Label Profile: Warp Records

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The Independent Culture

Warp Records started out in a similar fashion to Rough Trade – as a small shop that realised it was in a prime position for discovering artists.

"We started in 1987 and by 1989 we were a label," recalls founder and managing director Steve Beckett. "Like most people in the independent business, Rob and I were in bands together but realised our music was pretty shit. Starting a shop and then the label was a way of still being around what we loved: music."

Rob Mitchell, Warp's co-founder, died of cancer in 2001, having seen his tiny shop grow into an international label with a spin-off film company and interactive website at the forefront of the independent music market.

But it all started back in Sheffield, and was a case of being in the right place at the right time.

"We were slap bang in the middle of the acid house movement and immersed in the club scene," recalls Beckett. "We pressed 500 copies of our first record, Forgemasters' 'Track With No Name', and distributed it by driving around in a borrowed car."

By only their second release Beckett and Mitchell realise they could make a go of being a label full-time rather than just as a hobby.

Less surprising when you learn that their second record was by Nightmares on Wax, DJ and musician George Evelyn, whose chillout music needs no introduction. It sold 30,000 copies for Warp, without any marketing or promotion. As Beckett puts it, "it just went bonkers." That was followed by the hugely successful Frequencies by LFO, one of the first British house-techno albums.

But as dance came and went in six-monthly to yearly cycles, Warp realised they couldn't be complacent. They sought to emulate labels such as Factory, who were enjoying success with the rock and dance mix of Joy Division.

"The dance scene was changing and we were hearing b-sides that weren't dance but were interesting and fitted into experimental, progressive rock," says Beckett. "So we decided to make the compilation Artificial Intelligence, which became a milestone."

Artificial Intelligence came out in 1992 and gave Warp a whole raft of new artists such as Aphex Twin, The Black Dog, Autechre and FUSE, who all went on from having tracks on the compilation to releasing full albums and kick-starting the ambient movement.

"It felt like we were leading the market rather than it leading us," says Beckett. "The music was aimed at home listening rather than clubs and dance floors: people coming home, off their nuts, and having the most interesting part of the night listening to totally tripped out music. The sound fed the scene."

The artists' individual releases went on to be successful in their own right, none more so than Aphex Twin's Windowlicker which, accompanied by Chris Cunningham's video, caught the zeitgeist of the time and catapulted him into the international market.

The early nineties continued to be successful for Warp, bringing the next wave of fusionists, spearheaded by Andy Weatherall's Sabres of Paradise. They artfully merged genres as diverse as rock and dub and broke the 200,000 sale barrier for the label.

And in 1998 Warp hit another high by signing Boards of Canada. Music Has the Right To Children, their debut album, is now considered a defining moment in British music. The Scottish duo are lauded for their rare ability to imbue electronica music with spirit.

"We usually find our artists based on recommendations or hearing music in clubs," says Beckett. "We found this freaky Finnish artist, Jimi Tenor, at a festival playing his keyboard and stroking a huge salami that he'd found in a bin nearby. You've got to sign someone who does that, but that's not the normal way." The normal way brings good things. The extremely hotly tipped Battles, who signed to the label in 2005, were recommended by another Warp artist, Preface 73. Beckett signed the band without even seeing them play, but he is convinced it was Warp's best signing for a long while. And it seems he was right.

"Their experimental rock has had them likened to Radiohead and after a recent gig Brian Eno came and told me it's the best thing he's heard in 10 years!" says Beckett.

With two gold albums in the UK, Newcastle's Maximo Park, have also been a remarkable landmark in Warp's recent history. They still have a huge live draw, with recent gigs in Brixton quickly sold out.

But now Warp is turning its attention to its newer acts including Born Ruffians, whose music is compared with Pavement. They signed to the label at the beginning of the year and are currently sorting out the schedule for single releases.

"Jamie Lidell is our other big hope," says Beckett. "He's a singer-songwriter – closest to Stevie Wonder – with an amazing voice and live performance. His album which is out next year landed on my desk today."

All very positive for Warp, but what does Beckett think of the current UK music scene? "There is good music coming out of the States but not the UK," he says. "There is more depth there at the moment. Primarily because bands in the US have to tour their arses off before they get noticed, whereas in the UKthey do one single, get signed to a major, lose the plot and disappear."

Warp does have a significant number of Canadian and American signings among its roster of 30 artists. But Beckett is not too worried about the scene in this country.

In what appears to be characteristically optimistic tones, he is confident about the future of music in general. As he puts it: "Great music always has been and always will be."

Introduction: Since founding the label in 1989, Steve Beckett (pictured left) and the late Rob Mitchell have established Warp Records as one of the most pioneering independent labels in the history of music. Specialising in house, indie rock and electronic music and home to Boards of Canada, Warp Records has continued to expand to its current roster of around 30 artists.

History: Warp started out as a shop in Sheffield, putting out records on the side as the acid house scene took off. Nightmares on Wax's 12-inch "Dextrous" was their second release and it charted, giving the label the success it needed to grow and turn its full attention to producing rather than just selling music. Warp is renowned for its electronic artists and in the early Nineties it was at the forefront of ambient music before moving into indie rock.

What they say: "With artists, I'm not necessarily seeking something new, just music that's uniquely them. In other words, something authentic and rea," says Beckett.

Notable acts include: Nightmares on Wax, Boards of Canada, and the rapidly ascending, Brian Eno-endorsed four piece Battles.

Top tips for 2008: Jamie Lidell and Born Ruffians. Both have new albums, as yet untitled, coming out during the first half of next year.

Pub fact: The original Warp shop was sold to Fopp, now themselves defunct.

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