Speedy Wunderground: Rules Are Made To Be Broken

A close up on the vital South London imprint...

Many independent labels begin with the desire to do something different – to occupy a niche, or to offer a voice to a scene that’s gone under-reported. Fewer seek to reframe how we make and consume music from the ground up. But for almost a decade, that’s been the mission statement for London’s Speedy Wunderground.

Operated by producer Dan Carey, a veteran of records with Franz Ferdinand, Bat For Lashes, TOY, Kae Tempest, and Kylie Minogue, A&R Pierre Hall and engineer Alexis Smith, the label abides by a set of rules that run from functional to idiosyncratic, adding a side of record collector nerdiness to songs that pop and whirr with excitement.

All Speedy Wunderground releases are recorded by Carey at his Streatham studio, a haven of vintage gear and weirdo curios, in a single 24 hour period. The following day is set aside for mixing, and as soon as possible 250 7”s will be on shelves. Once each year is up, a compilation will emerge. At the heart of the whole endeavour is a live take that might be captured in the dark, amid smoke and lasers and interjections from a creaking oddity of a synth called Swarmatron.

“I kept noticing the delay between finishing a record and the release,” Carey says of the spark behind the label’s formation. “When they did come out, I felt that I might have done something differently by that time. It occurred to me that it would be nice to have an outlet for stuff that had a limited run, so you would be guaranteed that it would be exactly what we were thinking right then.”

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With Speedy’s process on ice in the time of Covid-19, Carey—who won UK Producer of the Year at this year’s Music Producers Guild awards, backing up Speedy’s Best Small Label gong at the AIM awards—has put his (lock)downtime to good use. Slipping on his Savage Gary electro moniker, he has teamed with artists from his home studio, sending beats out into the world ready for vocal treatments and a quickfire Soundcloud debut. The Quarantine Series is now pushing 20 instalments, including tie ups with Tempest, PVA, Willy Mason, Heartworms, Warmduscher, Charlotte Spiral, Boxed In, Stephen Fretwell, Goat Girl and more.

“The first one with Kae was called ‘I Was Looking Forward To The Summer’, which kinda set the tone,” Hall says. “We had no idea how many there would end up being or who we would end up working with, but that picked up a few radio plays and I think Pitchfork mentioned it. People just started to get in touch and it developed organically.”

“I guess having Dan making music and being able to collaborate with people directly over the internet means we’re not restricted in the same way that other labels are who had to sit back for a while when the studios closed,” he adds. “We were also lucky that we’d already got the Tiña album in the bag a few weeks before [lockdown].”

Tiña’s debut LP is the label’s latest effort to prove that rules are made to be broken. After putting out a Squid EP in 2019, the November release of ‘Positive Mental Health Music’ will mark their first foray into long-form music-making, but handily its creation set in stone some of the things that Carey loves most about the Speedy ethos.

“It’s really exciting to have the same sort of process, commitment and control over a whole album,” Carey says. “It was recorded in a week. We tried to treat it as one piece of music rather than 12 songs. The way I viewed the album was four groups of three songs. Each group was recorded like one thing, so if something went wrong we'd start again.”

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Here it’s wise to wind the clock back and put this step into the unknown in a little more context, because Speedy’s rise has not been conventional. Their opening statement landed in February 2013, with Steve Mason and Emiliana Torrini’s 'I Go Out' followed in rapid succession by releases from Archie Bronson Outfit, TOY and Natasha Khan, Scotti Brains and Tempest.

Hall sees their early process as a distant relation of vintage country and rock ‘n’ roll scenes in Nashville or Memphis, with killer crews knocking out hits in a matter of hours. “It harked back to that golden era where records were made in a day with the same musicians,” he says. “Dan was working with TOY when he started, so they were the ‘house band’ on the first releases.”

At the beginning, the label's rules might have provided a release valve. If the end product sucked, then surely the experimental nature of the process was an easy way out? “I was really nervous about it,” Carey says of the first session. “I put a lot of pressure on myself. I want to make them really good, it's not just about doing them quickly. I certainly didn't want to start the label off with something that felt compromised or rushed.”

Once bands have wandered into Carey’s lair, he is meticulous about providing the correct creative environment. All roads lead to the moment, usually midway through the afternoon, when the live take begins. “The beginning of the day will be listening and talking about what we're going to do,” he says. “I often ask the band to play something different from the song that we're doing, so I can work on the sound without getting into autopilot mode.

“There will come this point where I'll feel that we're ready to do the core take. I know people often write about this because it's fun, but I do occasionally do this thing where I switch the lights off and fill the room with smoke, and I put this really powerful laser on. It makes everyone go slightly mad. I'll make a big deal of making sure everyone is ready, everyone is happy, and then be like: 'We're going to record it now.'”

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Before any of this craziness, though, there’s the potentially tricky business of finding collaborators. Back in its earliest thrashings Speedy Wunderground’s release slate was populated with artists boasting indie cred and name recognition. Over time that’s changed, and these days it’s a hotbed for new talent. In recent years they’ve helped to break black midi, Black Country, New Road, Squid, and others, into the open.

“[That’s] probably a little as a result of me coming on board after the first couple,” Hall says. “One of the first ones I brought in was Loyle Carner. I remember sending it to Dan and saying we simply had to work with him. It was Dan’s genius idea to put him together with Kae Tempest on Guts. It’s also a good way of testing chemistry with Dan. So many bands we’ve done singles with have gone on to record albums with him.”

There’s no one route into Carey’s studio for a Speedy session, and he is diligent in listening to submissions. “It just has to be a certain feeling,” he says. “Maybe that comes from seeing it live, maybe it comes from a demo. Sometimes I meet someone and think, 'Yeah, you're cool. I'm sure something good will come of it.'”

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Carey would prefer simply to call people on Thursday and record on Friday. Both he and Hall are resistant to the idea of careful forward planning, which is for the best given the often chaotic, spontaneous nature of Speedy Wunderground’s output. “We saw Peluché at a gig and had them in the studio the very next day,” Hall says. “With All We Are and Alex Kapranos, Dan introduced them to each other at a Speedy gig at Moth Club on a Saturday and they were in the studio together on the following Monday.”

A neat byproduct of this laissez faire attitude to time and collaborative energy, though, is the way it can help to document exciting movements or happenings, like the anything goes art-rock melange of the Brixton Windmill scene. “Doing one band leads us to another, like with the black midi, Squid, Black Country, New Road consecutive releases,” Hall says. “We don’t like to plan many too far in advance as it keeps it exciting for us, not knowing. I always say that this thing is leading us, not the other way around.”

Unlike their industry peers, the Speedy Wunderground crew get to hoover up the endorphin rush of a new release regularly. Even when they’re working on a band that might blow up, they know that their focus will soon be somewhere completely different. “It is liberating, but it isn’t something we really think about,” Hall says. “You never know if something is going to connect. We just choose things we like. If anything it feels like we’ve been on a winning run, so in a way it increases the pressure for the next one. But all we really care about is exposing stuff that we think is great to the wider world.”

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Tiña's new album 'Positive Mental Health Music' will be released on November 6th.

Words: Huw Baines

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