Talking Shopcast with West Norwood Cassette Library Recordings

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Bob Bhamra was by no means new to the music world when his West Norwood Cassette Library Recordings launched in 2010. As far back as 1996 the South East London producer had been releasing drum & bass, house and techno on some reputable labels under the names Plastic Soul and The Bob Bhamra Project. Though Bhamra hit on a small run of success, from 2000 he fell quiet again and it wasn’t until 2008s At Home With… by No.1 Astronaut that we heard from him again. Although the release was actually taken from old material, it showed Bhamra in full experimental mode as he dissected and stitched back together selections of old cassette tapes. Two years later the first WNCL Recordings 10″ was released by Bhamra under the elongated form of the name. It was a taut, dubstep/techno track called “What It Is” embellished with a Brackles remix on the flip, that together with the sublime homage to Larry Heard on the follow up, Mrs Fingers, all of a sudden marked WNCL as a name to keep an eye on. As the label started amassing new recruits for its releases, it became clear that there was no set style for the label, or at least if there was, it was buried beneath layers of open-mindedness. With this in mind, LWE quizzed Bhamra on the WNCL release policy, how he managed to squeeze an EP out of Ultramarine, and just how far reaching a moniker can be. Hot out of West Norwood studios as well, Bob mixed together our 20th Talking Shopcast feature with an exclusive clutch of freshly pressed dubplates and future classics.

Was or is there a cassette library in West Norwood?

Bob Bhamra: Not to my knowledge. There’s a library, of course, but it hardly has any books, let alone cassettes.

Quite a bit before the advent of WNCL, you were releasing under your own name and a couple of pseudonyms as well. When did you first start producing?

The first release was in ’96. It wasn’t the best production in the world and they spelt my name wrong on the label; but it came out on Grass Green, which was a subsidiary of the mighty Bush Records, so I was happy enough at the time.

From that early work you released only occasionally until you started WNCL Recordings. What was the impetus behind starting the label and what shifted your focus towards it?

After a few years in the musical doldrums, I got kicked back into touch by dubstep. It tied in to a time when I was getting the itch to go back in the studio, start a blog, do a podcast and start playing records in clubs again. By the time I had fully immersed myself in dubstep, it seemed to have a complete infrastructure and the quality bar was high. It reminded me of the jungle days in lots of ways but particularly the feeling that, if you were going to contribute, you’d better bring your A game.

How planned out was the label at the time of starting it?

Meticulously. The artwork, manufacturing and distribution was all researched several times over before I’d even finished the tracks. I wanted WNCL to be a solid label and a fresh start for me, presenting records exactly the way I wanted. The one common piece of advice I received was to have an absolutely ruthless A&R policy, which I’ve held dear from the very start. Integrity is key. If people don’t like the releases, it’s OK, I don’t mind. I love them all.

Did you have several releases lined up already when you began?

Originally, I presented the idea of the label to distributors as a boutique label for my own releases. I was going to put out two 10-inch singles but didn’t have much of a clue what would happen after that. Things never really go exactly to plan which was fortunate in my case. Brackles got involved for a remix on WNCL001, I bagged the DJ C tracks for WNCL002 and then, naturally, the label progressed into something more than just a vanity project.

Your early signings, DJ C and Knowing Looks, were they friends of yours already? How did they become your first outside artists on the label?

As with a lot of the artists on the label, I would have known them first and foremost from through buying their records and eventually becoming obsessed with them. I heard DJ C’s “Jump Up and Bounce” on Untold’s FACT mix and had it on a loop for weeks. When I found out that it was unreleased, Untold, LV and Kid Kameleon all helped me to track him down. I was over the moon that we could work something out not just because I loved the track but also because it gave me a sense of WNCL now being a “proper” label.

Knowing Looks had put out a 12″ on Akufen’s Musique Risquée label, with a glorious track, “Hyperthymestic Love,” tucked away on the B side. When the label got into full swing, I remembered these amazing tracks he’d had on his MySpace player and, luckily, they were all unreleased too. Basically, I fell in love with them and him so it was pretty obvious we were going to do records together.

And you also released one of the first records Ultramarine had done in over ten years. How did you make that happen?

I already knew Paul Hammond from Ultramarine — we both have had careers in book production, crossed paths in the clubs many times and became friends — but I’d been a fan of theirs before I got to know him. When they were planning the return of Ultramarine, Paul played me some unfinished edits that he’d found on a DAT but didn’t fit in with their plans at the time. Those edits turned into “Acid” and “Butch” and came out as WNCL008. I made it happen in pretty much the same way as all the other releases — begging.

Your own Plastic Soul pseudonym has been responsible for some very stylistically diverse records. Why keep the moniker when the music has been so different?

Making music with Paul (Bateman, the other half of Plastic Soul) is a very select process, whether it’s crafting a psychedelic tune with guitars, making drum and bass or knocking up house tracks. We’ve known each for long enough to instinctively know what feels right to us and when we hit on that moment, it’s Plastic Soul, regardless of the genre.

What are you looking for in a potential WNCL release? Is there a set of criteria for you in contemplating something for the label?

I’m not looking for anything. I go to great lengths to be non-prescriptive when people approach me to submit demos. It’s never particularly interesting to listen to a clone of a previous release because that’s what the producer thinks you’re going to go for. I’m always up for a surprise.

You recently released a double EP/compilation of sorts on Hypercolour. Can you tell us about it? Why do you deem it a double EP rather than an album?

The release was made up of previously unreleased tracks that I’d played off dubplate (for years in some cases) and they were all unashamedly designed for the club. Although it was pieced together with the same meticulousness that I would apply to a release on WNCL Recordings, there was no narrative or concept. Rightly or wrongly, I thought the lack of that structure didn’t make for an album. It’s an eight track club tool and I’m no less pleased with it just because it’s an EP.

You mentioned you were waiting on some dubplates to do this mix for us. What can you tell us about the mix?

Dubplates have their moment of glory every now and then — dubstep was a great champion of the culture, of course — but there’s a danger of forgetting about them when downloadable music is so accessible and convenient.

I was keen to do a dubplate only mix to showcase the label and promote the format — whether any notices or cares is another matter. I choose to play vinyl only, so the rafts of digital promos I receive are great to listen to but absolutely useless to me as a DJ until they hit the shops. I still rely on dubplates to keep my sets interesting with exclusives and unreleased/forthcoming material and I still get really excited when I have fresh dubs cut.

From an A&R point of view it can work as a good barometer of commitment too. If you’re not prepared to spend 30 quid on a plate, you’re unlikely to want to spend hundreds of pounds on putting that track out as a record. Everything in the mix has been cut to dubplate by Jason at Transition Studios in Forest Hill. Some of the tracks are tried and tested, others are fresh off the lathe — about to be released or forever to remain in the Cassette Library vaults.

What can we expect from WNCL Recordings and Bob Bhamra over the next year?

Well, the tracklist for the mixtape pretty much answers that. Although I wanted to keep a few VIPs and unreleased tracks in there, the bulk of the mix is made up of tracks featured on forthcoming EPs on the label. Some are still being prepared, others are ready to go.

I’m following up the current Girls of the Internet release with an EP of my own tracks and Volume 2 in the We Are Family various artists series. After that, I’ll be doing my first releases with Ekoplekz and C.E.O and the label will see the return of Kamikaze Space Programme, J Tijn, Kevin McPhee, Don Froth, and Knowing Looks.

Could you name your favourite early cassettes from when you were younger?

I’ll be honest with you, I’ve always hated the bloody things! I love the lo-fi aesthetic but I’m bemused by the recent retro fetish for the actual physical form. So, I don’t really have any favorites although I do have fond memories of saving my school lunch money to buy The Fall’s This Nation’s Saving Grace album. I don’t know what possessed me to buy a brand new album on cassette format — they must have sold out of the vinyl — but I wore that damned thing down to nothing. I have since purchased it on vinyl and normal service has been resumed.

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Download Talking Shopcast 20: Bob Bhamra (37:52)

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Tracklist:

01. T.Esselle, “Garibaldi” (WNCL Remix) [Wholemeal*]
02. C.E.O., “Kaanit” [WNCL Recordings*]
03. The Early Learning Centre, “Clavichords” [WNCL Recordings*]
04. Bobby Champs, “Krenshaw” (J Tijn Drum Tool) [WNCL Recordings*]
05. Kamikaze Space Programme, “The Bailiff” [WNCL Recordings*]
06. Kevin McPhee, “TW” [WNCL Recordings*]
07. Pariah, “Left Unsaid” (WNCL Remix) [white*]
08. West Norwood Cassette Library, “Blonde on Blonde VIP” [white*]
09. DON FROTH, “Cosmo” [WNCL Recordings*]
10. Girls Of The Internet, “Spam Folder” [WNCL Recordings]
11. Ekoplekz, “Sarkaztik” [WNCL Recordings*]
12. West Norwood Cassette Library, “What’s That Sound” (Intro Tease)
[WNCL Recordings*]
13. Knowing Looks, “Apophenia” [WNCL Recordings*]
* denotes tracks which, at the time of publishing, are unreleased

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