Keith Cullen was the founder and head of Setanta Records for an often glorious couple of decades before he called time on the label in 2012. The final release was Orchestral Variations V.1, a covers album by with some really beautiful stuff on it, like Ed Harcourt’s ‘Something To Believe In’ and Mark Lanegan’s ‘Close To Me’, which is my favourite Lanegan moment outside of Whiskey for the Holy Ghost. Fiona Brice’s arranging work on this record was incredible. Anyway, Setanta were a big part of my life ever since I Am The Greatest and it was great to connect with Keith Cullen. I’ve posted my contemporaneous review of the album here too. It is poignant to recall that I fact-checked this piece with the late Seán Hughes.
Underdogs are the best: Keith Cullen Interview
Friday 2nd July saw the release of Orchestral Variations V.01, an album by a collective called The Separate. The album features covers, arranged by Fiona Brice and Rob Kirwan, of a dozen of key songs in Keith Cullen’s life, sung by the likes of Mark Lanegan, Martha Wainright and Ed Harcourt. Cullen, for those of you who were not into spiky independent pop in the 90s, is the founder and owner of Setanta Records, which was a lifeline for much of that decade. Setanta has been quiet for the last decade or so but has kept going, until now. This is definitively its last release; there won’t be an Orchestral Variations V.02.
Through Setanta, Keith Cullen midwifed brilliant albums by the likes of A House, Brian, Into Paradise, The Harvest Ministers, and Richard Hawley, while rejuvenating Edwyn Collins and even Evan Dando. Setanta brought The Magnetic Fields to Ireland and the UK before it was profitable or popular; actually, by the time they were profitable and popular, Setanta had let them go. Cullen was also to a large extent responsible for the career of The Divine Comedy, signing them in 1991 and putting out everything as far as Fin de Siècle. Sean Hughes once wrote a poem in which he thanked Cullen for cycling up a high street with the master tapes of Promenade in the basket of his bike. (Details of this poem are sketchy, and I’m paraphrasing, but Hughes, asked last week via Twitter if he had written a poem called ‘Thank You Keith Cullen’, replied, “Gosh, I believe I did”.)
On the occasion of their Setanta’s ever album, State thought it would be a good idea to mark the passing of a milestone in Irish music with the man behind some of the finest records in recent Irish music history, Keith Cullen.
State: The official end of Setanta Records is a poignant moment for a particular generation of music lovers in Ireland and beyond. As a friend of mine said “We all have at least one of those records”, and some of us have 20 of them. But these events sometimes mean more, sentimentally, to people not so close to them – is the last Setanta release a poignant, even sad, moment for you?
Keith Cullen: I’ve been pretty inactive as a record label for the last few years, so I guess not really. Having said that, I know there was a time when I felt over it all, and working with Josh Ritter and the Chalets kept me going for a while. Josh is one of the nicest people to deal with and the Chalets were such a real band, dynamically. It’s not sad really. It’s the past. Being reminded of what you did is nice, but I forget bits of films I love within 24 hours of watching them so I can’t say there is a part of my mind stuck in a nostalgia trip.
What inspired you to set up Setanta in the first place in the Eighties? Was there a particular aesthetic or ethic? Were there other labels that you looked to?
Rough Trade was the only UK record label that signed Irish artists. The best talent comes from the back arse of nowhere, and Ireland filled that criterion in every way in those pre Ryanair / Magners / Father Ted years. Putting Irish music that was not bad stadium rock on the map in the UK was the intention. It worked to a degree, maybe it opened some doors.
Am I right in remembering a Setanta motto “None of your indie tat”?
‘None of your cheap indie tat’ was on a Divine Comedy ad we put in the NME. Most indie music was all rough around the edges then; there was nothing classy going on. At least that was my perception!
Was there a sense then in which Setanta was a reaction to other music going on in Ireland or made by Irish people at the time? I’m thinking of the morass of post-U2 stuff that Setanta could hardly have been further from.
I hated the attention and big deals that bands like Cactus World News, Blue In Heaven and An Emotional Fish got, but there was probably a big dose of jealousy going on there too! Most major label signings are made by muppets who are looking for the next big thing. I had a policy of only signing artists that nobody else was interested in, no point chasing after the Emperor’s new clothes. In a way, those bands were only doing what was expected of them. Having said that, Celtic (Irish and Scottish) artists tend to be less insular than English ones. They don’t shy away from anthemic choruses, it’s easier for Americans to like them and if the Yanks like it who gives a monkeys about Blighty?
One of my abiding memories of the Setanta era comes is that glorious, hilarious, unlikely moment in the summer of 1996, when the Divine Comedy went on to Top of the Tops in white suits to play Something for the Weekend. You must have a list of such moments when you stood back and said – Wow.
Em, I honestly don’t remember that! TV goes over my head, I didn’t see the video for ‘A Girl Like You’ until a few years after it was released. I hate videos. The fact that The Clash refused to go on Top of the Pops was a big deal to me. In this present fame hungry climate people would wonder why anyone would say no to something like that; sounds like a good reason to give up the old dayjob to me.
You’ve written about not wanting to be the old guy at the back of the gig going on about some new act or trying to keep up, and this is a feeling everyone fortyish and up knows well. Has your taste changed?
Someone asked Edwyn Collins what music I liked and he said ‘anything without a beat’ which is pretty apt. I’ve always liked sad stuff, now I just like the sad stuff to be slower, so I don’t miss anything.
If it’s not too much like choosing between your children, are there Setanta records you are particularly proud of?
Ever the obscurist, I still think A Feeling Mission by the Harvest Ministers is a great album, as is Stooping to Fit by Catchers. Having said that, I listened to I Am the Greatest by A House last week for the first time in years and it still sounds great.
What exactly did Séan Hughes say about you in that poem? I recall he said something about you cycling up Kilburn High St with the master tapes of Promenade in the basket of your bike.
Did he? I had no idea he mentioned me in a poem. I do remember he wrote something in the Independent about me. We’ve met a bunch of times, he seems like a nice guy, but I never knew when he was joking because I didn’t have a TV, I was unaware of his humour, I don’t get most comedians.
Can you say a little about late-period Setanta? There were wonderful moments there like Richard Hawley’s Late Night Final and Evan Dando’s Baby I’m Bored.
Evan Dando was very funny but off the wall and high maintenance. He was friends with Marlon Richards. He told me he liked hanging out with Marlon because Evan was the only person Marlon’s dad (Keith Richards) didn’t approve his son hanging around with.
It’s great to see Richard Hawley doing well. It was hard getting things started though. Mojo didn’t want to review his albums because they said ‘we don’t need another Roy Orbison’. I got a call from The Word Magazine two years ago, asking me for £500 so they could put a track from Lowedges on their ‘Best of the Noughties’ cover mount CD. I told them to fuck off. Again, they didn’t review it at the time. NME ran a ‘classic albums’ review of Edwyn Collins Gorgeous George album a few years ago, another album nobody cared about until ‘A Girl Like You’ was a hit. Do I sound bitter?!
And post-label, what you are doing now? I know you published a novel (2009’s God Save The Village Green).
I’m writing a second novel, which is… going. I’m also selling collectable books online, which makes more of a living than I made while running the label!
I was absolutely blown away by Ed Harcourt’s version of ‘Something to Believe In’ by The Ramones on the Separate album. To be the opening track on that album suggests that ‘Something to Believe In’ is a big song for you. What does the song mean to you, and about The Ramones?
That was the track that made me want to make the album. The lyrics are great, but they are killed by the 80’s production of the Ramones version, and it’s not a very Ramones-y song. Neil Hannon covered it at my suggestion years ago. The Ramones? They’re underdogs. Underdogs are the best!
The Separate – Orchestral Variations V1 (Setanta).
As noted in a Keith Cullen interview elsewhere in State, Orchestral Variations V.1 is the final release on Setanta Records, marking its transition from a dormant label (its last release, bar a novel, was in 2006) to an extinct one. This is really it; there won’t be a V.2.
Orchestral Variations V.1, released to formally mark Setanta’s demise, is a collection of songs selected by Cullen, arranged for chamber strings, and sung by a range of impressive names. Cullen picked the songs, paid for the album, and is putting it out. It’s been called a vanity project, and it is, but, then: isn’t all art?
And actually, it works really well. The songs selected go from unexpectedly populist choices (Patrick Wolf’s ‘Old Town’, Mark Lanegan’s ‘Close to Me’, Martha Wainwright’s ‘Stories for Boys’) to the reassuringly idiosyncratic, like ‘Big Sky’ from the Kinks’ 1968 Village Green Preservation Society, or OMD’s taut, puzzling ‘Souvenir’.
Ed Harcourt takes on The Ramones, but does so not through ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ but via the obscure ‘Something to Believe In’: “I wish I was someone else / I’m confused, I’m afraid, I hate the loneliness”, it begins, opening the album. Harcourt, with producer Rob Kirwan and arranger Fiona Brice, does an exquisite job of laying bare the song’s crippling melancholy, not neglecting the hope: “With your love”, it goes on, “I know with all my heart I can win”. It’s a stunning performance.
As is Mark Lanegan’s take on The Cure’s ‘Close to Me’. Covers of hit songs are tough to get right, because each listener has a million associations with the song already; if the cover is too close a copy, like Paul Noonan’s ‘Once in a Lifetime’, nothing is added and the cover quickly becomes pointless. Lanegan, however, utterly reimagines ‘Close to Me’, de- and re-constructing it as something barely recognisable. The Cure’s song was always a classic, but Lanegan’s slowed-down, dissonant version finds layers of depth and foreboding in the song that I doubt Robert Smith knew he put there.
This, here, is how you make a song your own, and it’s an expression of unrestrained but cultivated creativity befitting the final release on a label that is already much missed.
Niall Crumlish 4/5