From Anstruther with love (and passion for music): introducing Fence Records and the Fence Collective
by anna battista
Part of the East Neuk of Fife, Anstruther lies on the eastern coast of Scotland, only a few miles south from St. Andrews and the fishing villages of Crail and Cellardyke, and a few miles north from the fishing villages of Pittenweem, St. Monans and Elie. Up to a few years ago, Anstruther itself based its life on fishing: the story of the boats sailing from its harbour and of the life of local fishermen is recounted in the exhibits and displays of the Scottish Fisheries Museum, which overlooks Anstruther harbour. At present, though, there are more yachts in Anstruther than fishing boats: an army of posh people has indeed been buying houses around here and in the nearby villages of Elie and Pittenweem, attracted by the magic of the sea. What can you do in Anstruther? Well, on a nice sunny day you can sunbathe on the beaches around the village or have a walk along the Fife coastal path or simply explore the town, admiring the little cottages and taking pictures of Buckie House, the cottage decorated by its Victorian owner with thousands of shells. If you're hungry and thirsty you can also have the best fish and chips in the world at the Anstruther Fish Bar & Restaurant or have something to drink at the Ship Tavern. You'll find both of them near the harbour and you'll probably recognise the former from the line of hungry people queuing up outside its doors. Is that all you can do in Anstruther? No, actually, you can look out for the HQ of one of the most original labels around, Fence Records. Based here in Anstruther and founded by Kenny Anderson, better known to his fans as King Creosote, Fence Records has been going on for a few years releasing records by bands based a bit all over the world, from Anstruther to Japan. James Yorkston & The Athletes, The Pictish Trail, Gummy Bako, Onthefly, H.M.S. Ginafore, Lone Pigeon, Pip Dylan, Immigrant, U.N.P.O.C. and Shinya Mizuno are just a few artists included in the long list of Fence bands. Some of the Fence bands often play live together under the name Fence Collective, but also release albums such as Let's Get This Ship on the Road and Fence Reunited, compilations on which the bands collaborate with one another. The record label also has its own version of a music club, releasing the series "Picket Fence", basically a series of mini albums penned by the Fence Collective. Some of the Fence artists, such as King Creosote, U.N.P.O.C. and King Creosote, release their stuff with Domino Records.
A first sign of Fence life in Anstruther is a poster stuck on a what's-on board: it advertises a ceilidh organised a couple of weeks ago in Anstruther. Two of the musicians listed on the poster are Kenny Anderson and Johnny Lynch (AKA The Pictish Trail). Unfortunately, we're too late for the ceilidh and we're also too late for the Anstruther weekender titled Fence Reunited - The Home Game, a two day crash course in all things Fence that took place in March, with 20 artists playing in a local hall in front of a raving audience. Being too late for any Fence events I 'go down to the water' to paraphrase a track by The Pictish Trail and sit on a strip of beach, not too far from the Ship Tavern, local hang out for Fence people (according to the legend the record label started here), eating fish and chips and listening, on my portable CD player, to the 14-track compilation Fence Reunited. But what is really Fence, is it just a record label or a way of life?
To find the answer to this question I have to rewind the memory back to a few months ago and relocate myself in the Arts Club in Dundee when I saw my first Fence Collective gig. MTV was filming that night's gig, which later became the opening programme in a series called "This Is Our Music", which explored the independent music scene worldwide, starting from Dundee and then travelling to Tokyo, San Francisco and Helsinki, among other places. "At Fence we don't try to model ourselves on anybody, we don't do any effort to copy a band's scene," Kenny Anderson told me on that occasion. "We have just attracted like-minded players and the players we have attracted into the camp are quite happy just to muck in. The most difficult aspect of running such a label is just not having a budget, so, basically every person who buys a Fence record is important to us. We pretty much know the people who buy our records and it has taken us five or six years to build up such a following. People don't realise how much few records we actually sell, we don't even sell a hundred. We can't sign bands because we don't have the funds and we've got nothing to offer them. Although it's my label and I'm on my own label, it's quite difficult to sell myself, because you can't go from being a kind of shy artist to suddenly being a record company mogul. Domino are now helping us out. At the moment we're kind of relying on Domino stirring us through the whole music mess. It's good for us because we feel we have a big brother down in London, a bigger label that is banging on about us. Before if we'd sold 40 or 50 CDs of an album we thought we were doing OK. The fact that some of our artists were released by Domino helped, if we were working on our own, our records would go out and nobody would hear about them. In the past I sent our records to reviewers and they blanketed us until that same record came from the Domino route. I'm happy for us because we're getting more known around and I just hope that we can become one of the labels that says the right things for a wider network of people."
As Kenny confirmed on that occasion, Fence Records is not about money and fame, but about passion. "Pretty much every band on the label would rather not be that well know in terms of their face in the public eye," he claimed, "they want their music to be heard. We're actually happy to hide behind comedy names, we all have one at Fence. I don't think that any of us is particularly startling, but when we work together I think we can do something pretty amazing. We're definitely good at playing the underdog card, but our music is not inaccessible. I hadn't realised for example how well the accordion in my tracks would translate throughout the whole Europe. People around Europe love that and the fact that I sing in a Scottish accent. This might have gone against me in the UK scene, because three, four, even two years ago, singing in a Scottish accent was ridiculed, it wasn't right for Britain and for the UK scene, but people love my accent in Europe."
Kenny, who started his career as a musician as the singer/songwriter with Skuobhie Dubh Orchestra and Khartoum Heroes, released more than twenty albums as King Creosote between 1998 and 2003. His tracks also appear on Fence compilations and in the Picket Fence series. He certainly is a prolific musician. "I might not have a lot of money, but I'm quite imaginative," Kenny said, "my equipment includes only an acoustic guitar, an accordion and a guitar pedal that acts as a sampler. I don't even use any computers, just my old 8-track with its cranky faders that I've had for many years and I've worked to death. I always look out for new ways to do things, so I don't listen to a lot of current trendy music, but I like good songs and I like to think that I've written a few good songs. If I have an idea for a song then a song is done and recorded in a very short time, it's really immediate and I hope that this immediacy keeps on coming over in the recordings because I think a lot of bands fall into the trap of working and working and working over a song so that in the end the song loses all its original flavour."
When Fence artists play live together as Fence Collective, they often help each other out on stage, "We are not a label that has money to throw about, so since it is so difficult and expensive to hire studios, pretty much everybody records on their own and they play everything," Kenny explained, "but when you play live you obviously can't play all instruments yourself, so you're kind of relying on the fact that your songs are simply enough for people to muck in."
On that same evening in Dundee, while The Pictish Trail's Johnny Lynch busied himself around the stage and Kenny was having a chat with some friends, I spoke to James Yorkston, who was quite keen on talking to me about his collaborations with other Fence people."I collaborate a lot with Kenny, I owe him a lot. If I come up with a song, I can always turn up at Kenny's house and we will just work on it in the afternoon, in three or four hours and sometimes it turns out really really well," James told me, "and then at these live things we all play together doing whatever we like." James Yorkston and The Athletes' album Moving Up Country was released on Domino in 2002, and was followed by a few singles and EPs, while James also featured on a few Fence compilations and samplers. All the releases contributed to make James and his band one the most interesting bands around. "I don't know if we have more to give than mainstream artists, maybe we are a little bit more honest than many mainstream artists, because mainstream pop music is especially made to sell as many copies as possible," James explained, "but our music has got nothing to do with selling and markets, we're not interested in being in the charts or in selling loads of albums. Music is not a competition, it'd be great if the album sold another 60 thousand albums and we made into the chart, but I don't expect to and it's not a big deal, I'm not worried about it, the least of my concern is the album getting into the charts. Our music is all about, well, just music, so maybe that's why we get good feedback. There's absolutely no pretence about what we do, we wear on stage the clothes we wear everyday, we do not try to be anything else, we do not put on a pretence in the slightest."
When I met James, the band had just come back from touring Belgium and France and were already working on the new album due to be released in September 2004. "In an ideal world I'd be playing the guitar and an idea would come to me and I'd flash it into a song or I'd be travelling on the train or sitting on a bus or walking along and all the lyrics would come to me," James stated on that occasion about his writing techniques, "but it doesn't happen very often. What happens is I get a dream of an idea, usually maybe 5 or 10 per cent of a song and I have to sit out and work on it. I've been influenced by quite a few artists in my composing: there's a Madagascar guitar player called D'Gary who I love and inspired me to try and play the guitar well. Then there's an English singer called Anne Briggs, who inspired me to sing well and then there's all sorts of things. For example country records by people like the Watson Family, but also Alan Parson, though D'Gari and Anne Briggs were my two main influences."
That night in Dundee, just before the gig started, I had the chance to speak also to Tom Bauchop, the man behind U.N.P.O.C. Tom, a fourth year student of Computer Science at Edinburgh University, released his first album Fifth Column on Domino last year, but he released on Fence The Artist Paints (part of the Picket Fence series) and his tracks also appear on Sneeky Peekit Fence: 'A', Fence Reunited and Fence Sampler #3. "I think Fence and Domino are fantastic," Tom told me, "There aren't many record labels which would let you release other records for other labels just for the fun of it, but Domino do and they allowed me to do stuff for Fence. I got in touch with Domino through James Yorkston, apparently they had my album kicking around from about six months to a year. In the end they thought it was time to release it because everybody was still playing it, so first they weren't sure about it, then it bored them till they had to released it! For what concerns Fence, well, I got to know them through Kenny because he used to be in a band with an old flatmate of mine back in Edinburgh about seven or eight years ago."
The best thing said on U.N.P.O.C. when the album came out was, according to Tom, that in an alternative universe his album was the album of 2003. "They meant that it's too roughly recorded to be the album of the year," he joked, "There was somebody who said that one of the songs was cutely out of tune, but I never realised that any of my songs were out of tune!" Fifth Column contains 14 tracks, some of them are more melodic, some others are more inclined towards pop, some others are more rockish and some others are, erm, "angular" as Tom described them to me. "I wrote all the songs by myself, and used a Yamaha 16-track which I bought deliberately so that I wouldn't have to use computers to do things. But the songs had a long gestation period, so some of them came really quickly to me, but I worked on some of the others for two or three years. I recorded all the songs for the album separately, along two or three years. When I recorded the first song, the idea was not to record an album but to record one good song and then I recorded another one and in the end there were enough for 45 minutes. I had to do some selecting, there were very good tunes that were definitely going to be on the album, but there were other songs which didn't sound like anything on the Fifth Column. In the end there was maybe about another third of material which wasn't used because I wanted to keep the album to 45 minutes. I quite liked the idea to keep the album short, because I think albums that go on for 70 minutes are tedious. I'm holding back some of the material in case I have a dry spell in the future, because it's good to have some tracks tucked away."
And talking about tracks, when I spoke to Tom he revealed his fave song on Fifth Column was "Nicaragua." "I've never been to Nicaragua, the inspiration for the track came off from a series of educational programmes which were on through the night," he explained, "A while back they would show on TV maybe seven to ten hours on the subject. If you were doing a course on South American politics you could record the whole thing and then watch the video through the months of the course. I found myself sitting and watching it all night long and it was really engrossing. It went into some depth, there was a lot of politics involved in it, so I got a grasp of that stuff. I'm aware I'm talking too much about a subject I don't know anything about other than one night of television, but it was quite inspirational!" There is also another thing he particularly likes about his album and that's the terrific picture on the cover: "The picture on the front was taken in Norway, right up the edge of a mountain in Norway, inside the booklet there are some pics from around Scotland and some from Brittany in Northern France, a bit of a mixture," Tom told me. "All the pictures were taken on a very old camera from the mid '60s which doesn't have a light meter like a modern camera, so it's a bit hit and miss."
When I met Tom he revealed he had sort of kept as a secret to his pals that he had a band, and that his flatmate only found out because somebody told him Tom was in a music magazine. "When you first do these things, it sounds silly to say 'yes, I've got an album out', so it takes a while to get your head around that notion," Tom claimed, "I have to get used to it, I'm still running into record shops and looking for my name!"
Before letting Tom go and join his Fence friends, I asked him a last question, the meaning of the cryptic name for his band. "It kind of changes through time," he said smiling."At the moment is means 'Unable to Navigate Probably on Course' which is an old shipping term. It's the kind of thing they would write in the 1900's when they were sailing up near the North Pole and the compass was going haywire and they couldn't tell where they were and it was heavy with fog. Then they would write on the book 'U.N.P.O.C.', which almost sounds like a prayer, they would be unable to navigate, though they'd think they were on course. But as I said the meaning changes from time to time, I may get bored with that name and try to think about others that fit with those letters."
In the true spirit of Fence, that night in Dundee The Pictish Trail played with King Creosote who played with U.N.P.O.C. who was also helped in his set by James Yorkston. Quite a few months have passed since then and during this time the Fence Collective played more gigs and released more records, while the music press dedicated them the occasional features, interviews and reviews. Here in Anstruther in the meantime, everything is fine, people are walking along the harbour, tourists are getting in and out of the local museum, kids are eating ice-creams or playing on the beach, collecting limpets. The sea is calm, the sun is shining, a nice breeze is blowing. I've finished my fish and chips and the compilation has reached the end of the fourteenth track. Unfortunately for me, there are no Fence people around right now, but I'm sure I'll catch up with them at some point during one of their gigs. I press 'Play' on my portable CD player again. "Comfort in Rum" by HMS Ginafore starts. I smile. I think I've finally found the answer, Fence is definitely a way of life.
Pics: The Ship Tavern, Anstruther beach; Pip Dylan (Een Anderson) and King Creosote, Arts Club, Dundee, November 2003; The Pictish Trail (Johnny Lynch), King Creosote (Kenny Anderson), U.N.P.O.C. (Tom Bauchop) and James Yorkston, Arts Club, Dundee, November 2003; Anstruther Fish Bar & Restaurant, Anstruther beach. All pics by Anna Battista.