Steel Tiger - Sim Lister
Sandman Magazine interview - 2003
1984: "One week we actually had the choice of whether we'd have the front cover of NME or Melody Maker. Complete madness, fun though." The 1990s: "We had a very grim time of it. It was a horrible slow lingering death."
How to get from A to B? There's that Faces song, 'Ooh La La' with the chorus that goes 'If I'd known then what I know now' which sounds very much like the lament of anyone who's reached that point in life where there is a perspective and a history rather than just the big, blue horizon of hope and expectancy. The amount of time, grief and general savagery that could have been avoided with just a bit of extra knowledge.
The problem being that, in some walks of life, it seems, there's no avoiding the beatings without that knowledge. The real question is when you've acquired it, how do you use it? Such knowledge, or experience if you like, doesn't come cheap.
Sandman is interviewing Sim Lister because he's the boss of 23 Records, Fila Brazillia's own label. Originally the idea was to get Sim to outline what a record label is, what it does and what you need to do to run one. But how Sim got from almost being a popstar to where he is now, 20 years down the line is probably more instructive. His experiences inform his methods and his presence in the independent sector. Not because it's credible, or cool, but because he can, at last, do it on his terms.
Sim was in a band called Chakk - one of the classic follies of the overspending 1980s but also the point where Sheffield started to create its own branch of the music industry. Look for Chakk on Google and this sentence pops up, '[they] took their half million, so the story goes, and set up their own studio in Sheffield.' Someone should write a book on Chakk and its long term fall out but this is a short work:
"I came up to Sheffield to go to University and started playing in bands. I was in 'Sexual Lotion' with Ian Anderson (now of Designer's Republic) and it became Chakk with Mark Brydon (now of Moloko), Jake Harries and Rob Gordon who'd all come to Sheffield because Cabaret Voltaire were here."
"We recorded a 12" which was going to be put out on Go!Discs but it fell through because there was an argument over the artwork so we got it out on Doublevision - a video production company and it went to number 4 in the Indie charts. Then we signed to MCA - A major label. Hence the ludicrous sum of money.
They could have shoved it up their noses but did something, even at this distance, which seems a shining spark of an idea: They built Sheffield's first proper big-style studio, FON. The drawback being that it cost them shitloads of money which had to be paid back.
"By owning a studio which we owed loads of money for we had to go more commercial and we ended doing more of the production side of things. We didn't want to run labels, we wanted to make music and be famous, y'know? And because we didn't keep the label to keep putting our stuff out we got saddled in the early 90s with a big studio when it was not the time to do that, technology was changing and the major labels weren't spending like they had been. We got ourselves completely fucked-up in terms of financing and internal strife. I mean there were 8 people coming together and as soon as that went... we were in court for years. It was a major distraction. It wasted a lot of time. From 1991 to 1997 we had a very grim time of it. It's a business lesson - it's very easy to stick to something for too long because you believe in it"
It's a funny thing but ask three different people what success means to them and you'll get three different answers. FON, by the sounds of it was a money-draining leech in the lives of a number of people but at the same time Take That recorded a number one single utilising a Sheffield studio and the technical skills of Sheffielders - something that simply wouldn't have been possible before Chakk set out. Ask Sim and he'll quote J.S.Mill about happiness being directly linked to the reality of ones expectations. The expectations, of course, being closely linked to how aware you are of the realities, in this case those of business. Sim looks at WARP (they started in what was FON's record shop and what you'll probably recognise as the FOPP store on Division Street) as the way things might have panned in a parallel world, "they never had a studio they came to us sometimes but generally just put records out."
Sim hooked up with Fila in the early 90s, via FON, later they formed their own label. The advantage they have is that in music industry terms they are grown-ups. They understand how things work. Particularly the unique creative / business dichotomy that exists "It's a nightmare. It's people who do things for love meeting up with people who really just want want to make a lot of money. Why that system exists and why it's perpetuated is often down to management. What musicians think a label is and what a label thinks it is are often very different things and management are there to act as a broker between the two and there are financial pressures or rewards placed on the management. In my experience major labels don't really want artists to know what's going on."
Sim offers 23 up as a paradigm for a label - one that exists to put out the music it makes itself - it has a global market, sells small quantities of their albums by legendary standards but has a a back catalogue that isn't deleted. And enables them to keep going. They decide who'll distribute, do the PR for them because they know who's good. The only question remaining is how do you get to know who's good? You could try Sim's route. Or you could start trying to think beyond the next corner.
Sandman asked Sim if the twenty-year old Sim would have been happy with where he is now.
2003: "I suppose to be still writing music, meeting interesting people I'm lucky. I remember Mark Brydon saying when you make music you're actually saying 'this is good, listen to it' and if you're not making someone enjoy that piece of music then why are you doing it? See things for what they are and think about what you want to do. At the end it's about dreams. Isn't it?"
(Words: Jack Tractor, Pics: Chris Saunders )
See the original interview on the (old) Sandman Magazine website.
Sandman Magazine website