In the UK we’re blessed with a huge variety of excellent underground bands, particularly on the heavier end of the musical spectrum. No wonder really, considering that the UK is the birthplace of heavy metal. But where are these poor, helpless musicians to turn when it comes time to get their records released and into the hands of their eager public? Well, in the case of some of the UK’s finest: enter a little independent record label from Salford.
APF Records, named after its founder Andrew Paul Field, was founded in 2017 and has been steadily growing its roster of stoner, sludge, and doom metal luminaries to the point that if you haven’t already given them your attention, it’s time for you to take notice. With releases from the likes of BongCauldron, Trippy Wicked, PIST, Desert Storm, and Video Nasties already under their belts, and some fantastic records on the way from new signings, we caught up with Andrew to discuss the origins of the label, lessons learned from being in the record business, and what the future has in store.
When and why did you start the APF Records?
I’ve been rabid about music since I was a kid. In my teens I started writing about it, initially for fanzines, then at University I edited the campus music magazine and got to know the press team at EMI Records who would send me records to review. When I graduated in 1995, EMI offered me a job, so I moved down to London to do press for Pink Floyd, Cliff Richard, Eternal, Roxette and Black Sabbath (who were signed to EMI subsidiary IRS Records). Unfortunately, I didn’t last long. One morning Adam Ant phoned in to speak to my boss. I put him on hold and forgot he was there. When I realised what I’d done I tried to apologise to him, but he gave me a mouthful of abuse. Being a cocky kid I gave it right back to him. Mr Ant wasn’t happy. I got the heads up from a colleague that I was likely to lose my job that afternoon as a result, so at lunchtime told the team I was off to buy a sandwich and never went back. Six hours later I was on a train home to Manchester. True story.
Being young, naïve and idealistic I thought I could do things better than the corporate suits at EMI. Fast forward 20 years and I found myself with the time and resources to have a go. So, I took the plunge in early 2017 by persuading one of my favourite local Manchester bands – Under – to let me release their new album on CD. And that was how it began.
How was the first year or two of business? What mistakes did you make? What lessons did you learn?
In hindsight, at the beginning I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. That first APF release – Under’s Slick album – was just a run of 200 CDs and some digital downloads. But as time went on, I had to learn fast about so much: about recording processes and mastering, artwork, merchandise, licensing, distribution, promotion, and much more. I didn’t realise that people don’t buy music as much as they used to back in the day, thanks to streaming, so frequently had too many CDs manufactured and soon ran out of storage space. It was seat of your pants for the first 12 months.
The biggest cock up was not checking artwork closely enough on one of my early vinyl releases, leading to 300 records being manufactured with the wrong barcode on them. That wasn’t my finest hour.
But the biggest lesson I learned is that, whether we like it or not, money is a major factor in releasing music. It isn’t enough just to love a band’s music and believe in them. The maths has to work. Release something that doesn’t sell, and the financial hit can wipe you out.
Every now and then though, a submission lands in my inbox which blows me away. I live for those moments, I really do…
What is that makes you want to sign a band?
First off, I have to get goose bumps when I listen to their music. That’s the acid test. I will only sign a band whose music I adore. If it’s ‘just OK’ to my ears, I’ll pass.
Back when I started the label, that was the sole criteria. But these days I need more. They have to be the type of people I feel I can work with, who I’d be happy to hang out with outside of work. I need to see some commitment to helping me promote their release. The days where the record label carried all the burden of getting music in people’s ears are gone. I avoid lazy, difficult or arrogant people like the plague.
Unlike many record labels, you accept demo submissions. Have you signed any bands in that way? If so, who?
Yes, I welcome submissions from bands. The reality is that of the 70+ I get each month; the vast majority aren’t for APF. I try to listen to them all, and try to reply to them all, but sometimes it just isn’t possible. I have 28 bands on APF now, with not much room for many more. So, all my boxes need to be ticked for me to sign anyone else.
Every now and then though, a submission lands in my inbox which blows me away. I live for those moments, I really do. I signed Gandalf The Green within hours of them sending me their A Billion Faces single, because I was just floored by it. I basically begged them not to sign with anyone else. They have everything I want in a band: killer riffs, a clear idea of who they want to be, able to play live a lot, a strong aesthetic sense, and – most importantly – they are just the loveliest and best lads to hang out with.
Is there a common thread that all the bands on APF Records share?
I’ve thought long and hard about this because apart from the obvious – they all have guitars, bass, drums and vocals in their music – there’s not a huge amount which threads them all together. Some play sludge, others are stoner metal, there’s a bit of black’roll, and a soupcon of hardcore. But there’s also room on APF for alternative heavy indie with The Hyena Kill, the grindcore elements of Corrupt Moral Altar, or the thrash of RedEye Revival. And then there’s Under, who are unclassifiable – best described as ‘uneasy listening’. I know all my bands love Black Sabbath. Beyond that I think I’d struggle.
You quickly moved from CD to also doing vinyl releases, which is a brave move for an independent label. Has the risk paid off and is there high demand for physical media?
Risk is the operative word here. Vinyl is expensive to have manufactured when you’re a tiny independent label, typically £2000 for a small run of splatter LPs in nice packaging. I clearly recall when I pressed the button on my first vinyl release – BongCauldron’s 2017 Binge album – thinking ‘man, I hope people buy this or I’m gonna be in trouble here’ haha. I’ve released 13 albums and EPs on vinyl, and each one has been a risk. Some have sold well and made a few quid, others will get there eventually, and a couple have lost me a load of money. It’s part of the learning process for a label owner, figuring out which ones to release on wax, and trying to create an LP which is aspirational and thus people will want to own.
I clearly recall when I pressed the button on my first vinyl release – BongCauldron’s 2017 Binge album – thinking ‘man, I hope people buy this or I’m gonna be in trouble here’…
I wish I could put everything I release out on vinyl, but it’s financially prohibitive to do so. If I sign a newish band – like Voidlurker or The Brothers Keg – who have yet to build up a substantial following, I can’t risk spending £2000 on an LP release if only 50 people are going to buy it. I’d be broke if I did that. So, with those newer, smaller bands I offer to do a run of CDs and tapes and help them build up their following that way, moving them onto a vinyl release with their sophomore effort – when more people know who they are, and thus the chances of me recouping my investment on a vinyl release are more likely.
There is still a demand for physical media. LP sales are going up. Cassette sales are going up rapidly. CD sales are falling, but I release them because there are still many fans of that format out there. The job of a record label is to give people what they want. So where possible I release music on all formats, and throw in some lovely merch as well.
Do you foster close relationships with the bands you sign? If so, is that important to you? Why?
Yes, this is vital for me. And needs a bit of explaining.
I come from a generation where you didn’t have any of the access to bands you have now. If you wanted to meet a musician whose music you adored, you had to go wait outside the loading area of a venue in the hope you might get to see them walk past you. If they said hi that was the ultimate. I’ve always been star struck by musicians, even those in local bands. So, to me being able to hang out with bands I dig is like hanging out with royalty.
This has become inherent in my relationship with bands on APF. I want to be able to speak to them regularly, go have a drink with them, work closely with them, get on with them. In pretty much every case, I have a relationship with each band which walks a fine line between a working relationship, a friendship and pure fangirling on my behalf haha. This three-pronged relationship usually brings the best out of all of us.
It’s one of the reasons I don’t have any overseas bands on APF yet. I nearly signed a band from Iceland recently, until I realised, I couldn’t pop out for a pint with them on a Friday evening.
What do you expect from your bands?
Passion and enthusiasm for everything. From a label perspective it’s not enough for me for bands to just have kick ass riffs. They’ve got to really want everything that goes with being in a band on a record label in 2020: willingness to engage, play live a lot, promote their record, to throw themselves into all aspects of putting their album out in the world, to share my excitement for the whole process. If that is lacking in a band, I won’t sign them. If I only find out its lacking after I’ve signed them, I’m just plain sad.
Is there any release that you’re particularly proud of?
With all due respect and love to the other bands on the label, I think it’s PIST’s Hailz album. I’d been a big fan of that band for a long time (I was at their first ever gig). They had become mates. They were one of the bands I absolutely had to have on APF when I started the label.
For many reasons Hailz took a long time for the band to put together. It was written and recorded during a tough time for the lads as one of their close friends had taken his own life. It needed to be a great album, because it was dedicated to him. Then I took a massive financial risk by going full bore on it: gatefold sleeve, 180gsm vinyl, expensive PR campaign, full commitment. If the album had been average, or had tanked on release, I suspect it would have crushed both band and label. But it was released to universal critical acclaim, looked fantastic, sounded amazing, and sold beyond my expectations. A lot of hard work, money and energy was expended on that album by everyone involved. The fact it was such a success is one of my proudest achievements.
It was written and recorded during a tough time for the lads as one of their close friends had taken his own life. It needed to be a great album, because it was dedicated to him…
What was your proudest moment as a label boss?
It happened last summer at Bloodstock Festival. My boys BongCauldron had been booked to play The Sophie Lancaster stage. By far their biggest ever show, and likely the largest gig an APF band has played. The lads had decided, after almost a decade together, that they’d taken the band as far as it could go, and that Bloodstock was the ultimate way to go out. On the afternoon of the show I hung out with Corky, Biscuit and Jay and was filled with both immense sadness but also huge pride. I adored that band. I’ve seen BongCauldron live more than any other artist – 33 times. I was sad it was all coming to an end, but so proud I’d released their records and seen them become big enough to play prime festival stages.
They absolutely blew the tent apart that afternoon. It was the best I’d seen them play, ever. Then the heavens opened outside and it literally shat it down with rain. Everyone ran into the tent, and thus Bongers played their last few numbers to several thousand people. It was a beautiful thing to see. Then Jay invited me up on stage to play drums on Bigfoot Reigns with them, and I didn’t fuck it up. It was one of the best moments I’ve ever had, not just since APF started, but probably ever. What a day. What a band.
How have you coped and/or been affected by the Coronavirus pandemic?
My sales of music and merch have actually gone up during the pandemic. For those people who have been lucky enough to keep their jobs during COVID-19, who haven’t been furloughed, who have worked from home for the last four months…. Well, they haven’t had much else to spend their money on. Those customers of mine have been spending more money on music and merch than before the pandemic. Their purchases have offset the loss of sales from the other half of my customer base: those who have sadly lost their jobs, or been furloughed. Those people have turned to streaming instead, and thus the tiny amount of money APF makes from streaming has gone up as well.
If you could have released any album by any band in history, which one would it be and why?
There are a few candidates for this. If I had a time machine, I might go back to 1970 and get in Black Sabbath’s ribs about releasing their debut. I wish I’d started my label a few years earlier so I could have released Elephant Tree’s Self-Titled 2016 album. But if I had to pick just one, it would be Kyuss’s Blues For The Red Sun. That album was my entry point to the stoner / doom / sludge world. If I hadn’t stumbled across that record APF might not be here today.
Then Jay invited me up on stage to play drums on Bigfoot Reigns with them, and I didn’t fuck it up…
Are there any underground bands that you’d like to work with in future?
Yes, but I’ll keep that under my hat for now…
Finally, what are your future plans and hopes for the label?
I’m excited about the rest of 2020 and in to 2021. I’ve got new albums to release by Sound of Origin, The Brothers Keg, Possessor, Corrupt Moral Altar and Indica Blues. Plus, loads of APF bands are getting back into their rehearsal rooms and studios, so I expect a glut of other stuff coming my way to put out next year.
The one thing I would love for APF is that people one day mention it in the same sentence as some of the other labels I respect and adore. If someone was to say ‘I love Holy Roar, New Heavy Sounds, Riff Rock, Relapse, Heavy Psych Sounds and APF’ that would make my day.
Interviewed by: Tom Mcbibbin