The story of how independent label Rocket Recordings came to take over Islington’s Garage for a weekend birthday bash is an atypical one. Its 20-year history has corresponded with unprecedented shifts in the music industry. Largely, this continued state of flux has been fuelled by the digitisation of production, distribution, and consumption. Yet, rather than herald a new era of unfettered freedom, in many cases, this evolution has merely bolstered the inexplicable rise of blander than bland acts like Ed Sheeran and destabilised the platform for fringe and underground music.
Not that you know it from inside the Garage at Rocket’s weekender where an avalanche of mind-liquifying music by turns cascades and erupts from the stage. Quite how this psych/noise label has not merely survived, but flourished, in such uncertain times is curious, to say the least… as are the label’s beginnings. Rocket founder Chris Reeder maintains it all began at a Lillydamwhite/The Heads gig at The Louisiana in Bristol, Lillydamwhite’s Gareth is convinced it was at Bristol’s the Ropewalk. “Which is true I have no idea haha!” admits, Chris. What he is sure of is that it was started by himself and Simon Healey with the release of a Lillydamwhite/The Heads 7” split in March 1998.
Over the next few years, John O’Carrol joined the Rocket team (Simon left after the label’s 10-year anniversary), and they went on to release a number of 7” by bands like The Hypnotics, Spleen, and Sawdust Caesars. In the beginning, their ambitions were fairly humble, as Chris explains. “The only PR/promotion we hoped for each release was getting airplay on the Peel show, which is something we did achieve. He even opened one show with our second Sawdust Caesars single!”
Nevertheless, Rocket’s mission, consciously or not, would grow, because as Joe from Hey Colossus (who have put several records out through Rocket) insists, “I want all underground labels to rise up. They're releasing the best music so it seems only right that a lot of people should get to hear it. What sort of ambition have you got if you're happy for only 200 people to hear your songs?”
The second phase of Rocket’s life began with debut releases by White Hills and Teeth Of The Sea. And it was those bands that provided the connection to, arguably, the label’s key band. Chris remembers of the time: “Both bands also individually helped us get together with another great Rocket band, the mighty Gnod! We were already communicating with Gnod via myspace/post, but then White Hills saw them live when they played the same event together and they were brimming with praise for the Salford group, which made us want to see them badly. Then a few months later, I travelled with Teeth Of The Sea to an all-dayer in a barn in Trowbridge where both TOTS and Gnod were playing and we finally got to meet and see them in all their glory, and we were blown away.”
Which is no doubt how the Garage crowd feel as the, indeed mighty, Gnod cap off the weekend with a core shattering set. Chris remains as effusive about the band as ever. “Having both Gnod and Teeth Of The Sea on our roster was (and still is) amazing as they felt to be two of the most interesting bands in the UK in that time (are still are). Then probably the biggest game-changer for the label happened.”
That game changer was the signing of a mysterious Swedish group in tribal costumes. Goat are a great example of the variety of music that the label embraces. While they share a leaning towards psych with bands like Gnod, their music trades bone-shaking heaviness for voodoo vibes. Clearly, Chris and John run on enthusiasm rather than be tied to micro-focused genre loyalty. That gusto is certainly something that drew Hey Colossus, as Paul from the band explains. “I knew the first night I met John from the label, running on vodka fumes, slapping me liberally around the cheeks, swearing like a sailor on shore leave that we'd be in the hands of passionate characters.”
The Rocket guys certainly felt an instant affinity for the Swedish band, as Chris explains of their first encounter. “Both John and myself were quite taken aback by what we heard and asked if this group was up for releasing the two tracks as a 7" on Rocket. They said sure, and that band was Goat.
“After living with those two tracks for a few weeks we realised this band was unique and asked them if they could make an album. They said ‘sure’, then 6 months later the finished and mastered World Music landed in our drop box. We had goosebumps when listening to it, we knew it was a special album!”
When asked what the label has meant to the band, clearly the feeling is mutual... well, kind of: “Mainly a lot of trouble since the Rocket boys are such huge assholes. Haha! But also a lot of fun since they have such big hearts and engagement.” When it comes to fun, Goat certainly brings the party. Live they are as hypnotic and energising as you’d imagine, visually and sonically satisfying a lively, packed crowd.
Their impact on the continued success of the label can’t be understated, and its something Chris is very aware of. “That changed a lot of things for us. We saw Goat playing the Lexington to selling out Koko in a year and they have subsequently gone on to tour Europe and America twice, played every major Festival twice too and then headlined Brixton Academy, the first Rocket band to do so! But we do feel that their success has managed to help open some doors for other Rocket bands, whose popularities have also grown. Plus it has given us the chance to help introduce the world to new bands like Josefin Öhrn + The Liberation, Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, Gnoomes, and Housewives, plus work with bands who already had good reputations like Hey Colossus, Julie's Haircut, and Shit And Shine, who in our view have all made their best ever work on Rocket.”
The quality of what Rocket puts out is evident in all its warped glory over their anniversary weekend. From the krautrock-like grimy synths of Russian band Gnoomes, through the spin inducing melee of Mamuthones' psych-disco, to the hypnotic drone of Kuro, every set is compulsive. It’s nigh on impossible to pick out highlights given the calibre of bands involved, but there are a couple of moments that sear themselves on the mind just a little more permanently. London-based Housewives appear in uniform white, but their music is anything but pedestrian. Their avant-garde brew of post-punk, free-form jazz, minimalist/maximalist experiments - and everything in between - is an overwhelming sensory experience and one this writer would like to experience ad infinitum. Mention should also be made of the visuals, which were provided by John O'Carroll (who's done Rocket live visuals since the beginning) and Sam Wiehl (visuals for Liverpool Psych Fest/Forest Swords/Hookworms), which were truly astonishing. Equally, Temple Ov BVV (featuring members of Gnod and Radar Men From the Moon) must surely go down as one of the heaviest, mind-bending acts to open a festival… ever. Following their shock and awe performance, stepping out of the Garage for a quick breather into sunlight and normality was an indescribably bewildering experience.
But it’s also one to enjoy, as for whatever reason this noisy weekend seems to have attracted a friendly, enthusiastic bunch of punters keen to chew that fat over their favourites. That sensibility seems to extend to the bands themselves, as Adam from Pigs x7 says. “There's something warming about being booked for shows and finding acts we love are sharing the same bill, and that happens a fair bit. There seems to be a healthy cohesion between bands, promoters, and labels at the moment.” And generally, despite pressing economic times, Brexit, and venue closures, generally the mood regarding the underground scene seem positive. Jason from Bonnacons of Doom is certainly chipper regarding the subject. “I think its really strong these days, with bands like Gnod, Hey Colossus, Sly & the Family Drone, Casual Nun etc making really great music, there is a lot of creativity and a good network of people supporting each other. I also think Supernormal festival has been invaluable with bringing a lot of these people together, and festivals like Liverpool Psych Fest have helped in growing the scene from an international perspective.”
Nevertheless, all involved are realistic about uncertain times ahead, as Chris points out. “For us, it has just meant things are more expensive and our export sales create far less income due to the drop in the pound. What will happen when Brexit finally hits, who knows? [It will] probably be harder for bands to play and harder to get records pressed abroad I expect. So yeah, not looking too good as it's tough out there enough as it is to make enough money to keep going. We manage but we couldn't take too many more losses in earnings from sales, to be honest."
Despite an unpredictable future, this weekend proved that there is a plethora of truly brilliant exciting, eccentric, and downright strange music being made and that the passion of the people that make and release it is mirrored by those that support it. And clearly, that support is vital.
As for the future of Rocket and the underground...
Chris (Rocket Founder): “The scene will always adapt to its surroundings. For example, when venues close, new DIY venues open? We are like cockroaches...it will never die as it is a way of life!”
Luca (Julie’s Haircut): “Rocket, they just need to keep doing what they’re doing. It seems to us that they know what they like and will always put that as their first priority. Now and again they might even get a hit that compensates for all the hard work, but their catalogue speaks for itself in terms of quality. As for the underground scene in general… we don’t think the world will run out of weirdos soon.”
Rickard (Flowers Must Die): “That people will not take things for granted, venues are closing more and more, and more people who like the underground scene should continue to support smaller venues, magazines, labels, blogs and so on.”
Jason (Bonnacons of Doom): “Underground scenes tend to bring out more creative and challenging work when in harsh economic and political climates and I hope to see that.”
Adam (Pigsx7): “Oh, y'know, what everyone hopes the future holds. Rock.”
Paul (Hey Colossus): “I just hope Rocket can find happiness and not resort to vodka-fuelled lost weekends all the time.”
For more information about Rocket Recordings and the bands on their roster, please visit their official website.
Photo Credit: Al Overdrive