Finders Keepers Records

Sounds of Wonder:
Finders Keepers Uncovers the World Wide Weird

Back in the ’80s when I was working in record stores, aside from the “new age” section I always considered the “world music” sector (usually tucked away at the far end of a bin near the rear of the floor plan) to be the most uninteresting area of the store. Generally it was just a few Ladysmith Black Mambazo records and, if we were lucky, a couple of Fela Kuti titles. I always thought “world music” was a stupid term anyway – it basically meant “anything not American, Canadian or British, expect for reggae music which gets its own section now thanks to Bob Marley’s crossover success.” But the scope of it was very limited (generally a handful of African ensembles, unless the store in question dumped their Irish traditional stuff in there too), and the presentation all too National Geographic or Smithsonian. I found it dull, and I steered clear of that section like it was roadkill on the highway in front of me.

Too bad Finders Keepers wasn’t around back then. Had they been, that may’ve been my favorite record store section. In its half-dozen years of existence, the London-based label has built an impeccable reputation for its ear-opening musical excavations of rare, obscure, odd and amazing sounds and scenes from the world over. It’s for all intents a reissue label, though it’s a near certainty most if not all of the people purchasing their colorfully packaged releases were previously unfamiliar with the artists or songs assembled therein. And while there’ve been other labels specializing in unearthing the impossibly obscure, the consistent quality and, well, wackiness of Finders Keepers’ ever-expanding catalog makes it one of the most reliable labels of our time. The things they put out are just fun. They are presented with obvious passion and enthusiasm, they’re always interesting and, quite often, more than a little strange, in that there’s a cultural foreignness to the music, yet also distinct, familiar strains of Western rock, pop, folk or jazz. Take “Kuen Kuen Lueng Lueng” by Sroeng Santi, the opening track off Thai Dai, their recent comp of psychedelic rock from 1970s Thailand. Santi bizarrely but effectively inserts Tony Iommi’s signature riff from Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” amid a mesmerizing slow funk original song sung in his native tongue, purportedly about the sun, the moon, and the cost of food. FK’s pre-album release of the song on a limited-edition vinyl 45 sold out in a snap; there’s definitely a devoted, if admittedly limited, audience for such exotic weirdness, but count me among them. Other standout albums in the extensive Finders Keeper catalog include a comp of Persian pop, psych, folk and funk from the ’60s and ’70s (Pomegranates), ’70s Pakistani electronic pop (The Sound of Wonder), vintage Hungarian funk (Well Hung), German prog (Cloud Cuckooland), Czech new wave soundtracks, Turkish folkies, Spanish psych rockers, Lollywood, Kollywood…that doesn’t even adequately convey the vastness, but you get the idea.

“Once you dip your toe in, it’s very easy to sort of go under,” admits Doug Shipton, one of the label’s three founders. “I find myself buying nothing but old records now. It’s not necessarily a conscious choice, I just find it infinitely more interesting. I just sort of look for sounds. We get called archeologists and all this, but to me, it’s just kind of a big game, it’s a bit of a breadcrumb trail. Because you find one album, and it invariably leads to another, and there’s all these little clues hidden in there with musicians, producers and collaborations, and it’s just an ongoing sort of adventure, really, but I just wonder where and when it’s gonna end.”

Shipton’s partners, Andy Votel and Dominic Thomas, are a bit older than Doug and have known each other since schooldays. In 1997 Votel founded Twisted Nerve Records in Manchester with Damon Gough, a.k.a. Badly Drawn Boy. “I was a big fan of that label in my teens,” Shipton tells me. “And it just so happened I went to university in a town called Stoke, which is about an hour south of Manchester on the train. And when I was there, they were looking for work on the website, designing sleeves and whatnot. So I got involved in the label that way, and met Andy.”

Upon graduation, Shipton moved to London where he worked for Cherry Red Records. While there, Votel approached him for assistance on a compilation of obscure ’60s folk music, Folk is Not a Four Letter Word. which was the inaugural release on Shipton’s Cherry Red subsidiary Delay 68. “And it was such a success that Andy said to me, why don’t I get involved with a label he had in mind with Dominic called Finders Keepers Records. And we set it up and took it from there. The name, Finders Keepers actually comes from a compilation that Andy did for a Manchester-based label called Fat City which he put together in 2002, and it was just an early compilation of records that Andy was buying and playing out at the time, like psych, and folk, funk. That’s the genesis of the name.”

Andy, Doug and Dom had been playing obscure records as club DJs for years prior to establishing the label. Andy and Dom originated the ongoing B-Music nights, which have become a sort of traveling nightclub involving a group of like-minded music obsessives with “franchises” in other cities, including Hamburg, New York and L.A. (it’s also the name of Finders Keepers’ U.S. arm.)

“Essentially [B-Music] is a collective of like-minded people – DJ’s, artists, musicians, record collectors and designers who share a passion for film, literature, music, graphic design, art,” explains Shipton. “And out of those we have a pretty good DJ crew as well, so we work with the likes of David Holmes, Gaslamp Killer, myself, Dom, Andy, Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals, Chris Geddes from Belle and Sebastian, a load of people. And basically, we host nights, we go and DJ nights. It’s a bit of a geeky pursuit, I guess. Bunch of guys standing around, talking about records, and playing records. Everyone has their own kind of style. There’s definitely competitive elements involved as far as bringing new songs and new things to the table. But everybody has interests in different genres. Bob Stanley from St. Etienne is very much a kind of English mod, psyche-beat DJ, so he sort of brings out that sort of sound, whereas Andy would have every Turkish record under the sun. So it’s just a nice collection of different personalities, and of course with that comes different tastes. It all gels quite well, really.”

The records released by Finders Keepers would certainly lend themselves well to creative DJing and sampling, but Shipton stresses that “it’s just things that we find appealing or music that we find interesting. So you generally find a cross-section. On Well Hung, there’s a bit from every camp, but you certainly couldn’t apply that way of thinking to Mala Morska Vila, the Zdenek Liska soundtrack that we’ve recently done, which is purely like an audiophile release, it’s something that we enjoy, something that’s very close to Andy’s heart. He’s been responsible for all the Czech releases. He’s been a big fan of Czech cinema since he was a lot younger. But again, I hate being pigeonholed as a label. I think we cover enough ground to warrant not to be pigeonholed as a ‘world’ label or a breaks label.”

Finders Keepers’ first release in 2005 was a reissue of French composer and Serge Gainsbourg associate Jean-Claude Vannier’s early ’70s psyche-rock opera L’Enfant Assassin Des Mouches, and it remains one of Shipton’s personal favorites.

“I think that was an Andy Votel find, and I think it was such a brilliant statement of intent for the label. It was just so out there that everything afterwards doesn’t really have the shock appeal that it really should. Not that that’s something we aim for, but having Vannier as the sort of centerpiece of what we’ve done has really sort of let people know how serious we are. But to be honest, we genuinely get excited about all the releases when they come. There’s so much out there, and we get so involved on a personal level with the musicians the majority of the time that it’s hard not to get excited and get behind it a hundred percent.”

So how do they uncover the really obscure stuff, and subsequently track down the artists and license holders?

“Basically, it just involves lots of digging and keeping your ears open,” says Shipton, 29. “We’re sort of fortunate [in that] we’re DJing and traveling, and we get to dig in a lot of local scenes, so we’re getting firsthand information. But I think, in all honesty, the bottom line is just talking to people, getting out there and meeting people involved in scenes, because as I said, it’s a bit of a breadcrumb trail, and it just opens up further releases, and we find out information we never knew before. Primarily, our main goal is to work with the artists, obviously. So, by hook or by crook we find these artists, wherever they may be, and try and get them involved. Sometimes it’s easier than others. I think Selda, for example, the Turkish protest singer, Andy managed to track her down, I think by email or fax. He kept getting replies saying that she was dead. And it was actually her trying to throw Andy off the scent, for some reason! But in the end, it turned out, it was just a very tenuous link, but a Turkish girl we knew whose mother actually worked with Selda back in the day, she put us in touch. But I’ve gone as far as to tear a record to shreds in terms of personnel, and I’ve contacted everybody involved, down to studio assistants. It was actually a studio assistant who lived down the road from one artist, and he just walked down and gave him my phone number and then we picked it up from there.”

And the reaction when you make contact? Shock? Suspicion?

“Everybody runs the gamut, really. Primarily shock, but what people don’t understand…the question we’re always asked is:  can we do people’s new music? They don’t quite understand why a bunch of 20-, 30-something guys have such a vested interest in music that they produced so long ago that didn’t necessarily go anywhere or do anything. And when we try to explain to them that we’re putting these records together for sort of middle-aged or 20-, 30-, 40-year-old men and women, bedroom DJ’s, producers and whatnot in England, I don’t think they can kind of quantify what it means to us and to these people who buy our records. But generally, yeah, people are quite excited. It’s very rare that we come across people that are really reluctant to get involved. Again, we had similar problems when we licensed Thai Dai. There was just general, underlying incredulity towards it, like ‘Why do you want this music? Why do you want to put it out in England? What’s the point?’ And I can’t honestly answer that question. We like it and we hope other people will!”

Shipton’s happy to say the label’s financially solvent (an increasingly rarer accomplishment in this industry), and they have a typically eclectic passel of releases lined up well into next year, including a new Pakistani compilation, further Jean-Claude Vannier reissues, a horror compilation in time for Halloween called Bollywood Bloodbath, more Jean Rollin soundtracks, a Swedish psych-prog comp and music from keyboardist Suzanna Ciani, whom Shipton describes as “the Delia Darbyshire of the Atari generation.” Remember Meco’s disco version of the Star Wars soundtrack? Ciani did the sound effects on it.

“We’re just as passionate and just as excited as ever,” says Shipton. “We’re finding some of the best releases we’ve ever had. It’s always going to be difficult as an independent label, but we’re still plugging away… There’s definitely life in reissue labels. I couldn’t really give you a recipe for success, but…we’re certainly gonna be around as long as we can keep it working. I like the fact that we can still sort of amaze and amuse in equal measure, really.”