Interview with Ian Button and Robert Rotifer of Gare du Nord Records

The most intriguingly varied of the new indie imprints, the collective-led Gare du Nord label offers an ebullient synthesis of sounds; from the Kinksesque vibe of Rotifer, the wide-eyed electro wonder of Deerful, via Ralegh Long’s esoteric singer-songwriting to the critically acclaimed early-‘70s stylings of Papernut Cambridge, among a wagon of extra talent. Providing a new train of thought for how to run a happening independent label, or how to just-let-it-happen, co-founders Robert Rotifer and ex-Death In Vegas guitarist Ian Button speak to DOA. Now arriving on your platform…

When was the label set up and why?

Ian Button: In 2013, by me, Robert Rotifer and Ralegh Long as a vehicle to release our respective albums (Papernut Cambridge’s Cambridge Nutflake, Rotifer’s The Cavalry Never Showed Up, and Ralegh Long’s Hoverance) – we figured that introducing these records under the banner of a new label might get them noticed  more, or in a different way.

Robert Rotifer: John Jervis of WIAIWYA records suggested the idea of a collective when I asked if he’d put out a Rotifer album after our former label had passed on it. He said, “You know all these other people in the same situation, why don’t you get together?” It seemed so obvious. He’s a quietly influential man.

Why is a London/Canterbury-based label called ‘Gare du Nord’?

Ian Button (left) and Robert Rotifer (right)

IB: Initially it was just a frivolous idea, like we’d been discovered and signed up by some Parisian underground art-label. I suggested a few options – Je M’Apelle Records was one, I remember – but the others liked Gare du Nord. In the back of my mind I was thinking about St Pancras Records and the first Scritti Politti singles where they itemised the cost of everything on the cover.

RR: It fits our geography. I’m from Vienna, originally, and Ian and Ralegh are both Europhiles. So Gare du Nord, being the station where you’re most likely to alight from a Eurostar journey, somehow implies that mind set. The Eurostar line follows a similar trajectory from London via Canterbury to the continent. That’s why our first label comp was called Ebbsfleet International.

Is there a typical GdN label sound, across the releases, or are you more of a broad church?

IB: A broad church, an open door policy, a pop-in-parlour approach…definitely no specific sound that unites us. There are lots of interconnections: some of us play on each other’s records but, beyond the core, there’s a pretty big difference between the acts. The main thing is an attitude, a particular type of enthusiasm, and a social/friendship connection between all the artists. We’re all in the perfect set-up to make whatever kind of record we like. There’s no A&R!

RR: All of the acts make music infused with a playful awareness of what’s gone before. No point denying that Ralegh Long has heard a Robyn Hitchcock or two. I’m not shy to admit that I like a well-crafted Ray Davis tune, and it certainly shines through in my songs. Looking at Papernut’s Nutlets covers album you get nods in more or less obvious directions, from Steve Harley via The Casuals to early Hot Chocolate and T.Rex. So generally, it’s music by people who like to listen as much as create. But there’s no strict retro aesthetic to any of it because all of those influences from the last five decades go in at once.

GdN seems to be run as a collective. How are decisions made and who makes them?

Robert Rotifer (left) and Ralegh Long (right)

IB: Basically we don’t operate like a real label at all. There’s no central decision making, A&R policy, finance coffers, or studio, nothing like that. All the artists are autonomous; friends making their own decisions about their releases; spend on recording, pressing, PR etc. Everybody gets all their own money from sales, physical and digital. The label takes nothing. The only collective expense really is for things like Indie Label Market, where sales on the day go to offset the cost of the stall etc. Essentially everyone is DIY-ing, with some cross-promotion and help along the way from each other. Sure, some stuff is done ‘in house’, “in my house” actually! Maybe some mixing/mastering, preparing artwork, admin for PPL/MCPS. If it saves our friends money/time, I’m happy to do it.

RR: Considering what most indie labels can, or rather can’t, offer these days, by comparison Gare du Nord seems like the honest option. But the real value of a label nowadays is the feedback you get, because self-releasing can be such a deluded pursuit. So, just playing things to each other and asking each other’s opinion is extremely important.

What’s influenced the sound and style of the label, from set-up to now?

IB: Without us consciously trying or being aware of it, the label has grown an identity of its own, and there’s an acceptance of it as a real “thing”. We’re at the label market, alongside far more well-known names, and people are walking past the stall nodding at our banner in a “oh yeah Gare Du Nord” kind of way…. You’ll note I said walking past though, hahah!!

RR: We have been heavily influenced by each other, mostly. You do spur each other on. I find myself thinking: Fuck, Ian’s made ANOTHER RECORD, what am I doing?

A lot goes into GdN packaging. Sleeve designs, formats, merchandise. Are you frustrated commercial artists?

IB: I think everyone’s got their own ideas about this. Speaking for myself, with Papernut Cambridge, there’s definitely a strong philosophy on formats, designs, and the value of it all. I’m compelled to keep things on the go, trying non-standard packaging, giving the records a bit of a longer or broader lifespan in a way, by hanging all these bits of merch off them….and yes I love the design/visual side of it all.

RR: I’m a frustrated painter. One of the perks of having your own label is that there’s no graphic designer to tell you what you can’t do. I sketched the label logo with a black biro over a photo of Gare du Nord. I couldn’t improve on it, so we’ve just been using that handmade sketch because we like it.

Have things gone to plan?

IB: I’m not sure we had a plan. Perhaps there’s less of a unified approach than we thought – in terms of label-based promotion, for example. Initially we hired a press person to do ‘whole label’. It didn’t work out well, so we all reverted to making our own PR arrangements.

RR: We were offered physical distribution but that doesn’t make sense for a small label anymore; send out hundreds of records, expecting to get most returned a year later. It took a lot of pressure off, to only sell physical records at label markets, gigs, via Bandcamp or through personal interaction with select record shops.

What’s been the best bit?

IB: Finally taking the label to actual Paris for the first time this October, for a label market and an instore. In fact even better was when we got asked (seriously) if we were there for Fashion Week!!

RR: For me, whenever really good acts like Robert Halcrow of Picturebox, Alex Highton, Rapid Results College, Deerful, Ben Reed and Matthew Edwards & The Unfortunates asked to be on the label because they wanted to be part of this thing. What a great compliment!

What’s in the future for you?

IB: To carry on releasing stuff ourselves and helping out friends who might want to join the roster. Bust a few myths about being a label and making music. No real urge to grow huge though. We couldn’t cope with that. At the risk of being pretentious (and speaking for myself) I think the making of the art is more important than the selling of it. Which helps. Oh, and I’m also going to be filming myself burning a film of Joe Corré burring all the punk stuff. Then burning that.

RR: Which I will be filming…