Sometimes the real taste-makers aren't the ones who shout the loudest, and Planet Mu are a perfect example of that. The scene-defining label has been at the forefront of releasing cutting-edge, idiosyncratic electronic music for 20 years.
To celebrate this milestone, Mike Paradinas (AKA μ-Ziq) has compiled an epic, three-disc compilation comprised of cuts from the last two decades like Leafcutter John and Remarc, along with fresh material from the likes of Mr Mitch and Silk Road Assassins, packaged up with a 100-page book charting the label's history.
We sat down with Paradinas at the label's press HQ in Peckham for a chat.
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Going back to 1997, one of the very first releases on the label was the 'Mealtime' compilation... have your curation methods changed drastically since then?
When you're doing something for 20 years you learn a lot about yourself and why you do things. I wouldn't say the result is always better but you've got more knowledge about the compilation process. At the moment I'm compiling an album by Herva, a new signing, and I think I'm learning to realise why I'm making the choices I am now. Whereas 20 years ago I had no idea, I just thought – oh, I like that. Now I'm trying to put stuff more into context, and think about strategy and marketing a little bit while I'm putting stuff together. Maybe it's just more pragmatic.
You've got your business hat on while you're doing it.
I still continue to fool around, but with an eye towards losing money (laughs).
What's the process of putting together the three discs been like? I gather you had to sift through around 500 tracks of unreleased material?
There were a couple thousand tracks. I got it down to 500 in the end - but it was a lot of listening, really. I burned about 8 CDs towards the end of the process for my car. I think when you're doing something else you listen better. That's why I like to listen when I'm driving, or washing up, or cooking, because you can hear something different about a track if your conscious mind is occupied, or if the motor part of your mind is occupied by something else, then you get it easier, quicker. That's why dancing is good. Or drugs. I don't take drugs, but if there's something else in the mix, that helps with being able to get something quicker. If you're sitting at a computer doing emails or something, then you get a bit of it but you don't get the whole picture. I go up and see my kids every weekend, so that six hour round car journey gives me time to do A&R. On a Sunday.
Did the compilation end up being a labour of love or a frustrating effort?
No it was fun, it was great fun. It was good to listen back. When I first started to go through the tracks there were loads from '97 to 2000, but not a lot of them passed the grade really. I did want the compilation to represent us now and where we were going as well as a few of the older artists and older sounds on there. I left them for the third CD. The box set comes with Rory Gibbs' book, so it's nice to read about it.
What was your own input into the book? Were you protective of the narration of the history of Planet Mu?
It has my words in it – he interviewed me. I didn't give him any other direction other than see if you can make it interesting! And in fact he says exactly what I told him in the first chapter of the book: "Can you please impose some sort of interesting narrative that people will like and will make us look good?"
You've got tracks decades apart from each other sitting side-by-side on the compilation. Has that enabled you to connect any dots or join any parallels that you'd not noticed before?
I think other people notice them more than me. But it does tell a story. You see how separate older stuff is to the more modern stuff. But after listening to it, there definitely is a thread; a melodic thread of nostalgic melodies but cutting edge scenes. I dunno, there's something there that links it all. I think Rory says it well in his book, so people'd have to read that really! I'm always searching for something to excite me in music and I've got quite interested in how scenes change. But I've also got this side to me which sort of has comfort music, cheesy melodies and things like that. So those two sides fight each other and you get the Planet Mu sound, I suppose.
You mean like guilty pleasures? What are yours?
I've been listening to the Lion King for the last month non-stop. Not out of choice! Some things you can't really choose what you listen to and they end up in your head. I listen to Radio 4 at the moment – there's fucking shit music on that. Comedy on Radio 4's the worst thing, do you ever find...? I really like ABBA. Dunno if it's that guilty. I do kinda like crafted songwriting, but then it does get a bit fucking worthy doesn't it? ABBA were particularly good at it, I think far more than the sort of rocky acts. People say, oh Oasis were good at writing songs but I think they were fucking shit. 20 years ago you couldn't say you liked ABBA.
In retrospect everything becomes cool doesn't it, to an extent.
Yeah, it's post-post-modern. So nothing's out of bounds, you can access everything.
Yeah, like PC Music and all of that.
They're pretty interesting. But then again, how soon will it be before they get old? It was quite a novelty when they started. What was their first thing - Dux Content, it was A.G Cook and Danny (L Harle)'s project. It was very IDM-ish, I think it's still quite IDM-ish but very pop. SOPHIE's a producer who I really like. I'd love to sign him. I've spoken to him, but I think he's more interested in doing stuff within the pop world. He's definitely got the pop edge, his stuff I find more fun. I resonate with it more than the A.G Cook productions, personally. I saw him live in Barcelona, playing a lot of interesting music. Really quite weird stuff. We had a talk at the airport, he got really pissed off with me 'cos I woke him up for the flight. Never heard from him again.
It's not easy for a label to stay afloat these days. What would you say is the one thing that's enabled Planet Mu in operation for so long, and retain a sense of identity over so many years?
There's two sides to it really. There's the financial side which is that we've not overspent. We look at business strategy and what's happening in the music industry. We don't overspend stupidly, which is what some labels have done in the past. You have to have a cash flow in case something goes wrong, and I suppose that's a sensible way of running a business. Then there's the staying relevant side of things, so using gut feeling and seeing what's interesting and culturally relevant. It's just walking a tightrope between those. I mean obviously we haven't been that successful because we've never had a massive artist, but we've done alright. I'd really like us to have a benefactor, a rich benefactor. I think labels need that sort of thing these days.
Did your work as Heterotic (with wife Lara Rix-Martin) inspire you to make more solo stuff?
Yeah, though I haven't really had much time to make anything. There's a new track of mine on the compilation which I wrote recently-ish. I'd like to get back into it. I did a whole load of music cos my wife was at work, before we had the baby, and that was where I did all the Heterotic stuff with her and then a load of my own stuff. Then we had the baby who's now two, a new one. Aphex Twin helps them get to sleep. I've got two particular Aphex tracks that always make them go straight away. Ones from his SoundCloud dump so they don't have names, just numbers.
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Do you still speak to Richard much?
Yeah, occasionally. A couple of times in the last year, on the phone and by email. I haven't seen him in person since we did a gig together a while ago, two or three years ago, in a caravan with loads of other people. I'm not close with him like Luke Vibert is or anything like that, the Cornish thing. I didn't know him before music like those guys did - Marcus (Scott) knew him, and Manny, the Hyperdub guys, Luke and Scott the postman, who's about to come here.
But yeah, I hung out with him back in the early '90s. We were at Kingston at the same time but were doing different courses on different campuses - he was doing electronics and I was doing architecture. I gave him a demo through a mutual friend because the first record had just come out and he was getting played on Colin Faver's show on Kiss FM. I bought the second record first actually, 'Digeridoo', which was on Colin Faver's label - Rabbit City.
I remember seeing Aphex going along the road, I thought I recognised him because he had an article in the NME. He was with who I now know was Clare and Grant from Rephlex. I followed him into Beggars Banquet and he put one of the Aphex records on his head 'cos it said 'Don't know who this is' on it, and he was saying "ohhh don't know who this is!!" He's an outgoing chap. I was too scared to talk to him. But he's always been very supportive. He's very thoughtful and comes up with ideas outside the norm. As you'd expect.
What about the status of the record label in 2015? What with so many different platforms of curation now - streaming sites, blogs etc.. are labels becoming less influential?
We have 20 years of experience so we can put together an album which is more meaningful and culturally relevant than some playlist. I think we can work with an artist and get the best out of them. And we're good at breaking artists, you know. You can't just do that with a playlist from some DJ who's playing somewhere. There have to be several things supporting each other. You can pay for likes now, can't you, so you never really know what's authentic and real. I think the record label still is relevant in 2015 as a way of finding a whole sort of school of artists which you like, or a state of mind which you connect with as a listener. It can be a home for your taste.
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It is difficult for labels at the moment, with all of what you said, streaming and social media. How much effort do you put into all these things? I've found that the best effort to put in is into making a good record - that's still what people respond to. Social media likes don't result in sales. If you've got a good record people will like it. They'll not necessarily buy it but they'll listen to it or stream it, whatever. But we've gotta figure out new models for how artists get paid.
It's strange how Spotify doesn't recognise labels. You can't search by label, at least.
It has to work with them to get content. The thing is, Spotify isn't a record shop. It's just a tech app. It doesn't care about what it's selling, it just cares that it's selling something. It needs content and will just pay whatever the market will pay. It's capitalism at work really. It's just there for its investors I think, personally. As a lot of these startups are, all this disruptive technology. I don't agree necessarily with stuff like Uber and Spotify, on a personal level. Because they still rely on people. And if those people aren't getting paid, then.. I think people should get paid for their work. It's quite old fashioned! Because all these tech people, they certainly get paid. Even if no-one else is. And then what's gonna happen in the end? Maybe robots will overtake us before we find out. Let's hope so. Sorry, that's a ridiculous thing to say.
It is scary to see such a monopolisation happening so fast.
I think it's slightly fascist actually. I think they're pretty selfish. But it's very trendy to be selfish I suppose, in that part of the world - San Francisco. They don't care who they exploit as long as their service gets used. And they'll spend all their money trying to get a monopoly rather than paying for the content. So all the money is going on legal monopolisation and none to whoever it is that's being monopolised, whether it's a laundry app or a taxi app or a film app or whatever. Other than if your content is owned by a larger corporation who can use legal means. So that's why it sits uneasily with me. I'm not against customers finding the easiest way to consume music if they want to. And Spotify is a very convenient way, I understand that.
Soon we're just going to be living our lives through a series of apps.
The future seems to be going this way for everything. Everything can be digitised. Music and films are the first part of our lives that can be digitised. Clothes will be, food, and eventually your thoughts (laughs). I'm getting a bit paranoid now, I should stop there! I don't know how long it'll be before machines can think. It'll be an interesting few years when that does happen.
I'm more worried about societies, because a lot of the way things are going seem to not be taking society into account. I think money works, I personally think it's a good thing. But it's all about the inequality versus individualism. Selfishness versus altruism. We don't really know how either evolved. It's about our human nature.
If you look at the way this country voted then it does seem to be about individualism.
And then you've got this whole leftist, Corbyn thing coming up. I don't know how that's gonna go. I feel uneasy about that, as well, to be honest. I'm not sure that's the way at all. You can be idealistic but you still have to work within the world as it is at the moment. Not saying I'm conservative, certainly not, but we live in a new world. And you can't just think the same old ideas. Although I haven't really got any answers myself!
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Can you ever predict how well a release is going to do?
No! (laughs) The Kuedo release, 'Severant', that did really well and we were expecting it to. So that was great, to have your expectations satisfied and to have a commercial and critical success. But when something's done really badly, you think, how didn't we see that? You never really know. And it's surprising what does well.
Which has surprised you the most?
The Machinedrum one, 'Rooms' - I didn't necessarily think that was gonna do well because I thought it was almost watered down footwork, but it really connected with a lot of people and that became a scene-defining record. I thought that it was another sort of post-garage, influenced by footwork, record. It was just the right kind of watered down that people like, I s'pose. Influences were watered down on both sides and it coalesced into something very easygoing.
The 'Bangs & Works' compilation shone a light on the Chicago footwork scene. It must be pretty cool to have seen that movement take off all over the world? I was just watching a video of DJ Paypal in Tokyo and they were going crazy.
When I first went out to Japan after we released 'Bangs & Works' I met DJ Fulltono and some others... It's really good to see it taking off there because they've got the whole culture - the dancing and track-making and DJs, so they've imported it wholesale from Chicago, as is the Japanese way. They try to make an authentic facsimile but obviously they're doing it in their own way and I think that's really interesting, out of all the worldwide footwork scenes I think theirs is the most singular, and the most energetic, definitely. I think they put a lot of fun into it. And it was good to see Traxman over there.. they just went completely mad for him.
The scene in Poland as well, and obviously in other parts of America apart from Chicago... is Paypal from LA? Paypal's not from the scene and he's been quite successful. He's Teklife now isn't he. What is Teklife? Yeah I think Rashad and Spinn, when they toured the world, they worked hard and that was one of the main things, rather than our compilation. It was that that did it.
Planet Mu's always had a very global outlook in that you're never just looking to one certain part of the world. Do you think it's possible for there to be localised scenes any more?
That's a good question, I think it probably is possible, yeah, because you do still get groups of friends. It maybe won't be city-wide scenes any more. You've got Janus in Berlin. PC Music - there you go, another group of friends, did they meet at Guildhall? So yeah, on a smaller scale I'd say it is still possible.
When you were putting together 'Bangs & Works', what was it about the genre that made you persevere so hard, I gather it was very trying to piece everything together?
Well it was fun, but it was very difficult to find out who made some of the tracks because on some of these Youtube videos there were no artists, it was just a few people dancing and a track in the background. I persevered because there were some really good tracks and I thought it was really exciting. I wanted to push Planet Mu to release it - to be the first to release footwork internationally. It was definitely a bit of a scene change which was needed after dubstep's slow 140 tempos, and then funky at 130 for so long, and obviously house going on in the background at the same time.
It definitely needed a change-up. Cos drum 'n' bass was still going but no longer relevant to that side of things. I mean it's probably becoming relevant, it's a bit snobbish to say drum 'n' bass isn't relevant. I know it did lose something in '96, '97. But then it is big... I mean, all my wife's brother's friends are into it, it's all about liquid now. I suppose people like DJ Fresh are doing it, I dunno, there's that Shogun Audio. I don't connect with it personally, but there must be something in it.
Do you go out to clubs these days or does fatherhood take up all your spare time?
I can't really stay up past nine at the moment, I just fall asleep! It's been that way since my two-year-old was born. I haven't really been out to clubs other than gigs which I've been playing at, Planet Mu nights. I'm falling a bit behind on that but I try to keep up by talking to people, listening to music.
Does that hinder your A&R-ing?
I've always listened to music before going to clubs but if something exciting is going on I might try and reach out to it. It probably does hinder in a way, you wouldn't be the first to capture something going on. But then I don't think it's London any more, I think it's America and Istanbul, Berlin, Brooklyn maybe. There's definitely a niche in the market to do an exciting club in London. Young people are being forced out.
You were gonna release some Wiley instrumentals at one point but that never happened. What was the deal with that?
We were talking to his manager, DJ Cheeky I think it was at that time, about 2009. I'd talked to Logan Sama about it back in '05 but it was just like nah he's not interested in that, how about MC blah blah who no-one'd heard of. I've always been interested in Wiley's instrumentals because I thought there was something completely different about him. So I tried to do it again in 2009 but then he sacked his manager and it fell through. It came out, 'Avalanche' - that was the sort of thing we were aiming at. But we'd already done the Terror Danjah thing, so did DJ Nate instead cos we were like, why not just do the footwork thing.
I've heard that working with Wiley can be very difficult so maybe it was for the best but obviously I love his music. Big Dada are a bigger label than us so there's more of them to absorb his idiosyncrasies. We released one track on the Mary Anne Hobbs compilation so I had to contact him about that. We emailed him about his royalty but he never replied, cos it was only like 70 quid or something. He was probably like, fuck off!
What advice would you give to someone starting their own label today?
Have rich parents. Or be rich yourself. Starting out now is gonna be difficult because things still seem to cost money. I suppose you can start off by releasing music for free, using your intelligence and wiles to generate interest that way. PC Music is a good lesson on how to do it nowadays. But not everyone has the personality to strategise and work the press. Some people are far more introverted and can't do that, people who're just making music for themselves, and no-one's ever hearing it. The people who send demos, who're self-publicising, often aren't the most interesting. When they are, that's when you get the best of both worlds.
Brian Eno's a good example. That's what a lot of labels are looking for, but it's very rare. Either you get people who're good talkers but their music sucks. Or you get people whose music's amazing but they don't wanna ever do the whole talking thing - Venetian Snares, Burial, John T. Gast, who we just released and refused to talk to anyone about it. That's their decision though, that's perfectly valid to do that.
I've seen people describe you as a brutal critic. Is that fair? Do you ever worry about hurting artists' feelings?
I do think that people deserve to know what I think. It's not because I'm a harsh critic, it's just that other people are too pussy to say what they think. You need to do that to get the best out of artists, you need them to confront reality. Because artists aren't the best critics of their own material. I was watching a documentary on The Human League yesterday, and they had no idea that 'Don't You Want Me' was gonna be big. They just thought it was gonna be a filler track! You're too close to it to realise what it is about your music that people will connect with.
I really haven't got the time to give feedback to everyone that sends demos. And you get into a whole fucking whirlpool of arguments if you start. Over email they get well fucking aggressive and shirty, and I'm not getting drawn into it. Mostly, artists are really nice. Even the ones who are sometimes a bit of work, their hearts are in the right place. The type of music we release isn't the sort of thing that arseholes make.
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Planet Mu's 20th anniversary compilation is out now.
Interview: Felicity Martin