Aurora Borealis is a London-based extreme music label, founded by Andrew Hartwell in 2004. The first Aurora Borealis release was 1000% Downer, a limited edition CD-R from Ginnungagap, one of Stephen O’Malley’s plethora of projects. Since then, Aurora Borealis has built up a cult reputation by releasing dark and obscure music in interesting packaging, with many releases being deluxe limited-edition vinyl LPs. Aurora Borealis is not tied to any one musical genre, with music ranging from the experimental prog rock of Guapo through the psychedelic Satanism of Silvester Anfang to the avant-garde black metal of L’Acéphale and the monstrously extreme doom / drone of Moss. The label’s latest release is A Feral Spirit, the second album from shamanic funeral doom project Blood Of The Black Owl.
Heathen Harvest: Hello, Andrew. Let’s begin with a description of your musical background. What music did you first become interested in? How have your tastes changed? Have you played in bands yourself? Have you done any music journalism?
I was exposed to lots of different music as a child, my mum would give me tapes that friends of hers made for me. When I first started buying music, I was very eclectic, and saw no reason why you couldn't buy an Iron Maiden
tape and Grandmaster Flash
tape on the same day. My mum was pretty cool, she'd let me play whatever I wanted in the car on the way to school, in fact I think she quite liked early KISS
(Double Platinum was my favourite tape). I got really into thrash in about '87, but liked goth and punk too. I loved the whole crossover period, and saw Nuclear Assault
17 times! After that I just sort of meandered in and out of all types of music, and continue to do so. A visit to the US in about ‘92 was pretty incredible. I saw so many of the great Gravity
bands firsthand, and spent time at the Positive Force
house. When I came back from that, my band really got going: we were called Fabric
, had about three albums out, two or three EPs. We got progressively more furious and then more rocked out, it was pretty cool actually. Other band members have gone on to be in Orange Goblin
, Alabaster Suns
, Dukes of Nothing and so on. We’re all still in touch. I did a zine at school, but it was pretty crap. I guess I did a few pieces for the Southern Records
site, but mostly my journalism was fashion-based I suppose, I did some stuff for Dazed And Confused
once and i-D
. I keep meaning to do more, but time is ticking...
HH: What made you decide to found Aurora Borealis? Did you have a strong concept for the kind of music you wanted to release? How did you come to hook up with Ginnungagap for your first release? Were there a lot of things you didn’t know about the technical aspects of producing a CD? Was there anybody who helped and advised when you were just getting started?
Well, I'd been on the road with Sunn O)))
as merch guy, and I'd been talking to Stephen O'Malley about doing a web-based label. The idea was to concentrate on vinyl, but we did a CD-R to start with. I basically wanted to release stuff that I liked, that was about it to be honest. I knew nothing in the slightest about the tech side of it all. I have no idea how I managed to start with, but initially I started Aurora Borealis with Tony Sylvester (ex-Fabric) and I guess he knew a lot more about it all.
HH: Aurora Borealis releases aren’t confined to one specific genre, but it seems like there’s a prevailing tendency towards darkness and extremity of one kind or another. How would you describe the Aurora Borealis ‘house style’? How do you decide whether a particular band or release would fit in with the rest of the Aurora Borealis roster?
Yeah, it’s a total grab-bag, and it makes no sense from the outside. I often think that... It’s essentially stuff that I like. I am a voracious music buyer and media consumer, and my tastes are somewhat broad. Aurora Borealis releases tend to reflect the darker side of my interests, I guess. I'm not really sure of the process: I sort of latch onto something and then think about it for a while. If it’s got some kind of a ‘spark’, then I think that's what nails it for me. Quite often things happen remarkably simply.
HH: The artwork and packaging of Aurora Borealis releases is always distinctive and interesting. Who’s responsible for the visuals? How important is packaging in the creation of a brand identity?
I do the majority of the visuals and art direction. Some bands obviously have a complete package ready - like KTL
, Ginnungagap, Blood Of The Black Owl – but others have a few ideas that I try and work up, such as Journey To Ixtlan
and Silvester Anfang. Still others give me a free hand to interpret their music visually, like Wolfmangler
, Dead Raven Choir
and Burial Hex
. They’re the most fun, for sure.
Packaging is vital to the creation of brand identity. I’ve been really lucky to have worked with lots of great artists on Aurora Borealis releases and identity, such as Stephen O'Malley, Seldon Hunt
, Jo Ratcliffe
, G. Lansard
, Alexander Tucker
, Justin Bartlett
and so on. I absolutely love the visual side of it.
HH: Vinyl releases have been an important part of the Aurora Borealis catalogue since the inception of the label – that first release from Ginnungagap came out first on CD and then as a 12”. Are you a fan of vinyl yourself? Do you get requests from your customers to make vinyl versions of particular releases?
Yes, it was primarily intended to be a vinyl-based label. I love vinyl, it’s a more immersive and less throwaway experience. It physically takes you longer to get involved in the music, it’s slower to unpack the record and put it on than it is to hit play on your iTunes. Some music demands more attention, that’s what Aurora Borealis is all about.
I love vinyl, but it’s something of a pain in the arse. It takes up so much room, and living in London you don't have room for it all. It’s a bit of an addiction, but I'm trying to keep it under control. One thing that bothers me is the pointless slapping out of something on vinyl just for the sake of it: it needs mastering, it needs to sound better than an mp3 - I think a lot of people don't realise that. Vinyl is for listening to, it’s not like Pokemon for post-teens.
I don't really get requests – I'm too frosty... ha ha.
HH: How important is the distro side of the business compared to the label – does running the distro provide the funds for making new releases? Would it be possible to run the label without the distro? Is it hard to fit in running the label with your regular job? Is your aim ultimately to make running the label your full-time living?
The distro is interesting actually. Sometimes some of the items stocked are more or less non-profit (don't tell the accountants!!), but it’s stuff I want to make available to a wider audience. It helps keep people coming back to check out new stuff when there are no new Aurora Borealis releases, but I'm not sure how far it helps fund the label. It makes sense to stock more labels in the shop though.
I don't really have a regular job. I used to be production manager up at Southern Records for a while when I was doing Aurora Borealis, and that was a major pain in the arse and almost impossible: I would regularly start work on Aurora Borealis at 6 a.m., before work at 9.30 a.m., and then continue at 6.30 p.m. It was a nightmare, and really difficult to stay on top of everything. This last year though, I have a more stable home, and mostly have been self-employed, so it’s much easier, especially when I don't have much work on. I'm not sure that the label will ever be a full-time living – I have too many other projects I think, but I do want it to continue to grow.
HH: There are certain other labels you evidently have connections with, such as Paradigms Recordings and At War With False Noise. Is it crucial for small underground labels to support one another, by trading releases and so on?
Yeah, I think so. I'm very tight with Duncan from Paradigms, and it’s great to bounce ideas off one another, and discuss problems with dealings with bands and production issues. It can suck though, if you actually want cash for some releases and all you can get is Columbian death metal tapes...
HH: I found a poll on the Terrorizer Magazine forums asking people what their favourite Aurora Borealis release was, and Cthonic Rites by Moss came out way ahead of anything else. Has that been your best-selling release to date? Do you have a personal favourite Aurora Borealis release?
I didn't even know there was a Terrorizer forum! That's how pro I am. The biggest selling release was actually Jesu
, and it’s still in print. It’s a great record. I'm not sure I have a favourite, they are all kinda favourites as I release what I enjoy, but I'd say that Silvester Anfang was a sort of milestone, in that it embraced some other types of music and maybe broadened the label's outlook. Again, it’s a staggeringly good record. Blood Of The Black Owl and Journey To Ixtlan will further explode the outlook. I only hope that Aurora Borealis customers can come along for the ride.
HH: In March 2008, there was a UK tour of three Aurora Borealis acts – Silvester Anfang, Burial Hex and Ben Nash. Was this your first experience of organising live events? How did it go? Do you plan to promote more live shows in the future? How about shows or tours in other countries?
Yes, that was really the first steps into live events. It was pretty hard actually, I had little idea what I was getting into. Show turnouts are pretty poor right now in the UK, so travelling in a massive van with about ten people, work permits, flights etc. all really added up. The shows went well though, on the whole, and I think that the people who saw them had a great time. Anfang were on amazing form, I can't wait to work on their next album next year.
Right now Burial Hex is gearing up for a non-UK Euro tour, he's sorted that himself, the guy is a legend. I would love to do a sort of travelling Aurora Borealis fest sometime - four or five Aurora Borealis bands playing one-night shows in different European cities. Maybe next year. I'm hoping to get another London show organised before Christmas.
HH: Tell me about your new imprint Iron Pig– what’s been released on that so far? What future Iron Pig releases are planned? Why did you decide to create a new imprint – how do Iron Pig releases differ from Auroroa Borealis releases?
Initially, it was going to be a secret that we were even linked. So far it’s been a CD version of Militia Of Blood Sacrifice by Ravens Creed
. That band has got some members of Orange Goblin in it, and they asked me if I could release it, but it didn't fit Aurora Borealis, so I started a new label. The second release is by Potop
, an album called Channels. They are scorchingly negative and crushingly heavy hardcore from Macedonia, I really cannot recommend it enough. Iron Pig is going to remain CD-based and I am trying to keep the releases a bit cheaper. Other than that, I don't really know yet: we'll see how it goes. Check out the Iron Pig Blog
HH: What’s next for Aurora Borealis? What releases do you have planned for the near future? It seems as if you are doing a lot of stuff in collaboration with Chet Scott and Glass Throat Recordings– what can you tell me about that?
Chet is awesome. I’ve been a big Ruhr Hunter
fan for years, and I got Blood of The Black Owl's first CD and liked it. Thought I'd get in touch and see about working on a vinyl with him, and it’s ended up with the vinyl release of the second album. I hope to do some more stuff with him, yeah.
All of the following will be out this year:
- Fauna – Rain CD
- Rye Wolves – Oceans Of Delicate Rain CD/LP
- K11 – Voices From Thelema CD
- Rose Kemp – Unholy Majesty LP
- Journey To Ixtlan CD/2-LP
- L'Acéphale – Malfeasance CD/2-LP
- Grumblin' Fur – Furrier CD/LP
- Wormsblood – In The Stars LP
Next year's plans so far include a new Dead Raven Choir album, possibly a double album from Silvester Anfang, more Burial Hex, probably CD and LP. A further two releases from Fauna, another Wraiths release, and I am currently in discussion with Heavy Winged
about a possible set of releases. There should be a Queen Of Swords
album too, got some amazing musicians on it, very tranced out à la Tarantula Hawk
but with more electronics, they're a newish London band. Brutal drums! There are some other folks I've been talking with too, so we'll see how it goes, but it’s already looking like a busy year.
HH: Anything else you’d like to add?
Yeah, music blogs. It’s great when you find a blog online with downloads of utterly impossible to trace music, and I love downloading these gems and checking stuff out. It’s cool to find current stuff too, but only to check it out: if you like it, please try and track it down and buy it. Buy it straight from the band if you can! Bands need the money – guitars don't grow on trees (well, not all of the metal bits), practice spaces cost money etc. etc. If they add some value to your life, you should be prepared to put some money in their pockets. Boils down to this: support the scene, whatever or wherever that scene may be.
Thanks for the interview and long may Heathen Harvest reign.