V/Vm Test Records: an interview with James Kirby

V/Vm Test Records. One of the most eclectic electronic labels you will find (and this is no joke!). With artists like Rank Sinatra, who performs the most frightening version of The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame” that you are ever likely to hear along with his own material; The Alien Porno Midgets, who warp everything at high altitude, and of course V/Vm’s own amazingly head-breaking sounds. We were lucky enough to get James of V/Vm Test Records in an honest frame of mind to speak to us about his experience of running such an eclectic label.

James Kirby1 – How and why did you come about starting V/Vm Test Records?

Around 1994 I started making music with a couple of guys and it got to the stage where we were ready to put something out, that never happened and then a year or so later I got together with Jansky Noise and we set up V/Vm Test because at that point there were very few electronic labels out there to send material to. The complete opposite to today in fact. We felt what we were doing also didn’t fit in with what these established labels were doing so the only way to get anything out was to do it ourselves and probably fall flat on our faces trying.

2 – When you started V/Vm Test Records, were there any labels that you could say were a reference/inspiration for your efforts?

I grew up and experienced the time period between 1987 and 1991 first hand, both in record buying and in clubs. The thing is so many people who make electronic based music today missed that time-slot, during which more or less every important electronic music advancement took place. You can’t beat the feeling of hearing something mindblowingly new for the first time and sadly people today do not get this opportunity as regularly as I did. The inspiration ever since has been to try and recapture that feeling of doing something completely new.

There are too many influences to list but the people who always go on about Warp and Rephlex being their main influences to me cannot be aware of the evolution of electronic music and were probably listening to indie when it was actually cool for example to like “Detroit Techno”. Sure though, Warp and Rephlex are important labels but there are hundreds of other labels and tracks out there equally as important which have cruelly been ignored or whitewashed from the history books.

3 – Almost mandatory question, how did the name “V/Vm Test Records” come about?

It’s a scientific test used to prove or disprove that the universe is expanding.

4 – Since the inception of V/Vm Test Records, are there any events in the history of the label that you’d consider as particularly relevant, from difficulties and setbacks to successes?

It’s been difficult since day one and it’s been a success in the fact it’s survived since day one. If you run something for ten years out of your own pocket and struggle along with little or no help and encouragement from anywhere then even if people don’t like the music they should respect that fact. I’ve been sued and survived, and generally the label exists on a hand-to-mouth basis and has been on the point of collapse since it started.

5 – So far what would you consider as special highlights (or successful) releases and artists in the history of V/Vm Test Records?

I think the fact that despite people’s notions and stigma towards V/Vm it has actually influenced a lot of musicians and the scene would be very different if V/Vm had not existed. It’s a hidden influence though, but to me if you influence people into doing their own things then this is a good payback. To be honest the only respect I seem to get from people is from fellow artists. Most people who buy music have little respect for anything I have done over the years and choose to ignore almost all output.

6 – Are there any releases in particular that you would recommend as good ‘introductory material’ to the V/Vm Test Records label?

There are too many things on the label and available to recommend releases. To me each has a place in the jigsaw, you remove or highlight one piece and the picture is ruined. From external interest I can say that the releases by The Caretaker seem to command a certain respect out there and there are constant sales all over the world.

7 – Looking back, do you have any regrets with the label? If you could go back and change something, what would it be?

I live life with no regret so have no label regrets. If I had my time again maybe I would change the odd thing because I have added hindsight but I don’t regret my actions from the past because at the times I believe I am doing the right things.

8 – An obvious question, but what is V/Vm Test Records’ ‘relationship’ with the Internet? From promotion tool and digital sales to file sharing and piracy, how has it affected you?

V/Vm is out there alone in embracing digital media. I give more audio away than any other label and this is important to include those who cannot pay for music. For example people in China, India and Eastern Europe can’t buy discs but they can still hear the music. You cannot buy MP3s online because mostly you can get them from the V/Vm website which is a good thing, using it in this way actually helps physical sales.

iTunes did get in touch with me to take V/Vm releases but I don’t like Apple or Steve Jobs so despite needing the cash I told them NO which I don’t think happens too much these days as it’s very insipid out there and, generally, the scenes which are out there tend to be populated by sycophantic cunts all slapping each other on the back for sounding the same.

I am not part of any scene and don’t get invited to play live very much as a result of this which suits me fine. A night in a local bar with some real people beats a night in a club with a bunch of so-called musicians who don’t even know the history surrounding the music they are making and make complete tools of themselves because they can’t handle drink and drugs.

9 – Slightly related to the previous question, how do you see the concept of ‘netlabels’ and, as a labelhead, what is your perspective as to the future and evolution of physical media (CDs, vinyl, etc)?

Netlabels offer a way in which to get audio out there that you know is unlikely to sell or that you don’t want to spend time manufacturing copies of. CD’s and vinyl still have their place because of the physical element of the release.

I think younger people from my own experiences would rather just have the tracks whereas older people attach value to owning something and also having the tracks. So it’s a balance. Labels that think only about physical will fall by the wayside as will those which only do digital. The important thing is to be open to all forms of media and change; I mean it’s always changing so much these days how we consume. Never like any time in history, from day to day it’s a battle out there to get noticed.

Distribution is a big, big problem and using online means there is no problem with distribution. That said though I did a project last year where I made and uploaded at least one audio track per day, in the end making over six hundred tracks which were all and are still all available for nothing. Now you would imagine that a project of this size would receive a lot of exposure when in fact it received no press interest at all.

10 – Perspectives for the future, what lies in the horizon for V/Vm Test Records? Can you share some long-term goals and where would you like to see the label heading to?

As for the label maybe it will continue or maybe it will discontinue. To be honest I have no real idea right now and that is a nice place to be in. There maybe some limited vinyl releases, I have no idea what will happen or if I am motivated enough to manufacture these days.

Long term musically I think things have to change for the overall good. Starting firstly with people who write about music, people need to be honest more instead of just writing formulaic reviews and this also goes for musicians too. No one is challenging anyone to up the ante these days, too many people are in comfort zones and then when they are in this zone they just do the same things over and over and over and over again. No pushing, no trying to use a different format. Just more of the same because unfortunately the same sells.

For those of your readers not educated in what Electronic music was a long time ago, it was all about NEW, being NEW, NEW ideas and NEW ways of working with technology. These days it’s not about these things, usually you seem to get more respect if you’re a loud-mouthed, networking nobody who uses generic software (Ableton = Music making for dummies with no ideas) underpinning all of your audio with a glitched and in-time breakbeat. These people are celebrated because the people celebrating them have stopped thinking also. The challenge for us all is to start challenging again, get out of the comfort zone and put energies into new things and techniques. Alas this will not happen, I guarantee the next big thing in Electronic music will be a loud-mouthed, know-nothing networker using an ‘Amen breakbeat’ which has been perfectly looped on Ableton (the musicians friend, because even my grandma can use it and the person who created it makes boring generic music with it).

One more thing which needs to change is also the value people put on everything they create, last year I made all of those tracks for free and gave them away. During this time I get a whole host of emails from a bunch of nobodies trying to sell me their four-track generic sounding stinking-piss audio for $5 in MP3 format. The thing is as we all move forward towards nowhere that not everything created has saleable value all of the time. Free is good sometimes and should not been seen as defeat, I am sick of reading about people who don’t value netlabels because “well if it was good it would sell and be manufactured”. Well in that case these so-called labels and artists must really value toilet rolls because I hear they sell real well in shops.

11 – What other labels/artists would you recommend at the moment and why?

I would recommend that people take a step back into history more and look at the evolution of the style of music they are purchasing instead of buying the supposedly new thing. To be honest, when something is pure and created from the heart, it is worth a lot more than almost all of the current releases which are coming out with people who have just copied all the formulas using one of the paint by numbers (Ableton – like trying to create the Mona Lisa using a big fat brush and only three colours of paint) software packages or they have had a bunch of media hype which is usually unjustified.

All of the current labels I really value have one thing in common: all of the people running them have no money and no sales. The ones doing well for themselves are usually run by complete tossers who go through the motions in terms for a sale or even worse have their distributors pay for their releases and then receive input into what these releases are. I could list examples of both and you would be amazed but there’s little point as the situation will never change. Shit gets celebrated these days even at the low end in music.

12 – Thank you for your time, do you have any final comments?

Yeah, I hope people form their own opinions and really do support truly independent labels that do things because they have to do what they do and not because they do it to be cool or look good. Alas these people are often the least respected and least supported out there because they are awkward and can be outspoken. Outsiders one and all but often in all forms of music the outsiders are the ones who do the most interesting things. Shit sells.

Relevant links

V/Vm Test Records

– interview by Kate Turgoose & Miguel de Sousa (March 2007)

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