AT ONE point it seemed like the same old story.
A group of eager young hopefuls – who are every talented but also very naïve – start to make wonderful music and are taken under the wing of a backer who is more worldly wise and get taken for a ride. It happens all the time.
But the devil doesn’t always get the best tunes. The forces of good and grooviness sometimes get their act together. And that’s exactly what happened with Rotherham’s highly-regarded Beeswax label, which is run by music heads Lee Oakes and Leiam Sullivan (usually known by his DJing name of Sully) and business brain Robert Lovell.
“The deal was that we would set up Beeswax as an independent dance label alongside Empire Studio’s own mainstream label, and anything we did that had mainstream potential would be released through them,” says Robert, who is by far the gobbiest of the trio. “We didn’t want commercial mixes on our records, we didn’t want to go in that directional at all. They didn’t listen to us.”
Beeswax burst onto the scene last year, when the label arrived in a blaze of outrageous rock n roll guitar and a piano line that was nothing less than deranged. Tom Tom’s very groovy Iron Hamma EP simply rocked, with a live, spontaneous feel the lads put down to the recording session being “basically just one big jam session” with whoever happened to be passing through the studio at the time.
One of them was American pianist Pete le Vine, who has previously worked with Madonna, and the eponymous Pete in Pete’s Piano, from Hoof’s Detroit EP for the label.
“We’d be putting down the bassline,” remembers Robert, “Pete would be jazzing away at the piano ..”
“And there was this 40-year-old bloke, this guitarist from Birmingham, just playing this amazing riff in the corner ..” adds Lee.
“And we were like, what is this? What are you playing? Bloomin’ hell!” says Robert, still buzzing from the experience.
“And,” grins Sully, “It was all done in a matter of 10 minutes.”
After that, all that was left to do was put together a bullshit press release saying the EP was a remix of some dodgy rock track – when the truth would have made for a better, more interesting story – send out the promos and wait for the response.
“It did really well,” says Robert. “Everyone clicked onto it. It was number one in loads of (DJ) charts, and mentioned in loads more, and it was played on Radio One and all over the place. It sold 4,000 copies and went on four compilations, got remixed in Italy, brought back into the country and did really well again. It made quite a lot of money for the label.”
But unfortunately, Sully, Lee and Robert haven’t seen much of that money, which is pretty much par for the course – and where we came in.
“They wanted us to sign these five-year contracts, so that they could use them to bargain with in these massive American deals they were setting up. We took them to a solicitor and he told us that if we signed them, we’d be signing away five years of our lives. We wouldn’t be able to release anything on any other label for five years. He said, why don’t you buy the company out? So we did.”
Robert has every right to look pleased with piece of legal fancy foortwork.
“It cost us 300 quid and now it’s all ours.”
And to add insult to injury, later the same day, they calmly walked into the label’s studio, did two mixes of their next single Hypnotise, and walked out of the studio with the all-important DAT, never to return. In the event, their old boss prevented them from using the mixes, so they had to re-record it at Fon Studios in Sheffield.
“It was a complete disaster,” says Robert.
“We’d been there from midnight and, at about five in the morning, we started doing this final mix, and it took about four hours. We recorded it, packed all the stuff away, and then realised that we hadn’t put a DAT in the machine.”
“It was a complete disaster,” says Robert again.
“That same day, my car got pinched,” continues Sully. “The whole thing was a nightmare. Someone was telling us not to release that track. The original version we did sounded really house, and really underground, but we just couldn’t get the same sound again.”
“We should’ve sat on it and got someone else to remix it, but we hadn’t had anything out in ages, and we really needed some money because we’d finished on the Enterprise Allowance. So we thought, let’s get it out before Christmas …”
“It wasn’t a good time,” says master of understatement Lee.
“No, not at all,” agrees Robert. “In fact it was the worst time you could ever pick to release a record. It only sold about 1,200 units, but that brought in what it cost to produce it and made us a bit of money on top.”
You might think from all this that Hypnotise is some kind of top 40 commercial monstrosity, but this attitude that ‘nothing but the best will do’ is indicative of the Beeswax boys attitude towards quality control.
For the record, Hypnotise isn’t a crap tune. In fact its languid and tender vocal by Sarah Jay – whose voice graced Sine’s superb Round and Around on Time Recordings last year – and a very lovey-dovey lyric made it the label’s catchiest tune to date. You could sing along to it.
“Yeah,” says Robert, glumly.
“Our mums and dads like it anyway,” says Sully with a laugh.
The three are a lot more enthusiastic about the latest Beeswax release. The Driftwood EP is a collaboration between themselves, Cordial and Miles Hollway and Elliot Eastwick, residents at Hard Times, yet another kicking Yorkshire house night. It turns out the Beeswax lads make the journey over from Rotherham to Huddersfield practically every week.
“It’s excellent. You can just enjoy yourself, plodding around the place ..”
“We’re not the kind of people to go up to DJs after they’ve played and talk to them,” says Leiam, anxious to avoid looking like a terminal handshaker. “We just enjoy the night and go home. But one night Lee got talking to Elliot for some reason, and it turned out both him and Miles were really into The Iron Hamma. Elliot didn’t shut up about it.
“And it’s all been uphill from then on really. We’re coming from similar places, musically. They’re not just playing that music for the crowd, they’re playing it for themselves, because they love it. Like us.”
Despite this, the Hard Times duo ended up ditching most of the tune for their version, apart from the original bassline, and giving what Sully says is a Vasquez, DJ Pierre-type of sound.
“It’s really contemporary,” deadpans Robert. “There’s blokes shouting on it instead of singing ..”
“And it’s got one of the longest breaks you’ve ever heard. Everyone says that we should’ve shortened it because it goes on forever. You’re waiting and waiting and it just doesn’t come in,” says Sully. “But when it does come in, it really hits you.”
“Cordial’s mixes are really crafted, well-produced and really English, which is exactly what we wanted,” adds Robert. “You listen to his mixes, the Hard Times mixes, and the Tom Tom mixes and it’s a complete package.”
They’ve already scheduled another two release for the label: and EP by Woob, who they discovered through a free CD of unreleased artists given away by a music technology magazine, and a single by the Foot Club.
Excuse me? Fuck Club?
“Foot!” explodes Robert. “Foot Club! We’re not that sad.”
“It’s a male vocal thing,” Sully explains. “We’ve got two American-style mixes and I think we’re going to get Cordial to do one. We did have a full EP but again, after Hypnotise, we’ve had to think to ourselves ..”
“Is this really the right way for us to go?” says Robert.
“Cos we’re all for that America sound, the snares and everything, but not everyone out there is,” says Sully with a shrug.
American house music is a Beeswax specialist subject.
“I remember Sasha or someone, two years ago, saying that Strictly Rhythm would be finished as a label when garage died a death,” says Robert, incredulous. “Where was he coming from with that?”
“Strictly Rhythm have just been in the top 10 with Reel 2 Real,” Sully points out.
“And if that’s garage .. I Like to Move It was chunky American house at its most,” says Robert.
The Americans, I suggest, are really good at writing proper tunes, with proper melodies and soul.
“They give it a groove,” says Lee. “They’ll just have a drum going and you can dance to it. It’s not just a sampled beat going boom boom boom boom and tsh tsh tsh tsh. It’s really working you. These guys have sat down with a drum machine and produced something new. You try copying it and you can’t do it. The only way you can do it is by sampling it – and we don’t want to do that because we want to stay original.”
So is there anyone in particular they’d like to work with?
“George Morel,” says Sully without a moment’s hesitation. “I wouldn’t even want to work with him, I wouldn’t mind just sitting in the studio and watching what he does. I wouldn’t say a word. I could just sit there for 12 hours at a stretch, just taking it all in. His stuff, it amazes me.”
“And Junior Vasquez as well,” decides Lee, to general agreement all round. “Leiam got his new record the other day [Get Your Hands Off My Man, fact fans] and it’s touched something in me, that.”
Is there anyone in Britain they rate?
“Farley and Heller, actually. Their stuff is very clean and musical,” says Sully. “Fire Island is one of the best records I’ve heard.”
And funnily enough, this is precisely the level of quality you can expect to hear at Rise, the Friday night session the lads run at the Leadmill in Sheffield. They’ve taken it from an audience of two or three hundred to capacity, with hundreds turned away every week.
“It’s house,” explains Sully, “with lots of garage and lots of vocals, because they like their vocals in Sheffield. Morel’s Grooves 4 is a bit of anthem there. At the start of the night, the dancefloor can be a bit dead but you put that on and the place erupts.”
The trio tell me that some of the big name DJs they’ve had at Rise have been more hindrance than help in getting the club off the ground.
“We’ve had some name DJs who were really good, and some that were shocking,” confides Sully. “I think that a name DJ should come along and play a full set of records that you’ve never heard before. Some of these are coming along and playing four-month-old records.”
“And they can’t mix,” adds Lee with real disgust. “They’re getting paid loads of money, they’ve had this big name for years, and there’s absolutely no fluency to their mixing.”
While they refuse to name names, they will say that Paul Trouble Anderson and Jon Digweed were both excellent, but by far the most entertaining guest they’ve had was nancy Noise, which, says Sully, “surprised me a bit”.
We won’t get into that one.
It all comes back to the question of quality and value for money, something than near enough obsesses the Beeswax in all their business dealings. Like they say, “there’s a recession on”, and they wouldn’t want to put their names to anything less than top quality – whether it’s the club, the label or their latest track.
“We make records with four good mixes on them,” says Robert. “There’s no point in having one decent mix and three rubbish mixes. If we did that, we might as well just press up some one-sided 45s.”
So you’re not going to get it that whole double pack thing then?
“Well, actually, our next one ..”
“It’s a six pack!”
* * *
Me and Leiam kept in touch, on and off, for a bit. Me and Earnshaw went over to Rise a few times, and I think Sully stuck us on the guesty. It was a really cool club, full of friendly, off-it south Yorkshire types, and the music was great – proper house and garage, all night long.
A decade or so before, I’d seen Crass, Flux, KUKL, Chumbawamba and D&V at the same venue. And Aswad. And here I was again, older but dafter, having the time of my life, again.
I have a vague memory of Refresher Es. I think Chumbawamba and Bjork would approve.
We all went to Niche when the Leadmill closed. It reminded me of a blues. I have a memory of blokes who looked like off-duty bouncers – all shaved heads and twitchy muscles – and dressed-up girls with perfect nails and hard faces. There was a bit of an edgy vibe. We didn’t stay long.
Leiam ended up having something to do with a club in Rotherham, a couple of doors down from the cinema I’d gone to see Bedknobs and Broomsticks as a kid. Me and Earnshaw went to the opening night, although I think we had to go later than we would’ve wanted because an ex who’d recently binned me was going to be there early doors.
The night has been largely erased from my mind by the ravages of years of drink and drugs, long nights, early mornings and poor diet and just a general lack of focus and commitment. However, one incident remains vivid.
The staircase from the groundfloor to the first were at the end of the building, and the outer façade had been glazed, over two storeys. Halfway up, at the top of the first flight of stairs, the glass had a perfect silhouette of an owl – down to individual feathers at the tips of its wings – picked out in what I can only describe as owl dust. Apparently, owls flying into stuff is a thing.
Anyway, after a few ups and downs over the years, Leiam is still busy with music.
[This interview was first published in 24:7 Magazine at some point in 1994]