words fae tilly o’connor (@tilly_oconnor)
4AD is the independent record label responsible for bringing us genre-defining acts such as The Cocteau Twins and The Pixies, to boundary-pushing modern artists such as Daughter and Grimes.
The label was founded in 1980 by friends Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent, with financial backing from Beggars Banquet, a record store chain the pair worked for. Throughout the 80’s the British based label gained a reputation for backing trailblazers. Watts-Russell loathed all things trendy and “pop”, (despite being home to the first independently released No 1 single, M/A/R/R/S’ Pump Up The Volume, in 1987) and instead favoured musicians that reflected his own idiosyncratic worldview.
Through the works of company album cover designer Vaughan Oliver, the label curated a mysterious and enticing public image, which is often considered to be “goth/ethereal”. This notion irks Watts-Russell to this day, speaking with Mark Aston he said, “I was just responding to things I enjoyed, that I emotionally connected to, that had possibilities.“
In fact, what the founders loved most about the label’s name was its lack of ideology and precise meaning, almost directly juxtaposed to Manchester’s Factory Records. It could be whatever they, or indeed you wanted.
From the point of view of current 4AD artist Claire Boucher, AKA Grimes, “If the music industry is The Simpsons, 4AD is Lisa. She’s not the most popular person in the family but the cool, intelligent, subversive one. 4AD don’t sign buzz bands, they’re super-tasteful instead, and often distinctively feminine.” To this day, the label has signed a higher percentage of female artists than any other independent.
Another aspect of 4AD’s appeal was its musical collective This Mortal Coil. Quoting the label’s website:
This Mortal Coil was not a band, but a unique collaboration of musicians recording in various permutations, the brainchild of 4AD kingpin Ivo Watts-Russell. The idea was to allow artists the creative freedom to record material outside of the realm of what was expected of them; it also created the opportunity for innovative cover versions of songs personal to Ivo.
The group’s cover of Song to the Siren by Tim Buckley, with Elizabeth Frazer of the Cocteau Twins on vocals, peaked at number 66 on the UK charts and spent 101 weeks in the UK indie charts. This song among many others from the label has gone on to be used in film and TV soundtracks (Lost Highway, The Lovely Bones, Texas Chainsaw Massacre) no doubt because of its deeply haunting qualities.
Top 5 4AD artists
Build on a teenage friendship between two Londoners Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson, Lush formed in 1987 and were one of the first groups to be given the label “Shoegaze”. Their track Ladykillers is a not so subtle dig at Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, who Berenyi met when playing Lollapalooza.
Despite eventually being dropped by the label for covering a T-Rex song which Watts-Russell reportedly despised, Bauhaus are hugely responsible for the gloomy, gothic reputation 4AD just can’t seem to shake. Their debut single Bela Lugosi’s Dead remained in the UK independent charts for a whopping two years and got them substantial airplay on Radio One’s John Peel show despite it being over nine minutes long.
Grimes is signed to both 4AD and Montreal Based Arbutus Records. Her work is much more electronic and, dare say, more pop than most acts associated with the label, which is probably why she’s their most commercially successful signing in modern years. At its core, however, her music has the same emotional charge and surging possibilities as any 80’s doom-monger.
The group had recorded a $1000 demo, which was initially overlooked by 4AD for being too “Rock n Roll”. Label boss Ivo Watts-Russell was at first reluctant to work with American artists, but changed his mind following some persuasion from his girlfriend who loved the band.
1. The Cocteau Twins
The Grangemouth trio are quintessential 4AD. Inspirational, yet never once copied, The Cocteau Twins are the exact sort of “trailblazers” sought out by the label bosses of past and present. Robin Guthrie’s infinite soundscapes coupled with Elizabeth Fraser’s soaring soprano vocal that at times abandons language altogether is a perfect combination. Listening to a Cocteau Twins record is like traveling to a different country or planet for the first time, and drinking in the culture in simple, visceral, primal ways.