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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 when I was 15 years old and stumbled upon KUCR, a college radio station in Riverside, California. “Ivo” instantly struck a chord with lush female vocals I imagined sung by twin sisters named Cocteau (as the band name suggested) but eventually found out belonged to the singular voice of Elizabeth Frazer. I recorded the song from the radio onto cassette tape (as I often did back then) and listened to it constantly. Even though it was a sad song, it lifted my spirit and snapped me out of 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’s name was Treasure, and I was awed by the beauty of the sleeve’s moody lettering and imagery of swirling lace and draped beads 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 listened to it, I was astounded—it was unlike anything I had heard before — sensual, dreamy, ethereal.

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. Luckily, when I started working at The Mad Platter record store, I became acquainted with other 4AD music from that era — 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 interest with music from Throwing Muses, Michael Brook, Pixies, The Breeders, Belly, The Pale Saints, Lush, His Name is Alive, Red House Painters, and Unrest. And since then, I’ve been delighted by The Thievery Corporation, Mojave 3Piano Magic, St. Vincent, Grimes, Blonde Redhead, Efterklang, The National, Daughter, Bon Iver, Camera Obscura, Iron & Wine, and Beirut. Throughout it all, 4AD has continued to thrive and retain its aesthetic roots. You could say I’m a fan for life.

When I first discovered 4AD (via that Cocteau Twin’s album), the label name immediately signified a translation of the year: Four After Death. I’ve always read the label name that way, though I never heard anyone else mention this. Furthermore, 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 eyeliner, and how was it that a record label aesthetic could be forward-thinking yet anachronistic? It was a fantastic time to be young and alive and comforted by music that reimagined the possibilities of its artform on multiple levels. It transformed my dreary suburban life into something more magical.

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. He was 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. Ivo was the curator of a new music aesthetic that evolved into an “artists friendly” label. However, he was shy, mysterious, and kept a private life. Other than his inner circle, not many people 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 chronicles the London-based label from 1980 until the 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, and how 23 Envelope (4AD’s in-house design team) carved out an aesthetic that reimagined music packaging. It also details why Ivo eventually left the label due to depression caused by severed relationships with people he cared deeply about and the greedy music industry.

Ivo created 4AD because he envisioned music no other label was releasing. What he imagined 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. Instead, he aimed to release intriguing music and support musicians who needed a way to develop their art. This approach produced startling 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 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. They referenced eclectic, melancholy sounds 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. There were occasional hits — “I Melt With You” by Modern English and “Pump up the Volume” by MARRS. These were aberrations and 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. 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 Grierson. Known for a few years as the team of 23 Envelope (and later known as v23 after Grierson left), they 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, complemented by Griersson’s experimental photos that were expressionistic 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 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 details 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 you’re going to run a label, you will become a depressed individual (as happened to Ivo). Throughout 4AD’s history, some conflicts 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, the story of 4AD is about something that has mystified me throughout my life, the notion that beauty in its various disguises — rather it be art, music, poetry, or novels — is not always understood or appreciated. So, for example, I don’t know why people buy or listen to mediocre pop albums that sell in the millions, while some of the best music ever made and released by labels like 4AD are often ignored, except by a few. This schism became a conflict for 4AD when during the 90s, it became necessary to “play the game” and sell records to make money. Still, it had the ironic effect of triggering its near demise, which became so frustrating for Ivo that he eventually left and sold his half 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, and label name wrapped within the paradox of what came across as both contemporary and archaic, a mixture of rustic music tones and visual textures, surreal photography, and sounds that crossed ambient with punk and electronic. But it didn’t stop there; along with this were the New Romantic, goth, and post-punk fashion movements I adopted as I metamorphosed from surfer, preppy, new-waver to something else entirely. As with the music, my sense of fashion became poetic, creative, daring, and slightly effeminate with layered clothes of various textures, scarves, sashes, pointy shoes, primped hair, piercings, and eyeliner. But, more than the music, I witnessed art and beauty and transformed myself in an attempt to get closer to it. I looked like I came from another world — like that shimmering light bursting through my dreary existence when I heard the song “Ivo” for the first time.