We all have a breaking point. Whether it’s you, me or anyone else, everyone possesses those moments that cause us to cry ‘enough’ and to take a step back in the interests of wellbeing. Mine came on the eighth day since Donald Trump’s inauguration, the day after Theresa May literally walked hand in hand with him in front of the world’s cameras and the morning after he signed a seven-nation, Islamophobic travel ban. It signalled the time where the need to stay informed became overridden by a desire to stay sane and where current affairs took a back seat to a retreat into art and the comfort of the familiar.
I’ve long been of the view that even if we don’t necessarily realise it the things that we love the most can be traced back to what we take solace in when we’re sick, or overtired, or burdened with fear or uncertainty; those reassuring presences that connect with us and feel like they’ve been made with care and passion and empathy. It’s little wonder that a large proportion of the listening pile set aside on my desk that day was made up of albums from the Fortuna POP! stable, ever a bastion of togetherness and warmth whose releases were always underpinned by being inviting and compassionate. At its core, the label has always had a staggering ability to find bands that mattered, who write songs that matter, and produce records that matter. It’s a description that befits my gateway FPOP! release, the first Allo Darlin’ album (as unapologetically hopeful an opening salvo as you could ever hear) and the two records that followed shortly afterwards – which would happen to feature among the first records I ever reviewed for an established outlet – Darren Hayman’s ‘Essex Arms’ and The Loves’ ‘…Love You’.
But if you’re here, then you’re more than familiar with the music. Maybe now’s the time to talk about the man.
The first two occasions I met Sean Price were purely business transactions, at the 2010 and 2011 editions of Indietracks. They saw him barely able to contain his Fagan-esque glee at the impressionable young man with a loose wallet through which he could rack some sales; me that same young man buoyed with the all the records he’d be taking home, starting a collection now comprising 60 unique albums and over 100 releases in total. That second year I bumped into Allo Darlin’s Bill Botting in the lane ‘twixt festival site and campsite and, much to his clear amusement, windmilled the bulging tote bag filled with FPOP! spoils above my head while proclaiming “good news! You can afford to make a second album!” And, at the risk of aggrandising one’s contribution, what an album Europe proved to be…
what good is going into business if you can’t have fun along the way?
Sean and I would first meet properly doing a lengthy interview around the 15th anniversary shows in 2011. A fantastically irreverent discussion – there are elements which will never see the light of day – it’s one that Sean has regularly described in the following years as one of his favourites (though I suspect he says that to everyone with a notepad, a dictaphone and a platform). Either way it’s remained one of mine, feeling less like a working lunch and more like two people meeting someone as wantonly mischievous as the other. Fast becoming friends, we’d stretch the accepted writer-label relationship beyond all recognition and in the classroom of the music industry it often felt like we’d been parachuted into the back row with the express purpose of throwing paper aeroplanes at the blackboard and spitballing the TV. We were the dancefloor dreamers cooking up crazy schemes in the small hours in beer-soaked venues (in fairness, in part out of practicality – trying to arrange things during normal hours at an event would always be interrupted by someone wanting to buy a record). It seemed that only the flip of a of a metaphorical coin decided if our time together would result in something meaningful getting planned or whether we’d be sat up howling with laughter at Grant McLennan lyrics about tractors four hours before my early-morning train left, or trying to light cigarettes at 4am off the gas hob in our first night in an unfamiliar AirBnB. At last year’s Independent Label Market, a picture surfaced of Lawrence (Felt, Denim) talking earnestly to Where It’s At Is Where You Are’s John Jervis. In the background Sean, in full santa suit in November, can be found photobombing and gurning away merrily. Like my experiences, that photo (along with his policy of only working with people he’d happily go down the pub with) seemingly serves to underline his ethos: what good is going into business if you can’t have fun along the way?
Against the odds and despite the idiosyncrasies of our friendship (until last year’s Allo Darlin’ finale no pictures existed of us together; to this day I don’t have Sean’s phone number) we’ve still managed to watch some of our half-baked late night schemes take shape and plans become reality. The fact that whenever a new record was in the works I’d want to cover it without having heard a note speaks volumes about Sean’s ability to spot talent and the staggeringly high quality levels he maintained throughout the label’s life. The fact Sean – in conjunction with label PR Lucy Hurst – would always ensure access (and on more than one occasion letting me sleep at his afterwards to keep my costs down) in turn speaks volumes about his generosity of spirit that he’s extended to so many bands as well as anyone who’s ever come to him seeking advice in also starting a label.
But maybe that’s because Fortuna POP! hasn’t been your normal label. Arguably, it’s not been a label at all but rather a community, and such has been the blurring of boundaries between audience, label and roster that many of us can class both Sean and a swathe of those playing this week’s extravaganza as friends. Each release hasn’t so much been an album but a signpost to the best open-door clubhouse around where the company’s been great, the bar always full, the jukebox impeccably filled and with an ever-gregarious host at its helm. One day the wider world will wake up to the fact Tigercats are one of the best pop bands around, that Elizabeth Morris and Emma Kupa are some of the planet’s finest songwriters and that Martha and The Spook School are among our most vital and important of social commentators. But until they do they will all remain our little secret.
This week the open door clubhouse will be full to capacity as the knowing masses come together to both share in the magic one last time and commiserate together when it’s all over, all of us being brought together yet again in that way the label has always excelled at doing over the past two decades. As with last year’s Allo Darlin’ finale and the ceasing of The Hangover Lounge, for many of us it marks not only a definite end of an era but also, in the short term at least, a future where the opportunities to hang out with the people we treasure – the people whose company we enjoy disproportionately to to the frequency with which we get to see them, and who we’ve probably first met at and only seen over the following years with any degree of regularity at FPOP! shows – will become considerably fewer. Take Twenty Years Of Trouble not only as a final chance to revel in the magic, but also to fully appreciate the people you’ll get to share it with. However tempting it is to begrudge Sean his decision to stop the label under the perceived injustice at being robbed of future events and records – and trust me, it really is – we should instead focus on and celebrate what it’s brought us over years past rather than what we’ll be missing out on in future. In part because it’s the least that Sean, and all he’s created, deserves after two decades of the hard work and immense personal sacrifice put in solely for our enjoyment. But also because supporting someone in doing whatever they choose to do is the embodiment of the label’s culture. Who else would have released a double-vinyl album themed around 16th century witch trials (Darren Hayman’s ‘The Violence’), or one that sounded like Harry Nilsson regurgitating a profanisaurus (Simon Love’s solo album), or let a bunch of young guns run riot and seeing what happened (Evans The Death’s entire discography)?
It’s difficult to know how to wrap up a tribute to something that’s meant to much and been so large a part of my life (and others’), or what to offer as an epitaph. Even more so given it also marks the start of my long goodbye to Sean before he emigrates ; an intertwining of farewells to both entity and man. On hearing the news last summer while stood in Sean’s flat I suggested that any finale should be in keeping with the ethos of both him and the label in being ridiculous, mischievous and something where the quest for the good times should override any financial viability. But while Ridiculous, Mischievous & Univable is a strong contender as a title for any future book or film, there are other contenders. For instance, from personal experience ‘POP! is all caps, with an exclamation point!’ is a strong frontrunner, while the line from the page in last year’s Indietracks programme that saw FPOP’s demise become public that implored us to ‘drink and dance and dream’ is about as succinct a summary of my relationship with the whole crazy trip as there could ever be.
But then I think about the countless hours of joy all of the records and shows have brought me – and so, so many others – over the years, and the slew of people who’ll be watching on this week with joy on their faces, love in their hearts and lumps in their throat. And I realise that any last memorial doesn’t lie in anything suggested above. Perhaps, above all else and to bring us back to where we started, it lies with this:
Fortuna POP! – the label that mattered.