Fierce Panda

Decadence & pandamonium

Alcohol. The curse of modern society. The nadir of human self-indulgence. The anti-fuel of personal progression. Potentially, perhaps. But you rarely hear positive alcohol stories, even though they’re all around you. Can you remember those elixir-fuelled moments where the possibilities are infinite? For most of us the incandescent maybes that punctuate a momentous night become mere epitaphs for half-forgotten tales. For some, however, they are more than moments of premature conception.

In late 1993 Simon Williams – then a journalist for the NME – and like-minded friends convened in the The Blue Posts on Tottenham Court Road. Psychotically lithe on a brew of healthy hops, they decided to issue a six-track testament to the irrepressible denizens of a burgeoning independent scene – the new wave of new wave. Released on February 24th 1994, Shagging In The Streets was supposed to be a one-off EP, indulgently celebrating the power pop of bands such as S*M*A*S*H and These Animal Men. Fierce Panda was the label that Williams and co created to achieve this.

Much more than a one-night stand, Shagging In The Streets gave birth to a catholic-proportioned family. The fruits of Fierce Panda’s fumblings are a mischievous rabble of sonic urchins. Wonderfully named compilation albums, such as Listen With Smother and Mortal Wombat, bounce around the room with singles and long-players from an eclectic array of artists. For many bands, working with Fierce Panda has been the highlight of a knee-high career. However, some have established strapping, six-foot reputations on labels with bulging wallets. Released in March, Decade: Ten Years Of Fierce Panda contains early recordings from Ash, Supergrass, Placebo and Coldplay. With a disregard for contracts, organisation and livers, Fierce Panda has bamboozled many with its continued existence. How does such a rare creature survive? It’s time to put the legendary label’s DNA under a microscope.

“Fierce Panda is a good excuse to get drunk,” explains Simon. “ I’ve never understood the A&R life of two songs and a bottle of water. I try and see five bands in a night – mix and match – not just go along because everyone’s talking about them. I’m always just popping along to a gig so I’m pretty bad company. But people do understand. It has to be done; you never know what the band is going to be like. I’d have bets with Steve Lamacq about how many gigs we could get to, something like 250-300 per year.” If a crumple-haired passion for power supping and music is the key to record label longevity, then why isn’t there a grooved-vinyl executive on every street corner?

I stagger with Simon through time to 1993 as he sheds further light on Fierce Panda’s genetic make-up. “It goes back to the old chestnut of drink. It was a weird time. Lots of bands like Sleeper were getting signed; they obviously had moments but were major-label protégé bands. The reckless alternative was the new wave of new wave. It was complete indulgence.” Ok, we’re getting somewhere. A thirst for alcohol, music and reckless ways is one measure in Fierce Panda’s stringy cocktail. And working for the NME gave Williams fantastic access to the music industry; he wrote breaking articles on Radiohead, Blur and Oasis. But this isn’t the full picture either. Since leaving the publication in 1999, Williams and his labour of love have continued to spawn aural powergems.

Increasing the magnification, I ask Simon how he knows when he wants to work with a band. “If I like the tunes, it’s instinct,” he comments. “I’m not really interested in the bands that turn up and know everything already and have got the good haircuts. I prefer oddballs like Keane and Winnebago Deal, people who don’t think anyone will put their stuff out. Scouts are diligent but bands slip through the net when they’re looking the wrong way. When we saw Keane (an MOR-ish pop trio), I think other labels were saying to scouts, ‘go find the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs.’ But we’d already had our garage fun.”

Winnebago Deal and Keane currently lounge in the relative luxury of major-label subsidiaries, tied to the sort of contracts that Fierce Panda would probably use as a beer mat. But Williams confesses that the label may start to take things seriously. “There’s only so long we can be the knock-about berk. When we’re talking to bands now we’re thinking will they sell, break even?” One band that has remained in black-and-white feral company is Seattle-based Death Cab For Cutie. “They’ve just sold out ULU,” comments Williams, “which keeps us going. Most of the bands are not successful.”

It seems that a commercially sharpened snout is needed to keep the panda-may-care attitude staggering and dribbling. And surely this can only be a good thing. If Williams approaches everything with the same lusty enthusiasm and knowledge that he brings to a conversation, then bands like Death Cab For Cutie will thrive. The increased greenery should afford them extra space and time. And then we get to enjoy the sonic fruits of properly nurtured bamboo shoots.

Perhaps it’s pointless trying to unlock Fierce Panda’s double helix secrets. Even Williams has once said that it’s all been a terrible accident. With such an acute grasp of the meaning of life, Williams should have the final word and I’ll grab another drink. “If we like it we’ll sign it and all bands get treated equal because they are. Fierce Panda’s asset is we’re pretty useless at being a record company but we’ve got big bollocks.” Ahhh, so that’s what’s in the genes…

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