From Brussels (and Factory) With Love – In Conversation with James Nice

The iconic compilation From Brussels With Love was released by Les Disques du Crepuscule, with close links to Factory Records as a ‘cassette journal’ in 1980, curated by Michel Duval, Annik Honoré and Wim Mertens and has been reissued this month.

To compliment Ian Canty’s Louder Than War review of the 40th Anniversary edition, Iain Key sat down with James Nice, the man now behind the Crepuscule and Factory Benelux labels for a career-spanning interview to discuss the reissue, as well as his work with other artists and running record labels. 

-//-

How long had the Anniversary editions of ‘From Brussels With Love’ been in planning? The CD ‘earbook’ is stunning and looks as if a lot of work has gone into it?

Just a bit! It took about two years to pull together. Obviously, I wanted to mark the anniversary of the album and the label, and it was also a good opportunity to publish a kind of coffee table book with lots of text, graphics and images. An exhibition would have been nice too, but as I guess COVID would have put paid to that idea. I’m delighted with all three formats – people are even buying the facsimile cassette. Thankfully we were able to clear all of the original tracks; the project would have been somewhat diminished if anyone was missing. I really enjoyed compiling the bonus CD with earbook’ too which includes a lot of great music by other Belgian artists from that era.

It feels like a ‘landmark’ release for the label?

As it was in November 1980. I love the essay by Dan Fox from Frieze, which describes FBWL as a ‘masterpiece of distinctly northern European post-punk eclecticism’, and a paradigm of Brian Eno calls ‘intellectual dilettantism’. In fact, Dan wrote a book in 2016 called Pretentiousness: Why It Matters. I completely agree.

As well as the original album there is an added disc. How were these selected?

There were tracks that were left off the original cassette, like the interview with Marguerite Duras, presumably for reasons of space. Others were tracks which appeared only on the 1983 vinyl edition in Japan. For me, the best part was being able to include contemporary tracks by other Belgian new wave groups who were active at the time, but not really associated with Crepuscule – Digital Dance, Polyphonic Size, Aksak Maboul. Maybe the jewel in the crown is Friends in Belgium by Durutti Column, which Vini Reilly wrote for Annik Honoré and Michel Duval, and wanted to appear on the cassette, but Tony Wilson held it back for a single, then for the Factory Quartet compilation. It’s one of Vini’s best pieces. I love the bonus John Foxx track too, Mr No. It still sounds fresh as a daisy.

Backtracking a little, you set up LTM (Les Temps Modernes) around 1983/4 when you were still up at school. How did that come about?

It started as a fanzine in 1982, then became a cassette label in 1983. We got a 5-star review from Dave McCullough in Sounds in 1983 for a couple of Crispy Ambulance cassettes and it snowballed from there. I was living in Edinburgh at the time, and Fast Forward gave me a pressing and distribution deal for a couple of 7-inch singles by Minny Pops and A Primary Industry, who later became Ultramarine. I thought I was the coolest guy in the Sixth Form and was probably unbearable…which, incidentally, also included Alistair Ross, who played teenage trumpet on Chance Meeting by Josef K (his big brother Malcolm’s band), crime novelist Ben McPherson, and artist twins Rose and Siri France. I was very much in awe of Nick Currie (aka Momus) too, who I hung out with quite a bit, although he was older than me – and rather shrewder.

Were there any complications getting material from the likes of Crispy Ambulance and Section 25 who were ‘signed’ to the likes of Factory Records?

No, because Factory artists owned their own music. The first vinyl album I released, in 1985, was a live album called Fin by Crispy Ambulance. Although I didn’t need to, I called the Factory office at Palatine Road to check that it wouldn’t be a problem. As luck would have it Tony Wilson was there and took the call. He said it was fine, so long as I didn’t mention Factory Records anywhere on the finished product. He really didn’t like the name, or the band…but I still love Fin, it’s one of my favourite LTM albums. Crispy Ambulance were really extreme live, and certainly not Joy Division copyists by the time this was taped on a substance-fuelled tour around Europe. Alan Hempsall is a friend for life, not just a friend for the life of the contract.

From Brussels (and Factory) With Love – In Conversation with James Nice
How did you come to release a record by William S. Burroughs? Did you have to deal with him directly?

I really enjoyed reading his later, less abstract works such as Cities of the Red Night and Place of Dead Roads, Paul Hammond of Ultramarine was also a serious devotee, and I really enjoyed Burroughs’ live readings, which were like very dry comedy. I didn’t like the tape experiments and cut-ups as much – I like figurative art more than abstract. The LTM album was based on bootleg tapes I bought from a radical bookstore in London called Compendium. I paid an advance to WSB through his manager James Grauerholz, and it all went swimmingly until we realised that some of the material was pirated from albums on Giorno Poetry Systems. Ooops.

I got to meet Burroughs – and James – in Amsterdam in May 1988, shortly after I resigned from Crépuscule. I’m not sure Burroughs really knew much about the album, but he was very charming and signed a copy for me: ‘Good work.’ One of the other visitors was an urbane German guy who combined being an experimental writer with flying big jets for Lufthansa. I couldn’t really compete with that.

Whilst at University you put LTM on hold, but after graduating you went to work for Les Disques du Crépuscule. Did that come about through the relationships you built up through Factory Records?

Not quite. LTM was active while I was at Glasgow University between 1984 and 1987. In fact, I was able to finance the label from my student grant. I did four vinyl albums: Fin by Crispy Ambulance, The Doctor Is On The Market and two compilations, Heures Sans Soleil and Minutes. Rough Trade handled the pressing and distribution. It was all very influenced by Crépuscule, and also El Records via Nick Currie. I was quite close to El and Mike Alway at that time and did some awful sleevenotes for an El compilation called London Pavilion. I didn’t really have any kind of relationship with Factory, although I did stay over at Mike Pickering’s house in Chorlton one night in 1983 and went to see the Cocteau Twins at The Hacienda, and I interviewed Peter Saville for the university magazine.

What were you doing for Crépuscule?

Initially I was in the mailroom and worked my way up. I’d first visited to Brussels in 1986 and met up with Tuxedomoon, who I loved and at that time imagined were the new Velvet Underground. I also met Anna Domino, Michel Duval and a few other people, and fancied it was like Paris in the 1920s, so I moved over when I graduated in 1987. Duval took me on to sort out the Crépuscule mail-order backlog and it grew from there. Actually, I only worked in the office for a year, tops. Every day in that office seemed to be marked by some kind of drama or crisis, and finally I ended up walking out over a 23 Skidoo contract. Michel and I patched things up soon after.

After that I went to work at PIAS. The project I was working on when I moved to Brussels was a highbrow art compilation called Futurism & Dada Reviewed, so after I quit Crépuscule that ended up coming out via Sub Rosa. LTM subsequently re-emerged in 1989 with albums by Tuxedomoon, Peter Principle and Steven Brown, and reissue CDs by Section 25 and Josef K. Expanded CDs with detailed liner notes and lots of bonus tracks were still a novelty then, and that became the template for the next 20 years.

When you resurrected LTM there must have been a lot of Factory Records output which had been unavailable for a few years since the label collapsed?

Well, that started back in 1990. I licensed the Section 25 back catalogue from Factory Records for reissue on CD because they had no interest in back catalogue themselves, except for Joy Division and New Order. Plus, I was working with them anyway as production manager at PIAS. It also helped that Lieve Monnens, a former Crepuscule employee, was working at Factory in Manchester and I was working with Crepuscule again. So we also remastered and reissued The Names, Crispy Ambulance and a Durutti Column collection. I also did two quite big Tuxedomoon albums on LTM, Ten Years In One Night and Ghost Sonata.

Then I moved back to the UK in 1992 and had a meeting with Tony Wilson at the Charles Street – around the infamous floating table – about a full Durutti reissue campaign on Factory Records. Alas the label went bust before that project came good, although Factory Too eventually reissued Vini’s catalogue on CD between 1992 and 2001. By then, aged 25, I’d decided I was too old to carry on diddling around with music, so I became a lawyer and so the label was pretty much pushed to one side.

Around this time, you also penned a number of military history books under the name James Hayward. You’re a man of many talents?

I’m probably a better researcher than a writer…World wars, punk wars – it’s all history, all about finding the narrative. My book about Factory Records, Shadowplayers, found a bigger audience than the ones about spies and propaganda, so probably I should have stuck with music. I did a book called Double Agent Snow via a big publisher, for a large advance, but I didn’t much enjoy the experience of writing for the market. I imagine it’s how an indie band feels after ‘stepping up’ to a major label, and the realising you’re in the wrong place. I’m just not a mainstream person.

Factory Records

What was the starting point for Shadowplayers?

Made in Sheffield, an excellent low-budget documentary made by Eve Wood, and a Ramones documentary called End of the Century. Although I can’t remember now what it was about the Ramones film that inspired me. I know I loathed the 24-Hour Party People movie, which came out in 2002. A Factory Records film with no Saville or Durutti Column…

With Shadowplayers I just decided to borrow a camera and film simple interviews and let the protagonists tell the real story – which is far stranger than the movie version anyway.

The film came out in 2006 – how long did it take to pull it all together?

I shot the interviews – around 40 altogether – during the second half of 2005. There was a whole Brussels segment that didn’t make the final cut. You call it a film, and I know I called it a documentary at the time, but really, it’s more like an audiobook that you can also watch. It was always meant for DVD release and never for sitting and watching in a cinema. If I have one regret it’s that the technically quality is a bit DIY in places, and I probably should have hired a proper cameraman and sound recordist, and an HD camera. But it’s unvarnished and detailed and authentic, and anticipated podcasting in that respect. The BBC liked it too and did their own cover version.

Factory Records

Was it always the intention that the book would follow? (For those not aware it’s an indispensable piece of work for those that are interested in Factory Records)

No. I only thought about a Factory book after Tony Wilson passed away in 2007. The late David Cavanagh wrote an excellent book about Creation called My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize, which Alan McGee promptly rubbished as the accountant’s history of the label, or words to that effect.

Tony famously preferred myth and legend to fact and would probably have said much the same thing about any Factory book written by me. His passing did make it easier for people to open up about what went wrong at Factory Records towards the end. It liberated the history a bit. Unfortunately, Shadowplayers is out of print here, but a Japanese edition is due next year. Quite exciting!

I met you when you were pulling the reissue of Northside’s Chicken Rhythms together and you kindly allowed me to write the notes for the booklet. I hadn’t realised at the time you’d been so prolific writing the liner notes. Thank you! From all the aspects of pulling together a new release, is there a part you look forward to?

I’m always happy for other people to write liner notes if they’re more clued up on something than I am, or if a more creative style of writing is required. I draw the line at cosy hagiographies though, which I suspect is why I don’t often get asked to write liner notes for third party projects. In the past I really enjoyed researching all the music and notes and visual content for the avant-garde art CDs on LTM, because it was challenging and absorbing and broke new ground.

Flipping your question around, the part of pulling together a new release I dread is if the artist/musician wants to provide or direct their own artwork. Sometimes that works, but other times it can turn into a battle royale. For me, the cover art is almost as important as the music. If the artwork is incompetent, I think that taints perception of the whole package. In fact, didn’t we change the Northside album cover…?

We did! We used the cover for the single My Rising Star, partly because most people used to refer to the Northside as ‘the ones with the apple’. Cherry Red used a similar image when they compiled the singles and radio sessions some years later. Through LTM you were responsible for reissuing a lot of Factory material. Was this fairly straightforward with so many bands famously not having contracts?

Yes, most of the bands owned their own music so I’ve always been able to deal with them direct. Years ago there was a rather ugly legal dispute around all that, but we prevailed and anyway that’s all water under the bridge.

Have you managed to keep at least one copy of everything you have released over the years?

I try to keep four!

Do you regularly listen to albums you’ve been involved in?

Not very often, but I do tend to listen obsessively to certain pet projects while they’re in production. That tends to be newer recordings like White Sea or Les Panties, or Marnie or Fovea Hex.

Factory Records

There have been a few ‘stand out’ releases over the last few years, starting with the vinyl release of The Return of The Durutti Column. How important was it for you to get this as near as possible to the original with the sandpaper sleeve?

The original intention was to produce a facsimile of the original FACT 14, but we then found that no-one manufactures glasspaper in Europe anymore, and we couldn’t source 12-inch square sheets, but we could order 10,000 11-inch square sheets from China!

We then tried to frame those in a deboss on the front cover, but the printer couldn’t guarantee a tight fit. The final version, with the die-cut, seemed like a good way of updating the sleeve rather than producing a copy or counterfeit, and because the die-cut is the Factory Records bar-graph logo it allowed Peter Saville some input too. I suspect quite a lot of people buy it just for the sleeve, knowing nothing about the music.

We started with sand brown glass-paper, then moved on to black, and now we’re on red. We had to order it through builder’s merchants and car parts suppliers. They don’t really get it… A lot of Factory Records sleeves are bloody hard to reproduce. Without Mercy was also really tricky, as was Always Now by Section 25.

You’ve kept Section 25’s Always Now in print since 1991. When did Kanye West hear/sample Hit?

I’m not sure – that came out of nowhere. He might have come to it via Peter Saville and the original cover art. Maybe he picked up on the mental health connotations as well! To be honest, making sure the group got the right deal was really quite demanding. However, the group received a co-writing credit as well as a sample fee, and that went a long way towards underwriting the 5-album vinyl box set. I really like his track actually, ‘FML (Fuck My Life)’. Just a shame I can’t buy it on a physical format. For me, digital-only releases are just data. If it isn’t on vinyl or CD it’s not really an album to my mind. Kanye came up short in the race to the White House, didn’t he? I guess Section 25 fans in the States just didn’t get behind him.

Factory Records

What did this mean this to you and the label? I imagine the magnificent 5-album set may not have followed in 2019 without this.

Nothing to the label at a whole, but a lot to Section 25. I only wish Larry Cassidy was still alive to enjoy the kudos and validation. For me, the best thing to emerge from the Kanye usage and the box set was re-engaging with Paul Wiggin, who played guitar in the original trio. No-one had ever heard his side of the story before, and it’s rare to uncover so much new information decades later. That really appeals to the historian in me.

Factory Records

2017 saw the release of ‘New Order Presents Be Music’, a 3 CD Set featuring tracks produced by the band over the years. Was this something that had been on your wish list of releases?

It was more of an upgrade of two earlier compilations, Cool As Ice and Twice As Nice. New Order were very trusting and just let me get on with it. What happened was, I went to Latitude Festival with Ultramarine in 2016, and the headliners on Saturday night were M83 and New Order. They were both fantastic and driving home I thought it would be a good idea to compile a better collection of New Order’s work as producers and bring it up to date with artists like Factory Floor. I also noticed Morgan Kibby was missing from M83, so I reached out to her and put out the second White Sea album. Quite an inspiring night! I also saw Let’s Eat Grandma there for the first time, an endlessly fascinating local duo from Norwich who I hope make another album soon.

You were involved in the definitive releases celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Factory Records, both the Communications 1978-92 vinyl reissue of the 2008 compilation, and the stunningly lavish Use Hearing Protection box. This must’ve been beyond the wildest dreams of that teenager in 1983.Is there ever a moment you take a step back and pinch yourself?

Well, I can’t claim any credit for Communications as that was compiled – brilliantly – by Jon Savage. I just wrote the track by track commentary in the booklet, which I was glad to update for the vinyl edition last year. Use Hearing Protection came about because Warner Music Group wanted to make the 40th anniversary of Factory Records, and re-establish the ‘brand’ I suppose, and asked me if I had any bright ideas. I spoke to Peter Saville, and we came up with the idea of an ‘exhibition in a box’ comprising the first 10 numbered Factory artefacts. So it’s truly multi-media rather than just a collection of 10 records, with posters, films and fine art.

It was a delight to work on, particularly the design aspect with Peter and Howard Wakefield. WMG really delivered on their promise too – none of our ideas or extras were rejected as too expensive, or uncommercial. So I was able to add items like the Tiller Boys white label, which was to have been FAC 3 at one point, and the audio CD with Mary Harron’s interview with Tony, Rob Gretton and Joy Division. That was something I’d wanted to see made available to the public for years. The oversize box is suitably minimal in terms of information.

As with From Brussels With Love, there’s a strong sense of historical obligation with a project like UHP. I think we got it right. Do I step back and pinch myself? Not really, but that’s only because I’ve known most all of the people involved for a long time now. But I still get slightly awestruck when I cross paths with interesting, super talented people for the first time, like Steven Wilson or Clodagh Simonds or LoneLady, all of whom I only met for the first time this year. And I always feel like my IQ has increased a few points after talking with Peter Saville. He’s a creative genius. Reproducing any of his sleeves is quite demanding, because you’re exhibiting a work of art.

Factory Records

With the landmark release of From Brussels With Love this year, can you share anything that’s in the pipeline? Are there any projects you’re particularly looking forward to?

I’m really excited about an album project on Crepuscule by Fovea Hex, due in March 2021. They are a quiet music ensemble formed around writer Clodagh Simonds; whose occasional music career began way back in 1968 with her Irish folk-psych band Mellow Candle.

Fovea Hex have been compared to This Mortal Coil, Ligeti and Nico, and count Brian Eno, David Lynch and Steven Wilson among their admirers and collaborators. The music is very haunting, like secular church music. The Crepuscule set will be a vinyl and CD package featuring longform remixes from their recent Salt Garden project, ‘landscaped’ (as it were) by Steven Wilson and Abul Mogard. Steven turned me on to Fovea Hex during lockdown, so I’ve him to thank for this.

Our Durutti Column programme will continue into 2021, and I’m also writing a biography of the group – although lockdown is complicating the research. I’ve wanted to make a record with a friend in Brussels called Lauve for ages too, and that’s finally happening. She sings on a new electro track called La Jungle by Buscemi, which will be a 7-inch single. LDDC would have made an album with her previous band, PANTHER, but unfortunately, they split up on the day we met up to negotiate the agreement. I’m still annoyed about that!

Finally, the easiest question! If you had to select 3 releases to highlight the output of your labels, which would they be?

That’s really hard to say after 35 years, and anyway the various labels have all gone through different phases. I’m not the teenager I was in 1983, and the market isn’t the same as it was when LTM was a prolific CD catalogue label in the 2000s. It costs many thousands of pounds to package field a new vinyl release now, not just £1000 to curate a handy CD. As I type, I’m particular proud of the Always Now box, From Brussels With Love and Use Hearing Protection because they pay fitting tribute to Larry Cassidy, Annik Honoré and Tony Wilson. And it’s always a pleasure to work on new Durutti Column editions with Vini and Bruce. Durutti music just sounds better and better with each year that passes.

-//-

All words by Iain Key, find his Author Profile here author’s archive or on Twitter @iainkey

1 COMMENT

  1. Very nice piece. I have the Japanese vinyl version of FBWL and funnily enough posted about it quite recently not knowing it was being re-released. Big admirer of LTM, Crepuscule and points along the Manchester-Brussels axis. Filled in a few knowledge gaps. Thanks.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here