Miles Cleret

Miles Cleret
Miles Cleret runs the much heralded Soundway Records, a London based reissue label that has put out some of the finest vintage jams from around the world. Among their most famous releases are the Ghana Soundz collections. Soundway and reissue labels of similar vision such as the Numero Group, Blood and Fire, and Light In The Attic do far more than license a random bunch of tracks. They do primary historical research on forgotten chapters of groove music and combine them with first rate graphic design and thoughtful annotation. In these days of declining CD sales, these physical products are well worth owning. Soundway’s latest release is Nigeria Special — their second volume of Nigerian sounds with at least two more to come in the near future.

How long have you been collecting?
Since I was about 12. My dad was a big record collector so I guess I picked it up off him. I’ve always had loads of records in the house, the minute I had any money to buy my own, that’s when I started. If I wasn’t buying my own I’d be ruining my father’s. These days, I’ve had to give my two year his own records (to ruin) because he’s making his way towards mine alarmingly quickly. How long have you been DJing? Do you still DJ as much as you used to?
I guess I started playing records in clubs when I was 19 or 20, so 15 years ago. When I was a student in Manchester friends used to put on parties and we would do the back room where we had more free reign to do whatever we wanted. The pressure wasn’t on to make people dance. The early days of my DJing were based in experimentation, throwing in an African track or a hip-hop or a reggae or jazz track. I’ve always liked to surprise people as much as possible.

When you pick up some undiscovered gem, do you think "wow, that’s going to be a killer on the dance floor”? Is that one of the criteria for using a track on your compilations?
Sometimes, but this one is much less dance floor oriented. The space I’ve been in the last six or seven years has been aimed at making people dance, and that’s coincided with [the existence of] Soundway. There’s been a slew of other records I’ve been into but haven’t had the means to output them. Having taken a break from Soundway last year, and having young children, sitting around sifting through records I thought why not put out these records that I’ve been building up from Nigeria all these years? I know they go together really well but they’re not all aimed at the dancefloor but they’re all totally unique. I’ve had this compilation in mind for four of five years. To answer your question, yes, but less and less at this time. It doesn’t have to be aimed at the dance floor it just has to be good. That being said, the next one coming up is going to be filled with banging dance tracks. I’ve spent a lot of time researching Nigerian music, trying to get my head around all the music coming out in Nigeria around this time. The next one is slightly later than this – ’74 to ’79, kind of disco funk, and the one after that is psychedelic rock with not a saxophone in sight.

Do you think the notion of what a "dance floor tune” might be has expanded over the years?
To be honest, I don’t really care right now. Whether people want to dance to them or listen to them in their car. You know, like the rock one… When I was really young I used to be into progressive rock and when I was really young, like 13, I was into metal. But throughout my 20s I was into the jazz funk thing with lots of horns and guitar as a primarily rhythmic instrument. But so many people have emailed me about the rock music of Nigeria that I started listening to more of the records. The rock scene was quite big. So after the disco funk special, we’re doing the Nigeria rock special. And it’s great music, you just have to get past the things in your head that stop you from appreciating a rock guitar solo. Really, I’m not looking at it at the moment as to whether it’s for the dance floor, if it’s good I’m going to put it out.

Well that’s the thing. You talk about the scholarship and the work over five years to put this together. I always feel that your compilations are far more than just banging out tracks. They’re real artistic and somewhat historical statements.
Well, it takes a long time and it takes dedication and a lot of people don’t realise it. It’s a lot of groundwork and a hell of a lot of time.

Is it getting harder to do?
I don’t know. I’m having more ideas for compilations right now because I’ve put a lot of hard work and effort and legwork in over the last few years. What’s getting harder is putting them out because people aren’t buying them as much as they used to. Financially it’s harder. That’s the other thing. People expect the chains and to some extent the consumer will lump a record like Nigeria Special in the same boat as some crappy compilation, which was licensed in one afternoon. It hasn’t had any love or care or time taken over it. It’s not packaged very nicely, the artwork isn’t done very well. Nigeria Special’s had a lot of time and money spent on it and people expect to download it for free — that’s the hard thing at the moment is to put out quality releases and to have people respect them as quality releases ’cause I think people’s appreciation of music is not necessarily going down — I think people appreciate it as much as ever but people don’t value music the way they used to. They’re not willing to dig into their pockets and pay for it. At the end of the day as much as it’s your love and passion there are bills to be paid.

You bring up challenges from digital music online. I guess your compilations are available for sale track by track on iTunes?
Well, they will be in a couple of weeks. We like to have the physical product available for a few weeks before it goes up onto iTunes.

There must be differences in sales from track to track.
Yeah, there probably will be. Again that’s another hard thing for putting out a compilation. I mean, it’s fairly obvious from reading the reviews, the feedback you get, of what tunes appeal to most people.

But I’m sure if I were to ask you if that influence how you chose tracks for a compilation you’d say no.
I’ve always tried to keep the quality high on our releases, not patching it out with some rubbish just for the hell of it. I think the reggae market has been slightly guilty over the years of doing that, especially these days because it’s getting harder and harder to find a reggae track which hasn’t been reissued.

Let’s move on to the compilation. It took five years to put it together?
Initially I only had two or three tracks which I thought would go together well, but I thought it would be nice to put out a compilation that was a bit more bluesy and mid-tempo and tied together the highlife scene with the Afro scene and the younger generation. This was, I think, the most creative period of Nigerian music, a very vibrant time all over the world really. The added factor of it coming after a three-year civil war gave it more diversity, intrigue and newfound confidence. Something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. The collecting, amassing, sorting through and traveling took five years.

What did you want to achieve with this compilation that other comps haven’t, for instance (Afrostrut’s) Nigeria 70, which came out a few years ago?

I’m not really too fussed about comparing it to other compilations. I just wanted a nice compilation that people could put on and sit down and listen to. I’ve noticed with a lot of my friends who aren’t as interested in dance music as I am, a lot of them will say, "I like your CDs but I don’t really find the time to listen to them because they’re so full on.” And people have really enjoyed this one, it’s sounds great just as an album to listen to. I suppose I just wanted to open people’s ears who’ve looked at Soundway before, and we’ve been progressing towards this with our latest releases, and expose music that isn’t jazz- or funk-based and do it by comparing and sitting it beside music that is jazz and funk-based and showing where Afrobeat came from, and that these kinds of records were sitting side by side when you went to a record store in Lagos in 1973.

Do you have a standard methodology when you go to Colombia or Nigeria as to where you’re going to look for records, a network you can tap into?
It’s a pretty easy formula, you turn up and you go to a record store and you find people who are into music at these stores and it snowballs from there. You go to this guy and that guy’s house — it would be much the same in Toronto if you wanted to look for funk. You’d turn up with a few numbers and the names of a few record stores and you’d soon get under the skin. You spend as much time as you can with them, drinking, going out in the evening, going out to record stores, finding collectors. Once people find out that you’re into the music like they are, they’re willing to help you out.

Sometimes one hears that, concerning vintage African sounds, "Africans don’t care about this old music.” Is that true?
Well, there is an alarming neglect. But it’s a massive generalisation to say Africans don’t like old music.

It is.
There are a lot of old guys who fondly remember and love the old music but if you compare it to Colombia, it’s definitely less alive than someplace like Barranquila, which along with Cartgena is the main coastal centre of music in Colombia. You’ll meet guys in their early 20s playing tracks from the ’60s and ’70s just as much as a new track. There are very few young guys into old music in Anglophone countries like Nigeria and Ghana especially because I guess they’re so much more influenced by American and English speaking music in particular like hip-hop, ragga and reggae. In Benin and Senegal — French speaking places — you feel there’s more of an interest in their own culture and their own musical culture. You can’t generalise, but there is an alarming neglect of the music of the past. Especially with the catalogs of the music of the past, some of the master tapes have just been dumped and forgotten. But you could argue from an African perspective that there are more important things to think about.

Do you feel that if you hadn’t gotten to these records they’d be lost forever?
There are always a few guys who collect. There’s a friend of mine, he’s Nigerian and lives in New York, he’s collected quite a few things. But there are very few people who are willing to put in the hours and time and look hard for these things. Coming back to your question before, that’s the aim of these compilations — to keep the music from dying so as many people as possible can hear it.

Do you feel like you have to include certain artists in order to tell this story?
Not at all. I wanted to keep as far away from that as possible. I wanted to put together music that sat together well. There’s a lack of big names, really. It’s amazing how many times you’ll read a review and the reviewer will start off immediately talking about the big names of Nigerian music, which is kind of inevitable I suppose.

But it’s more self-referential for critics to write about that: "Here’s what I know about Nigerian music.”
It would be like reviewing any British rock band of the ’60s or ’70s and [be criticised for] not talking about Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin, so why do you always bring up Sunny Ade and Fela Kuti? They deserve all the respect they have but sometimes there are even more surprising things that are less heard. So no, I didn’t need to include any names.

Is it difficult to contact the artists to get clearance and pay royalties?
It is. In Nigeria it’s actually easier than in Ghana. There were main three record companies in the ’70s, they were all foreign ones: EMI, Decca and Philips. And when those three companies left they sold their Nigerian catalogs to three Nigerian companies that are still active and represent those catalogs. The problem they have is that not all the artists are still in touch with them, so it’s hard for them to figure out where the money is going to go. In Ghana, I found the artists and licensed directly from them. It’s a complicated business.

Did they want a lot of money to license them? I’d heard that Discos Fuentes (subject of the Colombia! compilation) wanted a lot of money.
The Nigerian guys had a lot of experience licensing these tracks through Nigeria 70 and the Nigerian album I did before called Afro Baby, so we did the same deal as before. Discos Fuentes was surprised that there was a market for their stuff outside the Latin market, they kind of thought they knew the market for their stuff. They were surprised there was a market outside that for their stuff. We’re working on another Fuentes comp, it should be out by the end of the year. We’re also doing a Panama! 2 coming up…

You’ve got quite the active release schedule coming up!
This year is the biggest year in the history of the label. There are a few factors involved with that. I can sense the market changing and I want to get these ones out before it’s harder and harder to do these things. I don’t know if I’m still going to be putting out compilations when I’m in my 60s, now’s the time to do it when I still have my passion, the audience and the market still is somewhat there. It’s a scary thing — you spend tens of thousands of pounds, and the way the music business is set up, you happily pack up boxes of this to your distributor and hope they’re not going to go bust, and go down with all of your money. And that’s happening more frequently. You never have any idea that the money you spend on these things is coming back. So now’s the time, we have our audience, we have a bunch of people who are very supportive of our label, so now’s the time. What other impetus is there?

Miles Cleret will be DJing at Turning Point, Saturday April 5, at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto.