Monday, January 11th, 2021
Simon Raymonde on Lost Horizons’ New Album “In Quiet Moments”
Surviving the Quiet
Jan 11, 2021
By Dom Gourlay
Simon Raymonde has been a prominent figure in some of the most innovative music to emerge over the past four decades. Whether that be as a musician himself, or in his guise as founder of highly respected independent label Bella Union.
As a musician, he is perhaps best known for his work with Cocteau Twins, who he played with from 1984 up to their eventual disbandment 13 years later. Raymonde has spent the ensuing years concentrating on the label bar his Snowbird collaboration with Stephanie Dosen.
It was around the time of Bella Union’s 20th anniversary that his most recent project, Lost Horizons, came to fruition. Essentially a duo of Raymonde and former Jesus & Mary Chain drummer Richie Thomas, a talented multi-instrumentalist and composer in his own right, Lost Horizons released their first LP Ojala at the tail end of 2017 to a wave of critical acclaim. A collaborative album that featured numerous guest vocalists performing a diverse collection of musical styles, sounds and arrangements, Ojala was the key that unlocked the door for Raymonde’s creative juices to start flowing again.
Lost Horizons are releasing a new two-part double album, In Quiet Moments—part one came out in December and part two is due out February 26 via Bella Union. Previously Lost Horizons shared part one’s atmospheric single, “Cordelia,” which featured guest vocals from John Grant and was one of our Songs of the Week. Then they shared another song from it, “One For Regret,” which featured Porridge Radio. It was shared via a video featuring Porridge Radio’s Dana Margolin. “One For Regret” was also one of our Songs of the Week. Then they shared another song from it, “Every Beat That Passed,” which featured Swedish singer/producer Kavi Kwai. Then just last week they shared the first single from part two, jazzy title track “In Quiet Moments,” which features Ural Thomas, an 82-year-old Portland-based soul singer, and made it to #1 on our Songs of the Week list.
Under the Radar caught up with Raymonde to talk about Lost Horizons and new beginnings.
Dom Gourlay (Under the Radar): When did you start planning the new Lost Horizons record?
Simon Raymonde: My mum became seriously ill around 2017/2018 so the whole of that year was spent driving back and forth to where she lives then moving her into care homes. It meant a lot of upheaval for her and a lot of drama for me and my brother to deal with. She eventually passed away, then in the aftermath of that I felt the real need to lock myself in a room and deal with it emotionally in whatever way I could and make music. So, me and Richie [Thomas] got together again for a few days, just jamming and messing about in the studio. Improvising with drums and piano or whatever came to hand. Similarly, to the first record, I just collected a bunch of instrumentals then brought them home and started building them. Layer by layer. There are some very different flavors on the record, which was always the hope and intention. Thinking of all the different singers is part of what I do already. I’ve done curations with the label and radio shows. Thinking about what’s right for this thing now. As a producer you’re doing that all the time, so actually thinking who the right singer could be was actually the greatest fun part of it all. I really loved that, whether it be with Porridge Radio or Ural Thomas or whoever. It was just totally varied on the piece of music that was the song. The tune influenced who the singer would be.
How did all the collaborations come about? Were they all willing participants? Were all 16 people on the record your first choices?
No, not exactly. Sometimes there would be a song I’d send to a singer and they wouldn’t be available. In fact, this record was a lot harder to complete and finish the vocals on than the first one. It just seemed people were either a lot busier or less keen to work with me. I don’t know which it was! So, it was a struggle. It took a lot of patience. It’s not like making a normal album where you’ve got material, so you go in the studio, record it, then mix and master it. This was almost like sending out a CV and getting no answer back from an employer.
How does the writing and recording process work? Not just with you and Richard, but also the collaborators too?
The way the process works after Richie and me have finished those sparse piano and drums recordings is, I’d bring them back home and start building up some tunes. Then once I felt a tune was at a level where I could send it to somebody who was a singer for them to actually fathom what it was and hear it as a song, once I’d done that, then I would lay out a template of where the music came from. Like the things that had been on my mind when I was doing the music. The death of my mum. Just this whole thing of death and rebirth which is what I was thinking about throughout the whole process. Grieving as well. I’d lay it all out to the singers and say, look, that’s where I’m at with this stuff. So, you can either take that as a starting point for your process in terms of writing lyrics and singing, or you can just do your own thing. I think it works best if everyone’s collaborating and doing what they want to do because they love what they’re doing. By the very nature of improvisation, you need to let it go, and give in to the whole thing. Not be too anal, or analytical about whether something’s going to work. You just need to let go and do it. That’s how I’ve always worked with music. Even as far back as the Cocteau Twins days, that’s how we would always write our music. Me and Robin [Guthrie] would get together and put it all together within a couple of hours. We wouldn’t think about it even though we never arrived at the studio with a song or any music. We basically pressed record and get on with it. That’s what I do now with Richie. I encouraged the singers to do the same. Whether they did or didn’t I couldn’t tell you, but it would be a very beautiful morning having that email come back from whoever it was saying I’ve done your vocal, here it is. It’s an unusual and lovely way to work.
With Ojala receiving so much critical acclaim from various sections of the media, was there always going to be a follow-up?
I spent so long not making music during the Bella Union period from 1997 through to the label’s 20th anniversary which was in 2017 when Ojala came out. That record was very much me taking my first steps back into making music in a project I really liked. It didn’t feel like a band but then did when I needed it to, i.e., when we played shows. So, I was in control of it to the largest degree. Richie was always involved but he’s off doing his own thing most of the time. He lives in Croatia most of the year so isn’t always contactable, so that was perfect for me. I’m not a megalomaniac, but I do like to be in control and have the space to make the music I want to make. This project will always carry on as long as we’re both enjoying it as much as we are. It was always our intention to do something else. Although what that something else was, with improvisation you never really know until you get in a room and start playing.
Will you be looking to tour In Quiet Moments in a similar way to what you did with Ojala once the pandemic has cleared and it’s safe to do so?
If you’d have asked me six months ago, I’d have probably said no. Partly because of the cost. We really did lose a lot of money doing that last tour and putting a band together. Seven people on stage, then feeding seven people properly and booking seven rooms in a hotel every night. Then you have a tour manager and a driver. We also took a sound and lighting engineer with us every night so it was quite an expensive set up, and because we’re a brand-new band we didn’t get fees of any real note—quite rightly so. Festivals were better because you got paid a little bit more, but at the end of it I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to tour the whole thing again. But we have booked the Scala in London for a show, so I’d love to do it again. I think it would be fun to do. I won’t do it the same way I did before, not with seven people on stage. It worked because I needed three different singers. I needed a male to do the Tim Smith and Cameron Neal songs and Hilang Child was that singer. Then I needed two different kinds of female vocalists to cover the bases of all the different tracks on that first album. Trying to work out what the live set will be between this album and Ojala will take a lot of work. I’m not even thinking about it right now! Let’s just leave that until nearer the time. We’ve got a show, and we’re definitely going to do it. What happens after that we’ll see.
Once you’d started the process of making the album, was it always your intention to have it finished by the end of ? Did the pandemic throw any spanners in the works?
It didn’t! In fact, in many ways it helped me enormously. I didn’t have a deadline. With the first record, once I’d got the tracks to a level I was happy with and the vocals were all done, I got Paul [Gregory] from Lanterns on the Lake to do the mixing. I thought I was too close to it all to make any real sense of it, and his skills in that department were better than mine. Whereas with this record even before we’d recorded a note, I knew that I needed to mix it. I needed to do it myself, not because Paul had done anything wrong. On the contrary, he did a brilliant job. But it just felt like I needed to do the whole thing myself and take ownership of the record from start to finish. I knew I could do it, but mixing is a very weird part in the whole process. It’s almost like maths, and I’m not a mathematician! Making the music is using the creative part of your brain, then the mixing is so detailed. You really have to zoom into each part like a scientist and make sure the sound of that part is absolutely right. Then you have to fit it all in and mix the whole thing together so it sounds beautiful. When I start thinking about that it suddenly dawns on me, I can’t do it. So, I sent my mixes to Paul and asked him what he thought, because he has such a good ear and is so honest, he’ll tell me whether it is. He passed them, so I just managed to fight my own impatience, then concentrate and focus on mixing and it took me months. It really did, and the pandemic was brilliant because it gave me so much more time than I would probably have given myself before. Because no one’s waiting on this record. No one’s sitting around asking, “Where is it?” Because the record label is me. So, I knew because I couldn’t go anywhere the best use of my time was to come in here; I’ve got a studio in the garden and I’d just go in there every day. Really focus on the mixing then go out and put it on in my car. Drive about a bit and have a listen to the mixes, because it’s always good to listen to something new on a system you’re used to. Then I’d come back and make a few little tweaks. Then move onto the next track and continue like this, back and forth until I finally got to the point where I loved each mix and eventually the album was complete. That’s how it worked.
Does the level of quality control differ when it’s your own music to how it would if you were deciding on whether to put another artist’s music out on the label?
I obviously have a quality control part of my brain, but with this I did speak to Paul [Gregory] and also my wife to ask what they thought as well as the rest of the Bella Union team for their feedback. Because I could be as self-indulgent as I wanted with it. The first album has 15 songs and this one 16, so I did fear for my life. Because I know most press officers will say that’s way too many and people won’t listen to it, which I take on board. But at the end of the day, I felt this was the right way to go. There aren’t four tracks on here that are just filler. I love them all, and I want them all on the record. It may well ruin its chances of any commercial success, but I literally couldn’t care less. That’s not what I’m doing this for. I’m not making it for anyone else’s benefit other than my own.
Was that one of the reasons why you chose to release the album in two segments? How did those two segments get split? How did you decide which would be in the first half before Christmas then which would be left until the album’s full release in February?
It was extremely difficult! Tracklistings are one of the things most bands hate the most. You hear a lot of different opinions saying that should be first or that should be last. Whereas I’ve always tried to list them as if I’m watching a movie. How you tell the story of a film from start to finish. Having a few moments of drama then pulling it all back to something a little more serene but still taking you on a journey. So, I approached it like that to start with, but then when I talked to everyone about how we were going to put this record out. The usual standard way is to put out two singles first, maybe sometimes three or a track online, then your album comes out. Generally, the period from the day you announce the record to the day you release it tends to be three months, if you’re lucky. I just thought that was way too quick for this. The first track we released was The Hempolics track (“I Woke Up With An Open Heart”) then the second was the one Tim Smith sings on (“Grey Tower”), which are both great. But I didn’t want people thinking those two songs were just representative of the whole album, because they aren’t. There’s 16 different singers, so no way you can possibly explain what’s going on by releasing just two singles. So, I thought the best way to release it was to have as many tracks out as possible before the record came out, because there are 16. So, I knew we could easily get away with having five or six songs out there because that will still leave 10 or 11 no one’s heard. In doing that I thought we’d give people a better chance to understand the diversity on the record, while also finding a thread that links the whole thing together. The idea of doing it in two parts came a bit later as a way of not bombarding people with 16 tracks and just expecting people to go and buy the record on the day of release. It’s hard enough to get people to go and buy records these days. You need to have as much information out there as possible. So, I figured the digital, eight track part one was a good idea, and then follow with the full album in February. Why are those eight at the beginning and the other eight in the second half? That’s just part of a strategy I worked out with the team. Sometimes you bounce ideas back and forth. I would have loved the Ural Thomas track to have come out earlier, but the way we worked it out was the timeline. It just felt if we start afresh in the new year after those eight songs have come out with that Ural Thomas track it will really bring a whole new raft of people on board.
By putting out an album of this nature, it’s probably fair to say everyone will have their own personal favorite. Whether that be down to the vocalist or the arrangement.
That is the beauty of these kind of records. You have all these different voices, different tones and different styles. I love that part of it. It’s not as if I wrote the parts specifically for the singers, even though sometimes it feels a bit like that’s how it was. What we’ve also done which was a big change from before—and probably because of the pandemic and lack of the vision of a live set—was doing a video for every single song. That’s been amazing fun and partly down to all the artists being so great. So willing to make videos at home on their own and send them in. Then I would start adding some textures and layers to the videos they sent or in a couple of cases, have them professionally made. So that’s been another part of it I’ve really enjoyed.
When are you planning to release all 16 videos?
The other thing I was conscious of was the lack of promotional opportunities we’d have in the run up to releasing the album. Previously, you’d have gone out for a couple of weeks doing in-stores in record shops like Jumbo in Leeds or Rough Trade in Nottingham up to the day of release. Meeting people then playing a little intimate show followed by a tour then usually another single accompanied by a video. Even that process out over a six months period and that’s your typical album campaign. Since the pandemic, you put out your album pretty much on day one and that’s it. There is nothing else. Radio have given you airplay for your two singles then that’s it. The printed and online press is out there. No gigs to support any of it so that’s it. That wasn’t going to work for me because people are going to need to be discovering this record all year. If you focus everything on this one day of release there’ll be an awful lot of people that won’t know about it and miss out. So, the idea was to use seven or eight videos up front, then after the full release to drip feed a new video out every few weeks. Just to keep the interest there and hopefully bring a few more people on board throughout the year. Whether that happens or not and whether anyone’s even bothered isn’t something I can control. But I can put them out there even if how they’re perceived and received is out of my hands. I thought that was a smart way of combating the lack of in stores and live shows.
The impact of the pandemic on the music industry has been incredibly severe. Do you see this as having some positives in at least making the industry recognize that it has to change the way it operates in the future?
Definitely. It’s like starting from scratch all over again. Whilst it’s very easy to sit and moan about it, and a lot of people are justified in moaning about shows or tours being postponed or cancelled leading to a lack of income, which is devastating. We’re all in the same boat, whether it’s our industry or any other industry. Everyone’s got to reset, and I don’t think that’s sunk in because there’s so much wrong with this industry. If you’re getting into this from the beginning thinking you’re going to be making lots of money then you’re an idiot. You join a band because it’s a fun thing to do. Because you’ve got something to say and need to get out there. Because you want to go out and play shows, do all the stuff that being in a band is all about. No one’s thinking about the money they’re going to make. So why all of a sudden are you complaining about the lack of money you’re not getting from the shows? Once you’ve complained about it, okay, time to move on. To be creative and innovative, come up with other ways of making it work for you. Whether that means borrowing a computer off your parents and doing it in their back room, it doesn’t matter. You just have to be innovative. I just remember back to the days when I first started out and I think we need to get back to that a little bit. I didn’t have enough money to buy a pedal so I borrowed one. You’ve got to just get back to basics and I think some really great stuff will come out of that over the next couple of years.
Has the pandemic impacted on how you run your record label, or even sell music from the Bella Union shop?
Absolutely. It’s certainly afforded us time to focus on the online side of things. The record shop in Brighton is very much our HQ down here. People would come and say hello and the shop was a real focal point for bands to come and play in stores. We’d have a week of events planned during The Great Escape. We loved that thing of our shop being a physical retail manifestation of what we do and the kids we have working in the shop are all amazing. This pandemic has wiped all that away. We’ve hardly spent any days in the shop, maybe a couple in September when things went back to normal for a little while. So, we had to rethink that side of things and basically created a whole Bella Union vinyl shop website that only features the stuff on sale in the record shop. Signed stuff, our own merch, basically the entire inventory of everything that exists in our tiny little shop in Brighton. That’s been a whole new thing for us. It’s taken several months to design the website. My wife did it here at home. There’s been a lot of time to be able to take stock of where we’re at as a company and look at things we can do to service our customers better. We do free deliveries to anyone within 40 minutes of Brighton. I just take bags out myself in the car and leave them on people’s doorsteps. That’s been a great thing to do during the lockdown. It gets me out of the house. You’ve got to keep thinking and looking at ways to improve what you do. I’m 58 so I haven’t got the energy levels of a teenager when it comes to trying to reinvent the wheel. I’m too old for that. But I think there are lots of things we can do, just on a micro level that will be fun and make things more pleasurable for our customers.
Brighton’s always engineered vibrant creative arts and music scenes. Do you see those continuing to thrive in a post-COVID world?
I hope so. This time last year I felt really positive about the Brighton music scene. That healthy competition that doesn’t breed resentment at other people’s success. People supporting each other and attending each other’s gigs. Cheering each other on. I really love that about Brighton. It’s something I’ve felt since moving down here in 2012. Brighton has a very supportive music community. There’s some really great promoters working down here. They know they won’t get rich overnight yet they’re still putting on these gigs whether there’s 20 or 30 people there. Just because they really believe in the bands. Then the bands truly appreciate that, and there’s a lovely vibe about the whole thing. Since the pandemic it’s removed that whole community so it’s hard to be sure it’s still going to be there when we come back. Because I haven’t seen people to know whether things are still okay or to know if they’re even okay. I’ not sure all the venues will still be there, so it is a bit worrying in that sense. But Brighton is a resilient town. People will make it work, and there’s enough great music here. Me and my wife manage Penelope Isles and they’ve just finished their new album. That’s been a wonderful thing to be involved with during the pandemic. The timing has been incredible for them. They literally got back from a massive tour of the U.S. on March 2nd, then pretty much went straight into lockdown. They’d already booked an Air BnB place in Cornwall to go and do some writing and recording so that all worked out beautifully. They ended up staying way longer than they were meant to! Now they have an absolutely blinding record they’ve made so there’s lots of upsides. But how the Brighton community flourishes in the future I’m not 100% sure, but I hope it will.
When are you looking to release the Penelope Isles LP?
We haven’t got a date on it yet because things have been shifting so much. They’re a band where the live plot is significantly important. It doesn’t make any sense for them to be putting out a record at a time when they can’t play shows to support it.
What advice would you give to a new band just starting out, especially in the current climate?
I wouldn’t tell anyone what to do or what not to do. I already know what I know from the life that I’ve lived. I don’t profess to knowing the right way or the wrong way. I just basically let people know that I will support them and that they should follow their nose. I’ve always got by in everything—whether its relationships or music—by following my nose. Following my guts, and I think that’s something people tend to forget about. People spend too much time on the internet looking for an answer here or an answer there. There isn’t an answer. You just have to go with the flow and do what your heart tells you to do. I think bands sometimes want to read the book about how to be in a band when there shouldn’t be a book. You shouldn’t be going to music college to learn about how to be in a band. You just have to do it, and not be so safe. Not be so formulaic. I’d just like the idea of a bit of anarchy about the whole thing. Bands taking massive risks and just doing what they want to do and not worrying about the consequences. I feel the music business has become quite safe and middle class. It’s important that people don’t forget who they are or where they are or feel like they need to fit into a system. The record companies are hugely to blame for that. The music industry is hugely to blame for that. The algorithm world and whole system of how music is consumed can be quite daunting for a young musician or band. How do we navigate this crazy water? It’s very complicated and easy to get sucked into worrying about all that stuff way too much. Bands ask me how are we going to get on the playlist? Who cares?!? You either will or you won’t! Just make your music and make it as exceptional as it possibly can be and not just good.
It comes back to what you were saying earlier that if you’re in a band purely with the intention of making money then you’re doing it for the wrong reason, which can also be applied to this.
It’s an extension of that. You’ve just got to get on with it and find a way to make it work. If you’re always asking for a hand out or always asking for help from someone else then it’s probably not going to work for you. There will be plenty of examples where it can work which may trash my theory because that’s the way this business works. There’s still plenty of record companies out there that will throw enough money at something despite its gross mediocrity. That will happen forever more because the top end of the music business is run by people that don’t have the same motives that we all do. But that’s the way it is, so you just have to do your own thing and hope that the cream rises to the top. Generally, it does. In time it does. Look at Beach House for example. Their first two records, brilliant though they were, didn’t really connect with people. Certainly not here in Europe. But they were brilliant records even though most people didn’t really get it. So, the band were understandably thinking, “What are we doing wrong?” You have to keep telling them they aren’t doing anything wrong! Just tell them to keep doing it and eventually people will come. One swallow doesn’t make a summer, and that’s how you have to look at it. If you’re in this because you want to make the best album that’s ever been made on album number one, then again, you’re probably in it for the wrong reasons. You should be doing this because you want to make a great record but then the next one even better. This isn’t a career thing. You’re doing it because you have to do it not because you want to be famous.
There are parallels between the present day and the 1980s when you first started making music with the Cocteau Twins. Both were in times of austerity when the arts were considered secondary by their respective governments.
I think that’s very true. I try and pass that on without sounding condescending as much as I possibly can. I’m sure people who come to the label with their music, more often than not, will have some knowledge about me or the label’s history. I guess that is going to be an attractive part of it because my experiences will afford me a certain wisdom. The other thing is to do this happily. Once you get drawn into the idea of success and what it means, that happiness can dissipate. For me, success is about making a great record and putting it out to the world. How many it actually sells is irrelevant. I want every band I work with to be successful, but I’m also a realist so know that’s quite rare. For millions of people to know who you are and buy your records doesn’t happen that often. But that doesn’t stop us wanting to put out amazing albums. You just have to try and pass that on to the bands. The fact it didn’t get 8/10 on Pitchfork is no reason to jump off a cliff. It usually means they don’t know about it yet. Bands do forget so you have to keep telling them, and they see their peers or bands they admire doing well and naturally aspire to that. It’s understandable. That’s the way the world works. You see something and automatically want it. But realism is important more than ever right now because it’s so over saturated compared with any other time in history. There is just so much music out there. It’s passion that fires this whole thing along. Not just the artists but journalists, photographers, radio presenters, broadcasters. All these people are super passionate about what they do. We have to rely on a hell of a lot of luck to a certain degree as artists. Being in the right place at the right time, or just having a sound that happens to connect with people at a moment in time. More often than not in the past it’s been connected to a live plot. Going to see a band then talking to your mates about how amazing they were. Then the next time they come back there’s a hundred more people at the show. That hasn’t happened this year  and it’s something every new band that’s put a record out in 2020 has been forced to deal with. So that’s a sad and disappointing thing for those bands to deal with but as I said earlier, keep making your music. Next time round, hopefully it will be different. The music’s still the music. All we can do is try and push things out a little further without going mad, and drowning people in all this stuff. I still get emails from people who’ve just heard Four Calendar Café—the second to last Cocteau Twins record from 1993—for the first time. They then get to take this journey of discovery of our other records going back in time to when we started which is a beautiful thing. So, it doesn’t matter when people come to your band. Just that they do at some point.
The complete In Quiet Moments is released on February 26 through Bella Union.