I basically owe my career in music to a handful of significant individuals who've signed, encouraged and helped me at crucial stages along the way. Without them, the twenty Momus albums (and counting) I've made simply wouldn't exist. I first met most of these curators and enablers within a short but intense period of a few months when I was about 22 and had hardly written anything. Malcolm Ross
of legendary Edinburgh band Josef K listened to my first demo tape and helped me form my first band, The Happy Family. Ivo Watts-Russell
at 4AD gave that band its first recording contract. Mike Alway
signed my solo project Momus to his fledgling él Label, and Alan McGee
signed me, later, to Creation Records. (I should also mention Matt Jacobson
, who first released my records in the US, Cornelius
and Kahimi Karie
for launching me in Japan, and Iain McNay
at Cherry Red for being a constant supportive presence.)
So I was excited to hear yesterday from my Swedish friend Hanna that Scandic MTV's excellent This Is Our Music
series recently covered Mike Alway
. Clips give a priceless glimpse of Mike Alway in all his irreplaceable sanity and madness. I won't say Mike is inimitable -- in fact, Steve Coogan would certainly be able to play him even more deliciously than he played Tony Wilson
in '24 Hour Party People'. All he'd need would be a pair of big librarian glasses and some hair gel -- Coogan already has Mike's physique and darting eyes, and Alway is already halfway to a character like Alan Partridge. ('Listen to this, it'll blow your socks off!' says Alan to assistant Jill in I'm Alan Partridge Series 1
. From the car stereo comes Gaudete
by Steeleye Span. 'Gaudete' was the slogan Mike chose for él. And Mike would certainly approve of Alan's series 2 theme music, The Windmills Of Your Mind
by the Kings Singers.)
In the first of MTV's online video clips Mike introduces himself
and describes él as 'a very high class but only semi-stylised independent label'. In the next clip
he's walking with Mr Wright in the grounds of some cathedral or opulent British public school. 'It comes down to intelligence, sensitivity,' he says. (Hey, look, there in the background, isn't that Malcolm McDowell atop a flying buttress brandishing a machine gun?)
I signed to Mike's rebelliously 'high class' label right at the start. Although I only stuck around for a couple of years, I did feel very much at home with Mike's methods, and became, along with Bid
of the Monochrome Set, ex-child actor Simon Fisher-Turner
and faux-pastry chef Louis Philippe
, one of the label's chief confectioners. As Kevin Wright says in the interview, 'this was how I always imagined the whole music industry to be' -- a mille feuilles
cake, layer on layer of creamy fiction. That the él modus operandi
turned out to be a weird Alice in Wonderland inversion of all the values of the actually existing music industry didn't mean that Mike was wrong. He was just ill-suited for a career in a rotten and threadbare world of spreadsheets and strike forces. Mike wasn't unacquainted with that world: he'd worked with bands like Wire and the Soft Boys, he'd put Everything But The Girl together... But it was far more interesting, for him and for us, when he went mad. And he did indeed go splendidly mad. As mad as Edith Sitwell, as mad as an Ealing Comedy, as mad as... well, as Mike Alway.
The high point of MTV's feature is the clip of a Mike Alway masterclass
. Have you ever wondered how record labels put bands together? Well, Mike's strategy meeting (apparently taking place outside a medieval midden) will tell you nothing at all about that. But it will give you a glimpse of an amazing parallel world, rich in the if...
factor. There is no exaggeration in this sequence; this really is how meetings with Mike would go. You'd meet him at Cherry Red's rather plush offices on Kensington Gardens Square, and when he was ready you'd pop round to a cafe called L'Etoile on Westbourne Grove. There Mike, who would drink coffee but never eat anything, would produce a list of references, textures and titles, all blocked out in tilting, gaudy capital letters which seemed to be wilting in a breeze, some flying pennants.
As in his MTV masterclass, Mike would tell you that he'd like you to think about creating 'a montage of wordless vocals'. He'd already have a couple of LP titles: 'Shapes and Sounds' and 'Living in Harmony'. The music wouldn't occupy much of his attention -- that should be a mesh of references to LSD period Ennio Morricone and Les Baxter, or 'an extraordinary piece of futuristic jazz' by Piero Piccioni
, or 'a pastiche of the much-underrated Swingle Singers'. At this point, for Mike, 'about 75% of the album' was already in the bag. Now for his great passion, the visuals! And, for Mike, visuals always start with a background. In this case, 'semi-ecclesiastical op-art lime green lanterns'. He's found some in an art book in Richmond Library, or perhaps in an eBay auction, or perhaps on a piece of fabric from Liberty's. For the display face, Mike favours Ben's Gothic or Hanover Modern. Fancy storybook stuff with a 60s feel to it, and something of a whiff of the exotic south -- the 'semi-block style of Cuban film posters', for instance.
You, as the artist, will ignore these instructions completely. The record you deliver will be fantastic nevertheless. It will be released in Britain to zero fanfare (for Michael Powell and Ian Carmichael are not rock critics, and are in fact long dead), but will excite the Japanese. You will leave Mike's label when, like Napoleon invading the 1967 Letraset catalogue, he gets bogged down somewhere on the outskirts of Brasilia Condensed, or when Stereolab and Cornelius nick all his best ideas, or when loungecore goes back to its sunbed in the graveyard, or when Orson Welles moves to Tunbridge Wells, or when it becomes clear that staying on his label is the next best thing to wearing a total body invisibility cape. But you'll always remember your meetings with Mike as something magical, a time when it seemed that the people running record labels could be as crazy -- which is to say as sane -- as artists, and work the same way: sculpting with human clay the way artists sculpt with words, shapes, textures, colours and sounds.