We chat to shelsmusic founder Mehdi Safa to celebrate!
It’s official: shelsmusic have been around for a decade. Ten years of wheeling and dealing, from the back streets of London town to the sunny climes of California, but never relinquishing the DIY ethic that has made them so popular with fans, bands and assorted industry folk – myself amongst them. Label head Mehdi Safa is a highly respected individual, combining an incredible work ethic with the desire to expose great music to the world. It doesn’t hurt that he also comes across as an unfailingly genuine and likeable chap – level headed, humble, and above all, not taking himself too seriously.
Aside from his label duties, which alone keep him busier than Batman at Halloween, he also fronts *shels, a transatlantically-based experimental post-metal band who have been taking listeners on headbanging spirit quests since 2004.
Formed from the ashes of Mahumodo – whose other alumni include Rick Chapple of Devil Sold His Soul – along with ex-members of 2000s British hardcore rising stars Eden Maine and Fireapple Red, *shels have worked hard for what they have. It was their debut full-length Sea Of The Dying Dhow in 2007 that initially captivated me, following 2004′s EP Wingsfortheirsmiles, but since then they’ve only grown, putting out the transitory Laurentian’s Atoll later that year, before a catastrophic hard drive failure resulted in double-length album cycle for last year’s triumphant Plains Of The Purple Buffalo.
With the band so spread out, they don’t get the chance to tour or write together as a group often, so it’s mostly left to Mehdi, who both plays guitar and provides lead vocals, and long-time drummer friend Tom Harriman, who was also part of Mahumodo. Plains saw a lot of Native American influence on the band, with instruments, chanting, and Mehdi’s Tuvan throat singing all put to great use.
The rest of the *shels cast are revolving and loose, depending on availability, but a favourite fixture has been trumpeteer Arif Driessen, whose on-stage antics provide endless entertainment, even when he’s not playing.
As busy as Mehdi is, he was kind enough to sit down with us to reminisce on the last ten years (and beyond!), talking beginnings, landmarks and the highs and lows of underground superstardom, amongst other things.
Hey Mehdi, thanks for talking with us! The obvious question first: what prompted you to start the label? The *shels/shelsmusic name is a bit of a giveaway obviously, but it goes further back than that doesn’t it?
shelsmusic started out of necessity in 2003 when my old band Mahumodo self-released its debut album Waves. At the time, it was cool that we were getting offered deals from labels, but unfortunately they were borderline abusive; most of them wanted to lock us in for multiple albums and take ownership of the music while giving us a small % of the money we’d make from sales. It was all masked behind a cash advance that, with a little thought, didn’t really amount to much. It wasn’t difficult to see how labels at the time were operating; waving attractive advances in front of bands and not really looking out for their best interests.
Mahumodo’s last output as a group, and possibly their finest, Waves is audibly the foundation for the *shels sound which was to come. Mixing the aggression of nu-metal with a tangible sense of serenity across the seven tracks, fans of Deftones should lap this one up. As the first in a long line of releases for shelsmusic, it obviously holds a special place in Mehdi’s heart.
We had already released several EPs prior to Waves under shels records – they were small hand-made runs that we sold mostly at shows – but there was still mail ordering happening through our website. We started off each investing £50 to record our first EP, and through the sales, which we saved in our band “pot”, we made enough to pay for follow-up recordings, or t-shirts we could sell. We eventually landed some reviews and started to build up a good local following and had some good press going on, including features in Kerrang!, Theprp.com, Rock Sound and more, so we decided to do keep doing things ourselves and let it grow organically.
What prompted you to start working with other bands, besides putting out your own records?
Several reasons. Being angry at how labels were treating bands was a big incentive; many of our friends bands had had terrible experiences with labels that had not paid them money they were due, or in one way or another hurt the band and it just seemed like the opposite of what a label was suppose to do. The first contract we ever drafted was for Latitudes‘ Bleak Epiphanies in Slow Motion - it was a one album deal, which we felt was important as it would pressure us to work hard for them so that if they were happy, they would choose to come back to us for a second or third album. We split everything 50/50 and told them what to expect from day one; gave them a clear and transparent understanding of our expectations and capabilities for the album. Since that release, every contract we have sent to a band has been refined and has evolved according to feedback and conversations we have had with the bands.
Rumbling from the very bowels of the earth, Herfordshire post-metal band Latitudes’ first album Bleak Epiphanies In Slow Motion is a record whose essence is very much captivated by its title; a realisation of something low and resonating, with minimal hope offered. It marks a time before the band introduced vocals, so the thunderous pummelling you receive is all instrumentation.
It checks all the right boxes, nods to all the right names (ISIS, Neurosis, Pelican) and is very worthy of your attention.
Another big motivation for us to start releasing records for other bands was that there were so many great bands that no one was touching, for one reason or another – and we just felt like we could help. We’ve never had much money but we’ve always tried to structure our agreements and deals with bands in a way to make every release a success in terms of getting the bands more exposure and covering all of our costs along the way so that we can keep doing it. It’s the same method we used with Mahumodo – the first release should cover its costs, and generate enough for the next release and so on. Doing everything DIY as we had done with Mahumodo – whether it was the production, artwork, building websites, booking tours, doing press or shipping – has helped keep our costs low, and that has been a crucial part of it.
Is there any particular thing you look for in a signing? What impressed you most about the first band you signed?
We met Latitudes whilst we were mixing *shels’ debut album Sea of The Dying Dhow. They were working on their debut with our good friend Mark Williams, and while we were mixing SOTDD he played us a few of their tracks – and we loved it; heavy, cinematic, and moody. When we met them and saw what down to earth and awesome people they were, we badly wanted to be involved in some way.
How positively do you feel the past ten years have unfolded? What have been some of the highs and lows?
It’s been an incredible ride and the best moments for me have been when we have been able to pay the bands when their albums have turned a profit. The first payment we ever sent to Latitudes was one of my personal highlights; knowing that we had covered every penny of our costs and made enough to make a profit to go towards another recording or tour or whatever was enough to make me feel this thing was working. Of course some of the tours we’ve arranged and been a part of have been awesome. Our tour with The Ascent of Everest, being able to fly them out from Nashville to the UK and tour alongside them was an honor and also a major achievement for us.
One of my favourite post-rock albums of the past few years, How Lonely Sits The City, from Nashville’s own The Ascent Of Everest, is bleak and affecting. Stand-out track “A Threnody (For Victims Of November Second)” features a sample of Mario Cuomo’s 1984 speech on Walter Mondale’s U.S. Presidential campaign. It’s a brutally honest appraisal of the Reagan and the ingrained inequality of the system (“Maybe, maybe, Mr. President, if you stopped in at a shelter in Chicago and spoke to the homeless there; maybe, Mr. President, if you asked a woman who had been denied the help she needed to feed her children because you said you needed the money for a tax break for a millionaire or for a missile we couldn’t afford to use.”) which was present throughout the whole campaign, and earned him the biggest landslide defeat in history.
It’s still so very relevant, and the music captures the mood perfectly in this and the rest of the tracks.
Most of our lows have been when have decided to work with a third party, to book a tour, or print t-shirts, or handle the press for one of our releases – we’ve had several disappointments. The biggest one of all was probably when we spent nearly $8000 to fly The Ascent of Everest out to the UK to tour with *shels, only to have them turned back at the airport, all the way back to Nashville, because the booking agent hadn’t sorted out their work visas in time. In a way it was a blessing though, because the entire tour was extremely poorly booked – shit like that unfortunately happens and it’s just a process of slowly finding the right people to work with. Today we work with an awesome booking agent (Paul Hutcheon at GenreBomb) who handles *shels and is taking over handling all the shelsmusic bands. I guess, when you hand things you love and care about so much to other folks who don’t have the same level of interest, shit like that can happen. The list of shitty things like that could go on for a while!
Fortunately there’s been WAY more amazing folks that have helped us – people like Marcus Hamblett, or Gary Davidson come to mind, and many, many more. Good people who have worked hard for no money to help us build this label, including our families for giving us loans when our credit cards got maxed out. We’ve been truly blessed with lots of good friends and family.
Is there anything you know now you wish you knew when you started?
How much time have you got?! Well, for starters I wish we knew not to let that booking agency we talked about above book a tour for us. It’s not the first time for them, I guess it won’t be the last. You just have to be careful with who you contact. If we’d known that, we’d be $7000 richer; that’s four albums we could have released!
“Wankers…wankers as far as the eye can see! See? There’s one!”
We all know you as the face of the label, but who else is and has been involved? Here’s your chance to herald their names!
God…there’s been so many! Massive shout-outs to: Marcus Hamblett, especially in the early days for helping to build this; our good friend Gary Davidson, who has helped us massively – especially with promoting our releases; my cousin Bijan “beej” for bringing so many awesome bands to my attention, including Black Sheep Wall, Admiral Angry & The Ascent of Everest; my other cousin Hamid who had just graduated with a degree in Entertainment Law School just as we started signing bands – he helped draft our first contracts and helped us with so many more important legal aspects of setting up and running a business, and we would have been lost without him – or broke before even starting; my awesome mother, father and brother for never hesitating to help with loans when American Express and Visa turned their backs on us!
Tom Harriman, Mahumodo and *shels drummer – he’s been there from the start and is one of my greatest friends and advisors (to whom I will probably send this list, to make sure I haven’t left anyone or anything out!); our distribution company in the UK, Shellshock, who have been awesome to us, despite a hard ten years – they’ve helped us finance some of our releases; Sean Organ at Organzine for giving us our first reviews, Darren Taylor (ex-Rock Sound Editor) and the current staff at Rock Sound for covering our bands and supporting us with tours; Steve Joh at Century Media for being one of the most awesome folks ever and helping grow our profile here in the U.S.; Mark Williams for introducing us to Latitudes and more recently the good people at Dead Chemists Records and MarsiPlan Records for funding some of our recent vinyl projects; and good folks like yourselves who have reviewed underground music and helped us share what we do with more folks!
I hate doing thank you’s; there’s been literally hundreds of people who have made this label. Above all, the bands who have entrusted us with their work; without them there would be no label! The same goes to anyone who’s every bought something from us; there would be no label without our awesome fans and supporters around the world.
Five Landmark Shelsmusic Releases
Think you’re up on your shelsmusic? Here’s a rundown of five of the big hitters according to Mehdi.
Sons of Noel and Adrian – Sons of Noel and Adrian
[quote-symbol symbol1]When we heard this record, we were blown away – it was heavy, yet it was folk. We were keen to let folks out there know we weren’t going to restrict ourselves to a particular genre; we like heavy, moody, creative music – cinematic is another good word – no matter what kind of style, so when we released this record it helped define our character as a label, and helped tell folks what were all about.
Black Sheep Wall – I Am God Songs
[quote-symbol symbol1]One of the heaviest records we had ever heard.. by a group of (at the time) 17 year-old pot smoking video gameaholics. We released this record in the same year we released Sons of Noel and Adrian, and the contrast of the two different styles was again an awesome way for us to define ourselves more as a label, and communicate with folks that we were about music and not specific genres. We were stoked to see a lot of our supporters dig both records, and to this day I still smile when I see an order from our store that includes Black Sheep Wall and SONAA or Parliament of Owls.
Ef – Mourning Golden Morning
[quote-symbol symbol1]Mourning Golden Morning was monumental for us because at the time this was the biggest band, in terms of following, that we had ever worked with. We had been eager to work with them for years prior to this release, and when they agreed to do something it was just pure awesome.
A testament to how cool this band is, not just musically is that we love doing small, hand-printed packaging – using silk screen printers - and a lot of bands prefer avoiding that, opting for manufacturing the CDs ‘properly’ in a plant instead. Ef were totally into the DIY hand-made idea, which was awesome, and being as big as they were/are, our respect for them grew considerably for that.
DIY packaging for Ef’s Mourning Golden Morning
Pretend – Bones In The Soil, Rust In The Oil
[quote-symbol symbol1]Pretend are one of the most talented groups we have ever worked with and one of the most underrated bands we have ever known; their debut album is pure genius, and to hear the stuff they do, knowing they’re just a 3-piece is insane. Beautiful music, nicest dudes on the planet, and another landmark for us, because of the style of music…and another one of our limited edition hand-made runs!
Admiral Angry – A Fire To Burn Down The World
[quote-symbol symbol1]Our first vinyl release. Vinyl was never financially viable for us – and for years we just couldn’t understand how labels were able to afford it. When we met Admiral Angry, Daniel Kraus, the creative driving force behind them, had intended for this EP to be recorded on vinyl. We had released their debut album Buster prior to this, and had told them we’d do it on limited edition CD instead. They had only recorded demos of this when Daniel tragically passed away from cystic fibrosis
It was heartbreaking and tragic, and we knew that once the rest of the band could move forward and record the EP, we would honor Daniel by doing this on vinyl.
So, it was monumental for us, in that it was the first time we ever released some vinyl – and since then, we have been blessed with great folks wanting more vinyl from us – and we’re finally doing it, thanks in huge part to Daniel.
So what’s brewing next for shelsmusic?
- The label are preparing for the release of Erlen Meyer’s self-titled debut album on May 20th. The Limoges bruisers are ready and raring to go, with a UK tour also in the works.
- News of a new album from their other new signing, Carlisle-based experimental sludge metal band Manatees, is forthcoming, despite a Scottish tour next month being postponed.
- As part of the 10-year anniversary celebrations, Mahumodo’s seminal album Waves is getting a vinyl release. Pre-orders will begin on April 14th – exactly 10 years to the day the album was originally released – from the shelsmusic webstore. There’ll only be 300 made, so make sure to pick up this rare piece – especially given their attention to detail and passion for a awesome physical media – and support the label!
- There’s a new signing to be announced soon. Further details, but given that there’s not a bad band on the roster, this csn only be good news.
We’re also assured they’re working on some tours (hopefully not with that booking agent), so keep an eye on the events calendar!
Hopefully you’re now as in love with shelsmusic as I am.
There’s loads more to get to grips with, including the epic Ancients, featuring ex members of Rinoa, Crydebris – and Mehdi on vocals – and the now defunct Down I Go, a truly unique British band with an ear for incredibly catchy dissonant post-hardcore.
shelsmusic truly are one of the best underground labels out there, so please support them and their bands!