Interview with DAVID BATES, A&R for Tears For Fears, Def Leppard, Wet Wet Wet, Texas - Sep 8, 2008
"That’s the problem when someone is asking themselves if they can write like Coldplay. Why not write something that sounds like you?! "David Bates is an industry veteran and as such provides HitQuarters with an invaluable insight to the difference between the way music worked decades ago and nowadays - spiced with great stories about discovering giants like Tears For Fears.
Bates unfolds his fascinating story, from hunble beginnings as local DJ to signing No.1 and Top 10 acts like Def Leppard and Wet Wet Wet.
Bates is outspoken about his dissatisfaction with today's speedy single hit process, lacking in time for proper artist developement and album production. Yet he is as passionate about finding a unique artist as ever.
When did your obsession with music start?
When I was 8 years old, my father and a friend were playing ‘Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee Sing The Blues’.
It’s an album I still own to this day. That would have been 1960 when I heard that, and I just thought it was fantastic.
A couple of years later I used to listen to the Light Programme: Saturday Club on national radio. A Saturday morning radio show with a guy called Brian Matthew.
He had a lot of different bands playing on his show. It was just the show to listen to. We didn’t have Radio One in those days. He played The Beatles. And that was it. I just started playing records non-stop.
As a teenager, you left your native London to become a successful BBC Radio Journalist, DJ and promoter in Sheffield. What motivated you towards that?
I only went there for about three years. I had been expelled from a school in London. My parents were going to move up there to make a new start.
I managed to get expelled twice in one year. DJing actually forced the issue, funnily enough. There was a miscommunication somehow. The headmaster from the Crookes school in Sheffield called up and he thought I was a DJ.
When you’re broke and someone is offering you money, you kind of figure out if you can actually do it. I figured I had a large enough record collection, I got a record player and bought another record player.
I was in a band at that time and we had a PA. I knew if I could have my mate, who was a bit of an electronic wizard, reel together two record players.
With my collection I could bluff my way through this and earn about 15 Pounds, which in those days was quite a lot of money. That’s how it started.
How did those first steps in A&R at Phonogram in 1976 come about?
I DJed from when I was about 17 or 18. That would be around 1970. I DJed all over the country. Often in Sheffield, but quite often in London as well. I even ended up DJing in the Marquee Club at 90 Wardour Street. And I was doing tours.
As a result I had a bit of a following, especially up in Sheffield. I packed out these places, and the record companies needed to promote their records. I knew quite a few of the guys from the record companies.
One day these two guys turned up and offered me this deposed white label.
One of the things they used to do was a lunchtime thing whereby we played album tracks for about three to four hours, which was considered absolutely bizarre.
No one ever did that. You just did dance records or if you did a concert you do what was appropriate for the concert.
It was insanely popular. Because it was the only way you could get to hear music that wasn’t being played on radio. It did have an influence on people’s purchasing in the area.
People used to come from all over the area. We also did these shows in the evenings. People used to come from Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham, Derby. We’re talking miles apart. Just to go to this place because it was different from anywhere else.
Little Feet, who wouldn’t sell anything whatsoever in this country because they had never got any radio play, were selling albums in this northern area. Record companies became aware of the influence that we had.
So these two guys showed up one day with a white label and offered me all sorts if I would play it, so when they released it they would get this thing moving.
It turned out it was actually Nik Powell and Richard Branson from Virgin Records, and the white label in question was Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.
They offered me a job to come and work for them in London where I would be the main buyer for all their Virgin stores they were setting up.
They had a few shops but they were going to switch to this American megastore kind of business. Virgin was not into singles, they were only interested in doing albums.
They were like a hippy store and they were going to change the whole thing and become more of an American type of thing. They brought me down to London and I also got involved with the label in a small way as well.
The idea was that a proper record company as opposed to Virgin who weren’t a proper one yet, would offer me a job. After a year or two of this it was going nowhere.
And I thought that in order to hold this I wanted to go back to DJing, because I could make more money, and it’s a better life and a lot more fun.
And one day this guy came into the store. A lot of well-known people used to shop there because it was open until late at night and they offered all these imports.
This guy came up to me and said: “What are you playing?”, and I said: “I’m playing a new band from America.”, and he said: “What are they called?”, and I said: “The Ramones.”, and he said: “What is this?”, and I said: “It’s a new thing, it’s called Punk music.”
“It hasn’t quite taken off over here. It’s big in America and it has a sort of a cult following in this country.” This was in 1976.
I tell him all about The Ramones and he went like: “Okay, very interesting.” He went off. He was an old guy and I just felt: “Old Ball. Nothing more.”
He went across the road to see one of my friends, funnily enough, who was working at Phonogram, and said: “There’s a guy across the road you’ve got to employ. He knows what he’s talking about. Get him in now.”
This guy called Nigel Grainge just thought: “I know him. He wouldn’t be right.” And the man said: “It’s simple. Go and get him, hire him, he knows what he’s talking about, he’s young enough, he knows what’s going on, you need him.” That guy was Seymour Stein.
Seymour was persuading another record label to employ me, and that was exactly what happened.
You actually discovered one of the major players in a scene opposed to punk at that time – Sheffield’s Def Leppard. What’s the difference now more than thirty years later in finding new acts?
There’s an awful lot of bands knocking around, and a lot of bands want to be signed. In fact, it’s probably easier now than it was then. In those days you really had to trawl up and down to try and find something.
The difference is if you’re a successful major label or if you’re a very successful or attractive independent label, bands will head towards your door because they are looking to be signed. And the process is possibly a little easier.
It’s the same deal. You’ve got to go out to clubs and you must know what’s going on. You have to know what’s happening in rehearsal rooms. You have to know what publishing companies are after.
It’s the same deal, but there is a lot more of it and it’s a lot more active now.
You were an artist yourself with The Blitz Brothers back then, is that correct?
In the process of learning to be an A&R man, of being a talent scout, one of the things they gave me was access to studios. I knew nothing about them. I started learning with a friend of mine. We started recording and demoing artists.
When there was down time and there was nothing going on you could go and mess around and do what you want. One of things we did was we invented this band The Blitz Brothers.
The sum of the parts was probably more famous. There was Chris Hughes who later became Merrick in Adam and the Ants, and then a producer for Tears For Fears, Robert Plant, Paul McCartney, Peter Gabriel and all sorts of people.
There was Steve Lovell, who was a guitarist and who was also a producer for Julian Cope and Samantha Fox and a whole bunch of other people.
There was Hugh Jones, who was on bass, and he ended up producing Echo & The Bunnymen and a whole slew of other bands.
And then there was Alan Darby, who was another guitarist, who ended up being the guitarist for Van Morrison, Rod Stewart and more.
Your first US contact was in 1978 with Ork Records…
It was one of those things where the first time you hear a record you stop in your tracks and think: “This is the most amazing thing I’ve heard in years.” It was hearing Television. I heard ‘Little Johnny Jewel’, and it was absolutely unbelievable.
I got talking to Ork Records. In 1978 Phonogram gave me one thousand Pounds to go to America and see if I could find anything.
They figured I’ll be back in two weeks. I left in November 1978 and came back in the end of February 1979!
After three and a half months I discovered a thing called Happy Hour where you could get free food, and I moved in with a girlfriend so I didn’t have any rent.
It was an amazing time with all these bands in America. This new wave thing was going off with the likes of Devo and the B-52’s. A whole slew of other bands that I came across before anybody. Unfortunately, Phonogram didn’t sign any of them.
In the ‘80s you found Tears For Fears via a tape of songs you got from a publisher. What was it that made you take a chance on them?
There was a plugger for a publishing company who came to see me and played a whole lot of stuff. I never really needed any songs because all of my artists were writing themselves.
I listened to all of his songs and then he left. Then I suddenly clicked about one cassette he played me, I ran back and put my foot in the elevator door, and said: “Give me that tape, I want to go out and listen to it.”
I thought it was a song that nobody else could cover, but I liked what they were doing. There were three tracks on it; ‘Suffer the Children’, ‘Pale Shelter’ and another track called ‘War is Birth’, which never came out.
I didn’t want to sign the songs. I wanted to sign the group. But they were only two guys. I came down to Bath and met them at Peter Gabriel’s house.
He gave us studio time for free. I wanted to mix the songs and see if we could make them into a better shape than they were in.
It was a two singles deal. Those sorts of deals are probably back now. If the singles took off then you could sign them for an album.
These days you probably better sign bands for singles rather than albums, because obviously with downloads it probably makes more sense. The old days will come back in a new way.
We put out the two singles, and both of them stiffed. John Peel was a bit of a supporter. I wanted to sign them up for an album deal. Everyone thought I was mad because it obviously was a waste of money.
We went into the studio to record the album. After a couple of weeks they said they’ve got a new single ready. I went to listen to it in Britannia Row Recording Studios, London.
They played me the B-side, and I said: “No, that’s the A-side.”, and that was ‘Mad World’. Suddenly we were trying to play catch up and trying to get an album finished. The whole thing just took off.
What made you switch the A side with the B side, which became a huge hit?
I just fell in love with that song. It was literally instant to me. I was like: “That’s it. It’s amazing.”
Compared to the atmosphere of the mid-‘80s where everything was possible, aren’t you disappointed with present times?
The disappointment is that there are fewer and fewer real artists. There are fewer and fewer artists that can transcend their locality, go across all sorts of borders and actually appeal to all sorts of people.
There was a period around about the ‘90s, which was possibly the worst period for British music. It was a combination of a big dance scene and Britpop.
Most people around the world just went: “I don’t get it.” We stopped selling artists to the world, which we’ve done pretty much consistently since the ‘60s.
Very few bands came out of the ‘90s that actually meant anything outside of the UK. There was a bit of doubt about what we were doing.
In the last couple of years there has obviously been artists like Snow Patrol, Coldplay, Gorillaz and Amy Winehouse that have actually meant something outside of the UK, but very few.
The other thing that is sad is that artists come out with one or two songs, sell an album, and then disappear because the next album hasn’t got the league cuts.
And another disappointment is that a lot of records don’t sound as good as they used to. That’s obviously because people are cutting corners these days. You’re actually polishing up demos and not really having them produced.
It’s a cost and there is time pressure. And a lot of people have accepted that: “Ok, we get this out quickly, we can have a hit, and to hell with the rest of it. We just need to get things moving.”
You also discovered Wet Wet Wet in 1985. Your musical instincts told you to step back from cold commercial triumph. The fan still ruled the A&R man. When they mutated into a pop band you lost interest. Have you been in that situation often?
Not really, but it has happened. When I first heard Wet Wet Wet and I first heard Marti singing, he was like Jeff Buckley meets Tim Buckley, which is hard to imagine if you know the pop records.
I first heard him in a rehearsal room and he just blew me away. I wanted to make a record like that. But the manager wanted to make pop records. He wanted to be, in his eyes, successful like Dexy’s Midnight Runners, which he was a great fan of.
I was saddened by that. I thought that if you did that pop route you wouldn’t actually sell outside the UK. Clearly that was not the case. They sold all around Europe.
But it meant nothing in America, in Canada, nothing anywhere else. It was limited to just the pop success, although enormously successful in the UK and fairly successful across certain parts of Europe.
I always thought they could have done a lot more. And I did lost interest.
What was your vision for DB Records?
DB Records was formed in September of 1998 together with Tom Friend and Chris Hughes. I wanted to try and build up in the same manner Chris Blackwell had for Island or Jerry Moss had for A&M.
I started and needed the help of a major, which was BMG. I needed their financial backing to try and take that on, but that didn’t work out unfortunately. The whole idea of doing an Island Records in the 2000’s was a lot more difficult financially.
To sign something like Doudou Cissoko or to sign some sort of oddball band or some North-African thing, which meant a lot to me in terms of music that I loved and thought would be a great thing to have on our label, became harder to justify.
What was your strategy for breaking artists in the beginning?
I just wanted to find artists that I really liked, which was running against the grain anyway. In 1998 it was mainly all these manufactured pop groups like Hear’Say and Steps. That was the norm, alongside leftovers of the Britpop era.
I thought that if I was going to do this I’d do it for me. I would create a label with the same sort of spirit that Chris had for Island and Jerry had for A&M. Or the same sort of spirit that Elliot Roberts and David Geffen had when they set up Asylum Records.
You signed artists that you really liked and you really wanted to work with and that you would somehow make successful.
Finding Tom McRae as a singer/songwriter, a lot of my friends and peers laughed at me. They thought I was mad. But the thing about music is that it’s cyclical. It’s like a clock; it’ll come around again.
There’ll come a point where singer/songwriters will become cool again. And in no time at all, that was the case.
What’s the reason for the lack of success abroad by British artists in recent years?
There is such a demand for success and instant success, and it’s very expensive to promote and break artists, and the returns are not as great as they once were. It’s very simply an economic thing.
People are looking to see if they could take an act and sell it worldwide. That is coming through. There has been in the last three years a number of artists that seem to have appealed on a worldwide level. But that’s what you really need.
Trying to sell a few hundred thousand copies in the UK isn’t good enough financially. Try to sell a few million worldwide.
There is this complete drive to feed a machine. In that drive there are artists that will sell a hundred thousand or two hundred thousand. Now a few years ago that was considered great, job done, and we can build on that.
These days the demand is to sell six or seven hundred thousand before we actually can make money. There are different drives and different circumstances.
Clearly, we all know the story about not making as much money off downloads. We all know the story about how many people are getting their stuff for free. It’s a lot tougher out there these days.
As an independent, can you afford to take more chances on artists?
No. At this present time, I have nothing signed to the label. I do look at things and I do get involved with things, and we do record still. But now it’s even more of a risk financially to me personally. It’s a lot harder.
I look with great admiration how Domino and XL are performing. They’re doing really great things. They’re clearly the best labels in the UK in the independent sector. Bella Union as well.
What needs to be ready in order for you to start working with a new act?
At this point it’s finding a songwriter and a vocalist that have something that’s unique. And songs that you think a number of people would appreciate. I look for people that are more imaginative in their lyrical content.
I listen to everything that is coming my way. But I look for those who want to be true artists and not some sort of packaged pop thing.
What does it take to grab your interest?
That voice and that song. Or musically if something that is just gripping, that you just think: “Wow, this sounds amazing! This is something fresh and different.”
Too often the first track comes on and it’s just like: “Oh, they want to sound like the Bloc Party or The Pigeon Detectives or Kaiser Chiefs.”
And you just think: “Pfff, it’s the same old stuff. Someone is copying. There is nothing individual and nothing unique about it.”
It rarely happens that you put something on and the first thing that hits you is just an atmosphere or a voice or a lyric that you’re just going: “Jesus, this sounds great! I’ve got to hear more.”
I do plough through them all. Hundreds of demos.
How can artists distinct themselves nowadays?
That’s the problem when someone is sitting down asking themselves if they can write something that sounds like Coldplay. Why? Why not write something that sounds like you?!
If you look at artists throughout all the decades, it’s the something that’s unique that comes out.
I remember the first time I ever saw Roxy Music. I was managing a band at that time, in 1971/1972. They were playing this gig in Sheffield University.
They were the support act. They came on and I just thought they looked the weirdest I’ve ever seen.
Suddenly they started playing and I thought: “I’m listening to a band from Mars! This is bizarre!” By the fifth or sixth number I knew we were in trouble because they were so unique, different, fresh, amazing and interesting.
And I have this band that’s an ordinary rock band that sounds like any other ordinary rock band. I knew that was going to be a waste of time.
People were just blown away. They couldn’t get over it. The amount of encores that people would have been happy with in the audience for a band that they never heard before was remarkable. It was just the most staggering thing that I had ever come across.
It was their second or third gig ever. No one had ever heard of them. This is a tiny support act! Where the hell did they come from?! Getting dressed up like that, sounding like that. Let’s talk about individualism - amazing!
Or I remember being taken to see the Talking Heads on a Sunday at the Roundhouse. It was the first time they’ve ever been in the UK. They were second or third on the bill.
I just never heard anything like it. It was just awesome. David Byrne’s voice, Tina Weymouth’s bass playing was amazing. These incredible rhythms. And these amazing songs. What the hell, it’s just unique!
Or the first time you see Pere Ubu. You’re thinking: “What planet are they coming from?!”
The first time I heard Tom McRae singing on his own with an acoustic guitar, I instantly wanted to get involved. The guy just has an amazing voice with amazing songs. I just sit there and work out what’s going on in the songs, what did he mean lyrically.
That’s what it is. It’s has to be unique, individualistic. It doesn’t sound like anybody else. The trouble is you can put on a Keane single now and it sounds like Coldplay. And you’re thinking: “I can’t work out who’s who here.”
Where do you find new artists?
These days I’m based down in Bath. So I stay fairly local. I go to Bath, Bristol, Oxford, Reading. There’s no point going to London because every major label is up there.
What’s the best way to target the UK market nowadays?
You need someone that looks great, sounds great, with great ideas and great bylines, who’s a really witty and catchy interview. Someone that’s smart and great at playing live, and has three or four amazing songs.
Everything else will unfold, because everybody is constantly looking for something that’s great, unique and different. Every radio station, TV program, reviewer; everyone is looking for something they can latch on to.
If you have the above, doors will open.
How much time do you take to develop artists?
Three years. To make a judgment over a period of time you need three years. You start building up an artist. That can take six months to a year to the point where you are ready to go into the marketplace.
By the time you worked that it’s time to come to the second album and away you go again. It’s about three years before you can really sit back and go: “Are we getting anywhere?”
How long does it take to get them to the highest standard?
That will take months. It depends on the act. I’m not too sure about the “Lets take this and bash it out and see if it hits” approach.
What is a hit?
You just know. You pretty much know when you hear the first chorus in the roughest form whether it’s going to be a hit or not. And then it’s just a question of having it sound right.
The days of recording an album for a year are over. That’s a fact. The days of recording an album for six months are over. That’s a fact.
Recording and having a better understanding of how to record and not waste time. I’ve seen a lot of time wasting recording in the ‘80s, and I know when we’re on that road. There is always that danger.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve only got a couple of things I’m looking into at the moment. It’s just very tentative. The last couple of years have been quite disappointing in being able to find anything unique.
I found a couple of things that were interesting but lost them to major label deals because I can’t offer as much money, which is shortsighted of those people I think.
Money is always a great way of making things instant, but what you get is not that unique. You need belief and faith and time to build things up.
This year I was asked to work on something, which was different for me. I got hold of the engineer Mark Fritz.
He and I restored and renovated some old two-inch tapes and we mixed The Clash Live at Shea Stadium concert, which is going to come out on Sony in October.
How big can your roster be?
Truthfully, it can have two artists, because of the costs. And if you break one then you can expand and get another one. You have to be careful now. The cost of breaking an act is enormous.
How big is your team and how do you work together?
I have an engineer. I work with Chris Hughes, who’s my partner as a producer. And then we just bring in someone to do marketing, PR, radio and TV. We just hire them in. And then we obviously have office backup as well.
Is it always your aim to break in the US?
Yes. I still have contacts over there.
In what way do you have to adapt to all the changes over the years?
Changes are always forced on you. You just have to live with them. The idea of starting out with seven inches, 12 inches and cassettes give way to this new thing of CDs. How bizarre! Who would want one of those? They look horrible!
You can’t have a decent album, and it doesn’t sound as good. Before you know it, you just do nothing but CDs. Cassettes don’t exist and vinyl becomes some kind of collector’s thing. And then the next thing comes along, and it’s downloads.
You just deal with it as it comes. I do think it’s funny, because downloads are in essence almost reverting to back to the 1940’s/1950’s when they used to have 78’s with just one side.
It’s literally the same deal where kids can download the one track, which is the one song that you’re after.
Albums only became really interesting in the ‘60s, when people wanted to have more than just the one thing. We are almost going backwards in a way. It’s just in a slightly different format.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
The Genie is out of the bottle. I would have loved to find a way of not having people go to Limewire and download all this stuff for free.
After 10 years of achievement for DB Records, what’s in store for the next ten years?
I’ll be looking at doing management now as well as recording. And being a lot more involved with the whole of the artist’s career as opposed to just part of it. There’s still the hope of finding something that is a worldwide success.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Interview with Richard Russell, XL Recordings
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