Headspace & Emoticon Retrospective

So here’s something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time – a mix of tracks on Headspace and Emoticon, the labels I ran with Raeph Powell from 1996-2006. Since the whole operation kind of predates the internet as we now know it – none of this stuff is available digitally, and probably never will be – I also wanted to write a little bit to document the story of the labels, nearly a decade on from the final release.

Headspace began when I was still at school, as a result of two key friendships – with Raeph, who worked in Catapult Records, the main independent dance music shop in my home town of Cardiff; and Simon Walley, aka CiM, who I met online in the very early days of email-based electronic music communities – the IDM and 313 mailing lists hosted by Hyperreal.

Simon was making some amazing tracks, using little more than tracker software on his Amiga, which he was sending to me and Raeph on cassette. I was making my own house stuff on an Atari with an Akai sampler, DJing as much as I could and generally obsessed with music in the way that only a 17-year-old can be. Soon enough Raeph and I got talking about starting a label to release some of our stuff.

So we scraped together a bit of cash, rented a PO box, got a fax machine, bought DAT machines for me and Simon, and went to see Ideal Distribution in Birmingham with a the first couple of prospective releases, which featured stuff from me and Simon as well as two other producers I’d been chatting to online – Detroit’s Sean Deason – who’d just released The Shit for Kenny Larkin’s Art of Dance label – and Chris Sattinger, who’d been putting out stuff on US labels like Synewave and Communique. Ideal were handling some of our favourite labels at the time – the likes of Classic and 20:20 Vision in the UK, and distributing Prescription, UR etc from the US – and we hit it off with them right away.

Those were the days when a completely unknown label, run by a couple of kids who didn’t really know anything, could sell 1,500 copies of a 12″. We’d sent promo copies out and I can still remember dancing with joy around Raeph’s spare bedroom when Laurent Garnier faxed the first of many reaction sheets promising ‘full support’ (at that stage we hadn’t cottoned on to the fact that he probably did that with everything he was sent!). Even better was a phone call from Andrew Weatherall saying he was playing my track at his Bloodsugar night.

While I juggled music with going to uni, we managed to put out a run of ten records over the next couple of years, as well as starting a night, Radius, in Cardiff, which let us meet loads of our favourite DJs and producers, some of whom would go on to furnish the label with tracks or remixes as well as becoming good friends. Things wound down towards the end of 1999 as I had to focus on my last year of uni – and Ideal folded not much later. Raeph and I were also starting to listen to more and more music outside the techno/house spectrum which the label focused on.

After graduating in 2000, I moved to London and ended up sharing a house for a while with Russ Gabriel, who ran one of my favourite labels, Ferox, and had become a good friend through playing for us at Radius. I was also speaking to Marsel from Delsin a lot online, and he told me about a new distribution company in Amsterdam that the guys from the Rush Hour shop were setting up. At this point Raeph and I were obsessed with the broken beat sound coming out of West London, as well as the more techno-oriented stuff that Enrico Crivallero’s Archive Records was releasing out of Italy, and while Headspace lay dormant for a while we decided to start up a sister label to focus on more eclectic sounds – Emoticon.

I rounded up some tracks from old Headspace artists like me, CiM and John Braine, plus Russ, Marsel and new friends like Matt ‘Future Beat Alliance’ Puffett; plus Raeph got some killer broken stuff from drum & bass producers Total Science/Q Project; and we went to see Rush Hour. The timing was perfect, as Delsin was just getting off the ground, as well as their in-house label, and we fit right in. By this point we were also getting plenty of demos, and we had a prolific couple of years releasing stuff from the original family plus new recruits like Scape One, Jeff Samuel and Connective Zone.

By 2002 I’d moved to Glasgow and was just about managing to scrape a living from running the label, DJing and freelance web design. We were starting to amass some great techno and house material again, and rebooting Headspace seemed like a logical next step – this time through Rush Hour, alongside Emoticon. There was a bit of a movement forming around deep, Detroit-influenced techno and we put together a run of releases featuring Fabrice Lig, Arne Weinberg, Rei Loci and Derek Carr. We also took things up a notch with albums from Russ Gabriel on Emoticon and Vince Watson and Dan Curtin on Headspace.

But by 2005/6 the industry was very different from when we’d started. Those initial four-figure sales had dwindled to a few hundred, and it was becoming tough to break even – especially considering the costs of mailing out white label promos. The digital revolution was starting to happen, but by then I’d drifted into a day job in journalism and didn’t have the energy that reinventing the labels for a new era would have required. Dan Curtin’s album was the final release, and I took a break from music for a while.

Looking back, there’s a lot to be proud of – I’m pleased we gave CiM a leg up into the industry, since he went on to release some incredible music on Delsin and DeFocus, and his pair of Headspace EPs have stood the test of time remarkably well (it was also great to have featured a young Morgan Geist on remix duties on Series One). It was incredibly rewarding to release music by good friends like Dave Anderson (Otomi), Simon Haggis (KLaSH), Craig Ritchie Allan (Rei Loci) and Marco Bernardi, and equally amazing to have had the honour of working with people like Russ Gabriel, Vince Watson and Dan Curtin, whose records I’d been buying for years.

It’s hard to single out a favourite release but, CiM aside, I think the Mark McLaren EP on Emoticon is a phenomenal record, even more so because he’s one of the few artists that I lost touch with completely and to me knowledge he never released anything else (Mark, if by any chance you’re reading, drop me a line!). As I’ve said, the majority of artists we worked with were either already good friends of ours, or they quickly became so, and that underpinned everything.

We never had a breakout hit or reached the level that would have let me work on it full-time, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily a bad thing. Looking back, we were probably too eclectic for our own good – most small labels thrive by focusing on a specific sound, and our taste was always too broad for that to happen. I never really thought of us as having a signature sound, but in the process of putting the mix together I realised there’s a certain melodic sensibility that runs through most of the music, and I think most of what we put out – particularly the later phase when we knew what we were doing a bit more – stands up pretty well as a cohesive whole.

This mix and post feels like the definitive closing of a chapter. But today I’m feeling more energised and positive about music than ever, and I’ve already dipped my toes back in the water as The Nuclear Family, in partnership with Laurence Hughes and with the distribution support of Rubadub. Let’s see what the future holds.

Mix tracklist:

  1. Otomi – Zusammen (EMOT 006)
  2. Vince Watson – Intrisync (HS 017)
  3. Dennis DeSantis – Leisure [Tom Churchill remix] (HS 011)
  4. Double Helix – Subscript (EMOT 014)
  5. KLaSH Productions – Scopex (EMOT 012)
  6. Russ Gabriel’s Audio Spectrum – Subliminal Dreams (EMOT 017)
  7. Russ Gabriel’s Audio Spectrum – Aldeburgh [Yotoko remix] (EMOT 016)
  8. Mark McLaren – Sit (EMOT 002)
  9. CiM – Edit Micro Tune (HS 009)
  10. Marco Bernardi – Trane (EMOT 015)
  11. Rei Loci – Transfiguration (HS 012)
  12. Arne Weinberg – From Consumption To Enslavement (HS 014)
  13. Derek Carr – Planet Jump (HS 015)
  14. Tom Churchill – Spaces [Dennis DeSantis remix] (HS 011)
  15. Dan Curtin – What Did He Get Us Into (HS 019)
  16. Connective Zone – Dude (EMOT 010)
  17. Total Science – I Know (EMOT 003)
  18. Q Project – Spek (EMOT 004)
  19. Future Beat Alliance – Head Ways (EMOT 007)
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3 thoughts on “Headspace & Emoticon Retrospective”

  1. Great to read the full story and hear some of these classics! Felt like I was part of something back then doing some of your sleeve art. Remember much hilarity at the Groove in a Tent cover!

  2. lol @ Laurent Garnier. My mate runs D1 out of Dublin and I remember years ago he showed that reaction sheet for a release that LG sent back. I was gob smacked at the time. The UR lads got involved heavily then so it quickly faded. Good luck with the music again.

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