No Corner, Hotline Recordings, Lava Lava, Peng Sound and FuckPunk—Mark Smith travels to Bristol to meet the man behind this network of singular labels.
Taken as a whole, these labels link the creative attitudes underlying dub, punk, dance music and noise, and as a piece of sonic world building, they're without contemporaries. Though their differences are as numerous as their commonalities, Davies makes clear the connections between paradigm-shifting scenes.
Davies' own music makes these links even more explicit. Red X on Blackest Ever Black was muscular dub scarred by rattling springs, echoing industrial, techno, musique concrète and post-punk all at once. Control / Information / Version on Berceuse Heroique was coloured by the crackles of the dusty dials on Davies' analogue mixer—purchased from a "one-armed man" for under £100—which fill the void between huge slabs of sub-bass. He uses dub's lack of song form to open a space for experimenting with abstract sounds, anchored by a control of tension and release that shows his awareness of the ebb and flow of the dance. Yet the dynamics of his music are unhinged compared to the tightly controlled levels of dance music. Screeching echoes jump out of the speakers, pushing listeners out of comfort zones.
"There can be a lot of power in what you do with dynamics in a tune, but when working with sequenced electronic music I think it's easy to stick to the rules and lose sight of that," Davies told me. "It's important to indulge in dynamics within a track in order to engage with people's ears, because I think you naturally stop listening when the dynamics are too predictable." You can hear this in his hybrid live sets. Davies uses sirens, a spring reverb, tapes, dubplates, a Casio keyboard and delay pedals to blur together spiritual jazz, golden-era dub and his own productions. His sets highlight the music's differences and continuities in an echoing hall of mirrors.
In person, Davies is an unassuming, polite Bristolian who greeted me in the gloom outside a chain hotel. After circling Bristol for a suitably quiet bar, discussing spring reverbs and tape decks, it became clear that he isn't the type to buy into grandiose theories about his work. But in describing what attracts him to music, he values the rule breaking that recurs through dub, punk and the rest.
This spirit is a useful skeleton key with which to unlock Davies' network of labels. Peng Sound, the oldest of the lot and perhaps the easiest to pin down, rolls on tuff, modern dub and feels rootsy yet future-facing. Hotline Recordings is for mutated dancehall, grime, dubstep, techno, jungle and electro, but more often inhabits an indescribable middle ground between them all. No Corner was born out of circumstance, originally limited to experimental mixtapes before developing a mind of its own. FuckPunk is perhaps the funniest record label I've come across, despite releasing destroyed electronics and straight-up noise. Then there's the newly minted Lava Lava, whose direction remains unclear but was opened to present slo-mo dancehall productions from Davies and another Bristol staple, Lurka.
Even for the initiated, it's a lot to wrap your head around. But the eclecticism is simply a response to the seemingly infinite diversity of musical inputs available these days. "It's hard to be a specialist," Davies says. This is partly the result of the musical environment in Bristol. His music draws from the sounds of his current hometown, but in fact Davies grew up in Hamburg, experiencing UK dance culture from afar.
When he moved to Bristol, Davies was excited to see it all first hand. Dubstep was in its early days, but he developed a taste for dub and reggae, which still runs through his labels and productions. "I definitely value the influence of dub in my music and dance music in general," he said. "It just freaks me out every time I hear certain dub tracks from the '70 and '80s and even the '90s. I just love that clash of real instruments and microphone recordings versus total hardware and mixing desk abuse. For me, I'd say it'll probably remain as some of the most timeless and forward-thinking music."
Davies was also informed by the way in which dub was made, especially in its disregard for convention. "In terms of what may be perceived as the 'proper way' of music production and mixing, certain aspects of roots and dub music can be a good example of blissful ignorance. There's something in the way that the mixing desk serves as an all-controlling means to reimagine a recording and create a whole new soundscape via effects and sliders. You can add the crashing thunder of a detached spring tank from an amplifier, momentarily overriding the rest of the instruments, or a totally overdriven tape-echo feeding across sections without warning. Then there's reverberated bass guitar, snippets of the original vocal and overly-resonant filter sweeps on hi-hats that sit high above everything else in the mix. I think that's a good example of originality and shows a good bit of rebel spirit, throwing away the manual and getting creative. That's what entices me about it as a listener and it inspires me when I make my own music."
One of Davies' recent releases was a run of 30 acetates, with one side featuring just a siren and a spring reverb. Foregrounding devices generally considered not to be instruments creates a sense of immediacy and deconstructs song form.
"I think this approach is a great way of getting away from being too methodical and just going with a momentary feeling rather than an over-deliberated sense of perfection," Davies told me. "It's a one-take recording, which may even include a few happy mistakes and beautiful imperfections, with your hands on the desk, recording each reaction to the sounds as they come at you. Punching in a melody for two bars, removing it and just focusing on a solitary hi-hat and bassline, bringing in a snippet of something else. I think that human element can really be quite immense."
Peng Sound, which began in early 2009, presented dub alongside dubstep, with diversions into grime, jungle and UK funky. Davies was also inspired by an intimate space called Take 5 Cafe in Stokes Croft. "It's kind of loved and hated at the same time," he said. "It's not the easiest place to do a party as the owner's a little—how shall I say?—unconventional in his approach. Those who have been there will know what I mean. We've had a few interesting situations and the odd screaming battle down there, for sure. But it's got a good basement with space for about 100 people to have a party, and Bristol doesn't have many of those, so we kind of cherish it. It's a pretty barebones space but I like that, to be honest. It doesn't have any in-house sound but you can bring in your own system and turntables and decorate it house-party style if you like."
In spite of the unusually high volume of quality labels and producers in Bristol, Davies found it a "less competitive place to put on a night. I think that's what makes the city quite good because generally you'll find a helping hand and people aren't really on a singular path. When it comes to music, people in Bristol are definitely supportive of each other, as far as I can tell."
The Peng nights helped lay the groundwork for Davies' future. It was there he met Alex Digard of Tape-Echo, with whom he'd go on to build the labels. "It was after I'd done two or three nights at the Take 5 Cafe and Alex was reporting on Bristol happenings with his Tape-Echo blog, which stemmed from his love of DIY and vinyl culture. He wanted to do a piece about Peng Sound on his site, so we met up and started talking. When it got to setting up the Peng Sound label, I got in touch with him again and asked, 'Do you want to do the artwork for it?' And that led to us keeping in contact, collaborating on label things and a few music events until—I think it was maybe two years down the line—I managed to quit my job and get a spot in his studio space, which is where we've been running things from ever since."
Digard's art direction has become a defining aspect of the labels. Much of the design seems influenced by underground zines and record labels of the last few decades, contrasting a handmade feel with fresh takes on classic fonts and graphics. There's a sense of excitement behind the designs, which build distinctive worlds around each label.
"I have a bit of input with visual and conceptual ideas, but Alex is the man when it comes to designing and getting the visual side of things together," said Davies. "I might make up for my lack of time spent on design by pushing to get the records out to shops, sometimes doing the write-ups and helping out with the Tape-Echo site. We generally share the load and just get things done. At times it's quite magical how it works out—other times it's a bit of a shambles and we're stressing at 11 at night trying to get the last few records stamped up before they go out."
The Peng Sound label was an auspicious start for Davies. The first release, Gorgon Sound's Find Jah Way, has been repressed four times since it came out in 2012. "I think we got a bit lucky because that first Peng Sound record became popular quite quickly, which meant a few of the key record shops were instantly down for other releases. It might be a bit harder if you're unknown and your first record is something really experimental. But if the record is in demand quite quickly that's certainly a good starting point."
For Davies, the idea of starting a label was difficult to grasp. "I didn't really know where to start," he told me. "Sean Kelly, ex-Idle Hands employee and current Happy Skull co-boss with his twin brother, planted the seed when he suggested for me to start a label during one of my visits to the record store. Maybe it was brewing there somewhere but I hadn't really thought to do it myself, to be honest. Another factor was seeing those early Livity Sound records, knowing Pev a bit and that he's a regular guy who's able to do it well. And Alex had recently done an interview with Lewis Hopkins from Stardelta Mastering that was all about finding out how to set up a record label with limited resources. That showed me that it was actually more affordable and manageable than you might think.
"I guess during that time things changed quite rapidly in terms of what was necessary for distribution of an underground record, as the average units of underground releases being sold dropped quite a bit, making it less profitable on the one-hand, but also more manageable on a DIY basis. It became easier to get a few records out there without relying on others too much. You didn't necessarily have to have a P&D deal. You just put out 300 records, hit up a few of the key record vendors and hoped that you got your money back. And luckily it kind of worked for us."
Once the seal was broken, more labels quickly followed. Hotline Recordings had another coveted record for its first release, Kahn & Neek's Backchat / Dubchat, a rip snorting slab of grime-ridden dancehall that has also since been repressed multiple times. As with Peng Sound, the impetus to start a new label came from outside. "Hotline started when we got the dub of 'Backchat,' which was one of the first tunes from Kahn & Neek. We decided that it wasn't quite right for Peng Sound because it was more on a dancehall and dance floor tip." Hotline has a multi-platform identity that deals in the simplicity and mystery inherent in underground record networks of the past, an idea that Davies and Digard took to another level by using answering machine messages and poster campaigns to spread the word.
Davies dialled up the Hotline and handed me the phone. I heard a grainy voice detailing an upcoming release, followed by a snippet of the record, its fidelity crushed to an obscene level by the phone line's compression. Even with the whole thing spelled out for me beforehand, there's an excitement to the experience that online promotion struggles to create. The idea is to keep news of the release under wraps, so that the voicemail is the only way to get the info, with posters plastered around Bristol emblazoned with the number.
Hotline is also an essential label for fans of UK techno hybrids. Gantz's latest 3/4 roller includes what sounds like someone biting into a crunchy apple; Lurka's "Ritual Dingers" was a surprisingly tender piece of breaky electro; while Hodge's Mind Games / Flashback is still arguably one of his biggest records. Batu, Ishan Sound, Rachael and Borai have also turned in zingers for the label.
No Corner, meanwhile, came from a session Davies did on Sub FM with Young Echo's Jabu. The label released an excerpt of the show on cassette, and followed it up with a grime collage mix from Kahn & Neek. Since then, No Corner has adopted the widest scope of any of Davies' labels. It's become a home for music that doesn't fit on the other imprints. Expansive music fills tapes by Filter Dread, Seekersinternational and Sam Kidel, and like Hotline, the label is prone to left turns, with recent releases from Asda and Hodge exploring serrated spoken-word electronics and spacey techno respectively. October's Death Drums features his widest-ranging work to date.
Even considering No Corner's breadth and Hotline's strong identity, it's the petulant FuckPunk that's offering some of the most arresting music and design of Davies' network. Founded with Seb Gainsborough, AKA Vessel, FuckPunk releases extreme productions on bizarre formats like square records, five- and eight-inch vinyl or limited handcut acetates. The first release, from Davies and Gainsborough under the monikers Dj Ape and DJ Oa$is, contained chaotic takes on the eternal Sleng Teng riddim. It came with a sheet of text making clear FuckPunk's playfully irreverent philosophy, saying the label was "instigated by a slap round the back of the head from the old man, a firm squeeze of the bum by the ancient grandma yelling, 'Get off your ass and stop making vanilla music, it's time you sort your shit out and get real.'"
Perhaps the most amusing release on the label is a 50-second mash up of the grime classic "Pulse X" and Bob Marley's "I Wanna Love You," cut to 5-inch vinyl. "Two friends of ours made it when they were bored of making 'serious music,'" said Davies. "It's a bit of a running joke between a lot of friends here, that Bob Marley is an obvious choice for a selector if you're into reggae—or especially if you're not. And around that time there were a few uninspired remixes of Youngstar's classic "Pulse X" and that square wave bass and 909 combo was going around. I guess they felt that this combination was a natural fit for a no-holds-barred reggae-grime banger."
But it would be wrong to characterise FuckPunk as pure comedy. chester giles' Overdue cassette dubs out an unadorned poem and comes packaged in a notice from a landlord informing Giles that he owes £885 in rent arrears, while MXLX released a complete album of sludgy metal shot through with coruscating analogue electronics.
The labels' engaging presentation, quality music and limited runs have made them coveted on the second-hand market. Faced with the task of moving hundreds of units from multiple labels year-round, Davies is honest about the role a little hype can play. "Although I think there are definitely two sides to the argument, I'm not against limited edition releases," he said. "I think there's something nice about making something and not being too fussed about having it widely available, keeping it special. At the same time, it depends on the nature of the release, and it can be quite restrictive and counter-productive to keep things limited unnecessarily, especially if many more people are willing to buy a record and support the music. A lot of labels and record shops are generally struggling here, so a well-selling record reaching its potential can really make a difference to those who are trying to keep things above water.
"We keep seeing these stupid 'vinyl sales reach new high' articles popping up, but I don't think they really apply to the small, independent label market. Of course vinyl sales are going to overtake CD and downloads because a lot of people just stream music these days, rather than buying it. So with all that in mind, I don't think you can blame a record label for restricting things a little bit sometimes—going against the trend of having everything available everywhere as a way of keeping their risks at a minimum."
The work that goes into running Davies' network is invisible to the public. Aside from spending a lot of time deliberating about the presentation of records, hours of packing, stamping, posting, pitching to record stores and dealing with customers are all part of the day-to-day. "We try to schedule releases from the different labels so that we can get a few of them out at the same time," he said. "Since we distribute them ourselves, it's beneficial to have more than one record available at one time to make shipments to record stores more affordable. But then this means we end up in these quite intense two-week periods of trying to get all this done at once."
As if that weren't enough, Davies is also part of Young Echo, a Bristol collective with a similarly eclectic range of tastes and sounds. Though its members come from different musical backgrounds, Davies says this is part of the glue that keeps the loose crew together. Though they often work in smaller teams, they've had two attempts at making an album together, and are sifting through hours of recordings that are equally full of "magic moments" and "stuff that's too raw to use." A compilation is on the way, a collection of tracks made individually by the members. "We spent a fair bit of time piecing it together into a somewhat cohesive running order. It was a hard balance to strike because Young Echo isn't really about a smooth listen but it shouldn't be locked on too singular a path. Hopefully the outcome represents the angular side of Young Echo as well as the thread within."
Among the collective, Davies is known for his obsession with delay units, sometimes chaining two tape echoes and two digital delays in a single setup. As we walked in the dark back to the hotel, he recommended that I check out an arcade in an empty shopping centre, specifically to hear the strange reverberations reflecting off its glass dome. Each sound bounced back, true to its source yet altered by the environment it passed through. So it is with Davies' music and labels, interacting with the past, bouncing off DIY legacies, absorbing their spirit, making connections, and returning to the present bursting with their own character.