Idle Hands/with support from: Best Available Technology/John T. Gast/Logos/Madteo/Ossia/Andy Stott
My love affair with the record shop began in earnest back in the early 70s, at an electrical store in Warwick called Bonel And Curtis Audio (Ltd). A friend of my mother’s, Tony Ayers, worked there, and he’d wink conspiratorially when applying unofficial discount to my meagre purchases, before slipping them into a brown paper bag. The shop itself stocked TV and audio equipment to the left of the store, with racks of vinyl grazing nonchalantly to the right. In those pre-punk days, much of their vinyl stock was classical, operatic or easy to listen to. Amongst the remaining racks of what was deemed ‘popular’ music at the time lay pockets of interest marked: ‘Black Sabbath’, ‘Led Zeppelin’ and ‘Deep Purple’. I can vividly recall the hours of pondering that would take place prior to a purchase, and the weeks of regret that would often follow. Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ (Vertigo) being one case in point: the moment I got it home I was annoyed beyond belief with the frankly ridiculous artwork, especially in comparison to the mystical allure of their iconic self-titled debut. It became the first record I ever took back and swapped, setting a precedent of obsessive compulsive behaviour that has mutated over the years, but remains stoically the same to this day.
By the time 1977 arrived, I’d amassed twenty-odd albums of pre-punk dinosauria. With cashflow a constant concern, I lugged my nascent collection down to Renton’s in Leamington Spa, where I proceeded to swap the entire cache for the debut LPs by The Stranglers, The Clash, The Damned and Wire. I’d entered the shop with my collection in a cardboard box, and left with it in a single plastic bag. In 1978, I became the ‘saturday boy’ at Discovery Records, in Stratford-upon-Avon, one of the new-fangled independent record shops that would fuel the punk rock explosion’s exponential growth across the nation. By the end of the year I’d quit college, and was soon managing the shop, whilst the owner expanded his empire in Leamington Spa, and later, Solihull. The 80s duly arrived, and Discovery ended in tears, for me – or, to be more precise: an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal, which I lost. I eventually landed a new position at Red Rhino (Midlands), aka Nine Mile, pulling and packing orders. Nine Mile were the Midlands hub of The Cartel: a co-operative organisation founded by a number of independent labels to handle their collective distribution, pooling resources and assets to enable them to compete with the larger distribution network of the major record labels.
Discovery was a right of passage, it felt like being at the centre of the universe when it almost mattered, as punk rock yielded to Two Tone, and the eclecticism of the post-punk era beckoned. There were queues around the block from 8am on the day The Jam released ‘Going Underground’ (Poydor) on double 7″. Our punk rock idols had begun to invade the BMRB charts, and TOTP was suddenly more interesting than the Old Grey Whistle Test. At Nine Mile I felt I’d arrived, my employers, Robin Hurley and Graham Jelfs, were positively parental towards me, and the kindly guidance of Simon Holland provided camaraderie that set the experience in stone as one of a lifetime. I pulled and packed thousands of records by the likes of New Order, Depeche Mode, The Smiths, Billy Bragg, The Sisters Of Mercy, and sent them out by courier van to the far flung corners of the realm. Nine Mile also founded Chapter 22 Records, with a roster that boasted Pop Will Eat Itself, The Wonderstuff, Balaam and the Angel and The Mission.
In time, the need for the kind of income that could support a mortgage reared its ugly head, and something inside me died. As my tastes evolved with the arrival of hip-hop, I began a long and fruitful relationship with Don Christie’s Records in Birmingham, purveyors of fine dub, hip-hop and house. The shop’s Rastafarian regulars weren’t altogether keen on the advent of hip-hop or house music, however, and the sound of teeth being kissed often accompanied my visits. My social anxiety struggled on occasion, but before long I’d worked out when the hip-hop/house distro van dropped by, and co-ordinated my crate digging accordingly. Trips to Birmingham were often twice or thrice weekly, in those days, combined with visits to Tempest, Swordfish and Plastic Factory.
Wherever I travelled back in the day, I would trawl the streets in search of vinyl emporiums. On my first visit to Bristol on June 10th, 1980, for The Clash‘s Coulson Hall date of their London Calling Tour, I climbed the stairs to Revolver Records for the first time. As Tom Friend captures thus: “Revolver was a really important shop. It was scary, because we were just kids, but it was great. A good friend of mine, Richard King, wrote the book ‘Original Rockers’, which I read and then immediately re-read; it perfectly captures that period in Bristol. You’d go into Revolver and be pretty intimidated, but would always find interesting records. There’d be a lot of records out the back that weren’t for sale, and Roger would say: ‘Come back later, I’ll tape it for you’. You’d go back at the end of the day and he’d put the record on a tape for £1. Later on, there was Purple Penguin, Imperial. They were important shops because it was pre-internet, pre-mobile phones. You just knew if you went there, there was a good chance you’d meet people you knew, other bands. It was a golden era”.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Bristol this year, and in particular I’ve bought a bunch of vinyl from Idle Hands, one of the city’s most vital establishments. Idle Hands takes me back to the days outlined above: the days of collectivism; the days before the internet and digital identity; the days when music could talk. Despite the ravaging passage of time, the song resolutely remains the same. Technology may come, technology may go, formats may change, but the humble record shop still has its role to play at the heart of any cultural enclave worth its salt. I spoke to Idle Hands’ proprietor, Chris Farrell, for his thoughts on Bristol’s cultural heritage, its record shops, and its current golden era:
trakMARX – Bristol’s record shop lineage, from Revolver through to Rooted, is steeped in cultural significance. What are your enduring memories of record shopping in the city, and what does it mean to Idle Hands to be part of this illustrious heritage?
Idle Hands – When I first got to Bristol in the early 2000s, it wasn’t always the case that I could find the records I wanted. The city was dominated by DnB and hip hop, and although I like both those genres, it was at the point when I had burgeoning interest in minimal house and techno. The stuff I wanted was hard to find. I wanted to be buying Panytec records, but most likely came home with some RnB from Virgin Megastore in Broadmead. The best shop at the time in my opinion was Imperial Music. I was lucky to get a job there in my 2nd year at uni. That opened the city up to me, and I met a lot of people outside of the student bubble. I got introduced to areas and clubs I hadn’t been to before. I’m still close with people who I met back then. I used to like ‘Eat The Beat’ too, it was probably a bit cooler than Imperial. It did deep house, broken beat, jazzy type stuff, and this being Bristol, it did DnB as well.
I was in there one day, I hadn’t been to bed and was quietly minding my own business listening to records in the basement level. I was listening to an electro record when another customer came and changed the speed on the record to make it faster, and gave me a grin, as if to say I was an idiot. I was a bit flummoxed (most likely stoned) at the time, but realised later they thought I had been listening to DnB at the wrong speed. That tells you a lot about the dominance that DnB had in this city.
One of the reasons I opened my shop was to keep some continuity with the shops that had been before, an unbroken thread if you like. That is still one of my motivations to this day. I had learnt the trade by working at a number of different shops. I think there are elements of each shop I worked at in Idle Hands. Rooted Records was the first place I had worked that actively wanted to link to the outside world, this was largely down to Pev. He had forged links with Disc Shop Zero and Hardwax, as well as having the attitude of celebrating Bristol, with his first label Punch Drunk. Mark Stumbles, who was my boss at Imperial Music, really knew how to run a record shop, and I’ll forever respect him for that. He has been a big influence on what I want to achieve with my shop. He was a right grumpy sod at times, but that was probably down to me being a 21-year-old wreck head. Pete at Replay was a very hands off boss, he left me to get on with managing a 2nd-hand shop in my mid-twenties, which has stood me in good stead.
trakMARX – Idle Hands began life as a label, before establishing itself as a shop in 2011. Considering the harsh economic conditions prevailing, and the number of record shops closing their doors across the UK, did it feel like you were taking a massive risk at the time?
Idle Hands – It did, but at the time I didn’t know what else to do. I’d been working in record shops for nearly 10-years at that point, and was already pretty much institutionalised. It felt like it might only last a couple of years, but I had to give it a go. It wasn’t that hard to set up, I got the shop fittings and a deck from Rooted as severance pay. I was able to sub-let the old DMT shop and live above the shop, which kept costs down. I didn’t have much stock to start with, but slowly built it up. The first couple of years were hard. I was skint. I know shops that have spent more on their in-house stereos than what I opened the shop with.
I had some lucky breaks in the first year with ‘Skins’ filming in the shop, and a friend put us forward for a number of things with a well-known energy drink company. If I hadn’t done those the shop would have closed within 18-months. DJ-ing helped me, too. The support and encouragement from friends can’t be underestimated, either – people like Rhythmic Theory, Sean Kelly, Shanti Celeste, Kowton, Andy Payback, Hodge – and a number of other close mates (they know who they are) really helped.
trakMARX – Bristol’s music culture is one of the most vibrant and diverse in the UK right now. Does it feel like Idle Hands is at the heart of the city, capturing the vibe of ‘being here now’?
Idle Hands – I think it would be arrogant of me to think that. There was a time when record shops were a clearer reflection of what happens in a city musically, but that was before the onset of the digital revolution. I try to reflect it as best I can by supporting Bristol artists and labels, but realistically I stock a small selection of what happens in this city, some of the best music being made in the city doesn’t even make it onto vinyl. There are a number of MC-based grime tracks that years ago would have been on vinyl or CD but they are more of a youtube thing these days.
trakMARX – Economically, times are tight, how difficult is it keeping your collective heads above water, both with the label and the shop?
Idle Hands – Time and money are a constant struggle. I don’t get much time off, and I can’t get ill – but if it was easy everyone would be doing it, right?
trakMARX – Idle Hands (the label) has dropped some sparklers this year – particularly in the form of K-Lone, Crump and Dan HabarNam – what constitutes the right profile for an Idle Hands release?
Idle Hands – Quite hard to say, really, when I know, I know. My mate Giz pointed out that I always go for quite minimal, sparse tracks, usually with some kind of dub influence.
trakMARX – Back in the days of Revolver, independent labels, shops, bands and artists communicated and collaborated through an interactive collective known as The Cartel (Rough Trade, Revolver, Backs, Fast, Small Wonder, Fast Forward, Red Rhino, Nine Mile, Probe, etc). It seems so antiquated now, considering the overarching connectivity of the internet, but does the same spirit of support for independents nationwide exist these days?
Idle Hands – I think it does to an extent, I chat to the other shops. I feel a kinship with shops like Tribe up in Leeds, they do a similar thing to us. Kiran who runs Low Company is an old mate. I chat to Rubadub a fair bit too, because of their distro. I’m friendly with the other record shops in Bristol. If I’m ever in another city, I’ll try and pop in and show some support.
trakMARX – Which other enclaves across the UK do you feel rival what’s coming out of Bristol right now?
Idle Hands – I don’t think it would be fair to say without getting out and about and seeing other cities. If I go and DJ in other cities you can get a sense of that by chatting to the promoters, but even then it is just a snapshot. I know Leeds has a really healthy club scene, played at Wire last year and that was good. I guess you just have certain cities that are a bit more musically minded than others and always have been – you expect to hear new producers from Glasgow or Manchester, and obviously London. I am aware though that Bristol probably punches above its weight in terms of size.
trakMARX – Bristol seemingly has a plethora of labels releasing consistently stunning product. Who’s impressed you this year?
Idle Hands – There are a ton of great labels here all doing good things, from Bokeh Versions to Futureboogie. In terms of newer stuff, my mate Dean has set up a label called Cold Light Music, three releases in, and each one is great. Another mate Yushh has set up Pressure Dome, which has galvanised an emerging 2nd wave of UK techno producers in the city, great to see her doing that.
trakMARX – We’ve attended a few memorable live shows in Bristol this year – particularly Ossia at the Brunswick and The Bug/Moor Mother at the Trinity – which have been the standout performances for you this year?
Idle Hands – Dancing to Eris Drew on a mid-week night was pretty special, if you haven’t seen her DJ, you really should. She’s so good, she can play tunes I don’t even like, and I’ll still be loving it. In terms of live music, I went to see Spectrum earlier this year, that was good, he still looks so cool. I was trying to see what shoes he was wearing, but couldn’t quite clock them. If anyone has an update on that, then please let me know, it might sound daft, but these things matter! I also really enjoyed going to see the Orb in Worcester, the city where I’m from. It was me and two old mates, it just made a lot of sense on that particular night, I enjoyed it maybe more than I maybe should have.
trakMARX – And finally, what’s the most satisfying aspect of your work with Idle Hands?
Idle Hands – I like seeing my friends get some success. If I can help with that, then great. On a day-to-day basis, I like the fact that in this little corner of the retail world it isn’t like selling potatoes, as I once heard Serge from Clone say. True, the accounting, ordering, and all the rest of it, is the same as any other shop – but we get to trade in people’s creative output; their passions, joy, struggles and dreams, all expressed in music. I think that is quite special.
This month’s soundtrack brims with promise. It’s been a busy month, strafed with quality drops from respected artists. Despite the ideological challenges 2019 throws up with alarming regularity, there’s always music to take away the disgusting taste of late period capitalism. Portland, Oregon’s Best Available Technology kicks us off with the 14-track ‘Broken Teeth & Dog Hair’ (Plaque). Collating data from the B.A.T. archives assembled over the last decade, accompanied by ‘Old Haunts’, a 40-minute cassette-artefact of meditative healing, the vibe is accommodating and expansive. Kevin Palmer has been releasing material under the Best Available Technology moniker since 2012, for labels such as Opal Tapes, Astro: Dynamics, Further Records, Working Nights, No Corner, 12th Isle and Styles Upon Styles. Working in the grubby, dubbed-up margins between the faders, Palmer conducts his brooding electronic manipulations with gritty aplomb. There’s a warmth here that fosters further exploration of those aforementioned archives. With his extended ties to Bristol coming not only through his work for Plaque, there’s a Best Available Technology v WithDrawn rekkid on the way in the not too distant future, so I’m reliably informed. Keep this frequency clear.
Two essential drops from the man like John T. Gast have brightened the campaigning gloom somewhat. Catching him destroying the sound desk live with Ossia at the Brunswick earlier this year was a major highlight, and this new brace repoint the cement in what has become a buy-on-sight relationship. ‘5GTour’ (5 Gate Temple) comes on CD and digi only, featuring 12 x ‘airplane tablet constructions’, issued in conjunction with 5 Gate Temple’s China/Japan tour, Nov 2019. It’s tempting to say this is Gast’s strongest material to date, but the man paints from a diverse palette, and whatever the perspective may be, the results are always a veritable mannerist canvas. Hitting the racks almost simultaneously, ‘Kings X’ (5 Gate Temple) arrives with more air in its tires, pumped up and floor bound, but still tinged with the spectral beauty that blessed his Kids C Ghosts‘ ‘Bankruptcy Dub’ (self-released) 10-inch back in May. Rack both up next to Tribe Of Colin‘s stupendous ‘Aquarius’ (Honest Jon’s), and set the controls for the heart of the sun.
Logos follows his magnificent ‘Imperial Flood’ (Different Circles) with this immaculately dressed four-track EP, ‘Fifth Monarchy’ (Berceuse Heroique). Strident by comparison, ‘Eska’ carries the heavy manners across a mass of Korged-up low end, both in its original form, and Ossia‘s devastating remix. Sandwiched between come ‘Dust’ and ‘Ghosted’, a pair of skanking steppers, squelching through spring-hiss-dread with menace aforethought, but no hint of malice. Another essential brace, two-by-two, we board the ark.
The sirens went off on Madteo for this soldier back in July, with the eclectic paranoia of ‘Forest Limit’ (DDS) on cassette. The cover to that bore the legend ‘may the bridges I burn light the way’, a sentiment I have been plagiarising the fuck out of a daily basis ever since. ‘Dropped Out Sunshine’ is Madteo’s debut album for Demdike Stare’s DDS label, delivering 12-slabs of freestyle fuckries on canary yellow wax over 4-sides. If ‘Forest Limit’ was claustrophobic and oblique, ‘Dropped Out Sunshine’ bathes in West Mineralisms, displaying a rugged kinship, but not biting. Warmly inviting, engagingly coherent and ultimately rewarding, Madteo has fashioned one of the strongest long players of the year here, maintaining DDS’s solid gold action in what has been a relatively quiet 12-months.
Don Ossia set the bar high back in February this year, with his flawless double-barrel meisterwerk, ‘Devil’s Dance’ (Blackest Ever Black). That record has held sway across the year for these ears, thus my anticipation ahead of ‘The Marzahn Versions’ (Berceuse Heroique) was palpable. Returning to Berceuse Heroique for the first time since 2017’s ‘Gridlock’, ‘The Marzahn Versions’ doesn’t disappoint, delivering four variations on two interpretational themes. My personal take: ‘Crowd Psychology’ marks out its territory from the get-go, a nigglingly insistent motif takes your ears hostage and refuses to negotiate. No one makes it go dark like Ossia right now, and the dubbed-up ‘Mob Psychology’ burrows ever-deeper into our collective psychological dissonance to highlight the dysfunction at the heart of project divide and conquer. ‘Hack Dance’, meanwhile, seemingly points both barrels at the billionaires that control the Divine Comedy we laughingly refer to as our free press: whirling dervishly, ever-downwards, towards Dante’s Inferno in purgatorial descent. ‘Hack Dub’ closes proceedings with the light of the dub shining in through the cracks. As Leonard Cohen once observed: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in”.
Andy Stott returns with his first release since 2016, and his first EP since 2011, in the shape of ‘It Should Be Us’ (Modern Love), a double EP, comprising 9-tracks in its digital form, with one less on the double 12″ smoked out wax version. It’s been a quiet year for Modern Love, and ‘It Should Be Us’ fulfils a similar role to that of Demdike Stare‘s ‘Passion’ this time last year: marking time until Stott’s next full-length, scheduled for 2020. That said, ‘It Should Be Us’ is no stop gap: recorded earlier this year, its practically an album in its own right, running to 47-minutes on the digital version. I’ve previously been able to keep Stott at arm’s length, by and large. I enjoyed fleeting moments of both ‘Faith In Strangers’ and ‘Too Many Voices’ (both Modern Love), but nothing has previously hijacked my attention like ‘It Should Be Us’. Under heavy rotation in the tMx bunker, I’ve been inspired to reassess my relationship with Stott, an exercise that is proving how wrong ears can be at times. Both the title track here, and the closing ‘Versa’ are amongst the most sublime genius 2019 has yet proffered. Lauded, seemingly universally, Andy Stott has returned.
And finally, by the time we meet again, we will have decided who we want to dig us out of the mass grave dug by the Conservative party these past nine years. Exercise your right to vote by registering and casting. This is a pivotal moment in time for the UK, and for anyone in doubt of the need for real change: life expectancy predictions in the UK have fallen to levels last seen 16-years ago, as widening social inequalities lead to a rise in avoidable deaths in disadvantaged communities. Chose wisely. Chose life.