Melody Maker, October 4 1986
by Simon Reynolds
There have been many journeys from punk, different versions of what that upheaval meant, different attempts to fulfil the lost promise — journeys that have led as far apart as ZTT, The Redskins, Red Wedge, Big Audio Dynamite, Siouxsie... 4AD's story is one of those journeys. This Mortal Coil is, perhaps, a fullstop.
4AD came into being at the moment post-punk energy was turning away from confronting the outside world and turning inwards into inner space. Oppositional postures, relevance, alignment were being displaced by introspection and self-expression. When punk relinquished its negativity, when it started to want to create and to improve things, that was the moment when the way was open for the return of progressive rock. And the story of 4AD is a good handle on how, in the name of a spirit of punk (change, diversity, individualism), all the things punk outlawed have been allowed to return — virtuosity, production values, conceptualism, sophistication and strings. For good or ill, who can say?
So I'm talking to Ivo, founder of 4AD, about his pet project, This Mortal Coil, about 4AD's place in the scheme of things. He's tall, thin, in his thirties, and kitted in loose-fitting black.
"I started 4AD with Peter Kent in 1979, when we were working for Beggars Banquet, on the retail side of things. From Beggars' point of view it was to be a sort of spawning ground to nurture groups that would eventually move onto Beggars Banquet. Within a year it was taking shape and I realised I wanted to create something quite different. So 4AD became a separate company."
Was punk an impetus?
"Look at it this way. In 1976, I was working in a Beggars record shop. I'd been working in record shops for four years, all I was really interested in was music. Suddenly all these independent records emerged and it became very, very exciting to work in a record shop. What I really enjoyed, though, was the second wave of punk in 1979, y'know what Wire developed into, Joy Division..."
Some say this was the real coming of punk — the real concerted attempt to set up an alternative means of musical production and distribution, the real serious drive to dismantle rock's constricting frameworks.
"The very fact that I realised it was possible to release records by yourself shows what an exciting time it was. For the first two years of the Eighties, virtually anything could get released. This degenerated into self-indulgence, of course, but that was the price for real gains. To this day, I think there's a larger proportion of people in the indie scene who are motivated by more than financial concerns."
If 4AD groups have anything in common is it perhaps a belief that aesthetic concerns suffice in themselves? From Bauhaus through The Birthday Party to The Cocteau Twins, they've all been interested in dramatising their inner life rather than documenting social reality or participating in political rhetoric.
"There's no manifesto there... it's more a reflection of my musical tastes. I suppose if there's one thing that binds us all together at 4AD, it's the belief that music can be very important within certain moments of your life. I take music very seriously."
But 4AD groups have a different notion of where the importance lies, what effect the power of music can have, than, say, musicians as various as The Redskins or Test Dept. or Costello — all of who have some idea of agitation, of making specific statements for the here and now. The artists on 4AD tend to deal with more existential questions, eternal verities.
"I'd be surprised if I encountered an artist that inspired me who was very specific. I like the idea that the records we release aren't just for the moment, but will sound valuable in 10 years. And I think the groups on 4AD share this aim."
So it's fair to say that 4AD doesn't have much to do with pop, with its rapid turnover and planned obsolescence?
"We don't have much to do with it in those terms, it's true although, when we do interact with that world, as with Colourbox or The Cocteaus, we're prepared to take on the challenge of having hits."
The obverse of your intention to produce work that will endure is your rather studious interest in the lost rock classic and how to restore it.
"I find it a fascinating concept to take a song by, say, an American songwriter of the early Seventies or late Sixties and get three people who've never met into a studio and make it live again. And then place that song next to another cover version from a wholly disparate source or next to a piece of ambient music.
"I was so pleased that six months after the first This Mortal Coil LP, all of the covered songs were available again as either UK releases or US imports... the third Big Star LP, the Tim Buckley retrospective..."
The crits have come down like a ton of bricks on Filigree And Shadow, the second long player from This Mortal Coil. A litany of familiar charges have run out — indulgence, muso-ship, a prissy attention to nuance and detail, a suffocating sense of care stifling the whole affair. Trouble is, this sort of dismissal — this music attends too conscientiously to the form of epic feeling, tries too hard, is hollow — has become a standard device, used against the likes of Prefab Sprout for the heinous crime of lavishing too much TLC on their music. It's very easy to assert. You could use it against David Sylvian or Raymonde or Dead Can Dance, just as easily.
Filigree And Shadow is a flawed sprawl, something of a folly, but one that contains a number of moments I've come to cherish. Speaking to Steve Sutherland last year, Ivo characterised his project as being about "the beauty of despair". The cruelest thing I could say is that most of this record achieves the level of prettiness. What tends to forestall the sublime is the scarcity of edges or gaps or spasms in the sound. The music doesn't sound troubled, just unnaturally still. No sound is crisply enunciated, everything is smudged to a soft focus blur.
But there are moments. Caroline Seaman's singing on the cover of 'Alone' (by Graham Lewis and Colin Newman of Wire) is practically the only time this music sounds fraught, worked up. I like the rereading of Talking Heads' 'Drugs' as a kind of catatonic disco — a trip gone bad. And I like Richenel's eerily treated vocal on 'Firebrothers' — a track I warm to even more when Ivo informs me that it comes off the final Quicksilver Messenger Service album. What a strange group to resuscitate. What a strange mission.
Maybe that's why the record sounds so strangely static, so grave, so still. It's an archive. Ivo is very learned. Had you heard of Tom Rapp or his group Pearls Before Swine ('The Jeweller')? Of Gary Ogan, whose one record on Elektra provided the pleasant 'I Want To Live'? Only marginally less obscure are 'Strength Of Strings' (off a mid-Seventies solo album by ex-Byrd Gene Clark) and 'My Father', a Judy Collins' composition so-help-me, but first heard by Ivo in the form of a wonderful version by Nina Simone. And there's a couple of songs, 'Morning Glory' and 'I Must Have Been Blind', by the godlike Tim Buckley.
"I told you — it comes from working in a record shop for so long."
Out of despair with contemporary pop, with the possibility that it can contain any kind of extremity, a mood of retrospection has grown. Some kind of hip consensus of veneration has solidified around a chain of lost rock visionaries — Tim Buckley, Alex Chilton, Scott Walker, Gram Parsons, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine... These singer-songwriters have been marshalled into an alternative rock pantheon of greats. It's a little cosy, this consensus, a little snobbish and a little epigonic (the attitude of an age that considers itself less distinguished than previous eras). But it contains some truth: these people did dare more, weren't at one with themselves, weren't self-sufficient. So, Ivo, do you still go along with "the beauty of despair" description?
"That was a flippant comment... but, yes, I do feel the strongest feeling from music that comes from desperation. I think it's about intense feeling, and whether it's an intense high or an intense low doesn't matter. It doesn't hurt to embrace any extreme of feeling, rather than just carry on in some limbo."
With today's pop you never come across a passion or pain overwhelming enough to put anyone's self in jeopardy. Once pop could contain such an extremism, through melodrama...
"I don't know about that — I doubt if that kind of extremity of feeling has existed within pop, except for the odd Walker Brothers' hit."
Scott Walker: now there's someone who'd fit into your scheme of things.
"He would have fitted nicely into this record... if he'd said 'yes'. We approached his manager, mainly on account of that wonderful LP on Virgin that no one bought."
What do you do, Ivo?
"I'm not a musician, I'm not a engineer, all I can do is get an original piece of material and at least one person who can do part of the arrangement and tell them what I want. The beauty is that, at the end of the day, I am the artist. We have an awful lot of stuff on tape and so much gets thrown away. And that's where the creativity lies. Loads of sounds get compressed together."
Is the This Mortal Coil concept — wayward eclecticism, flexible line-up, quality, anonymity — a brave tampering with the stiff conventions of the rock group, a distant fruit of the punk commotion? Or is it a piece of mere studio dilettantism, the feyest betrayal of punk impatience?
Like 4AD music in general, there is shallow grandeur, there is mere decoration, but there are also one or two moments of rapture.