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4AD logo and detail of Facing the Other Way book cover

How 4AD Changed Music and Me

By Robert Jarrell

I first heard the Cocteau Twins’ song “Ivo” in 1984 on college radio. I was 15 years old and “Ivo” was a melancholy song layered with airy guitar, bass, percussion, and vocals I initially assumed were sung by twin sisters (as the band name suggested), but belonged to the singular voice of Elizabeth Frazer. I recorded the song from the radio onto cassette—as I often did back then when I listened to college radio—and played “Ivo” about a hundred times. Even though it was a sad song I was hooked. The music lifted my spirit and awakened me from my oblivious Southern California existence.

Cover art of Cocteau Twins album Treasure designed by Vaughan Oliver (1984)
Cover art of Cocteau Twins album Treasure designed by Vaughan Oliver (1984).

Months later I found the imported U.K. record in an obscure music shop called The Mad Platter in Riverside (where I would get a job soon after and work for three years). The album name was Treasure and I was delighted by the sleeve design with its moody typography and imagery of swirling lace and beads draped over a headless mannequin. On the back cover were mythical song titles—Ivo, Lorelei, Beatrix, Aloysius, Persephone, Cicely—and near the bottom right corner was the ornate romanesque 4AD logo that perfectly matched the sleeve’s aesthetic. I had only heard the one song “Ivo” and was unsure what this music would sound like, but I didn’t hesitate and bought the album. When I got home and finally listened to it I was astounded as it was unlike anything I had heard before.

After the initial discovery of the Treasure album I collected anything with the 4AD logo on it even if I wasn’t familiar with the music because a kind of trust had formed. Luckily, because I started working at The Mad Platter record store that specialized in U.K. imports, I became acquainted with other 4AD music from that era such as Bauhaus, Modern English, The Wolfgang Press, Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil, Clan of Xymox, and Dif Juz. Later, as years passed into the late 80s and early 90s, 4AD retained my attention with music from Throwing Muses, Michael Brook, Pixies, The Breeders, Belly, The Pale Saints, Lush, His Name is Alive, Red House Painters, Unrest, The Thievery Corporation, and Mojave 3; in the past decade I’ve been further delighted by Piano Magic, St. Vincent, Grimes, Blonde Redhead, Efterklang, Indians, The National, Daughter, Bon Iver, Camera Obscura, Iron & Wine, and Beirut. 4AD has continued to thrive and retain its aesthetic roots.

When I had first discovered 4AD the label name immediately signified for me a translation of the year: Four After Death. I’ve always read the label name that way though never heard anyone else mention this. The name, music, and design aesthetic had a strange effect on me: it felt like the year 1984 was transported back in time to 4 A.D., or vice versa, like two time periods collided in a mashup of artistic sensibilities. I started to change and had a lot of questions: Where was I and what was this music and why was I primping my hair and wearing eye liner and how was it a record label aesthetic was forward thinking yet anachronistic? It was an amazing time to be young and alive and comforted by music that reimagined the possibilities of its artform on multiple levels.

Throughout 4AD’s history there are conflicts that exemplify codes of the human condition: greed, money, addiction, and desire. But there are also periods of harmony, creative breakthroughs, success, and a sense of accomplishment.

Photo of Ivo Watts-Russell
Ivo Watts-Russell

Later I pieced together that “Ivo”, my favorite song from the Treasure album, the one I heard on college radio that fateful day, was the name of Ivo Watts-Russell, the man behind 4AD who had multiple roles as spearhead and A&R, but also fostered personal, caring relationships with many members of bands he signed. Essentially he was the curator of a new music aesthetic that evolved into an “artists friendly” label, but he was shy, mysterious, and kept a private life. Not many people, other than his inner circle, really knew much about him and how he started the label that changed music. That is, until now.

Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD by Martin Aston, is a new book about the London-based label from 1980 until present, but concentrates on the Ivo era (1980-1999). It describes how he started the label, the ups and downs, the artists involved, the music industry, how 23 Envelope (4AD’s in house design team) carved out an aesthetic that reinvented music packaging, and how Ivo eventually left due to depression caused by an avaricious music industry and severed relationships with people he cared deeply about.

Ivo created 4AD because he was searching for music no other label was releasing. What he envisioned was abstract, inside his head, nothing he actually heard around him in the real world. The music, which did come to fruition partly through Ivo’s prodding musicians to experiment, became known as the “4AD sound” (especially in the 80s) and was beautiful, dark, insular, goth, ethereal, and otherworldly. But Ivo’s intention was simple—to create a listening experience that could ignite the imagination. He wasn’t concerned with trends or fashions of any particular time, or even about making money, but instead aimed to release what he thought was interesting music and support musicians who needed a way to develop their art. This approach produced interesting results as Ivo continually released unpredictable music by Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, Throwing Muses, Pixies, and Le Mystere Des Voix Choir, all shockingly original at the time.

Dead Can Dance was another band unique in musical expression to be found on 4AD’s roster. Formed by the duo Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard, their music could be described as made for the dark ages and helped define the 4AD sound as they referenced eclectic, melancholy tinged music from various cultures and periods of history, but updated for contemporary sensibilities.

Gerrard remembered Ivo as supportive:

He provided a way for artists to express themselves in ways they’d never otherwise be able to, and to reach their potential—which is what This Mortal Coil was about. Bands didn’t feel that they were absolutely brilliant, so there was no real conflict or threat. He attracted that kind of energy, of quite shy people, like he was looking for musicians hidden under stones, making this fragile music. Without Ivo, I don’t think I’d have developed the strength to keep going. We were so driven to reach our own idea, this passionate purity about the work, and if we’d been confronted by anyone who put us under pressure to do otherwise, we’d have buckled.

Perry describes Ivo as others also saw him at that time, as a mentor and gentleman, but with a flair of spirituality about him:

Ivo had a little ponytail, but about seven or eight inches long. I thought he was a Buddhist or Krishna.

When it came to selecting and releasing 4AD’s music Ivo stuck to a purity principle of originality first, commercial appeal last, but sensed that 4AD’s chance of success would be limited and not sustainable in the long run. However, to his surprise, the label built a small following who appreciated the unique music and beautiful record sleeves. Along the way were occasional hits such as “I Melt With You” by Modern English and “Pump up the Volume” by MARRS. These were aberrations, accidents, but nonetheless propelled the label so it could continue to release music Ivo believed in even if it had little chance of monetary profit. In the book Ivo explains that was never the point of 4AD:

Let’s not forget why independent labels were created in the first place—as an alternative way of having an outlet, a career in the music industry, without following the sell-your-soul route to success.

Neil Grierson and Vaughan Oliver of 23 Envelope
Neil Grierson and Vaughan Oliver of 23 Envelope

This indie approach may have also been responsible for the label’s distinct visual aesthetic pioneered by graphic designer Vaughan Oliver and photographer Niel Griersson, known for a few years as the team of 23 Envelope (later known as v23 after Griersson left) and who produced most of 4AD’s artwork throughout the first decade. Oliver describes working for 4AD in the 80s and early 90s as the golden era for his career and work. He developed a playful, post-modern, baroque aesthetic with lush typography. This was complimented by Griersson’s experimental photos that were painterly and surreal. Later there were contributions of lettering design by Chris Biggs and photography by Simon Larbalestier. Their various styles meshed well and exemplified a high standard for music design that remains to this day.

4AD’s design aesthetic, brimming with otherworldly images, was a good match for the music Ivo signed during the first decade (now known as “classic 4AD”). Facing the Other Way’s author, Martin Aston, describes this sensibility and how the music coincided with the design:

So much of the music released on 4AD during Ivo’s era had this same creative tension [as the design], beauty masking secrets, feelings buried, persisting in anxious dreams and suppressed fear, hope and anger; lyrics that don’t explain emotion as much as cloud the issue, penned by a carnival full of beautiful freaks who din’t want to be seen. Isn’t that what music does best, express feelings that words can’t articulate? Emotion that can’t be attached to a view or opinion, to a time or a place, is often the most timeless and precious.

Like most fans who could never glimpse the inner workings of 4AD and the artists involved, Facing the Other Way gives details of the trials and tribulations the music industry is known for. Lessons learned are bands don’t live long and relationships will end in tears, as the title of the first This Mortal Coil album suggest; and if your going to run a label you will become a depressed individual (as happened to Ivo). Throughout 4AD’s history there are conflicts that exemplify codes of the human condition: greed, money, addiction, and desire. But there are also periods of harmony, creative breakthroughs, success, and a sense of accomplishment. 4AD represented society’s fringe and out of it came a dark beauty. How it all happened and the various people involved is a compelling story from beginning to end.

At its core though the story of 4AD seems to be about something that has mystified me throughout my life, the notion that beauty in its various disguises—rather it be art, music, poetry, novels—are not always understood or appreciated. For example, I don’t understand why people buy or listen to manufactured pop albums that are mediocre and sell millions of records, while some of the best music ever made and released by labels like 4AD are often ignored, except by a few. It’s this schism in the world that became a conflict for 4AD when during the 90s it became necessary to “play the game” (sell records to make money), but by doing this it had the ironic effect of triggering its near demise, which became so frustrating for Ivo that he eventually left and sold his 50% to co-owner Martin Mills, who continues to successfully run 4AD today.

Facing the Other Way, at 617 pages, is an in depth and intriguing story about one of alternative music’s best indie labels. It’s a must read for any 4AD fan and its roster of original music. Reading it took me back to 1984, a time I lived and loved and that 4AD was a big part of. I sensed again how mysterious and intriguing 4AD was: the music, design, label name wrapped within the paradox of what came across as both contemporary and antiquated, a mixture of rustic music tones and visual textures, surreal photography, sounds that crossed ambient with punk and electronic. But it didn’t stop there; along with this was the New Romantic, goth, and post-punk fashion movements I adopted as I metamorphosed from surfer, preppy, new-waver to something else entirely. My sense of fashion, as with the music, became poetic, creative, daring, slightly effeminate with layered clothes of various textures, scarves, sashes, pointy shoes, primped hair, piercings, eyeliner. More than the music I witnessed art and beauty and transformed myself to try and get closer to it. I looked like I came from another world—like that shimmering light bursting through my mediocre existence when I heard the song “Ivo” for the first time.