Back in 1980, Ivo Watts-Russell aspired to create something new and bold in the music world. Excited by the music he was hearing in the late ’70s, the one-time record store manager formed 4AD Records, a pioneering British label that has become synonymous with innovation and quality. In her book Manic Pop Thrill, Rachel Felder summed it up well: “4AD is virtually the Motown of art bands.”
From early 4AD artists like Dif Juz, the Wolfgang Press and The Pixies on up to the Red House Painters and his own current project, the Hope Blister, Ivo (as everyone calls him) has certainly succeeded in generating colorful new music. The major labels have taken notice, snapping up a few 4AD artists. Ivo even signed a 4AD distribution deal with Warner/Reprise back in 1991, an arrangement that recently ended. 4AD artists who have flowed into the mainstream include Dead Can Dance and the Cocteau Twins; the former drew audience members as varied as symphony patrons and Goths, and the latter landed an appearance on The Tonight Show a few years back.
The producer/label chief himself recorded three albums with his own personal artistic collective, This Mortal Coil, an ever-mutating roster of label and non-label artists performing covers-and a few originals co-written by Ivo-in a variety of atmospheric settings. The group was striking for its extensive use of all sorts of stringed instruments, the frequent absence of a rhythm section other than drum programming, and processing that gave some vocals and instruments a watery texture. Following TMC’s Blood (1991), Ivo took an extended hiatus from studio projects, but he has returned with the Hope Blister, for which he acts as “musical director.”
Ivo is not a musician, and he has been a producer mostly out of necessity, but he continues to explore his own aesthetic by guiding the musicians he surrounds himself with. Unlike This Mortal Coil, the Hope Blister has a fixed roster: vocalist Louise Rutkowski, bassist Laurence O’Keefe, cellist Audrey Riley, and sax player and drummer Ritchie Thomas. The group’s debut album features striking, ethereal folk and romantic ambient pop renditions of songs written by David Sylvian (ex-Japan), Heidi Berry, Alison and Jim Shaw of The Cranes, Brian Eno, John Cale, Neil Halstead of Mojave 3, Chris Knox of Tall Dwarfs, and Slow Blow. Much like the repertoire of TMC, the songs of the Hope Blister are simple, but they are fleshed out with strong atmospheric contrasts, such as when distorted effects gradually engulf the stirring strings of “Spider and I.” Some of the songs are purposefully stark-not exactly conforming to a traditional band concept, but floating in space. A good example of this is the dreamy “Dagger,” where Rutkowski’s vocals soar over swirling ambient drones that morph with swelling and subsiding strings.
“The hope with this album,” Ivo says, “was that somebody would respond to it because of that place that it would take you, keep you there and lead you through from start to finish. I like that with music. I never really understood why a song has to end, especially fade out, and be given silence before another song will start up.”
Much like a Harold Budd or Brian Eno ambient excursion, the music of the Hope Blister often suggests other musical ideas. Like the playful shadows created by flickering candles in a dark room, the Hope Blister’s music creates subtle nuances and implied spaces. When this topic comes up, Ivo refers to the recent Sheila Chandra release, ABoneCroneDrone: “In the liner notes, she says these are drones, and the clashing drones suggest melodies, and all she has done is provide you with some of the melodies that she hears from those drones with her voice,” he explains. “There is a temptation to want to make those suggestions tangible by recording them. Sometimes I’ve got to know when to stop. With each new melody, especially within the context of drones and loops, the way that those relate to each other will suggest a new one.” (To satiate his desire to explore different aural possibilities, Ivo recently collected instrumental extractions from this album, which he compiled, looped and “chopped up” for a vinyl release entitled Underarms.)
Considering that the Hope Blister is not your typical pop group, creating their latest album,…smile’s OK, meant shirking standard recording procedure. Even though the group was recording covers, they were still unusual interpretations. “The vocals and the strings were put to the arrangements that we did on bass guitar or just keyboard stuff or samples,” Ivo explains. “The basic arrangements and melodic structure formed the basis for the pieces, then vocals were recorded over those. For the four songs requiring the string quartet, those parts were added after the vocals. The finishing touches came during mixing. The treatments of all those sounds makes it sound like there’s more instrumentation than there actually is.”
As a way to unify the diverse output on the label, many 4AD albums, particularly during the ’80s, were presented with dreamy, surreal, soft-focus photography or art on their covers. The booklet for …smile’s OK is no exception. But the music contained within each CD package was and continues to be strikingly different. Indeed, the alternative rock of The Breeders, the early Goth stylings of Clan of Xymox, and the slow-moving folk of Red House Painters are quite diverse and not easy to classify, and nearly impossible to lump together. Which naturally leads to the question-when Ivo founded 4AD, was there a goal in mind?
“What’s your goal when you ask somebody out on a date?” he asks. “You don’t really know. It’s an attraction or an interest, and when you make that suggestion, you have no idea whether you’ll end up marrying that person or having a disastrous one-off date.” He says his initial flirtation with the concept of starting a label was inspired by the influx of intriguing singles he encountered at his record store job in the late ’70s. Ivo felt that at that time it was “always worth listening to everything, because somebody somewhere was doing something that you’d never heard before. I just wanted to be part of it. I wanted to find out about the mechanics of making and distributing a record. It was just opportunity and curiosity, really. Gradually, within the first two or three years, a bigger picture evolved of wanting to develop trust from an audience and a degree of label identity, that there might be something worth listening to because it was on a particular label. Wanting to have the opportunity to work with a really good graphic designer, wanting to push the boundaries a bit through the way that records were presented.”
Since 1980, 4AD has been responsible for releasing a slew of innovative artists who have challenged the boundaries of popular music. From the lush, ethereal beauty of the Cocteau Twins to the multicultural fusion of Dead Can Dance to the amorphous, romantic sound tapestries of This Mortal Coil, 4AD has already left a strong legacy. One of the main reasons for this is that much of this music is timeless in nature. “I’m pleased that you say they’re timeless, because that’s definitely been the hope in terms of wanting to work with most people,” says Ivo. “If you think that they’re doing something that’s individual, it will stand the test of time. In reality, I think it’s very rare that that happens. I think that records are dated by the production or the time in which bands grew out of. The hope is that every record you put out is going to be like the Velvet Underground-that they’ll still be completely exciting to somebody 30 years later.”
Whereas today many artists have sophisticated home studios, in the early days of 4AD, “we had a good relationship with a handful of studios,” Ivo says. “We were working with people who were very helpful, and it was pretty cheap. A large number of early 4AD albums, including those by the Cocteau Twins, were recorded at Blackwing Studios in London, which was initially equipped for 8-track recording, but eventually evolved into a 24-track facility. John Fryer was an engineer I always worked with at Blackwing.”
Ivo notes that it was economics that originally dictated his becoming involved with production. “By default, I ended up sticking my nose in the production role. It became the type of thing that if I was disappointed at the end of the day, then I had myself to blame because I had been there every day.
“I think a producer is somebody who becomes the extra member of the band for a period of time, and he or she has the trust of the group with all of their ideas,” he continues. “They become part of the whole process. I make things up as I go along, and I find it quite hard to be able to convince somebody that this is a good idea that I just thought of three minutes ago. I really enjoyed the whole process, and that’s really why I created This Mortal Coil-to allow me to bring people one at a time to the studio, have them to do whatever they do, and then go away. So I wouldn’t have them looking down my neck saying, ‘That backing vocal needs to be louder,’ or ‘Why are you using that?’ Do your thing and go.”
Still, Ivo thinks of himself more as a musical director than a producer, and in that role he’s been quite successful. Years after their release, the three albums by This Mortal Coil are still resonant, full of life, warmth and a sense of mystery. And the Hope Blister continues that tradition. For his part, Ivo wants to be involved with discovering music that is new and different.
“I remember being young and hearing music and thinking, ‘I didn’t know music could do that,'” he says. “Just getting an idea of people’s imaginations and experimentation and innovations as opposed to something simply fitting into being marketed or played on the radio. The impact on me as a 12- or 13-year-old of Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn [their first LP] was enormous. I like to think of people the same age today perhaps hearing My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, and that having the same impact-that they didn’t know that you could do that with music.” It all comes down to feeling: “That can be a feeling of a release, of pent-up tension or aggression, or just being transported through a beautiful moment or an emotional setting. It’s just something that connects. I don’t know why it does it, but it’s there, and I’m bloody glad it is.”