Simon Raymonde of Cocteau Twins and Bella Union records talks with Mark Wheat at Iceland Airwaves

As the label Bella Union celebrates 20 years, founder Simon Raymeon reflects on his career with Cocteau Twins, the magic of Iceland, and his new band, Lost Horizons. (MPR Video / Nate Ryan)

As part of our coverage from the Iceland Airwaves festival, Mark Wheat took the opportunity to sit down with Simon Raymonde, founder of Bella Union records and erstwhile member of The Cocteau Twins. Wheat talked with Raymonde about the peak of the Cocteaus career, Iceland, and the drive to keep making music. Watch the video above for their entire conversation.


Mark Wheat: Hi, I'm Mark Wheat from The Current, and I'm back in Reykjavik as part of our trip for the Iceland Airwaves festival this year. We've just come back from Akureyri, where we saw one of our favorite new bands, Mammut, we'll talk about them later, but I'm thrilled, humbled and honored to be sitting next to a man who I've long admired from a distance, he was a member of one of my favorite all-time bands from the early '80s, Cocteau Twins, and went on after the dissolution of them to form one of my favorite labels, and one of the best-respected independent labels in the nation and the world, Bella Union Records and now, it is back as both a record label representative and a performer because he's got a brand new project called Lost Horizons, which is playing here tonight as well. So Simon, there's so much to talk to, but we'll keep it short, because the suns going to go down, the swans are getting crazy, but thank you so much for taking time to do this. I want to tell you right at the start, when I first came over to America in '81/'82, I brought a stack of 12-inches, most of which were Cocteau Twins. That's how much that band meant to me, so thank you for that.

Simon Raymonde: It was the day of the 12-inch.

Mark Wheat: It was the day of the 12-inch, yes. And we could start there by saying I always remember people being a little confused at the time because Elizabeth Fraser, the vocalist with the band, didn't use words per se, sometimes made up her own sounds and language and it kind of connects us to where we are now because that happened with Sigur Ros too, they made up their own language and I wondered if you thought back then that there was any connection, or since, you've made the connection with some of the music that's coming out of Iceland with the music you were making back in the early '80s.

Simon Raymonde: No, not really. I do see the connection, I do see why people see the connection, but I don't see it. Because I don't ever think that Liz just made up a language. To me, she didn't, she used actually quite normal English words a lot of the time, just in a very unconventional way. Her phrasing was unique, so a sentence that to you or I or anyone else's lips might sound mundane, from hers it would sound other worldly. And she would definitely use other languages. You know she was fascinated by sound and language and words and books, the way words sort of mingled with each other. So I wouldn't say... I mean, perhaps that is inventing your own thing, but I wouldn't say that it was inventing a language, per se, because she definitely stuck to things that already existed. Maybe there are a couple tracks where she, you know, went off into her own world with it, but from what I know about it, from my first-hand experience is it mostly was real language, just done in a particularly unique way. But to get to answer your question, there are connections between Sigur Ros and the Cocteaus, not just the vocals.

Mark Wheat: Sonically, totally.

Simon Raymonde: There are connections there for sure, but I suppose you could say that about a lot of bands, you know, My Bloody Valentine, or Explosions in the Sky or you could pick anything that sounded a little celestial or a little ethereal and make your own assumptions either way. It's not something I ever dwell on, but I appreciate that it is fairly interesting.

Mark Wheat: Well you've been coming to Iceland, you told me now, for ten years. Do you feel a kind of musical companionship with the people here, who are making music and are working in the music business?

Simon Raymonde: Yes, I do. I love the nature and the culture here. I've become very close with a lot of people here, one of my artists — apart from Mammut, who you mentioned earlier, who I work with — one of my American artists lives here, has lived here for several years, John Grant. He's been with the label, well ever since the beginning, he actually signed to the label in '98. He didn't attain any real success until around 2010, so where he is currently now, which is a pretty huge artist around the world, maybe not so much in America yet, but everywhere else he's pretty big and he lives... over there. He's got a house over there. So he has a connection with the place, he made his second album 'Pale Green Ghost' here with musicians from Gus Gus, who was a band from the 4AD period, so that's another connection to the past, you know it's like I can't really escape it. Everywhere I go —

Mark Wheat: Why would you want to? 4AD, you just mentioned another of my favorite labels and it's all interwoven as well; especially, I think in terms of 4AD, and the Cocteaus, was all about art too, and the visual part of making music and that seems to be key for the Icelanders.

Simon Raymonde: Yeah, and now I'm working with somebody from another 4AD band from that period. Richie Thomas, so you know, you can't escape this stuff, it's out there, you know, all the people I know... I suppose it's a bit of six degrees of separation kind of thing.

Mark Wheat: Yeah, totally. Talk about Bella Union a little bit from the business point of view. Independent label, award-winning independent label.You've worked with some of the artists our audience might know: Fleet Foxes, you've released Flaming Lips, Ezra Furman. As a label, executive, if I can call you that, how important is the seeming expansion of music festivals like Iceland Airwaves. Do you think it's a good thing for the record industry?

Simon Raymonde: It's good and bad, you know there's sometimes you know, you go to a festival that you've heard is good and the experience isn't always so, but I mean that's the world. You hear about a restaurant that everyone says is great and you hate it. There's going to be a personal experience thing. I tend to not go to big festivals. I much prefer — 'cause I don't like large numbers of people. It's not that I don't want to see cool bands, but I've been to Coachella, and I've been to Glastonbury and I like the bands sometimes, but I don't enjoy, like navigating the experience of hundreds of thousands of people. So I like festivals like this where you can wander about and not bump into someone every five seconds, and where there isn't somebody throwing up on your lap, you know, it's just more civilized, like boutique festivals I suppose. The better bands tend to play those ones. I don't want to go see bands that everyone else goes to see cause that's not why I'm going.

Mark Wheat: Well, we've been trying to answer this question: do you have any idea how or why Iceland has created this festival, which is now one of the biggest in the planet, really, in terms of bringing bands to, and being important for, Icelandic bands and how they've developed over the last 18 years. Do you think they've done it well? Are there key things that, either from the culture, or the way they support it, that have made it succeed?

Simon Raymonde: Yeah, I think it's a mixture of a lot of things. I've always loved coming here for the festival until I actually got to know the place a bit better, I couldn't have made a judgement about the country and the culture. Initially, it was just coming to the festival. Obviously, geographically, it's quite unique. Just as you arrive on the plane and you're traveling from the airport over to Reykjavik, which is just like a 40 minute drive, you know, if you haven't been here before, and you've lived a fairly closeted life, it is kind of like Mars, being on the moon or something. It's really crazy, and I've been very lucky to have Mammut and some of my friends here take me out around the countryside and see a lot more of Iceland than just this. Fundamentally this is just a functioning city with all the same things and all the same trappings — the good and the bad — of an urban city, but the culture of Iceland, and the people of Iceland are what makes it special. If you ask any band that's been here in the last 10, 20 years, visiting, performing at this festival, they'll all tell you that the hospitality of the Icelandic people... the organization of the festival — because these things are really important to bands — most experiences are like, "there's your dressing room," which is just like a towel. There's not really much facility for people, but you come here they really look after you. They give you food vouchers, they give you beer tickets, it's easy to navigate. It's a beautiful experience, the staging is great, the PAs are wonderful, the sound crews are wonderful, the lighting people are... you know, that is not generally, the experience when you go to most festivals. You're in, you're out, there's no soundcheck, you don't get to use your own gear. Most people come off stage and we're like "why did we do that?" Whereas here, it really feels like "I'm really glad we came." Obviously there's a bit of that, there's a bit of the beautiful countryside we have here, the air is absolutely gorgeous and you can't really fault it as an experience.

Mark Wheat: That's exactly the experience we've had. But, I have to go round now to you, as a successful label executive, why did you decide that you wanted to come back and be a performing artist with the new project Lost Horizons?

Simon Raymonde: Well, 20 years I've been doing this, running a record label and in the preparation of celebrations of the anniversary this year, I was looking back at what we'd done, you know, bands we'd worked with, and I should have been feeling proud — I felt proud of events, but I definitely was like 'what's missing? there's something I don't feel good about.' And I realized that it was the making the music part, which of course was such a huge part of my life for the first half of it and for the last 20 years, I haven't really done that... not like I did and I wanted to be making music again, but I didn't care if it was a record release, I didn't care if we ever put anything out, I just wanted to play music.

Mark Wheat: Live? I mean is that the thing you miss?

Simon Raymonde: No, that isn't what I was initially intending to do. This has sort of come around, like, really quick. I was not expecting when I made this record — which is like me and Richie basically, and some friends doing some vocals — I didn't really ever expect to tour it, no. But when people just kept asking me, I was like, 'Well, I guess we could give it a go.' And we've given it a go and you'll see the results in about three hours. It's our second show ever.

Mark Wheat: Wow. And no more plans for anymore, or?

Simon Raymonde: Yeah, we're heading off to...

Mark Wheat: Are you coming to America? Are you going to come play the Twin Cities?

Simon Raymonde: I would love to, uh, we haven't had an offer yet and we don't have a booking agent there yet, but we'll see what happens. I'd love to come and play there. I obviously adore it, adore the country.

Mark Wheat: Well thank you so much for taking time.

Simon Raymonde: No worries, man.

Mark Wheat: from your busy schedule and good luck with the new project. Congratulations on Bella Union and the anniversary, it's phenomenal and many, many happy returns back to Iceland. We'll probably see you every year from now on. Let's make it a regular. Simon Raymonde from Lost Horizons, and Bella Union records here in Reykjavik, Iceland for Iceland Airwaves on The Current.

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