Rocket Recordings at Twenty : Interview with label co-founder Chris Reeder

Rocket Recordings is celebrating its twentieth birthday this year, and to mark the occasion they will be hosting an unmissable three day weekender at The Garage in London at the beginning of March. Since the release of their first 7″ two decades ago Rocket has grown become arguably Britain’s finest underground label, releasing quality music by boundary pushing artists such as Goat, Gnod, Josefin Öhrn, Teeth of the Sea, Hey Colossus, Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs and many more. GIGsoup recently spoke to label co-founder Chris Reeder about the history of the label, the upcoming twentieth birthday weekender and what we can expect from to hear from it in the near future.

Can you tell us about how the formation of Rocket Recordings?

Well, I always thought the original idea for Rocket’s first release came to myself and good friend Simon Healey at a The Heads/Lillydamwhite show at the Louisiana in Bristol, that is what I have always said in interviews. But Gareth from Lillydamwhite (now Anthroprophh and Kuro) has said that is wrong and in fact it was at a Lillydamwhite show at the Ropewalk in Bristol that the idea of a single was birthed and Wayne from The Heads was there too and he suggested making it a The Heads/Lillydamwhite split 7″… Then a couple of months later The Heads/Lillydamwhite show at the Louisiana happened. Then it must of been six to eight months or so later in March 1998 that single was released. Then six months after that my school friend (and the person who introduced me to Simon) John O’Carroll joined Rocket so there was three of us running it for the first ten years, then Simon left and it has just been John and myself the last ten.

Did you go into it with any guiding philosophy? If so, has that changed or evolved over the years? 

When we started out we just released 7″s as we were heavily influenced by the US underground 7″ scene like Sympathy for the Record Industry, In the Red, Am Rep, Sub Pop singles club, Skin Graft etc. and all we cared about was if John Peel was gonna play our singles? That was our driver! Not many mags reviewed singles then, NME would never touch us so really Record Collector and Kerrang! were the only options to get reviews. But as I said there was no real drivers or guiding philosophy, just to release the great music we liked and more often or not it was outsider/underground/psych music that was mainly being ignored by everyone else at the time.

I suppose that has changed as the more we have grown the more we play the press/industry game a little bit. But the underlining idea of championing the underground and releasing music we love has not changed one bit! We may have have just got a bit braver over the years with what we have released but that is all that has changed.

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What have been some of the most memorable moments, and have there been any times that have been particularly challenging?

There have been many, many memorable moments:

Releasing our first record
John Peel opening his show with our second Sawdust Caesars show
Julian Cope giving The Heads ‘At Last’ his album of the month
Meeting Oneida
Releasing an ambitious LP/DVD release with Ufomammut
Working with Arik Roper on the Mammatus sleeve
Our 10th Anniversary party
Meeting Teeth of the Sea
First time we saw Gnod play live
Goat’s ‘World Music’ landing in our inbox
Curating Supernormal, Liverpool Psych Festival and Eindhoven Psych Lab
Seeing Goat playing shows like Glastonbury, Roundhouse and headlining Brixon Academy
First hearing of the new Anthroprophh album
The list goes on and on….

And challenging:

We nearly had to pack it in when we got let down badly by someone we trusted
The dying throws of vinyl in the early noughties
Adapting to a digital world
Finding the time to do everything

Rocket is just me and John and between us we do the artwork, the A&R, music production, PR and marketing, the quarterly accounting, listening to demos, making of music the videos, the live visuals etc. etc.

How has running a label changed over past two decades? What would you say has been the key to its survival?

Well, Goat was a game changer for us as it made us pull our socks up and start running it more professionally. It went from a part time bedroom label into a full time company for John and myself. Prior to that John was a freelance designer and I was a creative director for a design agency. But the passion to work for ourselves was greater than working for someone else. Yes, I took a MASSIVE pay cut to run Rocket full time but it is worth it. I still have to freelance a few months a year as there just isn’t enough money for both us to live on but we make it work and that is why we have survived I think… we make it work!

I suppose we started slowly and never overextended ourselves beyond what we were capable of, so when the time was right to make more of it we had learned from all our mistakes and were ready to take the challenge on but without ever losing our core idea of what Rocket is… a label of love!

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Much of what has been released on Rocket has had a somewhat loose psych-infused element to it, has the resurgence in popularity of psychedelia helped the label grow?

Definitely! When we started there wasn’t too much of a psych scene at all, there was stoner rock and post rock, maybe the most ‘psych’ music was happening in the fringes of dance/hip hop via labels like Ninja Tune, Def Jux etc… But psych has always been the common thread in all our music, so seeing another psych explosion happen (and they do and have happened every 10 years or so) wasn’t much of a surprise. We have just continued doing what we have been doing and the psych scene/festivals sort of invited us to be involved by offering curation/collaboration and that definitely made people notice us a lot more. But from what we could see, a lot of the scene is about retro which is something we try and avoid. Of course we love the retro psych sounds of the past and our record collections are full of it, but we like our bands not to just copy that, we don’t just want bands to sound like carbon copies of Spacemen 3, Suicide or The Byrds, for example. We want to see bands take the Spacemen 3 sound and add an afro-disco groove, or take Suicide but add Steve Reich repetition, or take The Byrds and add some Nurse with Wound sonic experimentation. Mix it up, go out of comfort zones, create something new, otherwise what is the point?

You put out an anniversary compilation on the label’s fifteenth birthday, are there any plans for something similar to celebrate Rocket’s twentieth?

We did discuss it but we have decided to put on an event instead, like we did for our 10th. Compilations are a lot of hard work and so is putting on events so we could only do one and the event made more sense at this time.

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Will the entire Rocket roster be on show, or are there any bands that are unable to perform?

Well, we are so lucky that so many of our bands were up for playing, it really does mean a lot!!! Though yes, we do have some big omissions, and one of the big ones is the the The Heads, we asked but they couldn’t do it. But Anthroprophh are playing which is Paul from The Heads bands and the new Anthrorophh record is so stunning, it could be one of Rockets best ever albums released, so having them play does make up for not having The Heads. Also, Hills…we thought they were playing but they had to pull out which is a real shame! They have only played the UK once before and in truth they only play a couple of shows a year as it is, so would of been great to of had them play!! Then there is Lay Llamas… Nicola the main brain behind the project is expecting his first baby around the time of the event. But we do have fellow Italians Mamuthones and Julies Haircut playing. The new band we are working with MIEN which features members of The Horrors/Black Angels/The Earlies/Elephant Stone, would of loved to of played their live debut at our event – we tried to make it happen but timing wasn’t right unfortunately and they are premiering their live set at Austins Levitation Festival in April instead. And then finally two American artists we work with, Oneida and Shit and Shine, we would of loved to of have both them play but stars couldn’t align and they were unable to make it

The whole weekend is set to be something quite special with the likes of Gnod, Goat, Teeth of the Sea and so many more great acts, whose performances are you most excited to see?

All of them of course!!! Gnod are doing a greatest hits set, playing music they haven’t played in years! Teeth of the Sea, Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, Josefin Öhrn, Gnoomes and Flowers Must Die are all playing new music. Anthroprophh’s forthcoming album is an absolute masterpiece so their live set could be very special! Same with Mamuthones, we have only seen them live once before and they blew us away and now they have this amazing album they are premiering… Gum Takes Tooth, VED and Bonnacons of Doom are all new Rocket bands, so seeing them performing under the Rocket banner is going to be special! Housewives current live set is one of the most exciting things our there at the moment, they sound like no on else so they are gonna be a highlight. Temple ov BBV are playing which is a collaboration between Gnod and Radar Men from The Moon, and this is a VERY RARE chance to see it live, only the fourth time they have done it and could well be the last time. Then there is Zimpel Ziolek, the non-Rocket band from Poland. They made one of our favourite albums last year, so getting them over to play their first ever UK show at our event is very special, cant wait to see them… and there is Hey Colossus, Kuro, H.U.M, Negra Branca, Dwellings, AYN SOF (Paddy Shine from Gnod), AHRKH and of course Goat!!!

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How important is the visual side of things been to Rocket and what can we expect in terms of visuals from the label’s own John O’Carroll and Liverpool Psych Fest’s Sam Wiehl at the Rocket Twenty weekender?

Yes, the visual side is extremely important of course, always has been. Being both designers the sleeve artwork etc. is our way of visualising the sounds we are given and we absolutely love that part of the process. As for visuals, I am not sure what they are doing… raiding the archives and generating new content as far as I know but I have all the faith it will be amazing! Both John and Sam are highly experienced in their AV craft. Though you never know, you may get the odd projector catching fire or the odd ‘Jod description’? 🙂 (inside joke for a few).

What can we expect from Rocket during the rest of 2018? What artists have got releases coming out?

Well we have the aforementioned masterpiece by Anthroprophh. Debut Rocket releases by MIEN, Bonnacons of Doom, VED and Gum Takes Tooth. There is a new Gnod in the works, and a new Lay Llamas album on it’s way. And we have Teeth of the Sea, Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, Housewives, Josefin Öhrn all working on new material as we speak. So looking like a bust birthday year for us!

The Rocket Recordings Twenty weekender takes place at The Garage and Thousand Island (near to Highbury and Islington tube station) in London on March 9th, 10th and 11th. Saturday tickets have now sold out, but there are still weekend and day tickets for the Friday and Sunday available which can be purchased here.