Music from the 12th Isle via Glasgow’s underground.
Glasgow’s 12th Isle has been steadily releasing some of our favorite genre-bending electronic works since 2016. The label takes a music-without-borders approach, connecting diverse music traditions from around the world and touching on genres ranging from ambient, hip-hop and dub to drone, experimental and techno. Recent releases include Baltimore synth veteran Tarotplane, Greek percussionist Christos Chondropoulos, and Grenoble based producer Denis Morin, aka Vague Imaginaires.
Though the label’s Fergus Clark, Al White, Ruaidhri McGhee, and Stewart Brown maintain a bit of mystery around the underlying sound of 12th Isle, there always seems to be a story behind how these remarkable leftfield tracks from seemingly disparate places managed to make their way to the label.
Asked to describe the label, Clark has said: “12th Isle is an imagined world though we do draw upon Scottish mythology, which sort of ties into this concept of otherworldly music that we’re trying to promote. I guess we try to provide that kind of escapist outlet in the music we put out.”
While there’s an obvious connection to fourth world music here (Clark was involved with the excellent Miracle Steps: Music From The Fourth World 1983 – 2017 compilation), it’s clear that the label’s founders are piecing together an altogether different picture that’s as connected to dance and club culture as it is to traditional music, jazz, folk, and Hassell’s world, ambient experimentalism.
If you’re unfamiliar with the label, check out Pataphysical’s Periphera below for an introduction. Side A was a classic during the daytime deep listening hours at the ISC hi-fi bar.
To learn more about the label’s roots and inspirations, ISC’s Phil Cho checked into a lockdown Google meet with Clark and crew to chat Glasgow, global friendships, party anthems, and recent discoveries.
There’s quite a deep musical history in Glasgow. Can you tell us a bit about the scene there and how it shaped the label?
Fergus Clark: Sure, and thanks for having us. From the days of working class beat bands in the ‘50s and early ‘60s through to the post-punk scene and later the indie bands of the 1990s, in Glasgow there has always been a strong number of musicians both self-taught and trained that recorded and played in the city. I think all of our parents were inspired by these scenes to some degree.
Stewart’s family friend is Bob Theil, who made a very collectable private press psychy folk-rock LP in 1982. Ruaidhri’s mother has strong memories of a John Martyn concert where he was too drunk to get through more than a couple of songs. Fergus was raised listening to lots of Postcard Records/Orange Juice/ the Pastels type stuff around the house etc. and his dad used to collect dub records and work in a record shop that’s now long closed down.
None of these sorts of roots really shaped the label in a direct sense though. We probably have a strong grounding in imported dance music and old UK labels like Irdial, Radioactive Lamb, Pi Recordings etc. Local radio really helped us all meet and begin DJing together, probably informing the musical reference points we all share and contributing to the vision of the label as a home for various strange musics that we can’t quite summarise — but can draw links to in our own minds at least.
Since lockdown began a new station called Clyde Built Radio, which was founded by our friends Andrew Thomson and Claudia Vasiliu, has flourished into a massive community network that has allowed people on the fringes of the ‘music scene’ (whatever that means in 2021) to produce radio shows. The variety of music you can hear on any given day is beautiful.
I’m sure you’ve answered this in interviews before, but for those new to the label, how did the label get started? I heard it was a party first?
Yes, we were all playing together and Fergus had the early stage files of what ended up as our first release, playing them on the radio and in mixes etc. Starting a label after booking guests who inspired us with what they were doing and being fans of certain labels that had distinct identities naturally led to us going out on our own.
The Rubadub guys being friends of ours and Al (12th Isle co-founder and visual artist since day one) working with Firecracker Recordings and seeing the behind-the-scenes of running a label made it pretty easy for us. We were lucky and feel super grateful. We went into it with no real plan for longevity, so the way things have turned out feels like a blessing.
The 12th Isle roster is very international. You’ve mentioned before that you usually have a pre-existing bond with the artists. Can you share a few stories on how some of these relationships formed?
There are too many stories to mention really, but a firm favourite of ours is the Inkosi V/A, which gathers tracks from some friends who lived or live in our city — and then one of Nikolaienko’s tape experiments and the techno cut from Robert Bergman. Fergus spent some time in Kiev with Flaty (½ of the duo behind the first 12th Isle release ‘Thoughtstream’) and Nikolaienko and it seemed natural to use some of his material in some way or another. He does a great thing with his Muscut label and recently I (Fergus) have helped a little with his Shukai projects focusing on the music of Valentina Goncharova.
[With] Robert Bergman, we had lots of mutual friends already and have had some amazing cross-continent party times with. He’s an amazing, amazing DJ. Cru Servers, Grim Lusk and Luar Domatrix are all Glasgow friends — though now Luar Domatrix is back living in Portugal.
Denis (Vague Imaginaires) invited us to come and stay with him in Grenoble in 2014 for a few days to play at venues across the city. Stewart and him go back a long time. We met many crazy characters in that city and a local TV channel came down to one of the gigs and interviewed us for a news program. The next night we played on a nice sound system in an old Brutalist university building. The crowd was really fun, with 200 people in a giant conga line at one point.
On the final day we had a party out in the streets beside the contemporary art complex. Beside the turntables someone was crushing grapes with their bare feet to make wine in a giant bucket. Fergus left all his 7-inches outside in the street. When we woke up, they were luckily still there and amazingly not warped by the sun.
A year later we brought Denis to Glasgow to DJ at the Art School Vic Bar (RIP) and to come to Stewart’s wedding. We hired the crazy Frenchman a kilt for the occasion. It took another five years and hundreds of different mixdowns to finalise the Vague Imaginaires record, after we first signed the track “Deep in Blue” at a party during that visit.
Palta & Ti (Natal / Milan) were visiting Lindsay from Firecracker in Edinburgh and we linked up with them the same week. They came down to see us play a pretty low key gig and then spent time with us in Glasgow too and played us demos that ended up shaping the 12-inch we did with them. Those guys are so, so productive with their music making. Kevin (Best Available Technology) was a long-time internet penpal of Fergus and Phoebe (RAMZi) and Al had been in touch for a while before we invited her to stay with us and perform at one of our parties.
You guys cover a lot of ground with the label’s releases. Ethereal ambient, machine dub, experimental drone… What is the underlying approach to the sound of the label?
For us this is a mysterious process, driven mostly by instinct. Collectively we just know when a project makes sense for the label. More broadly we view the curation of the label in a similar way we would the construction of a DJ mix: These are pieces of music whose orbits align at a certain point of their trajectory. It’s quite spooky how immediate our responses are to hearing music and unanimously deciding on whether it is a fit or not.
Can you share a few tracks that inspired the label? Staples from those early parties?
It’s alway fun to reminisce about the special tracks from our favourite parties, those moments where everything comes together and makes it all worthwhile. This little list might seem all over the place but that’s the thing about the magic moments : )
The visual artwork for the label is incredible. In the early days of the ISC bar, people would always stare at the Pataphysical cover when we’d play it. Who is the artist and what was the process coming up with the visual aesthetic for the label?
DJ Crud has been a core member of the label since the very beginning – we were all playing together since long before the formation of the label, and Stewart and Al for even longer. Without Al’s art direction the label would probably never have existed. His vision has been a primary driving force in helping us all understand the project as we move forward with each release.
Even small things, such as the color spectrum the spines give off when the records are shelved in categorical order, through to larger design motifs and recurring patterns/island/flora & fauna imagery. The posters for our parties for sure helped give birth to the sleeve designs, too.
You guys are all quite heavy record diggers/collectors. What are some of your favorite places to find records? Any notable recent finds?
Fergus Clark: I guess I’ll answer this one as I can probably ramble about records the most out of the lot of us… I really like being in physical spaces when it comes to looking for records. Luckily through DJing travel, the possibilities for finding different kinds of music are endless, and it seems obvious to some but the way you can get to grips with a city by darting around from shop to shop is quite different to general tourism. Some memorable places further afield include Rome, Kiev, Nice, Amsterdam, Melbourne and Vancouver. Within the UK there are too many shops to list…
For Scotland: Mixed Up, Backbeat, and the now-no-longer Volcanic Tongue (what a source of weird and fringe music that place was for a teenager) and the also defunct Barnstorm Records. Europa is pretty good too, in a town called Stirling. I’ve found great records in Nottingham and Northampton too, where the soundsystem culture obviously reached mid-England whilst it never really blew up in Scotland.
Lots of good dub/reggae/street soul records are still spread across middle and south England. Those shops in smaller, out-of-the-way towns can be more fun than London shops, but there are tons of places in London I really like too. Special mentions to Reckless, Music & Video Exchange(s), Low Company (RIP) and Phonica for their support since day one. All the smaller spots I can’t remember the names of. And a massive recommendation for David at the Little Record Shop, too.
As far as recent finds go, I haven’t been able to get to many shops because of lockdown and not having left the country for more than a year. A few from local spots and a couple recent online scores are:
Just today I got the Jan Van den Broeke ‘Lost and Latest,’ which compiles lots of the great bits from his June11 and Misz archives. I first heard his music through Ziggy Nosedrip — who I later ended up working with on the Kiri-Uu / Olev Muska record that is due out soon. I found ‘Lost and Latest’ by chance in Rubadub, who obviously do our distribution and have a record and gear shop in the centre of Glasgow.
Finding records online is obviously a different process, but contacting artists, musicians, old distributors etc. for vintage stuff and navigating foreign sites has led to really lucky scores. But I’m also always checking sites like All Night Flight and Pianola, which do great jobs sourcing music I never knew I needed to hear. Goes without saying Red Light Records is also maybe my favourite pub in Europe! James Pole is a big influence.
What’s coming up for the label in 2021 and 2022?
The Christos Chondropoulos double LP, Athenian Primitivism, is just out. Following that is our first 10-inch single on the label which is by local artist Lucy Duncombe.
S A D is the duo of Vladislav Dobrovolski and Vasily P-SH, two long-time experimental music makers from Moscow. We bought their Udacha album when it dropped and it was an immediate favourite. We’ll release an album of their archival material and other collaborations later in 2021, as well as the eagerly awaited (or so we’ve been told) second album from Cru Servers, which will contain a bonus 7-inch of tape jams their dad and his friend made in the ‘80s. They worked at a short-lived television station back then. Check this out! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=waeDwUtHMAM
Into 2022, we have tons more planned. We can’t really expand on that because of the current state of pressing plants etc. Sorry! Blame the illuminati.