The Big Time Ambitions of Smalltown America
Co-founder Andrew Ferris on new acts and old friends
In a decade that's seen major record companies once thought to be untouchable collapse entirely, it's encouraging to know that after ten years in business Derry~Londonderry's own independent label, Smalltown America, is still alive and kicking.
As a venture that was founded in London purely as a means to get Jetplane Landing's debut album heard, Smalltown America couldn't have began life any smaller. But, in the years since, it has played a key role in the rise of many bands from these shores and from further afield, with a genuine devotion and sincerity about what they're releasing.
This authenticity and passion for music, coupled with the kind of forward-thinking that might have kept bigger businesses afloat, has helped Smalltown not only survive a transformative decade in music distribution and consumption, but progress with the changing times.
Co-founder and Jetplane Landing frontman, Andrew Ferris, admits that the label was lucky to be born in time to catch the digital music tide.
'We've never really known life without file-sharing,' he says. And, as far as the physical format goes, while the recent Record Store Day reminded us of the sentiment many still hold for the plastic product, Ferris believes that life is 'the real place where conversation happens, in a room, where you can sense the soul of the artist and whether or not they are for real'.
The live setting and candour of the performers has always been a principle that Smalltown has stood by and used to measure the wealth of talent they've worked with. Ferris recalls And So I Watch You From Afar's triumphant Ulster Hall sell out and LaFaro's set at Glasgowbury last year as just two high points of the label's lifetime.
Both Belfast bands have illustrated exactly the kind of hunger and raw dedication that Ferris looks for in budding bands. 'I want someone to want it more than anything else in their life,' he adds. 'I want an artist to believe that they can make a difference to people’s lives and enhance them in some way through their music. I want them to be good craic and not be a moron. I want them to respect the fact that everyone that comes through the door to see their band is a complete legend.'
In recent years Smalltown America has released debut albums from LaFaro and ASIWYFA that many already consider landmark Northern Irish releases, catapulting them into tours with alternative rock icons like Helmet and Them Crooked Vultures, the almighty trinity of Dave Grohl, Josh Homme and Led Zeppelin's John-Paul Jones.
Fighting With Wire too have earned Smalltown America widespread recognition for their album Man Vs Monster, which not only had the backing of MTV and Zane Lowe, but saw the Derry band signed to the major US label Atlantic, a worldwide heavyweight that brought them to Nashville to record the follow up with Foo Fighters and Alice In Chains producer, Nick Raskulinecz.
'It was cool for us to be involved with a record made in LA and Nashville,' says Ferris. 'Everyone got exposed to something really big, which has influenced other aspects of the label and how we now present our recordings.'
More than a year after it was recorded, to say that anticipation is high for Fighting With Wire's Bones of the Twilight might be an understatement, but Ferris certifies that the album is 'killer'. With a track entitled 'I Won't Let You Down' he is convinced it is 'the best thing the band has ever done'.
Fans will be glad to know they won't have to wait long to hear the new material, with plans to release the first songs 'pretty soon' as Smalltown continues to put a release plan together alongside Atlantic.
LaFaro, on the other hand, are keen to make up for the prolonged five year period leading to their debut with a second album expected this autumn, just a year after the first. With the title track 'Easy Meat' now available, the band are currently hunting for a replacement bassist after Herb Magee's sudden exit last month.
'LaFaro is a very different animal to Fighting With Wire,' says Ferris on their comparatively short absence. 'Indeed all our bands are very different to each other – in turn, we try to represent those acts to the media in different ways. You can see differences in the artwork, photography, video content that are designed to highlight those distinctions.'
Perhaps most distinct of all in terms of aesthetic have been And So I Watch You From Afar. The instrumental foursome have always been a unique and exhilarating force in Irish music and this year parted ways with Smalltown after an illustrious few years in the label's company, deciding to test new waters for the release of their second album Gangs.
'I was disappointed when ASIWYFA decided to release their second album on Richter Collective,' Ferris admits. 'Similarly I was disappointed when Calories decided to release their second album through Tough Love.
'In both cases, however, it was the bands’ decision to make. The freedom our label allows was the reason that they wanted to work with STA initially. I’m proud of the work our team did on the ASIWYFA campaign. It was a good project for everyone.'
ASIWYFA's new venture has created opportunity for the new blood to make a name for themselves. Fresh-faced Lisburn lads More Than Conquerors joined the Smalltown America roster after barely a year together, and with an end of summer Boots and Bones EP expected and a slot at Glasgowbury this year, Ferris is eager to see what the next year has in store for them.
As for the old stalwarts Jetplane Landing, a fourth album is confirmed to be brewing with old buddies Cahir O'Doherty and Jamie Burchell. 'It is not a funk concept album,' Ferris says, 'but it does contain references to the Spanish Civil War, my Da and Robert Nighthawk. Cahir has not begun naming his solos yet – so until then you will have to hold on to your knickers.'
And what about the decade ahead? It's impossible to predict what changes to the industry and our listening habits await Smalltown America further down the line, but as with the ten years past Ferris is always anticipating the label's challenges.
'The size of the organisation will fluctuate depending on what bands are on the roster at the time,' he concludes. 'We now have the capability and the systems in place to sell half a million records, and I’ll not really be content until we do that.'
With film by Aaron Connolly documenting the last five years of the label due for release later this year, we're promised a more detailed visual insight into the ups and downs of surely the most loved indie label in the country. Watch this space.