Jan 13, 2014
Flying to West Africa, northern Latin America, and the Caribbean looking for rare records to create re-issue albums with great aesthetics and brief histories of your favorite periods in musical history is a pretty sweet job. That's what Miles Cleret does to earn his crust with his Soundway record label. In his travels Miles has documented whole cultures on the brink of extinction, as well as entire histories of musical experimentation, one-hit wonders, and sky high egomania.
Miles insists on clarifying, however, how dull 95% of his job is, but we can be sure that the other 5% is probably a bunch more fun than you have 100% of the time at your job.
Vice: How did you turn something that a lot of people consider an obsessive but recreational hobby into flying all over the world pretending it’s a job?
Miles Cleret: I grew up in a house full of records. My dad was a big record collector and I remember how magical it was discovering new recordings and holding them in your hands. The essence of this whole crate-digging—call it what you like—the inspiration comes from looking for music to present to people who don’t know it, and I suppose the label and everything that happens with it is just an extension of that.
So what made you go from there to reissuing such specific eras?
Recordings from the periods that we tend to reissue are in real danger of dying out from being neglected and overlooked. There is a tendency for people to think that something made in the 70s will never be endangered, but that's not always the case. Some of those records were pressed in really tiny numbers, sometimes only two, three, four hundred copies, and 95% of them lie smashed in pieces on the ground or scratched to high hell, or were never sold and melted down to make the next record. So, there’s a real chance these records will never be heard again unless somebody puts them out or focuses on them. It’s a kind of audio conservation I suppose.
Is it working?
Well, 15 years ago some records were absolutely impossible to find. They were just these weird little things that might turn up in tiny second hand record stores in New York, London, or Paris. Now they are easier to get a hold of, and the more people that get into them the bigger the market becomes for those kind of records. Record dealers respond to that. The more compilations that people like myself do, the more people who are solely in it for financial reasons see an opportunity to sell records.
So basically you just wanted to find and release stuff that people didn’t already have.
You've taken crate-digging to its logical conclusion. Some people must be green that you get to do that all day.
I guess so, but there’s always a tendency to romanticize it. Hunting for records is actually a pretty dull thing. You get taken into some pretty odd areas, and some places are pretty risky, but to be perfectly honest 95% of it is extraordinarily frustrating. You spend hours hot and bothered, going through the process covered in sweat and dust, day after day, often with very little reward and lots of mosquito bites. But the other 5% of it is really fun and makes it all worthwhile.
What constitutes that 5%?
Just finding great records. I think it’s inevitable that there will be a new generation of people who don’t give two shits about the actual record and the sleeve. They just want the music. But for me, that’s what it’s all about.
Despite the fact that many of the scenes and genres you have documented are all over the world, many of them seem to have occurred at around the same time.
Well, we are doing one from Colombia, which is 70% 80s, but it’s no secret from looking at the records I’ve put out that the music I’m into is generally from 1955 to 1980. It was a very prolific time--it was before music became disposable and easily digitised, but after it was very much controlled by a small select few. From ‘55 to ‘80 lots of small runs of obscure records in different styles came out and people really got a chance to experiment before the music industry, digital technology, piracy, and cassette tapes came in and killed it off. If I were to go to outer Mongolia looking for 60s and 70s records I wouldn’t have much luck.
Going to the countries themselves makes you understand the way the music moves, intertwines, and goes back and forth. West Africa, the Caribbean, northern Latin America--all the big musical movements of the 20th century developed in an intertwined manner. So Latin music has its roots in African music, but that music went back to Africa in the 40s, 50s, and 60s and, in turn, influenced African music, and then went all the way back again. Similarly, Colombian music in the 80s was influenced by sailors from Nigeria and Ghana bringing records back to Colombia so that they could be played on Colombian sound systems. Jamaicans did the same with American R&B records, and scratched the labels off of them to see if people could tell the difference. That influenced ska, which in the 70s massively influenced music in England. So it just goes back and forth.
How does sourcing obscure records vary from country to country?
In Latin America old music is very much alive. In Colombia they have much more of a culture of sourcing old music. But in Ghana or Nigeria, a lot of people have sort of wholesaled, cancelled, or dismissed old music. It stops with the people who were around at the time. If you meet them, sometimes they’ve got stories, but quite often they’ve forgotten them or they get the stories wrong, or they're just gone. The truth exists in the record.
But records that no one wants anymore.
Not in Nigeria. In Colombia you will find young guys in their 20s who are just as into finding old records as I am. There is a ravenous DJ culture in Colombia, especially for old African music. So when word got out that I had a bag of African records I was willing to trade for Colombian records, I was mobbed. My phone didn’t stop ringing, people turned up to my hotel and followed me around when I was out.
Are there actually that many stores, or even crates to look through in places like Bogota?
There are virtually none in Africa anymore, but there are still a few in Colombia. There are some people who sell records from their garages, and there's still one or two collectors who sell off stuff that they don’t want anymore. There are guys on the street who have these little stores just set up on the pavement. I tend to just turn up in a place and start asking around though. One thing tends to lead to another.
When you're on the hunt, do you prefer finding the artist or the record?
The record. Records don’t always phone you asking for money. Some artists are great, but some are a pain in the ass and have a much bigger sense of their worth than is realistic. People somehow can’t quite believe that you are only selling X amount of records. They just assume that their music must be selling hundreds of thousands of copies and you owe them money.
Sir Victor Uwaifo: Guitar Boy Superstar checks pretty much all the boxes as far as album titles go. Which category did he fall into?
He is one of the small few that fall into the category of being everything I hoped he would be and more. He’s a national hero--he’s regarded as a real keeper of Benin culture, a true ambassador for highlife music, and has managed to be a superstar at the same time.
Was he still a superstar when you met him?
Well, he picked me up from the airport and drove me to his house. He lives in a house called Superstar Highgate on 1 Victor Uwaifo Avenue.
Sounds pretty starry.
The first room you go into is the Victor Uwaifo Hall of Fame. So you have this big room covered in pictures, bits of memorabilia, newspaper clippings, records, and guitars--even the bicycle he used to ride to school--all in this room in his own house. You go from there to the Nigerian History Room, which is a tour through the history of Nigeria and its leaders over the years. That’s followed by the Chamber of Horrors.
What, like a carnival ride?
No, we sat down and watched notorious armed robbers being shot by a firing squad. Then he took me into his concrete airplane he had built onto the side of his house. It was exactly like being in a real airplane--there were windows all down the sides. But in the cockpit there was a piano. He just sat in the cockpit and played for me as we sat and drank beer. It wasn’t your ordinary day.
Surely a lot of the records you find are in unsalvageable condition.
Sadly, yes. They are often not just broken, but the recording is so terrible that it’s unusable. With technology being what it is today, you can actually take out the noise and scratches, but you can’t add anything that wasn’t there. Your hopes rest with the record.
So if it’s broke, you can’t fix it.
Yeah, you can try and pull out what's there as much as possible, but if it’s not there you’re stumped. There are records that I’ve been desperate to find clean copies of for years that I just haven't found.
There’s a 45 by The High Grades called Jumping Cat that I’ve been looking for for about ten years now. I’ve got a copy but it’s far too mashed to do anything with.
Is that your Holy Grail?
One of them.
Labels: ... record diggin' in Africa