Label Profile: Home Normal – interview with Ian Hawgood by Seb Chan

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Ian Hawgood has been making quiet, ambient recordings for over a decade with releases initially on net labels like Resting Bell and Experimedia, followed by physical releases for Hibernate and Dragon’s Eye. In 2008 he established his own label, Home Normal. Nowadays Ian Hawgood runs the label out of the UK but for most of its seven year existence the label has been based in Japan. One of several labels to emerge in the mid 2000s, Home Normal has been responsible for some of the most interesting ambient, drone, and modern classical records to reach our ears at Cyclic Defrost. Now on the cusp of turning seven – and having just launched an ‘annual subscription’ model to help fund the label’s continued existence, I spoke to Ian about the state of things.

CD: Home Normal is turning 7 this year and you’ve relocated from Tokyo to the UK. Tell me a bit about the relocation – from your sporadic Facebook posts I sensed that at times the Japanese postal service was a mortal enemy of the label for a while back then! How much does place matter to you? Do you feel that Home Normal has gone through distinct stages in its evolution?

Ian: That really is quite something. I’d actually not realised we were coming up to our anniversary so soon! We did have some strange issues to do with postal services for a period but to be fair, the last few years have been great. In the end we worked with a great post office and courier near my own work who I got to know and it was a much better system than here in the UK. 

Location matters a great deal, and I still see Home Normal as a Japanese label really. Our bulk of fans and attention are still very much there, and it is the only place where we are in stores nationwide, which simply isn’t the case outside Japan.

We have definitely gone through stages, and the move back to the UK has been the biggest. I’d intended to close the label when moving back, and this wasn’t the first time I’d had that intention. The label has always been funded by my own work, and I have been very lucky to have had a job with the time and support to fund a costly label. 

The Tōhoku earthquake in 2011 was the really big kick for us as our entire stock and studio were destroyed, and my wife and I decided to dedicate all our free time to help out in our local neighbourhood where many old buildings had been damaged, with my wife going up to Fukushima to help out over the next year or so. The label seemed really insignificant, and when I cut a couple of releases for very obvious reasons I got a pretty crappy reaction from a couple of the artists. This was a huge stage for me as I realised the label just wasn’t as important as I had felt before.

However, a handful of artists and people really came out of the woodwork suddenly and were just incredible in their support on every level. People like Danny Norbury, Clem Leek, Tim Martin, Brock Van Wey, Jonathan Lees, Dan Crossley, and many many more, just really showed me how important it was to keep Home Normal going, albeit in a much slower way. Just as things were rolling nicely towards the end of that year my father very suddenly passed away and I found myself travelling between the UK and Japan constantly over the next year, and again the label had to slow right down yet again. 

So as is always the case; the personal side comes into things no matter what. It isn’t a machine by any stretch, and I’m just there as an eternal optimist really. The stages correlate directly to one’s personal life. Over the past couple of years we were able to put out some amazing work, and I found myself working far more with friends as it felt far easier and just trusting all around. 

It took a few years after the earthquake to finally be in a position to move back to the UK for a variety of reasons. After leaving a job that always funded the label, we’re now in a position where we can only put one album out every few months, and maybe have the odd show here and there which is nice. But this has actually been a superb change as it means we really do only work with people who are very relaxed about scheduling and approach.

Our first release since the move back was ‘Music for Guitar & Patience‘ from Le Berger. This is the first release we’ve done where we really did just take our time with the music, mastering, packaging, promotion, and whole approach, and it really is a big change for the label. I just feel that we are at a stage where we can put a lot more love into each release and enjoy releasing something that should be a real privilege. It is the best stage for any label or artist to reach I think.

CD – Some artists really underestimate the challenges of running a label – and the value that a good indie label brings to their work. Home Normal has always placed such a high value on aesthetics that this reaction from a few at the time of the earthquake really disappoints me. I guess, though, that this sorts out who you want to work with and who you value. Now that you’ve had those awful experiences, when you are approaching new artists how do you get them to understand the Home Normal ‘philosophy’?

We don’t approach artists right now, and if we ever did it would typically be an artist who probably has a good awareness of the label. In Japan we would go to shows and people knew about the label, so we could approach them in a really open way. Most of the future artists are now good friends of mine and it really is about working with people who I trust and who trust me. We’ve always worked with with artists and by all accounts, we have been lucky from stories I have heard. 

Label identity is a really big thing, and really tough to develop. It can only come about through sincerity and a clear vision, and a lot of artists are encouraged to ignore this now by the likes of Tunecore, Bandcamp, etc. The point is missed that there is an encompassing identity a label can bring (hence the name ‘label’!), and people discover artists through this means.

We’ve been in a lucky position to promote artists, notably in Japan, who have then taken that on to develop themselves with self-released material. Yes, it can be jarring that all the work you do is somewhat abused, but at the same time it is nice that artists branch out like this. Between these artists, and those who work across so many similar labels, you have to be strict with saying ‘no’ and keeping your identity. These artists and labels are diluting the scenes and market so much and it really is ridiculous. All you are left with is to work with great people who are patient, kind, and true to their nature. We’ve slowed down so much recently, those true artists are highlighted far more than before when we were pushed, harried, and rushed into releases. That is perhaps a bit too honest of me but it is something the truly great labels come to understand. Take your time; don’t dilute.

CD – What is it about the music scene/industry in Japan that makes it so amenable to labels like Home Normal? The depth of fan cultures always feels much stronger in Japan but it also seems so difficult to do live shows there? Are there a number of Japanese artists that you’d wished you’d been able to work with or release while you were over there? Is that harder now that you’re in the UK?

I think as a culture, Japanese people are far more inclined to follow their hobbies in a more dedicated and focused fashion, no matter what it is. That seems like quite a broad brush but people genuinely seem more focused on whatever their interest is. If people are really into a certain type of music then they are really into that, and will follow that up with physical purchases far more than in other countries. The other point is that Japan is still seemingly far behind many other countries in terms of the web, perhaps in line with the relatively poor English skills compared to other countries and being somewhat insular. The lack of available streaming services has helped to support a more physical market, although I would rather suggest it is more of a cultural element than this.

Shows are challenging in that the live venues do themselves no real service by overcharging. And yet, much in line with the music buying, the amount of promotion we have to do to just get a handful of people to an event in London is really shocking in comparison to Japan where people would attend our events in sell-out numbers without any real promotion. It is an odd one but it is something I massively appreciate.

I think we worked with as many Japanese artists as I was happy with really on balance, and I worked with everyone I wanted to. That we could work with so many new artists that I discovered through live shows was an amazing thing really, and as I never had a list or quota of sorts, it worked out nicely. This hasn’t changed at all now we have moved, and in fact we will be putting out a very special album by a dear friend of mine, Hideki Umezawa, with Shohei Amimori. I still have such a strong tie there, work there if we need, and most of our friends are there. Japan is probably more our home than the UK right now really, so this is something that will never leave us, and Home Normal will always be more of a Japanese label than anything else.

CD – The Bandcamp subcription model seems like a valuable way forward for labels like yours – those with a clear curatorial direction and voice. How has it been going? I am especially interested in this right now given that DripFM has just announced its closure. And elsewhere I see people like Richard Skelton doing ‘repackages’ of his back catalogue each year – sort of like ‘artist editions’. Is a subscription model looking like it might be a sustainable one?

A couple of years ago we set up different subscription packages (pre-Bandcamp) as we had people asking us to reserve copies, and we also had our own store where people were bulk buying and deserved discounts. It worked really well and the label would have closed without it. It really did help us get back on our feet after the intense trials of 2011-2012. However, it was almost impossible to manage as we had so many packages and so many unique requests. It worked well in giving people our back catalogue, reservation of work, and also discounts, but it needed to be automated.

So we closed this earlier last year and recently moved to the Bandcamp subscriptions for one set price (£50 per year). It has worked well enough considering it has only been a couple of months, but it doesn’t really fund the label at all right now. But as a set-up I think in time it could really help us to release music we love and keep going along on our obscure little path, so I think it really is important. 

I think realistically, it is the only way for a label who is truly independent to be sustainable, especially in our position. I do feel it is a shame that Bandcamp is becoming a bit more mainstream in its support of artists though, and it is rather unfair given how much of a cut they take from these packages and sales. But it is the best system right now. DripFM was a great idea and I was sorry to read the announcement recently as they had some great stuff (especially the Morr package), but again being so closed and in beta essentially for so long probably didn’t help. It is a shame though as that is something which small labels and artists really need.

CD – I remember doing an interview with Jace Clayton/dj Rupture many years ago and we were talking about how, on one hand the web and now streaming has opened everything up, but at the same time made it very hard to give even ‘slightly difficult’ music enough time and attention to grow into. There’s so much music that I got into as a teenager that I wouldn’t have given enough repeated listens to if I’d been able to skip to the next track so easily. So there’s definitely something lost, something gained. Bandcamp has become the defacto home for a lot of music that otherwise would have remained on hard drives or abandodned Dropbox accounts. As it moves more towards the mainstream, what do you think will happen to the diversity of things? Personally I wish that Bandcamp made it easier for labels and artists on it to form ‘clusters’ so that it supported the growth of scenes and idea-swapping more obviously. Does Home Normal have a bunch of recommendations from your own Bandcamp travels?

Yeah this really is the case. Everything is so immediate, so instant and convenient, all that we seem to be left with is the obvious, unsubtle, and short-sighted.

I still love vinyl and cassettes, even CDs, and the streaming side of things has changed people’s enjoyment of deeper pleasures. With mobile technology we are more connected and yet not really connected at all in the truest sense. Works of depth and soul will always seem to take a hit in this case. 

But I am an optimist and I do believe things move in cycles.

We had a show recently without any PA in a gorgeous old church in London. The sets were quiet, moving, and so beautiful. A few people were recording on theirs phones, a few people were actually tweeting or emailing (yeah, I saw you!), but most of the people were just quietly taking this in and absorbing the music and atmosphere. So whilst some people might not be able to absorb for long, many people do and that gives me hope. There is a quietude in people that we like to forget there, but all that social media and mobile obsessive bullshit doesn’t encompass who these people are. There is more, and there will be a change back to more reflective souls. I know that sounds a bit New Age, but I really do believe that spirit and soul will last when the immediacy of the modern world fades on an individual and communal level.

I think ‘clusters’ can be a good and bad thing really, and I actually don’t see much support from other labels in this regard right now. I think with how things are moving we will only see the growth of a handful of labels rather than scenes where labels are supporting each other. It is just too cut-throat now, and anyway, these things can’t be manufactured by something like Bandcamp. It has to come from a truer, purer place than commercialism. The idea is nice, but it would never really work for me. Saying that, I love buying stuff on Bandcamp and am into so much music that comes up all the time. We discovered Hotel Neon through Bandcamp so whilst I don’t believe it is an avenue for communal work, it is fantastic how much excellent music comes up there without anyone really putting pressure on themselves to be popular. I really like that. 

Top tip? Schwebung – Stephan Mathieu’s label on Bandcamp with links to hi-res files in each release. A true genius and being able to see his collection all there in one go with the beautiful designs really is special.

CD – Home Normal has always been so beautifully packaged. I remember that you were making a statement about the disposability of digital music in the early days with lovely sleeves. How important, now in 2016, is the packaging/object? I remember when Andrew Khedoori was starting up Preservation Records he, and in-house designer Mark Gowing, had similar views about sleeve design.

Beautiful packages are really important, but I really don’t like things being over the top. And that seems to be the case now more and more. Packages either have super cover designs but are packaged in pretty crappy stock, or are way over the top with too many fiddly parts to muck about with. I am still a fan of simple packages that are well made, but also have beautiful, appropriate imagery for the work they are reflecting. I want people to be able to collect a series of releases from our label, to have differences in the packages to keep the fun element really, but also to work alongside each other. If each release is exactly the same I just find that kind of boring really, and quite unimaginative. I think one example of a label who really has got this right is Dauw. They release beautiful cassettes with a strong concept, yet each release is very different at the same time, and they always reflect the music so well.

Perhaps what is really frustrating now though is that the more people focus on the presentation of disposable digital, the less actual concentration on sound design there seems to be. I actually buy most of my records still based on design, I must admit. But much of the time, those pretty looking cassettes and vinyl sound incredibly dull, and there is a remarkable lack of understanding in how to produce accurate sound reflection across different formats. Very very few artists or labels produce both great art and packaging, alongside accurately attuned sound for the formats they are working with. There are many reasons for this now, probably the worst being the disposability of the work really, with a pretty unadulterated focus on something grabbing immediate attention for streaming plays or something, rather than having something which has sustained value and depth.

CD – Given the resurgence of interest in ‘listening music’ from Richter’s Sleep through to the rediscovery of early 90s ambient, it seems like it might be quite the time for Home Normal. Tell me about your ideal listening conditions for a Home Normal release?

In Tokyo we used to live right by a beautiful river which had people quietly walking past. All you could hear was the river running and the soft sounds of voices, nothing else. I would often spend afternoons listening to all sorts of music in my chair just looking out, sometimes waving to neighbours if they heard the music and shouted a quick ‘hi’ up at me. Since being back in the UK, well it has been really wet and cold, so the best place for me to absorb work has been by a roaring fire in our lounge. I just sit by the fire with my dog and listen to whatever I really want to absorb. I guess I really like calming sounds like water and fire crackles with my music it seems.

CD: Tell me about some of the upcoming releases?

We recently released David Cordero’s ‘El Rumor del Oleaje’ which has has been getting all sorts of praise, especially across Europe which is really nice to see. At the end of April (after our Japan tour), we will release Marc Ostermeier’s ‘Tiny Birds’ – we’ve been a fan of Marc’s work for a long time and really is a natural fit for the label and artist alike. Beyond that we have releases by Giulio Aldinucci, a collaboration between Hideki Umezawa and Shohei Amimori, Stefano Guzzetti’s follow up to ‘At home (part one)’, as well as a series of release by Tsone and Altars Altars. In 2017 we already have releases set by ghost and tape and Danny Norbury, and for the first time in the label’s history, I will personally be releasing work in collaboration with some artists who have featured on HN before. 

Most immediately we are focusing on live shows every few months, and will be running a live series of CDR’s alongside these featuring unique tracks by the performing artists. The first show / release will be out this weekend with Stefano Guzzetti, Christoph Berg, Danny Norbury, and myself, this will be followed up in April with a release and show featuring ISAN, Paco Sala, A New Line (Related), and R. Elizabeth. We are currently tying up a special release and show with the Japanese artist Asuna. I’m massively fortunate to be working with some friends and musical heroes alike in this capacity – it really is an exciting time for us.

CD – Tell me about your Folk Reels solo material. What was the decision in keeping that a seperate thing from Home Normal?

I never intended to release on Home Normal as I never promote my own work. I feel deeply uncomfortable writing to people about how great something is when it would be something I have directly made.

The Folk Reels material is completely new audio-visual work I have been doing for years but only used for live shows and installations. The work that is in the public eye is all really old and the Folk Reels work will be performed live still but is my newest work, quite simply.

Some good friends pushed me to actually collate all my work into one place as it has been all over the place for years. I’ve done so much work on different labels, as well as being involved in film projects, advertising, and sound design for so many multimedia projects the past twenty years I decided they were probably right. It is also the first time I had the time to go through the work, and upon moving back to the UK, I could pull out all the old reels, tapes, drives, etc, and take it in. It has been a great experience and I am currently running a weekly release on my Folk Reels Bandcamp of old work, including all my electronic work as Koen Park and many more. It is just a nice, non-press-centric way of putting music out there for people to discover in an accessible way, and a way to let go of that work and move on with my Folk Reels work as it is today. 

Home Normal has provided a free Seven Years of Home Normal sampler for Cyclic Defrost readers. Download from Bandcamp.

Home Normal’s entire catalogue is available on Bandcamp individually or as a subscription service. Ian’s older work on Folk Reels is also available.

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About Author

Seb Chan founded Cyclic Defrost Magazine in 1998 with Dale Harrison. He handed over the reins at the end of 2010 but still contributes the occasional article and review.