It cannot be easy running a successful independent record label from the spare bedroom of an Ipswich council house but Jason Whittaker of Antigen Records does exactly that. As well as boasting of an impossibly eclectic range of artists, cowboys from Suffolk and of even building international relations it all seems too unlikely to be remotely possible. Matt Upchuck tries to make sense of it all by speaking with label founder Jason Whittaker.
How and when did Antigen Records start?
I started trading tapes of experimental electronic music and noise rock in the late eighties and early nineties. Before the internet, there was an international underground network of DIY music, supported by fanzines made of paper. You’d stick a tape in the mail and six months later, some poorly-photocopied rag would arrive with a review telling its ten readers your band was shit. Everything was done by post. If you wanted to feud with someone, you needed a lot of patience.
In 2001, I picked up a low-spec PC and began digitizing my collection of cassettes. Among them were some Earth Mother Fucker live recordings and demos, which I compiled and burned on to CDRs to sell at their gigs. Antigen Records was born. Four years and four CDRs later, I’d lost interest and given up on the idea.
Then in 2008, my friend Martyn Peck approached me with the idea of turning Antigen into a ‘proper’ label. He was massively into chiptune at the time and wanted to release an album by Henry Homesweet, who had racked up 1.5 million plays on his MySpace page, making 8-bit music with a Nintendo Game Boy. His Palm Trance album is the foundation stone upon which the Antigen empire was built.
What sort of music does Antigen specialise in?
No specific genre. Mute Records was a massive inspiration when I first got into music. I loved the way Daniel Miller funnelled Depeche Mode’s cash into records like The Divine Punishment by Diamanda Galás. This would be the Antigen business model. All we needed was a cash cow like Depeche Mode.
When that didn’t happen, we still found ourselves with a pretty varied roster of artists. Everything from SuperGlu, who are popular enough to headline stages at Leeds and Reading, to Nathaniel Mann, who straps whistles to pigeons with elastic bands.
What do you look for when deciding whether or not to release a band’s material?
It’s usually a spur-of-the-moment decision, made with impaired mental capacity when I’m drunk at a gig. I wake up the next morning, committed to releasing an album by a band I can’t remember anything about. But I’ve given up drinking, so no more impulse signings.
What have been your favourite Antigen releases?
Most of them are tolerable. The album I was most pleased to finally release was Siren by Sealionwoman. They made me wait for 8 years for that one, but it was worth it.
The release I’ve listened to the most is Jack Rundell’s Home Recordings 2005-2015. Over 73 tracks, it charts his journey from experimental post-punk prodigy to singing cowboy, following some inexplicable epiphany he experienced while listening to one of his dad’s Hank Williams records.
Has the success of a release ever overwhelmed you in terms of what a small label is able to physically deliver?
It was challenging at the start with the first Henry Homesweet album, when we were actually selling a lot of records via mail order. Luckily, that’s not a problem anymore. When SuperGlu had their festival run at Leeds, Reading, Latitude and SXSW, we were bombarded with hundreds of Soundcloud links by utterly run-of-the-mill indie bands. It was hard to send constructive feedback without sounding like a proper asshole. More recently, I had to rope in all of Gaffa Tape Sandy and their manager Joe, to get a shit-ton of pre-orders out on time for their Meat Head 7”. But it feels churlish to complain about people buying too many records.
What is the toughest thing about running an independent label?
Seeing the look of disappointment on people’s faces when we haven’t made them famous.
What is the most enjoyable thing about running an independent label?
I still get excited by hearing new music and it’s great to have the opportunity to share it. But I would have given up a long time ago were it not for the people I work with. I’ve met some of my closest friends through involvement with their music and it’s been a real privilege to hamper their career progress.
Perhaps one of the most incredibly unusual records I have ever heard – tell us about the Nepalese album. What is it and how did that come about?
klxnf] sf];]nL by k|yd gf}dtL afhf u’NdL o’j]m sf (1st Naumati Baja Gulmi UK). This is a band of ex-Gurkha officers based in and around Farnborough and Aldershot, who claim to be the first band in the UK to play traditional Nepalese ceremonial music. ‘Naumati baja’ are the ‘nine musical instruments’ they play, and Gulmi is the district in Nepal they originate from. They are led by Mr Om Prasad Thapa, who is president of the large Nepalese community in Rushmoor. He says bands like this were common in most villages before the Maoist insurgency, but when he returned to Nepal in 2007, they had all but disappeared. He brought the instruments back to the UK and taught himself and other members of the Nepalese community to play them, in order to preserve the tradition, and in 2010 he formed the band.
Nathaniel Mann (of Dead Rat Orchestra) is the mastermind behind many of Antigen’s more improbable releases. He had been working with Om and his band for some time on a musical about Charles Franklin Cody. Nathan organized studio time for them to record some traditional dancing music. We gave them the CDs to sell at events, to raise funds for the disability charities they support in Nepal.
How did people respond to it?
Dr Durga Bahadur Subedi, the Nepalese ambassador to the UK, said, “This is a wonderful example of the British and my Nepalese brothers and sisters. They co-operated with each other and collaborated with each other. This is a very good sign of integration of my community to the mainstream British society.” The CD was presented to him on a platter by a Nepalese woman in full traditional dress at the launch event in Basingstoke.
Tell us about your latest release(s).
We have a couple of releases just out. I Fuck Therefore I Am by Earth Mother Fucker – a remastered dad rock relic from the earliest days of Antigen, when that sort of thing was still acceptable. And Death Clock by Jack Rundell, a limited run lathe-cut 7” that sounds like an old shellac 78 pressed in the 1930s.
After those, we have In My End is My Beginning, a new album by terrifying performance poet MacGillivray, inspired by inhaling air from the execution site of Mary Queen of Scots. And then Rain Over Nubia by Anglo-Egyptian duo KaddalMerrill, who will be coming straight from Rehab to tour the UK in August.
People might not instantly think of Ipswich when they think of music scenes but Ipswich has given us Nik Kershaw, Extreme Noise Terror, The Adicts, Rachel Fuller and lots more. What other music from Ipswich should people be aware of?
Historically, there’s always been an active hardcore scene. In 2011, we teamed up with our friend Andrew Culture to compile 30 years of Ipswich punk, indie and oddball weirdness into The Ugly Truth About Ipswich double CD. It may be the only time Nik Kershaw and Extreme Noise Terror have appeared on the same record.
The only Ipswich band to make any headlines in the last five years was The 4130s. And that was because their drummer was struck off the veterinary register for having sex with a horse. It helped reinforce the popular image of Ipswich as a hick town where no farmyard animal is safe. But at least they offered to give the profits from their final album to the RSPCA. The rap scene is a bit healthier, with Piers James, Rye Shabby and A.N.G all worth checking out. Fans of Pixies and The Strokes should keep an eye out for Groff.
Earth Mother Fucker are rebuilding a reputation as being one of the noisiest and exciting live shows about – tell us about their relationship with Antigen.
I co-promoted one of their earliest shows at Essex University in 1989 and we’ve been friends pretty much ever since. When Antigen was conceived as a project to document the work of underachieving noise rock bands, they were the obvious choice for the first release. They were persuaded to re-form for a one-off gig in November last year and enjoyed themselves so much they’ve decided to keep going. It gave us a great excuse to release a compilation of their least objectionable recordings. Everyone should see them before they die.
The record industry has changed immeasurably since Antigen first started – have those changes been a positive or negative thing?
Streaming platforms now allow our artists to reach hundreds of thousands of listeners. Three SuperGlu singles made Spotify’s New Music Friday playlist. It’s weird seeing a track released by a DIY label on a playlist next to Beyoncé, especially as we’re still operating out of a bedroom in a council estate in Ipswich. That level of instant international exposure could never have happened even five years ago.
But the availability of free music has meant most people have stopped buying records and downloads. Some people sincerely believe they are still supporting artists because their £9.99 a month sub goes to the bands. The reality is that each Spotify play generates 0.3 pence. Each monetized YouTube play enriches the artist by 0.04 pence. That’s great news if you’re the CEO of a streaming platform, with a net worth of 2 billion USD, but not so great for small artists or labels. Our two biggest tracks have picked up 300,000+ streams each, across all platforms, but the streaming revenue hasn’t covered the cost of recording and releasing the two songs.
What benefits are there for artists and musicians to use an independent label rather than either self-release on social media or try to sign to a major?
I always encourage people to do it themselves if they can. But some bands prefer to focus on writing songs and playing live. They want to leave the thankless task of e-mailing hundreds of blogs to someone with no social life.
The disadvantages of going with a small independent are fairly obvious, but there are a few benefits of choosing a smaller label over a major, assuming you are lucky enough to have a choice. Independent labels won’t try to persuade an artist into a 360 deal with a 10-year sunset clause. So the artist can move on if they get a break, without paying for the privilege. An artist who owns their recordings can usually license them to a small indie for a shorter period of time, giving them the flexibility to release them later with someone else if they move on. And sometimes it’s better to be the biggest band on a small label, rather than the smallest band on a big label. Particularly if you crave constant attention.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start an independent label of their own?
Just do it. Life is short and pointless. You might just as well keep yourself distracted.
Plans for the future?
This year, we will finally unveil the second proper album by Warp Records refugee John Callaghan. We’ll be collaborating with Ben Ward of Don’t Try to jointly issue new material by SuperGlu and Dingus Khan. And we’ll be working with Nathaniel Mann to release an album of ritual vocalizations by Akari, a singer from the Wauja indigenous community of Xingu Province, in the Amazon basin, near Cuiabá. Akari is very keen to have some CDs to sell to tourists.
Lose the will to live: https://www.facebook.com/antigenrecords/