Feature: Arch Hill Recordings

Feature: Arch Hill Recordings

Thursday 29th May, 2014 11:52AM

In the grand scheme of things 1998 was a fairly innocuous year. New Zealand had recently inducted Jenny Shipley as its first female prime minister, a massive power outage struck Auckland for five painful weeks, and the leader of the free world, Bill Clinton, was caught with his pants down. The world was on the edge of a new millennium, and although the internet was hardly a household tool we all needlessly worried about what the Y2K bug might bring. But while these passing events dominated the country’s headlines, a bunch of musicians were busy doing their thing from a little concrete building in central Auckland, blissfully unaware that the seeds they planted would still be flourishing 15 years later.

A dusty sign at 331 Great North Road is the sole reminder of the original Arch Hill Studios location, before it evolved into Arch Hill Recordings and eventually moved on. Initially formed by a group friends, including David Mulcahy, Ben Howe and Greta Anderson (all from Superette) along with Ed Case and Jim Laing (Lanky), the studios were far from being a money-making venture and simply enabled the musicians to get their creations down to tape. “That was when a lot less people did self-released records,” Howe recalls. “Now everyone releases records themselves. You can make it in the bedroom and put it out. Whereas then, the technology didn’t exist. People didn’t have recording studios on their home computers and putting a CD out wasn’t as easy as it is now.”

The late 1990s was a period when electronica was taking hold of the globe, and therefore guitar music wasn’t a priority for labels. The one label that had traditionally catered to indie outfits, Flying Nun, was going through internal changes and not well positioned to put out records from upstart acts. So Arch Hill Recordings decided to release their own albums, the first of which was Mulcahy’s 1999 record Oddy Knocky, quickly followed the next year by albums from Lanky and Fang.

The first signing outside the circle of friends was a Christchurch act called Pine. “It’s funny how shortly after the label started people began sending demos in the post,” recalls Howe. “Pine sent me through a demo and actually the first thing I thought was the artwork was really great, because they were all graphic designers and artists,” he says. Shortly after that, David Kilgour joined the stable, and the shift from studios to label really started. “He was somebody who I had admired greatly, from him being in The Clean and putting out his solo records on Flying Nun. That felt like an important signing, not that we actually signed a contract,” Howe says. “It was handshake deals and all that jazz.” That was around 2004, and Howe had emerged at the helm of the label, his PhD studies steadily getting shuffled aside as he lived and worked at the Great North Road offices.

To make ends meet, the studio started renting out time to non-label bands, which become increasingly unappealing to Howe. “I didn’t really enjoy that process, so I decided to discontinue doing the studio. Most of the bands on the label had their own studios at that point,” Howe says. Nowadays, the studio is stashed away in a horde of cardboard boxes and Arch Hill Recording is instead focused on gaining great acts and helping them succeed both at home and, increasingly, abroad. Over the last decade-and-a-half the label has tucked a heap of artists under its expanding belt, including Luke Buda, Surf City, Ghost WaveFamily Cactus, Tiny Ruins, The Boxcar Guitars, Doprah, The Clean, Beach Pigs, Street Chant, White Swan Black Swan, Bailterspace and Punches.

Looking back over the years, Howe recalls the most of the teething challenges of a new label as being a product of inexperience. “The hardest thing and also the most fun thing, full stop, is that you are dealing with human beings and their foibles and the different things they do to make their music. And that’s always going to be unpredictable and random.” But Howe insists the initial ethos of Arch Hill is still in tact: producing great music being central to what the label does. “Sure,you want to make it a viable business and make sure those artists are successful, but you want to work with music you like, work with people you like, and do stuff that you want to do,” he says. “You’ve probably heard it a million times, but it’s hard to make money in music so the least you can do is work with people you like.”

Over 15 years, the challenges of running a label have changed. Physical sales such as CDs plummeted and are only just starting to climb back in the form of vinyl. And those financially difficult spells brought about some testing times, according to Howe. “On a regular basis you go, ‘why the fuck am I running a record label? This sucks and I want to do something else.’ But then you think ‘what else would I rather do?’ and there is nothing else,” he says. One current upswing is that globalisation, by way of the internet, means more opportunities for labels and artists to spread their music further and that is something Arch Hill Records has its sights set on.

A semi-recent partnership with the internationally renowned Flying Nun records lends a subtle hand in pushing artists out worldwide. The labels coupled around two years ago with Howe taking management duties of Flying Nun, both labels now being based out of a handsome modernist office in Newmarket. Howe says the pairing was a natural progression after Arch Hill had provided a lot of musicians a home while the Flying Nun label was going through tumultuous times. “And it just made sense for the two labels to share the infrastructure that you need for a label, whether that be distribution or an office space, and I think it’s working pretty well actually,” he says.

Nine months ago the two labels also opened an umbrella site called Flying Out, where they can sell releases online. But far from being exclusive, the site also encompasses smaller labels such as Muzai, Lil' Chief and 1:12 Records, to be a kind of one-stop shop for the modern vinyl collector. And international goals aside, Howe is pleased just to be able to celebrate the 15 year milestone for Arch Hill Recordings. “It sounds stupid to say it, but just lasting 15 years is a success because not all labels do,” he says. “Most people go bust or run out of patience and I can think of dozens of labels in New Zealand that have come and gone over the last 15 years.” Does he see himself doing it for the next 15 years? “Probably”.

Here are a couple of the label's latest singles:

Head over to the Arch Hill's page on Flying Out  to check out their full catalogue and if you're in Auckland this weekend you can celebrate Arch Hill's mighty achievement at the Kings Arms where they are throwing a party that will feature performances from label alumni including Tiny Ruins, Don McGlashan, Doprah, Ghost Wave, Surf City, Transistors, Street Chant and more (click here for full details).

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