We’ve always had a soft spot for labels who think differently. Shelsmusic – born in the UK, bred in California – has made its name on atmosphere, from tremulous folk and consciousness-expanding walls of sound, to muscle-shredding, gut-pounding metal. Albums from artists as diverse as Black Sheep Wall and Ancients make regular dents our end of year top tens. In recent months, they’ve not only expanded into production, through their Purple Buffalo Studios, but to mark their 10th anniversary, they’re re-releasing Mahumodo’s cult record Waves on vinyl. High time to catch up with label head and *shels frontman Mehdi Safa, we reckoned…
First of all, congratulations on the tenth anniversary of the label! Let’s get the obvious questions out of the way – who and what is Shelsmusic?
“Thank you! Shelsmusic is an independent record label and a stepping stone for underground/alternative music from around the world to reach more ears. I started the label in the late ’90s and handle the day-to-day operations with the support of an almost endless list of family, friends (and a few credit cards).”
What made you want to start a label?
“At the time my primary focus was writing and performing music for my old band Mahumodo. After releasing a few EPs we started receiving offers from labels, including some of the bigger ones. None of the deals seemed like they were going to take us in the direction we were organically working towards, so Shelsmusic was setup to facilitate the release of our first few EPs and then our first officially distributed release (Waves) in 2003. Running the label allowed more freedom to do things in our best interest. Knowing how hard it was for us to get our music heard, and knowing that the only options available to bands at the time were limited, we later thought Shelsmusic might also help other musicians as it did with our own music – and we’ve kept working on it ever since.”
Why is the label called ‘Shelsmusic’?
“The shels EP was one of Mahumodo’s first ever releases – it was the first time we got our sound right and it marked an important step for the music. At the time I secretly wished to change the name of the band from Mahumodo to shels, but instead used it for the EP and the label, and then eventually (Safa’s own band) *shels.”
You’re about to celebrate the label’s tenth anniversary – how has the decade been? How do you feel looking back on ten years of the label?
“The sad truth is, I haven’t had much time to sit back and appreciate that 10 years has gone by already – we’re currently working on several new releases including Erlen Meyer, Manatees, Mahumodo Vinyl and a second pressing of Plains of the Purple Buffalo for *shels. Looking back, it’s kinda nuts how much has happened. I had no idea we’d still be doing this 10 years deep. We’ve had some incredible front row seats to some of the biggest changes in the world, not to mention the music industry. Watching it completely crumble and transform around us has been scary, stressful and awesome. It’s been one hell of a period, one hell of a ride, and an absolute privilege to have been there to witness it all, both from the perspective of a musician and a label.”
What’s been your biggest triumph so far?
“Surviving this long! Seriously though, every release we’re able to make is a triumph for us. And probably the first cheque we ever sent to one of our bands. Doesn’t seem like much, but that was a big accomplishment for me personally. It was proof that you could be in a band, record music, tour and not go totally broke in the process.”
And your biggest failure?
“Aside from the folks who had heard our music and been into what we were doing, [when starting up] we had slim pickings of who we could work with. Most of the folks we originally worked with never really gave a shit, or they sucked, or charged crazy amounts of money. One particular booking agent lost us nearly $7000 and nearly resulted in us closing shop. It was a real struggle at first, which is why we wound up pretty much learning to do everything ourselves – booking tours, manufacturing lots of our limited edition merch by hand. Every single order is still packed and shipped individually by hand. Finding like-minded individuals who care about the work they do, while eventually becoming easier with time, was a long hard struggle at the start.”
What advice would you give yourself if you could go back to just before you started the label?
“It might seem like a dull answer, but avoid using credit cards. In general, I feel letting things grow organically – without the fake inflow of money you don’t really have – is the best way to build something real and long lasting. We didn’t start producing vinyl until just a few years ago, despite it being a massive wish of ours for over 10 years, and despite seeing folks around us doing vinyl from day one. Some of those labels are no longer around, and it’s not a surprise, as vinyl is super expensive. Finding like-minded partners to work with, rather than diving in with credit card loans, has worked out a lot better for us. Timing, patience and persistence is very important if you want things to last.”
Although the label is based in Temecula, CA, you’ve released stuff from bands across the world. How do you go about “finding” bands to release on the label?
“Being a touring band first and foremost has always helped us meet other musicians and artists. We also get sent a lot of new music daily. We first heard about Erlen Meyer from France thanks to a demo they sent us. Interacting with people from all over the world helps broaden our understanding of what’s going on out there. We try to keep our eyes on how different music scenes are popping up and developing.”
“More recently we started mixing and mastering for bands and musicians at our in-house recording studio, so that has become a new channel for us to hear more new music from around the at the underground level. We recently mixed an EP for a band from California called Roman Lions – sick record, for fans of Will Haven, Rinoa etc. There’s an endless stream of awesome stuff that’s out there – all you have to do is listen.”
What do you look for in a band for a Shelsmusic release?
“The first thing is the music, of course. It has to connect with us, so that we can fully get behind it with all our hearts and treat it as if it was our own record. After that, we like working with people brave enough to be themselves, not occupied with looking cool – folks in love with music, who will do it no matter what. We love heavy and heartfelt music. There has to be a good mix of technical ability (although that’s not vital), creativity and a deep and true passion for making and performing music. Those are some of the things that are important to us, but still not enough to commit to working with a band. It’s equally important that the folks we work with are humble, down to earth, kind, fearless and have open minds. We’ve had lots of incredible demos sent to us that pass the music test with flying colours, which we’ve passed up because we felt we couldn’t connect with the band personally. Working with people who share a similar vision, and are on a similar wavelength, makes it way easier, more long-lasting and way more fun. At the end of the day we see ourselves professional musicians, and in this day and age a musician should carry much more in his or her arsenal than just the ability to write and perform powerful music.”
Since the label’s started, you’ve also expanded into mixing and mastering services, under the name Purple Buffalo Studios [taken from the title of the last *shels release]. What prompted this move?
“I absolutely love producing music. I’ve been recording music as since I was 13. I started off on a four-track tape recorder, and was instantly hooked – I used it to record all the Mahumodo demos that I used to send to the other band members to practice the songs. After spending four years working on Plains of the Purple Buffalo and having mastered and mixed several Shelsmusic releases, including Black Sheep Wall, Sons of Noel and Adrian, *Ancients and *shels, I felt more confident to start doing it professionally. Sometimes I feel that’s what I do best, but it’s another long road that I have only just started on. It’s also another source of income to help the label stay afloat.”
What’s the future for Shelsmusic? Do you have any further anniversary celebrations planned for 2013?
“Aside from the Mahumodo Waves double 12” vinyl, we’ve commissioned our old amigo Paul Jackson, from Johnny Truant to design a 10 year anniversary label t-shirt for us, so can’t wait for that. We’re also giving away tons of free downloads from our bandcamp page on the Shelsmusic Facebook page. Other than that, just busy on our new releases!”
What are your hopes for the next ten years?
“To still be around! And to be in a greater position to help the many talented folks out there making beautiful music – and hopefully not be as worried about bills! Fingers crossed!”