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Tom Cathcart operates Last Resort, a record label born from the NTS radio show of the same name out of London. In it’s 4 year span, the label has produced a thoughtfully limited output of releases that all lead back to one unsuspecting town in the US Midwest that’s more commonly associated with birthing superstar NBA players than it is a new brand of melancholic jazz.
After catching up about our respective lockdown situations, we got to uncovering the anonymity behind Last Resort and the fated connection that would lead an unlikely union of Akron and London. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did Last Resort come to be?
The label kind of came to fruition because I had the NTS show, and I’d always thought it’s been ever easier to set up a label because of that. I had a good friend of a friend who runs a label called Astral Industries, and I’d asked him some questions and realized it’s maybe not as intimidating or difficult as I had thought. It’s a lot of admin really, and then it’s kind of like just finding some music you really like.
I think that I had it in the back of my head that I wanted to find some music that I really liked so that I could do this, and I kind of wanted to do something that felt new so I kind of wanted new artists. Luckily I came across Gabe’s (GS Schray) music, cause he’s been making music for years and years and years, and it seemingly hadn’t really crept outside of quite like a small corner of the internet. It’s still in a small corner of the internet, really.
Mexican Summer now, though?
Yeah, yeah. You know Matthew Kent? He runs a record label called Mana, and he used to do a mix series called “Blowing Up the Workshop.” The record label is really great, and he had done some artwork for a digital release (Afternoon Silk) that Gabe did which I was like “Wow, this is really cool”. There were 3 or 4 other albums just on Gabe’s Bandcamp. I messaged Matt and was like “do you think he’d be up for doing something?” and he was like, “Yeah, absolutely” and we just chatted and kind of went from there.
Gabe’s the loveliest man. He’s got a great sense of humor and, really, the label feels massively like a collaboration between me, him and Kit who does the artwork and is Gabe’s best friend. Kit is also half of Aqueduct Ensemble, and actually the players on all 4 albums are all part of Lemon Quartet. To me it feels crazy that there’s this tiny group of friends who are making this really particular type of music.
It is very particular, almost incomparable with the exception of maybe Durutti Column.
If people who I chat to don’t necessarily know the label, I don’t like saying “Oh, it’s like post rock mixed with balearic mixed with this or whatever” because you just sound like a, fuckoff genre fiend, so I always end up just being like, “Do you know Talk Talk? You know the later stuff? It’s kind of like that.”
".... But remove the vocals."
“It’s like a dubby version of that,” as well. It is a bit difficult to explain, and I should probably find a good way of describing it that I’m comfortable with that does a better job. But, yeah the label feels like a huge collaboration, particularly between myself and Gabe and Kit. I’ve kind of found these two artists who are really brilliant and have given them the keys to the car, a little bit.
Where’s that car headed at the moment? And how much input do you give in the direction?
Gabe’s working on a new album at the moment, which is nearly finished, and I hear stuff as it’s being made. We’ve just got a shared folder and I’ll go in and listen. Sometimes we’ll have a little chat about whether I like it or not, or what tracks I prefer.
Sometimes I feel like maybe I’m not giving it the critical eye that I should be, but the reality is, I love it all and I never really feel like I need to do any kind of heavy A&R’ing on it. There was only one note that I gave to Kit about something on Aqueduct Ensemble and that’s it. Aside from that, they’ve got a good idea when it comes to tracklisting. It’s a very nice process.
I think the artwork that Kit puts together is so good, too. He’s really given the label such a strong identity. What I like about it is it’s got these kinds of pastels, and there’s a bit of contrast, too, in that Aqueduct Ensemble one. The subject of the photo is quite different to the rest of it, the general vibe. It makes it quite striking, having that basketball hoop in the center there because it feels city-focused. But when you listen to it, it feels very natural and separate from the soundtrack to that photo would be, perhaps. I like it. I think it makes it striking.
When introducing people to GS Schray for the first time, I always find myself going into this spiel about how the artist is from Akron, and the person who runs the label is from London because I find the connection between you two so fascinating.
It is funny, Gabe and I chat on Google hangout most days, but we’ve never had a phone call. I was gonna be coming out and visiting him in Ohio towards the end of this year or the beginning of next, but that feels kind of unlikely now. I think it’s quite serious in Akron and that the cases are going up and up. The government here deal with it in the most awful way, and it seems like the government over there is very, very similar, but amped up on the “make your own decisions” type vibe in response to protecting others from the virus. I think it’s scary. I’d love to go out and spend some time with the people who I’ve had this kind long lasting relationship with.
It's coming up on 4 years since the first release, right?
Yeah, yeah, it’s been quite a long time that we’ve been doing it. The first conversation I had with Gabe was in 2015 I think, and the first album, Gabriel, took quite a long time for him to write. I heard “Placeholder Areas” really early on and was just so excited about what the album was gonna be like.
Soon after that Gabe made me a mix for my radio show, and before he’d sent me the tracklist I heard the third track, “Cut Grass 1,” from the Aqueduct Ensemble LP. I messaged him like, “What’s this tune? I really like it and can’t work out what it is” and he was like “Oh it’s Kit’s thing and he’s been making this with his neighbor.” I find out from him Kit’s neighbor is a piano tuner, an older guy called Stu and he was coming around and they just made an album together. I’ve had no contact with Stu at all still, and I think he’s kind of slightly bemused by the whole thing. I don’t really know what his perception of the whole thing is.
It’s kind of grown into this little Akron family of stuff. I love putting out the music and it’s been a pleasure to see other people enjoy it. It was amazing to see Gabe contribute “The Coin Blinked” to that new Mexican Summer compilation. You don’t necessarily look for validation in that way, but he’s a musician who’s been doing stuff in his own way and has been doing it in a really amazing way for years and it’s cool to see people starting to discover him. I think the more people hear it the better. I think it’s great. It’s a pleasure.
One of the other things I’d like to do is release more music. It’s great putting these guys’ music out but it has been a slow process so far releasing stuff.
One a year, right?
Yeah, it has been one a year, innit? I’ve spoken to other people about putting stuff out and there’s a lot of people doing music that I like but I just haven’t necessarily engaged in the A&R as much as I could or should have done. I would like to put some more music out this year. Maybe I can do two this year.
Do you think you'd filter the artwork back through Kit for something you're thinking of releasing outside of the Akron universe? Just to sort of keep the visual identity consistent.
The way that I’ve always thought about it is to have some flexibility. It’s really going to depend on who it is, but I would like to maintain what’s going on because it looks great. It’d be lovely to have a kind of library music label consistency going, something like Bruton Music where you have their records and it looks like a collection in a way.
You could even have the artists source photographs or pictures for you to send off and put through the "Kit Machine" to see what comes out.
That’s kind of what I thought would be a safe way of doing it. I’m sure Kit will have a clever idea about it. One of the things that I love that he does, as much as I’m always excited to see the sleeve, he always does really cool things with the enter label art. On Gabriel he did the drop of the “a” for the A-Side and the drop of the “b” for the B-Side. I was just like, “that’s a very clever bit of design you’ve done there mate!”
Do you think the sound or what the identity of the label has become from the expression of the first four records will shape what you put out from here on? Those records definitely do compliment each other, probably because they have the same players on a lot of them, but do you think you'll have them in mind with the output of another artist? Of it fitting this sort of "instrumental Talk Talk" vibe?
Yeah, when it comes to finding stuff for the label and stuff that I want to release, I feel like my radio show and what I play on my radio show is kind of a template for what I see as “the sound” of Last Resort. That does stretch it quite far, whereas at the moment it’s quite only a particular part of that. I listen to a lot of music that I wouldn’t play on the show because I think I’ve got an idea of what the show is, but like I love straight up pop music. I’ve been listening to the Haim album loads, but I wouldn’t play that on the show because I’ve got this idea of the label and the show is something like a particular part of my — it’slike a brief of whatever. There’s a feeling to it.
I would like to put out some more straight forward pop music, though. I’m working on something with a friend who I worked with years ago who’s made these really sweet, gentle pop songs with this kind of cool electronic production. It takes him a long time to finish the tracks and I want him to be happy and confident with it because I think it’s really very good what he’s done. I think lots of people will like it. He’s got this really lovely voice. You know that Lifted record?
I feel like the production is a little bit like that, but obviously it’s got vocals on it. I love the instrumental stuff that we’ve done, but I’d love to do some vocal work. I’d love to find some collaborators for Gabe and for any of those Akron guys if they wanted to work with a singer. I think that’d be really cool. Finding the right person is tricky, but it could be an interesting project.
I’ve got lots of big ideas for the label but it’s not my full-time job, so I suppose I’ve got to make more time for it. I find negotiating that has always been a bit tricky, and that’s ultimately why there’s only been one record a year. That’s certainly the main reason, and time was quite forthcoming over the lockdown period and I still didn’t get that much done! I’ve thought about doing a compilation as well. I think it would be a nice way of trying to stretch it a little bit and think about what other things could be done.
I'm sure you're sitting on some demos, too.
I get some demos. I mean I’d love to hear more, but I’ve heard some stuff that has been good, I just don’t know if I’d put it out, I suppose. I don’t think I’ve related to anything on that level yet. I like it enough to listen to it, but I haven’t necessarily run into putting anything out. It’s tricky because it takes so much confidence to send a demo. That artwork, or music or whatever you’re making in your bedroom is so personal and it must be a terrifying experience to send that thing out and either not hear anything back or someone not like it or whatever. So I respect it very much even if I haven’t put it out.
Do you have other releases coming out this year?
It all depends. I think we probably will have Gabe’s album out this year, I would hope. It just depends on what we do about records, and when that would be pressed and how much. I think that all will have been affected by COVID.
I think that with Bandcamp’s free Fridays thing, they must be the best company of scale in music. They’re so savvy and they’re so well run. They’ve made Last Resort a profitable thing in the way that it doesn’t pay any of my bills at all, but it’s made it where I don’t worry about making the money back. It’s crazy how people find you on there. I don’t think we get a ton of press or anything like that, but they’re amazing. It’s so, so helpful I think they’re such a great company and I love it for finding music of my own.
What’re some of your Bandcamp top finds from this year so far?
There’s a jazz record called Suite For Max Brown by an artist called Jeff Parker. People had told me it’s great and it just took that Friday’s thing to just finally get over the line and check it. There’s been so many things, but that one it’s really, really very good. There’s amazing other stuff on that label International Anthem, as well, and I just had never heard of it.
There’s an Irish label that did my show last weekend called Where The Time Goes. An album they just put out by a guy called Nashpaints is really, really good. I feel like it will slip under the radar and be missed a little bit, but it’s seriously, seriously good.
Something also that is really good musically is that Tara Clerkin Trio record. That’s like really out-there, super original stuff. I really love that tune called “Any of These”
The other thing I really love that came out during lockdown — I was just talking to my mate about this, actually — have you ever heard of Laura Groves?
Where’s she gone? She hasn’t done anything for ages!
There's that track coming out on the new Public Possession comp.
Yeah it’s really nice! “M6 North”. But she also did a cover of this Bobbie Gentry track called “Courtyard”. It’s beautiful. She’s just got the nicest voice. She’s so great. The DEEK thing, the whole DEEK label. I think with Bullion I feel like everything he touches turns to gold. I love that Westerman album, I think it’s great as well.
The stint at NTS, was that with the intention of wanting to do a show with them?
No. I’d just finished university and, to be honest, I’ve always been — with regards to professionally and what I’ve always wanted to do with my life — like “Ehhh, I don’t know let’s just see what sticks”.
I was helping Tony Nwachukwu at the time, have you heard of CDR?
No, I’m not familiar..
CDR was this night in London that happened at Plastic People. It was for producers to hear their work in progress on the Plastic People soundsystem. It’s cool. Tony’s a really lovely bloke. I was producing his NTS show and they were like, “We need some people to help run the station,” and this is like two weeks in or something. I had just started at that time. This was before the schedule was filled, and one afternoon Claire, who used to run it with Femi, was like, “Why don’t you go down and play some tunes?”
Like or else, it's dead air.
Yeah exactly. I had never done any radio before, apart from like an hour at student Uni radio or whatever, and that was a car crash. Mostly just playing golden era hip-hop and stuff like that. Then, over time, it shifted and I got an idea of what I wanted to play more. Now it’s not hip hop, and very rarely would I play a hip hop tune. I think that I was very lucky to get in at that point. There is a sort of serendipity to it. It was a very lucky introduction to it.
There is sort of a perceived anonymity or elusiveness to Last Resort, with the animated sketches of Gabe's character and the slower paced output. Is that intentional?
Let me tell you, that is laziness. There is absolutely no intent in that. Maybe it’s not laziness, it’s prioritizing.
There you go!
That’s what you say to your boss! Running a label as one person is a lot. Packing records, going to the record shop, doing the PPL entries, all that kind of stuff. It’s a lot of work for one person if you have a job. I’ve often thought about seeing if one of my friends would like to do some kind of collaboration on it to try and push it and make it something else, but if I really think on it I’d prefer to just be in charge of it by myself. Not because I don’t want to share the profits, but because having to do accounting where you’re both working things out is something I’m not ready for yet.
The label never started as a collaboration of any sort, besides with the guys over in Akron?
No it’s always been just me. I did my radio show by myself, and then when I decided to start a label after I’d talked to Gabe about doing something together, I spoke to people whose labels I admired or who I was friends with. I spoke to Nic Tasker about Whities/AD93 and he was quite helpful initially, and then I spoke to Chuggy who does the Emotional labels and he was very helpful as well.
To be honest, the main thing that you can give anyone, you can talk someone through the process or whatever and there’s all sorts of different ways that you can go about it but I think the main thing is just the encouragement I’d gotten from those guys to be like, “Just do it,” was great. That made a big difference.
That's really great to hear.
It’s not necessarily hard. I think the trick is finding music you really like or believe in and are prepared to put your money behind. Then you’re well on your way! It feels great to do it, and I feel proud to do it and am really glad to do it with people who are so nice.
Listen to a playlist from Tom featuring a mix of inspirations, label favorites, and current favorites!