Fable of the Label – Music at Warp Speed
December 24, 2009 § Leave a comment
Published: Music Australia Guide #72, December/January 2009-2010.
Fable of the label profiles iconic labels past and present. This issue, Dan Rule celebrates the first two decades of groundbreaking UK electronic imprint Warp Records.
Iconoclastic Sheffield-born label Warp Records may have been widely endorsed for its voyages into electronica’s new frontiers, but for co-founder and owner Steve Beckett, the label’s focus has never followed a path so limiting as genre.
“Electronic music perse was never what we were about,” he says matter-of-factly, chatting over the phone from Warp’s head office in London. “We’ve always been about what we think is at the forefront of music, and in the late 90s and early 2000s it just happened that a lot of that music was electronic.”
Founding the label with Rob Mitchell and Rob Gordon in 1989 – “out a bedroom in Glossop Road, Sheffield” – Beckett and Mitchell went onto build one of the most singular reputations in the industry, both for the signpost output of their roster and their excursions to the forefront of art direction, graphic and packaging design and filmmaking.
Indeed, while Warp’s musical talent has included cult artists like LFO, Aphex Twin, Autechre, Boards of Canada, Broadcast, Squarepusher, Vincent Gallo, Anti-Pop Consortium and more recently Battles, Flying Lotus, Sydney trio Pivot and Grizzly Bear, the imprint’s landmark videos have nurtured some of the world’s brightest young cinematic stars, such as Chris Cunningham and Alex Rutterford.
“I’m interested in those little mutations and morphing of sounds and images that great artists constantly make,” says Beckett.
“People often think that change comes from the middle outwards, like a revolution, but that’s not actually how it happens. It usually comes from the edges of art and culture and gradually filters back into the middle. We operate around those edges.”
He understands LFO’s LFO 12” and debut long player Frequencies as two of the label’s defining releases, but credits the first Artificial Intelligence compilation as introducing Warp’s first golden era of artists, like Aphex Twin, Autechre, Black Dog and B12.
That said, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the Warp. In 2001, only two years after establishing their film division, Rob Mitchell was diagnosed with cancer and passed away later that year. Beckett, who describes Mitchell as “a brother”, speaks of “a weird and challenging period” in the years following. But the label soon got back on its feet.
This month sees the release of the lavish Warp 20 box set, released to mark the label’s 20th anniversary. With upwards of 40 staff working out of offices in London, Sheffield, Paris and New York, and some of the world’s hottest acts on their books, it seems as good a time as any to celebrate Warp’s legacy. Even in an age where downloads rule, Beckett is proud to be investing in the highest of design and production values.
“Great design and great packaging, are not necessarily about marketing,” says Beckett. “They’re a deeper expression of the care and attention that has gone into an otherwise inanimate object, and the care and attention that the musicians put into what they’re doing.”
Warp 20 is out now via Warp/Inertia