Throughout its 40-year run, Fire Records has championed music that lives on the fringes, from quick-witted post-punk to tell-all Laurel Canyon balladry; from glossy, bossy synth and krautrock to the remote drones of stoner and space rock. United by an individualistic bent, every band on the roster feels like a Fire band. Today, the label is more robust and agile than ever, boasting the art pop world’s most exciting players while guiding legacy acts through their reissuing journeys. There was a moment, however, when Fire came dangerously close to extinction.
“The label had imploded towards the end of the ‘90s and was just holding on by the skin of its teeth,” recalls James Nicholls, the current creative director. Founders Jonny Waller and Clive Solomon had launched the careers of bands including Pulp and Spacemen 3, but by 2001, when Nicholls came onboard, the label was, as Nicholls puts it, in “a state of disarray.” Pulp had departed for a major label, releasing their breakthrough effort His ‘n’ Hers on Island Records. The mid-’00s indie revival was a few years away. Fire was in the right place—was the right place—but at the wrong time.
Nicholls steered operations back on course by inhabiting the mind of the artist. “I was juggling the dual roles of being a designer by day and a musician by night,” he says. “It has afforded me some genuine sympathy and compassion with the artists we work with, and enabled us to put the artists and the art at the forefront of what we do, which I think has been the key to our success.” Ambient composer Lucy Gooch, who signed with Fire in 2021, testifies to this, telling Loud And Quiet: “When someone like Fire Records gives you confidence in what you’re doing, you’re able to lean into it more.”
Overseeing such a varied roster, Nicholls considers what ties everything together: “I think there’s a light dusting of psych and art pop to the core of the roster and everything we do because it’s part of the legacy of the label. There’s a genuine throughline from Pulp to Bas Jan, and from Spacemen 3 to Monde UFO—but the reality is that we just like what we like. We don’t go after any buzzy artist. We look for the most interesting and unique artists we can find, and find our unique ways to elevate them. We just want to contribute to culture in a positive way, and everything else is just a byproduct of that.”
“I’m proud of the fact we have done it organically, without investment, and without needing ever to partner or sell up,” Nicholls continues. “Somehow, Fire Records is one of the few truly independent labels around, and 40 years later, it’s stronger than ever.”
Below, seven records that serve as a primer for the label’s back catalog and its artistic principles.
Back to the Swamp (2023)
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
Bas Jan ups the enigma with each album. London’s stony-faced, too-good-for-their-own-good experimental post-punks—whose classically trained leader Serafina Steer has several brilliant solo records and plays various instruments in Jarvis Cocker’s band—chase the ideas that move them intellectually and emotionally. Sometimes their approach leads to a song extolling the typographical virtues of Margaret Calvert, the unsung pioneer behind the font used on Britain’s road and railway signs, while at others to a meditative album closer that swaddles Steer’s droll free-associating in a wash of gliding orchestral strings and seductive bass.
Listening to Back to the Swamp, Bas Jan’s third album, released in 2023, is akin to observing a postgraduate social studies seminar while your classmate mumbles incongruous sweet-nothings into your ear. Arriving only a year after Baby U Know, its goofier predecessor, Swamp exhibits a band ascending an artistic peak from which they will hopefully be visible to the UK’s clique of arty, talk-y scenesters who could afford a little more melody, a little less self-seriousness. Indeed, we could all afford to be more like Bas Jan; maybe the world would be a little less swampy.
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl
Marina Allen is an outrageously good singer. Before her 2022 album Centrifics, the word “motherfucker” had not been uttered in such a beautiful cooing falsetto. Equally impressive is the L.A. songwriter’s poetic acuity. “The way you play gets caught in my teeth/ As if the six brass strings were feeding me,” she intones on the song “Or Else,” whose warm timbres are echoic of luminaries such as Joni Mitchell, the New York loft jazz scene, and West Coast sunshine pop; a floral smorgasbord of trusted muses that help Allen chart her trek out of a debilitating relationship and onwards into the rediscovery of self-worth. The listener trusts her faith in the process, her dovetailing of grief and joy, and her flip-flopping use of instrumentation, as she pivots from Celesta to well-loved acoustic guitar to solo vocal. “Please let me be enough,” she sighs during “Or Else.” If only she knew.
Neutral Milk Hotel
On Avery Island (1996)
Compact Disc (CD), 2 x Vinyl LP
It’s easy to lose yourself in the brilliance of Fire’s current roster and forget how many storied acts litter its history. When one of those acts transcends its debut record with an idolized follow-up, the typical music snob rejoinder is, “The first album is better anyway!” That’s almost true in the case of Neutral Milk Hotel, who started with Fire before signing to Merge for their over-the-sea opus.
On Avery Island contains everything that made In the Aeroplane Over the Sea special, but it’s dirtier. It’s all spilling out the sides. You’ve got the distorted acoustic guitars and rusty organs, the concrète sound spasms, and Jeff Mangum’s premonitory warble. These components telegraph strange, literary worlds—the sonic equivalent of getting lost in the haunted Denver house in which Mangum recorded the album with fellow Elephant 6 alumnus Robert Schneider of The Apples In Stereo. From the 13-minute instrumental that pulses like a generator in an after-dark train station to the actually-quite-creepy love song “Naomi”—an homage to Galaxie 500’s bassist—On Avery Island is one for the real heads, the Gardenheads, the ones who will take the hostel over the hotel.
Dub Housing (1978)
Cleveland’s Pere Ubu hit their stride as punk was dying and post-punk and no-wave were coming into focus. Though not signed to Fire during their original run, the legendary “avant-garage” group has reissued much of their work via the label over the last decade. Dub Housing, their second album (they have 19) is emblematic of their whole deal, a jittery and obstreperous masterpiece that incorporates many musical ideas pulled from the likes of the Sun Ra Arkestra, the Velvet Underground, musique concrète visionaries, and just about everything else. It sort of sounds like everyone is doing their own thing, but no one more than vocalist David Thomas, whose caterwauling sea shanties and hypnotized sermon shtick are magnificent in their madness.
Ticket to Fame (2023)
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
No one plays chords in Decisive Pink. Their music is constructed out of looping melodic molecules, like Steve Reich’s ensemble or the kosmische group Cluster re-orchestrating bleeping ringtones and control panel light displays, the cycling fragments melding together into an enveloping soundscape. Moscow-based Kate NV and New York-based Angel Deradoorian, the creative duo behind Decisive Pink, overdub their compositions with what often resembles vocal warm-up exercises. They recreate automated phone messages (see “Dopamine” but not “Voice Message,” funnily enough); take scissors to one spoken word sentence and glue it back together during the course of a song (“What Where”); and even interpolate the melody from “Ode to Joy.”
Both seasoned solo artists, Deradoorian and NV wring maximum fun from their debut album, but that doesn’t mean they skimp on the pop hooks and danceable beats. For every section of phasing mallet instruments is a hypnotic krautrock drum loop (see “Cosmic Dancer”). Every oblique vocal experiment—like the one where they just say “potato” and “tomato” over and over and then start laughing—is counterbalanced by something like the gleefully catchy “Ode to Boy,” which asks pertinent questions in hopes of assuaging post-meet-cute apprehension: “If you’re really truly true, what would you do for me?” The album’s title, Ticket to Fame, may be an ironic smirk, but Decisive Pink deserves its reality.
Rain’s Break EP (2021)
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
Bristol is the unofficial capital of the UK’s ambient music scene, incubating some of the genre’s most promising innovators. Take Lucy Gooch, who moved to the city after studying visual arts in her native Norfolk. Her immersive 2021 EP, and first release on Fire, Rain’s Break is inspired by the visually striking, women-centered 1940s movies by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger: Black Narcissus (1947) and A Matter of Life & Death (1946). Gooch incorporates dialogue excerpts (“Silence brings me back to you”) and channels the two films’s variegated color palettes into her powerful, hypnagogic swirls of sound. Such is the dense, richly layered production that it can be hard to differentiate her voice from the rest of the instrumentation. But lyrical fragments peek out of the fog in some of the EP’s most quietly euphoric, affecting moments. “Now I can see what’s in front of me,” Gooch sings on “6AM,” the multi-part self-harmonization recalling her days in a church choir. The sound is full and heavenly, a summer sunrise you wish would continue forever.
Peel Sessions (2004)
Of all the albums featured in this profile, Bardo Pond’s Peel Sessions is the closest to a wild card: five sprawling, improvisational post-rock jams totaling 40 minutes. No choruses. Woodwind melodies peppered with far-flung chromaticisms, stripping the sound of any geographical tether and shining through the waterlogged guitars like a lighthouse beam. This BBC session with John Peel, amalgamating recordings from 2001 and 2004, is the perfect entry point for the Philadelphia band, prolifically active since 1991. They’re playing live, for one; their natural habitat. The material is previously unreleased. And the production is astounding—remote, gritty, but entrancing. Having worked with numerous labels, including Matador and Three Lobed Recordings, Bardo Pond seems to have found a forever home on Fire, meticulously reissuing their formidable archives, and undoubtedly finding new fans along the way.