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Matthew Jacobson – “On the Streets I Ran” Interview with Dave McTague – the founder of Liverpool based, Mellowtone Records

A world without creatives is just a world. And a world without creativity in the music world is just Saturday night television. It is pretty easy to avoid Saturday night television, or television in general, after all, there’s a creative music world out there and it’s there to be discovered.

Those creating music need a platform to deliver their art. And luckily enough, in Liverpool, we are blessed with those building a secure supportive platform for artists to express their art.

Pivotal players in building and maintaining these platforms are the important and influential independent record labels, sitting beautifully and respectfully next to the faithful radio stations that play local music to old, to young and importantly, to new listeners. After all, the rhythm of life goes round – the turntable. Both of these are sat alongside their passionate and loyal friend, the live venue.

Walking the streets on a cold, or warm, Friday, Saturday or Tuesday night to a venue to see a singer or a band perform is part of the romance of music. Leaders in each town, or city, should protect these venues from rot and decay – and certainly, keep the developers and their never-ending cheque books away. If it’s not a live venue, it will be pretty much a dead venue. But dead for all of us and no river facing flat, or sky mauling tower block, will ever compensate for that loss. An artist’s dream should be a dream for life!

The independent labels provide the faith that the industry is achievable to the artist and their art. When this relationship is formed, it can transform the world for the artist and the listener. Vital independent labels and their music have played an invaluable part in the rebirth of historic, redundant cultural times; bringing them back to their feet and putting them front row at a gig.

Mellowtone Records are based in Liverpool. A label that naturally progressed from the successful Mellowtone night – the metronome for live music. Each night gave the chance for artists, bands and Djs to show case their work. The opportunity and spirit were all-inclusive; it was the platform for those to deliver their art to a welcoming audience.

Dave McTague, the founder of the label, has also played a pivotal role and influence with many projects across our city – from Liverpool International Music Festival to Africa Oye. And with a special list of artists on the Mellowtone label such as Nick Ellis, Edgar Jones and Seafoam Green, I was intrigued to ask Dave about the label, its nomadic birth, freedom for the artist, and the projects Dave is heavily involved in. Projects that enhance the community, the music scene and the City of Liverpool.

So, I met the man himself for an interview:

On your arrival to the city, what was your first impressions of the music scene in Liverpool?

Well, I arrived here originally to study, and everything just seemed so vibrant, and something I wanted to be a part of.  I was handed so many flyers, there were posters everywhere, all kinds of sounds, gigs, clubnights. I remember flyers for things like Liquidation, Chibuku, Cream, Bugged Out, nights at places like the Lemon Lounge, all sorts!

Do you recall any stand out gigs in Liverpool?

Too many to mention! Haha!  I honestly wouldn’t know where to start.  A couple that have stuck with me – Tinariwen at Africa Oye, 2004.  I had never heard, or seen, anything quite like them.  They opened my eyes – and ears – to a whole new sound. And number 2, One of our own, it was a charity fundraising collaboration at the Kif – a great gig turned into an absolute beast of a party, it must have been around 2006/7, I can’t remember! Honestly though, too many good gigs and shows to shout them all … there have been so many!

Mellowtone acoustic club nights showcased many artists, from folk, blues and also DJs. I feel this not only provided invaluable opportunities for artists, but this created, or enhanced the music community. Did you feel this community spirit on the night itself?

Yes certainly, and it’s something that we’ve tried to continue. We run Mellowtone like a club night, one with a family, a hang out.  For us, it’s about the whole evening, taking influence from dance music culture and the way club nights work, to build a night, build an atmosphere. We hope that people will come down early, catch the support, enjoy music from our resident DJs, and of course stick around for the rest of the night.  For us, the DJs, venues and the artwork are just as important as the live acts.  And of course, so are the people who come down! Along the way we’ve collaborated with so many different people, other promoters, artists, venues, festivals – the list goes on.  From that, we’ve built an extended family.  It’s a connected community, and part of the wider community/scene in Liverpool.

The Mellowtone website warmly states, the label was ‘ born from the spirit of the nomadic Mellowtone nights’ – this laid back approach, I feel, is such a refreshing change for music lovers. It enhances the music scene for many, as it seems the label is part of the audience and the music world is, achievable or reachable for those creating music- is this a natural approach which has organically blossomed into the label ethos?

Yeah, I’m a fan at the end of the day!  And so is Richard, my cosuin who I run the label with.  We try to be as open as possible, we’re a little community and we took that ethos from running the nights into what we’re doing with the label. Many people who start record labels are compelled to share music they feel deserves a wider audience, and I guess that’s why I started the night in the first place, the label was a logical progression from that.

Were you inspired by any other labels and why?

Of course, lots of labels, a few that spring to mind are Factory, Island, Blue Note, Trojan, Creation, The Viper Label and as well as labels impresarios and mavericks like Andrew Loog Oldham,  Alan McGee, Tony Wilson, Alan Wills, Derek Taylor … again, far too many to mention!

I feel your label lets the artist breathe, allowing them to express their core beliefs and their vision. I feel this is such an appeal for a music fan, so when you set up the label, is this approach something you focused on?

Yes, as mentioned before I am a ‘fan’ myself, so I’m coming at it from that angle.  We want to give artists we’re working with the freedom to express what they want, and how they want to.  But, as we’re working with artists who have a similar ethos, which makes it easier I guess.

Independent labels. for me, have always been part of the attraction to music. They keep the music scene and its records spinning, and creatives being creative. The feedback your label receives from music fans – are they appreciative of the commitment to the music scene?

Yes! It’s great to read the kind words of support. We’ve had messages from people thanking us, and it happens at our gigs too.  We just do what we do, so when someone makes the effort to do that it’s quite touching.

The internet can send artists and their music into the world pretty quickly and provides instant access for music fans. But a vinyl record, or cd, is a tangible product and for me, it is still my preferred route of purchasing music as I love to study the artwork and sleeve notes, this has always been part of the romance of music – do you feel there will always be a tangible product for music lovers?

I agree!  I love to read the notes, see who is involved, where it was recorded, appreciate the artwork. It can send you off on all sorts of journeys of discovery.  Personally, I’m not a format snob – I do use Spotify etc, but there is something wonderful about the tangible.  I think there will always be a physical ‘product’; you can see what’s happened in the same way with regards to books, magazines… the audiences may be a lot smaller than they were, but people who like them like them. don’t think we’ll ever see the days of sales in the hundreds of thousands ever again, but I do think there will be a small but loyal following who support these physical formats.  I hope so anyway!  Haha!

You play a pivotal role in so many other projects; including LIMF and Africa Oye. What are the yearly challenges to organising these events and what would you need to overcome these challenges?

LIMF – sadly, since it became a ticketed event, we no longer run the bandstand there, which is pretty gutting, I loved that weekend, it was the Mellowtone summer get together! Africa Oye – I’m much more involved with Oye than LIMF, and the ongoing challenge is to keep the festival free.  I’ve worked with them since 2003, and it’s grown so much – which is wonderful and beautiful, but it does mean it becomes a bigger challenge each year!

Africa Oye is beautifully and wonderfully celebratory. You must be very proud to bring all communities together to celebrate cultures. This event is loved by so many of us across the city and beyond. It must be a hugely rewarding experience to be part of the project – how do you feel after the event and is it straight to meetings to organise the next year’s event or is it a period of reflection?

It’s so rewarding.  On a personal level, it’s been a real journey of discovery and development – both in terms of what I do for work and the many, many cultures and musical styles I’ve been exposed to.  And it’s amazing to see so many smiling faces in Sefton Park, the Oye weekend really does bring everyone together.  After the event?  Tired, and a bit burnt out … haha, we’re are chatting about next year’s event the day after… often even at the festival itself!

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of setting up a label?

How long have you got?  It’s a rather complicated business, as businesses go, but it’s very rewarding and a lot of fun, so if you have a desire to do it … I’d just say get on with it!

And what does the future hold for Mellowtone?

I don’t know… we’ll just keep plugging away I guess. And see where this meandering journey takes us …

On the Streets I ran, please name three Liverpool streets that mean the most to you, and why?

1. Bold Street. I just love the buzz of it, and the community feel of that street.
2. Falkner Square.  OK, technically it’s four streets, but it’s so beautiful.
3. Devonshire Road / Sunnyside.  It’s where I live and I think some magic may live in this little L8 oasis too.


Main image credit: Typography by Laura Kate Draws, illustration by Paul DOnnelly.

READ MORE: Matt Jacobson Interviews multiple Grammy Award nominee FATOUMATA DIAWARA

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