published: 20 /
Over the course of the last nine years, Fierce Panda has been responsible for introducing acts like Coldplay, Idlewild , Placebo and the Parkinsons to the world.Label boss Simon Williams talks to Olga Sladeckova about its extensive history
When it comes to record labels, no matter what kind of music they make and where they are based, I nearly always end up thinking of the Rolling Stones' 'I Can't Get No Satisfaction.'
The London based independent record label Fierce Panda is a prime example of this. It set out to release a one off single, 'Shagging In The Streets', in 1994. 9 Years, over 150 releases and 2 off-shot side labels on, its owners still can't get no satisfaction and have just started up another brand new off-shoot, Temptation Records.
I was delighted to get a chance to talk to Simon Williams, the head of Fierce Panda, about what goes on 'backstage' at Fierce Panda. The label gave birth to Coldplay, Placebo and Idlewild, and has released on its acclaimed compilations tracks by bands such as the Manics Street Preachers, Catatonia and Placebo.
I walked through rain one Wednesday evening and visited the label's HQ. Fierce Panda is based in a cozy house in North London. Walking into the main room makes you feel like you are living a dream. There are CDs neatly tidied into cardboard boxes, posters on the walls, and 2 desks with computers, The back of the room has doors leading into a kitchen and a small, separate office that showed by its decorations that Christmas was coming ups. A little panda statue sits up on a top shelf in the corner of the room, majestically looking down over the whole room .
I modestly settled for a glass of icy water , and before we started talking was given some presents in the form of 4 Fierce Panda compilations and the first Temptation Records’ release, Medium 21’s 'Looking Like a Mirror' EP.
"It's funny as having the new record company Temptation has made me realize what is Fierce Panda about" explains Simon sitting down on a wicker chair opposite to me, and starting to talk about Fierce Panda’s history.
"Temptation Records is a great name for a record company. It sounds like a box of chocolates. It is ripped off from the New Order song of the same title, and it gives the perfect idea of what a record company should be about. It’s about something that's going to last for long, long, long time, and be part of people's lives."
"Fierce Panda, however, was exactly the opposite.” says Simon, who was writing for NME at the time it was first formed. “It was established by 3 journalists sitting in a pub, the Blue Posts on Tottenham Court Road in the West End. The pub is no longer open. It's Boot's the Chemists now!"
"We talked about putting out records, but didn't actually know how to do it" he recollects. "But I knew a bloke who knew how to do it and so I phoned him up. There is a lot you you need to know about manufacturing and distribution, even how to get a bar code, if you want to run a record label."
One of the few things that they did not need to worry about at the beginning was registering the label's name. "It took us very long time to do" admits Simon. "No one thought there was any great emergency , because we didn't think there would be too many companies called Fierce Panda.”
“And there weren't!" He says laughing, before adding with ironic amazement "We were the only ones..."
The panda' itself is not a strange object in today’s consumer market . Beside the plastic panda on the shelf Simon later reveals that all his relatives and friends buy him panda products constantly. "You wouldn't believe what they make with Pandas. It's astonishing! I've even got panda pyjamas!" he confides. "Obviously it's not me who buys them." he continues laughing. "That would be really sad. It's my relatives and friends."
"Originally we were going to release just one single, 'Shagging In The Streets', which had 4 bands on it " Simons says, continuing to talking about the label's history, and taking a sip of tea from a Fierce Panda mug, which has its own catalogue number on it."That's why the label is called Fierce Panda. If you think your record company will be still going in 9 years time, you don't name it after an endangered species . You call it something like Temptation. It was a time really when in which everyone was really excited by everything, and probably also had taken too many drugs."
'Shagging In The Streets' came out on the 24th February 1994 , and in the very same year Fierce Panda followed this with another four double vinyl EPs, which introduced bands such as Supergrass, Ash, The Bluetones and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci to the world. It was clear now already that nothing that would stop Fierce Panda from expanding still further.
It's always the bands that a record label gets popular for. In the case of Fierce Panda probably the most popular band so far has been Coldplay. It released in January 1999 one of its first singles, “Brothers and Sisters’
"We did Coldplay because the music industry had passed on them " reveals Simon, getting up to get me a copy of the single from one of the cardboard boxes. “They all had gone up to see them in Manchester in 1998 and then cam back saying 'The singer has silly hair, wears a silly jumper, cracks jokes in betweens songs and plays an acoustic guitar. That will never happen.' So then we came along and you know the rest."
"Coldplay was perfect for us because it just didn't fit in with anything else that was going at all” he continues, sitting down again. “ Now , when everyone else is wanting to to go out and find a rock n' roll band, we try to find something different. We did that last year when we put out the Parkinsons."
The Parkinsons, a Portuguese-Scottish hybrid, appeared on UK music scene late in 2001. Their fresh punk tunes have excited many fans of the genre. Their first release on Fierce Panda was a 7 track mini album 'A Long Way To Nowhere' which was produced by Freeheat’s Jim Reid and Ben Lurie. The Parkinsons followed this earlier this year with a new 7” single, ‘The Streets of London’.
Fierce Panda have put out over 150 releases up to date, and the number is still rising quickly. I wondered what music sells the most. "We sell a of of compilations and the Coldplay single." Simon says, answering my question. The single is now becoming something of a rarity and has been seen at music fairs being sold for topped up prices.
"Another bestseller was an Oasis EP, ‘Wibbling Rivalry’ which had Liam and Noel, having an argument" says Simon triumphantly. "It was 14 and a half minutes of Liam and Noel fighting with each other. It came from an interview that one of us did with them. It even got into the charts!"
"They were still on Creation then but Sony had got behind the label already " he continues. "And we got this phone call from Sony and everyone was like 'Oh, shit ! We are not going to answer!' But we did and they just asked for some of the records, which was great."
Another more recent bestseller has been ‘ Solider Girl’,a 5 track EP by the Polyphonic Spree, which came out in August.
One thing that Simon pointed out to me about sales was the important role music collectors play. Many of them buy out limited editions and anything released on a certain label. "Collectors are really strange but they define the market" he explains. "That's why a record sells out within a one day. You limit them to 1000 copies and then people know it's limited, so they go to a shop and buy 50 copies."
"That is what happened with the Music single we put out (‘Take the Long Road and Walk it’, the group’s limited edition debut from last year.)" he continues. "We expected it to sell out, but then we got a report saying that someone actually went to Virgin Megastores and just bought all the records. What he bought for £ 2.5O is going to be worth £ 25 but he defines the market. It's weird, isn't it?"
Fierce Panda opened its first off-shoot , Rabid Badger, in the autumn of 1997, and then followed this with Livid Meerkat, in Spring 1998. The policy of these labels is to release good music that, however, wouldn't fit into the Fierce Panda style. The best example are the acts Rothko and Billy Mahonie, both of whom have released records through Livid Meerkat. "We really liked the music and thought 'They deserve their own label. " says Simon, laughing.
While Livid Meerkat specializes largely in post rock, Rabit Badger , however, concentrates mainly on instrumental music, and features bands such as Campag Velocet, Regular Fries and Sniper.
The new Temptation label was established, as the result of a deal, between Fierce Panda and the major label, Universal.
Temptation Records was talked about and prepared for over a year before its launch on the 7th November at the Metro club in London. Medium 21, whose EP ‘Acting Like a Mirror’ is Tempation’s debut release, headlined, and were supported by the Rain Band, whose next single will be its second release.
“The deal is, Fierce Panda does the work and Universal finances it” explains Simon. "It's the same office and it's the same people. Fierce Panda. however, is completely independent and it can do what ever it wants."
"With Temptation we have to go to an A&R ' man at Universal and say 'Look this is what we are doing at Fierce Panda ! Would you like to have it on Temptation?'’ “
“ They will probably say 'No' “ he laughs, “ so we will have it on Fierce Panda and then we will ask again and they will say 'No' again, and so on. Why they want us is because we did Coldplay the first time so they think we may find the next Coldplay."
Such a well established record label as Fierce Panda must be overflowing with demos and offers of music to be put out.
"We get lots!" agrees Simon enthusiastically. "The main thing is just remembering the names and crossing them on the list and trying to go and see them live. I think for the first time we will employ someone to do that” he says, before joking Someone who is young and enthusiastic... as I just can't be fucking bothered anymore."
"One of my favourite bands at the moment are Coin-op" he says excitably. "Their last record, 'Friendly Fire’ (an eight track mini-album which was released by Fierce Panda earlier this year), is great. It's the Pixies having a fight with Six by Seven and in my head I don't understand why they don't get signed."
Finally, what is Fierce Panda up to at the moment? "We are talking about this Australian band called Further." reveals Simon. "Again everyone is looking for a rock n' roll band at the moment so we thought we would find these 2 blokes from a band called Repairman who sound like the Beatles doing Gomez. We are also talking to this new band 22-20, who we got in touch through their plugger. There are also Le Neon, Winnebago Deal and Agent Blue who we found last week in Stoke-On-Trent.
With regard to Temptation Records,the second release by the Rain Band is being prepared and Medium 21 have begun working on recording an album.
The tape in my dictaphone hits an end. We have covered a lot of Fierce Panda history tonight and it's time to say thank you and good-bye.
Dragging a carrier bag with CDs down the road in thick rain, I ask myself whether Fierce Panda is a good name for a record label or not. It's certainly original, like the label itself . Fierce Panda also offers a 'fierce' choice of music. One thing that is greatly misleading, however, it's definitely not at risk!
Maybe it's not all about not being satisfied. If you walk up steep stairs you never want to just stay in the middle. The question is where the end is.
Or is there one.....?
Fierce Panda (22)