Interview / Dave Howell on FatCat`s Split Series

FatCat`s Split Series came along when I was in dire need of something new. Attempting to curb a lifestyle spent seemingly solely in nightclubs, and centred around various attendant forms of excess, I`d dropped out, cleaned up, and was trying to catch up with all the music I`d missed while looking for, and dancing to, the balearic beat. I’ve already written about how The Wire became my new bible, but there was also the fanzine, Obsessive Eye, founded by Dave Howell. Dave not only put together Obsessive Eye, but contributed to The Wire, and was the person behind the Split Series. For me, those E.P.s were kind of like a magazine in themselves. A new one appeared every couple of months and they were a super easy, and inexpensive, way to keep up with what was going on in music`s more experimental margins. There was a phrase that was dropped a lot at the time – pushing the envelope – and the artists who made up the Split Series definitely did that. Dave once wrote a landmark piece detailing how deep listening to these sometimes challenging sonics effectively cleansed your ears, and your head – how afterwards you found that you could focus on everyday sounds – noises that previously you’d never even noticed. How everything sounded different. As consequence I took to hooking AMM`s For Ute – at volume – up to the headphones each morning before work. It`s OK Dave, I don’t blame you for my tinnitus. 

Between 1997 and 2003, I bought these E.P.s on sight. #1 to 16 introduced me to names such as DAT Politics, Duplo Remote, Merzbow, Process, Req, Janek Schaefer, and Team Doyobi – treated me to 12s that tested musical boundaries, tore up that envelope, with marvelous mutations of drum and bass, electro, and machine-manipulated acoustic improvisation – from folks that included Ad Vanz, Christoph de Babalon, Christian Fennesz, Gescom, Kid 606, and Matmos. There were guitar treatments from Robert Hampson`s Chasm and Main, Anthony “Surgeon” Child getting ambient. Pan American`s epic, Both Ends Fixed, still receives regular plays – indoors, and out at the odd DJ gig. Last week saw the release of the final installment in this seminal series of aural mind expanders with the pairing of Ian William Craig and Kago. As it draws to a close it`s time to take stock and to ask Dave a few questions about how it all started. 

Dave, when, how, and why, did the Split Series come about? 

It came about pretty quickly in the very early days of the FatCat label – back in the summer of’ 97. After the FatCat shop closed and they started up the label, Alex Knight and Dave Cawley asked me if I’d like to come in and help out. I’d been running a fanzine called Obsessive Eye previously, which they stocked in the shop, and we became friends. I’d come from an arts background and had written/designed the fanzine and also written for a music mag called The Lizard, so I came in to help out with writing press releases, doing a lot of the artwork, and also bringing some ideas for what to release. The split series was pretty much the first suggestion I brought to the table.

We’d been talking about the label being very open-ended and adventurous and covering a wide range of the varied stuff we were listening to. So I thought it might be a neat idea to do this within a 12″ format, seeking out what I felt to be cutting-edge material, pitting different sounds/styles/approaches against one another and drawing out their similarities/differences. It also seemed like it might be a good tool to get people who might be interested in one thing to check out something different on the other side, or to introduce new/unknown artists on the back of more established ones. 

We started out with a Third Eye Foundation remix of a track from a band I was in before I left Bristol for London – Matt Elliott was a friend in my Bristol days – and on the other side were 4 tracks from Stockport-based V/Vm – the early musical vehicle of James Kirby aka The Caretaker – who I’d become very close with. The record came out on March 2nd 1998, I think in an edition of 1000 vinyl copies. The sleeve design I came up with was a more arty / extreme version of the kind of anonymous / anti-product aesthetic of the early FatCat 12″s, which were just in plain white cardboard sleeves with the only info being 4 small lines of hand-stamped text. For the split series, there was no info on the outer sleeve. It was just a plain white cardboard sleeve with one hold drilled in it to mark its place in the series – one for the first; two for the second; three for the third; etc – and a numbered black sticker in the centre, so it was a numbered edition. My mate Chesh designed a wooden template to use for the drilling and I drilled and stickered them all at home. All the information about the release came on the inner sleeve, which was white text laid out on a black background. I thought they looked pretty cool, but I’m sure we got a few back from stores and people saying they’d been damaged and had holes in them!

fatcat split series drill template

Was the label related to what you were doing with Obsessive Eye?

I guess it was related to Obsessive Eye in as much as that magazine was founded out of certain sense of openness and curiosity about exploring and pushing different types of music and not just about being interested in one particular area or genre. Despite the largely insular/retro narratives of Britpop that were dominating the mainstream/indie music press, that particular mid-late ’90s time felt to me like a thrillingly open and adventurous one for music and that’s what I was writing about in the fanzine. It felt like there were a lot of things bleeding through between different genres and a lot of exchange going on in ways that I hadn’t felt before. The label grew out of that also – Dave and Alex had come from being immersed in hip hop, house and electronic music and were moving into being interested in more guitar-based stuff, and I was moving the other way. FatCat – like the shop before it – felt like this voracious, obsessive hothouse environment for sharing knowledge and learning about different musics. We were just making things up as we went along and it felt an amazing thing to be part of. Early on the Split Series also drew on some of the artists I’d covered in the fanzine – V/Vm, Gescom (Autechre), Third Eye Foundation, Foehn, Main, AMM, Merzbow. So yes, I guess the Series was like a record label extension of the fanzine. All the artists I released on it were people I would have covered in the magazine, had it continued.

Was there a “mission statement” for the label? I mean, the music was diverse, and often very experimental, I was wondering if there was an overall concept – or a link between the artists involved?

The mission statement was just about finding really interesting, strong, adventurous gear and pitting it against different, but equally adventurous stuff. It was attempting to foster an openness and creative mindset, to encourage musical diversity and exploration.

How did you decide who was paired with who? 

At the start I just started asking a handful of different artists I admired and just waited to see what material came back in before working out who to pair with who. Often it was in part about the order in which stuff turned up, and in getting things out quickly. Sometimes I did have a very clear idea of a pairing from the outset and after the first few years, I usually worked on it one release at a time. So occasionally I’d start with the idea for two particular artists, but more often once I’d got one artist’s agreement – and often once I’d heard what they’d given us – then I’d just have a think about what sort of sounds might be a good contrast / complement and pursue that. Releases like AMM  / Merzbow were preconceived. That one seemed like a neat idea to me – two great improvisational artists working at different poles. Sometimes it was about very complimentary sounds, like Main and Fennesz – two artists pushing the guitar to new places – or like Com.a and Duplo Remote, which both came in as demos within weeks of each other and just felt at that time really fresh and like a great fit. Other times it was about the clash. I don’t feel like I over-thought things though – well, maybe later on – but it mostly just felt like a pretty natural, instinctive way to work, just chasing down stuff that excited me and trying to keep the quality control bar as high as possible.

Where did you find the music and artists?

It’s not hard when you’re working at a label like FatCat, going to 3 or 4 gigs a week, being immersed in this continual environment of new music, and being sent and recommended stuff all the time. Sometimes it was either people I already knew, or artists I didn’t know but admired, who I just approached. Sometimes it was things I just stumbled upon at shows, like Team Doyobi, who I caught at an incredible festival up in Sheffield. Occasionally, it was stuff that was just sent to us out of the blue by unknown people. Like with the Kid 606 release, those tracks came off a few demo CDRs he sent us before almost anyone – including us – knew who he was.

Who came up with the artwork? Who drilled all those holes?

Unfortunately, that was my idea and mostly me who did the drilling. I think on a couple of the very early 12s Alex and Dave helped out. One time, when the EyeQ label were letting us share space in their office in Old Street, Dave Cawley didn’t notice that he’d managed to drill through the template and into this big oak table that EyeQ used for their meetings. By the end, it had one area covered in drill holes, which I don’t think went down too well. I don’t think I got much help after that, but I’ve got that table at home now as my dining table. It seemed a cool idea at the start but when you’re spending the best part of a day drilling 20+ holes in 1000 sleeves and then stickering them, it seems less so!

A lot of the music was pretty extreme, were there any of the releases that were surprise big sellers?

I don’t really know if I’d call much of it “extreme”. Perhaps one or two things were, but I would never think of it like that, as being unapproachable. Honestly, I can’t remember if any were repressed – maybe the first couple were – but I think almost all of them were just done in a single pressing of between 500 and 1000 copies.

Since you were dealing with artists making experimental music are there any interesting stories around any of the releases that you can share? For me things that immediately spring to mind are the chap masquerading as Pole, and Merzbow`s tracks being impossible to cut to vinyl. 

The Merzbow track was bonkers. In the first few years we used to cut pretty much everything at The Exchange up in Camden, with Mandy Parnell, who I love to bits. Mandy is an absolute genius – a beautiful, ferociously intelligent person – who became mastering engineer of choice for people like Bjork and Aphex Twin. But back then she was still learning her trade and I think we tested her on some of those split 12 releases. I used to go up and attend all the cuts. It was amazing sitting in, hearing those tracks on an incredible system and watching Mandy work. She’d be laughing when I turned up as if to say “What the fuck have you got for me this time” and was usually shaking her head after half an hour! We were so lucky that some of those records were cut with one of the best engineers in the business and she’d always get things sounding incredible. But that Merzbow track that we originally got, Ab Hunter, was just impossible. It was a phenomenal, brutal piece of pulsing, scything noise, but big parts of it were so out of phase, that it was just impossible to cut to vinyl without having to mono large parts and just totally changing it. So after about an hour or so trying, she just had to give up. Luckily, Masami sent over a new track which she could cut and the original ended on the Split 1-8 compilation CD.

The Pole story was a costly mess. I think probably it was a prank that got out of hand and for which no-one had the balls to own up to. It felt at the time like a betrayal by friends. In retrospect, there were definitely clues being dropped that it was a prank, and I should have twigged, but when you’re snowed under and just not expecting something like that to happen, then you can miss it… We spent quite a bit of money mastering and then pressing 100 or so copies on vinyl – which we used to use for promo mailouts back then – and it happened at a time when budgets and margins were starting to being really scrutinised and questions raised about the viability of releasing the more leftfield stuff in particular, so it really didn’t go down well and made things more precarious for future releases in the series. Hardly any of them made any money as it was. I burnt a big ‘X’ through the sleeves of those press copies and gave them away free on the door at a Split Series gig we put on shortly after.  Maybe I will write about it properly one day, but I’ve long since gotten over it.

dh with pole split

Why did the label take such a long hiatus? 7 years? At the time did you deliberately stop on #23? Did some kind of gateway open? 

Ha! Far from it! More like a blockage than an opening! After the early days of the series, when they were flying out every couple of months or so, the series started to slow down. We were signing more artists to FatCat and trying to build strategies around them over time, rather than just throwing things out there. The vinyl market also dipped and it became kind of a battle to both find the time to work on them and also to justify adventurous, one -off releases like these as financially viable. I think the first dozen came out within 3 years so and then after that they slowed down to a trickle and eventually a super-slow drip. When that happened, it became a less instinctive way of working and I started thinking more about the journey and of trying to outdo the previous one. In the end the idea of finishing the series became a bit of an albatross around my neck. Number 23 came out in 2014 and I had planned the next one to come out shortly after, but for some reason all the artists I was asking ended up declining and I began overthinking its importance. I’ve actually been sat on the Kago tracks since 2015. I wanted to end the series by closing the circle, and asked my friend James Kirby – The Caretaker, who’d been on the first Split 12 as V/Vm – to do one side. I flew out to Krakow to visit and get tracks from him 3 or 4 years ago. But I then sat on them too long and he then got cold feet about releasing them and so I had to look elsewhere. It then took a while cajoling Ian to come up with something, and then the pandemic got in the way, but we got there in the end.

Why come back now, and also why stop now? 

As I said, it never stopped, so it’s not a comeback. But yes, this is absolutely the end-point. There will be no more after this one. It was always the plan to stop after 24 releases, as that’s the number of holes that the drill template allows for – it’s a five-by-five grid with the middle of the grid being the place the sticker goes.

Were there any artists that you would have liked to have included in the series but didn’t manage to get? 

There were quite a few I asked who unfortunately passed on the opportunity – or just didn’t reply – at different stages. Felicia Atkinson, Black Dice, Christian Marclay, Goodiepal, Grouper, Lightning Bolt, Mount Eerie, Oneohtrix, Dean Blunt, Sensational, plus others. A few releases I had lined up but that just couldn’t get over the line – Colin Stetson / Richard Skelton I was talking with for a while 6 or 7 years back, but the line went dead. There was one planned pairing Ariel Pink and The Hospitals that would’ve been great, but that I ended up canning. I’d been sent a full set of tracks from both artists, but the Ariel Pink ones had already come out on some early CDs and I was really after something unreleased, so I stuck to my guns and asked for that, but it never happened. There was also one thing that I had in my mind for a long time to finish the series on, but that in the end I didn’t have the guts to pursue. I don’t want to say what it is, but it wasn’t music – it was an incredible kind of audio diary recording I managed to obtain, by a very tragic figure whose story is almost unbelievable, which would’ve entailed me opening conversation with his widow / surviving family. I had the letter written but I just couldn’t quite reconcile with myself that it was the right thing to do, so I left it… He ended up having two films made about his story, but still the tapes have never been released.

As I mentioned, I also planned to close the circle by ending with tracks from Leyland Kirby / The Caretaker, who’d appeared on the very first 12…  James gave me a handful of tracks to choose from and we were ready to go and then I dallied a bit and after all the heat that was accruing around that Caretaker magnum opus, he decided he didn’t want this stuff out there, which I could totally understand. It was really good gear, though. If I was going to continue the split series – or writing the fanzine – the kind of artists I’d be covering would be those who are still cutting that path through the edgelands, people like Felicia Atkinson, Claire Rousay, Angel Bat Dawid, Tomoko Sauvage, Lucrecia Dalt, Kate NV, Mica Levi, Laila Sakini. Perila, Anne Guthrie, etc. It’s all stuff I play in my monthly radio show, A Dream Across The Border, for 1BTN. That has I guess become my forum for sharing and promoting such amazing new – and old – music.

dave howell fatcat split series

#24 in FatCat`s Split Series is in shops right now, and you can order a copy direct from the label. As Dave says, you can check his brave new “envelope shredding” selections every month on 1BTN. 

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