Invada probably puts out more releases in six months than comparable indies of a similar scale do across three years, yet it’s known primarily for being co-founded by Portishead member Geoff Barrow. He is the label’s talisman, of a sort, a hugely enthusiastic mouthpiece for its roster – get talking to Barrow about all subjects but his day job and soon conversation will turn to the likes of Team Brick, Gonga and Thought Forms, all ‘signed’ to Invada.
Invada don’t do contracts, you see, as Barrow tells me when we sit down together in the basement bar of a west London hotel. He’s the ideal label boss: engaging, entertaining, anecdotal and absolutely thrilled by the music he and co-boss Fat Paul – a promoting legend in Bristol – release into the world. Money’s not an issue – not because there’s any surplus of it to splash around, but because no band gets an advance, promotional work is limited, and marketing is done on a shoestring. The bands sell the bands – they get out there and do the work. Invada offers them the platform from which they can launch their careers to whatever level they wish.
Although he’s on promo duty for Portishead’s Third, I’m here to talk Invada, exclusively; immediately Barrow relaxes, knowing the same old questions won’t need to be met by the same old answers. Besides, we met only months earlier to discuss the band’s comeback – click here for the two-part feature.
Video: Gonga vs E.T.
- - -
Talk me through how Invada started. It was after the second Portishead album, right?
I was in Australia, during the Portishead break, and met a guy called Ashley Anderson, who’s like an Aussie DJ Shadow (MySpace). I was more interested in the business side of things then, rather than the music, as I kind of quit making music. Anyway, I met him and we became friends. He’d made this record and I said I’d help him shop it around, as he didn’t know anyone in the industry. We went to the majors and they didn’t understand it – everyone was in rock world then, as this was around ’99. So I thought, fuck that, and we made a label in Australia. There were some other bands around, in a similar vein, and Invada put them out. We must have done 20,000 copies of Ashley Anderson’s album, and I realised we needed someone to help out. What’s hilarious about it – well, not hilarious, but it’s a bit frustrating – is that the NME has done something on Invada and quoted all these bands who helped me get back into music, but it’s all the Australian bands, not the English ones.
And then the label laid roots in Bristol, after the Australian success?
In 2002 or 2003 I approached a guy called Fat Paul in Bristol who had already put out about 75 albums and twelve-inches – he’s a legend for putting out music in Bristol. If he dug it, it was alright. I told him I really wanted to do a label together, and he said to go through Cargo, as he had a 15-year relationship with them. Cargo went for it, perhaps because I was involved. So what happened was Paul called up and said he was going to see this band and they could be the first signing for the label, and that band was Gonga… and the gig was amazing. It was heavy as fuck, just… just in another realm. They didn’t give a fuck about commercial aspirations, but they had tunes – it wasn’t just drone. The first Gonga stuff we put out got highly rated, and I’m sure it’s because they were good, rather than anything to do with my involvement.
And the ball’s never stopped rolling, so to speak. The label’s productivity is insane.
We plough right through – we’ve got another ten albums to put out this year. We don’t do contracts, although if a release makes money obviously we give some to the artist! If they want to take the band to a higher level we will have conversations about what they’re doing. We’ve got a subsidiary label too, Rocket (MySpace), with bands like White Hills. I just love getting stuff out there. Stuff we put money into – plugging and press and the like – seems to do nothing sometimes, while what we don’t really invest in can do really well. Sometimes the opposite, of course. We make 1,000 copies – if they sell out, we make 1,000 more. There are bands that come in and out of Invada – I came back [from touring] and we’ve four new bands because of Paul! And it’s not that we don’t take it seriously, because we do; it’s more because of this desire to put music out there. We’re doing a Kraut album by this guy called Pedro – he got in touch with Paul and now we’re doing it. I think last month we were in profit by about a grand, which wasn’t bad – we never give advances. Bands can play live to earn whatever money they can. The most we’ve sold is about 5,000, the least about 65. We have this thing where other people’s money supports other bands. We paid out… I think the initial thing we put money into was Gonga. My wife did the press on that, and now we have someone helping us again. Crippled Black Phoenix have done a deal with Domino Publishing. Brickie (Team Brick) is always on tour or doing something interesting.
How do you think the label’s seen, then? As an eclectic stable?
I don’t know… How is it seen? Do people know it?
I know it. I guess most people in the industry know it. Beyond that, fans of noise-rock stuff…
Well, it’s not just a noise label. But the thing is that I know nothing about other indie labels – I know Rise Above, and Southern Lord, and Rock Action. That’s probably because acts I like are on those labels. And Secretly Canadian and Tee Pee. Tee Pee ripped us off, actually. They licensed the Gonga album and put it out worldwide on iTunes for themselves, and then wouldn’t get back to us for two fucking years. It’s only when I said I’d give Gonga tickets to go over there and kick their heads in that they went, “You don’t have to be like that, man”. Well, what do you expect?! But I know very little about our ‘competition’, I guess. Paul is the absolute indie historian, and he knows about every band that comes through – he puts on bands too, bands coming through Bristol. If they’re good they’ll usually get a gig with Paul. And it’s just what we like. Anything that’s too commercial, we just can’t do.
Video: Crippled Black Phoenix live in Manchester
- - -
Are the demos you receive tailored a certain way, based on what the label’s released recently, or do you get all sorts?
We get all sorts of different demos. We don’t really touch indie – although we did Amusement Parks On Fire, which was quite commercial, before they went to V2, and they might be doing something else with us again. There are ten more albums to come this year, including the Gonga record. There’s Rosie Red Rash, who are really scrappy, but that isn’t the charm. They’ve got some wicked tunes, and they’re cool as fuck – it’s like ESG or The Slits. They’ve lost their guitarist, which I’m a bit concerned about, as she was cool – people can underestimate the chemistry of a band. You really would never expect a band to be so good at 15 – they weren’t really meant to play ATP, we had to sneak them in. Then there’s Team Brick, who I think is fucking brilliant. He supported Julian Cope, and he’s made this film which is brilliant… hopefully we’ll put that out with the album. I worry that sometimes people expect too much, as when we’re excited about music sometimes we have to be careful to not raise these artists’ hopes. Every record we release usually breaks even, and those that do better are those that I’ve recorded at my own studio – the way I see it, that’s a cost to the label. So if we make money from a band, we never see it ourselves, but it goes back into the label. If we had to pay for a studio we’d be shagged, so what bands earn in royalties goes towards covering these studio costs. We tell bands they can do whatever they want – double albums, vinyl – and they can even go elsewhere if they really want to. It’s because we take it seriously that we have this attitude. If you’re going to do a label properly, on a small scale, just to do a contract can cost two grand – you’re already in a hole!
What tips would you give to someone wanting to start a label, now?
Get some fucking good music that people want to listen to, somehow, and go to a distributor. Some of the bigger ones need to see this picture, to see what’s going to go on. But there has to be something about the band – a story that needs telling. The music alone is fine but it helps to have something else.
It’s becoming more and more possible to bypass the old system: sign a deal, the label runs your affairs, et cetera. Look at the success of Mint Royale’s take on ‘Singin’ In The Rain’ with that Britain’s Got Talent thing and the car ad. It went to number one with no label push.
Without a publisher it’s almost impossible to get your music on adverts and television, though. Domino are convinced they can do some good film work with Crippled, and they could be heading that way rather than selling records.
And you’ve embraced the digital age?
All our stuff is on iTunes. I don’t think it’s a necessary evil, just another shop. We don’t have our own download service, like some dance labels do – Warp has one, but it has a name that acts as a brand. Invada isn’t quite there. I don’t really know how our label is perceived at all, but we’ll do anything we can that’s of interest.
Was curating ATP (Portishead handled duties at the last Nightmare Before Christmas) a great shop window for the Invada roster?
ATP as a shop window? No… well, putting our mates on, that worked! I loved ATP, but I was concerned that people thought it was the Geoff Barrow show, with all these bands from the label.
And do you actively seek out acts, or do they tend to just land in your lap?
We are always on the look out for stuff, and bands do come to us, but they’re usually sub-Oasis. We do get some stuff that’s excellent – a band called Thought Forms came that way, and we’re about to do their first album. I don’t think it’ll set the world on fire yet, but they’re young. Gonga’s new album has a wicked video that goes with it – although we’re really not meant to be using it! It’s the E.T. BMX chase (see video at top of article).
And your favourite release on Invada, to date?
Errr… the first one, it has to be. You can’t pick one otherwise.
Finally, tell me a secret about Invada…
One of the bands is me. I’m not giving you any clues. I’ve not performed under the name, and I’m not revealing anything yet – I’ve released a few things, and there’s more stuff coming. Also I’m going to do a hip-hop album on Invada, called Quakers. In theory it’ll be a weird set-up where beats will be sent out from MySpace and rappers can choose the beats and post them on MySpace, and then we’ll download them. The three main beat-makers are me, Ashley and this guy called Stu, and we’ve got well-known rappers coming into it, too. The tracks are just a minute long – people can do what they want with them. Hopefully it won’t sound like the same old shitty hip-hop. We get to choose what goes on the album, what goes out there.
Video: Team Brick live in Glasgow
- - -
WIN: Fancy a copy of the new Gonga album, Transmigration, as reviewed here? Simply post below, in the comments section, the made-up name of your own fantasy doom-metal band. My suggestion: Savage Pumas. You can’t have that one. I win an album. Yay me. Winners, four of them, will be selected partially at random, partially based on how awesome their entry is, and contacted via a DiS note by September 15.
Previous Label Focus articles:
#16: Chemikal Underground
#15: Moshi Moshi
#14: FatCat Records
#13: Thee SPC
#12: One Little Indian
#11: Big Dada
#9: Holy Roar
#8: Big Scary Monsters
#6: Upset! The Rhythm
#5: Gringo Records
#4: Dance To The Radio
#3: Bella Union
#2: Fierce Panda
#1: Drowned in Sound