As the UK imprint’s Split Series draws to a close with its 24th release, Joe Muggs speaks with curator Dave Howell and shares a four-decks-and-effects live pile-up mix of series highlights.
So, it’s over. The release of Split Series 24 – featuring one lengthy track from renowned Canadian composer Ian William Craig, and seven bizarre takes on Estonian vernacular music from little known poet and musician Kago – brings to an end a series whose alumni reads like a roll-call of Wire favourites. Each edition juxtaposes two very different musicians: Gescom, Matmos, The Dead C, AMM, Merzbow, Kid 606, Fennesz, Konono No 1, Katie Gately, Kemialliset Ystävät, Avey Tare, Astral Social Club, Surgeon, and more, sitting alongside more obscure names like Japan’s QT?, Austria’s Bannlust and Super Khoumeissa, a Malian band from a 1000 year old city on the banks of the Niger.
The project – released on matching 12” singles with holes hand-drilled in the sleeves and distinctive black and white typography – launched as FatCat was in the midst of a major transition. FatCat began as a techno record store in Crawley and then London, but in 1996–97 the shop closed and label began, with support from One Little Indian and the arrival of Dave Howell of the Obsessive Eye fanzine as A&R. Its early releases nod back to FatCat’s techno roots, notably with EPs from Grain (one of the many aliases of Arthur ‘Artwork’ Smith), but very quickly it spread into post-rock and other experimental sounds with the likes of Múm, Sigur Rós and Mice Parade. Howell’s baby, the Split Series, was a vital part of this.
“I was massively into the early post-rock scene,” says Howell, who was also a contributor to The Wire in the late 90s, “was a regular at drum ’n’ bass nights, and started discovering more and more electronica and it felt like there was a lot of bleed-through and openness in a lot of the things going on at that time.” The Split Series was intended to capture this kind of juxtaposition – “that kind of montage idea of sliding different things against one another” – initially by asking friends and contacts from the fanzine to do things out of the ordinary. It was intended to be quick and instinctive, and indeed the first half of the series came out fast and furious in the first three years.
Then things became more complicated. FatCat turned from cottage industry to serious enterprise, with Howell hands on with many of the acts as well as launching the post-classical 130701 imprint – which itself celebrates 20 years of activity this year – while vinyl sales died away fast, so slinging out impromptu 12″s became altogether less viable. The Split Series, as he self-effacingly puts it, “ultimately ended up becoming a bit of an albatross, before finally limping home”, but he nonetheless fully committed to getting to the 24th hole drilled in a sleeve, and threw everything into maintaining the original ethos and quality of releases.
“I’d been trying to finish it off for years,” Howell says, “but even just on this last one a number of things fell through – I actually had finished tracks from James Leyland Kirby, aka The Caretaker, a very old friend who I started off the series with as V/Vm. I thought it would close the loop nicely but he ended up not wanting that material released, so it took a bit longer than it should’ve to get here.” Howell did get here, though – with Craig and Kago the Split Series ends very much as it begun, sonically uncompromising, eye-opening in its combination of artists, and in the case of Kago, “something unlike most people will have heard before and unlike anything else we’ve put out previously.”
Split Series 24 is released via FatCat