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interviews - feb 2004

- Simon Williams (Fierce Panda)
- Randi Russo

- Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys)
- Marc Elston (The Liberty Ship)

Simon Williams (Fierce Panda)
Ten years ago I could fit into a pair of 32” waist and trousers and could go out and get drunk two nights on the run without feeling like I was about to die at any second. Oh yeah, and ten years ago Fierce Panda were just about to start releasing a run of records that would, if not shake the world to it’s core, at least make a few people shake their hips a bit more vigorously. Here, tasty talks to Fierce Panda founder and all-round indie wide boy about how the label has grown over the last decade….

What motivated you to start fierce panda?
The scene known as New Wave Of New Wave, which involved cheerily punkoid bands like S*M*A*S*H and These Animal Men. The only reason fierce panda was invented was to release an EP called ‘Shagging In The Streets’ as a tribute to that very scene. 

What sort of music were you listening to when you started the label?
The raging fires of Britpop – Elastica, Suede, Blur, Pulp…all the good, arty stuff before Britpop became a competition to see who could sound the most like The Who and who could snuggle up closest to Paul Weller. 

Did you want to create a definite image for fierce panda?
I didn’t actually plan any image and I quite like the way it’s just shambled along. The key to the panda is that it’s a bit useless and a bit stupid, which is why we put out records by bands as diverse and non-compatible as Keane and Winnebago Deal at the same time. No other indie label in the UK would be so careless. 

What was the first truly successful record on the label?
In truth, it’s the only truly successful record on the label and it’s ‘Wibbling Rivarly’, by Oas*s, featuring fourteen-and-a-half minutes of Noel and Liam swearing at each other. It got to number 52 in the charts. Some legacy, huh? 

How did your job at NME compromise your work with the label, if at all?
It’s strange to look back – peering in from the outside it must have sent people into absolute rages seeing an NME hack run a label, but in our defence all I can say is that we were totally naïve and we were making it up as we went along. As soon as I realised that the label actually had a longterm future and was going to be a moneymaking venture I left the paper. Besides which, NME writers don’t actually like fierce panda – out of the 150 records we’ve released, only three have made it to Single Of The Week status. 

Were you surprised at how quickly the label grew?
Well, I still think that we’re a tiny little underground concern but I do have to say I’m fairly stunned that we are actually still going. 

Do you think there has been three definite eras for the label?
I guess so. You certainly could break it down by saying that the NME years were a shambles, then we went full-time with the backing of Mushroom-Infectious, which was a shambles on a steep learning curve, and since 2001 the panda has been on its own again and has been a slightly more sussed shambles! 

What’s your favourite fierce panda release?
‘Cerebra’ by Hundred Reasons. Grrrrrreat. 

What’s your biggest regret with regards to fierce panda?
None whatsoever. It’s been a blast. 

How do you think the label is perceived? You’ve stated that you wanted the label to run along the lines of Sarah and Creation, etcetera. Do you think this has happened?
I don’t think anyone has quite got a handle on the label, but then again that’s fine – nor have I! It certainly isn’t the fast track to success which some dumb managers think it is. And it certainly isn’t a bloody singles club – we are now onto our third album with Death Cab For Cutie. I guess we have always been so aware of the achievements of other indie labels historically that we tend to think of ourselves as being a wee bit insignificant, so now we’re ten years old it’s time to push on a bit, I reckon. 

Would you start up fierce panda today, if it didn’t exist?
Y’know what? I still go to as many gigs now as I did ten years ago (or twenty years ago, more to the point) so chances are that I would actually start the label today. After all, the major labels are just as stupid now as they were in 1994, which is as good a reason as any.

Are you still as enthusiastic about music as you’ve ever been?
Oh totally. I find the whole process completely fascinating and this whole ten year birthday thing has been really inspirational. 

What’s next for fierce panda, ideally?
Next step for us is to shake it all up a bit and take this whole malarkey a hell of a lot more seriously. There’s a good-natured vibe about fierce panda which a lot of people like but I think if we don’t use our bite more often then we could end up trapped in a corner marked ‘fluffy indie fools who couldn’t break into the top 75 with a crowbar’. And having come this far, that would be a tragedy, wouldn’t it? 

Sam Metcalf

Randi Russo
The effervescent Randi Russo took time out from her hectic schedule to discuss cynicism, poetry, to define and nail down the anti folk genre and music in general. The New Yorker tells us about her motivation and inspiration for her latest album: ‘Solar Bipolar’ (out on Olive Juice Records), and answers each question with an openness that is reflected in her music. She swings for slow and mournful to bouncy and angst filled in the time it takes Alex Ferguson to think up of an excuse for his players.

How was last year for you? What have you been doing and what are your plans for this year? Any plans to come to the UK in the near future?
My year so far has been kind of slow.  Like most people, I have years that are really active and ones that are less exciting.  This year was the latter of the two.  The only thing that was really exciting was my tour to the UK and Paris this past April.  I was received so warmly in Europe, and I would welcome that feeling again.  I wanted to go back to the UK this Fall, but I'll be recording my next record then, and for financial reasons, I can't do both.  Besides, when I record, I like to stay focused -- and that means working on it consistently, not taking breaks to go abroad.  But, I do hope to tour the UK again in the Spring... maybe in March.  I should have my new album out by then.

I sense the influence of Sylvia Plath in your lyrics. Do read or write much write poetry?

I have read a lot of Sylvia Plath's works (her poetry and 'The Bell Jar') and I really like where she's coming from.  It's honest.  Some people confuse 'dark sentiments' as being negative; I see the dark side as just the other half of the truth.

I used to write a lot of poetry in the past, but I don't write poetry too often any more.  I used to be a painter as well, but I don't do much of that either these days.  Most of my creativity is channelled into music.  I'm very much focused that way.

Your album 'Solar Bipolar' can be described as Cynical, Angry, cathartic yet soothing to listen to. What are your views on it and was it painful to make?
I've received all of the above adjectives in reviews of that album.  It was a cathartic experience for me; writing & performing music is cathartic.  I usually don't think of myself as angry because I'm quite a quiet person.  I keep a lot of my emotions inside and I take out a lot of my anger on myself.  But, if I look at it from an outsider's perspective (which is not easy to do), I can see how my music is angry and cynical at times.  I guess I am a pretty angry person, but there's a lot going on in the world today to make one angry (here, in America, things are all wrong altogether!).  I can also see how the album is soothing -- with songs like 'We Forget' and 'Push-Pull' and 'Wonderland'; there are enough songs on the album to counter balance all the 'negativity.'

The album was painful to make, but not because of my emotions.  It was a laborious effort and relations between me and some of my band mates became strained.  We came through it though, and we collectively made what I think is a good album.

What are your current musical influences?

There are so many good acts here in NYC that receive very little attention that are quite frankly amazing.  It's a total injustice that these acts are not more popular... people like Paleface, Diane Cluck, Prewar Yardsale are some to name a few of the many talented people in this antifolk scene.  A lot of musicians in this antifolk scene influence me. Currently, I'm listening to a lot of Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen.   They are really influencing me now. Cat Power is also a big influence.  My next album is going to be less rock-n-roll, and more contemplative.  I'm also listening to a lot of John Lennon's songs from his days in the Beatles.  I was never a big Beatles fan, but someone gave me a mix of the songs that John wrote, and I like how his songs mix tough and tender emotions so smoothly.  That mix of tough and tender is what I look for in a songwriter.

Has being a New Yorker dictated the type of music you make or do you think your music would be the same no matter where your are from or where you lived?

Well, I wouldn't say that being a New Yorker has
dictated the kind of music I make, but I know for sure that I'd be making different kind of music if I lived elsewhere.  A lot of the music here in the local NYC scene has definitely influenced me ... the competition here has made me a better songwriter.  There's a style that is innately mine, but there's nuances of things that are 'borrowed' from other artists, and a lot of that borrowing is from the artists in the NY Antifolk scene.

In the past you have played the violin and the piano is there any inclination in the future to incorporate those or new instruments into your music?

I do play piano (as rudimentary as it may be), and I've played some piano on my recordings.  I have some 4-track stuff that I did by myself that has more piano-based songs.  But guitar is my main instrument.  I played violin and flute when I was a child, and I don't recall being particularly good at either of those instruments.  I suppose I'd pick up those instruments again someday if I had the money and time to explore different aspects of music.

What song,  poem or book would you say sums you up if any?
That's a tough question, and my answer would probably change depending upon what I was reading or listening to at the time.  Right now, I'd say that The Beatles/John Lennon's "She Said" is a good one ("She said: I know what it's like to be dead; I know what it is to be sad." -- as depressing as this lyric may sound, it's very honest, and it really sums up how I feel a lot of the time.), or Bob Dylan's "Buckets of Rain"; Herman Hesse's 'Siddhartha' may sum me up as well.  Also, nearly any poem written by Rainer Maria Rilke. 

The Track 'Adored' on the Solar Bipolar Album gives out a very simplistic message: "I just wanna feel adored" this song is good for its straight forwardness and the fact that it is in touch with reality. This seems to be a theme in your as in alum 'so it must be true' you give the impression that people expect too much from life and love. Is your album and your philosophy on life: "don't chase the stars"?
I wouldn't say so because, in my own way, I'm a star-chaser, and I expect a lot from life.  I don't want to be really famous or anything... but to be 'kind of famous' would be nice. :)  I have expectations of my life and my music, and when they're broken, I feel really hurt.  As a reaction to that hurt, I guard myself against future hurts, and take fewer risks.  This makes me overly cautious, which I think makes me a self-sabotager of my own success  (Sorry... I think I went off on a tangent there).  I really don't know where "Adored" came from... I wrote the song in less than 20 minutes so I could have a new song ready for an open mic... I thought of the song as a total joke at the time because there was this dominatrix vibe to it.  But, I guess it isn't a joke because, at the end of the day, we all want to feel adored.   

"So It Must Be True" is a more serious song for me.  It's about putting your faith into a system that continually lets you down, and you're finally getting wise to the truth that you don't necessarily fit into this system.  Many of my songs are about being an outsider... even "Adored" is about that.  I suppose the album and my philosophy on life is "Go for the stars, but don't be surprised if you get burned when they shine brightly" -- this kind of combines the cynic in me and the romantic in me. Part of "going for the stars" for me is being socially accepted and respected... a lot of my struggles have to do with this -- wanting to be insider, but always finding myself on the outside.

Who or what pisses you off?
George W. Bush and his croneys, corporate greed, any kind of social injustice, etc. 

You have contributed to an antifolk compilation cd, how would you describe the anti-folk genre to those who haven't a clue as to what it means?
It's hard to describe antifolk.  As a musical style, some would say it would have to be songs filled with wit and/or honesty, while playing an acoustic guitar in a folk-punk style.  But, that definition doesn't include many of the acts that are considered antifolk.  Some artists play electric guitar, for instance.  ...but what we all have in common is that we're doing a our own thing, and each person seems to have their own unique take on folk music (music OF and FOR the people).  Being somewhat innovative (whether lyrically, like Kimya Dawson or Jeffrey Lewis; or musically, like Knot Pinebox) is at the heart of antifolk.  There's no bullshit in antifolk music... well, some of it is semi-bullshit (some people have the most ridiculous lyrics), but underneath the bullshit, there's always something that's there to hit a raw nerve.  Antifolk is raw, honest, and unrelenting in its rawness and honesty.  This is what real music is and should be about.  Musically, it's a combination of traditional folk and punk rock ethos.

What Motivates you in life?
Music is the one thing that really keeps me going  (as cliche as that may sound). Writing music sustains me when all else is 'wrong'.

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Dave Adair

Dan Auerbach from The Black Keys
The Black Keys are two young men hailing from Akron Ohio and producing a kind of raw, dirty blues rock that would make the devil change colour. Comparisons to The White Stripes and The Kills are common place and quite unfair, so no further mention will be made of this topic. I caught up with Dan before their sell out gig at the Night & Day in Manchester, he is an amiable 21 year old who answered every question enthusiasm as though it was his first ever interview. 

Paul Weller  recently dubbed Major Record Labels ‘Scum’ and added that ‘The Jam’ would not have made it in this day and age as they did not have an instant hit the first two albums sold slowly. Is his a true reflection of the music industry and are you worried?
Yeah, it’s all major label bullshit. We spoke to a few major labels, but decided not to go with them because independent labels can do the same thing. We are not worried because we are signed to an independent label ( Epitath).

Is the Bass as dying species?
(Dan emits a wry smile at this point)
I like the bass. I played bass on the album (Thickfreakness out on Epitath records).

There is a tinge of poetry in some of your songs for example, ‘Midnight In Her Eyes’ & ‘I Cry Alone’ do you read much and how often do you write material for your songs?  
I don’t really read much at all. The more I write the better it gets, I try to write everyday.

The nature of your set up is very close knit and intimate with there just being the two of you. Do you have many “creative differences” or flare ups and how do you resolve them?
We have been playing together since school so we understand each other. We just talk our troubles out.

What music are you listening to of late?
Oooh I listen to so much… Rap ( old school mainly), Neil Young (Decade) an eclectic mix really. 

What do you want people to take out of your gigs? How do you want to leave them feeling?
We just want people to enjoy and we give no Schtick.

Many indie & alternative bands are hypocritical in their criticism of manufactured boy and girl bands, as they are manufactured themselves with the use of drum machines, pre-recorded vocals and guitars. However, this cannot be said of you and Patrick, so go nuts…?
(Dan smiles modestly at this point, before replying) Major labels will jump on anything from the Datsuns to boy bands, it’s the way they operate. 

What makes you angry ?
Nothing really, except for selfish people. 

You have expressed an aversion to Celine Dion in past interviews; do you still feel the same way?
I’m okay with Celine Dion. She can do what she likes as long as it is not in my house. 

You have been touring incessantly for the past year. What has been your fondest memory?
Just playing shows where everyone is satisfied. I don’t get to many places, I haven’t been out of this building since coming to Manchester. 

Do you think there is a danger of your band becoming too big for the venues that you currently play and that you relish playing in?
We love playing the small basement type venues, but we have played in front of 12,000 people in a support slot and that was ok. You need to be prepared to take things to the next level. I like shows in old style theatres and would like to be able to progress enough to pull it off.

Dave Adair

Marc Elston (The Liberty Ship)
The Liberty Ship have just cemented their status as one of Britain's finest exponents of guitar pop with the release of their excellent 'Tide' album on Matinee Records. Here, vocalist and guitarist Marc Elston tells tasty how the band and album came about...and how he considers knitting a hobby, but not The Liberty Ship....well, something like that anyway...
How did the band come about, and how difficult was it to meet like-minded people in Nottingham?
To be honest I think people get hung up about getting musicians from the Indie 'scene'. If like minded means a detailed knowledge of Sarah B-sides then I'm not interested. If it means people with enthusiasm and an open mind then I'm happy, that's what we've got. The band started as a song writing and home recording thing but I like having people to bounce ideas off and I wanted to play live. Hence Tim, Steve and Rachel who all bring their own ideas and influence.
Did all four of you set out to create a specific sound?
I initially wanted to form a jangly folk-rock group and the songs I already had like 'Cabin Fever and 'I Guess You Didn't See Her' are pretty much in that vein. As we rehearsed everybody else brought their ideas in and the sound expanded...for the better I think.

How happy are you with the new album?
Love it, hate it, love it....when you record stuff yourself you never have much perspective, you're too close to it. I tend to over analyse sounds (one of the problems of listening to too much music) When I try to step back from it I'm pretty proud of it. I don't want to turn into a Lee Mavers or Brian Wilson figure, never happy with the way something sounds. There madness lies!
How do the Liberty Ship compare with your previous bands?
I guess the Ship are most like Bulldozer Crash in sound and influences. I've played in a few bands including as bass guitarist in a Smashing Pumpkins influenced band which is the closest I've been to major labels (we were demoed by Island) I also play in Johnny Domino which is great because it's a very different musical world from The Liberty Ship.
The album covers a lot of ground - why do you think it's turned out as eclectically as it has?

More by luck than judgement. I get brainwaves, an analogue synth here, a mandolin there! Recording at home you don't have one eye on the clock watching another £25 worth of studio time ticking by, you can explore your flights of fancy. Like a lot of albums at our level it was recorded over a number of months so it evolved.

Does it disappoint you that you have to release Liberty Ship records through an overseas label? 
Not a problem really when the label is as well organised and well publicised as Matinee. It would be nice to have that small label scene that I grew up with in the late '80's but I think those days are long gone.
How did you get in touch with Matinee?
Graeme (Slipslide, my brother) gave me a list of labels and I think had already made contact with Jimmy. I sent a tape and bigged up The Bulldozer Crash thing, luckily Jimmy had heard of us!

There really aren't that many bands in the East Midlands that are similar to The Liberty Ship - do  you think that this helps or hinders you?
We are quite happy to play on bills with all sorts of bands but it would be great if there was a ready made circuit. Hopefully the current crop of Post-punk influenced bands like Franz Ferdinand and Electrelane will stimulate interest in guitar pop generally. Bands seem to be going for the spikey end of the post-punk thing, it might branch into the more melodic end of things and see bands influenced by Orange Juice and Aztec Camera...then we'll pounce!
You've been compared to bands like Hurrah and East Village and The Bodines - I guess you take this as a compliment?
They're all bands I like so I guess I do take it as a compliment. Band members get very arsey about being compared to other bands don't they? It's just a reference point for people to get a handle on where you are coming from. East Village were criminally

Would you like to tour abroad with The Liberty Ship, or is it more of a hobby?
Hobby? The word sort implies people sitting in Garden sheds making Spanish galleons out of matchsticks or checking on their homebrew's very English. I would be miserable if I wasn't making music in some way so I suppose it's a bit more than a hobby. I'm not sure I would want to make a living from it even if I
could, that would be like.....WORK! Much as I love playing exotic venues in the glamorous East Midlands we'd love to play abroad especially the West coast of the U.S.A., Italy, Spain, the Isle of Man...wherever....bring it on.
What do you get, personally, from the Liberty Ship?
Release, friends,  a good distraction! 
And what of the future?
Recording the new songs we are learning. Gigs! Serious fun.

Sam Metcalf