Wednesday 24 January 2018

When the music's over . . .

Calling it a day: Keith
Cullen of Setanta Records
Calling it a day: Keith Cullen of Setanta Records

Keith Cullen is fed up. Fed up standing in dingy venues watching mediocre bands. Fed up trying to cajole and sweet-talk sometimes indifferent musicians into living up to their potential. Fed up with the endless, grinding war on financial oblivion that is part of daily life when you run an independent rock label.

So, after 20 years and some glorious music from artists such as The Divine Comedy, A House, The Frank and Walters and The Magnetic Fields, the London-based Dubliner has decided it's time to draw down the shutters on his life's work. He has decided to close Setanta Records.

"I couldn't be arsed, pretty much," says the quietly spoken Dun Laoghaire man. "I'm nearly 44. I got into music because I loved it, because I couldn't think of anything else I wanted to do with my life. You get to an age where, while music still means a lot, but working in the industry doesn't. I'm getting out before I become weary."

A byword for irreverence, quirkiness and excellence since the early 1990s, Setanta is to have one, final hurrah this month as the company puts out its last release.

A collaboration between some of Cullen's favourite singers -- among them Placebo's Brian Molko and Paul Noonan of Bell X1 -- and arranger/ producer Rob Kirwan, The Orchestral Variations is a covers record wherein left-of-centre artists wrap their tonsils around Talking Heads' 'Once In A Lifetime', Buggles' 'Video Killed The Radio Star' and other anthems. It's an unlikely triumph: off-kilter, full of ramshackle charm and underdog spirit.

"I haven't really been doing much music-wise this past four or five years," says Cullen, who published his first novel in 2009 and nowadays largely makes a living dealing in rare books.

Truthfully, it's a long time since Setanta had a hit and those heady years when The Divine Comedy, The Franks and others were the toast of the music press and a source of pride for the Irish in London now feel distant.

Crucial to the label's early success, according to Paul Linehan of the Frank and Walters, was Setanta's high standing with the British music press. Without being cynical about it, Setanta knew how to win the media over.

"Setanta played a vital part in our breaking through," Linehan reflected in 2010. "At the time Keith Cullen had a guy named Alan James working in PR. The man was a genius. A lot of it was down to him getting the right songs to the right journalists."

However, Cullen wasn't pursuing success for its own sake. To get behind a band he had to believe in their potential.

"There was talk of us doing something with Setanta around our 1999 album," says Emmett Tinley, formerly of 1990s group The Prayer Boat. "Keith liked the record. But he wasn't sure about it. Then something happened in his personal life and suddenly the record spoke to him in a completely new way."

Others are similarly impressed. "Keith soaks up every detail of the music he's listening to and looks at each part with a jeweller's eye," adds American singer Josh Ritter, who worked with Cullen early on. "I've rarely met anyone with talent being able to love music so much."

He could be tough with his artists when he needed to. But he was never ruthless, never vindictive. "I signed a deal with Setanta to make my first solo record," remembers Tinley. "Then I was offered a deal by Atlanta, a major. He was great about it. He said: 'This is a fantastic opportunity for you, just send me back the advance -- and good luck with your career'."

Cullen doesn't appear optimistic about the future of music. Nowadays, it seems to him, kids grow up dreaming of becoming X Factor stars rather than rock musicians. And the collapse in record sales means promising songwriters don't receive the necessary backing early in their careers.

"Graft is out the window," he says. "Everybody wants to be famous in a year or two. A lot of artists make their records in their bedrooms . . . But The Divine Comedy couldn't have been done on a shoestring. Who's going to develop that kind of band now?"

The Orchestral Variations Vol 1 is out now

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