Label Watch: Domino
From Norman stalwarts like Hood through to megasellers like the Arctic Monkeys, Domino are one of the UK's biggest and best indie labels. Let's take a closer look.
Domino: a British success story. The London-based label was formed in 1993 by Laurence Bell and Jacqui Rice, and their approach was to sign bands they liked rather than ones that would necessarily shift units. Down the years this has led to a increasingly eclectic mix on the Domino roster, with the label embracing not just underground indie rock from the US and UK but folk, electronica, jazz and basically all kinds of weird and wonderful songwriters and musical visionaries from across the world.
Early licensing deals saw records from Sebadoh, Royal Trux and Smog appearing on the label. In the mid-late ‘90s releases by Pavement and The Pastels made the label the go-to place for an off-kilter musical fix. Bands such as Hood and Pram added a necessary and different take on British music during the Britpop era and beyond. In the early 2000s Domino signed Franz Ferdinand, followed in 2005 by the signing of the hottest band on the planet at the time - Arctic Monkeys - which further strengthened the label’s pull to artists and fans alike.
In recent years artists such as Julia Holter, Anna Calvi, Blood Orange and Superorganism have made Domino's offering even more diverse. Similarly, the label has several offshoot imprints including Geographic, which is run by Stephen Pastel. With offices in Europe and the US they continue to hoover up sounds, enabling them to taste-make worldwide.
Julia Holter is probably best described as an avant-pop experimental artist, and whilst it's always a bit suspect to lump female artists together comparisons can be drawn between Holter and the likes of Laurie Anderson, Julianna Barwick, Kate Bush, Grouper and Joanna Newsom for their shared use of distinctive voice, studio play, their willingness to innovate, and their sheer compositional skill.
Holter earned her stripes in the music business playing in psych-folk legend Linda Perhacs’ band, and throughout her career she has collaborated with a wide range of artists, all of which inform her approach. The eclectic mix of Perhacs, Jean Michel-Jarre, Ducktails and Laurel Halo show just some of the different angles from which she is coming at her music.
She signed for Domino in 2013 following her highly-rated album, Ekstasis. Loud City Song was her debut for Domino and it received mixed reviews, but was soon followed by the utterly magnificent Have You In My Wilderness. A more concise and joyful record, it reached the upper echelons of our Albums of the Year in 2015. The different but equally brilliant Aviary is her latest LP, and sees Holter upping the experimentation and expansiveness on a wonderful, 90-minute opus.
Four Tet is the nom de plume of Kieran Hebden, a London-born musician who was a member of the post-rock band Fridge before striking out on his own with a refreshing approach to electronica - a style that became known as 'folktronica', due to his mix of folk and electronic samples.
But there is so much more to the music than that. His first album for Domino was the magnificent Pause (2001), mixing perfectly sampled beats with gloopy hip-hop, moody post rock, flamenco guitar, clicks, beeps and buzzes. The phenomenal Rounds followed in 2003, another genre-defying mix and to many fans the highpoint of his catalogue. Hebden, however, disliked being branded as folktronica and went in search of different sounds for further releases. His next album, Everything Ecstatic, showcased a sound that was immediately less digestible. Grinding, droning, silence: this was his avoidance of the folktronica label made audible.
Hebden left Domino after one more album - 2010's There Is Love In You - and it would not be too outrageous to suggest that his four albums and three EPs for Domino are the best in his canon. It was a relationship that worked well for label and artist alike. But Hebden continues to release music under the Four Tet name, including 2013's excellent Beautiful Rewind on his own Text imprint, and continues to collaborate with and remix for all sorts of artists from Burial to Laurie Anderson, Aphex Twin to Black Sabbath.
Domino fought off some hefty competition to sign Arctic Monkeys in 2005. After forming in 2002, the Sheffield indie-rockers created a buzz with a bunch of gigs showcasing their high energy music and witty kitchen sink lyrics. Frontman Alex Turner takes his lyrical inspiration from John Cooper Clarke, John Lennon, Ray Davies, Method Man and Nick Cave - with The Beatles, The Eagles (via his mum!), Oasis and Eminem also, allegedly, playing a part in his formative years.
In 2006, ther much anticipated debut album Whatever People Say I Am was released and became the fastest-selling debut album by a British band ever. Five albums have since followed with the cherry on their cake, as far as Norman Records is concerned at least, being 2018’s Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino which showed the breadth of their musical palette and their ability to surprise their fans.
Formed from the ashes of bands The Karella and The Yummy Fur, and infamously named after the bloke whose assassination was one of the factors leading to the start of the First World War, Franz Ferdinand carved out their own place in Glasgow’s musical history by curating their own music and art nights at run-down buildings in the city.
Art plays a large part in their work - from their album covers to the way they appear on stage - and from their name outwards they have always worn their artistic, historical and literary influences on their sleeves. Their music also mixes indie rock with art rock (and post-punk, and other genres). Their first release, Darts Of Pleasure, was originally intended to be self-released, but Domino got involved and released to it wide acclaim. An eponymous debut album was released in 2004, preceded by the single 'Take Me Out' - surprising pretty much everyone to become a massive worldwide hit that gave the band a truly global presence. A second album, You Could Have It So Much Better, continued their upward trajectory, with frontman Alex Kapranos becoming an increasingly influential figure. Whilst their star has arguably waned somewhat since, the band have released four further successful and acclaimed albums including a collaborative effort with American ‘70s art/glam duo Sparks under the name FFS and their latest, 2018’s Always Ascending.
Pavement. A band that seemingly haunts these listicles of ours, and maybe the best American band of the ‘90s?
Whatever, the band were already a few EPs and three albums old by the time they signed for Domino in the UK. The first album to be released on the label was 1997’s Brighten The Corners which brought us the classic singles 'Stereo' and 'Shady Lane'. It wasn’t quite as beautifully lop-sided as their previous work, but the tunes - and Stephen Malkmus’ wonderful wordsmithery - were all present and correct.
Terror Twilight followed which had the commercial shot-in-the-arm of being produced by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, who helped them make their most polished album. Brighten The Corners and Terror Twilight became the band’s best-selling albums, but the band split in 1999 with Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannenberg recording with The Jicks and Preston School of Industry respectively. Since then, their entire back catalogue has been reissued by Domino. A full and thorough investigation is essential.
Baltimore friends David Portner and Noah Lennox, who became known by the names Avey Tare and Panda Bear respectively, began performing as a duo. They became Animal Collective when Josh Dibb AKA Deakin and Brian Weltz AKA Geologist joined. They were heavily influenced by Pavement, taking their intoxicating, oddball aesthetic into a world of multi-layered experimental pop, samples and electronics.
Domino’s relationship with Animal Collective began in 2007 with the band’s seventh album, Strawberry Jam. It was seemingly also the start of their marvellous effervescent weirdness that had previously appeared in Panda Bear’s solo work. This was followed in 2009 by the band’s greatest achievement to date - the astonishing Merriweather Post Pavilion. It’s an album that stands out not only in their canon, but also shines brightly among the hundreds of albums released by Domino. They have since released three further albums through Domino, with 2018’s Tangerine Reef being their latest.
Hood were formed by brothers Richard and Chris Adams in 1991. A post-rock act smitten by later Talk Talk and Bark Psychosis, they developed into something rather special - and, it's fair to say, something central to the story of Norman Records itself.
Signing for Domino in 1998, Rustic Houses, Forlorn Valleys was their first album for the label. Sort-of fellow travellers Flying Saucer Attack’s sound was self-described as ‘rural psychedelia’, and it's a label that seemed to accurately describe the Leeds' band’s sound too. Cycles Of Days And Seasons provided further evidence, and continued their habit of releasing increasingly impressive albums. But it's 2001’s Cold House which stands out above the rest, with layer upon layer of different sounds from post-rock to hip-hop combining flawlessly to produce one of the very best albums of the early noughties.
Their last album, the also-excellent Outside Closer, was released in 2005 and whilst Hood haven’t officially split up their indefinite hiatus shows no sign of ending. A shame. Fortunately, Richard Adams continues to release haunting, melancholic records under both The Declining Winter and Memory Drawings, whilst Chris Adams makes music under the name Bracken - with a prestigious Norman Records Album Of The Year to his credit amongst many other things.
With a catalogue of dusty alternative folk music as big as Will Oldham’s there are always going to be some hits and some misses, depending on your opinion. But, boy, the hits are good.
Will Oldham returned to Domino using the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy moniker in 1998 after releasing a couple of albums under the Palace Brothers name earlier in the decade. His first release as Bonnie Prince Billy was the beautiful EP, 'Blue Lotus Feet'. 1999 saw the release of his excellent I See A Darkness LP which matched genuinely haunting ballads and weird, more upbeat songs. Master and Everyone (2003), The Letting Go (2006), Lie Down In The Light (2008) and Beware (2009) are the other highlights of a career spanning some 24 albums and a bucket-load of EPs.
During his career he has also shown more than a mild desire to work with different people and under different aliases, ranging across different styles. An album with Matt Sweeney of Chavez and an album of covers with Tortoise showed his experimental nature. More recently there was an album of Everly Brothers songs recorded with Dawn McCarthy. An album paying tribute to the songs of Merle Haggard showed even less obvious influences. It all goes to show that Will Oldham has made an indelible impression on modern music.
David Pearce formed Flying Saucer Attack in 1992. His revolving cast of helpers included Domino label-mates Rachel Coe of Movietone and Matt Elliott of Third Eye Foundation. A self-titled LP appeared showcasing the band’s drone/space rock/shoegaze-y sounds, which they classified as 'rural psychedelia' - a phrase that appeared on the sleeve of the album.Flying Saucer Attack signed for Domino in 1994. Their first release for the label was Distance, a compilation that hoovered up odds and ends to make one record, but worked well nonetheless. Their first album proper for Domino, and FSA’s second, Further, came in 1995 and thrilled critics with its dynamic soundscaping and songs, juxtaposing feedback and acoustic guitars, humming bass and droning sounds.Pearce called time on the band in 2000 following their fourth album, Mirror. He went on to form Clear Horizon in 2003, singing to Kranky. Then, one day in 2015, a full 15 years after their last release, Pearce and Flying Saucer Attack returned to the world and to Domino with an new album titled Instrumentals - a fresh and warmer take on their shoegaze roots.
Real Estate were formed in New Jersey in 2009 by school friends Martin Courtney, Alex Bleeker and Matt Mondanile. They bonded over a love of Pavement, Built To Spill, Pixies and Weezer and, as a collective, are characterised by their hazy, summery pop melodies and laid back, pristine guitar playing.
They signed for Domino in 2011 in time for their second album - Days - a stone-cold Norman Records favourite. A third album, Atlas, followed and was every bit as good. The departure of guitarist Matt Mondanile - who later admitted the truth in the accusations of abusive behaviour towards women that he'd initially denied - led to critically acclaimed solo artist Julian Lynch joining in 2016. Lynch, previously credited as playing clarinet on Atlas, played a full part in band’s latest album In Mind which was released through Domino in 2017.
Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
Merriweather Post Pavilion is the Animal Collective album where everything seemed to come together in one glorious effervescent explosion of sound and colour. The melodies rivaled The Beach Boys. The experimentation rivaled the best of early Pink Floyd. And they mixed it all up with their own cosmic, effevescent psychedelia - electronic beeps and glitches combining with the melodies to create an amazing and original record. Parallels can be drawn between this and the best best work of The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev: it’s pop music, but not as we know it.
Hood - Cold House
Cold House is Hood’s masterwork, a culmination of their musical progression and ambition which saw them produce an album of different textures, styles and moods - intertwining post-rock, hip-hop, indie-rock, electronica and jazz.
It begins with 'They Removed All Trace That Anything Had Ever Happened Here', clicks and scrapes making way for mournful strings, subdued vocals and an increasing amount of percussive sounds. The skittering rap of Doseone and Why? (cLOUDDEAD collaborators) comes in - seemingly at odds with the music but at the same time, not. This is how the album flows: contrasting moods, veering from sombre and icy to warm and autumnal; sci-fi electronics and lively beats matched with soft electric piano; foreboding bass sounds, slow grooves; pepped-up hip-hop beats.
'Enemy Of Time' shows Hood at their most post-rock, taking a similar approach to Slint or Tortoise with prominent heavy bass and guitar arpeggios creeping along. The beautiful final track, 'You’re Worth The Whole World', pits a gorgeous lo-fi post-rock lament against Doseone and Why?’s electronically manipulated voices.
Julia Holter - Have You In My Wilderness
Have You In My Wilderness is Julia Holter’s fourth album. It’s an exceptional and timeless record that sounds like it could have been made anytime between 1972 and right now. There are many elements of ‘70s pop, rock and folk in here from the obvious Linda Perhacs influence (Holter began her career playing with Perhacs) to 10cc, Nico, Kate Bush, David Bowie and even a less glam John Howard.
On Have You In My Wilderness Holter's wilder experimental tendences are reined into an extent, making the album may sound more…complete, perhaps? She is definitely more carefree, and the songs flow like some kind of wonderful cosmic snowfall. Dreaminess and ethereal ballads are mixed with the soft punch of folk-pop. It is consistent in quality, but with a mood that shifts from up to down throughout, from the wonderful bright, melodic opener 'Feel You' to the more sketchy and experimental and jazzy 'Vazquez'. A songwriter at the height of her powers.
Wild Beasts - Two Dancers
Wild Beasts hail from the UK's Lake District, a beautiful location that no doubt played some part in the beautiful sounds on Two Dancers, the band’s second and best record.
Hayden Thorpe’s strange voice was a shock on their debut album, Limbo Panto, but by Two Dancers it seems that they’d perfected their craft, balanced their sound and won over a few naysayers. The vocal duties are shared between Thorpe and bassist Tom Fleming, with Fleming’s deep and sandy delivery tempering the expressive sounds of Thorpe. The best moments come in the opening triple salvo. 'Fun Powder Plot' is bubbling pop-funk, 'Hooting & Howling' is a lean and dynamic tune with infectuous guitar lines, and 'All The Kings Men' gently pummels you. Later on Two Dancers (ii) is a beautiful, delicate, ballad. The album ebbs and flows in a rather refined way. This is odd, given that Fleming described the recording process as being ‘more slapdash’ than Limbo Panto. It certainly doesn’t sound that way: Two Dancers is a perfectly paced album.
Blood Orange - Freetown Sound
Blood Orange is Londoner Dev Hynes who made his name in indie noiseniks Test Icicles and as singer/songwriter Lightspeed Champion. 2016’s Freetown Sound is his standout record. Named after his father’s hometown of Freetown in Sierra Leone, it was inspired by and written for marginalised groups of people and dealt with race and sexuality.
Freetown Sound is an essential, impressive and immersive collage of funk, electronica, hip-hop, lo-fi and pop. Highlights include 'E.V.P', a punchy pop groove featuring Debbie Harry on vocals, the soulful 'Hadron Collider' with guest vocals from Nelly Furtado, and lo-fi closer 'Better Numb'.
Elliott Smith - Either/Or
Either/Or was released on Kill Rock Stars in the US and Domino in the UK. It was Elliott Smith’s third album and was the highpoint of his tragically-curtailed career. The intimate atmosphere of Smith’s earlier work was present, but the arrangements here were more ambitious and complex. The production values were upped, just enough, and, well, the songs are great. Smith’s ability to create such power whilst retaining a relatively hushed delivery is one of his great strengths. This all resulted in a stunning, emotionally affecting album. A few of the tracks were chosen by director Gus Van Zant to appear on the soundtrack to 'Good Will Hunting', which shot Elliott Smith to fame and earned him a major label deal.
Four Tet - Rounds
Rounds was Four Tet’s second album for Domino. Comprised entirely of samples, it begins with the ominous heartbeat...of a dog. It then opens out into the glorious tumble of free jazz and sparkling sounds we now readily associate with Kieran Hebden’s work. The skittering beats and fragile string bends of 'She Moves She' are interspersed with buzzing sounds that cut through the track. The buzzes unsettle at first, but then become almost catchy. The album’s centrepiece is 9-minute epic, Unspoken. A slow hip-hop beat is surrounded by increasingly psychedelic sounds which eventually yield to melancholic piano piece. The funky 'As Serious As Your Life', a track led by a guitar riff, adds a necessary liveliness to proceedings. In between all this there’s restful ambience, clattering bells, strings, beeps and post-rock. A classic.
Real Estate - Days
Days was the second album by Real Estate, originally released in 2011. A beautiful collection of hazy, summery pop that stands up to repeated (and repeated, and repeated) listens, it's the album for evoking feelings of an early evening beach walk. Slight breeze in the air, warm enough to be wearing a t-shirt...just a nice feeling. The guitar interplay between Martin Courtney and Matt Mondanile results in cyclical riffs that seem beautifully endless. And the melodies, man, they grow and stick to your brain like barnacles. All this is executed with a seemingly effortless grace. We dare you to listen to 'Green Aisles' and then try not to listen to it again.
Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca
Brooklyn’s Dirty Projectors are a clever band. That said, when pressed on the matter, front man David Longstreth actually claimed to hate clever bands such as Steely Dan, Yes and Frank Zappa. Dirty Projectors have been compared to all three, of course, but you can also hear The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Talking Heads, elements of noise rock and classic rock in their sound. It's like they’ve taken most music that’s ever existed, cut it up and stitched it back together in a blissful way. And that seems like the best way to describe their magnificent album Bitte Orca: vocal melodies veer all over the place; time signatures bend; instruments pop in and back out; genres are dismissed and blended beyond recognition.
Arctic Monkeys - Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino
For their sixth album, Arctic Monkeys surprised pretty much everyone by transforming themselves into a sort of cosmic lounge band. This was to the chagrin of much of their fanbase, but intrigued the more adventurous listener and made sceptics like our good selves give the band another go. For Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino is a real change of gear - a pleasing mish-mash of everything from Bowie to The Beatles to Prefab Sprout, and all the better for it. If, like us, you were wondering where those formative Eagles influences went, check out the harmony vocals on 'Four Out Of Five'. And if you're still not convinced that this turn to the weird side is genuinely interesting, Alex Turner also presents a different take on his Scott Walker influence - previously displayed by his side-project Last Shadow Puppets.