By Russell Garwood
Lee Barrett, founder of Candlelight and Elitist records, is best known for discovering a myriad of highly successful bands. These include Emperor, Opeth and Enslaved, as well as some of the highest quality up and coming acts, such as Ephel Duath, Forest Stream and Farmakon. Often seen around the forums being foul-mouthed, uncouth and downright rude, I jumped at the chance to interview him as one of the most dedicated supporters of extreme metal, having worked in the industry years. Wondering if he could possibly be as offensive in person as he was online, to my great delight, I discovered he could, and following an evening of music listening, beer drinking, Brasseye watching, and general tom-foolery, we decided to put the interview off until the following morning.
Hence, having crashed on Lee’s couch, then eaten a rather large cooked breakfast, I felt as prepared as I would ever be to start the interview. Covering topics ranging from the metal scene’s past and running a label, to muggings and Cradle Of Filth fans (mixed with a good dose of toilet humour) if there was ever anything you wanted to know about metal and were too afraid to ask, read on!
The satiated Mr Barrett having conquered an almighty feast
And what better way to start than: “Hello Lee, how are you this fine morning?”
‘I’m fine thank you very much! How are you?’
I groan, before Lee and I break into laughter. “Ok, let’s start at beginning – what made you decide to set up a record label in the first place, and how did you go about founding candlelight?”
‘Well, it was an accident in many ways I suppose; I was working at a distro, Plastic Head Distribution [PHD]. Before that I’d run my own mail order selling bits and bobs - seven inches and all that stuff - direct from labels like Deathlike Silence and Osmose. So the decision was more along the lines of “I already have contacts and distribution set up, so why not?”’
‘The idea was just to release two vinyl, the Emperor and the Enslaved mini-albums. They both sold out really quickly, so we decided to release them together on a split CD. As the bands were happy with that, we released the album, which went on to sell a decent number of copies, fairly quickly. The next thing I knew, I had a record label on my hands, which was never really planned! It wasn’t an ambition, more a freak occurrence… So with the money from the split I started trying to find other bands, and it all went from there.’
“Cool, so it was never planned?”
‘Not really, it was always more just a hobby; a way to trade a few records - that sort of thing.. It just exploded and went out of control.”
“Do you think you were lucky with your choice of bands first time round?”
‘Definitely, for instance the Emperor/Enslaved split is still one of the biggest sellers on Candlelight. Had I started with the Whores Of Babylon album - which came a few releases later and didn’t sell very well - Candlelight would probably never have gotten off the ground. I’d have spent all of my money, and that would have been it!’
“That would have sucked! So how did you find these first acts, so instrumental to Candlelight’s success?”
‘Well, Enslaved was a recommendation from Euronymous…’ Lee pauses. ‘Of Mayhem’
“Yeah, I know that one.”
, I retort, and we both laugh.
‘Well, I was in contact with him from distributing Deathlike Silence releases, and I was buying stuff from mailorders, directly from him. I rang him up one day about this idea I had, and he said that there was a band from Bergen, Enslaved, who had a demo out, and that I should check them out. He gave me their contact details, I heard the demo, and really liked it. Emperor I knew of because I’d already been selling the Thou Shalt Suffer 7” on my mailorder. When I found out that a couple of the members had formed Emperor, I got hold of a demo, and I offered them a mini-album deal. It just went from there…’
‘Opeth was a different story; Samoth had made me a compilation tape of various demos, and on the B-side – in about the last minute –was the beginning of “Apostle In Triumph.’
At this point Lee starts playing air guitar and singing the opening bars of the classic Opeth track, before continuing:
‘It was from an Opeth rehearsal tape, and I just thought… Wow… this is amazing! It cut out after a minute because it was the end of the tape, so I phoned up Samoth to ask who this great band was. He didn’t know, saying he’d only put it on to fill the last few minutes of the tape! When I asked him where he got the it from, it turned out to be one Jonas (Katatonia) had made him, and it was literally just a rehearsal.’
‘After that I put out loads of flyers in my mail, and any time I sent anyone a letter, I asked if they knew of the band. It was pretty much just “someone tell me about Opeth, please!” because I couldn’t find any information at all. No one knew who they were, or what they were doing, and then one day, three or four months later, I got a phone call from Mikael. Out of the blue he just said “I understand you’re looking for us, from a flyer”… Yeah, I really wanted to sign this band!’
”Sounds like you were lucky with that one!”
I laugh. “How did you get in touch with Euronymous, and involved in the nascent second wave of BM?”
‘It was just through selling their records, really. I’ve never been not
into that sort of scene; I’d always been in correspondence with various people over the years. I got the [Mayhem] “Deathcrush” album ’87, and the demos before that. I wouldn’t say I was in heavy correspondence with Euronymous before that, but I’d exchanged letters and tapes and that sort of thing. It was all part of the tape trading scene back in the 80’s - before the internet came along there used to be a lot more mystique about it all. You used to trade demo tapes, and say “oh I’ve heard about this band”, and have to wait a few weeks before you got to hear it.’
“So it was more exciting then?”
‘Yeah, I mean, if you want to hear something now you can just wait five minutes and you’ve downloaded the entire album.’
Lee and several members of Forest Stream, again having conquered a mighty feast.
Is anyone else starting to see a pattern here?
“Yeah, I can see that. Moving on to the end of your management of Candlelight, what made you decide to sell the company, and how did it all come about?”
‘Well, I think a lot of it was to do with the fact that the label was a hobby which had just spiralled out of control; the whole business side of things was a pain. I wasn’t interested in running a business, and it just made it less fun. It also took the fun out of the music, not just the label. The bit I liked was signing bands, and discovering new acts – that sort of thing. I didn’t want to have to deal with accountants, distributors etc. so it all became a chore. I kind of lost my love for music a little bit. At the time I was getting very cynical…’
“Not a nice situation to be in, I’m sure. Once you sold the label how did rekindle your love of music?”
‘I just happened by being out of the scene I suppose. I was actually buying albums again, getting excited about new releases, and being less….. cynical for want of a better word. I was, at that stage, being extremely cynical about everything.’
“So you didn’t take a long break from music, you just started exploring the underground again, rather than waiting for it to come to you?”
‘Yeah, certainly. I had got very lazy to a certain extent.’
A slight shift in subject, we move onto Lee’s latest project, Elitist Records. A sub-label, financed by Earache records, it has fast become recognised as a company to sign more unusual, high quality acts. With Lee alone signing bands and working A&R, the rest it taken care of by Earache. Hence I ask whether the reason he started Elitist as a sub-label was because of his dislike of the business side of the music industry?
‘Yeah, the deal with Earache means that I just sign the bands, and they take care of everything else!’
“Cool arrangement! How did the label come about; was it a long standing ambition to start another, or more of an accident like Candlelight’s beginnings?
‘I pretty much just wanted to get involved in some way again. I have a day-job now as well, and I missed bits of it - the bits that were fun. Originally I started talking to Sanctuary Records, and had a few meetings to discuss starting a new label, under their funding. It just fizzled out. I’ve always known Digby [Earache’s CEO] because I’ve been in a couple of bands signed to Earache – Disgust, among others. We were at Rock City once, and just started talking. I mentioned the Sanctuary Records thing, and he suggested I start something under Earache. We sat down for a couple of hours, discussed terms and that sort of thing, and that was it.
“So how has the music industry changed since you were running Candlelight? What differences do you notice now?”
‘I guess the biggest difference is that there’s ten times as many labels now, which makes getting CDs in the shops and distributing them much harder. Also bands seem to be getting signed far sooner, and there are lot more of them. It used to be that groups did two or three demos before being signed, but now they are picked up after just one. I’m guilty of it myself with Farmakon - three songs and I snapped them up, but I had to otherwise someone else would have.’
‘Another factor is the internet, which has basically killed the retail market for CDs. I mean, if you look at bands like Paradise Lost for instance - they sold over half a million records of one of their albums back in the day. Nowadays that kind of thing is never going to happen - you’re never going to get a new band coming through and selling anywhere near that amount of records. People will just download the album instead.’
“I can see that is a problem! Returning to a slightly earlier point; do you think a possible reason for the increase both label and band numbers is due to an increasing popularity of metal as a genre?”
‘Not really, as I think there are still the same amount of people buying CDs, it’s just spread a lot more thinly. Another reason why sales are in decline is that there’s just so much product out there. For example, when you release an album you get a weekly schedule of the new releases that week from distributors. In the beginning of Candlelight in the early to mid-nineties, you’d be up against nearly 15-20 metal releases. Nowadays that would be a hundred.’
‘Also in the early nineties, the death metal scene was huge! Deicide were the biggest selling metal band of all time; they have sold over a million copies across their catalogue, and so have Cannibal Corpse. Morbid Angel could release an album in the early 90’s and sell 200,000 copies straight away, and now you’re looking at maybe 50,000, if you’re lucky. It’s because of the punters, I suppose - people have more choice in what they can listen to, and it’s just not good if you’re running a label. Basically there’s the same amount of people listening to the underground, but ten times as much product for people to buy.’
“Cool cool. There must also be differences between running a label yourself and working as a sub-label.”
‘Yeah, well, the advantage for me is that I don’t have to do anything’ Lee chuckles
“I like your style!”
‘You see, all I have to do is answer a few emails here and there, and then everything else is taken care of by Earache. I don’t have to do much else.’
“Other than interviews! Anywho, if that’s the case I’m gonna start me a label!” I laugh.
‘Haha, well, I’m in a very lucky position. I mean Emi from code666 for example, he’d have to deal with everything, and I don’t envy him!’
“Yeah, and he’s doing a damn good job!”
I reply, at which Lee nods. “Elitist is fast becoming known as a reliable label for unusual types of metal, was this your original intention?”
‘Yeah, that’s what the label is all about. I try to sign bands that are one of two things - either cutting edge, or of a very high quality. Take Wolverine, for example, they’re not necessarily doing anything hugely original, but I think they are the best of their type. Another example is Forest Stream – they are, to a certain degree, a mixture of different bands, and again, aren’t doing anything hugely original. That said, I think what they’re doing they do extremely well.’
Lee claims his niece was responsible for this haircut, but we all know he likes it really..
“So there are two criteria on which you sign bands, extreme originality and or a very high quality?”
‘Indeed - what I consider to be the best of its type. And that’s what it’s all about. Earache have given me total free reign to sign who and what I want - within budget constraints, obviously. There have been a few bands I’ve missed out on, as I just haven’t been able to afford them. But yeah, I’m happy with the way things are going, I can pretty much sign who I want, within reason…’
“Haha, yeah, Britney Spears!”
I throw back, at which point Lee and I both chuckle.
‘That’s the thing, I mean, Earache are really good like that - they haven’t really questioned any of the wacky acts I’ve signed. An example is a possible new signing, who are… mad! And Earache are happy with that!’
“Good for them! So, to continue, this question is from Marko of Farmakon”
‘Oh god…’ Lee groans, his face falling and his complexion whitening… Well, not quite, but you get the idea!
“So, how does it feel to be responsible for all those gay sixteen-year-old black metal fans with Cradle Of Filth tshirts?”
at which point Lee and I crack up before a long pause and the lone reply:
‘...Uuum, it’s fantastic…’ Lee grins, before continuing ‘Well, I suppose I was in a way
responsible. It was me that helped Kerrang with their big article, the breakthrough article I suppose..’
“Yeah, the one which caused all the recognition and notoriety?”
‘That’s the one. They got most of their information from me, and I actually wrote a piece in there about black metal. So I supplied them with all the photographs and stuff as well’
“Haha, so you are responsible!”
‘Yeah, I suppose I am in part responsible for the burst into the mainstream. But there are obviously loads of other people involved as well - the bands themselves, and the labels that signed them. Osmose, for one, were before me - there was quite a healthy little scene bubbling away in the underground, but it wasn’t until the Norwegian thing kicked off that the mainstream decided to take an interest. After all, it was such a sensational story…’
“And it was covered in several major newspapers as well…”
‘Haha, yeah, I actually had to do an interview with the BBC! It did get a bit silly at one point, and I began to wonder why people were taking such a huge interest in it. Then again, when I look back at it now, it was a pretty sensational thing. At the time, it didn’t really occur to me..’
“Yeah, it was just natural, you know - burning down a few churches, a few people killing themselves and each other..”
I chortle at Lee, who grins in return.
‘Yeah! But hey, you’ve got gangster rap in the mainstream as well. In fact, it’s on MTV 24 hours a day, talking about drive-bys and fucking-all sorts of things. This isolated incident in Norway just seems to have been blown out of proportion a little bit.’
“I can see that…”
‘Obviously it was good for me from a publicity/label point of view. Emperor are the best black metal band to have ever existed, and it’s nice to see them selling the number of records they should be selling.’
“Yes, it does seem just”
I reply. What with Emperor being one of my favourite bands, we go on a small tangent as I’m interested to see what Lee – the person who discovered and signed them, thinks of their later direction. It transpires he didn’t like it that much.
‘It’s interesting, but I prefer the more epic, and over the top kind of stuff, like Anthems. That was much more my cup of tea.’ he elaborates.
, I retort, “Here comes a difficult question!”
I warn, to Lee’s amusement. “How would you describe your roster if you could in as few words as possible?”
‘State of the art’ is the response, at which point all I can think of to say is “Good one!”
, which starts us off laughing again. Regaining his composure, ‘four words, that’ll do’ he continues. “Yeah, very good!”
I reply, at which point giving Lee a cookie would seem appropriate (were it were not for their lack of immediate availability in Surbiton!). Continuing, “any advice for small labels?”
‘Yeah, don’t bother’ comes the reply, followed by further merriment and lack of composure.
‘Bugger off! Haha, no, it’s got to be very difficult for any new labels starting up now. Unless you have support, like myself, you’re always going to be struggling. There are a lot of labels starting up now, who trade with other distros. Eventually you get to a situation where there are 25 mail-order companies all selling exactly the same stuff, because they’re all trading amongst each other. But Fraser and Graham from Golden Lake seems to be doing alright. I mean they obviously know their limitations, in that they are actually selling the finished product for £6 ($10) including postage . I mean, they’re going to do alright.’
Mr Barrett and Farmakon's Marko in "contract negotiations"
“Going back to your point earlier, how do you think this will all end, the increased number of labels etc.?”
‘Well, the big ones like Nuclear Blast, Century Media and Earache have already got their foot in the door with distribution networks and the media. It’s going to be very difficult for a new label to come along and develop those kinds of contacts now, unless they’ve come from one of the larger companies. To start from scratch now, I’d have to say, would be nearly impossible. That’s why I think Emi from code666 has done such a remarkable job. But I think most of his success is because he has very high quality releases, and his stuff is very well packaged.’
“Agreed, he’s done most of it purely through signing decent bands.. (and those hottt eight-panel digipacks!)”
‘Yeah, exactly. And that’s what it should be about. It’s all down to taste at the end of the day, because some people are obviously starting labels thinking they are doing something new and original, but they’re not. They just don’t realise it…’
“Fair enough. And another backtrack, to downloading - as a label owner, what are your views on it?”
‘Obviously, I don’t like it. There are really two ways of looking at it – clearly it’s good promotion, as people can actually get to hear the bands before buying, so that’s good. Then you don’t have to rely on hear-say, or the press, especially now when there are so many releases out there. The main problem, I think, is that people should be able to download one or two songs, and get a good estimate of whether they think a release is a good purchase or not. If you’re going to download a whole album however, that’s kind of like walking into a supermarket, helping yourself to the bread and the cheese, and just walking out again. Fair enough you can go into Sainsbury’s and they’ve got little blocks of cheese you can sample, and if you like it you can buy the cheese.’
“Yeah, or if you’re like it you can just carry on going back for the free samples, until you’re full”
‘Haha, exactly! But I think MP3’s should be seen as samples as opposed to the real thing. In the end, it’s just human nature isn’t it? If someone can get something for free, why would they pay for it? I’m not sure what labels can do to combat it.’
‘There’s quite an interesting record label that has started up recently, with classical, new age and trance music. They are an entirely internet based label, and work on an honour system. You can go to the website, listen to the whole album streamed, and if you feel like it, you can pay to download the whole album. You also choose how much you want to pay for it - anything between $5 and $18. They’ve got a recommended price, and then they split the money with the band 50-50. So I think something like that may be worth considering in the future, where people actually think that the bands are getting a better deal.’
‘I think a lot of people are under the impression that record labels are evil, and that bands don’t make anything out of it – it’s only labels that profit. So if there’s a system put in place where people can see that the actual musicians are benefiting from it, then I think they will be more inclined to pay for their downloads.’
“Ok, cool! Any news for us from the label front, new releases to plug etc.?”
‘Yeah, we’ve got the new Lunaris coming up, “Cyclic”, that’s going to be out in March. There’s a new signing in the works, and Frantic Bleep are going to be finishing recording very soon. I’ve heard a track from that, which sounds really good. The production just sounds amazing!’
“So quite a few things…”
‘Yeah there’s a few new releases coming up. I wouldn’t mind if a couple of the bands hurried up a little to get some stuff out of the way. We’re trying to get Wolverine on tour at the moment, and Ephel Duath are going to start recording in June.”