself, the clean, digitized process. I’m seeking the end result only, the landscape captured by the process, be that lo-fi or something more refined. I’m privileged in that the musicians I’m associated with, and that are featured on the label, are of such high caliber and display modes of operation that are extremely well developed. Their sensitivity to time within space is way beyond normal boundaries. It’s their important work you hear. Confront is just a conduit that helps bring it to your attention.
Q: Reading your words now, I realize how much space there is in the Confront records I know, being it “extremely close” or “wide open”, and this subject could be referred to the Sylvian record as well. Anyway, in a previous answer, you were talking about the “label philosophy”. How would you explain it in all of his nuances to a possible listener who doesn’t know Confront Recordings yet?
A: Honestly, I don’t think I can pinpoint it in a few sentences. It would be like trying to describe the differences between clouds. As for a new listener, one would imagine that you simply wouldn’t just stumble across Confront. It’s part of a much larger and more dynamic jigsaw. The listener is lead to Confront through association and inquisitive nature. You’ll likely have an ongoing interest in a particular performer or style of music that we represent. The listener is already on the quest, Confront will help nurture the journey. In its simplest description, Confront is working with music as Art. But having said that, it’s too complicated a term to even begin deconstructing it into easy phrases. If a listener has discovered Confront, then they’re well into their own journey, already in the position to access and accept or reject what we do. They don’t need me to explain.
[Photo by Andy Newcombe]
Q: Taking the cue from the concept of working with music as art, I’d like to ask you about the design of your releases. Almost every record that you put out on cd is housed in a tin metal box with no cover, just a black sticker on the front telling the name of the artist and the name of the record, and on the back all the basic information: track titles, personnel and so on. How did you come up with this design? Is it for the pure commodity or is there an artistic idea behind it? Or something in between? I’m actually pretty curious about the whole manufacture process of your records. So how do you produce them?
A: Primarily, it was born out of necessity. When I relaunched the label a couple of years ago, I wanted to house the discs in a package that I could control myself. In the past, I’ve found that when you work with others; designers, photographers, manufacturers, etc., you have to work to their timeframes and your own deadlines slip. I wanted the utility of purpose, speed of turnaround and precise specification. I’ve only got myself to blame if things fall behind schedule or go wrong in some way. The component parts are sourced by myself, I layout the labels, duplicate the discs and then put everything together myself for each release. A singular craft. The metal tins offer a tactile experience with clean lines and weight of intent. Each release is born of the same foundation. A defined structure. The starting point is generic but eventually reveals a uniquely different listening experience.
Q: Indeed it does. You said you relaunched the label, so why did you stop? What happened?
A: Well, it simply lay dormant for a while. I had other things going on, primarily a young family to care for. My time and energy were oversubscribed. 2010 was the last fully active year, prior to the break, with five releases. There was just one release in 2011 and nothing at all in 2012. Activity returned in 2013 with seven releases and momentum has kept rolling ever since. This year will see 18 releases in total before its ended.
Q: Confront published more than 70 albums, working with bigger and smaller names. I know this may be difficult, but can you choose three albums to talk about in a little bit more detail. Maybe ones that have particular meaning to you. That may be a key for some new potential listeners!
A: 1) The Sealed Knot ‘Unwanted Object’ (confront collectors series ccs 1)
The album was originally commissioned by Locust Records in the States. They have long since stopped producing records but at the time, 2002/3, were really quite productive. I forget the name of the guy that ran the label, but anyway, I guess he had heard and liked ‘Surface/Plane‘ which had recently been released by Meniscus, a label based in Minneapolis. He gets in touch, asks us to record an album. All good. We book studio time, pay for a flight for Burkhard to come over from Berlin, record the session, listen, edit and master it. Timescale starts to finish probably six months or so. I send Locust the master only to receive a message in return, saying that his taste in music had changed and it wouldn’t be in keeping with his newfound aesthetic to release the album! Disappointing, as you can imagine. Hence the title ‘Unwanted Object’. But, as they say, every cloud has a silver lining. I decided to release the album myself and it kick-started the entire Confront Collector Series, originally in an edition of 300 copies in clip pack cases. It became a Wire magazine Jazz & Improv record of the year and sold out very quickly. Subsequently, it’s been reprinted a couple of times and is proudly one of the best selling releases on Confront and still available in our present catalog.
2) Derek Bailey & Simon H. Fell ‘The Complete August 15th, 2001 (confront collectors series ccs 22)
This recording represents three things; my respect for Derek and all he achieved, my long association with Simon and the great times spent at Sound 323. Simon and I met around 1993 and eventually started playing together in the summer of 1995. We would rehearse for hours on end, cello and double bass, in the backroom studio of a music shop I used to work in. Recordings from some of those rehearsals made it onto the first IST album called “Anagrams to Avoid” on Siwa Records. Simon was a great mentor and I’m truly proud of all the work we completed together. I’m also happy to reveal that Simon will be releasing a new solo cd on Confront in 2016. The concert that this record represents was performed on an exceptionally hot day in London that August. If memory serves, it was programmed on a weekday afternoon for some reason, contrary to most of the Sound 323 concerts which were nearly always at 3 pm on a Saturday afternoon. Must have been something to do with Derek’s schedule. There was some amazing music performed in the basement of Sound 323. It was a tiny little space, you could fit 20/25 people comfortably but often many more would come and get jammed into the room. At a guess, we programmed well over 150 concerts at Sound 323. Very happy, carefree times.
3) Patrick Shiroishi ‘White Sun Sutra’ (confront collectors series ccs 33)
This album represents what I might describe as the beginning of the modern era Confront. New connections, Facebook generation is driven. One of the main reasons I got back into music, after my four-year sabbatical, was the once in a while badgering from Rhodri. He was prompting and gently prodding throughout this period but I kept saying I felt disconnected. He suggested joining Facebook, to keep an eye of what was going on and what people were up to. I resisted for a couple of years. Eventually, he won me over. Patrick was one of the new associations I made through that medium. We came friends, as you do, he ordered some CDs (I’d relaunched the label through Facebook by that point too). I began to check out Patrick’s music via his Bandcamp site, liked what I heard and offered him the chance to release a disc on Confront. This has happened a number of times since and I’ve released other records by musicians I’ve become aware of via Facebook. And of course, Facebook has a big part in connecting you and I Andrea, the result of which is this interview!
Q: Thanks Facebook then! I would like to talk about your experience as a musician as well. You just released a record of your quartet, buy you played in various groups in the past: IST, The Sealed Knot, Broken Consort, and many others, playing with all sorts of musicians and all sorts of instruments throughout your career: double bass, cello, electronics, and tam-tam. Would you tell us how you started playing and trace a musical history of yourself? I may be completely wrong, but I perceived an ongoing interest in your playing in creating textures, ambiances, where the extremely small coincides with the extremely big. Is my view too simplistic?
A: A brief history. I began playing publicly in 1995, initially with Simon H. Fell and Rhodri Davies in the trio IST. We performed extensively and through those concerts, I began to connect with other performers on the London scene. In a relatively short space of time, I was fortunate enough to be asked to join a number of prominent groups, notably Chris Burn’s Ensemble (where I met and played with long term partners like John Butcher and Phil Durrant for the first time), Evan Parker‘s String Orchestra and Derek Bailey’s Company. Derek’s patronage and encouragement were particularly inspiring. My first trips to Europe to perform were in 1996/97. The next important stage was the formation of The Sealed Knot, with Rhodri and Berlin-based percussionist Burkhard Beins, in 2000. We have been together as a group ever since. 2001 saw my first concerts further afield, Derek took IST to New York that year and I initiated a solo trip to Tokyo. I’d played cello exclusively through this period but around 2003 I began to explore other instrumentation, I needed a different palate. I’m lucky in that I never received formal musical education and have been able to adapt my facility when directed by my impulses.
Different instrumentation resulted in different music which in turn led to new collaborations. The group +minus with Graham Halliwell and Bernhard Gunter was one such new adventure and a very rewarding one during its two or three-year existence. Another long term association has been with Swedish musician Joachim Nordwall, under the group name Oceans of Silver & Blood. We began playing together around 2007 and continue to perform with one another when circumstances dictate. I hadn’t considered it until answering this question, but this year is my twentieth anniversary of music-making. It’s been an incredible journey, taken me all over the world and through music, I’ve had the opportunity to open myself and unlock the core being. I’d say your description certainly covers part of my endeavors. Broadly speaking, I’m interested in the landscape, the architecture of the music I’m making. I like form and structure. I function best when building the blocks, literally from the bottom up. I guess that’s why I like long term groups. The foundations having been laid and each time you meet and play, you place layer upon layer, building a bond and strength into the structure.
Q: Let’s play a little game. If you should define with just one word every main group that you played in, or that you feel was important for your career, what would you say?
A: IST : beginning
Assumed Possibilities : ambition
The Sealed Knot : unity
Belaska : subversive
Scotch of St. James : unfulfilled
+minus : sublime
Oceans of Silver & Blood : clarity
Membrane : more
QUARTET : now
Q: How was working with Derek Bailey? Why was he particularly crucial for your musical life?
A: Working with Derek was the closest I ever got to feeling part of a musical tradition. By that, I mean the nuts and bolts of living a musical life that is far greater than your time. True folk music. Derek represented both a connection to the past and a window to the future. He was a nomadic troubadour. He touched us with his magic and we were never the same again. So yes, he was absolutely crucial. Working with him and receiving his blessing, so to speak, gave me so much confidence. The type of confidence that really enables you to become the individual you’re destined to be. He was gracious and during the years I was in his orbit until he moved to Barcelona, he always treated you as an equal. Quite something, considering he had fifty more years playing experience than I. You certainly felt lifted in his presence.
Q: Talking about the different instrumentations that you used through the years, I’m quite curious about the so-called “amplified textures” you were using. From what I understood it’s a set of electronics, but I’d really like to know what tools you were using. Did you use a computer or was it machines and pedals only?
A: Amplified textures was a name I gave to a collection of lo-fi apparatus I assembled with the intention of creating pure atmosphere, landscape, and ambiance as opposed to actual music. It eventually settled into a regular set up comprising of a digital delay pedal, stereo contact mic, mono contact mic, mini-disc player, cd player, charcoal, ceramic tile, velvet material, light grade sand paper, cardboard, wire wool, bell, singing bowls, bow, beaters, and pre-recorded electronics.
Q: You recently opened a new path with your Quartet, whose first release (composed of two massive renditions of Alice Coltrane and Ornette Coleman) was published October. Would you like to talk about the record and this new project of yours?
A: I had a strong urge to acknowledge my jazz listening. I’ve never been in a group or come close to playing anything remotely resembling jazz or free jazz in the twenty years I’ve been performing. Yet, I’ve listened to jazz since I was sixteen years old. That was the beginning of my serious musical studies. I didn’t go to university, I went to Ronnie Scott’s for my education, beginning at seventeen. I was lucky enough to be of a certain age that still meant a lot of the greats were still alive and touring; Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson, Elvin Jones, Horace Silver, Jim Hall, George Coleman, Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman, Kenny Burrell, Dewey Redman, Mal Waldron, Dizzy Gillespie, Steve Lacy, Cecil Taylor and so many more, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve made no secret that the formation of the new Quartet is directly influenced by a group led by Albert Ayler on a piece called ‘For John Coltrane‘ from 1967. It featured Albert on alto, two double bassists, Alan Silva, and Bill Folwell and Joel Friedman on cello. I’ve listened closely to that piece for thirty years and it continues to captivate me. It was time to put myself into a completely different arena. I’d worked previously with Dom and Olie in other – none jazz – situations. The saxophone position was more complex and took a lot of consideration. Alan creates the perfect blend of jazz articulation spiced with a free improvisers sophistication and integrity of the line. Our debut concert was recorded and became the release on Confront. The first notes you hear on the album were the first we’d made together, no rehearsal, just straight in. I’d suggested the Coltrane piece to Olie and he got the bass intro under his fingers, the rest of the arrangement fell into place as we played, such is the skill of these guys. I knew Alan had an attraction to Ornette’s ‘Lonely Woman‘ and we played it that night in celebration of his recent 85th birthday. Around the time of our second concert a few weeks later, Ornette had just passed away, so at Alan’s suggestion, we played a version of ‘Sadness‘.
Q: So is this quartet here to stay? Do you have other releases planned?
A: Would certainly like to think so. As long as we’re making good music and the energy is in place. We have another London concert in January next year at Cafe Oto. No new recordings planned as such, although there has been some initial interest from another label regards a vinyl album. It’s all a little too soon to say. Would like to get some mileage out of the Confront release and a few more gigs in place.
Q: Being both Confront and your musical experience deeply rooted in the London scene, how do you see it at this moment? And how did you perceive its changes from the early ’90s, when you started playing, to now.
A: I’m not sure I’m best positioned to comment. Or rather, there are others far more active than I on the London scene who would be better informed. I am happy looking after my own projects and keeping the inertia moving forward as best I can. How that fits into the wider scene I’m unclear. There’s certainly a lot of activity and the quantity of London based players is probably tenfold what it was when I first started playing. I’m reminded of a BBC interview with John Stevens by Brian Morton in the early nineties. He was asked how he felt the scene had changed since the sixties and he said, if I remember correctly, that fundamentally it hadn’t. Placing myself purely as an observer, an outsider peering in, maybe that comment is still true. Venues come and go, players arrive and leave, playing opportunities accelerate and decrease but the flow and flux of the music are ever-present. Maybe that’s what John meant. The music is the only true currency.
Q: In an old interview in 2006, talking about the so-called New London Silence movement, you said that “certain players who were moving in very minimal areas have got a bit more expansive, and their sound has become richer.” Then you added: “We’re definitely in a period of transition and, of course, it’s difficult to talk about it properly until a few years down the line.” Now that a few years have passed by, what would you say?
A: Ha! Well, not sure I’ve really spent much time thinking about it recently. With one or two exceptions, it would seem that all the principle participants of that movement are happily working in a variety of different musical areas. We can all draw from the experiences of those times and apply them to the here and now. Sorry, it’s a short answer and not more thorough but I don’t think I can be a spokesperson for others or that they would want me to. They would have to tell their own story.
Q: Thanks for telling yours. Is there anything that you would like to add? Or something you would like to say to our readers?
A: Great, thanks very much. It was a very interesting process and gave me lots to think about. It is Confront’s 20th anniversary next year and I’ll be celebrating with a festival night at Cafe Oto and other events. And rather excitingly, I’ve just received confirmation that the Hundred Years Gallery will also host an exhibition of label memorabilia and a screening of a new documentary by David Reid, he filmed and archived a lot Confront associated concert activity in the years 2002 – 2008. The gig at Oto is penciled for the 8th June. If you happen to be in London then do come along!
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PAYNOMINDTOUS is a non-profit organization registered in December 2018, operating since late 2015 as a webzine and media website. In early 2017, we started our own event series in Turin, IT focused on arts, experimental, and dancefloor-oriented music. We reject every clumsy invocation to “the Future” meant as the signifier for capitalistic “progress” and “innovation”, fully embracing the Present instead; we renounce any reckless and ultimately arbitrary division between “high” and “low”, respectable and not respectable, “mind” and “body”; we support and invite musicians, artists, and performers having diverse backgrounds and expressing themselves via variegated artistic practices.