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Tracking down the weird and wonderful: A discussion on all things Emotional with Stuart Leath

Matt Anniss speaks to self-professed record nerd Stuart Leath, the man behind a trio of labels that champion music from the margins. 

Stuart Leath is sat in his office which doubles as a music room, attempting to explain the ethos behind his trio of highly regarded labels, Emotional Rescue, Emotional Response and [Emotional] Especial, via the medium of Skype. Complete with Weatherall style beard (“I actually think he copied me,” he jokes) and increasingly straggly hair, the 44 year-old’s look neatly fits the “disco beard” stereotype that you would associate with his imprints’ outlook. “I treat the labels as art projects,” he says, before a knock at the door sees him scurry off to greet the postman. Ninety seconds later, he returns grasping a record mailer.  “I’m really bad at selling things, invariably as I still like all of them” he admits. “I’ve got thousands and thousands of them. I’ve actually run out of room.”

He laughs as he slips a battered Casablanca 12” single, out of the mailer. “I bought the most ridiculous record for a pound to DJ at a friend’s wedding out in the countryside and want to play that.  It’s the most brilliantly stupid record, a good piece of ‘pop tat’.” The record in question – one of 1983’s campest Euro-pop hits (and that’s a bold claim, given the sheer volume of tracks to choose from) –  is perhaps not one you’d most associate with Leath, a man whose labels consistently champion music from the margins.

Since launching at the tail end of 2011 with a timely reissue of Bob Chance’s 1973 L.A. rock oddity Wild, It’s Broken, Leath’s labels have variously championed dreamy Balearic pop, synth-heavy cosmic disco, jazz-flecked krautrock, Factory-inspired indie-dance nostalgia, Eno style ambience, quirky horror soundtracks, dubwise post-punk fuzziness, and contemporary drug-chug. Along the way, there have been timely reissues, thrilling new tracks, and unlikely albums from little-known talents. As yet, tongue-in-cheek throwaway “pop tat” has not made an appearance.

“Yesterday I found this amazing Island Records 10”, this kind of wonky post-punky thing,” he enthuses. “I also recently picked up four or five really obscure European records, still quite cheap, so when the doorbell went I thought it was one of those odd German albums. They’ll take ages to turn up sadly!”

Anyone who devotes a lot of their time (and money) to tracking down weird and wonderful records will empathise with his plight. Leath is, by his own admission, a “nerd” – a confirmed record digger who has spent much of the last 30 years of his life collecting wax.  He is prone to going off on tangents to discuss the merits of overlooked musical genres, bands you’ve barely heard of and records you didn’t know existed. Each tangent will be accompanied by new ideas for reissues on Emotional Rescue, stories of planned remixes for his “sort of dance” label [Emotional] Especial, or tales of trying to track down favourite artists for his “non dance” outlet Emotional Response. It’s no wonder he puts out so much music.

“I treat each one as a kind of art project. So, Emotional Rescue is a reissue label with properly licensed, re-mastered tracks, and the sleeve artwork for each release is a kind of re-edit or re-master of the original artwork. Emotional Response, which I think of as the main label, is strictly not dance music – weird and interesting things that are still accessible – and using photography for the artwork. Then there’s [Emotional] Especial, which when I started I wanted to be less conceptual than the other labels. To make the whole thing feel a little more disposable and dance based than the other labels.”

Of course, [Emotional] Especial is not an outlet for traditional, formulaic dance music, and its output is nowhere near as “disposable” as his description suggests.  You’ll find no plodding set filler or mediocre “peak time bangers”, just quirky, leftfield tracks variously influenced by acid house, cosmic disco, new wave and punk funk.  Much of it comes from a small group of producers to whom Stuart has become close to – the likes of Timothy J Fairplay (a collaborator under the Apophenia moniker, alongside Piers Harrison from Soft Rocks, where they tidy up some of the reissues that need a helping hand), Cage & Aviary’s Jamie Paton (who designs all the Especial artwork), Scott Fraser, Richard Sen and George Thompson (Spectral Empire, Black Merlin). It’s because of the involvement of these people that Especial has become well known to DJs since its launch last year.

“It was when I was doing the deliberately short-lived Emotional Relish collaboration with Robi Headman that I realised that I had all this music from the likes of Tim, Jamie, Scott and Richard, amongst others, that didn’t fit in with what I was trying to do with Emotional Response but other labels were ignoring,” Leath remembers. “I got the first nine EPs sorted without really thinking about it, and then started thinking about what to do for the tenth. I thought ‘well as it’s an art project, what should follow is make the tenth a mix CD of material from the first nine EPs, with overdubs and edits.’  So now Richard Sen is working on that. That then got me thinking about the growth of dance labels, particularly house labels, in the 1990s, which was fascinating to watch and in a way be a part of via the dancefloor. As house music grew, the scene splintered, labels became brands, and then did tours with the artists. I thought ‘well that is what I’ll do with Especial, follow the path of the label as kind of art project version of that ’90s dance label,’ so a tour is next thing I’m working on and Berlin, Paris, Moscow and Amsterdam are already sorted.”

Leath readily admits that Especial has taken on “a life of its own”. Having initially intended to do just ten releases (five of which have hit record stores to date, including Andy Blake and Timothy J Fairplay’s ten-minute midtempo acid live jam “B-Ultras”), he’s now scheduled a further ten. “’I’ve got this new thing from a lovely Dutch lady called Truus de Groot, who has recorded on and off for years as Plus Instruments,” Leath enthuses. “They were initially a three-piece post-punk/new wave/no wave band in the early ’80s in New York. I’m reissuing a bunch of older tracks on an EP on Emotional Rescue first, but she’s still making music. She put out an album with Blowpipe last year, which contains this track that’s like a house record, but wonky, though I think she has no idea what that is and the song is only three and a half minutes long and really warped and twisted. So Young Marco and Jonny Rock are doing remixes right now to come on Especial down the line. That will come after more EPs from Jamie Paton, Cage & Aviary, Maurice and Charles and Richard Sen. I’m finally working with Aaron from Peaking Lights on doing an EP, which Secret Circuit should hopefully be remixing. That’s the plan anyway, but I’m always working on projects, so it might move around!”

This is how Leath operates. He is a hive mind of ideas, and throughout our Skype chat he mentions a plethora of planned projects that may or may not materialize. He’s seemingly a whirlwind of mental activity, driven on by a combination of musical passion and a healthy dose of fear. “There is a lot planned, but not everything happens,” he admits, turning his gaze away from the webcam. “It’s almost out of projects failing that I work like that. I’ve got a bunch of Emotional Rescue things lined up, and some great Emotional Response releases too. I do look at them and think, what comes after that?  It can go on a roll of three or four releases together, but I haven’t done that for a while because Especial has come along and it’s taken my eye off a bit.  I don’t want to become known for doing club music at all in truth – I’d much rather it all be known for doing Emotional Response.”

You get the distinct impression that Especial is a side project that’s become a pleasing distraction; an imprint that started from a simple idea, but which is now picking up a head of steam.  As he readily admits, Leath’s real labour of love is Emotional Response, a label whose output bristles with experimental intent, atmospheric soundscapes and unusual textures. For all the excitement of Especial’s dancefloor pulse, it’s Emotional Response’s releases that are arguably the more fascinating for many listeners.

“It can be odd. People come up to you when you’re out and say ‘you put out interesting music’, but I think isn’t that the point?” Leath says, looking genuinely puzzled. “I definitely think that the nature of a label is a reflection of someone’s personality. The records have an atmosphere, a vibe, a feeling to them. I think a lot of it is you in there. Also, when I started the labels I never thought I’d be so visible, but in a way that comes with them, as it’s your personality that comes through the labels.”

Leath seems to be a bit of a musical magpie – a vinyl obsessive that has spent the last 30 years treading a meandering, winding path that’s taken all manner of strange and unusual turns. He speaks passionately about it, name-checking obscure Mexican new wave artists, field recordings specialist Chris Watson (he of Cabaret Voltaire fame), Soundsystem deep house stalwarts and old friends Digs & Woosh, proto-jungle producers and little-known early ‘90s Brit dub combo Alpha and Omega.

“My background isn’t just dance music,” he asserts. “Growing up in the ‘80s I listened to pop, punk, The Clash and Public Image Limited etc. I was tall at a young age, so I could get into pubs and venues at 14 and watch great bands. Then house music was coming through. I’d smoke weed and take mushrooms with my mates and not just listen to the early Acid House tapes, which were amazing of course, but we’d also sit and listen to the likes of Erik Satie, Steve Reich and of course, Brian Eno.  Even when I was DJing house and disco in my twenties, I’d also be listening to weird stuff at home. That’s why Emotional Response is the way it is. I didn’t just want be about dance music – I wanted to do something that represented all of me.”

From the start, Emotional Response has consciously taken odd turns. After launching with an album made for a documentary on Haitian Voodoo from Alan Hurst (an alias of Jason Letkiewicz, better known as Steve Summers), Emotional Response has gone on to release music by cult psychedelic artist Nick Nicely, William Burnett’s Black Deer alter ego, an album’s worth of teenage recordings from Luke ‘Torn Hawk’ Wyatt and Secret Circuit, the current project of eccentric West Coast musician Eddie Ruscha. The latter is particularly special to him, “I think Secret Circuit’s Tropical Psychedelics is one of the best things I’ve put out across all the labels,” Leath says. “I had something like 60 or 80 tracks to choose from, and it took me four or five months to whittle it down to 12 tracks. I had to put “Piano Waltz” on there, so I had a label that released a track that sounded like Eric Satie. His music was such a big part of my musical education, that I feel quite honoured in a way that I blagged it!”

Through running Emotional Response and reissue imprint Emotional Rescue – more of which shortly – Leath has managed to work with a number of musicians whose output has had a profound effect on him. “Three bands happened to be inspiring me when I started Emotional Response: Musiccargo, Peaking Lights at the end of their Not Not Fun tenure – and also a woman in Portland who records under the name Valet. To get the Musiccargo album [Harmonie] on Emotional Response, to me that was a great thing.  If the label stopped tomorrow, I’d be satisfied, because it’s such a beautiful album. I’ve also become friends with Aaron from Peaking Lights, he stays over when in London, so something will appear on a label and Honey Owens, who’s Valet and is now one of Miracles Club, has done a lovely remix of Black Deer that will see the light of day soon. Having influences and hooking up with people and becoming friends is just as important as putting the music out for me.”

“People come up to you when you’re out and say ‘you put out interesting music’, but I think isn’t that the point?”

Despite the brilliance of much of Emotional Response’s output, it could be argued that reissue imprint Emotional Rescue has been more successful.  Certainly, it has quickly developed into a ‘much-check’ imprint, thanks as much to the variety of material on offer as the relative obscurity of the music. The label’s ten-plus releases to date have flitted between curious krautrock (Dunkelziffer), new age dreaminess (Woo’s fantastic Whichever Way You’re Going, You Are Going Wrong), hissing punk-dub (The Jellies), global grooves (Suns of Arqa, The Ganges Orchestra) and eccentric new wave (Kevin Harrison, Neo). The good news is that we can expect more quirky material and odd turns in future, starting with a trio of synth-pop based releases in the early part of this year, before a decidedly obscure set of European new wave and post punk records. There will, of course, also be a few curveballs thrown in.

“When I started the label, I wanted to put out everything to match what I collect.  Yet after a few releases you get a… well, not a theme or vibe, but kind of a path,” Leath says. “Hopefully a meandering path. I think that’s what the label is on. There are so many great labels out there doing certain things, that there’s no need for me to cover those areas as they do it much better. But themes develop, maybe with runs of releases. There aren’t actually many labels doing 7”s or EPs. All the write-ups go to the albums so I think it’s a good contrast that the label releases music you actually can play out as well as listen to at home. I listened to a lot of new wave and odd synth-pop in the last few years, new age too, so that’s coming through the label.  At the same time I’ve got something that sounds a little like Miles Davis from his On The Corner period coming soon, which I love and more from the people behind The Ganges Orchestra.”

Leath’s face lights up when he talks about the extreme lengths he goes to when attempting to license tracks for Emotional Rescue reissues. He claims to have become “pretty good at finding people”, and tells one story about tracking a little-known musician down to a hairdressing salon in Trinidad (via a convoluted process involving a call to a fish restaurant in deepest Florida). “The thrill of the chase is definitely part of the fun,” he admits. “I do wish it would be easier for sure. I approach a lot of artists or labels, and maybe one in ten ideas I have for reissues comes to fruition, either because I can’t find someone, they’re not interested or increasingly, another label’s doing it already!”

It’s at this point that the conversation turns my local area and an obscure band from Bristol’s early ’80s post punk scene, and asks whether I can help him track down the drummer through my contacts in the West Country. It seems fitting, in some ways; this is the sort of dedication needed in the reissue game. Given that Leath has two other labels to run, and also co-runs the recently launched and decidedly eccentric (but fantastic) Sacred Summits imprint – dedicated to experimental fare of all descriptions – with Firecracker Recordings boss Lindsay Todd, you do wonder how he finds the time to get everything done.

Despite this workload, he remains a record collector at heart.  It’s not long before the conversation turns back to vinyl hunting. “Are there any decent second hand shops in Bristol with breakbeat hardcore records for sale?” he asks. “Not the banging fast ones. I’ve been going back to that 120 BPM stuff from around 1991-92. William [Burnett] has done this great breakbeat track as part of Daywalker + CF that is coming out and Tim (Fairplay) has some interesting things coming too that I think will surprise people.  We’ve all been looking for these old records from the rave period, just before it became jungle – proto-jungle basically. I might reissue a couple if I can find the producers but right now it’s great to just collect them. I know of quite well known young house and bass producers looking for and listening to old hardcore records to check out that sound and bring it in to their music. There’s definitely an interest in it. Personally I’m quite excited by that as it will bring in something new further along the way.”

It’s this kind of brilliantly open-minded, slightly eccentric approach that makes the Emotional Recordings stable so damn checkable right now. It’s certainly what record buyers have been responding to, along with the near faultless music on show. Leath looks pleased at this assessment, but also slightly perturbed. “That’s what you want,” he nods. “The thing is, labels get to that point where they’re a ‘must check’ or whatever, and then they go off.  That’s a fear I guess, because I’ve seen it a thousand times before so it will happen one day!”

Interview by Matt Anniss