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“I’m surprised I’m a functioning member of society”: In discussion with Death Waltz’s Spencer Hickman

The Death Waltz Recording Company has been one of the standout imprints in a year that has seen a glut of new labels with a sole or prominent focus on releasing vinyl. It began by reissuing seminal cinema scores; the first two releases were Escape From New York – one of John Carpenter’s finest moments – and Fabio Frizzi’s Zombie Flesh Eaters, which were followed by a flurry of OSTs including Donnie Darko, Let The Right One In, The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue, and three more Carpenter/Howarth masterpieces: Prince Of Darkness and, most recently, Halloween II and III.

Each release to date has been a sumptuous, highly collectible affair, with new artwork commissioned for both cover sleeves and accompanying insert prints. The music speaks for itself, ranging from the grandiose arpeggios and scorched soundscapes that characterised Carpenter’s work to the camp giallo horror of Frizzi and the subtle baroque menace that pervaded Michael Andrews’ revered Darko score. Despite its relative infancy, the label has already expanded operations into issuing scores for contemporary movies and documentaries; now you’re just as likely to see Death Waltz put its name to a brand new low budget UK horror flick as an iconic soundtrack. The man behind the label, Spencer Hickman, carries a formidable musical pedigree – he has been manager of the flagship East London branch of Rough Trade Records for five and a half years and was responsible for bringing Record Store Day to the UK. Yet it’s only with Death Waltz that he’s been able to bring together his three loves in life: music, art and cinema. He talks of future projects with a bubbling enthusiasm, and, as Aaron Coultate found out, he’s just getting started.

How far back does your passion for cinema scores date?

When I was a kid my dad used to take us to the cinema, and, like every dad did, he took his son to see Star Wars. I remember I was 8 years old and it absolutely blew me away. Afterwards he bought me the soundtrack – it’s really beautiful, I’ve still got it – it’s gatefold double vinyl and it came with a massive poster. The poster was of the attack on the Death Star, but it wasn’t a shot from the film – it was a painting, a really rough painting. I used to sit and listen to that record, and look at that poster. And that’s where the label has come from, really.

And where was the idea for Death Waltz born?

My three loves have always been music, movies and art, and I’ve always worked within that to an extent, whether it’s doing horror fanzines, putting on film festivals or working in record shops. And I was just thinking there’s a real lack of soundtrack music out on vinyl, even though vinyl is the only physical format growing in sales. So I decided to do start my own label – it’s just something I wanted to do. It was originally only going to be soundtrack reissues but now we’re moving into current films.

How grand were your plans? Launching with Frizzi and Carpenter scores was a big statement of intent.

I’ll be honest, I thought it was going to be small runs of 500, it was going to be a little tiny label, and maybe there’d be a few people into it. The first person I spoke to was Ti West – I’m a massive fan of House Of The Devil, and I love Inn Keepers – and that was going to be the label’s first release, but the contracts still haven’t been signed, so a year down the line, the sleeve’s done but it’s not out yet – it will happen though. I remember pitching it to Ti at the closing party of last year’s Fright Fest, and I kind of knew that he’d be into it. He’d done a VHS version of House Of The Devil for promo and stuff like that. And you know, when you start something, you become fearless, you have nothing to lose. So I just started emailing people, and then someone came back to me and said I could license Zombie Flesh Eaters. And I was like, what? Really? That soundtrack for me is a huge deal, I remember renting from the video shop when I was 13, I was obsessed with it. And then to not only release that but to work with Fabio (Frizzi) has been amazing. He’s been so supportive of the label and he’s really into it. We’re working on another four scores at the moment.

You take the time to commission a different designer for each Death Waltz release. How important is physical presentation to you?

I knew I wanted to do everything with new artwork, because as much as I love all those old posters, I wanted to put a new twist on them, reimagine them and give them a new lease of life.

The Escape From New York sleeve was particularly memorable. 

There were people who really hated that. I try to steer clear of online forums but I got emails from people saying the Escape From New York artwork was rubbish, that I should be ashamed of myself. I was like, it’s fucking amazing, are you joking? So I’d email them back, and say look at that artwork – it’s the eye, it’s the Empire City, it’s the syringe… it looks gritty, it looks like the movie. That’s perfect! So far I have been lucky in that every artist I have approached for a project has said yes, even someone like Candice Tripp, who is a fine artist. She has been represented by Lazarides, had a show at the Joshua Liner gallery; she’s a big deal. I own a couple of pieces by her – I’m a massive fan. And when I decided to Let The Right One In, I knew she was the one I wanted to do it. So I sent her an email and pretty much said, ‘right, I’m doing Let The Right One In, you’re doing the cover’. And she did it! She was really worried, she didn’t want to do it wrong, and she sent a few preliminary sketches. I said that when I think of when I think of the movie, I see those shots in the playground after dark. Within two days she came back to me – first she sent me a little photo via text, and it was awesome. The next day she photographed it and sent it to me. I was looking at the art, and (the child portrayed on the cover) has no face. It was perfect. I knew it was really obvious, but I was like, fuck, it looks incredible.

Overall it’s been more positive than negative right?

People generally like the covers – or if they don’t like them, they appreciate them. None of them are really far out (but) Jay Shaw’s Halloween 3 art is nuts. When he explains how he did it, it’s mind blowing. I knew it would be his favourite movie in the franchise – I kind of get what he’s into, just by his poster work. You can tell that he has a different thought process from other artists. He got an old VHS copy of the movie and paused it when Tom Atkins is screaming down the telephone, and opened that as a photo in text editor and took six lines of text out and replaced it with six lines of dialogue from the film and then reopened it as a jpeg. In one way it was the simplest thing ever, but who else would have thought of it?  It looks amazing because it looks like a weird TV broadcast of the movie. If you’re a fan of the movie, that cover is exactly what you want. So I have been under no illusion that I have been blessed with the people I have worked with.

It sounds like you have headhunted artists and, with some subtle nudging, you’ve found them to be on your wavelength…

I mean Graham (Humphreys), who did the Zombie Flesh Eaters sleeve, sent me like 20 sketches. I couldn’t choose. I was like, you’ve gotta have the shark, and there was another one I liked, and he ended up combining the two. Being involved in the creative process in that way is where it gets interesting.

You obviously have a predilection for horror – where does that stem from?

I think I was 12, and my dad gave me a copy of The Exorcist on bootleg video. Around that time I was watching stuff like Salem’s Lot on TV, scaring myself shitless. There was a video shop that opened up down the road from us, and because there were no laws then, we joined and I would go down and rent stuff like Cannibal Holocaust. I remember watching a double bill of Cannibal Holocaust and Last House On The Left when I was about 13. I’m surprised I’m a functioning member of society. I basically watched a lot of shit and then the odd gem.

The label seemed to launch with this instantly identifiable mission statement and visual/sonic aesthetic. You said the idea to start a label had been in your head for a long time, but when did you start getting into the deciding the precise direction of the label?

I suppose it was when I signed Zombie Flesh Eaters and then it became obvious I was getting Escape From New York, I knew it was time to get my shit together and make sure it was done right. I wanted the label to be identifiable from the start, and I always knew I wanted to launch with a house sleeve – I really like house sleeves and I knew I would put prints in there so I wasn’t overly worried about the image being smaller on the front. I knew I wanted something that, after the first six releases, people could go OK, that’s Death Waltz. I knew I wanted the label to be quality. There were people who weren’t really that into it, but when we announced we were changing it to make our cover art bigger, some people didn’t want us to. But it was always about those first six (releases) so people would immediately know about us. They all look nice displayed together. Maybe we’ll change it again after these next six, I don’t know. You have to keep it fresh.

And why vinyl only?

They sound fucking great on vinyl. I probably own five or six CDs. I buy vinyl. I was getting Star Wars soundtracks, Jaws soundtracks, I was even listening to the Muppet Show on vinyl as a kid. I have always worked in record shops too; people say there is resurgence in vinyl, but to me it’s never really gone away. There’s a resurgence in that Urban Outfitters are stocking our records, which, to me, is crazy. I walked past the other day and saw the Donnie Darko soundtrack in there.

It’s found its way back onto the high street in a roundabout way.

Yeah – and there are people who subscribe to the label who don’t even have record players. They love the look of the records, they love the artwork. That’s amazing to me, because they’re not cheap. I mean I try to make the price as reasonable as it can be considering what you get – the print, and nice colours that tie in with the movie.

The colour schemes seem to be really important.

That’s my big thing, whenever I think if doing a different colour, we can’t do some random, weird colour, it’s got to tie in with the feel of the movie. The first edition of Escape From New York was orange and green, relates to the beginning of the film, when they’re looking at New York. Donnie Darko always felt like it should be blue… I don’t know, I think I’m a little bit OCD.

What’s coming up, release wise?

In January we are going to start doing releases on CD – through necessity really. But they’re going to be as sexy as CDs get. I found a guy who does handmade runs of up to 1000, which is pretty hefty, and they’re beautiful. They’re going to be gatefold; it’s difficult to explain, but when you open it up, it’s almost like origami, so you can pull (the CD) out. We just signed the score to Room 237, the new Stanley Kubrick documentary about all the conspiracy theories with The Shining, and those guys want to do a CD which is totally fair enough – it’s a new film, new soundtrack. The score is phenomenal – easily as good as Goblin in their prime. It’s fucking brilliant. They came to me which is funny because I have been waiting to see this film for a year. They emailed out of the blue and said we love the label, would you listen to this soundtrack and tell us what you think. I listened to it once at home and emailed them straight back. Then we’re going to do The Devil’s Business, which is my friend Sean Hogan’s film, a really low budget British flick, and the soundtrack is by a guy called Justin Greaves from a band called Crippled Black Phoenix.

I like the fact you’re not in thrall to one genre or era, and don’t seem afraid to put out something new.

With the Devil’s Business, I’m not doing it because he’s a friend, I’m doing it because the soundtrack is great and it’s a good film too. It’s nice to be able to mix it up between classic movies and newer films, because I hope that, at this point, people are looking at what we’ve released and what we’ve got coming up, and are thinking, I know that it’s got to be good. It’s not in my interest to release stuff that’s sub par.

Tell me about how you got these John Carpenter and Alan Howarth reissues came to be – you seem to have developed a solid working relationship with Alan especially.

The fact that I have released a bunch of John Carpenter and Alan Howarth scores is mind blowing, it’s incredible. Before the label launched, when I was thinking of what I want to release, I made this massive 20 page wish-list. And all of their scores were on there – of course they would be. I checked him and I noticed he had reissued some stuff on his own label, Alan Howarth Incorporated. But I also noticed he had only done CDs so I sent him a couple of emails and didn’t hear back, but then we released Escape From New York and Zombie Flesh Eaters, so I sent him another email and he replied. We started talking and it was a really long process, because he doesn’t know me and we’re a really young company. He’s obviously been burned in the past – as everyone has in the industry – with publishing and royalties, so it took quite a few emails and Skype conversations. From there we tied it up pretty quickly.

There’s a nice quote on your website of him saying the Prince Of Darkness soundtrack needs to be heard on vinyl, so it sounds like he appreciates what you’re doing.

Yeah I think so. He’s been great. We’re working on a few other bits – obviously I want to do the first Halloween as we’ve done the other two, and I really want to do Big Trouble In Little China. There’s a couple of dream things which I’d like to do.

Is there a particular score that you want to reissue but can’t – a holy grail?

It’s got to be Cannibal Holocaust, because there are massive rights issues. I have found the company which owns most of the tracks, but…

You don’t see it happening?

I don’t know. It’s my number one. That and The Thing (but) Alan has just completed re-recording that soundtrack and has released it. But I have just signed one of my favourite movies – one of the biggest cult films ever, and we’re going to do a special boxset for the next Record Store Day.

I wanted to ask about Record Store Day. You brought it to the UK – is your role ongoing?

I don’t know… I have done it for five years, I kind of need a break. Next year I’ll be releasing stuff for it as a label owner too, so we’ll see.

How tough has it been to juggle your role with Rough Trade and Death Waltz?

It’s been difficult – in fact I have given my notice at Rough Trade. It has been five and a half years of my life and it’s been the most satisfying job I have ever had. But I can’t continue to do both, and if I’m really truthful, I love Rough Trade, but I have to do this because it’s for me, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get another shot. Now it’s about how we take Death Waltz further – this is now my job. I want to get into music supervision – I want people to come to Death Waltz and say, we need music for a film. That’s the one thing I have always been interested in; whenever I watch a film, I’ll be quite disappointed sometimes with the music choices!

So you’d curate soundtracks?

Yeah I’m kind of already working on something now, so we’ll see.

You just signed a five year deal with Hammer films. How did that come about?

As a kid, growing up in the UK, I used to watch those on TV; House Of Horror, stuff like that. Weirdly, it came through the same guys we licensed Escape From New York off. Last year they did a download compilation of Hammer stuff and it sold poorly; I said no-one wants it on MP3, Hammer fans want the physical product. They gave me a big list of what they’ve got, and over the last six months we talked it over, I met with Mick from Hammer, and he likes the label and the fact that it’s British. It was really simple – and this is another key factor in things so far, is that everyone I have dealt with has wanted to be involved. It makes it a lot smoother. We’re still a really young label, we’re still really small, so I appreciate that.

Well it seems like you’re building a small but dedicated fan base.

It’s funny, sometimes I do get a bit upset – or irate – because I take things so personally. When someone slags something off, I’m a bit like “you do your own label then if you don’t like that sleeve!” But you can’t please everyone. Someone emailed me saying ‘why don’t you take your whack graphic design while I stick to my £5 used copies of these records’. I said if you can find a used copy of Halloween 3, I want to know where you’re shopping (laughs). There are always people who won’t like what you’re doing. But I think if you look at what we’ve put out so far, if you don’t like one thing you’ll find something you do like, and for some people it’s just about having the music. For me though it’s about the whole package. I love it when people email me showing their framed prints, and I realise that we’re doing something that people really like.

Would you ever consider doing some Death Waltz related events?

Loads of people keep asking me to do a night, which would be really cool. I’m quite into that. I promoted for years when I lived in Birmingham but I don’t really know if I want to get back into that right now. I would quite like to do something eventually. A friend of mine does a film night called Cigarette Burns – we’re planning on doing Living Dead At Manchester Morgue on 16MM and showing it in a cemetery. There’s stuff we can do like that, which is actually interesting. I think the club night for film music is really hard to pull off because there’s lots of stuff you couldn’t play in a club – you’d be thrown out. Everyone would be like, what the fuck is this?

Finally, have you got any plans for Halloween?

Well I’m an old goth so I wouldn’t mind rocking up at a cemetery with a boombox and having a party, Return Of The Living Dead style (laughs).

Interview: Aaron Coultate
Photography: Tom Medwell
Sleeve design: Halloween II (Brandon Schaefer), Halloween III (Jay Shaw), Prince Of Darkness (Sam Smith)