Fierce Panda in Depth – “The House of Fun…”

The joyful indie label, Fierce Panda, has been a stepping stone for the careers of a swathe of UK talent. Will Simpson meets its founding father.

“Is it going to be fun?” That’s the question Fierce Panda owner Simon Williams asks when Long Live Vinyl  approaches him for an interview about his label. Certainly, fun is the spirit in which it was launched, with two of Williams’ fellow NME writers, back in 1994 and what has sustained it for a quarter of a century.

It’s also the reason he’s still there at the coalface; putting out records, discovering new bands and most importantly, going to gigs long after his contemporaries moved into ‘serious’ journalism. Williams is now 53, but when he talks his face lights up and the years fall off him. Truly, if the music industry ever gets to a point where it has no room for his sort of scampish enthusiasm then it really will be game over.

It all started, as so many great ideas do, in the pub. At the time, the NME were promoting a spurious pre-Britpop scene they dubbed ‘the new wave of new wave’, which consisted of a couple of punk-influenced bands and a smattering of amphetamine-fueled staring. “Myself, John Harris and Paul Moody decided we wanted to pay homage to this scene, it was our little punk. We said, ‘Okay, what we need to do is do a tribute record. We could put four bands on a 7-inch single!’ That’s when we came up with Fierce Panda because I like pandas and, well, they’re not fierce.”

The next morning, the three hacks remembered the previous night’s conversation. “‘Erm putting a single out? Oh, how do we do that?’” Through a connection from Walthamstow record shop Ugly Child, Williams got in touch with Damaged Goods. “I phoned up Ian Damaged and said, ‘We want to put a single out, do you want to be involved?’ This meant we bypassed all the problems that you traditionally had setting up a label, like how do you do it? How do you make records? What happens? They had distribution through SRD, so we just jumped on board their ship.”

In the end, Fierce Panda’s first release, the Shagging In The Streets EP, featured six tracks by six bands and quickly sold out its entire run of 1,000 copies. Williams was hooked. Other punningly titled EPs followed that year; Crazed And Confused compiled punk-inspired Britpop bands including Ash and Supergrass, the mod-themed Return To Splendour helped launch The Bluetones’ career and From Greer To Eternity featured six different female-fronted groups.

At this point, there was no long-term plan. “We were just completely led by the bands. So Scarfo (who featured Jamie Hince, later of The Kills) were the first ones who said, ‘We want to do a proper release, our own single on Fierce Panda’. ‘Do you? Okay’. Then it just started pouring out from there.”

And so the one-off Fierce Panda single became a rite of passage for any aspiring indie band right through the 90s and into the next decade. Kenickie, Embrace, Idlewild and Placebo all released their vinyl debuts on the label en route to bagging major deals. Then there were those purveyors of (to use Alan McGee’s memorable phrase) ‘bedwetter
music’: Coldplay.

“We worked with them for six months,” Williams recalls. “I saw them at the (Camden) Falcon at the end of ’98 and they had been passed on by everyone. The industry thought, ‘Sounds like a shit Travis. He looks like a student with shit hair’. But we loved them and put out Brothers And Sisters, Steve Lamacq played it and everyone went, ‘Oh, this sounds quite good’.

“We spent loads of time with them. Every week, Chris Martin wanted to meet up. We’d go to the pub, he’d drink his little bottles of Schweppes bitter lemon and it would be questions, questions, questions: ‘How does this work?’ ‘What does this do?’ He was obsessed. Subsequent to that, I talked to people who studied with him at UCL and they’d say, ‘He was a complete fucking pain in the arse. Every day it would be, come and see my band, come and see my band. Flyers. Flyers. Flyers’. And I use that story with every new band we sign, that’s what you’ve got to do. You don’t just give out 10 flyers and think, ‘That’s enough’.”

As a holding pen for developing talent, Fierce Panda more than deserves its place in UK music history. Williams estimates more than 70 of their acts have gone on to sign to larger labels. “But when I grew up, that’s what bands did,” he explains. “Everyone from The Primitives to Pop Will Eat Itself went to majors. In the 80s, only really Depeche Mode and New Order stayed on indies. In the early days, we didn’t need contracts, as people just trusted us. And that was it, off the band went and we were a little part of their history.”

‘There’s still just that element of surprise. You never know what’s going to be out there’

By the turn of the century, Williams had left the NME, his colleagues had dropped out and things were getting (slightly) more serious: the label had started releasing albums. They began doing the sort of things ‘proper’ indie labels do. First, there was diversification in the form of dance-orientated (Rabid Badger) and post-rock (Livid Meerkat) imprints. Then they signed a partnership deal with Mushroom records that would see Seafood and Icelanders Bellatrix graduate to the major. When that ran out after two years, Williams found himself walking into another deal, this time with Island.

“I remember sitting down at a meeting and they said, ‘What we want you to do is bring us the new Coldplay’. So we all had a massive laugh and completely forgot about that conversation, and six months later we delivered them Keane.”

A Sticky Patch

Williams looks back on that era as a glorious time. “It was easy. I talk to A&R people now and they say, ‘There was a period in my life when I’d be in meetings and first on the agenda was, What’s Fierce Panda got out this week?’ The problem is that you think that this is going to last forever.”

Things started getting sticky around 2007 when the impact of digital technology started being properly felt and CD sales began to plummet. To make matters worse, indie-rock suddenly found itself out of fashion. “Everything just turned to shit,” Williams recalls. “I think around 2007 was about the last time major labels actually signed guitar bands. 

“That connection between the majors and the indie world is just broken now. A few years back, you had a few bands who were signed direct; no fanbase, no vibe, no radio play. The majors seem to have convinced themselves that they can do this. But you’re ignoring the entire history of rock ’n’ roll! Look at Green Day, R.E.M., Coldplay, Keane, Elbow, Snow Patrol, Biffy Clyro. Festival line-ups now are still relying on bands that made it more than 10 years ago. And they all started out on small labels. Biffy did three albums before they even got to a major!”

Better Keep Going

Somehow, though, Fierce Panda has survived. Their current roster includes windswept moody types Desperate Journalist and new signings China Bears (“they’re Death Cab meets Biffy. It’s emo but before it became screamo”) and they’ve been dipping their toes back into singles via a Fierce Panda singles club.  “Streaming is OK, we could do with more syncs. But we’re clever, most of the press is in-house. All the radio is in-house. From what I can ascertain when I bump into other people, it’s all the same. Virtually everyone is licensing stuff. The whole idea of taking a band and A&Ring them just doesn’t happen. It’s ‘here’s the EP, do you want to put it out?’ which kind of takes away the fun to a certain extent, but that’s the modern way.”

Vinyl is still important to the label, even though they stopped issuing one-off vinyl singles over a decade back. “It’s very, very difficult because every new band wants to do vinyl and I go, ‘But who’s going to buy it?’ It breaks my heart. I’d love everything to be on vinyl, but our office would have to be the size of Belgium ’cos you’d have so much overstock. “Also, you’ve got to have that trust in bands as well. There was one deal we did and it was a torturous process. We did a special deal in Eastern Europe, two vinyl albums for the price of whatever and we thought, ‘Let’s do this’ and it was torture. It took ages for 300 copies of each and then one of the bands split up the week after it came out. I’ve never had the guts to sit down and work out how much we lost on that.”

Despite episodes like that, Williams claims he’s still having fun. “There’s still just that element of surprise. You never know what’s going to be out there. It’s tough, of course. But it’s tough for everyone at the moment. The good thing about what you do is the fact that whenever you think, ‘Bollocks to this, I’ve had enough’ someone points out that you’ve got six records coming out and you’ve just signed another band. So then you go, ‘Oh yeah, good point. Better keep going’.”

Will Simpson