This year, Leeds-based independent record company The Leaf Label commemorates its 20th anniversary. To celebrate, it has announced a special 14-record box set and a series of gigs at Headrow House. I chatted with The Leaf Label founder Tony Morley about how he brought the influential label to Leeds, and what we can expect for the future.
You left 4AD to set up the Leaf Label. How did you end up moving from London to Horsforth?
I was at 4AD from 1992 until 1996. I started The Leaf Label with a friend as a kind of hobby. We put out about eight 12” singles over a couple of years. In 1995 I had a really bad road accident that nearly killed me. The accident made me realise that I really wanted to go out and do something for myself, and gave me a resolve to do it.
The following year, I was given an ultimatum by 4AD; they thought I should either concentrate on 4AD or move on. So I went out on my own. I was running a press company at that point as well so it was quite a while before The Leaf Label started to make any money.
Horsforth’s where we happened to settle; when we first moved up here I ran The Leaf Label from my house, now we’re in an office complex in the middle of Horsforth.
The label was focussed on electronic music originally, right?
Pretty much. Most of the early stuff was electronic, because apart from anything else it was cheap and easy, and it was a time when there was a lot of interesting stuff going on.
What prompted the change to today’s more esoteric roster?
Some of it was quite esoteric electronic stuff; some of it was more poppy. I think it’s still like that. Even if it can be musically unusual, most of the stuff we do has got a very accessible, melodic edge to it, which I think is what appeals to people.
In terms of the transition, it’s been very gradual. I’ve always released artists that reflect my taste. My taste is very broad; I used to be a DJ, and the label reflects that in that what we pick up is very diverse. I’ve always said that I don’t want to repeat myself, so I try not to sign artists that sound similar to each other. This means that every record we do is a new thing and a fresh challenge.
At the moment we’re working with Polar Bear, Melt Yourself Down and The Comet Is Coming. They’re all from a similar group of musicians, so actually at the moment we’re working with artists who are probably more similar than at any other point.
Do you think there is a ‘Leaf’ sound?
There is a kind of vague Leaf sound, but it’s hard to pin down. The music is connected in some way, but the artists don’t make music similar to each other.
I tend to like things where I’m hearing something new in it. I think more and more that it’s a new hybrid of sounds, and I’d like to think that the stuff we work with is putting music together in a way that hasn’t been done before.
The artists we work with have a very broad taste in music. It’s the idea of bringing together things that you wouldn’t normally hear in the same place. The melodic element and the artwork draw things together, although they’re all very different.
You mentioned artwork, which brings us onto the anniversary box set. You’ve got prints on each record using wood from a tree in Dalby Forest in North Yorkshire?
That’s right. The idea of doing a box set has been floated for some time. I must admit that I’m not very good at doing anniversary things because it all feels a bit arbitrary to me, so I had to be persuaded! But once I got the bit between my teeth I went a bit over the top with it, I think.
We got Oliver Bentley at Split Design to do the packaging and the design of the box set. Each of the records in the box has got a paper wrap round it, and each one of those is individually stamped with a ring marking from a particular tree that we’ve had felled for us. There’s a separate print in there as well that you can frame.
It cements the idea of the label being an organic thing. That was the reason behind going down that route – obviously the label’s called Leaf. We tried to do good artwork even when we were doing the electronic stuff – it wasn’t about crappy computer graphics on the sleeve. It was about it being organic, and in a sense it’s quite tactile.
I like things that I can hold in my hands and I’m a big vinyl collector, so it’s important to me that it’s a visual and physical thing.
It must have been a labour of love, because you’ve had support from fans in creating this box set.
That’s a big sell for people I think because it’s an expensive thing, it’s got 14 pieces of vinyl in there, 10 CDs and a poster. They’ve not come cheap, and unfortunately that’s been reflected in the price we’ve had to charge for it. But I think it’s going to be amazing once we get them through.
Are there any favourites from those releases in the box set?
Those releases in the box have all been selected because they felt like landmark releases for the label, and important releases in our history. They’ve been out of print on vinyl for some time, which made it viable to re-press them.
There’s a good market for vinyl at the moment and it’s nice to be able to put those out there in that format again. Some of those records only had a thousand copies pressed when they came out. There’s also records that did quite well and made a connection with other people.
Some of my favourite records would be the first Susumu Yokota album, ‘1983-1998’. It’s a collection of ambient work that he recorded when he was very young, along with some more contemporary pieces from the time. That’s the first record we released by him and what made me want to release his stuff in the first place. I think that’s an amazing record.
I also really like the first self-titled record by A Hawk and A Hacksaw. It’s much weirder than the stuff they did later. Those guys would come over from Albuquerque and stay in Bradford and rehearse when they did their early shows, so there’s a local connection too.
The things that we’ve released in the last couple of years, as far as I’m concerned, have been some of the very best things we’ve ever done, such as Wildbirds & Peacedrums’ ‘Rhythm’ and Polar Bear’s ‘Same as You’.
We’ve got a new record by The Comet Is Coming which I think is incredible. There’s also an album by Matthew Bourne and Franck Vigroux which is a cover version of Kraftwerk’s ‘Radioactivity’.
There are some shows coming up at Headrow House. Any you’re looking forward to attending?
I’ll be at all of the Leeds ones, and all but one of the London ones. The one I’m most intrigued about is Matthew Bourne. He’s also performing with Tom Rogerson, who’s the keyboard player in the band Three Trapped Tigers. He’s also a classically trained pianist. We’re going to be releasing a record by him next year, so he’s coming up to play that gig with Matt.
I’m really interested to see what both of them do – it’s always something a bit different.
The Leaf 20 box set due to be released in December. You can find more information here.
The Leaf Label gigs include: Melt Yourself Down. Friday November 27; Polar Bear, Wednesday December 2; Matthew Bourne and Tom Rogerson, Thursday December 4. Headrow House, 19
The Headrow, Leeds, LS1 6PU.