The start of this month saw the release of Orchestral Variations V.01 by The Separate, the final album to be released on Setanta Records. Recorded by a loose collective that includes producer Rob Kirwan, string arranger Fiona Brice, and a range of guest vocalists like Mark Lanegan, Martha Wainwright, and Ed Harcourt, the album comprises a dozen elegantly constructed covers of key songs in the life of Keith Cullen.
Cullen, for those not pining in bedrooms in the 90s, is the founder and owner of Setanta, the London-Irish label that was a lifeline for much of that decade. Setanta has been quiet for the last decade or so but has kept going, until now. Through his label, he midwifed a procession of pristine albums by the likes of A House, Brian, Into Paradise, The Harvest Ministers and Richard Hawley, while rejuvenating Edwyn Collins and even Evan Dando. Setanta brought The Magnetic Fields to Ireland and the UK before it was profitable or popular; actually, by the time they were profitable and popular, Setanta had let them go.
He was also to a large extent responsible for the career of The Divine Comedy, signing them in 1991, the year after starting the label. Sean Hughes once wrote a poem in which he thanked Cullen for Promenade, and more specifically for carrying the master tapes in the basket of his bike. Details of this poem are sketchy, and I’m paraphrasing, but Hughes, asked last week if he had written a poem called ‘Thank You Keith Cullen’, replied, “Gosh, I believe I did.” (Cullen: “Did he?”). On this sad occasion, State thought it would be a good idea to mark the passing of a milestone with the man behind some of the finest records in recent Irish music history.
The official end of Setanta Records is a poignant moment for a particular generation of music lovers in Ireland and beyond. But these events sometimes mean more, sentimentally, to people not so close to them. Is the last Setanta release a poignant, even sad, moment for you?
I’ve been pretty inactive as a record label for the last few years, so I guess not really. Having said that, I know there was a time when I felt over it all, and working with Josh Ritter and the Chalets kept me going for a while. It’s not sad really. It’s the past. Being reminded of what you did is nice, but I forget bits of films I love within 24 hours of watching them so I can’t say there is a part of my mind stuck in a nostalgia trip.
What inspired you to set up Setanta in the first place? Was there a particular aesthetic or ethic? Were there models, other labels that you looked towards?
Rough Trade was the only UK record label that signed Irish artists. The best talent comes from the back arse of nowhere, and Ireland filled that criterion in every way in those pre Ryanair / Magners Cider / Father Ted years. Putting Irish music that was not bad stadium rock on the map in the UK was the intention. It worked to a degree. Maybe it opened some doors.
Am I right in remembering a Setanta motto “none of your indie tat”?
‘None of your cheap indie tat’ was on a Divine Comedy ad we put in the NME. Most indie music was all rough around the edges then; there was nothing classy going on. At least that was my perception!
Was there a sense then in which Setanta was a reaction to other music going on in Ireland or made by Irish people at the time – the morass of post-U2 stuff that Setanta could hardly have been further from.
I hated the attention and big deals that bands like Cactus World News, Blue In Heaven and An Emotional Fish got, but there was probably a big dose of jealousy going on there too! Most major label signings are made by muppets who are looking for the next big thing. I had a policy of only signing artists that nobody else was interested in. No point chasing after the Emperor’s new clothes. In a way, those bands were only doing what was expected of them. Having said that, Celtic (Irish and Scottish) artists tend to be less insular than English ones. They don’t shy away from anthemic choruses, it’s easier for Americans to like them and if the Yanks like it who gives a monkeys about Blighty?
One of my abiding memories of the Setanta era comes is that glorious, hilarious, unlikely moment in the summer of 1996, when the Divine Comedy went on Top of the Tops in white suits to play ‘Something For The Weekend’. You must have a list of such moments when you stood back and said – Wow.
Em, I honestly don’t remember that! TV goes over my head, I didn’t see the video for ‘A Girl Like You’ until a few years after it was released. I hate videos. The fact that The Clash refused to go on Top of the Pops was a big deal to me.
Highlight moments: the Frank & Walters headlining the ULU and selling it out. The Divine Comedy supporting Tori Amos and Joby from the band putting a ‘thank you’ note in her blusher case. Having three nights of Setanta bands headlining a venue in Paris. I walked past the Lyceum theatre in London and got a buzz out of thinking the DCs headlined it two nights in a row. There is stuff like that, where I might not have been aware at the time, but it was a buzz looking back. ‘Girl Like You’ hanging around the top ten for weeks and weeks was great.
Are there Setanta records you are particularly proud of?
Ever the obscurist, I still think A Feeling Mission by the Harvest Ministers is a great album, as is Stooping to Fit by Catchers. Having said that, I listened to I Am the Greatest by A House last week for the first time in years and it still sounds great.
Can you say a little about late-period Setanta? It was quieter, but there were great moments there like Richard Hawley’s Late Night Final and Evan Dando’s Baby I’m Bored.
Evan Dando was very funny but off the wall and high maintenance. He was friends with Marlon Richards. He told me he liked hanging out with Marlon because Evan was the only person Marlon’s dad (Keith) didn’t approve his son hanging around with. It’s great to see Richard Hawley doing well. It was hard getting things started though. Mojo didn’t want to review his albums because they said ‘we don’t need another Roy Orbison’. I got a call from The Word Magazine two years ago, asking me for £500 so they could put a track from Lowedges on their ‘Best of the Noughties’ cover mount CD. I told them to fuck off. Again, they didn’t review it at the time. NME ran a ‘classic albums’ review of Edwyn Collins Gorgeous George album a few years ago, another album nobody cared about until ‘A Girl Like You’ was a hit. Do I sound bitter?!
I was blown away by Ed Harcourt’s version of ‘Something to Believe In’ by The Ramones on the Separate album. That song’s status as opening track on that album suggests that it’s a big song for you, and The Ramones a big band.
That was the track that made me want to make the album. The lyrics are great, but they are killed by the 80’s production of the Ramones version, and it’s not a very Ramones-y song. Neil Hannon covered it at my suggestion years ago. The Ramones? They’re underdogs. Underdogs are the best!