Label head Guy McCreery is one of the proud parents in question—although it would probably be more accurate to describe him as the dad that learned to love. "I didn't intend to get into the music business at all," he explains down the phone line from Third Ear's office in North London, "but it just kind of happened. I lost my job….[and] I kind of drifted into it and started doing distribution in Japan; importing CDs and vinyl." Setting themselves up in the compound model of distributor/imprint, McCreery and former partner Masakazu "Hiro" Hiroishi cast Third Ear in two differing lights: The movers of music in the Japanese market, and proponents of the Motor City's little known "Beatdown" sound—the essence of which was first bottled on 2002's Detroit Beatdown (Volume One).
Although much of the Third Ear flavour can justifiably be attributed to the fruits of these erudite Detroiters, it would be an oversight to view the imprint as anything less than the product of a global scene. Early artist albums from Japanese acts World's End Girlfriend, Why Sheep? and Sketch Show account for a sizeable lump of Third Ear's early discography, while Belgium producer Soul Designer, AKA Fabrice Lig, stepped out under the same format for 2007's Evolutionism. South African-born New Yorker Brendon Moeller has been among Third Ear's strongest performers with his three EPs since 2006. And responsibility for many of the label's present, and indeed future, endeavours have fallen at the feet of talent from the UK (Wbeeza), Switzerland (Demetrio Giannice) and Germany (Sarrass).
It may be an assorted and motley family, but as the incident over Sascha Dive's unaccredited use of Third Ear material proved, it's one that McCreery is willing to defend to the hilt.
How did you wind up in Japan initially?
I did my PhD [in anthropology] there, so I was familiar with Japan, I spoke the language and I kind of was studying raves actually
Did you have any expressed musical statement at the beginning?
Well, right from the beginning, I didn't want to use genres at all. I come from a jazz background; I was a jazz singer, and when I'm not listening to music for work reasons–either A&R or checking out what everybody else is doing–I tend to still listen to jazz, because for me, generally, dance music is, is quite conservative.
How do you mean?
Well there's not a lot of experimentalism going on; certainly in dance floor music. I think that was one of the differences early on because we were prepared to release almost anything. I mean, I was certainly prepared to release almost anything. I wanted to be a cutting edge label and I thought that we could actually be commercial as well. It was quite a... it was a very idealistic situation. I mean if an artist wanted to call their music house music or techno or electronica or whatever, that was cool. We would quote them on that but we wouldn't necessarily categorize music ourselves that way.
And now moving forward, it was partly because of the state of the music industry that I started to focus on dance floor music. In a sense it was format-driven. It was because of the way I saw the industry going: it was going to be 12-inches and downloads, and so I said "OK: EPs, floor music" you know? Basically target the DJs–these are going to be the label's customers.
Is this the decision you took when you consolidated the label?
Yeah, I mean, I've got a few CDs, a few albums, still unreleased for like three or four years that I would release if I could; if I could afford to release them and if I could get the distributors and the stores interested in releasing albums. My instinct to, as I said, is to be quite experimental.
I love partying, I love being out there.
I think there's a very spiritual element to [it]."
Do you feel like you're limiting yourself somewhat by mainly going down the EPs route? Do you feel like you want to make at least a showing in the album format for your own peace of mind?
In a way, yeah. Dancing and dance music and the dance floor are very important to me as an individual. I love doing that, I love dancing, I love going out, I love partying, I love being out there. I think there's a very, kind of, spiritual element to that and I also think that everybody has got quite a lot of stress in their lives and I think that to provide the soundtrack that allows people to chill out, let off steam, relax, lose it... It's an honour and a privilege, and to me is something that I feel very comfortable with and very proud of doing. When I see my records being charted and being played in the big clubs; if I hear any Third Ear records when I'm out dancing, it's a really great feeling. And also for the artists: because I was a singer, I've been in the position of the artist, so I feel that getting that music out there, giving it an outlet… someone's got to do it–it's like a calling.
I think from an outsider's perspective one of the most interesting things about the label is the apparent bond with Detroit and the Beatdown series. Could you firstly explain what the term "Beatdown" actually refers to?
I think anybody that's heard the three Beatdown DJs, particularly when they play together (Mike Clark, Norm Talley, Delano Smith) I think listening to them together is crucial because they are sort of mixing each other's tracks... I think people would have seen it more with Three Chairs probably but the Beatdown thing is quite unique and they play anything. In Detroit, electronic music is everything, so Beatdown really, it's like anything: it could be funk, disco, techno… anything can come under a Beatdown session. I think if you look to the Beatdown, the records that I've put out, that's a reasonable kind of idea of what it's like… We'll do another one coming this year.
How did you hook up with those guys initially?
It was a real love of Detroit music. When we started Third Ear initially I went to the first DEMF, basically just to network. I'd met a few people, I knew Derrick May so I went on the premise of staying with him, and I slept in the Transmat office initially. I met Mike Clark and Eddie Fowlkes and then it was literally on one night during that festival, after hours, I was just hanging out with Eddie Fowlkes and we got a ride in Norm Talley's Jeep with him and Dwayne Jensen and Tony Foster, and Norm put this CD on. He was playing this music... I had not heard this kind of music before; it was techno but it was kind of slow. It wasn't dubby but it was that kind of very bass-heavy, claustrophobic...
Huge kick drums?
Yeah. And I was like gagging like "What's this?!" Norm just says "My tracks." I mean, 24 hours earlier I hadn't even heard of Norm Talley. And so I said to Eddie the following day, "What was that music we were listening to?" And he said "That's Beatdown. You should speak to Norm Talley and see if you can put out a compilation with that music. In Detroit it's very factional and political and not everybody will talk to you if you are hanging out with somebody else. But Norm Talley is generally regarded as cool by everybody, so he'd be a good person too actually to work with on a compilation."
So basically they waited about a year like checking me out to see how interested I was and how long I was going to wait. The following year I went back again for the festival and met with Norm and that time I discovered it was really Mike Clark who was kind of pushing the Beatdown vibe. He was putting on parties. Mike asked Delano [Smith] to join it because he, Delano was kind of the guy who was even a little bit older than Derrick [May] and Kevin [Saunderson]. The people who were playing early house music and putting on parties were people like Ken Collier who you've probably heard of. Ken's not alive anymore, unfortunately, but Delano learned his DJing from him and then Derrick and Mike and people like that also kind of learned from Ken Collier. So Mike asked Delano and Norm to join him in a DJ-team and they called that Beatdown.
But "Beatdown" really came from the idea of... like in, like in hip-hop, you beat people down with your beats. It's not like the music is slow or the tempo is down, that's not the meaning at all. I think people kind of thought that because, particularly coming out of Detroit, we had techno and all the kind of electro sounds from the Direct Beats and Aux 88 and Jeff [Mills]: it's over 130 BPM so anybody that's putting music out around 120 BPM from Detroit and it's called Beatdown, they're going to think "oh, this is because it's slower."
Through a friend of mine who knew Wbeeza's studio partner. [It was] After a Beatdown night at Fabric and some friends of mine who had come to the party were having an afterparty in their house and so he [Wbeeza] came, and I hadn't spoke to him all night and I hadn't been paying much attention to the fact that there was somebody here who had basically come to meet me and to check out the Beatdown sound. So anyway I convinced Mike Clark to come to the afterparty as well and to spin some records which he did, so Wbeeza was standing next to him, listening to him.
So anyway, we just started a conversation about kick drums. He was listening to Mike and was talking about the differences he heard between the UK house scene at the time and the American sound and I was listening with a great deal of interest to what he was saying and I thought "Well, this guy really knows what he's saying."
So, I went to his studio and the first two tracks I think he played me were "Heavystuff" and "Bichez" but they weren't finished tracks. In his case I kind of helped him arrange the first three EPs he did for DJs to use. I mean the tracks were there but it was case of topping and tailing stuff. I guess he's an unusual case, because he's not a clubber, and he had never been to clubs. He wasn't hanging out, listening to DJs and knew what a DJ wants with the record and what he does with the record. He didn't really get that at all.
We got his first album coming in the early summer. Which I think, is going to surprise people because he's a very, very good hip-hop and downtempo producer in the old school, kind of Dilla style. He's very interested, particularly at the moment, in slowing beats right down and still maintaining the energy and the groove.
What about some of the other newer names you've been dealing with recently?
Right, well I mean, this goes back partly to what I think a label should do. You find new talent, you bring it out, you develop it, you give life to it and you keep the music generally fresh: not just on your label but the whole scene. For me with a label, you don't like check out other people and what they are doing and then just think "Ah, he's getting charted, he's appearing in a few playlists" and then hit them up and trying to get some tracks of them. I don't do that and I actually don't like labels that do that.
So for me [Third Ear] people like Demetrio Giannice whose Talk EP came out last year; we've got another EP from him coming this year. And then we got an EP with Kyle [Hall] coming: It's going to be in probably March/April and then another one with Kyle at the end of the year. He's from Detroit and he's getting a lot of props and so I contacted him and he was interested and I spoke to people that I know in Detroit you know, to say "Is he ready?" I mean obviously if someone's getting a lot of hype it doesn't necessarily mean it's a good thing to expose them to too much criticism possibly. But, the tracks he sent me... I heard something that I wanted to put out, so that's good.
The next EP is a guy called Sarrass. He had a record out last year on Compost Black. But it's been him actually giving me an idea of how it works; someone hit me up on MySpace. I was checking out their tracks, and looking at their top-friends as I always do. And the icon was interesting for this guy, so I clicked on it and had a look at his page. His player actually wasn't working but what he was saying about himself and his music was interesting enough for me to write to him and say "Can you send me something?" And so he sent some stuff and I thought "Yeah, I want to release that." So that's coming now and we're already talking about another record.
What's been your approach to artwork down the years? Is there anyone you have worked with consistently?
I want to put out the artwork… I kind of have to do it now I think [laughs] if I stopped doing it... I think the subsequent artist would have a problem with that. I got a Mike Huckaby record coming very soon and Mike said to me [adopts deep Detroit accent] "It's going have a proper cover, right?" [laughs] But actually, I've been doing them all myself. I started them doing since... gosh, for a while now to try to save money. I thought "OK, well I can do this." [Although] I've kind of got to the point where I feel like I'm running out of ideas. [laughs] But the Mike Huckaby record, that's going to have a kind of a Marvel comic theme; Alan Oldham you know, DJ T-1000? He's a graphic artist as well, and he's going to do that.
Back in 2007 you said digital accounted for 30% of your sales. What's it looking like these days?
It's about 50 now. But it hasn't really been increasing. I mean, Third Ear releases have been selling more anyway. But I can't say that digital [sales] are growing because the digital market is growing: I don't think it is. If you read the figures from iTunes or paid downloads generally, the market is pretty level at the moment I think.
It's more a case of the awareness of Third Ear increasing then?
That's what I see, I mean, yeah, I think so.
It appears that you output has picked up in the last couple of years: Was that a conscious decision on your part?
Yeah, because I think you have to release so many records to make it work. I think if you fall below a certain number of releases, it doesn't have a momentum... Distributors particularly expect a certain number of releases because they work on the basis of volume; that's where they make their money and also you get to a point where I've got a lot of music; there's a lot of good music out there and I want to release it, so I release as much of it as I can.
Have you thought much about the future direction of the label at this stage?
Well, what I was saying about dance records and, you know, the dance floor, that's not going to change. I want to keep trying to release great records that people want to dance to and DJs want to play. I want to try and work with a group of artists regularly and sort of slowly bringing in new artists. I'd like to try and give the artists that I'm working with regularly now a platform. Really with everybody now, I encourage them to get out and to play live or to DJ because that's where they're going to make their money. In the short term they're not going to make a living from releasing records.
I don't know if you're happy to discuss it as it was a while back now, but did the issue with Sascha Dive end up in an amicable place?
Yeah, it did actually.
You said to RA at the time that he had contacted you?
Yeah, then he started paying. And actually there was something about it when his last record came out, that sort of Black Panther; the iconic artwork, there was a huge thing on RA about that and I actually contributed to that [thread] because there were some things that were factually incorrect in there, regarding me. I actually corrected that and said that he was paying normally now. And then—that was just before Christmas—when I was in Berlin in January... I was there for Wbeeza playing at Watergate and coincidentally Sascha was at the airport. He was traveling with somebody else and maybe he had just come in on a flight, I'm not sure. We hadn't met and so my initial reaction was... I didn't talk to him on the bus on the way back to the hotel or anything but when he got out of the bus I shook his hand and said "see you later." I couldn't avoid doing that. That would have been stupid, you know, that would have been childish. And then in the club we got talking and you know, he apologized and we hung out a bit. So, that's all fine.
I know you were wrestling with it in your mind before you sent out that email: do you have any regrets?
No, I didn't because the main reason I did it was because I just wanted to warn... I didn't want other people to get into that situation. I hadn't met Sascha, [but] the way he acted was bang out of order. It's curious because I did that: I posted it on MySpace on a Saturday about ten o'clock in the evening and then that night I went to fabric and Kristian from Ame was there and he said to me "I saw your post on MySpace." [laughs] And yeah, I was like waiting for him to say something. But you know, it was fine, he thought that it was quite reasonable for me to have done that. Given that situation and I think what people have to remember is that I'm doing that also because I'm representing those artists that I've licensed the track [from]. I've licensed their track and you know, if they don't get paid for it, if they don't get credits in properly they're going to give me a hard time. So I have to be seen to be doing the right thing as well.
Download: RA Label of the Month 1003 Mix: Third Ear (right click + save target as)
Filesize: 110.4MB Length: 01:16:40
01. DJ Minx – Lavender Lust – 3EEP-076
02. Kelli Hand – Escape In Detroit – 3EEP-085
03. Mike Clark – The Creeper – 3ELP/CD-001
04. Delano Smith - Special Kind Of – 3EEP-107
05. Dwayne Jensen – My People – 3ECD/LP-001
06. Norm Talley – The Journey – 3EEP-102
07. Malik Alston – Caterpillar – 3EEP-014
08. Rick Wilhite – Ruby Nights (Gilb'r Solo Flight remix) - 3EEP-017
09. Rick Wade – Bleach - street date 05/2010
10. Soul Designer – The Soul Is Back (UR Timeline remix) – street date 06/2010
11. Demetrio Giannice – Q C – street date 07/2010
12. Inohs Sivad – Somewhere Else – 3EEP-085