Simon Williams is the founder of Fierce Panda records, the much-loved UK independent label which released Coldplay’s Brothers & Sisters EP in April 1999. We called him up to chat about his memories of working with Coldplay.
Hello Simon. So, it’s 16 years since you set up Fierce Panda, over a beer with a couple of other music journalists.
That’s absolutely true. We were in the Blue Posts on Tottenham Court Road in London, which is now a Boots chemists, sadly. We were talking about a scene called the New Wave of New Wave and how we should celebrate the greatness of the bands in that by putting out a record.
Those kind of drunken conversations presumably happen all the time, but then nothing comes from them.
Of course they do. And I think we were aware of that even as we were talking about it. It’s the kind of conversation where you’d see each other at work the following morning, look moderately embarrassed and try and remember what the hell you were talking about. But in this instance I did actually know someone who knew a bit about putting out records, which was Ian at Damaged Goods. So before the hangover had cleared, I’d got in touch with him and he said he could help us out. That was a giant step forward without us even realising. It meant we never had to worry about how to get the records made, or how to get them into shops.
How long between the pub conversation and the first Fierce Panda release?
Probably about two months. That was pretty much how long it took to get a record out, back then. And we unwittingly invented the double 7-inch six track EP. Originally it was going to be one 7-inch with four bands on, but then other bands heard about it and wanted to be on it.
And the label became pretty successful, pretty quickly?
Yeah. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but we did five of these compilations EPs in the first year and found ourselves a pretty hardcore fanbase of collectors. We had bands like Supergrass and Ash on those early releases. We quite quickly had a clear identity and people begging for us to put out more material.
So, when did you first spot Coldplay?
That was in November 1998, in the Camden Falcon. One of the most stinky, notorious Camden venues of all. Someone was reminiscing last night about breathing in the spores in the toilets!
Were you just there hanging out?
Yeah, back then you’d either find yourself at the Bull & Gate, the Dublin Castle or the Falcon. 1998 was also the same time as bands like Muse and Elbow were playing their first gigs in London . I remember seeing Muse at the Falcon as well. Another one of those gigs where you could barely breathe.
It was never a particularly pleasant place to spend time.
Not at all, no. But it didn’t really bother bands like Coldplay and Keane after them. Playing those places was just what you did. There wasn’t a team around them pontificating about where the next gig should be and how to exploit the fanbase, which is what happens with new bands now. People are a lot more cynical and careerist about it these days. It seems faintly ludicrous that a band of Coldplay’s stature should have come from a place with a toilet as ghastly as the Falcon’s was.
Do you have strong memories of that first time you saw Coldplay?
Yes, it really stands out, because they were absolutely brilliant. I remember the gig was rammed, but there were no music industry people there. It’s fairly unique for a band of that stature to have a roomful of their own fans, without being rubbish. But the songs were great, the band were charming and it just ticked all my boxes. They’d actually already played In The City and stuff like that, so I was hardly first out of the blocks in terms of A&R. But I guess we were just in the right place at the right time. And I think we were the only indie label that would’ve gone for a band like that, because we didn’t have a set agenda. Other labels might have worried about alienating the cool people who bought their records, but we didn’t have those problems. We never pretended to be cool!
They certainly didn’t fit into an obvious scene at that time.
They really didn’t. They kind of set their own agenda. That’s what made them stand out – there was nothing like them, and they weren’t posing or pretending. The indie scene was just floundering around then. There was some good indie punk-pop out there, but nothing with the musicianship and grace of Coldplay.
Did you speak to them that night?
Yes, it’s always a question of getting drunk and striking while the iron is hot! I asked them if they wanted to do a single on Fierce Panda and so started a beautiful relationship.
And then you gave them some money to record a single.
Yeah, I think it was £400. And they went into Station Studios in Southgate, which I don’t think is there any more, just like any normal Panda release.
Did you tell them which songs to record and that sort of thing?
I think if you’d asked me what song I would’ve really wanted out of all those early demos, I would’ve said Shiver. But normally we’d just leave it up to the bands. And Coldplay gave us a song which has barely been heard again, in Brothers And Sisters. It’s a good song. But six months later they’d written Yellow, which must have changed their confidence levels and their quality control as well. So songs which were absolute stand outs down the Falcon show were suddenly not as good as this future smash.
Were you aware that Coldplay were on their way to big things?
Well, when you’re seeing 15 bands a week, you can certainly tell which ones stand out. You can’t tell that they’re going to sell 50 million albums, or however many they’ve sold, but there was certainly something different and striking about the whole persona of the band. They were better than anything else I’d seen that week and better than anything else we’d put out for a good 20 singles. And from that point, it was all about momentum. In all the time we worked the band, I never saw them play to an empty room. And whenever they played to new people, they’d win them over really quickly. In fact, it almost felt like any band Coldplay toured with – music press darlings like Terris or Bellatrix – were instantly screwed because Coldplay almost sucked up all the good vibes and good fortune!
Do you think the Fierce Panda single changed the course of Coldplay’s career?
Well, it wasn’t so much the single release itself as the fact that it got onto radio. Once that happened, it just changed the industry’s opinion of the band. A&R people often forget that the way most people experience music is on the radio. So the first time people heard Coldplay, they didn’t know Chris looked like Leo Sayer! A lot of bands loved by the industry and the press didn’t have a song that was good enough to impact on radio. And that was the thing that Coldplay did have in spades.
The single charted too.
Yes, I believe it got into the charts at Number 99! I remember the band were over-joyed.
Did you try to sign them beyond the one single deal?
We did. We had a deal with Mushroom Records and we desperately tried to sign Coldplay. But in the end, Parlophone got them. And, to be fair, if I’d been in Coldplay, I’d have signed to Parlophone. They were absolutely untouchable at that particular point. And obviously if you’ve got a fondness for Radiohead, then that’s the label for you. But we absolutely did our best to get them.
You must’ve been disappointed.
Well, gawd bless them, we got a call from Chris saying "We’d like to take you for a drink, we’re in Hammersmith, but we’ll come up to Walthamstow now". Parlophone were based in Hammersmith, so the penny kind of dropped at that point. But they came all the way across London to tell us face to face that they’d signed for Parlophone.
That was pretty decent of them.
Definitely – and I hope Parlophone paid for the taxi! What I found fascinating about the band was their absolute attention to detail. They went to the mastering of the single in Walthamstow, and if you went out for a drink with Chris, he’d constantly bombard you with questions, but without making you feel like you were being interrogated or used. They were just genuinely fascinated by the whole process of it. And completely up for anything – even if it was being first on the bill in a tiny place like the Bull & Gate. And with all that questioning and diligence, came the charm. That was the key to the whole essence of it. But I do wonder what life would’ve been like for Coldplay if they had signed straight to a major. Would they have got in the NME? They weren’t pretending to be cool, slouching around Camden trying to buy drugs. They were just incredibly eloquent, nice lads. Saying that, I did go to their student flat near ULU once. That was quite something.
In what sense?
I have never seen such a dirty toilet! People might have been calling them posh, rich kids, but they certainly knew how to slum it!
What did you think of the other tracks on the Brothers & Sisters EP?
They were great. It’s a lovely little EP, even though I don’t think anything much happened to any of those songs afterwards. We did two singles with Keane and I think three of the songs went on to be Top 10 hits. But I do remember that Coldplay hated the recording of it. It’s no wonder they hang out with perfectionists like Brian Eno now. They understood that it was £400 session and they did it without complaints. But Chris was never shy about wincing about the actual recording quality. Even then they had that commercial nous about them, I guess.
Where did the EP’s artwork come from?
I think it was either done by them or one of their student friends. It certainly wasn’t commissioned by us.
It’s not the most beautiful cover they’ve had.
No, not at all. You can barely see their name on there. It’s got a kind of sixth form cosmic vibe. But, again, I guess that shows they were still trying to find their own identity.
The EP is still available on iTunes. Do many people buy it?
Yeah, it ticks over, although I won’t be able to retire off it! There’s still a lot of people out there who own Coldplay albums who don’t know it exists. But it’s certainly part of their story, though, alongside the Safety EP.
How are things going with Fierce Panda now?
We’re still going strong. In fact, stronger than ever really. Major labels seem to have stopped signing guitar bands completely, so we can get someone like Goldheart Assembly to do an album with us, whereas maybe two or three years ago they’d probably have got embroiled in some A&R war and been signed to a big deal too soon. We had got to a point where it felt like the only reason people wanted to release singles with us was to help get them a big deal. Whereas with Coldplay, all we were doing it for was to put out a great record by a great new band.
Have you kept in touch with Coldplay?
Not really. I’m asked that quite often, actually. We do share the same lawyer and I’ve been along to a couple of gigs they’ve done, but I don’t have their phone numbers or anything. They’ve got their South American tours to do and I’ve got to go and find someone else to put a record out by!
But the band do still seem to have genuine affection for Fierce Panda.
Yeah, I did have a cup of tea with them before Christmas and it’s unnerving how little they’ve changed, really. They’ve still got that phenomenal work ethic and they always were incredibly grateful to us. I think you can see that in them coming all the way from Hammersmith to Walthamstow to break the news to us. That really was above and beyond the call of duty. And they’ve never denied the existence of the Brothers & Sisters EP, or re-written history to take us out of their story.
So Goldheart Assembly are your big push for this year.
That’s right. I first heard about them in November 2008, because their manager was looking for a gig at our night. We ended up putting them on a few times and falling a little bit more in love with them each time. They’re just absolutely brilliant. Every single step of the way with them has been a joy.
Do you think Coldplay fans would like them?
Definitely. Again, it’s all about the songs. They get the odd Midlake, Fleet Foxes or Low Anthem reference, but they’re British through and through, and the two singers think they’re Lennon and McCartney. People call it folk, but to them it’s just pop. They’re definitely worth a listen.
And you look back fondly on your time as Coldplay’s label boss?
Yeah, totally. You leave a lot of gigs because the band’s crap or you’re fed up of paying £3.90 for a can of Fosters or it’s too full of industry people, or whatever. But I can honestly say that the second Coldplay show at the Bull & Gate – the launch party for the single – is the only time I’ve ever left a gig because it was too good. It was absolutely phenomenal. Halfway through Shiver, I had to send myself out to the bar because I got a bit over emotional. It was just too amazing.
The Brothers & Sisters EP is available from iTunes – click here to download it.
Goldheart Assembly’s debut album, Wolves And Thieves, is out now on Fierce Panda. Click here for more info and a free MP3 of one of the album’s tracks.