Simon Raymonde has been championing a diverse and inspiring range of artists for over two decades. His label, Bella Union, has housed acts like The Flaming Lips, Fleet Foxes, Susanne Sundfør and John Grant. In a way it’s consolidated his broad musical taste, but he always felt like something was missing – especially when its 20th birthday loomed. “When you do a landmark thing like that…I suppose you are looking back quite a lot,” he tells me. “It made me realise: ‘Why aren’t you making music? This is how you got here.’” So here we are. A few days in the studio with a dear friend and a busload of guest vocalists has led Raymonde to a new band and a new album.
Lost Horizons, and their evocative debut Ojalá, sees Raymonde reunite with long-time collaborator Ritchie Thomas. Their shared history traces back to the 80s. Thomas served as the drummer for Dif Juz, a proto-post-rock act who Raymonde still describes as the best live band he’s ever seen. Thomas would also collaborate with Raymonde’s band – Cocteau Twins. Dif Juz even helped construct their first studio. Come the new millennium and both had faded from the release schedules. “I’m not even sure what he does now. He lives in Croatia half the year, but I knew I wanted it to be him and no-one else.” They subsequently holed up in a London studio for a few days, improvising and letting the music flow. “Everything has been super-fun, because there is no pressure. I do have to satisfy my own thought processes though, that’s the hard bit.” We’re sat in a reassuringly quirky Hove café, located in the same building as Raymonde’s studio where much of the album’s post-production took place. He freely admits to ‘control freak’ tendencies, especially when it comes to music, so he needed collaborators who understood his vision for the record – and could lend their own distinctiveness to it. Each track was so singular it actually demanded different vocalists. “I’d finish a piece of music and think: ‘I know who needs to sing that. It was very natural.” Finding fame with a band like Cocteau Twins, whose singer Elizabeth Fraser possesses one of music’s most distinctive voices, creates certain public expectation of everything to follow. The inevitable comparisons once deterred him from releasing records, until now. An instrumental record would not have worked anyway. Clearly he writes with vocal melodies in mind. As a whole, this new collection reveals a love affair with layered melodies and melancholic harmonies. Thomas’ unique percussion style stretches from dub and rock through to more avantgarde styles, and so adds a blissful urgency to the album. It feels organic and like something which has sprung from a shared love of music.
The band’s name was inspired, without hesitation, by Frank Capra‘s 1937 film, Lost Horizon. An adaptation of the James Hilton novel, the story established the concept of Shangri-La – a utopia offering answers to all the confusion and bewilderment in the Western world. “I love the imagery of the film. The promo shot of the movie has been on my computer for 20 years.” Suitably, there’s an exotic air of mystery to this album, in both its music and packaging. The latter is peppered with subtly interlinked photos, while one of the formats comes as zeotropic picture disc. What was intended to be a work of just nine or ten songs, somehow swelled into a 15-track epic. “I spoke to Duncan, who does our [Bella Union’s] press. I knew he’d be like: ‘I don’t want a double – it’s hard enough to get journalists to listen to a single record.’ He’s brutal, he doesn’t care if it’s me and I need that. He came back and said there’s no wastage on there and we should put it out.” The finished product is a diverse hour of solidly lovely indie pop. Sometimes mournful and often dramatic, but it rarely fails to delight.
Recently he’s been playing guitar with Mercury Rev on their ambitious shows with Royal Northern Sinfonia, but Raymonde has shied away from taking centre stage himself. With this new project, and by surrounding himself with the right people, he no longer feels the strain of carrying everything – now feeling able to be ‘standing at the back having a laugh.’ “It’s partly why I’ve said yes to doing this. I really enjoyed it again. I never really enjoyed playing live before – not with the Cocteaus anyway. Maybe that was me being younger and having two kids and the pressure of that with being away all the time.” He’s assembled a full live band, with three female and two male singers, each swapping roles to recreate the album’s complex layers. There are definite plans to tour, with festival and UK dates already booked in. I do ask Raymonde if, perhaps, he isn’t busy enough with running a successful record label. Apparently, the bulk of Ojalá took just eight days; such was everyone’s focus on the project. Not exactly an arduous length of time. “If it was a slog I wouldn’t do it, because I’m quite lazy. I get the moment and I take it. I can do it and it fits into my life without creating a major rumpus – which it can do when you’re in a relationship. But I’ve worked out the balance now, which is quite nice. It’s only taken me 55 years.