Simon Williams, Fierce Panda

We quiz Simon Williams, head honcho of fierce panda, on the label’s 20th birthday…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 28 Feb 2014
  • min read
20 years in the music business is a long time for anyone but especially when you’re a small record label as staunchly independent as fierce panda.

Set up in 1994 in a central London pub by three NME hacks, the imprint has served as a conduit between the UK’s rich musical underground and the charts with the likes of Coldplay, Keane and Death Cab for Cutie all cutting their teeth with the label.

Fast forward 20 years and somehow against all the odds, fierce panda is still very much alive and kicking as a record label. To mark the occasion, the imprint is releasing a free 18 track digital compilation comprised of some of the saddest tunes it has put out over the past ten years.

The album - entitled Endangered: fierce panda 2004 – 2014 is available now for free. To celebrate their 20th anniversary, we asked the label’s head honcho Simon Williams how it feels to reach such a ripe old age and whether there’s any future for labels such as the panda…

What inspired you to set up fierce panda?

I'm not sure anyone really ever intends to start running a record company. I think the record company more finds you and runs you. I grew up wanting to be the traditional astronaut or footballer but around C86 I fell into fanzines and then fell further into music journalism and then fell even further in with the label.

In fact the label was invented by three NME hacks purely to release the Shagging In The Streets EP, which was a six-track double-vinyl compilation tribute to a brilliantly short-lived scene we'd invented called The New Wave Of New Wave and which came out on 24 February 1994. We had no intention to ever release anything else, which is why we called the label fierce panda. We didn't think we'd be around for 20 minutes, let alone 20 bloody years.

You famously were founded in the Blue Posts near Tottenham Court Road (which sadly doesn't exist anymore) - do you still make deals in the pub or is everything slicker these days?

I discovered at a Farmer’s Boys gig at the Lyceum in 1981 that beer and bands was a brilliant combination, and it remains ever thus. Away from the live arena the drink with a new band in the pub is an integral part of any future fierce panda relationship. Although sometimes deals are worked out over a house red wine, which I guess is slightly slicker than the olden beery days.

Which acts are you most proud of working with on the label?

Without droning on about Transatlanticism by Death Cab For Cutie being our greatest album release, and without being creepy what I’m most proud of is the durability of acts who are being battered from all sides at the moment. If we started fierce panda in the indie boom time of 1994 – lest we forget Britpop was just around the corner – then now is a terrible time to start anything. It’s been, what, six years since major labels signed guitar bands in any serious amounts? Tour support has gone, video budgets have gone, recording advances are a microcosm of what they were but still bands deliver amazing albums with great videos and head off out on tour. Behind this cold-hearted corporate façade fierce panda is actually insanely thankful that bands can still make it work on budgets of nothing, because without them we’d be about as useful as a one-legged man at an arse-kicking competition.

Why are you putting out a very sad record called Endangered:.. for the birthday celebration? It seems like the opposite way of celebrating…

Well you do get to a certain dignified point where the pace of life becomes more sedate, and I think I must have reached that point. I think the Endangered:.. compilation pretty much captures this moment in time, made up as it is of some of the mightiest, saddest songs we’ve released over the past ten years because we are working in an environment when if you are an independent indie label it’s an incredible struggle to keep going. Our tenth birthday record was Decade, which documented the early days of Ash, the Bluetones, Coldplay and Death Cab For Cutie and it was knockabout fun, capturing the spirit of 2004 when real record sales were still real record sales. Now it's a billion times tougher out there for 99 percent of the industry, so the 'celebrations' are a touch more muted.

The web obviously allows artists to be a label, PR and manager as well as musicians - are there any reasons for labels like yours to exist in 2014?

It is a frighteningly valid question: pre-internet, putting out records was a totally mysterious dark art of lacquers, test pressings, run-out grooves, wraparound sleeves and catalogue numbers, whereas now you can create a bandcamp and set up Desperate Sloth records by teatime. We certainly have more conversations nowadays with acts who ask what it is we do which they can't do themselves. For the most part if we like a band and they quite like us we can work some kind of deal, perhaps because we have a bit of history behind us, perhaps because we don't appear to have an entirely terrible reputation, perhaps because they quietly admire our taste in red wine.

But there's definitely a reason why the birthday album is called Endangered:…, because we are a little bit threatened, just like real life pandas. Maybe we should have really thought a little bit harder about our label name back in that pub in 1994.

When I was younger I used to religiously buy fierce panda releases and trust your taste as a good barometer of what I should be listening to - which labels did you have this loyalty with?

Surprisingly few. I grew up in Walthamstow, where it was all Crass and Small Wonder Records, and grew up in the fanzine era when Factory and Creation ruled the world, so I understood what integrity meant and I loved New Order and The Bodines, but in typical fierce panda style I wasn't really into the whole ‘cool’ vibe. So I took a lot from Kitchenware because I loved Prefab Sprout and Hurrah! Later I had a lot of time for Fire Records because of Pulp and Close Lobsters. And roundabout 1984 I bought anything made in Norwich. Indie to the max.

Have you any advice for aspiring music makers?

Never use record companies as taste barometers.