Both me and my brother went through a period of waiting furtively for the postman to deliver these plain brown packages, which we ripped open and almost tore the plastic covering off to get to the good stuff inside. And no, it wasn’t what you’re thinking. These were singles from a small Bristol based record company, Sarah – which had been set up in 1987 by experience fanzine writers Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes. These were usually little 3 minute slices of indie pop heaven, sometimes jangly, sometimes punky, or shoegazey, or plain old poppy.
They set out to release 100 singles of this pop perfection, and, eight years later, along with some albums and 10 inch mini-albums, they achieved that. Immediately, they took out an advert in both NME and Melody Maker, announcing ‘A day for destroying things’ and then they were gone. They had achieved a lot – from singles of the week in the NME for debut release ‘Pristine Christine’, to extended airplay from the new music programmes on Radio One (led by the legendary John Peel) and carried on despite an increasingly spiteful music press finding them an easy target.
A little over 25 years later and the memory of Sarah is still with us, still influencing people, and bands and fanzine writers (or as we call them today -bloggers) and those records, those wonderful little slices of escapism that arrived through the post, complete always with a little sheet of musings and sometimes with a small poster, are still loved, and looked for and, well, are like little pieces of treasure (copies of the first release ‘Pristine Christine’ by The Sea Urchins changes hands for £100+). The level of interest in the label not only sees several of the bands that recorded for the label still performing here and there, but has also led to a documentary, currently being filmed. We spoke to Clare from the label, about Sarah, music and life.
So, it’s a little over 25 years since you started releasing records as Sarah with Matt Haynes. How does that make you feel?
It makes me feel old! Particularly having just done several hours filming for the documentary, which was focussed on us, where we grew up, what the times were like. And having just read the Tracey Thorn Book, I’ve started to realise what a different place the 80s were, certainly for alternative culture, the lack of financial ambition and obsession that we all took for granted in particular. Perhaps we all had a belief in the welfare state that made people not need to focus on themselves and money all the time…
How did you get to that stage of forming a record label and releasing records?
Accidentally! We had both written fanzines for several years. Matt had been one of the 4 fanzine writers running the Sha-la-la flexi-label, I had put a flexi out with my last fanzine – and both Sha-la-la and I had done flexis with The Sea Urchins. Matt and I had met a few months previously, but got to know each other when I initially wanted to know how big & heavy 1000 flexis was (could I take them on the coach from London back to Leeds? – answer yes) and when we got together in the summer, starting a record label just seemed the obvious thing to do. The arrogance and ambition of youth – now you would spend a lot of time considering it, then you just thought you could do anything, so you did.
Do you think the output stands up today?
Yes I do, totally. I mean some of it sounds of its time, production wise, a lot of it was made quite cheaply and some of it sounds like it, but the songs and the spirit transcend that. If the songs are there – and they were – it will stand up.
For anyone not familiar with the sarah label, what three tracks would you recommend as a starting point to give people a ‘flavour’ of the label?
To get a flavour, there needs to be something gentle heartfelt and acoustic-y, something pure pop and which the detractors would think wasn’t the sound of the label at all, and something quite spirited and punky. So, I’m going to say The Field Mice Emma’s House, The Orchids Peaches, Heavenly Atta Girl. That seems to miss so much though!
Field Mice – Emma’s House
The Orchids – Peaches
Heavenly – Atta Girl
And your favourite releases?
We’ve always resisted this question, and it’s so hard to narrow it down to a handful of records anyway – and of course a lot of the reasons for favourites are as much to do with what was going on at the time, the relationship with a band at the time (sometimes they were rocky), than the actual music. That said, it’s hard not to have a special affection for Pristine Christine by The Sea Urchins, still a great song to launch a label with, and for Toulouse by Blueboy, the last song, which is every bit as good as the first.
Do you think its sometimes unfair you’re thought of as a ‘twee’ c-86 label, when some of the stuff I’m thinking of 14 iced bears almost shoegaze, action painting! Almost well, punk? Or, do you celebrate the ‘twee’ term
I hate the term twee, loathe it. I think there was a lot of sexism in the abuse we got from the music press, we were girlie we were fey, we were twee, they were all bad things, but they’re feminine rather than masculine things. Most indie labels still are and were then run by men, I was co-running as an equal, we were called Sarah, & that was all a reason to put us down. Quiet concerning really. That said, I hate all the childishness side of twee that a few people embraced, I always wanted to be a grown up, felt required to be a grown up, I’m not a fan of escapism. But I don’t think wearing a skirt and white ankle socks in summer makes you twee, it just keeps you cooler, lets your legs feel some sun and stops your shoes from rubbing. I mean, really.
Musically – the output was quite diverse, much more so than people suppose. Not incredibly diverse, admittedly, but not all the same type of thing by any means. You can even just take one band like the Field Mice and they themselves did a wide range of things.
Did you have favourites to work with in that time?
It wasn’t really like that – some bands we had the opportunity to get to know better than others, generally because they were closer, and we saw them more. Some were more fans of the label than others, and were proud to be on it – others found it restricting and would rather have been on a more normal label. Some bands became friends and others didn’t so much – but that didn’t necessarily make it easier to work with them, in fact it could make it harder! But generally we all muddled through quite well I think, especially when you think how young most of us were, and how personal the label to us and the songs to them.
How did you get your records ‘out there’ at the start?
We were in a pretty good position to start with because we were both known for the fanzines and flexis, especially Matt because Sha-la-la had Singles of the week etc. So, that helped us get a manufacturing and distribution deal with Revolver to get the records made and into the shops. Then we sent copies to John Peel & Janice Long, and got Radio 1 play from both, and we sent copies to the music press and got a Single of The Week for Pristine Christine. At the same time we were furiously writing letters to fanzine connections so word got around that way too.
The Sea Urchins – Pristine Christine
Do you think the press were supportive, or increasingly dismissive? or both?
Initially quite supportive in retrospect I suppose, then increasingly dismissive. Increasingly even the people who liked the records didn’t want to stick their heads above the parapet and say so. We rarely got completely ignored though – from our point of view that would have been the worst thing, at least with bad reviews people knew the records were out. The bands might sometimes have preferred the ignored though, the records were too often reviewed as Another Sarah Record rather than as themselves, and that – not unreasonably – drove the bands crazy.
Was there any bands who sent you stuff, you wish you’d put out (or would have made you a lot of money)?
I regret us not putting out Tug Boat in the UK – we were offered but we didn’t think the B-side was good enough. Which may have been true but the A side is amazing. There’s nothing I wish we’d done for the money, I’m proud of the label and all of the records and we never compromised on the quality, so not really.
And any you’d particularly have liked to release things from?
Well clearly there were other bands we liked and loved over those 8 years who weren’t on the label, and I guess any of those we would have liked to release – but you can’t do everything, and maybe those bands would have had entirely different “careers” if they’d been on Sarah, who knows.
The fanzine thing was massive in that period of late 80’s/early 90’s – do you lament that time, or celebrate its continuation online?
I kind of think it was bigger in the late 70s/early 80s, certainly in terms of ambition and sales volumes. I do and I don’t, I means some fanzines were really great, and some were really terrible and there was everything in between – I think scenes are very rarely all good or all bad. For me starting a fanzine was all about being part of something, about participating in something I cared about – when I always knew I could never participate through being in a band – and the internet is an amazing thing for participating. If punk was about breaking down the boundaries between producers and consumers then the internet is so much more so, and it’s clear many many people want to participate and to have a voice and to do so much more than just consume.
Was running the label a labour of love?
Totally, totally. I mean we made a living out of it for quite a long time, but it was our whole lives during that time and we cared passionately about every aspect of it.
What were the high points? And the low?
The high points were always hearing new demos we loved and getting in touch with those bands and getting a yes back to release something. Hearing new recordings that we loved by the existing bands. Getting wonderful letters from people who loved the records and bands, meeting some of those people. The lows were new recordings we didn’t love, things going wrong with printing or pressing so we had to try & get them redone or having to settle for a discount because nobody will repress because the labels aren’t quite right, falling out with the bands about something.
Are you surprised by how much the Sarah records cost today?
I try not to pay any attention. Most of the songs are on iTunes – which was initially a response to people selling MP3s of them on Ebay – money that would never make its way to the bands. If people want to sell their old records 25 years on and other people want to buy them, you can’t really knock that, it’s when people bought them in the first place to sell later, I get really angry. Buy wine, buy gold or whatever, but our records should not have been bought to hold to watch the value increase, they should have been bought to be played and loved. We spent a lot of time resisting articles in Record Collector that were focussed on prices not music, it’s just not what Sarah was about or wanted to be associated with.
What would you say to people thinking of setting out on a similar journey today?
Good luck, and have fun. Don’t compromise.
‘We don’t do encores’ your press statement said on ‘a day for destroying things’. does a little part of you, if only occasionally, think well……maybe if….
Not really, not now. It was weird at first, and someone said to me soon after “… didn’t you used to be…?”, but it’s 17 years since we stopped, I’m 45. One of the things I thought was good (although in some ways I guess it was bad) was that we were kids the same age as the bands, give or take, in that sense we could never be a proper record label.
Sarah was thought of as quite a political label, and also one very concerned with equality. Were these element important to you as a label?
Very important, it ran through everything we did. It’s disappointing that nothing much seems to have changed, particularly with regard to feminism and the preponderance of bands or labels still to think the main role of women is decoration – a cool sixties chick on the sleeve or poster, some nice female backing vocal – and to fail to question what they’re doing and why. We tried to run the label we would have wanted to be consumers of, so we didn’t do limited editions or extra tracks or things designed to get people to buy the same record several times over, there’s a degree of respect for the audience and the fan that was completely lacking through a lot of the eighties and nineties – they were the little people essentially, and that’s a very Tory attitude.
Was being based provincially (in Bristol) beneficial, or a hinderance?
It was less odd at the start of the label than it was by the end – the music industry became very London-centric, and the press became even more London centric than it previously had been, during the 8 years we ran the label. Regional distributors almost totally disappeared during that period for instance. So it started out being just who we were, and became part of our weirdness and something that made it easier for the press to have a go because they never had to bump into us because we were 120 miles away.
Does it surprise you that so many of the bands on the label are active, and in some cases releasing records still?
I don’t know really. I guess if you’d asked in 1987 would I think The Orchids would still be gigging in 2013 I wouldn’t have thought so – but I don’t think teenagers have much concept of people in their mid-forties anyway, and I suppose ours is maybe the first generation that has been able to keep on doing what we liked doing when we were younger, certainly most of our parents didn’t.
What did you do after Sarah finished, I expect it left rather a big hole?
It did, but it was a sort of gradual end in a way, we put a compilation out when we stopped, and still needed and wanted to sell that and the later records gerneally, so we didn’t just shut up shop immediately. We both moved to London a year or so later, I worked in the music industry for a while, but didn’t really enjoy it, it was just a way to get a job. Then I trained as a Chartered Accountant.
Are you still involved in the music scene?
I still go to gigs, but fewer every year, sadly. I do some of the things I used to assume I’d do when I was older, like go to the theatre instead.
And finally, what bands do you currently like? Any tips?
No tips, but I like what Darren Hayman does a lot. The last Tender Trap album is great. I discovered Veronica Lake and Young Romance last year. I’ve got tickets for The Postal Service, Richard Hawley, The xx, Billy Bragg, SXSW…
You only have trawl the internet to see how deep the love is still for this, a little DIY label set up by two fanzine writers in Bristol. And thank god they did.
St. Christopher – Say Yes to Everything