Published on June 25th, 2014 | by Martin Aston1
I wrote a feature for The Guardian in 2013 about the two enigmatic and publicity-shy founders of 4AD Records – Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent.
You can read it here
“4AD was a fantastic opportunity,” reckons Ivo Watts-Russell. “For a while, we participated in something pure and unique. Those records are a reflection of an idea that became a dream that became a reality that will vibrate long after I’ve ceased to do so myself.”
The rangy, gimlet-eyed 59-year old who skippered the South London independent label for 20 years has a bad back, but his demise isn’t imminent. And it’s a safe bet that Watts-Russell’s singular A&R vision developed between 1980 and 1999 will continue to age particularly well, for all the snipes about 4AD being “precious”, “ethereal” and, worst of all, “goth”. It was all those things at various times, yet 4AD topped content aggregator about.com’s Top 20 Indie Record Labels, the entry beginning, “perhaps the greatest of all record labels…”
Watts-Russell favoured musical trailblazers over anything that tapped into a trend, from The Birthday Party and Pixies to Dead Can Dance and those indefatigable, inexplicable Cocteaus. But so little is known about the man himself, including where he is today. It turns out that Watts-Russell had a nervous breakdown in 1994, triggered by depression, fall-outs with key artists and a distain for an industry that valued videos and remixes over “pure” and “unique” ideals. In 1999, Watts-Russell sold his half of 4AD to business partner Martin Mills (of Beggars Banquet) and disappeared into the New Mexico desert. He’s still there, outside of Santa Fe, with his three dogs.
Watts-Russell’s vanishing act is arguably why a book hasn’t been written about 4AD – unlike indie-label peers Factory, Rough Trade and Creation – until I tracked him down in 2011 with the idea. Compared to Factory’s media-savvy figurehead Tony Wilson, Watts-Russell was a recluse even when he ran 4AD; his artists learnt not to expect him at their shows. “Some people thrive on the idea of being involved in rock’n’roll,” he said when we met at his house in 2012. “Doesn’t [Creation MD] Alan McGee say the only reason he got into the music business was to get rich, take drugs and fuck women? I don’t even like being around people enough for that to appeal. I guess I was the nerdy one at home scanning the album sleeve.”
Watts-Russell’s art appreciation led to hiring a full-time designer, Vaughan Oliver, whose pioneering sleeves matched 4AD’s musical ideals, from the David Lynch-ian image of Oliver himself wearing a belt of dead eels for The Breeders’ Pod to photographer Nigel Grierson’s paint-and-water abstractions for Cocteau Twins. With a distinctive first name (after his cousin Ivo, the brother of WWI poet Julian Grenfell) and This Mortal Coil’s success, Watts-Russell inadvertently created a media profile, but preferred to let the enigma of 4AD’s sound and vision do the talking. “What I loved about [the name] 4AD was that it meant nothing,” says Watts-Russell. “No ideology, no attitude. In other words, just music.”
According to current 4AD signing Claire Boucher, aka ‘cyborg-pop’ star Grimes, “If the music industry is The Simpsons, then 4AD is Lisa Simpson. She’s not the most popular person in the family but the cool, intelligent, subversive one. 4AD don’t sign buzz bands, they’re super-tasteful instead, and often distinctively feminine.”
Indeed, Watts-Russell signed a higher percentage of women than any other label before or since, and his own 4AD collective This Mortal Coil was dominated by female voices, starting with Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser. But this fact is totally overshadowed by the ethereal/goth tag that 4AD was saddled with. “I was just responding to things I enjoyed, that I emotionally connected to, that had possibilities,” he grimaces, still clearly peeved.
Born in Oundle near Peterborough, the youngest of eight in a financially-strapped aristocratic family, teenage Ivo eschewed academia for psychedelia after witnessing Jimi Hendrix’s shattering Top of the Pops debut in early 1967. After years of working in record retail, he joined Beggars Banquet just as the shop was starting a label in 1977, which quickly struck gold with Gary Numan. Nagging Mills to sign this or that band, Watts-Russell was given £2000 and told to do it himself.
Even less is known about his co-founder at 4AD – or Axis as the label was called for the first four singles before an existing Axis objected. Peter Kent was managing Beggars’ Earls Court branch, and his interview for my book was his first. Born in South London, Kent now has a house-sitting business in Chicago. ‘I’ve always considered myself a bit player on the side,’ he muses. ‘And being a Buddhist, I’d rather live in the present than regurgitate the past. But,” he concedes, “it’s nice to leave something behind.”
Having Manfred Mann’s tour manager as a neighbour provided the teenage Kent with a convenient entry to London’s beat music boom. Openly gay in a pre- Stonewall era, his first boyfriend was British blues belter Long John Baldry before dating Bowie protégé Mickey King. DJing around Europe, Kent befriended a Swiss doctor of medicine: “he’d make us mescaline and cocaine, and Interpol and the drug squad came looking for me. My real name’s not Peter Kent.”
By 1979, Kent was as keen on releasing music as Watts-Russell. “It was like I was Roxy Music and he was Captain Beefheart, but we appreciated where the other was coming from,” says Kent. “He was mellower, I was more outgoing. But I wouldn’t say I ever knew Ivo.”
Watts-Russell knew nothing of Kent’s past either, only that he was, “a go-getter. Peter thrived around people. Most of 4AD’s early stuff, like Bauhaus, was his discovery.” Yet the differences between the co-founders soon told. For example, an EP of demos cherry-picked from the shop post included Red Atkins’ homoerotic ditty Hunk Of A Punk. “That was completely Peter,” says Watts-Russell. “I thought it was silly.”
After travelling to America with Bauhaus, Kent wanted 4AD to license two singles from Chicago’s Wax Trax label, including the punk-trashy Born To Be Cheap by Divine. When Watts-Russell resisted, “I realised we had a different idea of where 4AD was heading,” Kent says. “I wanted us to be more eclectic and interesting, to keep things moving around. So I left.”
Beggars Banquet funded Kent’s new label, Situation 2, but frustrated by Martin Mills’ “miserly” ways, Kent moved on again, managing rising Scots duo The Associates before the onset of MS. “My doctor said I needed to leave the record business. Too much stress, too many drugs.”
As Kent ran a health food restaurant in Spain and later, a health club in London and a Bristol branch of Pizza Express, Watts-Russell shaped 4AD in his own image – “dark and personal,” says Mills. “The pop world was on a completely different shelf.”
Anything resembling ‘pop’ saw Watts-Russell turn the other way. “Peter wanted everything at 4AD to grow, whereas I found anything beside the finished album was unnecessary,” he says. 4AD’s early money-spinners Bauhaus and Modern English were let go, rather than encourage discussion of singles choices and video directors. And yet it was 4AD that scored the first independently-released number one single, M/A/R/R/S’ Pump Up The Volume, in 1987. But the furious rows, damaged relationships and lawsuits that followed was Watts-Russell’s first experience of the music industry’s corrosive effect. “Ivo told me Belly’s success was the beginning of the end of for him,” recalls Tanya Donelly, whose band outsold even Pixies in 1992. “Success meant that everything ballooned out for him.”
Seduced by the climate and the desert, Watts-Russell moved to California to start afresh, but he soon stopped even going into 4AD’s new LA office. Many years later, when Kent caught up with Watts-Russell, they didn’t reminisce about music; they talked about dogs.