Jim Lister welcomed Leng Records’ main man Simon Purnell onto his VERSION show to chat through Simon’s 20+ years in the independent record label business, and to celebrate 10 years of Leng Records. Here’s a transcript of the interview.
Jim: For those who may not know you Simon… you’ve worked on the front line of the independent record label business for the last 20 years?
Simon: 20 plus years yeah, wow.
J: Working for labels like Ninja Tune, Nuphonic, Z Records, Claremont 56, Leng Records… Spacetalk as well?
S: Yes, Spacetalk as well.
J: But Simon is not just about the music, he’s recently opened a lovely new bar in Leytonstone, East London, which is where you live, called Filly Brook. How’s it going?
S: It’s going really well despite all the problems and challenges that everyone is facing in hospitality, we’re getting by.
J: I’ve been to Filly Brook and it’s amazing.
S: Good music, good wine, good beer.
J: Exactly, it ticks all the boxes. So, if you’re in the East London area, definitely get down to Filly Brook. I reckon in the second hour today we’re probably gonna have a bit of beer chat… Filly chat. But we’ll start with the music if that’s ok?
S: Yeah let’s go for it.
J: So, let’s start at the beginning, where did you grow up?
S: In a small village in Hertfordshire for the first 14 years of my life, pretty isolated and then I moved up to Bedford from the age of about 15, where I went to school.
J: What was the village?
S: Hinxworth, it was very small, there were no shops, there was one pub and that was it.
J: Good music scene?
S: Limited, table tennis was big.
J: You’re pretty good at table tennis, that explains a lot. So, were your family musical at all?
S: No not really, they’re more academic and sports orientated, my parents had a few LPs ‘Rubber Soul’, things like that.
J: Big album. So, can you remember when music had a first impact on you? For me, I remember listening to the Top 40 on the radio with my sister, pressing record and pause and taping it every week.
S: Yeah, I guess it was that sort of time as well, when you listen to compilations or when I got a Walkman and you could listen to tapes on the move. But not so much in the early days, it was more when I was in school and with friends’ older brothers who were introducing us to the new stuff that was happening.
J: So, this first track you’ve picked, can you tell us a bit of background about it?
S: Yeah, we were with my friend’s parents in a holiday home up in Sheringham in Norfolk. We all used to pile up there. There was a little record shop around the corner and I remember buying this album, Led Zeppelin’s ‘Houses Of The Holy’, in there, on the original press. I just played it to death all the time, so it was kind of big for me.
J: How old were you around this time?
S: I was still in school, so I guess around 14-15.
J: Pretty much the same time I got into this record, shall we play it?
Led Zeppelin – ‘Over The Hills And Far Away’ (‘Houses Of The Holy’ LP, 1973)
J: Definitely a big record for me and my mates when I was growing up. Big shout to Paul Haley, Paul Zanders and Ben Parker…. ‘Houses of the Holy’ by Led Zep. I have such good memories of listening to this album when I was 17/18. I know you’re a big Led Zep fan like me.
S: Yeah, I could pick hundreds of Zep tracks.
J: So that reminds you of being 14-15 in Bedford, at school?
S: Yeah, buying the album on vinyl and getting a record deck and playing it and just getting deep into it.
J: Amazing album cover too.
S: Yeah, it’s great.
J: Have you been to Giant’s Causeway in Ireland where the cover was shot?
S: No, I haven’t. Need to make the pilgrimage some day.
J: It’s amazing to go there and visit… so what’s your next track?
S: On the same buying trip I picked up David Bowie’s ‘Hunky Dory’. I could play any track from it but we’re going to play this one…
David Bowie – ‘Andy Warhol’ (‘Hunky Dory’ LP, 1971)
J: I was just admitting to my guest Simon that I don’t own that record, which is criminal really.
S: You need to get it.
J: That’s a big album for you, isn’t it?
S: Yeah, all the way.
J: So, what does this album make you think of?
S: Just those times of growing up, hanging out with mates, listening to it to death.
J: Exploring a slightly more alternative way of life?
S: Yeah, I was big into guitar music and indie stuff at the time so it fitted with everything I was listening to and getting into.
J: ‘Andy Warhol’ was a song choice by another guest I had on the show, Swifty, the artist. He came on about a year ago and he talked about how Andy Warhol had a big influence on his art career, and he played that track as well. So I really do need to buy ‘Hunky Dory’. Anyway Simon, what are we going to talk about next… early gigs?
S: Yeah, gigs. Bedford had a good scene of bands passing through, I think Oasis played there. But my first proper big gig… I remember going up to Birmingham to The Hummingbird which was a student union venue, to see Nirvana. It was 1990, before ‘Nevermind’ was released.
J: The ‘Bleach’ tour?
S: No, they were touring ‘Nevermind’ but it was before the album was out, so there wasn’t so much hype about it, so they were still playing smaller venues like student unions.
J: How many people were there?
S: I don’t know, it was a smallish venue.
J: Was ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ out?
S: I think so, they were just starting to blow up, the album was just starting to become big.
J: Those are the best kind of gigs, cos your expectations wouldn’t have been as high as they would have been a year later.
S: Yeah, me and my mates were into Nirvana and ‘Bleach’, and then going up and seeing them there… it was a crazy gig, it was my first introduction to getting pushed about on the dancefloor in the crowd.
J: I won’t tell you my first gig… do you like The Thompson Twins?
S: Of course yeah
J: Hammersmith Odeon, 1984… Thompson Twins… ‘Into The Gap’ tour.
J: I was 10
S: Did you have the clothes to go with it?
J: I had the rat’s tail… anyway, moving on! So that was one of your early gigs… but what made you want to work in the music industry?
S: Obviously a love of music, first and foremost. Being at college, working out what I wanted to do. I was doing a Business degree at the time but one of my friends was head of the student union up at UEL, and said that everyone should make the most of the union… so I was like alright I’ll do that. I started being the Music Editor for the college paper so that’s how I got in touch with a lot of PR companies and pluggers and record labels. And then I thought ‘OK when I get a bit of free time I’ll try and get some work experience at Ninja Tune’… one of my favourite labels at the time… and luckily they took me in.
J: What year was this at Ninja?
J: When did the label start… late 80s / early 90s? Coldcut ‘Doctorin’ The House’ time?
S: Yeah. Jason Swinscoe was still working there when I started. He was the International Product Manager.
J: I had a guest on a couple of years ago, Dean Ricca-Smith, who also worked at Ninja for many years and he talked about how Jason Swinscoe was just a guy in the office who used to sit in the corner. And then he came in one day, after being there a year or so, and said to Matt Black & Jonathan More ‘I’ve made a few tunes’, and they said ‘OK, let’s have a listen’… and of course that was how The Cinematic Orchestra started.
S: Yeah, it was ‘Diabolous’?
J: Yeah I think it was.
S: That was just coming out when I was there. So yeah, I hassled Vez who gave me my break, she was doing all the press at the time and she was my contact so I hassled her relentlessly to give me some work experience which she eventually did and then I did a day a week for a couple of years, just helping around and just doing whatever they needed.
J: And that was your entry into the record label business?
S: Yeah that’s how most people start, you get your foot in the door and do whatever needs doing, and make it work from there.
J: It’s quite daunting being an intern.
S: It is. Especially when I was at Ninja and there was Coldcut walking about and Matt Black and Jonathan More… and all the artists coming in and out of the office… Roots Manuva etc. All these people I admired, and suddenly you’re in there working with them.
J: I did some work experience for Gilles Peterson’s radio show, when he was on BBC Radio 1… about 20 years ago… and suddenly this guy that you’ve been listening to on the radio for years… you’re in the same room with him and you’re chatting… but you’re trying to keep cool and hold it down.
S: Yeah, exactly. Trying to hold it down!
J: You’ve picked a Ninja themed track to play haven’t you?
S: Yes… because my move from Ninja was to Nuphonic… this is The Cinematic Orchestra remix of Faze Action’s ‘Moving Cities’ which came out on Ninja eventually but was a Nuphonic record to start with.
Faze Action – ‘Moving Cities’ (The Cinematic Orchestra Remix) 12” (Nuphonic, 2000)
J: So the connection with that tune is that Simon’s first job in the independent label business was doing work experience with Ninja Tune.
S: Yep, I started at Ninja and then soon after moved to Nuphonic.
J: How did the move happen?
S: I’d made contacts through being at the college paper and one of them was Billie Jean de Voil at Nuphonic… who is now my wife… and she said they needed some help at Nuphonic… so I went in and met them all and ended up working there full time.
J: Late 90s?
S: Yes, this was late 90s. I went down to The Blue Note for a little bit, Hoxton Square mid/late 90s, and then ended up working at Nuphonic.
J: I never went to The Blue Note.
S: Well, a lot of people didn’t get to, I suppose if you are of a certain age you did.
J: I queued up once for the Andy Weatherall ‘Blood Sugar’ night, then I gave up queueing.
S: Yeah queues were around the block, it was 7 days a week programming so it was pretty special… you wouldn’t get it now.
J: I’m a huge Nuphonic fan, as you know. We started the show today with Faze Action’s ‘In The Trees’ and I could happily do an all-day show on Nuphonic.
S: Yeah, easily done.
J: But we’re not gonna do that! OK here’s a story I need to tell… I first met Simon through my wife Kerry. It was quite a big deal for me at the time because I was a big Nuphonic fan and when I first met Kerry she introduced me to all her friends, and they all used to work for Nuphonic it seemed. Then 6 months later, after meeting Simon, I opened an old notebook I used to have of contacts that I was gonna get in touch with to try and get into music, and in the back of this notebook was your name and email address! And of course we became good friends… so I had to tell you that I used to have your name and email in the back of my little black book!
S: I had one of those books too.
J: Whose names were in yours?
S: All the people from different record labels and PR companies.
J: But I never did get in touch with you!
S: You should have done.
J: It took me about 10 years, but anyway thank you Kerry for the introduction. So being a big fan of Nuphonic as I am… I would love to hear what it was like to be on the inside.
S: It was a great place to work, we had a lot of fun, it was a good time.
J: Where were you based?
S: Rivington Street in Shoreditch… this was before Cargo was there.
J: How many people were there in the office?
S: When I started it was Sav Remzi and Dave Hill… they set the label up. Billie had moved over from The Blue Note when that closed, John Atkinson was there and Jools Butterfield too. They were the core crew.
J: So how many of you?
S: Six of us. There were those guys there when I joined, I was the first new person to join.
J: Were you there when Faze Action’s ‘In The Trees’ came out?
S: No, that was 1996, I was a bit later, so when I started there the first thing I worked on was The Loft compilation.
J: For those who may not know… what was The Loft album?
S: It’s David Mancuso and The Loft party in New York which David ran from the 70s which is what a lot of people say is the blueprint for the way all good parties are run these days. It’s very influential for a lot of people.
J: Mancuso ended up, in the mid noughties, doing a residency at The Light Bar in Shoreditch cos I used to go, but you put on a Mancuso Loft party with Nuphonic much earlier didn’t you?
S: Yeah it was May 2001, when we did the party. I mean the album came out in 1999, then we brought him over, and it was the first time he’d been to London.
J: Wow. What was he like?
S: He was really nice. I took him for a curry on Brick Lane, he didn’t really like curry but he loved it.
J: Can you remember what he ordered?
S: No, but we went to the Famous curry house on Brick Lane.
J: So, The Loft album was a compilation of Loft classics. What was on volume 1 can you remember?
S: There was Risco Connection, one of my favourites.
J: ‘Ain’t No Stopping Us Now’… and where did the party happen?
S: The party was 93 Feet East in Brick Lane. I always remember we were gonna do the party upstairs, and if you ever went to 93 Ft East you know it had a nice loft room upstairs, but as soon as David got there he said ‘No the acoustics are all wrong in here, we need to do it downstairs’. So we had to move everything down to the ground floor room which had a lower ceiling and much better acoustics and he spent hours doing the sound, we had a full mixing desk there, and 3 massive speaker stacks and the sound was incredible, it was the best sound I’ve ever heard still to this day.
J: What made it so good?
S: It was the first time where I’ve been on a dancefloor and you can actually talk and have a conversation with people and you hear everything in the room, and he set up the white noise so it was delayed around the room.
J: The white noise?
S: He was testing the sound with white noise so he was spinning the white noise around the speakers to get a kind of echoing and delay on the music, so when you’re listening to the music in the party all the effects and the different parts of the song are spinning around the room and you get a lot more echo, and a more atmospheric experience.
J: My memories of The Loft parties in the mid noughties was that he kept the volume fairly low…
S: Yeah, we were trying to tweak it and turn it up while he was playing.
J: But that was his thing wasn’t it?
S: Yeah, when I say you could have a conversation on the dancefloor I mean you could still hear the music because it was so clean and clear, such good sound that you don’t have to blast everything out, you can still have a conversation and hear it all.
J: I remember he was the king of bringing the dancefloor back into land. For the last 45 minutes he would slowly bring the spaceship down, the tempo would get a bit slower and he would play really emotive records and you could just feel what he was doing. He’d reached a peak but for the last 45 minutes he was just bringing everyone down in a really nice way… together.
S: The classic journey set I guess.
J: That’s the cliche isn’t it? But when you hear him DJ… you got it. So, we haven’t got a Mancuso track queued up have we?
S: No, we’ve got one but not right now.
J: Do you want to talk about the one we have queued up?
S: Yeah, so when I started at Nuphonic I was listening to all this music I’d never really heard before and I was exposed to a lot of different sounds and styles. And when I first heard this track I was a bit like ‘Wow… what is this?’.
J: What year was this?
S: I think this was 1998.
Fuzz Against Junk – ‘Country Clonk’ 12” (Nuphonic, 1998)
J: So tell us a bit about Fuzz Against Junk
S: Well it was Andy Williams aka Yam Who?… and they did a few tracks for Nuphonic. They were in the studio making an album but it was the tail end of Nuphonic and most of it never got released… a few bits did.
J: Fuzz Against Junk did one of my all-time favourite Nuphonic tracks… ‘The Art of Being In-Between’.
S: Yeah, that’s a great one.
J: But the track we just heard was ‘Country Clonk’… a bit of a banger that one!
S: Yeah it was great, you can imagine hearing that for the first time… you’re like ‘Wow, what is this?’
J: Arthur Russell influences?
S: Yeah, all sorts.
J: Andy from Fuzz Against Junk was a massive Talking Heads fan wasn’t he?
S: Yeah, lots of influences.
J: Didn’t they do a version of ‘Born Under Punches’?
S: Yeah, with a Harvey remix… Harvey did the vocal himself on the remix.
J: Harvey’s got quite a distinct vocal style. So where did you go after Nuphonic?
S: After that was sadly the demise of Nuphonic and other labels at that time. Unfortunately it was hard for a lot of them to keep going but I ended up working at the BBC. I was at Radio 1 and 1Xtra for a while doing some radio production.
J: Were you there when 1Xtra launched?
S: Just after.
J: So… 2001?
S: Yeah Benji B had a show on 1Xtra at the time.
J: I applied for a job at 1Xtra as well, when it launched, but didn’t get it! So what was working at 1Xtra like?
S: It was cool, it was definitely more my kind of music. But I started off in the specialist music department at Radio 1, so you just work across different shows, I got to work on John Peel’s show… a bit of a fan boy moment meeting Peel! And then I went to 1Xtra.
J: John Peel used to do Wednesday nights on Radio 1. He was on before Gilles Peterson’s show. I sat in on Gilles’ show once and John popped in to say hello when his show finished… and I was just sat there going ‘Oh my god it’s John Peel!’.
S: Yeah you definitely got that vibe when you met him.
J: May he rest in peace.
J: So you were at the BBC for how long?
S: A couple of years I think. I was there just doing bits and bobs.
J: Bits and bobs?
S: Yeah, a bit of producing, assistant producing and whatever was needed. I was trying to get a full time position there but it was when the BBC was restructuring and the freelance staff were the first ones to lose their regular hours.
J: The BBC is a strange beast, I’ve worked with them and they’ve been a client of mine in previous jobs. They’re a world unto themselves.
S: Yeah, I was like right, let’s do something else. So I went over to Lovebox, Jools Butterfield and Tom & Andy from Groove Armada were running that. I went to programme Lovebox with them and worked in production.
J: So Lovebox is a festival in Victoria Park?
S: Yeah, it was just starting out, it was a one day thing on Clapham Common and then they made the move to Victoria Park and two days.
J: What good memories have you got of working for the Lovebox festival?
S: Well… Cash Money! He was great. Benji B played that afternoon too. We had the Spiegel tent, that was amazing and Mode 2 was doing some artwork for us outside the tent. It was good times.
J: I had a great moment there. Gilles Peterson was playing in quite a big tent at Lovebox on a Sunday afternoon. He was playing a nice set and then in the middle of quite a banging section of his set he played ‘Rock Creek Park’ by The Blackbyrds. I’ve heard that tune so many times and I love it… but dancing to it in a park on a Sunday afternoon with a thousand people… that was a good moment. And I think he finished his set with ‘A Message To You Rudy’ by The Specials. It was just a great moment… good to be in London.
So you went from the BBC to Lovebox to…
S: To Z Records to work for Dave Lee. I was there for about 13 years, running Z Records, looking after Dave, doing all his bookings and all the releases.
S: Loads of wicked comps.
S: Yeah, all the comps.
J: Shout out to Graham Luckhurst.
S: Yeah, Graham and Danny are running things there now.
J: And that was Crouch End?
S: Yeah, 13 years in Crouch End.
J: Big up Dave Lee
S: Yeah big up Dave. Good times, lots of good memories there. But I needed to set my own thing up so that’s why I left last October to set up the bar, Filly Brook.
J: Just going back a bit… where does Claremont 56 come into the equation?
S: Paul ‘Mudd’ Murphy, who is an old friend of mine, set up Claremont 56 in 2007. We’d been talking about music and labels and I’d been helping him out. And then when he was starting to get more demos that didn’t quite fit for Claremont, we were discussing setting up a label together, which we did … which became Leng Records.
J: Celebrating 10 years this year?
S: 10 years of Leng, yes indeed.
J: So Leng was an offshoot of Claremont 56… what’s the difference between the two labels, musically?
S: Leng is more aimed at the dancefloor. Claremont has its dancefloor moments of course but a different style… a different vibe.
J: Shall we play a Leng track?
S: Yeah, let’s play something that came out earlier this year…
Harks & Mudd – ‘Susta’ (Emperor Machine Lovers Dub) 12” (Leng Records, 2020)
J: That is a big tune
S: Yeah, it’s great.
J: Celebrating 10 years of Leng in style…
S: Yes, we had a few releases already scheduled for this year but obviously Covid has had an effect on lots of different things, but we’ve kept going forwards with our schedule. We put out an album with Daniele Baldelli this year.
J: The Italian DJ?
S: The Italo cosmic disco legend yep.
J: But the track we just heard was Paul ‘Mudd’ Murphy?
S: Yeah, Harks & Mudd. The Emperor Machine Lovers Dub.
J: I said to you off mic, it’s a good tune for driving. My wife & I were driving to Cornwall recently and we had it playing loud in the car going down the motorway and it sounded good!
So what are we going to play next?
S: Let’s have a little bit of a retrospective on Leng. And play some Mushrooms Project…
Mushrooms Project – ‘Hello Darling’ 12” (Leng Records, 2013)
Lex (Athens) – ‘DF Bounce’ (‘Ten Years Of Leng’ 2xLP, Leng Records, 2020)
S: That last track was by Lex (Athens) and it’s a new one… as yet unreleased. So it’s an exclusive for you. It’s on the ‘Ten Years Of Leng’ anniversary compilation we’re releasing in November. We’re doing a gatefold double album and inside the sleeve will be a bonus 10” and this will be one of the tracks on the 10”. Before that we had ‘Hello Darling’ from the Mushrooms Project that was back in 2013 and it’s a good indication of the mid-tempo sleazy kind of vibe that we like at Leng.
J: If I had to choose one… I think my favourite Leng track is probably the Earthboogie remix of Mushrooms Project… ‘Dubby Bolas’. I play it on this show a lot, it came out a couple of years ago?
S: Yeah that was a Record Store Day Special where Mushrooms Project remixed Earthboogie, and Earthboogie remixed Mushrooms… on both sides of a 12”.
J: I’ll never forget hearing Earthboogie play it on a dubplate at Brilliant Corners in Dalston a couple of years ago… and watching 200 people on the dancefloor loving it! So what shall we play next?
S: This is another one from the ‘Ten Years Of Leng’ anniversary album, and this is from Cole Odin… from our San Francisco crew.
Cole Odin – ‘Numbers Game’ (‘Ten Years Of Leng’ 2xLP, Leng Records, 2020)
J: So there’s a San Francisco & Leng connection?
S: Yeah with 40 Thieves… we released some of their stuff and an album from them. Amazing producers.
J: So where are we going next?
S: Into some Spacetalk, which is another label that myself and Paul Murphy run, with Danny from Psychemagik.
J: Can you breakdown how Spacetalk is different to Leng and Claremont 56?
S: Spacetalk is our reissue label. We reissue albums, singles and put together compilations. Danny A&Rs everything, and Paul and I do all the production and the tracking down of all the artists, which we spend a long, long time doing.
J: It’s a big part of your job isn’t it?
S: Yeah, searching for artists keeps me extremely busy.
J: You had to do a lot of that at Z Records didn’t you?
S: Yeah, it’s detective work pretty much for a good year or so, sometimes longer. It takes time to get these albums into the shops.
J: One of my favourite Spacetalk releases was the Crown Ruler Sound comp.
S: Yeah, Jeremy Spellacey from Crown Ruler.
J: I remember Nick The Record DJ’d at a 1BTN party a couple of years ago, that Mildlife were playing at, and Nick played a track from that Crown Ruler comp by Mike Fabulous called ‘Wang East (Instrumental)’. It sounded so good. That’s a wicked comp, great artwork too. I’ve got to say across all the Claremont 56, Leng & Spacetalk labels, the artwork is second to none.
S: Yeah it’s just as important as the music isn’t it. We want to get it all right so we spend a lot of time, money and energy on making the whole package as good as it can be.
J: Not only beautiful sounding records but beautiful looking records too. Are we gonna play a Spacetalk track?
S: Yeah we’re going to play some Morrison Kincannon, which was our first release, not this track though. Our first release on Spacetalk was ‘To See One Eagle Fly’, which is something Danny was going mental about. I found Norman Morrison, I tracked him down and he had released maybe a handful of 7”s in the 70s and one of them was ‘To See One Eagle Fly’, so we reissued that and while I was talking to him I said ‘You haven’t got any other music have you?’ and he said ‘Actually I do, I’ve got hundreds of tapes’. Basically he was recording all this music in the 70s because his friend in San Francisco, the Bay area, had access to a studio, so in the downtime he was in there writing songs and recording all these tracks with Terry Kincannon.
J: So he’s a singer songwriter?
S: Yeah and he was doing it from a really young age, writing all of these lyrics and then recording all of these songs… but he never got the break, never got the deal. So he had all these tapes and he was keeping them because he thought that someone would come and find him eventually and put it out so we went through hundreds and hundreds of tracks with him and got it down to an album of everything that we liked. It’s the holy grail, when you find these artists, not only did he have unreleased material he had all the multitrack tapes for all these tracks, so we were able to mix them down again which is pretty much unheard of for music that old. Some of these tracks are 50 years old.
J: Can you introduce this one please?
S: So this is ‘I Will See You Again’ which, when you hear it, goes back to my Zeppelin days.
Morrison Kincannon – ‘I Will See You Again’ (‘Beneath The Redwoods’ 2xLP, Spacetalk Records, 2018)
Mac & Monica – ‘You’re So Good To Me’ (‘Night City Life’ 2xLP, Spacetalk Records, 2019)
J: So after waiting 3.5 years to get you into the 1BTN studio, the show has flown by and we’re at the end of our time.
S: Yeah we could be here chatting all night.
J: Thank you so much for coming on the show Simon, I hope you’ve enjoyed it.
S: Thank you Jim, it’s been great.
J: OK let’s play one more tune. What shall we finish with?
S: Yeah, some more unreleased Leng stuff. This is coming out in November. This is the new one from Payfone. Shout to Phil Passera on this one. This is ‘Sofian’.
Payfone – ‘Sofian’ 12” (Leng Records, 2020)