For our second merchandise collaboration we team up with Opal Tapes to present a limited collection of premium organic tees and jumpers, adorned with a four-way print designed by Berlin-based musician, illustrator and artist Fred Mann.
With the aim of shedding light into what we consider to be one of the most respected and renowned UK-based record labels, we caught up with label founder Stephen Bishop to uncover the intricacies behind the operation of this bastion for experimental and skuzzed out electronics.
For the occasion, Stephen has recorded a 100% Opal Tapes retrospective label mix, providing a shape-shifting auditory journey through Opal Tapes’ discography, composed entirely from music released on Opal Tapes and sub-labels Black Opal, VANILLA, and Zabte Sote.
In the interview we discuss why Stephen founded the label, the importance of the work behind Opal Tapes’ impeccable A&R, their considerations when reaching out to artists and supporting their craft, and sharing the story of how Opal came to release music from legendary artists Max Ravitz aka Patricia and Brian Leeds aka Huerco S. — plus the story behind the simple yet enigmatic name.
*Inverted Audio x Opal Tapes available to order until 31 March via Everpress
Interview by Tom Durston & Freddie Hudson
"I started with tapes because I could make them at home. They’ve never been a curiosity or ironic thing in underground music"
Hi Stephen, first of all thank you for recording this retrospective label mix – please tell us more about it, the tracks you have included and the atmosphere that you have laid out.
Hello, thanks for the opportunity. Lots of music has come out since 2012. All sub-labels included there’s around 265 releases under the brolly and even though 9 years is a while it’s flown by so a retrospective mix is kind of a weird thing to do.
There’s so much to include or exclude. I’ve tried to find the connecting line throughout that period and how sound can be used to build up or destroy feelings and ideas.
This feature and interview is being conducted to celebrate your record label Opal Tapes and our limited edition merchandise collaboration — what do you think of the graphics designed by Fred Mann?
It will be the third white t-shirt I possess haha. I really like it, Fred has kept it really fresh looking and ready for a baggy summer, unlike the ghouls and goblins I usually come up with. Not one for gardening though is it!
What prompted you to establish Opal Tapes and what’s the story behind the coining of the name?
I had been releasing CD’s and tapes of my own music and friends music for a while but without any label name or real intention other than to just hand one over to someone while stood outside gigs. In late 2011 I just decided to contact some people I spoke to online and whose music I admired figuring that if I liked it some others must do as well.
The first three releases came about really quickly, home dubbed, stickers printed and badly attached, little business cards made on an industrial estate in Boro. I advertised them by making maybe three posts on forums and started to post them out to places far further than I imagined I would be.
Unlike the CD’s and tapes passed out for free at gigs these first Opal releases (Tuff Sherm, Personable and Huerco S.) were sold for £5, so once they were sold out (maybe 30 copies each) I figured well, I should make some more. Bought more tape stock, printed more stickers and so on and so forth.
The name, well I just like the word and how it sounds. There was Opax, the record label by My Cat Is An Alien guys from whom I’d bought a bunch of stuff in the mid-00’s. Eno did Opal Records but I was unaware of that until maybe 6 months after I started Opal Tapes. I also really like Opal stones.
Geology in general is a fascination of mine and a lot of the early artwork was supposed to be reflective of that, albeit in a coded manner. I thought I’d produce 30 tapes max with Opal as I was starting to work at a University soon after the label began but I left that role after a year. Probably the dumbest thing I have ever done hahaha.
"In late 2011 I just decided to contact some people I spoke to online and whose music I admired figuring that if I liked it some others must do as well"
The cassette is evidently a core format for you, why choose this medium above others?
It’s just how I always bought stuff from the age of 8 or 9 onwards. I started with tapes because I could make them at home. They’ve never been a curiosity or ironic thing in underground music. There is no inherent desire to release music on tape though, it is just known to me and they are scalable in a way that vinyl never will be and more people seem to want to buy and collect tapes than CD’s.
Casting back to the early days (2011/2012), Opal Tapes was often the first port of call for unearthing artists who have since hit greater popularity (Huerco S / E-Saggila). How did you go about contacting international artists and signing them to the label?
I was either in touch with them on social media or via Soundcloud. I’ve never signed anyone to the label. In the case of E-Saggila I got a heads up from Cindy Li about her music and was blown away so just gave Rita a hello and went from there.
The label’s initial release was ‘The Pagan Cinema‘ by Eugene Dro Carey as Tuff Sherm & PMM, quite the bold statement for an initial release! Can you tell us how this came about?
We both posted on the same forums and shared an interest in fringe music and communities. So after passing messages back and forth about all sorts of things I just brought up releasing a tape of his after he had shared what was to become the release ‘Canal Cloaking’ on the sorely missed Reckno (shout out Chris!). Eugene is great and was really up for it, I think we were going to do a VHS or DVD release of the PMM stuff at some point too but it never came together.
Before launching Opal Tapes I’m interested to learn what you were doing before. Tell us about the scene of Redcar and what types of music, bands and producers were integral to the development of your music taste?
I studied Music Technology, 2007 to 2011 in Teesside. I’d been a care worker for 5 years or so before that working with young people with Cerebral Palsy. I was going to become a nurse but aside from a few complications I also knew deep down it wasn’t for me as I don’t think I can give that much of my life up every week. So realising I wasn’t going to continue in that field I flopped around a bit before starting studies again.
I lived in Ireland for a bit, in a remote valley in South West Cork. That was rough and yeah throughout all of this the only real constant was a craving to hear new music and try to figure something out which I couldn’t express.
Redcar doesn’t really have a scene. It’s a small town on the coast, south east of Middlesbrough. Just pub rock bands, happy hardcore beach parties, an upsetting number of Weller haircuts, that’s about it.
Middlesbrough has had a thriving DIY scene, specifically in the mid 90’s to mid 00’s, which was pivotal in exposing me to loads of great music (thank you Open Season) and later with Northern Wolfpack stuff I met so many great friends.
A few characters from this punk/hardcore-ish scene would also introduce me more to experimental stuff, techno, power electronics, noise-rock, whacked out free-jazz and I figured that even though I couldn’t play a note I could still be in a band.
The really influential music for me around then (2002-ish, 18 years old) was Jeromes Dream, Reversal of Man, Botch, Swans and Painkiller and also Atrax Morgue, Panasonic, Daniel Bell and Aphex Twin. I definitely veered more towards darker, sadder sounds all my life but that’s just how I’m put together.
Seeing acts in Newcastle like Jazzfinger, Marzuraan, Romance and Culver definitely started to make everything fall into place more, but more importantly they were all so open and nice and it was all about sharing and having fun.
"I don’t spend anywhere near as much time searching online for new music as I used to. I’d like to but it’s just not happening, definitely got some internet burnout going on"
I first discovered Opal Tapes through Huerco S. ‘Untitled‘ (2012) and Patricia’s ‘Body Issues‘ (2013) – to this day I stand by these as being both poignant releases from Opal Tapes. Please tell us how these two releases came about from Max Ravitz?
I don’t spend anywhere near as much time searching online for new music as I used to. I’d like to but it’s just not happening, definitely got some internet burnout going on. Back then I was just searching for stuff all the time, not even to release, just to hear and enjoy.
I came across Max’s music on Soundcloud and messaged him. I’m pretty sure almost all of ‘Body Issues‘ was up as individual tracks at that point so it came together pretty quickly. I knew it was a special release but Max is an exceptional musician who can imbue emotion in a unique way.
The melodies on ‘Body Issues‘ are deceptively simple but it’s the balance of those melodies against the evolution of the rhythm section which make his music so notable. It’s storytelling with only a few words to speak. His work has gone on to evolve this further and further but there is still something remarkable and fundamental about ‘Body Issues‘.
Huerco S. ‘Untitled’ eventually saw release onto vinyl courtesy of Boomkat Editions. I’m interested to learn how this release came to be relicensed?
It was first released on vinyl in 2013 by Boomkat. Conor from Boomkat is also from Middlesbrough area so we were in touch before I started Opal and he was interested to hear everything early on and the write up’s and extra exposure selling some tapes on their website offered definitely helped the label to grow. But basically they asked me and Brian if it would be cool to release a 12-inch and we both thought so.
Tell us about your sub-labels Black Opal, VANILLA, and Zabte Sote, and what they each represent? When can we expect more from the sub-label family?
Black Opal was started to release club ready vinyl, straighter and less experimental than the music on Opal Tapes.
VANILLA is small run, hand assembled editions, non-standard packaging all that jazz. There’s been releases from Filmmaker, Basic House, Maar, Siavash Amini & Matt Finney.
Zabte Sote is more recently started and has come out of my relationship with Ata “Sote” Ebtekar.
Sote lives in Tehran, Iran and can’t release any of the incredible electronic work by producers over there for an audience outside of Iran to enjoy or purchase. As such I have produced and handled shipping and customer care on all of the releases for him while he curates the releases and communicates with the artists. We’re working on a compilation currently presenting the works of Iranian women in electronic art.
Black Opal has some works in the pipeline from Filmmaker and VANILLA, who knows. I bought a large quantity of lavender a year ago which I haven’t used yet.
What is evident about Opal Tapes and your A&R is that a lot of your artists go on to achieve big things after their initial release on your label – quite the achievement in terms of A&R and sifting through countless profiles on Soundcloud. How much impact do you think releasing on your label has for some artists?
I honesty don’t know. I don’t think of things in that way.
Alongside the big names which we’ve touched on, who from the Opal catalogue do you feel deserves more time in the limelight?
Katsunori Sawa, Selm, Emra Grid, Siavash Amini, Binary Digit, Body Boys. Most to be honest. There’s so much crud out there being hyped up, so much stuff that’s just regurgitation of the same forms ad infinitum.
The Opal Tapes release schedule is a little different to most: why do you choose to run monthly drops, all on the same date, over staggered individual releases?
It’s just to make it cheaper for people overall. Combined shipping as opposed to paying for shipping every other week.
"Geology in general is a fascination of mine and a lot of the early artwork was supposed to be reflective of that"
What has been the harshest learning curve for you as a label operator?
Once pandemic restrictions are lifted, how will you be easing back into the new reality of music events and festivals?
I don’t know and don’t want to guess anything currently. I have been fantasising about going to see and hear certain things though. I have a strong desire to go to a good dub night, proper system, feel the sound. I really want to go to a 10 person noise gig in a tiny room.
I’ve been listening to lots of Scelsi and Grisey and I’ve never seen that kind of music performed live so will be looking out for some of that. Perhaps more than anything I just really want to see some bands play in a nice venue where people can talk shit and buy each other drinks.
What’s coming up next on Opal Tapes and sub-labels?
I’m releasing an album with Mariam Rezaei as Bishop/Rezaei on Tusk Editions and Opal Tapes. It’s “distant improv” created by taking audio recordings of Mariam Rezaei’s turntablism and converting aspects of the performance into control data to perform playback and modulation on samplers. It’s pretty crazy, that’s out April 1st.
Basic House is back with a forthcoming three track 12” on Sähkö coming soon. There’s also a maxi EP, six tracker coming out on 12” on LA’s Nostilevo. Plus working on music for a return to Opal Tapes.
The label has some amazing music forthcoming from Misantrop, Dinosawroid-Mane, Lukas Koenig, God is War and Merdh Laleh amongst many others. More merchandise collaborations and god knows what else.
Busy always and forever.
Inverted Audio x Opal Tapes limited collection is available until 31 March. Order from Everpress.
1. Abbrumer – Genèse
2. Basic House – I’m Not A Heaven Man
3. Huerco S. – Hiromis’ Theme
4. 51717 – At the Well
5. Phork – Soak It
6. Yves De Mey – Metrics
7. Body Boys – Mute
8. KETEV – Eridu
9. Bishop / Rezaei – Bulgar Rose
10. Karen Gwyer – You Big
11. Basic House – Virgin Land
12. Basic House – Crown Ever Remain
13. Abbrumer – Alma
14. Evitceles – The Night Heals My Burning Chest
15. Domiziano Maseli – Gethsemane
16. n_/0 – Interferencias (Excerpts)
17. Basic House – Lacking Grace & Intelligence
18. Terminal 11 – Full Circle
19. Wanda Group – A Bag Of Warm Milk (Excerpt)
20. Metrist – Petrol Arses
21. Chafik Chennouf – Hanneton
22. Chafik Chennouf – Ferroequinologie
23. Kentaro Hayashi – Gargouille (Merzbow Remix)
24. D.Å.R.F.D.H.S. – Nekromanterna Från Kågedalen
25. AJA – Ode to Sopie
26. Katsunori Sawa – Camelia Blossom
27. Katsunori Sawa – Frozen Dirt Trace
28. Thet Liturgiske Owäsendet – Utbrott
29. Sivash Amini & Saaad – Dragging The Harrow
30. Emra Grid – A System
31. Evitceles – Sink