Above: Thom McDermott caught this snap of Landless at a recent gig. Check out their Bandcamp here.
Humble Serpent is a new record label launched at possibly the worst time you could pick to launch a record label. Sean Finnan caught up with one of the founders, Vinny Dermody, a 17 year veteran of Ireland’s independent scene with The Jimmy Cake to find out what kind of a contrary bastard starts a label at a time like this.
So Vinnie, can you tell us the story behind your new label Humble Serpent?
I’ve had a pretty varied career in music so far – I was a buyer for two major music chains, I worked in a venue, I’ve been in The Jimmy Cake for 17 years putting out our own records, worked in a venue and for a major label so I had this pretty decent body of knowledge that wasn’t really being channelled in any particular direction and I think that was becoming a point of growing personal frustration particularly as I saw the Irish industry slipping further and further into conservatism.
Claude (Vella) having spent 12 years as head of sales for PIAS in Ireland was feeling something similar and had broached the idea with me previously but it ended up on the backburner until Michael (Greville) who has knowledge and energy to burn expressed an interest in coming on board and I think it was that collective energy was what got it off the ground.
I’m also a contrarian by nature I think so the collapse of the music industry allowed me to identify the worst possible time to start a record label and this all coincided with a growing relationship with Landless, Rue and a bunch of other incredible Irish acts via my live promotion work as Enthusiastic Eunuch.
What’s the landscape like anyway for starting a new label? Everyone seems to be doing it at the minute which is far from a bad thing but you went down the physical release path as well as digital.
Right now the landscape is music spaghetti. Locally there’s no distributor in Ireland of the non- country & Irish variety and we’re down to about 25 surviving Irish indie record stores. Globally the artery between culture and counterculture, mainstream & underground is bleeding heavily. Audience attention spans and by extension their patience have been dramatically undermined by primary culture delivery mechanisms becoming overrun by middle management and phrases like ‘alternative’ and ‘indie’ have become commodified to the point of meaninglessness. The market wants us all in the same room listening to the same music because that’s easier to manage and you don’t need experts to do so which is why we have witnessed two decades of profound mainstream infantilization and the rise of beige electro-pop to pandemic levels while wildly creative and artistically brave records are often sinking almost without a trace.
I think the sheer magnitude of change that the internet has ushered in can be difficult to fully comprehend. I’ve seen people like Steve Albini argue that the internet has destroyed the traditional profit centres of the music industry and has ushered in an unprecedented democratisation of the process of bringing new music to a new audience. This thesis works just fine if by traditional profit centres they mean independent record shops and labels and by democratisation they mean it in the American sense – here’s a big load of absolute bullshit and you can take your pick, you’re welcome now to go fuck yourself.
I’ve watched the mainstream music industry slowly corrupt the landscape – first by abandoning vinyl and driving the price of CDs to preposterous levels, then by employing lawyers to tackle illegal downloading, by abandoning any pretence of serious music radio/television/print coverage and finally by handing over the keys to hundreds of years of human artistic endeavour to a couple of chancers from Sweden looking to pass the time via a massive, unprecedented transfer of wealth from artist to techbro.
At a superficial level we all understand the power and vitality of music but the reality is that we’re willing to look the other way as it gets kicked around like a foreign cousin in an 80’s US sitcom.
The decline of mainstream Irish radio cannot be overemphasised. When radio did its job there was enough room in the pool for everyone – the charts were a reasonably healthy mixture of goofball, cynical and serious but contemporary mainstream radio now resembles children’s entertainment and incorrectly assumes the absolute worst about its audience. The damage this is doing is profound and rarely discussed because rocking the boat in Ireland can often leave you isolated and struggling for what little coverage is out there.
Landless’ music is a fascinating mix of traditional music and classic folk. How did you stumble across them?
Two of my siblings are traditional musicians so a lot of family nights out happened at singers circles and trad sessions and I think that’s where I first happened across Landless but I’m pretty sure the first time I caught them live was at a Lankum show. I was hugely impressed and that was around the time I first started promoting shows on my own outside of the confines working in a venue. Over the course of the next couple of years I had them alongside the likes of Richard Dawson, Glenn Jones, Nathan Salsburg & Alasdair Roberts and outside of my own ever-growing affection for their work I was constantly struck by the euphoric reaction of such experienced and well-travelled musicians so that when it came to starting a label both Landless and ourselves were pretty certain that we wanted to keep working together.
Something often lamented in Ireland at the minute is that there’s a disconnect between the average music listener and the music that’s coming out. I’m not talking about Hot Press and it’s plugging of some blalike rock aka Kodeline etc. but stuff like Landless, your own band Jimmy Cake etc. Do you think that’s hurting the music scene here or actually creating a more vibrant scene away from the glare of the mainstream?
I think the most pressing matter for independent music and experimental music in particular is to reclaim a space for itself where it can breathe, where listener patience and discussion is encouraged and where long-form critique can thrive again. We have become a fractured and besieged community co-existing alongside literally everything else in the world and I think one step backwards might be necessary in order to still have feet, let alone take two steps forward.
We have our own local version of this in Guerilla Studios in Dublin that has given birth to albums by Katie Kim, Lankum, Landless, Percolator, The Jimmy Cake and loads more. It’s a space where people feel comfortable to express themselves fully, without breaking the bank and with the best producer I’ve ever worked with at the desk.
What constitutes the habits and expectations of your average music listener have changed dramatically in the last 15 years. As listeners and as consumers, modern free market capitalism instils in us a completely fictitious sense of agency that defies everything we know about humans and capitalism and we have seen the rise of tools of commercial and political control that were previously unimaginable outside of the realms of dystopian fiction and they are being employed to homogenise the landscape which is antithetical to the survival of leftfield music as a functioning commercial entity.
In its current format the very idea of The Jimmy Cake being played on mainstream radio is beyond fantasy. I would love to live in a world where 16 minute psych tracks get airplay but there is absolutely no context for it, we don’t sell advertising and your average 2FM or Today FM daytime DJ is more akin to ye olde TV continuity announcers than music professionals and most of them talk about music like a badly prepared alien trying to infiltrate Earth posing as a radio presenter.
With that in mind, we still have heroes like Cian Ó Cíobháin who played all 16 minutes of one of our tracks half a dozen times and has been all over the Landless record too. Cian is generally incredibly supportive of Irish leftfield music and probably at the expense of potentially bigger career opportunities.
With Landless I have different expectations but with often similar results unfortunately. The fact that an Irish group singing stunningly beautiful traditional Irish songs – you know, the image we sell to the entire fucking world – can’t get mainstream daytime radio play is a damning indictment of the current state of not just Irish radio but of contemporary Irish culture.
Having said that, niche shows on Radio 1 and Lyric among others have been supportive and I am always grateful for that but I won’t lower my expectations to accept this as the new permanent reality.
For a new label like Humble Serpent, where do you find most of your sales coming from? Directly through Bandcamp or with independent stockists, places like All City perhaps or R.A.G.E?
I have nothing but respect for any record shop that is still standing but shops don’t shift units like in days of yore because without press, radio or TV support it’s incredibly hard to establish a record in the hearts and minds of listeners who have the entire history of recorded music at their fingertips.
I think we sold something like 3,000 copies of the first Jimmy Cake album in Dublin alone in the space of 18 months and that was as an independent band operating without distribution or label support – that’s unthinkable now, obviously not helped by the fact that the band has drifted much further to the left of where we started out.
Bandcamp is an amazing resource but people still need to know that you exist in order for them to end up spending money with you and if your music is already part of their €10 a month streaming subscription then it would take a certain level of devotion for that to translate into a physical sale.
Merch sales at live shows are probably the most consistently reliable form of income but getting promoters to take a punt on you can sometimes be understandably difficult in the current climate.
Any more releases planned for the label?
We’re hoping to get Rue into the studio this year and we’re discussing the possibility of a Jimmy Cake vinyl box set. We also have a tentative eye on a couple of other Irish acts but I won’t say any more about that lest I ruin everything (again). But there’s a still tonne of work to be done on the Landless record – the UK is starting to pay attention and we’re hoping that will inspire Irish journalists in Ireland to write about them on account of it being the country that we live in.
As a final point, a lot of what I’ve said paints a pretty grim picture but despite all of this Ireland and the rest of the world is still brimming with vocational music heroes taking a hit for the underground team and I’m proud to know and work with many of these people. I’ve had a few high points in music and being allowed anywhere near a record as good as the Landless record is definitely one of them so despite the apocalyptic diagnosis I’m still as driven to stop the global rot as I ever was.
Bleaching Bones by Landless is out now. Look em up on Bandcamp or find em in what’s left of the good recordshops!