As a reviewer, from time to time you come across small boutique labels whose enthusiasm and dedication to the music scene is utterly magnificent and completely inspiring. Over the past few years, I’ve reviewed a number of brilliant bands with one common denominator – they were all on the Half a Cow Record label. This is a label that is ingrained in the consciousness of any Australian (and particularly Sydney) indie music fan over the past few decades.
Half a Cow is in fact celebrating thirty years in the business – a compelling and fixed star in the musical firmament. At the heart of this label is of course a musician – who better to understand the business while having at heart the interests of creatives. Owner Nic Dalton has history – a fine one indeed. Bass player with the legendary The Hummingbirds and for a while The Lemonheads (co-writing one of their hits with Evan Dando, ‘Dawn Can’t Decide‘), currently fronting Nic Dalton and his Gloomchasers and running the coolest venue in Sydney – The Petersham Bowling Club. Put quite simply, Dalton is a seminal and central character in the history of Australian indie music.
Half a Cow have just released a compilation album called ‘Magneto’ spanning across thirty years of material from a range of bands that share one crucial element – unadorned and pure creativity. The songs are collectively and individually brilliant – capturing a range of styles from low-fi bedroom recordings to the lush and multi-layered sounds of favourites like The Wednesday Night (recipient of my 2020 single of the year award for The Perfect Scene) and Key Out (spoiler alert: their album Anthropomorphia is one of Backseat Mafia’s top fifty releases of 2020, due out soon).
I am new to many of these bands and each and every track and every new discovery is a sonic delight – for example US band STAR and their track ‘Angel School Anthem’ which is a fuzzy, scuzzy shoegaze delight.
The collection is a wonderful snapshot of the (mostly) Australian indie scene with strong roots in the inner west suburb of Glebe, and a testament to Dalton’s highly attuned ear for luscious, raw pop music played with passion and integrity.
I cornered Nic Dalton and asked him a few questions about life, the universe and everything.
First of all, congratulations on thirty years of HAC Records. What encouraged you to start this risky business back in 1990?
I had a lot of four track recordings and friends used to say that I should release them, so in 1989 I put together a record with Robyn St Clare from The Hummingbirds called Billiepeebup under the name Love Positions. While I was waiting to work out how to pay for that, Miles (my partner in Half A Cow in the very early days) and I had a chance to put out a ten-inch EP by one of our favourite Sydney bands The Craven Fops. That was the first release in March 1990 followed by Love Positions (album and single) in October. It certainly never seemed a risky thing to start up a small label out a tiny bookshop on Glebe Point Road.
When I started Half A Cow Records I was inspired by other independent labels. The one label I wanted it to be most like was Flying Nun from New Zealand. I loved the four track recordings, the artwork and also how there didn’t seem to be a specific logo. So on the early releases, I’d ask the band to do their own version of a ‘half a cow’ but they all liked my original drawing, so that idea never happened.
When I was a teenager it was Stiff Records out of London that I became a big fan of, gobbling up pretty much all their singles and a lot of the albums. I loved their irreverent take on being a record label. Around the same time, Mushroom Records (although affiliated with the larger Festival) signed up The Sports and I bought all their singles and albums. In fact, the first single I ever bought was on Mushroom: Ol ’55’s “On The Prowl” back in 6th Grade in 1976 and we had Skyhooks’ first two albums in high rotation on the family stereo back in those days too.
But it was the Australian independent labels such as Citadel, Waterfront and Au Go Go that were really important to the beginnings of Half A Cow. I’d like to thank Chris, Steve and Frank from Waterfront, John from Citadel and Bruce from Au Go Go for being mentors to me back then. If I ever had a question or two about how to set up the label, they were more than happy to give me advice.
How did you come up with the name and the hilarious graphic?
At school, my girlfriend Zoe was in the library studying and had her book on agriculture open up on a page with an illustration of a cross-section of a cow showing the three stomachs needed to digest food to turn into milk. I thought it looked catchy.
I always recall frequently visiting a shop front store on Glebe Point Road back in the nineties – does this still exist?
From 1993 onwards, the Half A Cow bookshop and the record label became two separate businesses. The shop (or should I say shops – a smaller one and then we moved across the road into bigger premises) lost a lot of money. Never go into business with friends. Well, not me anyway. The bookshop declared bankruptcy and shut at the end of 1998 which left me to concentrate on the label.
There have been immeasurable changes to the industry over that time – a move to CDs, decline in live music venues, further diversification of music styles, streaming and then ending up with COVID. What has been the secret of your survival?
My secret is not taking a wage! Seriously. And, once I went completely independent in 2000 after two joint-venture deals with PolyGram and then Festival, it was being on top of every manufacturing bill and knowing what everything is actually costing you. I’ve found when I’ve gone through a distributor, it always seemed to cost a bit more. I also find film clips a luxury: spending a few grand to get played on Rage at four in the morning isn’t exactly money well spent. And pay the bands their royalties. Word gets around if you don’t and new signings may be thin on the ground.
I’m also incredibly indebted to Dave Chatfield, who was the label manager for most of the 1990s, and he worked incredibly hard and made a lot of stuff happen and helped create our ‘no bullshit, keep it honest’ ethos which continues to this day.
What is it you look for in your artists – is there a particular HAC sound?
Maybe for about a year there was a ‘sound’, it was called the ‘Glebe Sound’: fuzzy guitars, lo-fi recordings, everyone around the same age and all based in Sydney’s inner-west. But there is no Half A Cow sound when there has been quite a bit of variety. Compare 2 Litre Dolby to Ruby For Lucy.
But maybe what I look for in the acts I release is seeing that they have a love for the music they are doing. And there has to be trust between label and artist – I think they know I’m just a small label and can only do so much and that they’re not going to be ripped off.
How important is commercial success – do you harbour ambitions for your bands to receive nominations from the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) or do you accept this is a different world?
Commercial success would be fantastic! I would love to have huge sales for the bands but the reality is to have chart success you actually have to have everything in place like a ton of money for a publicity campaign, videos, posters, press agent, photo shoots, more photo shoots, etcetera. A one-or two-person operation could not do that. You definitely need a team.
Half A Cow is not a member of ARIA, so unless the band joins themselves (which they can do), a Half A Cow record will never be nominated for an ARIA. Yes, it’s not my world. Never was. And that’s totally okay by me.
One more thing. Awards, judging different acts, competitions. I’ve never liked how some ‘connected’ industry people can choose one thing over another. Like the Oscars, the ARIAs are a crock of shit. (disclaimer: I have previously judged the Petersham Bowling Club band competition…twice!)
I agree – music should not be a competition. As a reviewer, every other high-quality band emerging from Australia recently seems to be connected to you. Has there been a recent renaissance of HAC activity over the past few years?
Yes, there has because I’ve been spending more time on the label. In 2012-14 I was sort of winding the label down and spending more time doing art. I was going through a divorce and my part time work was taking up a lot of my time. Then in 2014 I signed up to having the releases come out on the streaming services (I was already with iTunes since 2008) but I was confused how to deal with this new world especially how to service radio stations with my releases. And blogs! I didn’t know any blogs. Then I pulled my socks up and learnt how the new system worked. One plus is not having to send out promo cds/records to the media which is a cost in more ways than one. I feel guilty about all the plastic and paper waste I have created over the years. Sorry Earth.
In 2016 I got a job booking the bands at the Petersham Bowling Club (PBC) which renewed my interest in new, young bands. My 60s-70s music bubble was burst when I realised how much great new music was being made. Bands wanting gigs at the PBC would send me their Bandcamp links and I’d check them out. It was a group called the S-Bends I checked out first and I was really impressed. I also work in a record store one day a week, so this also made me feel a bit more connected with the local music scene. This, along with booking bands, inspired me to make more of an effort with my label.
What is also refreshing is that you do not discriminate by age – you have a number of older musicians going through a first or second life (I’m thinking of The Finalists, Warmer, Key Out and The Wednesday Night for example). Is creativity not the sole gift of the young?
I have never thought about that. I suppose I don’t discriminate at all. Personally though, I think the live scene is a young person’s game – playing a warehouse with a whole bunch of friends, staying out all night. Not having to return home to the babysitter by midnight!
I like being involved with a band’s first recordings and helping them make something presentable without spending too much money. Take Art Of Fighting for example. I released their first two mini-albums in the late 90s and then they went on to another label and had great success. Those first two cds are still with Half A Cow (the band could have ended the deal fifteen years ago!) and the band still receive fairly decent royalties every six months.
Would it be unfair to ask if there are any favourites in your roster or bands that stand out? Are there any bands that you wished you had signed?
Of course there are releases that mean a lot to me – like Bernie Hayes’ first album which I produced. I only had sisters and Bernie is like my big brother and Every Tuesday, Sometimes Sunday is very special to me, like I am part of his family. The first song Smudge recorded “Tea Toast and Turmoil” I love so much. Sidewinder’s “Day After Day” I always say is my favourite song on Half A Cow.
The Brutals’ Honeymoon Period I released a year after the band broke up because it was such a perfect pop album. It hardly sold but I didn’t care. I don’t think any bands stand out though, as they are all doing their own thing and I wouldn’t be involved with them if I didn’t like them. And all the recent records from the last couple of years I absolutely love and am proud to be involved – they are the reason for any ‘recent renaissance’.
One band I always wanted on Half A Cow was Sydney band The Moles back in the early 90s. I loved them so much. They put out two wonderful mini-albums on Waterfront and a couple of singles. All this has since been snapped up by English label Fire Records who I have dealt with a few times over the years. I hope The Moles aren’t being ripped off, as they deserve so much better.
A huge list to check through! You have expanded your roster from just Sydney bands – Wilding comes from Melbourne and St Ove from the UK – are you ultimately seeking world domination? What are your future plans?
I’ve put out non-Sydney band over the years, the first being Bettie Serveert and their classic Palomine album in 1992, then a swag of Melbourne acts (Art Of Fighting, Tendrils, Kim Salmon). But you are right, I have recently made a decision to release more acts from other parts of the world. I don’t look for bands though (never really have) so it’s just by chance I actually respond to their email and take it from there.
Future plans: more of the same but less releases. Put out way too much in 2020. I think because of Covid there was a lot more music being made. I want to spread the records out over the year so I can give them a better chance with getting airplay on community radio stations!
Yes, it’s been a strange year due to Covid – I admit as a reviewer to being overwhelmed with material to review. You have just released Magneto, a collection of HAC bands to celebrate your thirty years – what can you tell us about this compilation?
It’s not a ‘best of’, it’s a compilation of the last twenty-five or so releases. It’s a marketing ploy showing off some of the great music that may have been overlooked. I did a very extensive worldwide mailout and am already getting great feedback – more than I expected. There’s so much music churned out every day that it’s pretty hard to get noticed.
I guess it hasn’t been the best year for celebrating this anniversary – how did you intend to celebrate the thirty years and do you have any plans for something now things are opening up?
I did have a weekend booked for October past but I actually scrapped that before Covid. We had a big 25th anniversary weekend in 2015 and that was a great weekend so I thought I’d let the music do the celebrating for the 30th anniversary.
What are your feelings on the future of music in Sydney, Australia and the world in the post-COVID era?
There’s always going to be venues opening and closing, new and old bands putting out music. That’s never going to change. I just wish that the dominant way people listen to music these days (streaming) was geared to pay more of the money back to the actual artists who are creating the music rather than the streaming sites (and the major record companies). It should be illegal and I don’t understand why it isn’t.
Finally – you have been a successful musician as well as a record label owner with your own career, but I’m sure our readers would like to know about your connections to the legendary The Lemonheads. How did this come about and what did it involve for you? Did this experience shape in any way your approach to the music industry?
I was playing bass in The Hummingbirds and we did a tour with Lemonheads in July/August of 1991. I became friends with the band and crew. Evan, the singer, was inspired by what was going on in Sydney (Glebe!) at the time and starting writing songs in the same style. He wrote a couple of songs with Tom Morgan from Smudge, covered one of my songs and got a hit album out of it. He asked me to join the band on the bass, which I did for a little over two years. That was a lot of fun and I made a bit of money which was all lost continually propping up the Half A Cow bookshop and paying for some of the records on the label.
I’d already experienced being in a band on a major label (The Hummingbirds) but Lemonheads was this times ten so I saw firsthand how it all worked with Atlantic Records and Gold Mountain (Lemonheads label and management) and came back to Australia knowing exactly what I didn’t want to do. But then I went straight into a label deal with PolyGram… which was a huge mistake! It wasn’t until the end of 1999 when Half A Cow was able to become completely independent again and I doubt that will ever change.
Magneto is available now from Half a Cow Records – see link below. Go and get it – it’s a slice of low-fi indie pop magic. All Half a Cow releases are available here on Bandcamp.