More about: Nice Swan Records
It’s Sunday night and I’m meeting co-founder of Nice Swan Records Alex Edwards at Hackney’s MOTH Club. People are already spilling out of the doors when I arrive, and pinstriped trousers, shaggy haircuts and glitter-strewn faces litter the small alleyway-cum-smoking-area at the venue’s side. Alex meets me on the steps, grinning broadly and boasting a Nice Swan T-shirt under his jacket like a proud father at sports day or a teenage girl at a One Direction concert.
As we head inside—where the ‘Nice Swan Introduces’ showcase gig is already well underway—it becomes clear that the co-founder and former A&R scout behind the blossoming UK label is nothing short of his artists’ biggest fan. “We’re very proud of our roster,” Alex tells me over the muffled reverb of Portsmouth political-punk newbies Hallan bashing their way through a boisterous early evening set. “We just hope the roster is a living example of how we do things.”
Founded in 2016 by Northern pals Alex Edwards and Pete Heywoode, Nice Swan are hurtling towards their fifth anniversary and picking up an eclectic mish-mash of the country’s best ripe talent along the way. Gaining traction with early releases from the likes of Pip Blom and Sports Team, the cult label’s roster now reads like a 2021 Ones To Watch list. With Courting, Sprints, Jelly Cleaver and English Teacher just a handful of the impressive set of names the label have racked up over the past few months, the duo—a “match made in heaven,” according to Alex—are relentless in their mission to unearth a diverse and exhilerating new wave of artists.
To commemorate their first 12” compilation ‘Nice Swan: Introduces Volume 1,’ due on vinyl in January, we caught up with the brains and the bands behind one of the country’s buzziest independent labels.
On the label's beginnings.
Alex Edwards: We started out with the label in 2016. I'd been working in A&R for about four years, mostly as a scout with major labels. I was working at Sony—where I signed a number of acts like Tom Grennan and Bugzy Malone—but my contract finished and they didn't keep me on. I was a little bit fed up with the whole major label circuit: travelling all lengths of the country, getting paid not a lot and not being able to sign the bands and artists that I wanted to. That was the reason I started the label, to focus on my own taste and vision.
I came up with the idea literally the day I left Sony and I contacted Pete, who was already my best friend through the music scene in London. He was working on his own label, RIP Records, and he had all the intel. He knew how to set up a label, how to find a distributor, bring in the infrastructure and all those administrative things.
On their first signing.
Edwards: We actually released a T-shirt before we even signed a band which was quite funny, but then Dead Pretties were our first signing to the label. We did some great things and now Jacob [Slater]’s making a name for himself. He’s signed to Yala! Records as Wunderhorse and he’s in the new Sex Pistols biopic. We nurtured a talent there, which is quite nice.
We worked with a couple of other acts like Queen Zee and The Lightning Year, but I think the first release that took us to the next level was Pip Blom, quickly followed by Sports Team. They were putting stuff out at the same time and that’s when the label started to pick up some real momentum—towards the latter end of its first year. They were our first two real artists that we champion even to this day, and they’re obviously doing really well and playing big, big venues now.
On finding bands to sign.
Edwards: There’s multiple ways that I’ve met and come across our artists. Sports Team I met in Wetherspoons in Hammersmith off the back of a tip from Dave McCracken, the producer and mixer of their earlier work. Pip Blom was a tip from my mum, who was listening to Marc Riley. Then there's Malady. Malady was a tip from someone in the South London scene, and me and Pete went down to watch them at the Windmill. And Courting we found through a tip via my old flatmate in Peckham, a mate I went to school with actually.
Adam Mills (of Hallan): When did we first hear from the label? We played our last gig before lockdown at a venue in Portsmouth called Acapulco, a tiny little bar above a Mexican burrito place. There were about 30 people there and we were supporting Sweaty Palms, who used to be on Nice Swan. We played that gig and then about a week later we got an email from Nice Swan saying: “We’ve heard about you.”
Row Janjuah (of Mandrake Handshake): We’d managed to get five tracks recorded just before lockdown hit, so over the course of those first few months we just started releasing because nobody else was really releasing anything. We released ‘Mandragora’ and Nice Swan heard it on an NME playlist, then reached out to us because of that. We were familiar with their work, we were big fans of Pip Blom and obviously Sports Team were around a lot, so it just felt like a natural fit. They sent us an email being like: "Geezers, let's go to the pub." So we went and met at the pub, we chatted and by the end of that chat we were pretty sure it was the direction we wanted to go in. It wasn't an office, it wasn't sterile. It was professional, but they made an effort to be our friends and I think that meant a lot, especially for a new band.
Angus Rogers (of Opus Kink): We weren’t very far along when we first contacted Nice Swan. We’d released a single before, we’d heard of the label and we had a few friends on it. We'd known Hotel Lux for a while and we were like: "It must be a good label if they're on it.” So knowing that they were pretty legit, Jazz [Pope] emailed them in the name of ‘don't ask, don't get.’ He was like, “Hey, here’s a demo, do you like it?” and they said yeah and set up a Zoom call pretty instantly. I think that’s what I love about the label, they’re willing to just take a chance.
On being unique.
Edwards: I wouldn't say we do anything particularly differently to what's ever been done before. Me and Pete might have a unique dynamic as a duo within business that makes us slightly unique to work with, and we are very proud of our roster. We just hope that the roster can be a living example of how we do things — whether that’s differently I don't know, I guess people can be the judge of that.
Janjuah: I think they have a pretty specific business model. The thing about Nice Swan is it's all very transparent: they're there to help new bands and you know exactly what you’re getting into. I think that’s their strength. They’re just really brave and take chances on bands quite a lot, that’s really important.
Rogers: After a certain amount of time people's professionalism precedes them. What makes [Nice Swan] stand out for me — not at this point having had a huge amount of experience with loads of different labels — is that really they’re just two down-to-earth music fans, you know? Their enthusiasm is the best thing and, like I said before, them taking a chance. They come down to the gigs and they clearly love the music and the business they’re in. As soon as they came to see us they were just excited to get involved.
Mills: Pete and Alex are some of the friendliest guys ever. We've had some great chats with them and we constantly message in the Nice Swan group chat about jokey stuff, it's not just business, business, business. I think having that personal connection is nice too. I can imagine if we were on a massive label everything would be in email chains through the managers, but we've literally played FIFA Pro Clubs with Pete. We were like, “Pete, you’re in centre attack!” and he didn’t have a headset so we were just constantly messaging in the label group chat. I don’t think you’d have that if we were on fucking Universal or something, all we’d get is an email from their rep and move on from there. We’ve definitely met them as people rather than just our label, and that’s what we like: talking to people who are interested in music, interested in what we’re doing and want to come and see us rather than being like, “Oh, I’m booking you a gig because I’m paid to do that.” They’re doing it for the passion.
Joshua Tweedale (of Hallan): On top of that, they’ve introduced us to such a wealth of artists. There’s so many people to meet and get to know, it's been such a cool experience. I think that shows what Nice Swan is about: picking up new artists, putting out their first singles, putting out their EPs and trying to break their way into the industry. A lot of the bands were emerging prior to COVID and they might have lost a bit of momentum, so it’s nice to see the label pick them up and give them this platform to play shows and put out releases that are going to be well received.
Rogers: They give a lot of people their first foothold, you can't beat it.
On giving bands their break.
Janjuah: I definitely think one of the best things they've done is helping us build a team. It went from just us, Alex and Pete to suddenly us, a manager, a booking agent, a press guy. Suddenly it went from being a hobby to a business, and I think that was really because of them more than anything.
Mills: I think getting our music onto vinyl was such a big thing for us, too. We’re all massive vinylheads. I got an Arctic Monkeys vinyl at 14 and haven't looked back, so to have myself on drums on vinyl is incredible and we 100% wouldn't have done that without the label. You know how you can press any song onto vinyl, but it’s just a shit little 7”? One of our girlfriends got us that once, but it doesn’t really count if you buy it for yourself. So it’s been really nice to have their support and finally be able to record the EP without it putting us into our overdrafts.
On their first compilation.
Edwards: The compilation was a spin off of Pete's first label, RIP Records. They did compilations of new artists, so we wanted to bring that onto our label and find ten new artists from all over the country, all of different genres, and put them out into the world.
Lockdown had a huge impact on more established artists, whereas for the artists on the compilation — ones we were launching, like Courting or English Teacher — it worked in their favour because they've managed to catch up with the artists who were two or three levels ahead. Those artists have put themselves in a really promising place for 2022, because they've not really missed out on much.
If anything, the compilation was the golden moment for us in lockdown and it was something that we worked so hard towards putting out. We didn’t actually suffer too much in a business sense, because we were really excited about putting out all these great new artists like Courting or Hallan or Jaws the Shark, and Malady who we really love.
Mills: Which track do we have on the compilation? It’s ‘Modern England’ isn’t it? That was one of those tracks that we’ve had for fucking ages. We were recording it in February 2020 and literally the night before our lead singer Conor [Clements] was like, “I’ve rewritten the lyrics lads, it's a completely different song now.” It turned out well, because it ended up having a bit more of a message to it, rather than just being a song with filler lyrics. When the Nice Swan guys picked us up, that was the song that we'd just recorded. So when they asked if we'd got anything they could listen to we just gave them that.
Janjuah: ‘Gonkulator’ is definitely our most Nice Swan track. It’s probably the most radio friendly, and I think it was the one that [the label] were drawn to at the beginning. It was our attempt to write a single. We don’t naturally write singles, it's not really our thing, but with that track we were like: “Let’s just try and get this in less than three minutes, bang it out." It's definitely our most retro song. It's got this '60s revivalist energy, whereas lot of the rest of our stuff is slightly more jazz or groove focused.
Rogers: I think ours is ‘Wild Bill.’ That was the first track [Nice Swan] heard. I guess it means a lot in this context because it was the first one we ever sent them. We sent over the demo, they said yes and it was quite a quick process after that. It’s kind of a signifier of that time, the first bit of label involvement.
On the diversity of Nice Swan.
Edwards: When we sign a band me and Pete normally meet in the middle on stuff, so anything we sign we both have to like. I’d say certain values tie all the bands together, a lot of the stuff seems to click and we focus on artists who have got a vision and a future more than anything. But I guess we’re not really focused on any particular genre or movement.
Rogers: Strangely enough I don’t think there’s anything particular that ties all of the bands [on the label] together. But I think that’s a good thing. If it was a label where everyone sounded the same, everyone was from the same background, looked the same and dressed the same way it’d be fucking tedious. And labels like that do exist. It’s not like [Nice Swan] have a specific look or sound that they stick to, they go for anything that catches their fancy.
Edwards: When you’re signing an artist from London, from a certain genre or movement, you don’t really want to double or treble up on that. We kind of just take the thing that we’re digging from that scene and then do that in all the other areas as well. We never really want to sign five artists all from the same city, all making the same music, otherwise it can get a bit same-y. It's good to have a broad variety across the board really. We've got some new stuff that we've just signed coming out towards the latter end of the year, and that's very different to what we've already done as well.
On avoiding London-centrism.
Edwards: We try to keep things out of London as much as possible. We love to focus on different pockets of culture from across the regions within the United Kingdom, and the more we can look into different areas of the country the better. It's great to put out stuff from Liverpool, Glasgow and Birmingham as well as places like Essex and Brighton. And obviously we’ve got artists from Wales, Dublin, and Amsterdam too. We've managed to cover quite a wide area over the last five years or so.
Mills: I think that’s one of the things that works so well for the label, we’re not all from London. It isn’t just a thing with the same people from the same area, where some of them went to school together. We've always been very heavy on making sure we’re a Portsmouth band. Even if we were to move to Manchester or London, we would still say we are a Portsmouth band. We were all born there, we've lived there for 20 odd years, so if we were to say anything else we'd feel like we were just ditching our hometown.
When we joined the label it was quite interesting: Courting are from Liverpool, you've got English Teacher from Leeds, there's Manchester bands and the whole range of the UK is there. It's lovely to meet people that are from different walks of life, especially when we’re all following the same passion with the same drive. I think it works better that way because you meet so many new people, and you're not just stuck with the same people you've known since you were a kid.
On the label's inner sense of community.
Edwards: The sense of community is really important to us, so having that platform where bands can collaborate or tour with each other is really special. When we first set [the label] up with Pip Blom and Sports Team, we put together a tour and they became friends after that. But we’ve found a lot of the artists at the moment seem to just naturally make friends without us having to push too much. Everyone comes in, people tour with each other and it just seems to come naturally. That's the environment we try to create.
Mills: The community is definitely important, especially because this is our first label.
Rogers: Community is the most important thing. If you're gonna be in [music], especially at this level, it can be quite disheartening, so it’s nice to have not just the label behind you, but the other bands too. And, you know, people do need to be forced to meet each other sometimes, we can all be lazy, introspective bastards, but community is very important and I think [Nice Swan] have fostered that.
Trinity Oksana (of Mandrake Handshake): It is really nice to have that built-in community, especially as people who are new to the London music scene. For me, being part of a music scene is having a group of people that you can easily tap into and rely on, so it's nice just knowing that you have these people with similar interests and goals. And it’s been fucking lovely to meet so many other bands.
Janjuah: You just know that a lot of the people you're meeting now you'll be really glad you know in like, five years. It just feels like a breeding ground for building something unique.
On matching labelmates to play live.
Edwards: I think it's worked really well. The first time we did it was in 2018 with Pip Blom and Sports Team, and since we’ve had other bands on the label play together, like Hotel Lux, and there's been a lot of that over the last four or five years. It’s definitely something that's still happening now.
Oksana: Playing gigs with other Nice Swan bands is nice. We all kind of know who each other are, and the label has been something that we can bond over.
Mills: Tonight has been really good. This is the busiest greenroom we’ve had in forever. Tonight has been quite good as well, this is the busiest greenroom we've had in forever. We were in here earlier and we were going up to people like, "Oh nice to meet you, are you in Opus Kink?" and they'd be like, "Nah, Mandrake Handshake.” Just meeting all the different bands has been fucking great.
On looking to the future.
Edwards: Really, we just want to keep expanding and growing the roster. Having four bands at Glastonbury in 2019 was a big moment for us and we just want to keep signing artists, from all over the country and beyond. This year has felt a bit special because all of these new artists we’re working with are very well represented on festival bills across England and Europe. We might have several bands playing South By [Southwest] if it happens, so that feels exciting as well. And we do want to try and do something in America with an artist. We’ve released artists of ours in America, but we’ve never actually signed a band from America.
It’d also be nice to set up a bit of an official HQ, and the second compilation will be coming up within the next 12 months. We’ve got Sprints, English Teacher, Jaws the Shark and Malady all coming out with EPs and on top of that we have FUR and Pip Blom’s albums coming out this year — they’ve both been moved because of vinyl delays but they’re finally coming, which is really exciting. We just want to continue to find new artists, keep following the process for the next 24 months or so and reassess when we get there.
More about: Nice Swan Records