The Fishy, Fruity, Smell of Success – Going Underwater with Fruits de Mer

crabsselloutLabel head Keith Jones is adamant.  “Vinyl never went away – it was the record companies that deserted it, believing they could make better margins out of CDs.

“I don’t see much of a commercial future for bland, sterile CDs and even less for paid-for downloads. The only future for paid-for recorded music that I can see is to create something that looks and sounds great, has lasting value, means something to the buyer, makes them feel good about spending hard-earned cash on it, makes them want to repeat the dosage.”

And with those words, Jones reminds us of the manifesto that has lain at the heart of what has become one of the crucial record labels of the past few years.  Fruits de Mer might sound like something you’re more likely to discover in a French restaurant than your local record store.  But that box of 45s sitting in the corner contains a lot more than halibut, sea urchin and squid.  It also boasts … if you’re lucky, and they’ve not all been sold… some truly exquisite singles on a truly remarkable label.

Fruits de Mer is not a refuge for household names.  True, the Pretty Things and Alison O’Donnell, once of Mellow Candle and Flibbertigibbet, have both lined up on the label.  But the best of the catalog delves deep into the soul of modern acid folk, psychedelia and freakbeat for acts you should already be kicking yourself for having missed.  Assuming you have missed them.  A lot of people are already well on top of them all.  Which is why the singles sell out so quickly (I told you to hurry.)

The Luck of Eden Hall, Sky Picnic, Sidewalk Society, the Loons.

The lyrical genius of the Soft Hearted Scientists.

The dazzling brightness of Permanent Clear Light.

Octopus Syng sing “Midsummer’s Night Scene.”

Crystal Jacqueline serenade “Cousin Jane.”

 

sendelicacoverStunning artwork, weighty wax, quality cardboard.  Gone are the days when 45s were mass produced slices of wafer slotted into cheapo paper sleeves.  For the first time since, perhaps, the punk boom of the late 1970s, a single’s presentation is paramount, and with it a perceived sense of value.  The impression that you’re buying something that all concerned actually labored over, and took painstaking care to create.  Or, as label co-founder Jones describes Fruits de Mer’s own mission, “a release on vinyl sounds better, looks better and means more.  Music on vinyl gets listened to.  Maybe by relatively few people, but it does get heard – and by people who care about the music.”

People like him.  Fruits de Mer originally formed around dreams of reissuing vinyl gems from a psych age gone by, a market tapped in long playing form by any number of compilations, but never previously attempted at 45.  Sadly, it remains a dream – licensing the material just proved impossible.  But convincing new and largely unsigned artists to unleash their own interpretations of those lost lovelies… that was another matter entirely.

Jones continues, “Fruits de Mer started out very much as a label that would hopefully appeal to people like me and a friend [Andy Bracken] who jointly launched it – vinyl junkies who love music rooted in the sixties and seventies, whatever their age. We released a couple of singles early on and hoped that somebody would buy them – not very scientific!  But a few record shops in the UK supported us from Day One… which was real encouragement to press on.”

The first year was difficult, but it was time well-spent, the label’s name spreading via word of mouth as opposed to any flashy advertising campaign, or Internet spam campaign.  A smattering of positive reviews, a handful of friendly record stores who would take anything the label offered to them; and, increasingly, people who discovered one FdM single through whatever avenue, then told their friends about it.

Sparkling limited editions were the lifeblood of the label; primarily 7-inch singles but expanding into EP and the occasional long playing territory too. Handmade sleeves, wild colored wax,  catchy band names and evocative cover versions.  Tributes to the Pretty Things’ SF Sorrow, the Beatles’ double white album and the Hollies are just three of the label’s more visionary projects, and it’s an indication of just how well-loved the label is today that visitors to their website [http://fruitsdemerrecords.com] are going to be confronted with a long, long litany of “sold out” notices.

Which is what we want to see.  Because it’s another indication that not only is vinyl back, but that this time, it means business.

The label’s debut release was by New Jersey’s Schizo Fun Addict, the astonishing coupling of “Theme One,” a George Martin instrumental memorably rendered by Van Der Graaf Generator; and the Small Faces’ “Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake.”

Schizo’s Jet Wintzer explains. “We’d had two releases on Bracken Records [a split EP with Boy From Space] and “Dream of the Portugal Keeper”], and Andy Bracken, who started FDM with Keith Jones suggested us as the debut band. . Andy has since retired from the label, but we are very grateful to both him and Keith for having faith enough in us to launch their baby.”

He admits Schizo Fun Addict would never have chosen those songs to cover; that the concept was purely FdM’s.  “They were chosen by Keith and Andy for us, and that was an aspect that made FdM special, it was a collaboration of ideas with those two, not just something we did on our own. Schizo would never have covered those songs without FdM suggesting them. So this was the spark of mutual creation. I’ve never thought of Andy and Keith as anything but co-collaborators, artists in their own right. Before FdM, Andy was making beautiful records with a strict limited edition and handmade art. Keith took it to another freakin level with FdM… these guys deserve to be recognized as artists.”  [Click here to read the full full Schizo Fun Addict interview.]

Released on what Bracken fondly described as a “swirly turquoise vinyl 7” with clashing orange/ red labels and a mad insert about winkles,” “Theme One” sold slowly but surely.  Word of mouth would eventually clear the shelves, but of the initial pressing of 300 (of which around 100 were given away), it took some months to shift them all.  But the label had expected nothing less. A new name, an unknown quantity, and a marketing scheme that they were still developing as they went along.

strange fish cover 1Early on it became apparent that they could not rely on the Internet – for many labels (and other businesses too) the sole affordable route for distribution, but also a horribly hit and miss one.  It is, after all, far easier to get lost amidst the oceans of product being sold there, than it is to rise above the morass, no matter how remarkable your product actually is.

 

They turned to the print media – not exclusively, of course.  But by cultivating relationships with both the advertising and editorial departments, word began to spread of this tenacious little indy that was releasing some truly visionary music.

Alison O’Donnell was the label’s next release, the duo drawing her into the studio to cut stellar renditions of two almost mythically magnificent songs, Nick Drake’s “Day Is Done” and Nico’s “Frozen Warnings.”  She was not, however, an easy fish to land, as she laughingly admits.

“Andy and Keith got what eventually amounted to a large email correspondence together with myself and Graeme Lockett of Head South By Weaving (with whom I’ve currently got a whole album out on release). Andy, in particular grew to know me through a series of late night emails. I’ve never met him.

“I tend rarely to do covers but I was persuaded. I spent quite a while scouring my music collection and the net for songs I thought I could do some justice. There’s no point in undertaking a cover if one can’t bring something else to it. Given that I’ve been described recently as a ‘shamanistic hippie goddess’ (harrumph!), Nico’s song fits in with that epithet and most critics have been kind to my version. Both Nick Drake and Nico’s catalog are, however, a challenge and a risk to take on.  Looking back at that time, I still love the EP and ‘Frozen Warnings’, the latter of which I’ve played live quite a few times with my own occasional band, Bajik.”  [Click here to read the full Alison O’Donnell interview.]

Spain’s Stay marked the first in what has become a long line of continental European bands to join the label. “I think we met via MySpace!” laughs frontman Jordi Bel.  “They got in contact with us when they listened to our ‘Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow’ (Strawberry Alarm Clock) and ‘Chicago’ (Graham Nash) covers. Then we recorded ‘2000 Light Years From Home,’ to include it in the 7″ vinyl.”

A startling rendition, both faithful to and utterly distanced from the Stones original, that track encapsulates Stay’s attitude towards covers, which in turn is a perfect mirror of FdM’s ethos too.  “We appreciate the quality of the tune first, and the possibility of improving the original track… rethinking the groove and rhythm to make it more understandable to our days. The song has to fit our formula as well. It’s really funny. There are songs that are ‘perfect’ and it’s very difficult to make good covers or improve them (most of Beatles songs, however we recorded “Tomorrow Never Knows”!)  We don’t like to copy songs. In fact we don’t like to do revival music.” [Click here to read the full full Stay interview.]

sorrow liveReviews were coming in now, collectors were paying attention.  Limited runs (even today, FdM rarely press more than 800 copies of any title] were selling out; but not, as in the bad old days of “rare collector’s item” style major label issues, purely because they were limited.  It was the music, not the potential for profit, that motivated the first FdM collectors, and it is still the guiding force behind the label’s popularity.  Not quite uniquely, but certainly unusually for a so-called “boutique” label, FdM knowingly underpress releases because they don’t know when, or if, the interest will wane.  And also because it’s more fun this way.  Which is another reason why the label generally eschews CDs and mp3s.

 

“Sadly, disposable music and a disposable medium go together,” says Jones.  “If music doesn’t mean as much to people as it used to, asking them to shell out for it becomes more and more of a challenge. Thank god there are still plenty of music junkies out there, and plenty of scope for artists and specialist record labels to feed their habits. It’s possible to do something interesting and creative with the CD format – but there’s a lot more scope with vinyl formats.”

The Flaming Gnomes, Mark Fry, Vibravoid, Cranium Pie, the Hausfrauen Experiment… again and again, a new FdM 45 would arrive, and again and again it felt as though label and band alike had excelled whatever came before.  One early peak, however, arrived just eight singles in, with the maiden release by Sweden’s Us and Them, the husband and wife duo of Anders and Britt.

Anders: “We had sold our EP’s under our own label Withdrawn records. We didn’t think there was any point sending our songs to a lot of record companies. But I think we found three or four labels that worked with our kind of music, and Fruits de Mer was one of them.”

us-and-them-summerisle-epThe duo’s name points towards their love of Pink Floyd, and their debut FdM release, medleying the Floyd’s late 1960s “Julia Dream” with the traditional “All The Pretty Horses,” captures exquisitely the point where inspiration becomes innovation.  “Both Keith and Andy Bracken were real fun to work with,” Anders continues.  “and they made things happen. Then Britt and I watched the movie The Wickerman (the 1973 version, not the remake), which three or four reviews had mentioned in reviews of the Julia Dream EP. We really loved both the movie and the music and came up with the idea of doing cover versions of some of the songs from The Wickerman. Keith liked the idea and that became our next EP.” [Click here to read the full Us and Them interview.]

Equally remarkably, but certainly approaching listeners from the opposite end of the psychedelic spectrum, the Welsh band Sendelica already had an international feel by the time they linked with FdM.  Guitarist Pete Bingham explains, “What initially grew out of informal jam sessions between us and a few friends has slowly over time seen the band expand and grow into an international collaborative collective taking on board musicians from both sides of the Atlantic and as far afield as Russia.”

Extensive touring has seen Sendelica travel as far afield as the East Coast, Helsinki, Riga, Moscow and St. Petersburg, while their first three albums were released through a Moscow based indy, RAIG.  Even their FdM connection crossed the ocean and back before coming to pass.

Bingham continues, “a great American friend of ours, Virginia Tate, had played flute on an early FDM release. One day I was just sat at the computer and was thinking it would be great to get some Sendelica vinyl out and I emailed half a dozen companies. Within ten minutes I had a reply from Andy/Keith saying they knew about us. We ended up recording them a version of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Venus In Furs,’ which they dearly loved and was released as a green vinyl 7″ ,with our version of Funkadelic’s ‘Maggot Brain’ on the b-side.”

Since then, Sendelica versions of Hawkwind’s “Urban Guerilla” (starring Mr. Hawkwind himself, Nik Turner, on sax) and the Amboy Dukes “Journey to the Centre of  the Mind” (featuring 70′s porn star Wally Stagg on vocals!!) have appeared on sundry FDM compilation albums. [Click here to read the full Sendelica interview.]

Among those comps have been the now-already mythical Strangefish compilations, three volumes so far that offer some of the most mindblowing psych this side of whatever you might have been smoking last week.  Bingham: “The Strangefish albums were something we had talked about quite some time ago; I guess Keith knew we had a great love of experimental electronic music and shared a love of the Brain label. And, of course, this was also quite a departure from normal FdM releases in as much as this mammoth box set was all original material. We did a full side of strangefishone and also a track on strangefishtwo. I just love this project.”

An FdM subsidiary loomed.  Another of the acts that were “discovered” via Myspace, the Chemistry Set debuted the Regal Crabomophone in 2011 as an outlet for bands who wanted to offer up original material.  [click here to read the  full Chemistry Set interview].   Covers were not prohibited on this new label – the Chemistry Set unleashed a magnificent assault on the Stones‘ “We Love You” as their maiden b-side; more recently, the Luck of Eden Hall tackled both the Doors’ “Crystal Ship” and SRC’s “Black Sheep” on one side of their Crabomophone EP.

But that offered a challenge in its own right.  After all, if you’re going to tackle a classic from the past on one side of your single, you’d better make darned certain that the song on the other side is just as good.

So far, everybody has.

loeh2012Like the Chemistry Set, Luck of Eden Hall have been in existence since the late 1980s, and they too were initially recruited via Myspace. Gregory Curvey explains, “Andy Bracken contacted me on MySpace and asked if we would be interested in submitting a cover for the A Phase We’re Going Through compilation [the label’s first full-lengther]. We rarely ever performed cover songs, but it seemed like a fabulous opportunity and we gave it our best shot.”

A tremendous cover of the Monkees’ “Love Is Only Sleeping” followed, while the band has also tackled the Association’s “Never My Love,” a song that Curvey admits “really threw Keith when he heard it.  But I generally pick a song that I’ve always loved. It was one of the first songs I figured out how to play on the Sitar and always wanted to record a version. Fruits de Mer seemed to be the perfect outlet for it.   Now we’re forever indebted to those kind gentlemen for giving us a jump-start.”  [click here to read the full Luck of Eden Hall interview]

From virtual veterans to comparative newcomers, 2012 brought the first release by Beautify Junkyards, a Portuguese band led by João Branco.  He recalls, “after we released some of our first recordings on the internet, we made our first video for ‘From the Morning.’ We sent that video to Keith, who invited us to release a single on FdM. For the B side we choose our version of Os Mutantes’”Fuga nº2’. The release was a real success and it was sold out in one week. That brought us airplay in radios like BBC6, US college radios and also very nice reviews in magazines like Shindig and Classic Rock.  Afterwards Keith invited us to participate on a tribute to The Hollies “RE:evolution” where we participated with a version for Butterfly, opening the LP.”  Beautiful Junkyards’ debut album (not on FdM) has just been released – click here to read the full interview.

The most recent batch of FdM releases, this summer, rounded up releases by Crystal Jacqueline (whose upcoming Sun Arise album is a beast of bounteous beauty), Stay, White Sails and Jack Ellister; another wave is coming in November; while Crabomophone has also just gifted us with the FdM debut by Sweden’s Me and My Kites, another relatively new band… another gang of Pink Floyd fans… and another slice of sheer musical genius.

Kites’s David Svedmyr explains, “We originally were contacted by Keith a few years ago when we were gigging with our band Lost in Rick’s Wardrobe, who mainly did prog/psych covers. Since Fruits de Mer releases a lot of prog/psych covers, they wanted us to do a single.

“We were up into recording our own record at the time and didn’t find place for a recording. Then we broke up and I brought the two songs I’d made up to Me and My Kites. When we’d started the recording with Tony Durant [of the early 1970s cult band Fuchsia - from whose debut album Me and My Kites took their name] came upon the idea to contact Keith and he liked our idea and our music. It’s been great working with him so far and you’ll surely hear more Fruits de Mer/ Me and My Kites related releases soon.” [Click here to read the full Me and My Kites interview]

Today, Fruits de Mer stands proud as one of that select handful of modern labels who really do seem to remember what it was like to be a record collector back in the sixties and seventies, where labels themselves could become as important as the artists (how many Elektra collectors bought every new album unheard, simply because it was on Elektra?), and they rewarded their followers accordingly.  I

In the UK, FdM has been compared with everything from that wave of glorious proggy labels that spun out from the end of the 1960s… Charisma, Vertigo, Dawn and early Island… to the host of hopefuls that followed Stiff Records out of the punk-era pie.  Over here, a hatful of home-grown/DIY labels can also be invoked as precursors of the piscine in its pomp.

Close to sixty releases have now swum past in the years since the first fruity fish was pulled from the sea (a complete FdM discography can be found at http://www.fruitsdemerrecords.com/discography.html), and anybody arriving late to the party is already looking at a small fortune’s worth of e-Bay bids if they want to catch up on all they have missed.

Don’t let that deter you.  There’s a bunch of new releases just about to hit the streets.  Fishing nets at the ready…

Catch them!

A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of over 100 books, including Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990, 8th Edition” as well as Goldmine’s “Record Album Price Guide 7th Edition , both of which are published via Krause Publications and are available at www.krausebooks.com 

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