In the ongoing cassette renaissance, the Tombed Visions label is one of the jewels. Operated by saxophonist David McLean from his Manchester base since 2012, it has curated a diverse discography of experimental musicks of all flavours, uncovering lesser known artists from the UK’s underground as well as reaching out to freaks and outliers from across Europe and the US. But whether it is the introverted spoken word electronica of Bad Body (think Sleaford Mods tranq’d out on downers), the bad trip goofiness of Poland’s Shepherds of Cats, the electro-acoustic innovation of saxophonist Sam Andraea or the raging queercore improv of Michael Foster’s The Ghost, all of the artists on the Tombed Vision roster are united by their focus and seriousness of intent. Bunging out tape of some gig at an arts centre won’t cut it here – to be a Tombed Visions artist, you need to combine a deeply-considered sound world with ego-free execution.
The care with which McLean solicits and assembles his releases extends to the elegant design of the physical products. Taking a cue from labels like ECM and Rune Grammafon, whose instantly recognisable designs served as an imprimatur of quality even if you weren’t familiar with the individual players on a particular record, McLean enlisted his twin brother Lewis to create gorgeous and enigmatic art for the label, with the use of double cassette boxes for each release helping emphasise Tombed Visions’ idiosyncratic uniqueness.
I met with David a few months ago during one of his regular pilgrimages to London, to sink a couple of beers and talk about how he started Tombed Visions, his philosophy for the label and to get his view on some of its key releases. I was hoping for a few cool stories and a bit of biography, but David laid it all out there, his detailed, considered responses providing me with one of the best overviews you’ll find into running an underground label in the UK in the 21st century. I can’t thank David enough for his time and his willingness to answer my lame-ass questions with far more respect and detail than they deserved, and for his continuing passion for searching out far-out sounds and doing everything in his power to bring them to our wider attention. Rock on, comrade!
Read the piece below, then head over to https://tombedvisionsrecords.bandcamp.com/ to get yourself some of that Tombed Visions tape action.
We Need No Swords (WNNS): How did Tombed Visions start?
David McLean (DM): I got really restless of playing in more traditional band situations, which I’d done since I was 15, so I started making music as a solo musician around 2012. I’d done a very considered ‘sound art’ record under a nom de plume called Stushyvestya, which is a Dostoyevsky quote that means ‘disappearing into nothing’. No one else was going to release it, so I just took the initiative to start a small label, which was originally intended solely to issue my own music.
That quickly snowballed into something more where I began putting out other people’s records. Joseph Quimby was doing his own solo recordings. It just seemed a logical step to issue his records as well, because I loved what he was doing and saw a direct polarity between my own music. The idea of me operating as a traditional label just blossomed from there really. It changed from being a vanity project into something completely different, which I had no expectations of at all!
WNNS: Did you ever sit down and think this is the direction I want to go in, the aesthetic etc?
DM: There are things that you gravitate towards subconsciously, certain aesthetics that you tie yourself to and that you want to be represented by, or feel represented by. That naturally navigates what I release and why. My label does have a very clear visual aesthetic, but in terms of the music, it’s very open. That’s crucially important. I never wanted to represent just one pool of sound. I do however think there is a clear narrative thread with many of the recordings I have released, a relatability between a lots of the artists I’m working with. And my twin brother’s artwork is the obvious key link.
WNNS: Visually they have a clear look…
DM: Well, when I started the label started that wasn’t a very fixed thing. The artwork was a bit of a second thought although I always knew I wanted a clear theme running across the releases. Now, Lewis [David’s twin brother] is the silent collaborator in every single release. And the most important thing for me is to give him absolute free reign with the artwork. With that free reign he’s created the entire visual identity for the label.
He has been involved in all the releases. The first nine tapes were all photography-based. It was, crucially, the I Have Eaten the City release, Secret Paths, in 2014, that the label changed into something far more considered, in terms of its aspirations and its visual aesthetic. We really went to town. There was quite a big gap between that tape and the previous one issued, about six or seven months, but during that entire time me and Lewis were discussing how we were going to move forward with the label, looking at alternatives to packaging and presenting the tapes.
WNNS: Why was that release so important?
DM: The first nine releases were things that either I had an explicit hand in making or were releases from people from my close friendship circle. I Have Eaten The City was a band that I’d been obsessed with since about 2004. I first heard their music on Myspace and turned into a complete fanboy, literally bought every recording they had issued, all self-releases.
In 2013, I was organising my record collection and I came across their CDRs and just had an epiphany. I had no idea if they were still operating, but having the label gave me the excuse to approach them and ask if they would be up for issuing an album on Tombed Visions. Thankfully they were. It is still one of the best records I’ve put out. I adore that album. I decided to start taking everything related to the label far more seriously around that point, and I become a little more aspirational. For that reason, putting out Secret Paths completely changed the dynamic of the label.
DM: Successfully working with them really empowered me. It gave me the confidence to approach other musicians I really adored and dreamed of working with, collaborating on a record that would be released specifically for my label, putting my own money on the line and getting that music out into the world. The label’s become far more international in artists we represent as a direct result. Of course, I’m still releasing quite a bit of my friends’ music but there’s a lot more from the international community, musicians who I have an affinity with and who I share an aesthetic with.
WNNS: And it was always cassettes?
DM: Yeah, but it’s not like I was drawn to the format or I thought ‘I have to release music on tape!’ It was really the ability to package an album in a unique way, which you can be a lot more creative with due to the size and shape of cassettes. The economic factors are important too – tapes are very cost effective. I use the same place (Tape Line) for every release and it’s been consistently affordable. So the risk you take on releasing music and the outlay required is less. I mean, there are releases I’ve put out that haven’t sold that well, but I’ve so far managed to keep the label afloat.
None of the albums on my label are commercially viable. But that’s not a thought that ever enters my head. I’m looking for music that speaks to me and, as I’m taking a curatorial role, represents what I love in music. The most incredible part of being an owner of a label like this is that you’re intricately linked to the artists creating the work because your imprint is a conduit for their output.
WNNS: It’s quite nice too that there’s stuff from places in the UK you might not think of as having an underground scene – like Bad Body and School House from Milton Keynes
DM: I used to look back on being raised in Bletchley, Milton Keynes, quite disdainfully, but we were pretty lucky actually. My older brother Don and another close friend called Allan Harrison were consistently bringing mind-blowing bands, in the face of certain financial ruin, to come play the city. The Ex, Zu, Joe Lally, Arrington de Dionyso … I could go on. A scene of experimental musicians sprung up around these two guys promoting activities, most certainly me, and acts like Circuit Breaker, Action Beat, Bad Body, School House. That said, the label was never intended to focus on any one city – its barely even that Manchester-centric. Why have any limitations?
WNNS: Tell me more about the visual identity and some influences
DM: ECM, Touch, Line, 12K and Rune Grammafon are really part of the DNA of the label. They’ve been hugely influential because each label’s visual aesthetic is deeply entwined with the music, which is something I really wanted to happen when starting my own. A considerable bit of time was taken thinking of alternative ways to present the tapes, because I was certain I didn’t want to issue them in traditional cases. To me, they aren’t really that attractive….
WNNS: People like them though…
DM: Of course they do. But they’re just so small! For me, there’s a fragility about single cassettes, especially the cases … issuing the albums in double-sized cases, again, gives us twice as much room for the artwork. There’s not many other labels packaging their tapes in this way, so by default the tapes become quite unique in that respect.
WNNS: It reminds me of the old Factory Records cassette releases. When I worked at HMV you could never get them on the shelves with the rest of the tapes
DM: Ha! But we love record labels, right, and if you’re invested in a label, you’re in it. I have the same issue with my Raster Noton releases, which are oddly sized. I’m really anal about how my music collection is organised and that all feeds into how the releases are presented. So of course the desire was to have to make my customers have a shelf dedicated solely to housing Tombed Visions releases.
WNNS: You’re quite a slick operation now, with a good rhythm of releases
DM: The great thing is that since that since issuing Secret Paths, the label’s been on a continual rise. I’m still shocked about the visibility of the label. We’re putting out pretty extremely niche releases, especially the improvised music, traditionally never issued on cassette…
WNNS: Free improv people don’t like cassettes much…
DM: But they still manage to do well. Astral Spirits, a phenomenal label, are case in point that shows it can be done successfully. That might be due to the generation of improvisers that both our labels are representing. They’re not the old cats, they’re the new generation of free improvisers and free jazz musicians. The lines of their practices are constantly blurring too. A lot of these musicians work in hugely different areas. People like John Dikeman and Colin Webster –when you look across the spectrum of what they do, to define them solely as free improvisers would be to do them a massive disservice.
WNNS: Colin’s stuff with Graham Dunning is very different to what he does with Dead Neanderthals and those free jazz groups
DM: Exactly. And when Colin asked if I was interested in releasing his new recording with Graham, had it been a more traditional free-jazz, free improvised, clanging, banging, walloping recording, I would have passed on it. But I was instantly transfixed as soon as I started listening to the music. It strength comes from being completely not what you expect from them both individually. It’s very low-key music and they’re both really listening to each other, they’re joined together to create a very distinct atmosphere.
WNNS: They’re very like that when they perform…
DM: And it’s unlike anything either of them does outside of it. They’re creating very considered music. That’s fundamentally what I’m interested in representing with the label – not just showcasing people playing together and seeing what arises, which admittedly I do in my own practice as a musician as I’m still learning my ‘craft’, but hearing a definable aesthetic that’s being explored in a group situation. Oval by Graham and Colin has that in spades.
WNNS: The Sam Andraea tape is another, very different, example of that…
DM: I think that’s the most challenging piece of music I’ve released. It didn’t sell as well as I’d hoped, which was a bit frustrating. Me and Sam put so much effort into trying to get that music heard because what he’s doing I felt was so revolutionary … thankfully, the few people that did review it were so receptive to what the function of it was. He’s really changing the nature of the saxophone from a wind instrument into something else. I always say this, but it’s like a Ryoji Ikeda record. It’s not a saxophone album at all.
WNNS: It addresses the question, how do you do something interesting with the saxophone…
DM: He’s taken the potential of that instrument and explored it in a new way. In my press release I said it was ‘analogous to Keith Rowe placing his guitar sideways on a table top all those years ago to begin AMM’. He’s taking the inherent rhythmic and mechanical properties of the instrument and derived the sounds from specifically that aspect, brought them to the fore. I really hope that 10 years down the line someone hears and thinks “What the fuck is this!? Why didn’t anyone pay attention to this record from 2014!” and reissues it on vinyl to huge fanfare.
It’s so direct, it grabs you by the throat. And seeing him do it live is phenomenal. Technically he’s probably one of the best saxophone players I’ve ever seen. He also has this amazing trio with Mette Rasmussen, called Trio Riot. Their music is so powerful, two saxophones and drums, it’s punk as fuck.
WNNS: You’ve still got routes back into Manchester, with things like the ABC Trio, with Andrew Cheetham and David Birchall who are incredible
DM: They’re so good…there’s a definite scene in Manchester, a good amount of improvised music gigs, to the point that distinct communities are developing. David Birchall is doing a very considered thing, he runs a promotion called Tubers Music and they put on quite a particular type of improvised music. He’s been championing this music for fucking years, he’s a lifer man! Before I started getting involved in the scene I was going to his shows. He’s part of the legacy of improvised music in this city. Pascal Nichols and Kelly Jayne Jones are the same. Nick Mitchell of Golden Lab. Anton Hunter with Noise Upstairs. I’m missing out lots of important cats. I’m very lucky that Emma and Verity, who book at Islington Mill, have consistently supported mine and Sam Weaver’s efforts in putting on shows like this. I wouldn’t be able to do it without them.
WNNS: Does it get an audience ? Even in London, which is a real hub for this stuff it sometimes struggles…
DM: In Manchester, the way the city is set out makes it easy to get around. Even places that seem far away are actually really easy to get to, so we don’t have the problems that a city like London does. But then, it’s niche music, so attendance isn’t massive. There are, however, lots of musicians going to each other’s show and seeing each other’s work, supporting their practices, which is fundamental to any music scene.
WNNS: Does being a university town help?
DM: No! No students come any of these shows man! The scene is made up of people who went to Manchester Universities and have stayed on, but that is the only real tangible link to the student community. No current students come to the shows or buy the records! Luckily, we have a really supportive network in Manchester, we’re all helping each facilitate what we’re doing, releasing music, putting on shows, so fuck the students.
WNNS: Were you ever surprised about what sold and what didn’t?
DM: Let’s look at some of the best sellers. Ex-Easter Island Head – gone. I had the tapes for about four weeks and they flew out. Paddy’s Shine’s Ayn SOF – gone within about three weeks. No surprises there really. One that I was surprised did so well was the John Dikeman, Dirk Serries and Renee Aquarius record [Night Realms of Madness] … I was so glad that sold well because it’s not just another free improv album, it was more of a sustained menace, which I absolutely adored and why I released it. Part Wild Horses Mane On Both Sides [Aulos’ Second Reed] ….that sold so quickly.
Ones that haven’t sold so well … unfortunately Shepherd of Cats, a band I’m absolute enamoured with. They approached me in early 2015 asking I could help promote a show for them. When I listened to their music, in that moment, it was exactly everything I wanted to hear, what I wanted to do myself musically. I offered to put out a record on the spot. They are everything I like about improvisation. It’s almost like chamber music, there’s this absolute darkness permeating their sound. Even their humour is very dark, very strange.
WNNS: It’s almost like some lost 60s Incredible String Band record…
DM: Yeah, like they’ve all done acid and chronicling a really bad trip… their sound is so wondrous to me. So spacious and so atmospheric. It hasn’t sold badly, really, just slowly. I’m starting to find that people will buy one release and then start investigating what else is on the label. That’s become really prevalent in the past eight months or so.
WNNS: What’s the balance between new-to-the label artists and people you’ve released already?
DM: Ideally, I’d have a new artist every record because I want to hear new music and represent new musicians. When I have released several things by an artist – Joseph Quimby and School House – it’s because I can hear the leaps in the development of their music. A new School House record will be out next year, the progression from 2015’s Herd and, it’s going to be massive.
WNNS: Tell me about Joseph Quimby
DM: He was the frontman a band called Take A Worm For A Walk, an excellent Glaswegian noise-rock band. We toured together in early 2008 when I was playing alto sax in group called Orion Arm. We got on immediately, bonded over groups like Labradford, The For Carnation, Kranky records, Touch records etc, which we we’re both surprised about because we were both touring pretty extreme music at the time. He saw I had started a label and got in touch about issuing a collection of tracks he’d done under the name Hivver. I listened to it and it was just like taking an aural bath.
After doing his double album in 2015, I was slightly reticent to do another album for him so soon after, but when I heard Court, which I issued earlier this year, I became really emotional. There are certain tones and sounds in it, which for me personally was really nostalgic and really moved me to my core. Those are things that I absolutely love discovering in music and when I find them they become part of me, almost. Court was a sustained, continual feeling of that phenomena. My twin brother got exactly the same thing from it. It was almost like that record was written for us both. He’s a phenomenal cat, man. Complete vision. He was going through a horrible time in his life and for him to make that record, with so much hope in it, is amazing.
WNNS: Tell me about your recent releases
DM: In August I put out an incredible tape from a saxophonist from New York called Michael Foster, who Colin Webster put me in touch with. It’s this fucking amazing trio called The Ghost – drums, double bass, sax. A lot of free jazz and free improvised music being made now has lost the rage the music was born from, the 60s, Civil Rights, the Cold War, it was a battle cry, people who had been absolutely maligned, and maligned in what they could do creatively, pushing back
WNNS: Fire Music…
DM: It is fire music, repurposed as polemic against homophobia. It’s probably one of the most raging release I’ve issued, but its rage is contextualised by very specific samples. The tape starts with a horrific CBS newscast from the 1950s, which to paraphrase states that 70% of Americans believed homosexuals should be jailed… and if in response, the music rips into this brutal, aggressive fire music. For me, that’s the music brought back to its original intended use and I’m incredibly proud to be trusted with issuing an album that deals directly with these kinds of issues.
WNNS: There are some others just out too, right?
DM: Dirk Serries is back, with a double cassette that is the product of several recordings with a young saxophonist and pianist from the Netherlands (Jan Daelman and Thijs Troch). Their music as a trio is spectacular, like a very spacious, brooding film score.
There’s also an astonishingly brutal recording from Weasel Walter. I’m really excited to be releasing this record, because it’s dumbfounding how he made it. I had to ask him repeatedly if it was solo record….You’ll understand why when you hear it.
The final release tape for 2016 will be from Kleefstra/Bakker/Kleefstra. It’s an achingly beautiful record. Jan Kleefstra does spoken word in a dead language called Frisian against hugely cinematic, but very, very subtle guitar soundscapes. I seriously recommend that people check out the other projects their involved in too … all of their music is astonishing.
I’m hoping the CD arm of the label will be up and running by the end of the year with releases due from Birchall and Cheetham’s trio with Sam Andreae, a new Shepherd of Cats collaboration with the legendary Trombonist Günter Heinz. There’s also a record due from Mark Hanslip, an astonishingly melodic and unique tenor sax player that deserves to be far more well known.
I might actually be issuing something I’m actually involved on the label this year too, a working group called Fight Them Where They Live, which is me and bunch of Liverpool cats playing raging but melodic free jazz. Doing CDs means I’ll be able to issue things far quicker and I’m hoping to document some of the amazing music being made in New York City.
This is the important thing about running a label like Tombed Visions. You’re not fixed in a passive relationship with the music you care about, it’s no longer a simple exchange of producer and listener. You are facilitating musicians who you care deeply about to continue producing work and, for that reason, Tombed Visions has been one the most positive, productive and life enriching things I’ve done in my life.