Hailing from the village of Cellardyke, East Fife, the Fence Records co-op of coastal-dwelling musicians has created a unique style of electro-infused folk. While the artists record their own material, they continue the folk tradition of sharing songs among the collective and often collaborate live.
KT Tunstall, a former member of Fence, once complained that they lacked commercial ambition. The collective chose to ignore such criticism and last year’s Mercury nomination for King Creosote and Jon Hopkins’ Diamond Mine proved the musical wisdom in chasing originality not commerciality.
Could you start off by telling us a bit about your music?
I record music as The Pictish Trail and sometimes as Silver Columns with my friend Adem. I started writing songs in about 2001, and released a mini-album on Fence Records in 2002. As soon as I left university, I went full time at Fence – organising gigs for the artist roster at first, and then gradually taking on more label responsibilities. I’m now co-director of Fence Records Ltd... oooh!
How did Fence Records get started?
Well... The label was started up by Kenny Anderson (aka King Creosote) in around 1996. He’d been in a few moderately successful bluegrass bands and had toured all over the UK and Europe throughout the early nineties... but suddenly found himself without a band to play with. He purchased a Fostex digital 8-track machine and one of the first generation CD-R burners, and started recording lo-fi albums, playing all the instruments himself.
Burning copies of these albums, individually one by one, putting them in hand-assembled artwork, and selling them in the CD shop he had a day job with, he started a label.
Kenny released recordings by his brothers (Lone Pigeon and Pip Dylan), attracted the attention of his other musician friends – James Yorkston, Billy Pilgrim, Gummi Bako – and all of a sudden St Andrews had its own music scene. The Fence Collective was born, and 40 albums down the line, King Creosote still releases music through Fence (and also Domino Records).
Cellardyke must be a very musical village! Is the label still run out of there?
Yup, the label is still based in the East Neuk of Fife. Kenny’s based in Crail, and I live in Cellardyke most of the time (but I’m spending increasing amounts of time on the island of Eigg, in the Hebrides). The internet has made it possible for us to operate outside of the city scene – everyone all over the world is only an email away. I think the fact that we’re from somewhere quite remote actually attracts folk to our label – we’re not trendy, we’re not competing, we just do our thing.
Fence is an inspiring alternative to the multinational record company, so it’s useful to hear how such alternatives are practically organised. How is Fence set up?
Fence now operates as a limited company – of which Kenny and myself are directors. We take dividends from the business, and we both have an equal share. As we’re both musicians in our own right we tend to focus on our own careers, and this tends to steer how the business is run. Following a Mercury nomination last year, Kenny’s profile has been raised dramatically, which has meant he’s been a lot busier with King Creosote stuff. This has been great for Fence, as he is the label’s biggest ambassador. I’ve spent most of the past year working on Fence events that can harness this new audience.
It’s not a one man show, though. Kate Canaveral has been helping to run our webshop, which is increasingly becoming a full-time job. David Galletly, a fantastic artist from Glasgow, has done a lot of work for us too, as has our pal Hardsparrow, and Gummi Bako.
You describe Fence as having a do-it-yourself work ethic. How does that inform the day-to-day running of the label?
The label is very much cottage industry – we all work from our respective homes. We used to burn CD-Rs and spraypaint/stamp all the artwork individually, so in that respect we were very DIY. We now have things manufactured by other companies but the day-to-day running of the business is still done from our homes. It’s fine, unless you have to wait in all day for a delivery.
Does Fence enable artists to make a living out of music who might not be able to ‘go professional’ otherwise?
I think we help. We don’t offer our acts any advances or anything like that but we try and give them a platform so that they can make music their life. Not all of our acts want to do music for a living, though. It’s a very competitive, heartless industry at times.
The most important part of any business is ideas. If you don’t have new ones, then you’re fucked. It doesn’t matter how uncommercial or how weird the idea is. As long as you’re consistently trying to innovate the way you communicate with people, you’ll do well.
With the increasing professionalisation of the arts there’s a danger that culture, be it music, literature or art, is left to the ‘professionals’. Fence seems more participative – how do you encourage people to create culture for themselves rather than just consume it?
We’re approachable, I guess. I think the live events that we put on really show how grassroots this all is – and how easy it is to share music with one another by supporting fellow musicians and promoting their music. I know we’ve inspired a bunch of other labels to start because they’ve told me. It’s a great thing.
Some Fence artists have signed to other record labels (King Creosote, James Yorkston) but are still very much involved in the Fence Collective. Does it devalue Fence?
It makes Fence stronger. As a label, we can only do so much. There’s very little infrastructure to Fence. We can only get a certain amount of attention from the press and radio and the public at large. When one of our acts signs to a bigger label that is the greatest advert for us because we’re always keen to keep our association and friendship with the act.
When did Fence start putting on festivals?
Kenny ran all-day events called Sunday socials way back in the early noughties. They were incredible. It’d be in a pub, free entry, they’d start around 2pm, and it’d be live music from Fence Collective folk until the bar shut. Very drunken affairs.
What festivals have you got lined up this year?
Quite a few things, actually but the next two are called ‘Eye O’ the Dug’ and ‘Away Game’. Eye O’ the Dug is happening in St Andrews in April, over the 14th and 15th – tickets available from the Fence Records website. Away Game is happening on the island of Eigg in July – tickets have already sold out. They are both going to be amazing, the line-ups are phenomenal.
The people who live on the Isle of Eigg have an inspirational story – securing community ownership of Eigg after years of insecure tenure...
We love Eigg, and all who live in her. They’re a great community – and big party lovers! The islanders throw their own event in June to celebrate the ‘buy-out’ and it’s a beautiful thing. Away Game isn’t directly related to that but the island is the perfect setting. Great people.
Emma Hughes is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. She also works as a campaigner with environmental justice organisation Platform.