Doing anything interesting takes time and effort. The amount of hours Duncan Sime must’ve poured into Red Deer Club during that space of time must be sickening to think about, but that’s one of the many reasons it can rightly claim to be ‘Manchester’s premier imprint’. Starting out as a club night before developing into a label, it has put out releases by a brilliant, eclectic range of artists, from the early days of compilations right through to limited runs of work by Jamie Harrison, George Thomas and The Moulettes, right up to modern day the radio bothering sounds of Young British Artists and Stealing Sheep. The output is different and rightfully revered, largely given voice to a range of artists that may otherwise have gone unheralded. It’s a landscape that will always attract the dreamers, but very few can claim to have followed their aspirations with quite the dedication Sime himself has – being profiled by the BBC, broadcast on Radio 1 and doing the hectic work of keeping up a a monthly night in the meantime, the horizon appears to be broad for the man from Blackburn. Over a ginger beer in Northern Quarter’s Common, he chatted a little bit about the past, his vision for the label and unveiled a few exciting new projects as well:
For those that don’t know about you, tell us a little bit about yourself
I am Duncan Sime, 32 years old and I have been running Red Deer Club for 5 years now as a live music night, and 4 years as a label. We ran the live night for 3 years, one a month, so 36 shows as standard, but I think it was 50 plus shows overall, there were sporadic ones that popped up as well. We started that May 2005, and stopped in 2008 and took a year off, then foolishly come back to do more because I can’t say no. I think I just like quitting.
So why did you start it, then?
I used to DJ quite a lot, and I got bored with a lot of my music. I was forced to play certain types of music in certain clubs in Blackburn. There was one point where I got offered to play Mr Scruff’s Tea Tent at the Big Chill festival on a Sunday afternoon, and I decided to play what I listened to at home – I just played loads of The Earlies and Nick Drake, thinking it wasn’t going to work at all. But because of that, a guy called Chris Coco asked me to do a mix for The Blue Room with Rob Da Bank on Radio 1. We kept in conversation after that, and I made that mix upstairs at Fuel in Withington because my equipment at home kept breaking, so it was set up there. It sort of snowballed from there. After that, started to look around for bands – first ones were a guy called Stickboy who’s a really good singer songwriter but doesn’t really play anymore, and a band called Northcross who were a weird folk, chanting 6 piece who don’t exist anymore, as well as John Stammers and Nancy Elizabeth who have become my friends. They were all free shows from the start, because you had to do that as the Fuel was across the road from where I used to live, so the basic premise of it was my living room in a pub. I wanted it to be nice and cosy, have your friends round and listen to music, and that was the start of the live night
And what about the label?
We recorded everything for a year, just to catalogue everything. I had a minidisc player and I thought ‘I’ve got to use this’, so I taped every gig we did and we made a compilation for the first birthday of bits from the year. It took so long to make – because it was a hand stitched hessian sleeve, we had to sell it. The plan was to give it out at the birthday, but I was like ‘we can’t do that’. So basically, the label was born out of having to pay my friend to do some sewing. I put it in Picadilly [Records] and they only had 10 copies, but they put it as Record of the Week, and we thought ‘this works really well, let’s do it again’. We put the next one out at Green Man festival and a quite a few people picked up on it – Huw Stephens played Nancy Elizabeth from it, and he’d bought it himself.
It escalated from there, with people telling me I run a label, asking if I wanted to put their record out. People started coming to me with suggestions – my friend was insistent I go and see this guy play at the Whitworth at an open mic night which I wasn’t too keen on, but he said he would bring him to my living room to play. If someone’s that insistent that they’re willing to come to my living room to play, I’ll go and see them – and that’s how I met George Thomas. And he was, and probably still is, one of the best songwriters to come from Manchester, and we ended up putting his album out. He had an idea of a trilogy of albums he wanted to put out over three years, and he’s done that, but it put me in a very lucky position where people would come up and say ‘I’ve got an album, I’ve got some money, do you want to help me?’
These days a lot of people want to start record labels first and then find the bands to look into that. Your process sounds a lot more organic.
It does sound a bit cheesy saying it was organic and natural, but it was, totally. A lot of things fell into place, and a lot of stuff fell into my lap and I was very lucky to meet certain people who wanted an opportunity to put out music. I work with very likeminded people, so it is more like a co-operative in that they know what they want and we’re both working towards the same thing, which is putting out good music.
Some people still seem to think that the music industry is a path to riches, even though it’s obviously not. But what are your experiences of putting out records from a financial point of view?
It’s not called the record industry for no reason, it’s because it’s an industry. The artists have invested in their own product with me and they pay for the whole recording, they pay for the CD to come out, and we do stuff on a split of a profit, and my investment is my time because I don’t have money myself to put into it. At the minute, selling stuff isn’t brilliant, but half of the people on the label aren’t bothered about that, the other half might be slightly different, but I don’t really look at that side of things too much. I know that sometimes you might sometimes be a bit more concerned with that, but we’re just having a good time with it really and things seem to be pushing in the right direction.
Have you got any major regrets over the past 5 years? What have you learnt?
I don’t regret any of it – that’s a good thing. I’ve learnt a hell of a lot. The label has also been a platform for my work that I do as well, because the person who owns common helped me with a little bit of art for red deer club, and then he offered me a job here, and the label has taught me a big ethos with how to work with people and that’s been great. The label has shaped what i do today now, so that is my main concern and the other stuff is built on top of that – other times, stuff takes over, like your day job, but I’ve learnt more in the past 5 years that I did in Blackburn for the previous 10.
How difficult is it trying to create something in a place like Blackburn then?
Hard. Very hard. If I knew the reason why then we could change quite a lot of things. I DJ’d there from the age of 16, 17, but people seem to have a backwards notion of ‘why would I want to listen to something different’. It’s so weird, and really frustrating, but there’s nothing to keep people there. People do try, and I’ve got a lot of respect for them, but it’s a shame that you’ve got to move on to a bigger city to do things. We can’t all live in little villages trying to change the world. A lot of good stuff is borne from that boredom of wanting something to happen. I don’t think you should be ashamed of your background – Blackburn shaped who I am now
What would you say that you’re proudest of over the past 5 years?
To be doing what we’re doing now, in the current climate – not just us, everybody – it’s a proud moment. And putting records out itself gives a sense of achievement.
Is there anything that you wouldn’t put out?
I think at the start I was quite protective and quite anal about certain types of music, but now I’ll put anything out. My ears have changed a lot of the past 3 years, I think that’s probably why I stopped the live nights for a while – I wasn’t getting bored of what I was doing, but I wanted to hear different things in a different environment. If you’d asked when I was starting out, I’d have never thought I’d be putting out a Young British Artists record, and I want to start an electronic label next year. People have asked why I don’t just put it out under the Red Deer Club label, but you don’t want to blur the lines too much. But I’d like to treat it slightly different, with a different approach and do it really small. I’ve been keen on that for the last year, hopefully called ‘No Hope Records’, the full title being ‘No hope, no faith, no point’, my tribute to Faith and Hope records in Manchester.
Do you think it’s important for record labels to have an identity in themselves, then?
Yes, for sure. It’s about branding – referring back to Mr Scruff again, his potato men are the most simple things you could ever get, but it’s a brand. I had a chat with him about making stuff simple and keeping true to what you believe in, and to stick it. You have to have an identity.
Would you ever consider selling out?
Times are hard and everybody needs a helping hand, and we looked at a couple of projects where you could do it on your own terms. If someone was to come in with a big wedge of money, it’d depend on the terms – I’d probably do it, but do it under a different brand, to fund Red Deer Club, because if you look at Warp Records who do stuff like Maximo Park, you can do bigger things but you can also concentrate on your little side projects that are a little bit more fun. Pop music is really important to me at the minute, and if we could get something in the charts and then make other stuff happen underneath that, that’d be fine. I’m not saying you have to be in the charts to be successful, but if a bigger project came along, I would snap it up.
What do you think of the Manchester scene at the minute compared to when you started?
It’s good. 5 years ago, there were certainly elements of lots of little groups going along, people doing similar stuff to Red Deer, but people seem to disband about 3 years ago and gone their own way, but it seems to have come back round again in the past year. At the moment, it’s quite exciting – people seem to all be helping each other out, it’s not a very competitive thing, and there’s a lot of fun to be had.
And the music industry itself has changed over the past 5 years. If you were to start again, would you do it any different?
We tried out a few free download EPs at the start of the year, but I still like physical formats of things, so we’ve only done our third 7”, and I’d like to go more into that, and more of the handmade CD-R stuff. I don’t know how much it’s changed, because I don’t look at that side of it much, but people say it and you kind of agree, but I don’t think we’ve been doing it long, we’ve only just started. This is like a 15 year plan for me, in a couple more years I could see if things have dramatically changed. If you look at labels like Domino and Moshi Moshi – Moshi moshi have been going for 15 years and they’ve completely found their feet now, but in that process, what have they gone through to get to where they are now? 4 years for a label is baby steps.
Is there anybody you really admired, or anyone who really inspired you to do this?
I was brought up heavily on 80’s pop music, so it’s my Mum’s fault. I thought it had gone, but it’s back now massively. There was on guy from Blackburn called Kyle, and he was buying Swervedriver and Ride, and it kind of passed me by. He was playing me that at second school, I was picking out poppier stuff, but he had all these records that he was insistent on playing me all of the time. I don’t think either of us realised it at the time, but I owe a lot to him.
What have you got coming up?
Release wise, there’sthe Sophie’s Pigeon album in December, then there’ll be a new Stealing Sheep 7”, DVD package in February. Young British Artists have a single recording with Weird Era coming up, I don’t know if it’s been announced, so I don’t know what we’re doing with that. There’s a new Awesome Wells EP or an album, and he’s going more full band, with loads of singing in it – he’s churning stuff out that boy, it’s gone from 4 tracks to 8. That might be in the New Year. That’s it really – stuff will fall into place, we don’t plan too far in advance. I’d be interested in talking to The Louche F.C., and I need to see them play live with their full line-up. That’s about it.