"On the last day," Todd says, "We found a place called Caisteal Grugaig... We found several chambers inside, we found an interesting acoustic vibe, then we realized what we were doing was basically what [our ancestors] probably did thousands of years ago—sip on whisky or some kind of raw wheat alcohol or magic mushrooms or something. We were doing the same thing… we were just jamming in a primitive way."
The record that emerged weaves the Scottish folk tradition into the cosmic tapestry Todd has been building with his label's releases. It's the latest milestone in the story of one of electronic music's most singular labels.
To hear Todd tell it, Firecracker was created out of boredom. In the early '00s, he was working at a record store but found himself frustrated by the homogeneity of the releases that filled its shelves. "It didn't feel like there was a lot of creative energy, like there is now," says Todd, who looked to Theo Parrish and Moodymann for inspiration with the label. Many of the initial releases feature Todd (AKA House Of Traps) collaborating with Nick Moore, AKA Linkwood, in the studio in their shared flat.
The first track the label pressed up, a collaboration between Todd and Moore called "Miles Away," is a slow-burn soulful house classic, released on 10-inch in a screen-printed sleeve emblazoned with a scene from an '80s Marvel comic. The art school-educated Todd describes the label's ad hoc beginnings: "At the time we were using whatever was at hand. Stuff was lying around the flat or stuff that we were into… It was just immediate, kind of punk, DIY, these are the artists we have around us, this is the studio we have, these are the comics we have lying around."
This spirit carried over to the crew's efforts to release the record. Todd, a regular at the now-shuttered Vinyl Junkies in Soho, says, "We'd pressed 500 of the first record, I took 100 down to London… I thought I'll shift 50 or something. I went down to Soho, went into Vinyl Junkies, I just hung around. I had to stand there for ages really patiently, and finally I said, 'Oh you know I've got a record, I come in here a lot.' The clerk flipped it on at the wrong speed and I said, 'No, no it's 45 not 33.' He left the record on and I walked out, not expecting much. I made it ten minutes down the street and I got a phone call from the shop. He said, 'How many of them do you got?' I was like, 'I have 100 on me.' He responded, 'How many did you press?' I said, '500.' He said, 'Give us all of them.'"
The record found favor with the Detroit don who inspired it. Todd recalls taking a road trip to Manchester to see Moodymann. "It was me and Hudson Mohawke and Dom that runs LuckyMe, we all drove down, Moodymann was there, I had a couple records on me, I knew he was DJing, so I went up to him and said, 'I've tried to get these to you. I'm just giving them to you now instead of getting them sent to you.' Moody said, 'Oh man,' he just stopped whatever record was playing and put it on to a packed dance floor. He said, 'Yo, this is my man from Edinburgh, this is his new record.' It was cool, it was amazing. He's also the kind of guy where if a record's in his box it stays in there."
From its inception, Firecracker was creating objects that were easy to love. The first four comic book 10-inches set off a minor collector frenzy around London, never mind that they came from Edinburgh, a city whose dance scene had died after a '90s boom. This low-stakes setting cultivated a working method Todd explains as a "combination of being stubborn and not wanting to play the game." The label gradually brought in Ukrainian house mystic Vakula and elusive Estonian Bakey Ustl into their sphere. "When it gathered a bit of momentum," Todd says, "it was like, 'We've got to actually do something with this.'"
From "Miles Away," to Fur's Pulp 10-inch, to last year's double-vinyl version of Lnrdcroy's Much Less Normal, the label plotted a melancholic path, all lush, quivering pads and insular, emotional dance floor moments. "I'm definitely a very melancholy soul," Todd says. "I think music like that appeals to me. A lot of the people we've ended up working with, a lot of the music has been very melancholy, from Panoram or Vakula." Though the label doesn't limit itself to releasing music from Scotland or the British Isles, there may be something inherently Scottish about Firecracker's dolefulness.
"There's definitely an introspective quality to Scottish people," Todd says. "Not giving yourself a break, that's another one, not being able to take praise where praise is due, which I think comes from this deep-rooted Calvinist past. Very long winter nights, a lot of whisky. It's certainly melancholy, the more I think of it—or maybe the people I know are just a bunch of miserable old gits [laughs]."
When I chat with Todd over Skype, he's sitting in partial darkness behind the desk at The Living Mountain, a tiny, carefully-curated record shop housed in what used to be the cafeteria of a veterinary school. He gives me a virtual tour of the store and adjoining screen-printing studio, where a good-natured employee named Al is in the process of running off covers for the Swedish trio Frak. The space is covered with old flyers, possible drafts of artwork for future Firecracker releases, shelves of records and drying racks. As Todd puts it: "I like working in chaos."
Firecracker's artwork is among the most distinctive out there. UNTHANK003, a Lord Of The Isles 10-inch, has a screen-print that looks like a map of Middle-earth. Mac-Talla Nan Creag's sleeve features a laser scan of ancient brochs floating on a background of stars. Todd's creations are so detailed and unique they'd be virtually impossible to imitate. "It's usually just a total bag of mess," he says. "I'll find some labels I forgot I did—'Right, OK, cool, I tried something there. Fuck, that works. Cool, let's go with that.' I'm very impulsive, sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad. I'm very messy, my studio's a total mess, but for me that's a cool way to work, under pressure."
Despite being professionally unprofessional, Firecracker is humming along nicely, something Todd attributes to looming financial responsibilities. "Every time I've moved, the studio's gotten bigger and bigger, the overhead has gotten bigger. For someone who is quite lackadaisical and a bit of a dreamer, a natural pressure or fear of going bankrupt is going to compel me to up the game." Linkwood, the label's marquee act and one of Todd's closest friends, also lives out this laid-back, reluctantly professional, ethos.
Todd says the project's origin again comes back to Scotch whisky: "We looked around, there's a bottle of Linkwood sitting on the speakers. Me and Nick were doing some music, we drink this shit all the time, it's Scottish, it's Linkwood, that's as real as it gets, it's our essence, it's in our bodies." After his initial 10-inches, Linkwood dropped an album on Trus' Me's Prime Numbers in 2009, a 12-inch for Firecracker's Vakula-focused sublabel, Shevchenko, and then retreated to the studio for four years. Perhaps scotch, which must be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years, is an apt metaphor for Linkwood's music.
In any event, the resulting album, Expressions, is the label's crown jewel, an effortless melding of Firecracker's two main paths—beatless analog tones and dance floor bangers for the thinking man. Todd acknowledges that he and his associates move slowly, but he doesn't think it's a big deal. "I don't feel it's optimal to get a record out because it's the right time for that sound. We're repressing the first four in limited quantities next month, and looking back, they feel just as relevant now as they were then. Myself or Nick or whoever, we don't feel pressure from a career or anything to do it. It's nice that it's evolved into that, but I've never compromised quality to speed it up. Nobody's fucking around, if it takes that long to make an album…" The businessman in Todd adds with a grin: "Hopefully the next one takes two years."
The whole Firecracker operation feels homespun and anachronistic. Todd makes his sleeve designs without computers, and many of the label's artists gravitate toward analog synthesis. "I'm unwittingly a traditionalist," Todd says. "I can't even conceive running a digital label, it doesn't interest me one bit. Graphic design as it exists doesn't appeal to me—people will want to do some printing, they'll print out something perfectly designed on the Mac, they'll screen-print it really perfectly, and it will be like, 'What exactly is the point in doing that?' For me, it's about deconstructing, pulling things apart, whether that's screen-printing or making tracks, it's quite a similar process—it's about experimenting and seeing what comes from it."
On weekends, Todd flings open the doors of The Living Mountain to visitors. Saturday's the day "people come in and we have coffee and listen to records," a social break from countless hours spent alone in the screen-printing studio. He says the "self-indulgent collection of records in a commercial space seems a lot more mystical than it really is."
Perhaps his naturally self-deprecating manner downplays the shop's status as a modern broch, a fortress against the vexatious aspects of modern society. With Firecracker, Todd obliquely honors the traditions of his Scottish forbears, building a label, a shop and a small society meant to celebrate the simple rituals of drinking whisky and playing music with friends.
Pour yourself a scotch and sink into this 12-track selection of past, present and future Firecracker music.
Filesize: 178.4 MB
Lord Of The Isles - Tocpe 28 (Unthank forthcoming)
Les Gracies - Pan (Firecracker forthcoming)
Les Gracies - Compoly (Firecracker forthcoming)
Linkwood - Hear The Sun (Firecracker)
Wounded Knee - Invocation - from Mac-Talla Nan Creag (Firecracker)
Denaji - Wuhti (Unthank)
Denaji - Wuhti - DJ Sotofett's Bhakti Crew Mix Feat. Paleo Logos (Unthank)
HOLOVR - Drift Portal (Forthcoming Firecracker)
Linkwood - Outside In (Firecracker)
Linkwood Family - Miles Away (Firecracker)
Other Lands - Grugaigian Chant - from Mac-Talla Nan Creag (Firecracker)
Various - Grugaig Perc - from Mac-Talla Nan Creag (Firecracker)
RA Sessions: Drumcell / Hypoxia
Brooding soundscapes from a pillar of LA techno.
Top 10 April 2016 Festivals
We see what's looking good around the world this April.
RA Sessions: Jessy Lanza
The much-loved Canadian artist performs her new single.
The art of DJing: Vera
Behind the decks, Vera Heindel says a lot with very little. Matt Unicomb finds out how she does it.
Label of the month
Label of the month: EM Records
We celebrate 20 years of this Japanese label's humble dedication to obscure music.
Label of the month: Sound Signature
Waajeed, Specter, Lakuti, Gerd Janson and more reflect on 20 years of Theo Parrish's pioneering label.
Label of the month: Ascetic House
Noise, blood and chaos—Matt McDermott heads to the Sonoran Desert to hear the unlikely story behind one of America's most prolific underground crews.
Label of the month: Objects Limited
Ray Philp travelled to the UK's south coast to meet Lara Rix-Martin, founder of a crucial outlet for emerging experimental artists.
Label of the month: Brutaż
This Polish label and party intentionally pushes dance music beyond its comfort zone. Elissa Stolman catches up with its curator, RRRKRTA.