Most people are probably not aware of the record labels behind their favorite albums. That’s as it should be, according to 4AD label head, Simon Halliday.
“I think of us as being an invisible partner. That’s where we should be, you know, behind the scenes and just helping artists along,” he says.
Whether you’ve heard of 4AD or not, you likely listened to an album released by the UK-based label. The 80s were 4AD’s heyday, with albums by Bauhaus, Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Pixies, and Throwing Muses—bands that, today, others are still trying to match.
Any label anywhere on Earth would be proud to boast that it released the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, Bossanova, and Trompe le Monde. Those albums are so influential, so integral to “alternative” and “indie” rock, that even if 4AD had closed shop in 1991, the year Trompe le Monde came out, it would still have a place in the rock-and-roll hall of fame.
Which begs the question: How the hell do you stay relevant as a music publisher when you already helped change the game almost three decades ago?
One answer, of course, is that in the interim—throughout the 90s—you release records by The Breeders, Red House Painters, Mojave 3, and Thievery Corporation, and then follow that up in the 2000’s with albums by Beirut, Blonde Redhead, Bon Iver, The National, St. Vincent, and TV on the Radio.
None of those bands are exactly household names, but their influence on others is immeasurable. Only time will tell, but current musicians on the roster, including Ariel Pink, Deerhunter, Future Islands, Grimes, and Purity Ring are likely to have just as much influence.
But back to the point—how does 4AD do it? “I am just relying on our own taste in this moment,” says Halliday, the 4AD head. “However, the older I get, I do feel very respectful of the past.” Essentially, not trying to mirror what came before, but staying mindful of it at the same time. Another tactic? Ignoring standard definitions of cool. “Sometimes being uncool is very cool,” Halliday says. “You know, if somebody’s up there doing their thing and they don’t give a shit what you think of them, that transcends all cool.”
I love that commitment, being out of time, you don’t care, you’re just doing you’re own thing.
That’s a quality that the Baltimore-based band Future Islands has, according to Halliday. Indeed, Future Islands’ biggest breakthrough to date might have been its appearance on Late Show With David Letterman back in 2014, which caught on not necessarily because of the great song they performed—“Seasons,” off of their album Singles, released the same year—but because of lead singer Sam Herring’s, shall we say, quirky dance moves.
“Whoever’s in front of them, they’re like, ‘Whoa, these guys don’t care what you think of them. They are doing it,’” Halliday says. “You know, they remind me of James Brown. Just like, doing it, in front of whoever. They knock you sideways, and that for me is the coolest thing. It’s beyond thought, it’s just ‘We know we’re great. We’re just gonna do it.’ I’m not saying they’re not cool, but there is no sense, in their head, of dressing up a certain way. I love that commitment, being out of time, you don’t care, you’re just doing your thing.”
Kim Deal, bassist and vocalist of Pixies and Breeders fame, has that quality too, Halliday says. “It’s a good trade to be in. The coolest thing is to be able to do the naffest, cheesiest things with absolute integrity.”
Nonetheless, with such a rich history, it still makes sense to mine the past for new releases. Halliday said that he and his staff have been in talks with Kim Deal about doing a new Breeders album. “I thought that would be a great thing to do because Kim is so important to 4AD,” he said. But he’s careful to note that “what you want to do with those more legendary artists is make sure that they have a story now, and they’re not just a Vegas tour.”
Halliday was born in the UK, but has called New York City home since 2002 (4AD has had offices in Manhattan since 2000). He cites High Violet, an album released by Brooklyn locals The National in 2010, as “a really good moment” in his tenure as the head of 4AD, which began in 2007. The signing of Deerhunter, Grimes, Ariel Pink, Purity Ring, and Tune-Yards are other highlights of the past eight years, though, in response to the question of whether or not he has any personal favorites, he adds “It’s always hard for me to pick out one record, because it always seems ongoing and a lot of it seems like unfinished business. You’re never really happy. It’s always ‘What’s next? What can be done?’”
We’re not happy with them being mid-level bands. We wish they were huge.
All the biggest 4AD successes are ones he categorizes, unofficially, as “really big indie”—bands that became fairly well known, even massively influential, but not exactly worldwide stars. “You know, it’s like big indie rock bands. Of which, the Pixies were like the kings of that,” he says. “We haven’t had one, like, super-massive act, in a way,” He continues. “We’ve got loads of really, I would say, exciting, adventurous, original acts, without having one Arcade Fire or Arctic Monkeys. We’ve got a really solid team, you know. Put it that way.”
While he seems happy with the work 4AD has produced under his leadership, Halliday is aiming his heights higher yet—not for glory, but because, above all, he wants to believe in the bands he signs. Ultimately, if the bands you’ve signed wouldn’t recommend your label to other bands, then you’ve failed, Halliday suggests. Nonetheless, Halliday wants his bands to be just as huge as he believes they should be. And that, more than anything, seems to be the key to 4AD’s longevity: Never resting on its laurels, and always looking to build on every success.
“I do feel we’ve got to a place where we’ve got a load of amazing things going on, but being, I won’t say greedy, but ambitious, we want to make sure we get them to where they logically could go. We’re not happy with them being mid-level bands, we wish they were huge,” he says. “In a fair world, Future Islands would be as big as anybody.”