I N T E R V I E W
The Ambitious Plans of a Fool-Proof Label:
An Interview with Rob Mayes of Failsafe Records
With Ian Duggan
Failsafe Records was founded in Christchurch by Rob Mayes in 1983/1984. From the label's beginnings, recordings were made that captured songs from the Christchurch scene, by bands that Mayes was seeing at local venues. Failsafe provided many bands with a means to have their songs recorded and distributed, which might otherwise have never been documented at all. Further, through album and compilation releases, these bands were introduced to a broader listenership than they might otherwise have attained, and some went on to bigger things. Take ‘The Bats’, for example, who contributed the song ‘Get Fat’ to Failsafe’s ‘Accident Compilation’ (1984), prior to their debut Flying Nun release.
Mayes has some highly ambitious plans for Failsafe Records, with the intended release of 25 albums over the next 12 months. We talked to Rob about this goal; how is he going to carry it out, all while based in faraway Japan?
HUP: Rob, you have stated that you have 25 albums scheduled for release over the next year on Failsafe Records. By my calculations there have been a little over 75 items released on the label since 1984, so you are planning on increasing the labels catalogue by about 25% in a very short period of time! How are you possibly going to manage to release all these items? And what are some of the releases we should be looking forward to?
Rob: It’s an increase by 33% to be exact. I’ve done 76 releases, or 79 if you count the re-releases of the three ‘80s compilations, so 25 is roughly one-third again. How am I going to manage it? I may not manage it all, but that’s the goal I’ve set myself and I’ll give it my best shot. And it’s even grown a little bit more as I uncover material I didn’t know about. There’s a Mainly Spaniards album just added to the pile because I found a full live recording to multitrack that I hadn’t heard before, plus an unreleased studio single, and they’re quite a notable band that deserves more than a one hit wonder entry in the history of New Zealand music [The 1982 ‘That's What Friends Are For’ 7” on Flying Nun].
The list aims to tie up the loose ends of the label with remastered versions of material that hasn’t had that treatment, so there’s a couple that I’ve already slipped out with the Perfect Gargen EP, and the really successful This Sporting Life album, plus coming up:
There’s a few more albums in the queue, including the last album in the Pop Mechanix collection, unreleased studio material from post-punk band YFC (two basses, drums and a microphone), Auckland post-punk band Corners, who were very Gang of Four and angular before going on to pop success with a very different sound a few years later as ‘Peking Man’, The Beat Rhythm Fashion 'Rarities' collection of early ‘80s material, and then some new albums from Kimo [JPS Experience’s Dave Mulcahy], the melodic contemplative mood collaboration project Songs in the Key, the new Beat Rhythm Fashion 'Tenterhook' album, etc etc… [continued below]
'All Different Things', from Throw's 1995 album 'Rememory'. The video was recorded at Metropolis Cafe, Hamilton, and featured Justin Harris from Hamilton band Inchworm, and recently Elider.
The reason for why ‘this much’ now is that I decided a little while back to ‘finish up’ my self-appointed task of writing more detail into the Christchurch perspective New Zealand music history book, as represented by releases. There are other things I’m wanting to focus on and I need to close part of this chapter off to move forward on those other things. To be honest, I haven’t been quite sure what my goal was with part of what the label has been doing, and I’ve only just recently got a handle on it, and as outlined above put in a plan to complete it.
I’ve felt all along that there was a hole in the local culture scene that I was experiencing growing up in Christchurch, and the picture we were being presented with as a record of our culture. I didn’t understand exactly what bugged me about that until recently, and I now think it has a lot to do with representing community at all levels, even the micro level, or a pub or club, and what happened there for the 100 to 500 people that made it their own. In the rush for globalisation, chart success, and national tours, what was getting left out of the picture was what was happening directly around us as individuals in our community, i.e., my experience. We weren’t being given access to our personal experience of music; the bands we saw around us at the local in the weekend. So my nagging question was, “why someone else’s music and not ‘ours’? And I tried to do something about that for me, or ‘us’.
I’ve tried to focus my aim a bit instead of going for the completely unachievable “colour in all alternative New Zealand bands into a world stage”, to painting in the holes in the local community I grew up and was formed in. And that comes down to the much more achievable 25 albums, released for people that were there, and anyone else that cares to seek them out. Still an unachievable goal, but at least one that doesn’t require me to promote each album and secure distribution for obscure material in small town petrol stations.
I’ll do that for a select few releases, like the new ‘Beat Rhythm Fashion’ album, which is really a part of something different. But it’s out of proportion for an obscure historical release, as the people who are interested in those ones need to be doing the leg work to find them.
HUP: When you say, “finish up”, are you saying that's the end of Failsafe? Or just the end of the retrospectives?
Rob: That's the completion of my involvement in archiving the music history stuff, yes. I'll be doing new material still, but I’m unlikely to be doing any more archival releases. And with the list above, I’m hoping people will feel I’ve given the scenes a really comprehensive going over.
For the future I'm not entirely sure what I'm doing with music. It is still really important to me. I have a band in Tokyo called ‘At Skylines’, playing instrumental post-rock dream-pop shoegazer stuff, and that’s really rewarding and exciting. We surprise ourselves and make music I’d want to listen to. I still love the music I've been involved in, but I've got to move forward too. Wherever that may be. I will be keeping the full catalogue active; it's not the death of Failsafe, but I will be focusing my efforts on the future after this 25 push. [continued below]
'If Only I Could Hold you Once Again' by Dolphin, 1988
HUP: Are you still going to be releasing the music on CD, or will you be reverting exclusively to digital? Most of the bands, or artists in the bands releasing material on the label, were well known from the age of the CD, which some argue has now passed; I assume there is a demand from the fans of these artists to have the music released on this format also?
Rob: Failsafe Records was actually from the age of the cassette, and the reason for that was because it was accessible and feasible for me to operate a boutique cottage industry label in that way on that format. It’s not because I didn’t want to make big glossy vinyl albums at the time; it’s because if I had gone that route I would have sunk the label, and my resources as an individual, in one or two releases. I’ve managed to keep the label happening by adapting to the media formats that allow me to do runs that match the reality of presenting truly independent alternative artists, keeping the music as the primary goal. I’ve never participated in the whole chart thing. I’m a complete failure at hyping artists to shift units. Once the album is complete and I’ve presented it to the public as best an individual can, I leave it at that and expect some level of effort from the listener to seek out and support the work. I know that’s not how the rest of the music ‘industry’ works, but it’s the only viable route for me. Otherwise I’m playing into the music merchant thing, and I’m not that. I’m not quite sure what I am, but it’s not a shop-keeper trying to move stock.
The CDs thing came along in the ‘90s through a deal I did with Shock Records, and a guy there Jason Reynolds who was very supportive. He covered the costs of manufacturing those early ‘90s discs in exchange for a chunk of the discs for the Australian market. So, no upfront manufacturing costs for me, but professional discs for the label releases. It worked well until he left to go on to bigger things in the U.S., and Shock slapped a huge manufacturing bill on me for the last four discs. I managed to wriggle out of that and that was the end of the CD releases ‘til the early 2000s, when CDR became a thing. I did a large part of the 2005 Retrogenic 30 abums in 30 days exponge on CDR, purely because that was the reality of what the releases could support.
Toward the end of the 2000s we got some funding support from Creative Communities to cover pressing costs, and I did a handful of releases (Pop Mechanix, Beat Rhythm Fashion, How To Kill, etc) on proper pressed CDs, but still with hand assembled covers. It was great to have that level of quality and production. Not that the CDRs were lacking in swish design and packaging, but you know, more permanent pressings, etc.
With this next batch the accepted delivery media thing is cause for concern. Some of the remaining shops in New Zealand are less than enthusiastic about CD, and to be honest, even I don’t have a working CD player. But I do buy music on CD to have a physical representation of the item. To make it mean something, and that’s really the consideration for me. I want to recreate the feeling of meaning to the music Failsafe presents, and if the customer isn’t into that, then they’re not a match for what I’m delivering. There has to be some level of commitment from them to the music and I’m finding a healthy core of people worldwide who support and appreciate that.
So, for these some will still be released in hard copy format, but most will be digital with extensive liner notes. Part of the reason for that is a few of these releases are expanded editions of the compilations, and will amount to multi-disc collections; some of them ten or more CDs full of content, just to get the material from my archive to the public sphere. I’m doing that because I’m thinking I can’t be the only one who sits at home remembering the great local artists, scenes, venues and gigs I’ve experienced, and want to refresh my memory. Through hard work and good fortune, we have recordings of a lot of great material that could just as easily have been lost to the void. That’s part and parcel of small-town New Zealand, and a history of indifference from broadcasters that it wasn’t viable for this stuff to be recorded properly in the first place, let alone produced and presented to the public, apart from in a live form. It’s easy to not understand the effort and resources that it took, and still does take, to get something out there for people to hear. I totally understand why these bands didn’t make it to finished vinyl in the day, and I’m glad that I can use my skills to present them now, for what it’s worth. [continued below]
'Drive', from the 1992 Malchicks 'Lotus EP'
HUP: I have a couple of compilations released on Failsafe in my collection; the fantastic 'Biding our Time' from 1986 and 'Good Things' from 1994. These followed on from 1984's 'Accident Compilation', and along with a number of others you released, these have been described as 'scene defining compilations'. What compilations among these retrospective releases?
Rob: Part of the final push is to expand these collections to include everything I can find that is relevant to those scenes. I’m using these as a coat hanger to really flesh out the different time peroids and scenes they relate to. I’m still working out how I’m going to handle this, but I’d like to do them in a couple of different versions; the ‘Original Release’, remastered and expanded, with one song from as many bands from the scene as I can find (we were originally limited by the length of a cassette or CD, but with digital releases it can be as long as you want, so I want them to be comprehensive overviews); then, ‘Expanded’, squeezing in as many recordings as I can find from the bands on the collection that have fallen out of ‘print’, or unreleased tracks, etc; and finally, a ‘Deluxe’ bonus set that has live recordings from the period, hopefully full live concerts from some of these bands to really get a feel for the time and the scene, for the inbetween songs banter and live vibe. So, we've got:
So, yeah, quite a lot of material for people to choose from! Historically, it’s going to really offer a different, more diverse, view of alternative music in New Zealand, and specifically the scenes in Christchurch beyond the pretty narrow picture we have now. I’m hoping it will again show how vibrant each time period scene was, and give a real feel for those times.
There will probably be some overview compilations. Maybe my label overview picks or something.
HUP: There is still some fantastic music coming out of Christchurch, such as what is being released currently on the 'Melted Ice Cream' label. Have you kept up with what is happening in the music scene in Christchurch?
Rob: I do see some of those releases, and I know Brian Feary who runs it. Christchurch music is in good hands. It's been very difficult for the city. It was battling the downgrading of live music over the decades, as most scenes were, moving it into smaller and smaller venues, but it had settled nicely with the Dux, Wunderbar, Al’s Bar, and then the earthquakes happened and pummelled it into the ground. The weeks, months, and years where the community had to scramble for a place to be. I was still returning regularly at this stage, but you could feel the pain the scene and the city suffered. It was and is heart-breaking. For me, it kind of ended what I was following. There still were some great bands doing things there, but it was hard to follow it, and I was getting more and more disconnected from it. It became so underground you really had to be there, but I'm glad there are people like Melted Ice Cream to nurture it. Music is local, music is culture, music is community. [continued below]
'Turn of the Century' by Beat Rhythm Fashion, 1981
HUP: You have lived in Japan for a number of years now. With the bands on the label being from New Zealand, and New Zealand being the primary target market, how difficult is it running the label being now based in Japan?
Rob: A little bit difficult in that there isn’t enough income generated to pay anyone anything to do the manual labour of keeping it all running. It’s okay to be generous with your own time, but it’s more difficult to be generous with someone else’s, especially when they don’t have your obsession with it all. I’ve been lucky enough to have had a very supportive family; mainly my mother, who held the fort for the first few years of me being in Tokyo doing mail order for me. I’d just Skype her the orders, and she’d package up the CDs and mail them out for me. Then good pal Dave Mulcahy has been looking after it for the last couple of years. It’s pretty low-key stuff though. Just music enthusiasts who have been looking up bands and scenes they used to be part of, or heard about, and finding there are albums documenting this stuff, and then overseas scene enthusiasts googling New Zealand shoegazer, or post-punk, or following leads from videos they’ve seen or tracks they’ve heard. It’s pretty inspiring to be contacted by these people with a passion for this kind of music and getting it out to them. They’re not casual listeners; they’re passionate music fans with a purpose. Exactly the people I want to be making albums for.
HUP: Do you enjoy Japanese bands? Has there been any temptation of diversifying the label and market to accommodate your current life?
Rob: There are a couple of bands I like; ‘Coaltar of the Deepers’ and ‘Miaou’ come to mind. But I’ve come to the conclusion that for me, music is cultural and community based. I’d have to be more part of the scene here to get passionate about the vibrant pool of bands making great music here. I’m sure it happens everywhere on a local level. Local bands speaking to locals with local knowledge and insight. Music is communication, be it with words or with an emotive melody.
I don’t really have any interest in doing Japanese releases. They have their own networks and historical connections to service them. And I haven’t been making and releasing albums because I like the music industry exactly, and there is a massive vibrant local music industry catering to the local market. I attended a music marketing seminar a couple of years back and they said 74% of Japanese music is Japanese language, i.e., locally produced music targeted and limited specifically to Japanese speakers. So that’s the local share of the music market right there. 74%, compared to New Zealand’s struggling numbers.
HUP: How did you come to be based in Japan?
Rob: My partner is Japanese, and we spent some time in Europe and New Zealand, and then we decided to go to her home country and try there. It’s vibrant and I’ve had the opportunity to work in film audio here, at a level I don’t think I could have stumbled into in New Zealand. I really like the world perspective I get from living here, and it’s been good for me to grow as a person and drop some of my bad New Zealand habits. I try not to wear the same black trousers for a month, tame the swearing and sarcasm. That sort of thing.
HUP: What sort of arrangement does Failsafe come to with the bands releasing their music on the label?
Rob: An entirely fan and friend based one, and a partnership in the art of music for musics sake. Every artist I release is on the same wavelength of doing music for expression, communication. Not one of them is in it for the fame and money, ‘cos there’s no real path to that through a boutique record label from Christchurch.
There are the history archival releases, which are coming from a respect based angle, with me wanting to do something for them to put their music somewhere people can get it.
It’s a complex balance ‘cos you really want to see this music get recognition on one level, but then you’ve got to keep the process financed and moving, so you have to sell the results in order to fund the next ones. It’s very hand-to-mouth, and you want modern day listeners to respect the music you’re offering them. So it has to be done to the highest level it can be; throwing all the modern technology at it to restore and master it, and that stuff is expensive and time consuming to operate (but much better than it would have been 20 years ago). For me, there’s no short cuts and no team of experts and project budget. It’s just what I can do in my spare time while not running on the hamster wheel to pay the rent and feed my family.
It’s a partnership with the bands in many ways, and they’ve got to get something out of it too. And that’s often been rediscovering their own music and the bond of their band-mates, and to have a collected object of their creative talents.
Then there are the passion projects I do that pull me into the process. Like the ‘Beat Rhythm Fashion’ stuff. Initially it was a love and respect for their music. Then with this new album, it’s become a partnership where I’ve produced the album and worked closely with Nino [Birch] and Caroline [Easther], and then I took on bass duties and contributed to the new material. It was a real journey and I love how it went; a mental and emotional exercise from my side to steer it in the direction of ‘what BRF would do’ if they time jumped directly to the present.
Then there is my own music projects. I’ve been releasing my own music on my label since right from the start. It’s been really successful in terms of the label; some of the biggest sellers. And I’m really pleased with much of the music I’ve produced, so that's a win for me on a personal level and for the people who enjoy the music I’ve made with my band-mates (Dolphin, Throw, Springloader, Kimo, Songs in the Key). There’s a lot to be said for if you want something done right, then you need to do it yourself. There’s also something to be said for networking and expanding your field of contact beyond your own circle. I haven’t really been great at the second thing, as I’ve been too busy just doing stuff and hoping people notice. But for my next ventures I’m going to trying to collaborate more with others. [continued below]
'Judy Garland' by Kimo, off the 2008 album 'Surrender'.
Lastly, there’s the desire to see things through. To keep the projects I’ve worked on in the public sphere and available for those that want to discover them.
So that’s the remastered and expanding releases that have been on the label. Applying my current expertise to things like the Malchicks catalogue; polishing that up and making it sound like what we were thinking back when we did it but didn’t have the recording expertise to achieve the results. The Malchicks project is a great example of bringing these things home. Firstly, it doesn’t feel like 20 years has passed, and secondly, passing this stuff through modern mastering technology really makes them sound contemporary and next level. It’s been great being part of the conversations with the bands as they talk about what they want to say in liner notes, art work, sound, track order, etc. Hearing what they’re up to. We’ve dug up early demos and master reels. It’s great to be able to paint some shade and colour around the existing stories.
I’ve done the same for the Lils, Holy Toledos, and I am hoping to for a bunch of other important Christchurch and New Zealand artists. Open the archives and let it flow. 147Swordfish, LUC, Throw, Springloader, Dolphin, Kimo, Songs in the Key, Newtones, Corners, massive compilations, etc. What month is it? I’d better hurry up.
'Wishes from her Heart' by Throw, 1992