Babel Label: New Songs from the Tower of Sound
OW:The British scene has certainly always had an openness to it, in terms of the influences and attitude. London is a city of 9 million with great multicultural influences. So there is a great ability to respond. There is also a nice balance of respect and irreverence. Of course over the years there have been changes. Nowadays 90% of the musicians have been trained in music colleges, whereas when Babel started that was a minority, since there were hardly any conservatoire courses. Fortunately, though, the courses are run by musicians trained in the real world of the 1980s and are pushing students in a good way. At Middlesex University, for example, the course is run by Loose Tubes alumni such as Chris Batchelor and Stuart Hall. The result from there is that we have musicians like Led Bib over here, or Jason Yarde or Stian Westerhus.
I am pleased that we have perhaps returned to an approach to jazz and music which was stronger at the end of the 1960s. There is a lot less self-consciousness about being branded as "jazz" or "improvised" or indeed any other category. Musicians can balance being themselves with the financial imperatives. I like the fact that some of them are trying out more unusual combinations of instruments or approaches to bring different styles together. There's a great attitude to improvisation in the broadest sense.
I believe that the consistency of Babel and the approach of the Vortex have both contributed to this by encouraging such an approach. Around the Vortex has developed something about the music and attitude, with new venues such as Cafe Oto having an overlapping approach and even blogs started focusing on the area of Dalston and its music.
AAJ: Could you talk about some of the key artists and albums that have been important in terms of the label's development? If you were to choose some highlights, what would they be?
OW: That's a very difficult one. I am certainly proud of many of the releases that have passed through Babel. I am constantly reminded of them all every now and then, when the albums get played in the breaks at the Vortex. I am proud to have released as many albums as I have by Billy Jenkins, who is a father figure to the scene and has an immense imagination and ability. Then there are a few albums which have since gone on to get important status. It delights me when musicians after a few years have pointed to Babel albums as their own personal favoritessuch as Julian Arguelles' selection of 2006's Skull View.
I love the albums that I have done with Chris Batchelor and Steve Buckley, such as Life As We Know It and Big Air. Work with the various collectives in London, such as with F-IRE (artists like Polar Bear, Acoustic Ladyland, Tom Arthurs, Finn Peters and Ingrid Laubrock), and with Loop's Outhouse, Fraud and Golden Age of Steam.
I am proud to have had two nominations for the major popular music prize here, the Mercury Prize, for Polar Bear's Held on The Tips of Fingers and Portico Quartet's Knee Deep in the North Sea. I regard that as quite a feat for a label that has basically been a one-man show. Then there is the documenting of a generation that has been a bit lost internationallyChristine Tobin, Partisans and Phil Robson.
Huw Warren is also a musician who has done great albums on Babel, where I always hear something new every time I put the albums on. Now, I am working with a range of musicians, from some doing their first albums, such as Bruno Heinen or Dan Messore through to bands like The Gannets, Vole and Partisans. When I travel to festivals and so on, I am amazed and proud of the number of musicians playing there who are keen on what the Vortex is about.
AAJ: What is your take on the new technology? Do you see it as an opportunity or a hindrance? Could you imagine Babel being a label that only released downloads or is it important to you that there is a physical product?
OW: The good news is that one can be all things to all people. I find it liberating that the power of the traditional shop chains has been lost. So we can go back and release CDs, downloads and even vinyl. Covers and packaging can be more or less lavish.
As long as there is interest in physical products as means of dissemination of the music, I certainly shall continue to release CDs and similar. I shall be sorry when the day comes that we can't give something material to friends, where they respond to the content, and that includes books. But there will be more and more download only releases, I am sure.