Thanks so much to Mark Pearson for this thorough interview! Ambition Records was one of the best indiepop labels of the late 80s, one of the ones that actually influenced my taste, and who knows, maybe there wouldn’t be Cloudberry if it wasn’t for his passion for indiepop then. I’m not exaggerating.
++ Hello Mark! Thanks so much for being up for the interview. I reckon you live now in Japan? How come?
Hi Roque! Thank you for asking me. It is a pleasure to answer your questions.
How come Japan? Good Question! After Ambition Records folded I decided to distance myself from the Indie Scene and concentrate on study. Then as luck would have it I got made redundant from my factory job in 1993. The redundancy money got me through university, where I studied Philosophy and English at the University College of Saint Mark and Saint John in Plymouth. I graduated in ’97 and got a post-grad diploma in Teaching English as a Foreign Language. After much thought I decided that I couldn’t teach a language if I didn’t know what it was like to learn a one. So, I went to WHSmiths in Southampton and picked the first book that fell off the shelf. It happened to be Japanese for Beginners. I’d practiced Judo when I was a kid, and I’d picked up a bit of Japanese then, so I didn’t find it so difficult to get into. In fact it was fascinating language with an even more fascinating culture. It made me want to go to Japan. So in August of ’98 I came and made a life for myself here. I’ve got a pretty decent job now and I’m married with two kids. Life could not get much better than this.
++ So let’s go back to the late 80s, what made you start Ambition Records? What was your ambition?
Well, you know, I could say that I wanted fame and fortune. I could say that I wanted to create something worthwhile. I could say that I wanted to make a bit extra cash to buy records. But basically I was an eighteen year old music addict who just wanted to escape the tedium of Factory Life. I repaired machine tools eight hours a day for ten years. It was tedious. Ambition was a way to let of steam. It was something to channel my creative energy into. It was a dream.
++ Why the name Ambition Records?
That was down to my guru and friend, David “Hammy” Hamilton. In 1985 I was eighteen. I used to go to Riverside in Southampton on Friday nights where I became friends with Hammy. We used to go back to his flat in Highfield and play records until six in the morning. Hammy introduced me to a load of second division punk bands from the late seventies, among them Vic Goddard and the Subway Sect. I picked up a copy of their 7” single Ambition from Underground Records in St Mary’s Street and after that it never off my HMV record player. I used to drive my parents nuts with it. I took the name from that.
++ Was Ambition Records the first time you supported, hands-on, the indie pop scene?
It was the natural progression from being a DJ. In 1987 I bought a seventies Dansette twin record deck and a couple of burned out speakers for an unspecified sum from Hammy and started up an indie night at the Labour Club in Southampton that remained popular among the indie kids, psychobillies, goths, and grungers up until 1990. We put on local bands and played music—mostly what I liked and what I thought everyone else ought to like. I played things like the Wedding Present, Pop Will Eat Itself, The Shop Assistants, and the Soup Dragons. Among the bands we put on were Accrington Stanley and The Kinky Boot Beasts. The Kinky Boot Beasts were a daft bunch who played shambling feedback guitars with moments of 13th Floor Elevator genius. When the KBB split Martin became one of our doormen and Richard Stark formed Jane Pow. Jane Pow would later blow Sarah Records’ Field Mice off the stage the night they played the Labour Club (They had a tendency to blow any band off the stage in those days). They told me with their usual arrogance that if I knew what was good for me I would sign them to my label. Signing to Ambition was a verbal agreement, so I told them there and then I would finance a 7” single and we went down to Bristol to record Safe/That’s My Girl.
++ The first release was a 7″ by the incredible Mayfields. I’m actually good friends with Mark and Iain, and I’m kind of curious if you have any anecdotes you’d like to share about them!
I was Djing at the Tinderbox—I think it was probably Loop or Pop Will Eat Itself. Iain might correct me. I was playing “On Tape” by the Pooh Sticks and Iain Mayfield handed me his band’s tape. He’d heard that I was thinking of starting a label and thought I should hear his band. The funny thing was I had heard of the Mayfields before. There were a load of Indie Pop Fanzines around at the time and their demo had been mentioned and reviewed in a number of them. I took the tape home and played it. And played it again. I thought it was fantastic. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I was whisked away by the Mayfields and my adventures as an indie pop guru began.
I went down to see the Mayfields rehearse in a church hall in Salisbury. I was hooked. The songs were so polished and tight. The lyrics were incredibly sharp. I wanted them to be AMB001. The only thing that worried me was that there seemed to be some real high tension among the band members. But I’d read the NME and I’d heard this was pretty usual in bands. Tension can make or break a band. In the end the tension in the Mayfields broke them.
Paul the bassist created the cover for the Girl of My Best Friend single.
I used to go down to Mark’s house in the Cotswolds. It was a lot of fun. Once we recorded a bunch of ultra-twee songs under the name of “The Chocolate Anoraks”. One of them was called Winnie the Pooh’s My Hero. It was too twee but a lot of fun. Unfortunately the tape got “LOST” and Iain got an electric shock off his bass.
I remember the last time I saw the Mayfields before they split up was the infamous Pooh Sticks gig at the Labour Club. We put them on as support but there was a lot of tension in the band and they split up not long after that. (Incidently we recorded the Pooh Sticks gig that night and it was released on Fierce Records under the name “Trade Mark of Quality”—ironically named after me)
++ So how did the band signing process work for Ambition Records? What were the requisites?
I was nineteen years old without a care in the world apart from which record I would buy next and when the NME was coming out. Neither did I particularly care for the business side of it all. As most of the bands would tell you, to sign to Ambition Records went a bit like this:
Band Member: “You’re Gnome aren’t you?
Band Member: “Well, what did you think of us?”
Gnome: “You blew me away.”
Band Member: “So, are you gonna sign us.”
Gnome: “Sure! Let’s record a single next week.”
++ Then you released Jane Pow. They were the only band that released two records with you. Which were your favourite songs from them?
My favorite Jane Pow song was without a doubt “That’s My Girl.” I insisted that was the track they recorded for their single. But Richard insisted they record a new song for the A side. I agreed; I was all for the band having control of their product. The new song turned out to be “Safe” and I loved that too. From Greg’s notorious stumbling drum intro, through the dropout guitars, Vincent’s classic melody, and Richard’s barely audible lyrics, it is a rollicking pop song that never got the polished production it deserved. I will never forget hearing it over the speakers at Abbey Road Studios as it was being cut. The engineer turned to me and said that it was a damn good song. He was not wrong. As for other tracks I liked, well I still get the shivers when I listen to “Warm Room” and I will never forget their live show at the Labour Club with Rupert and Richard smashing their heads on their guitars in time to “Above Your Head”.
++ The Love Buttons record is a bit hard to find! It’s sought after especially by Japanese fans! How many copies wre pressed? And I’m wondering if you can tell me a bit about this band, as there is not much information.
The Lovebuttons famous in Japan??? Unbelievable! They were a bunch of University student lads fronted by a sweet spicy girl called Jo Bisseker. They used to turn up at all the gigs and one day they approached me with a tape by their band The Buttons. It was classic Indie-Pop and I loved it. Unfortunately by the time they arrived on the scene I was beginning to struggle financially. My turntables had been stolen from the Labour Club, I was in debt because of the money I had put up for Girl of My Best Friend, who had split soon after the release of the single and showed little interest in promoting their record. In addition to that the “Bobby Stokes Salutes the Fall of Manchester” compilation album was costing me more to compile than I had anticipated. But Jo and the boys were insistent that they wanted their single to be on Ambition, so I said sure, go ahead and create it and I’ll give it a catalogue number AMB007. They certainly came up with the goods and even changed their name, dispensing of the twee in favor of something that would reflect the sexiness of the band. Looking back I would have liked to have spent more time with them because they had a lot of passion and energy and they were very sexy. We pressed 500 copies and they sold out almost immediately. We should have pressed more, gone on tour and blown the world apart, but I was starting to feel the pinch. My only regret about those times is that I believe I let the LoveButtons down.
++ The other band I’m very curious on your catalogue is Girl of My Best Friend. First, because I like their name, and second because they made some great songs! But again, not much information about them. Anything you’d like to tell me?
Girl of My best Friend got their name from an Elvis song. They came from Northampton. I discovered them on Chris and Neil’s Corrupt Postman tape. Their song stood out above all the others because of the haunting quality of the singer’s voice contrasted against the jangly guitars. It was different. It was exciting. I went down to La Cave in Bristol to see them. They performed a really spooky set. I think they were supporting The Bachelor Pad. I offered to cut a record with them. They asked me if I was kidding. They came to Southampton to do a gig with Jane Pow. They performed a really spooky set. Not long after that I lost touch with them. I think they split up. I like to think they were a ghost who came to haunt me for a few months before disappearing.
++ Ambition 006 is Colette’s Groovy Badge. So, who is Colette?
A lot of Indie Kids used to write to me in those days to buy the records. Colette was one of them. A sixteen year old girl from Lytham St Annes with a passion for music and writing as intense as Jane Pow and the Mayfields put together. I thought if she were a band I would sign her. So I did. It was a true indie-pop moment. Colette went on to study English at Oxford University and now she is a best selling author.
++ What is the story behind the “Garden Gnome” fanzine? Why that name?
Why the name? Hammy again. It was six o’clock in the morning one Sunday in 1985 or 1986. We’d eaten our chips from Big George in Swaythling. We had emptied a case of lager. We had listened to everything from Scott Fitzgerald’s The Paranoid Ward to John the Postman’s Toothache. We had watched the latest episode of Filthy Rich and Catflap. Then Hammy put on Chance in a Million. You know the old show where Simon Callow played a guy who had unbelievable events happening to him all the time called Tom Chance. He was parking his car when he backed over a Garden Gnome. The head came off of the Gnome and Tom Chance said “Gnome Dead”. Hammy looked at me flaked out on his sofa and repeated it. The name stuck.
After that everyone knew me as gnome. So when I was looking for a name for the fanzine and I just knew it had to have a gnome in it so the brand would be instantly recognizable. There were 3 issues of the Garden Gnome Experience, which I wrote myself, and one issue of the Garden Gnome which I co-wrote with Colette. I wanted to create something disposable, and twee, and in the vein of all the other fanzines around at the time.
++ What was the idea behind the “Bobby Stokes Salutes The Fall Of Manchester” compilation?
It was 1976. Saints beat Manchester United with Bobby Stokes famous goal. Saints were thrown into the first division and suddenly we were playing in a much bigger field. Of course it was a field which belonged to the big guys, like Manchester United. Just like the music scene always belonged to the big guys up North. Inspiral Carpets, Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses.
Then in early 1989 just before Madchester and the Stone Roses hit the big time their tour manager called me. He said the band was supposed to play in Salisbury, but the promoter had done a bunk. Could the Stone Roses play at the Labour Club on Wednesday night? I said, “The Stone Roses? Who are they?” He told me they were The Next Big Thing. Of course all the bands said that. I said they wouldn’t pull in much of a crowd on a Wednesday night and put the phone down. The following week the NME came through the door and who was on the cover but the Stone Bloody Roses. I could have kicked myself.
Bobby Stokes Salutes the Fall of Manchester was conceived as an ironic tribute to that moment. That was my big “Fall”, but I still remembered the time when Bobby stokes scored that famous goal.
I decided to invite bands that I respected from all over to contribute to Bobby Stokes. I sent them all a small amount of cash to work with. I told them it didn’t have to be too polished. It was supposed to be in the spirit of second division punk, (the punk that Hammy had introduced me to in his flat in Swaythling in 1985) the underdogs of pop paying tribute to the overlords. I loved the Madchester movement with a passion and I wanted to be in on it at all costs. When the songs started coming back I was stunned at the quality and what a mixed bag I had. Strawberry Story did a twee version of Made of Stone, The Cudgels carbon-copied What Do I Get? I even managed to get a track from Thrilled Skinny! But by far the best track on the compilation was Mad Cyril by Jane Pow. They made that song their own.
Unfortunately, Bobby Stokes never made it to vinyl, which I guess was also with the spirit of the times. I made about two hundred cassettes and they were sent out all over the world. I even had a Japanese guy turn up on my doorstep asking for one. He said he’d travelled to England to collect rare records and tapes. Of course I let him have it free of charge.
++ You mostly released bands from Southampton, am I right? Not counting the Bobby Stokes compilation, which was the band lived farther away from you that you released? Did you get to see all the bands you put records out live?
Strawberry Story were from Northallerton. They travelled to Southampton to do a gig at the Labour Club. A band called Aspidistra covered James’ Come Home. They were a bunch of nice friendly chaps from Scotland. And if I remember correctly, Pure were from Glasgow. I got to know them through the Fanzine network.
++ Which other bands from the period would you have loved to release? Was there any band that was Southampton “best kept secret” that never got to be released?
Oh, Yes! I would have loved to have gone back in time and snapped up the Kinky Boot Beasts before they disseminated into Jane Pow. They were funny, trashy, exciting, and everso young. I often tried to get Richard to reform them for a mini-album that was to be called “Bowl Haircuts and Pointy Boots!” But I could never convince him. And then there was the Chocolate Anoraks…
++ So when and why did you call it a day?
It was the day after I pressed 500 EVOL singles and EVOL told me they had decided to split up, thank you very much. I managed to sell about fifty copies of the single. I still boxes of them in my parent’s attic in Southampton—if they haven’t been trashed by now.
++ Do you still follow indie pop? If so, what are your latest crushes?
Indie Pop will always have a place in my heart, Roque. I am a little out of touch these days, though. (I listen to a lot of podcasts about writing. I write science fiction and fantasy stories that are published in small press magazines you can find links to some of the stories at markleepearson.blogspot.com .) The songs on my ipod are all about ten years old. Right now I am listening to Belle and Sebastian’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress. I never gave up on the Wedding Present; I still think George Best is the greatest album ever recorded. I also listen to Sleeper a lot—especially Smart and The It Girl, and I have just read Different For Girls by Louise Wener.
++ Being in Japan, I’m quite curious, what are your favourite dishes there?
The food here is great! Much more of a variety than can be found in the UK. Where do I start? おにぎり、 カレーライス、豚カツ、鯖味噌、秋刀魚、牛丼。。。the list is endless. Just don’t get me on the subject of whale. Someone thought it funny to order in a restaurant without being honest about what it was. When I found out the truth, that someone was soon crossed off my New Years’ card List, I can tell you. And Japanese beer is by far the most refreshing beer in the world. Stop by some time and we’ll share an Asahi Super Dry.
++ Let’s wrap the interview here, anything else you’d like to add?
If you want to be successful at any level of the game you have to work hard to improve yourself. You have to get out there and brand yourself, find out what is different, special about you and shout it from the rooftops. If you are in a band and you are not out there promoting your own stuff, playing the gigs, spreading the word about your product, then you are doing yourselves a disservice. Don’t leave it all to the labels and publishers. Nobody is going to do it for you. Nowadays, nobody is going to come knocking on your door to ask if you have a record they can buy. You can have all the talent in the world, and you could have written the most amazing and original songs ever, but if you don’t do something for yourself, then you ain’t worth a thing. There are so many opportunities around now to be creative and get known. The internet is a wonderful thing. People say that the internet is killing music. I disagree. It is providing us a space in which anyone can be successful if they work hard at it. Success is not limited to the bands on the big labels any more; success if for the ones who work the hardest. Now is the best time to form a band. Now is the best time to start a label. Even if you come away with nothing but an empty pocket at least you can say you tried. And even if you fail, there might be someone in twenty years down the line who will come back and say, what you did back then was pretty cool, you know. Now wouldn’t that be something?
All the best with Cloudberry Records, Roque. It was a pleasure talking with you.
The Mayfields – World of Your Own (From Ambition 001)