WORDS: SIOBHAN LEDDY
ILLUSTRATION: LEEAY AIKAWA
I meet Mark Bowen in a sunny beer garden the morning after a Cribs gig. Atypically, he’s hungover. I bring him a cup of tea – herbal, on the off chance it contains vitamin C – and it seems to encourage him to talk. Call me crazy, but I’m fairly sure an interview is the last thing he wants to do today. He tells me that he’ll probably not be of much use this morning, and that he’s keen to have a nap as soon as the interview ends. This isn’t exactly what a journalist wants to hear.
Back in 2000, he and Dick Green started independent record label Wichita Recordings with only one or two bands, and Mark admits that at first he found it hard to fill his day. “I could only really afford to do it at the beginning because I was still consulting some free animals, and that paid my rent. It allowed me enough freedom to not get a proper job.” Now in its tenth year, Wichita can now boast a back catalogue to rival any of the majors: Bloc Party, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Bright Eyes and, more recently, Gold Panda and Best Coast.
Honest and self-deprecating, Mark attributes much of his success to the talents of others, and frequently refers to the admiration he holds for his mentors. After starting life in Cardiff, Mark moved to Liverpool where he started working in a record shop. Here he met the man that would change his life, “music nut” Martin Carr – later of The Boo Radleys. “He started a band, the band did well, so it was initially just me going out with my mate and having a laugh. I did t-shirts for them, went on to setting up drums for them, toured the world, hanging out and getting drunk. It was him that introduced me to Alan McGee [founder of Creation Records] and all those guys.”
Mark can often be seen strolling around car parks attached to his phone. Does he ever feel sad that his job has gone from scouring the world for bands to, well, being on the phone a lot? “I still remember my first day at Rough Trade and I was all ‘so, let’s go out and sign some bands then – where are going?’ It was pretty quickly pointed out to me that all of that is only about 1% of what we all do.
“I remember Geoff [Travis, founder of Rough Trade] going to Top of the Pops with Pulp, and I just couldn’t understand why he’d do that. We were supposed to go and see some stupid band that I thought we should sign, so I argued with him. To me, Pulp were already signed and we didn’t need to go to Top of the Pops. Jeannette Lee [Geoff’s business partner, and someone Mark clearly admires a great deal] very correctly pointed out that signing a band was just where it begins, and your job is to be there for them every step of the way. The signing is just a very small part of it. She was the very first person to tell me that.”
The signing may only be the beginning, but it’s something that thousands of musicians across the country fall asleep dreaming about. I’m curious to know whether Mark listens to the countless demo tapes he receives each week, and his response isn’t necessarily the most encouraging: “There’s a lot less active searching [for bands] than there used to be. An awful lot of it, much as I hate to say it, is about who you know. If I get a recommendation from a manager we trust, or a band. They talk about their friend’s band, stuff they’ve bought or listened to. We find a lot out that way.
“I don’t miss the days of going to see random bands five nights a week in Camden. For every good band there are 200 abysmal ones. We’re talking mid-90s, no Internet to speak of, so if someone told you a band in Aberdeen was good, you’d go all the way to Aberdeen to find out within 30 seconds that the band is actually terrible. There was no way of knowing beforehand – you just wasted days of your life.”
Mark has more advice for anyone with ambitions of setting up a label: “Don’t do it until you have something that you find a real passion for, and a vision for. If you don’t have that love, nobody else will. You’ll see a lot more knockbacks and doors slammed in your face than cheques thrown at you, so you’ve got to have such a belief that you can keep going forever.”
Wichita is as tenacious in this belief as they were as ten years ago. When he talks about The Cribs, who first released on Wichita in 2004, you can practically hear Mark bursting with pride. “I remember those kids we signed years ago, and how they mean a lot to people now – they get recognised in the street and everything. Some of our bands will hopefully be remembered forever, in the same way that I still sometimes go home now and play my Smiths’ records. I’d love it if there was some fourteen-year-old kid still playing The Cribs when he’s forty.”