Label Focus: Blank Mind

Since its inception back in 2011, London based imprint Blank Mind has released a steady stream of focused, uncompromising material. Their output ranges from Detroit techno, UK bass and juke, to Grenadian soca and early gqom, with recent releases coming courtesy of Lack, J Chrysalis and label boss Dance, aka Sam Purcell.

I met Sam in one of his favourite pubs in his home borough of Putney for an honest and enlightening conversation about the label. A freelance Graphic Designer by day, he’s a softly spoken, gentle man with a sharp intellect and quick wit. We spoke easily for several hours before steering the conversation towards the label. What followed were tales of early experiences at DMZ, a pair of Ben UFO’s old belt drives and the precarious state of the club 12”.

Let’s start at the top with you personally. What’s your musical background?

I grew up here in Putney supporting Fulham in quite a comfortable background. I was always what you might call a highly sensitive child. When I was young I was buying like… do you know Morcheeba for example?

Yeah yeah, I had one of their songs on a Ministry of Sound chillout compilation [laughs].

The first album I bought was by Morcheeba when I was like, seven! I suppose the story of me is just being really like tuned into sound and into music keenly at an early stage.

So you skipped the angsty Slipknot phase?

Sort of… I had this precocious taste and then I got into like, Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park for about a year. Then I got into NME, shoulder length hair music for a year or two… then Radiohead and Aphex Twin. Around thirteen/fourteen, that was when electronic music came back.

My friend Max – who I did SMX with – was three years older than me at school and did a radio show with Resonance FM. I think I saw a poster for it and thought, oh you know fuck it, I’ll stay behind and go to that as it was in our school hall. I turned up with about an hour to kill before this concert began after school and I started chatting to Max. He was surprised that anyone had taken an interest! He already had Ableton and this was before it was like, ‘THE’ software. People were mostly using Cubase and Reason. Max was extra nice. I don’t know about your school, but at most schools there are sharp year divides. I mean someone the year beneath you…

Oh yeah, never the twain shall meet.

Someone the year below you… you just dismissed. Whereas Max was three years above me and had this radio show and would just give me all these CDs. He would give me like, cases with about twenty to thirty CD’s of what became really formative stuff for me. He gave me Selected Ambient Works (probably my favourite record of all time), Geogaddi, Venetian Snares, Caribou when he was Manitoba, Fridge… and also stuff like Tortoise and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. But then he also lent me his installation CDs for Reason and Ableton, so Max was massive.

Then I was fucking about with it and Josh, who was a friend of mine from primary school came over and fucked about. We then invited my friend Karl along and we made this album as Our Sleepless Forest, which was released on a label called Resonant in, 2008?

What kind of stuff was that?

It was like, psychedelic ambient music. It would be very in vogue for now. We were kind of inspired by Sigur Ros… lots of huge reverb and delay. Then, did you ever have MSN messenger?

I was at the tail end of it…

It was like, key. My older sister’s friend Jane was really good friends with this guy Ben, who you will now know as Ben UFO.

Back when he was just… regular Ben.

He would have probably been about eighteen at the time, I was about fifteen. I was chatting to Jane and she said like, “oh you would get along with my friend Ben. We got chatting on MSN and he was going to FWD nights. And like, east London, FWD, all these things were well out of my manor at the time. I’d come across all the Tempa and early Hyperdub stuff through Boomkat already, but all this stuff seemed a little bit dark and outside of my element really.

It wasn’t your world.

Yeah, I think worlds felt further away than maybe they do for kids now. I remember hearing grime from kids on the back of buses and watching ‘I Luv U’ and being quite intimidated.

I was speaking to Ben though and he was going to these nights. He encouraged me to go, so I went to FWD when I was seventeen and saw the Skream! LP launch. It was Skream, Benga, Youngsta… I remember walking down into Plastic People and I was definitely the only seventeen-year-old there with my mates [laughs]. I’d bought one or two records by then, but that was the start of it really. I bought some belt drives off Ben and got into DJing.

You learnt to mix on Ben UFO’s belt drives? That’s hallowed equipment!

It was an unbelievable era. As I’m getting into buying records, stuff like Blue Notez by Mala was coming out and I fully immersed myself in it. I was going out every weekend, listening to Rinse, becoming like an obsessive. I was already a Warp nerd, then I became a dance nerd. Then I went to university and I came across this incredible music from Grenada via a message board called dissensus. I’d been given some money by my Grandma, I think it was my 21st birthday to put towards something for the future – and I asked her if I could start a record label with the money?

When was this?

This was 2011. I always knew I’d do a record label at some point in time.

Starting the label for you was almost more of an inevitability?

Yeah. I’d watched lots of people I knew start things and make a success.

Anyone we’d know?

Well there were the Hessle Audio guys, Ikonika, Braiden, some of the Deep Medi guys like Silkie and Quest… all these people were super approachable. You’d go out and chat to Benga and Skream… you’d meet people every week. It might be the Night Slugs guys one week, Darkstar who’d go on to be massive… lots of people that were punters were blowing up!

It’s still a little bit surreal watching the Hessle guys for example because… they were people who you’d chat with, and their legacy now is really amazing.

So, witnessing and being inspired by these people helped me take the plunge with Blank Mind…

Is there any story behind the name?

Oh yeah! I was really interested in Zen Buddhism. My friend Josh was Buddhist, so that introduced me to those types of ideas. As someone who’s quite anxious, discovering meditation was really important. My dissertation was on a Chinese artist called Xu Bing whose work encompasses Zen Buddhism and deconstructive philosophy, and this idea of blanking out of the mind. The old logo before I changed it had phonetics beneath. In language there’s obviously semantic meaning and sonic meaning, it’s this relationship between those two things. I remember reading this Taoist teaching… have you heard of the book of the Chuang Tzu? It said, “words exist for meaning, but once you understand the meaning you can throw away the word.” The name Blank Mind is that, an emptying out.

Did you have any kind of plan when you started?

No way! [laughs]. Well, I sort of did. When I put the wheels into motion, I think I was twenty/twenty-one. This was when dubstep had really atomised and you had what became known as the ‘bass scene’ or ‘post dubstep’. I don’t think I was into the music completely and this was around the time that Juke was first coming over. I was conscious of the fact that I was much more excited by the stuff which was outside of the central aspect of the scene which I had typically followed.

When I heard the Jab Jab material, which became the first record by Adrian Lenz & Sandman, I couldn’t believe that this was not something that everyone knew about, along with the DJ Clent material, so I just thought, fuck it. I’ve found something here and I wanted to introduce that to ‘the record buying market’ as it were.

Since then I’ve just been making it up as I go along. The first Dance record was the first one that was more engaged with the UK ‘scene’, whilst this other music sort of orbited it. I get frustrated when music scenes feel too insular and self-referential. I understand that there is always going to be some kind of gravitational centre, but I’m really interested in doing something, which could be disruptive in a positive way.

How did those first few records go? Was it challenging?

Oh yes, I really over pressed on the first one! It was exciting but it was also a learning curve and you’re always constantly becoming aware of your own shortcomings. I pressed five hundred because I never knew how it was going to go. We probably sold about a hundred and eighty I think it was initially… which by today’s standards I would be happy with, but nine years ago, that was not great. I was working on a bit of a limit from that point onwards.

When you’ve pressed up five hundred…

Yeah, and I did a full artwork sleeve as well! The records after that from DJ Clent and myself were white label [laughs]. The Dance one did really well, then the Alan Johnson record was the same… then nothing’s sold quite as well since! [laughs] But one thing that’s stayed the same is it’s always been a really personal project. I saw Ben [UFO] for example describing ‘Don’t Be Afraid’ as an artist run label, whereas what I do is pretty different. I can be really specific and talk a lot with the artists about certain detail. So like with the recent releases, I could sometimes be pretty granular with the artists about what could be tweaked or what not to change.

I’ve heard from friends that it’s often quite beneficial when the label is really rigorous like that.

I suppose it’s about identity. I think that, despite going through different styles, there’s always been a thread and that thread has got quite a specific feeling and vibe.

Sometimes you’ll be sent really good tracks but you’re like, there’s no way I can release them on Blank Mind! I’ve turned away some music, which I knew would do well and subsequently has [laughs]. It’s about wanting to create something, which is completely earnest. You’re kind of always appealing to your younger self. It’s this thing of knowing that even if there might only be three or four people out there that really see that detail, you want to stay true to it.

And has that ethos stayed? How has the label developed since that first run of five hundred?

I don’t know… it’s funny because the label has had these sinuous curves of not releasing, then releasing. That’s the relationship between my process of making and discovering music, and also who I may come into contact with.

With Audioboyz, which was BLNK008 that was the only release where I remember I had quite consciously tried to find new and different music. I came across their work before the first gqom record had even been released over here. I knew that after a certain point I couldn’t always be like, trying to stay ahead of the curve by discovering sounds that hadn’t yet happened. It would’ve ended up being voyeuristic and a bit disingenuous. I was always thinking thinking thinking: ‘What can I do that will interesting and different?’ and that methodology foregrounded a lot of the decision making label-wise and creatively. However, working in that way just felt unsustainable.

Did it start to feel a bit contrived?

It didn’t feel contrived, but I became aware that it would do if it continued.

You kind of nipped it in the bud?

Yeah. Also, your tastes change. I put out the SMX record, which was BLNK010 and, as I mentioned to you earlier, 009 and 010 lost money, like, an uncomfortable amount of money! It became really difficult and I was so down, I was kind of ready to give it up.

Then, I went to an event at Low Company and met Jack, who is J Chrysalis through our mutual friend Matthew Kent. We got along straight away. Jack’s got huge energy, huge charisma and he believed in me and the label. We found that we had so many similarities, he really encouraged me to be ambitious and keep going. He sent me ‘A Kind Robin’, that track had already lived a bit of a life and then he made ‘Latent Space’ and, I was almost campaigning for him to release with me! [Laughs]. He could have released with other people, but he wanted to work with me because we were like, almost soul mates up to a point. After many months of conversations and meeting up several times a week we decided to do the record.

I was just hanging on with the label, there’s only so much energy you can give yourself without external help. Then all of a sudden, from slugging it out for years and from all those things I talked about like appealing to your younger self etc… it clicked. I was in contact with exciting people who wanted to work with me and give lots energy to those ideas. So with Charlie, who is Lack, and Jack, they… they make this really great music. Then I did the mix for Blowing Up The Workshop which was all new music by myself; and all of a sudden we were at this point where we had… well, lots of good music [laughs]. Suddenly we had three records out in really quick succession. It was the first time we’ve had that, where things are kind of relating to where the current trend is.

So what is the future looking like? It sounds like things are starting to fall into place a bit!

Kind of! But then also at the same time the record market seems to have died and with the Apollo Transco fires that happened as well… we’re going to have to see. There are two releases planned, those are one hundred percent. I’m now asking myself questions about the market – I think everyone’s asking themselves those questions. I feel with Lack and Jack’s records, if those were put out three or four years ago those records would be gone already. There’s this culture which used to exist which was, you know, buy it before it goes. That seems to have disappeared, you know what I mean? There’s not that hot 12”, it doesn’t exist. There’s not that vinyl only, there’s not that need to have it on wax.

The boom from a few years back seems to have run its course.

Yeah, I think it got saturated. And also, everyone now grows up seeing their DJ idols on pioneers. There’s not that philosophy of dubplate culture or vinyl culture. There’s not even that culture of, kind of, sound fussiness. You know like, that’s a good cut, that’s a bad cut. So yeah, the future for the dance 12” is really, really complex at the moment. A lot of big labels are struggling to shift three hundred units.

Even the most respected in the game, they’re just not shifting the numbers to keep it sustainable.

It’s really scary. Like with this SMX record, I lost way more money than I have on anything before and would ever like to repeat. It’s been weird because a lot of people who I have a kinship to love the records. They love the presentation, they love the music and it kind of tells me I didn’t fuck up. But when you’re having to pay the bill… You kind of feel this sense of shame. You feel like you’ve done a bad job, made bad decisions.

I’ve learnt to make peace with what happened with those records. I think it’s about trying to find a solution whereby you either make peace with the amount of money you could lose beforehand or create a structure in which you will lose less money. This is something I’m thinking about.

Image: Tom Brannigan

Do you think in the future you’re going to stick to pressing up records, or is there another avenue you’re looking at exploring?

I hope so! I mean, I really believe in the physical artefact. I know that’s not very environmentally friendly but, I don’t enjoy digital archiving, and how things are often organised by alphabet or ‘date modified’. I don’t enjoy the lack of visual cue and I don’t enjoy the lack of chaos. So like, for me it’s really important to flick through things and have that resonance. I mean I do DJ with CD’s and there’s that lack of sight and meaning. It’s this weird feeling scrolling through and you’re like what is that? I don’t know! Or like, trying to create a set and just always starting at A. What bias is there to A? What disadvantage is Z at? Hopefully vinyl stays, but the whole thing with the factory burning down has a lot of people pretty scared.

Yeah, there’s not many people with that kind of equipment and expertise out there that are accessible to the smaller end of the market like us.

Yeah yeah. There seems to still be a market for LP’s though. I think people are buying full artwork stuff. Ambient probably sells quite well. Some friends who run labels that are releasing full LPs are still doing good. But I think it’s the dancefloor 12” which is in a really difficult place.
I think I have now met that goal of trying to satisfy that younger self though. Bear with me, but when Robin van Persie moved to Man United from Arsenal, he said he had a bunch of offers and in order to make the decision he asked himself what the little boy inside him wanted to do. I always found that really interesting. I think as long as I’m authentically satisfying that childhood voice then I’m happy.

So that’s still, like, the main way you steer your curation of the label?

Yeah that’s the steer. I don’t think I’m ever going to just knock shit out for the sake of it. It reminds me that I can continue to trust myself to not take the easy option.

Thank you Sam!

Support Blank Mind here.

Words: Justin O’Brien

Featured Image: Brian Whar

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