Chris Massey's Sprechen label has been turning out leftfield house and disco grooves for half a decade
From their distinctive weathered record sleeve art to their wonderfully broad music policy, Sprechen are stealthily developing into one of the UK’s most respected and exciting labels. They’ve been releasing music from artists like Flash Atkins, Bill Brewster and Justin Unabomber – predominantly digitally, with occasional forays onto vinyl, CD and even cassette release – since 2015.
Part of Sprechen’s charm is the breadth of genres they put out. They’ve signed arcane mutant disco re-edits, 80s-flavoured boogie jams and Balearic chug along with serious heads-down deep house and Italo-esque discotech. Despite this slightly magpie approach to A&R, the label has a strong identity and have just released their 35th digital release.
Bill Brewster’s excellent re-edit four-tracker from last year, the Frottage Cheese EP, and Danny Russell & Ronald Christoph’s One Two One EP have both been strong sellers for the label, with their vinyl runs both selling out in a short space of time. BBC 6Music’s Nemone is a Sprechen fan, as was Andrew Weatherall.
Originally a one-man operation with Chris Massey (Paper Recordings) taking care of all label duties, Massey has recently taken on Richie V (one quarter of the Supernature Disco crew) and Michael True (who records as Indigo Jung) to assist him – a sign that they must be doing something right.
So, with the label's latest release – the 80s machine soul of Berrocas & Trackie Bottoms by Paper Street Soul – dropping a couple of weeks ago, we got Chris to talk to us about all things Sprechen…
How do you describe your label's output?
"Well, the official tagline we go with is 'a platform to showcase electronic music designed for the dancefloor, with a passion for melody, groove, soul and energy with no limitations of style and a diverse release policy'. And I think we do stick to these guidelines as much as possible.
"I’d like to think that the type of music I sign and put out is the right kind of music to be played at the right time/right place, whether it's for a dancefloor, a Balearic-type sundown set, an early doors/warm-up set, peaktime etc. I try to tread the thin line between being underground-yet-party and easily accessible, but also not being too esoteric or pretentious. And I’d like to think we steer clear of anything that's a bit too obvious. The world doesn’t need any more Sister Sledge tracks with a kickdrum and snare shoved underneath them, does it?"
You mention the term ‘Balearic’, is that a word people use much when talking about your label?
"It has occasionally been whispered with regard to some of the releases, although I don’t think we can be talked of in the same way as Is It Balearic, Aficionado Recordings or even Paper Wave, who really push what I deem as being a true Balearic sound."
What is a "true" Balearic sound, then?
"To me, Balearic means the same as when you talk of something being ‘acid house’ – it’s about unity between like-minded souls, and discovering the connection between certain styles and genres that you would initially not consider.
"When I see people like Moonboots and Jason Boardman playing a set where they go from folk to jazz to Afrobeat and then into house, disco and techno with bits of outsider pop and Italo and loads more, without ever dropping the vibe… that, to me, is what I consider a true Balearic definition! But to some people it seems to mean a 4/4 house track that has some dreamy chords, but that's 108bpm rather than the 125bpm they might usually play, which always baffles me! I’ve had mixes get sent to me which I’m told are all 'total Balearic vibes' but upon listening it’s a mix of 115bpm cut & paste disco edits. Bizarre!"
So among all the different genres Sprechen releases – acid house, boogie, deep house, sparkly disco – is there something that unites all the music you release, which gives your label its identity?
"It’s tough to put into words, but I suppose it’s as mentioned in the previous question. When I'm looking to sign stuff, I try to imagine myself playing it, and ask myself, 'When would I be able to play that?'.
"I’ve been quite lucky to have DJ’d at a number of diverse locations and venues, with each one demanding a different type of set and music to be played. This helps massively when considering something to sign. I suppose instinctively it's all about creating the right ambience for the setting, whether that’s playing a chilled set for an after-work crowd at The Refuge (a venue I run the music programme for) or a closing set at Supernature Disco. But it’s always got to have groove and soul!"
If Sprechen were a person, what would that person be like?
"I’d like to imagine we’d be someone who always encourages others and goes out of their way to help and support as much as possible. We’d probably never have any money to get a round in, but on the rare occasion that we did have a bit of coin then we’d certainly ask what you’re drinking!"
You also do A&R for Paper Recordings – did this role teach you anything that you’ve carried through to Sprechen?
"Yes, most definitely. It's been a huge benefit to work for such a well respected and well known label that is still consistent after 25-plus years! It's definitely helped in developing skills and a manner of how to talk to people who send in submissions and give them honest critique and feedback.
"I never say 'never' to anybody who sends something which I consider to have potential. Sometimes they may just need a bit of direction with something in the mix or structure, which I enjoy helping out with. Sometimes I’ll offer to help out and engineer a track too, or work on something for someone and we release it as a collaboration."
"Having been on the receiving end many times (and still am now at times!) of sending tracks to a label and not even getting a reply or acknowledgement of receipt, I can’t think of anything more frustrating. So I always go back to someone, even if it's with a 'Sorry, these probably aren’t quite right for us' kind of response."
Is A&R different with your own label rather than someone else’s?
"I suppose the difference between my own label and Paper is that with Sprechen I can sign pretty much anything of any style if I like it. Our varied music policy allows us to cast the musical net a bit wider, whereas Paper was always seen as a house music label so there is a bit of an initial brief, I suppose – though in recent years we've added offshoot labels Paper Disco and Paper Wave which allows us to explore a bit more terrain.
"But no, I wouldn’t say it's any different. If anything it can be of great benefit as I may get something submitted for a Sprechen release which doesn’t quite tick our boxes but would be a perfect fit for Paper, and vice versa. Me and Ben (Davis, AKA Flash Atkins, one of the owners at Paper) are pretty good at forwarding things to each other with recommendations for where it’d fit well.
"The annoying thing at times is getting something submitted for Paper which is brilliant and would be a perfect fit for Sprechen, which puts you in an awkward and annoying position! I’ve missed out on a few that I’d have loved to sign to Sprechen but came to Paper – the stuff by From Beyond especially!"
Do you release records you think will be successful, or records you love?
"I think it’s definitely a bit of both. I firmly believe in everything we have always put out for release: some I know will be sleeper hits and slow-burners, and some you know are gonna strike well. Some things I may struggle to play myself but I can see the appeal and massively respect the art that has gone into them. It’s all a bit of a balancing act!"
What’s the best thing about running Sprechen?
"Giving yourself that challenge of not giving up, to keep developing the label while not ever getting too far away from where it started. Also meeting and working with so many like- minded people has been brilliant."
And the worst?
"It’s still crushing to see just how little the label and in turn the artist gets from streaming services. Unfortunately it’s the times we live in: it's very hard for a label or artist to make money from music, though I’d to think we do all we can to help them get as much exposure as possible along the way!"
What has been the biggest challenge in the Sprechen story?
"Getting the releases to people can be such a tough task. Years ago you would turn up to a club with an armful of white labels, hand them to the DJ who would probably play them that night, then the week after you’d be sorted. Skip forward a few years and you’d do the same but with CDs. But nowadays, it's so tough to get your releases to people. We do okay, though – in the last couple of years especially we’ve had some incredible support, but it’s been tough!"
Can you pick out a few key releases from the label? Why are they important to you?
"The first release by Damon Jee would be on obvious place to start. I was (and still am) a fan of his, and I was made up that he was up for launching the label with such a strong release.
"Gina Breeze’s 1am EP is one of my faves. Gina is an incredible DJ and producer as well as a top person and this EP came about from when we'd been working with the guys from Double Deer. Mantra off this EP is probably one of my fave tracks ever…a classic example of having so much groove and soul while being incredibly stripped back at the same time.
"My own BeatDrum and BeatDub are personal faves of mine. I’d say this track is the most solid and consistent thing I’ve done to date and every time I play it in a club it really goes off, people rush to the booth asking me what it is etc – yet when I released it and sent it for promo it did absolutely nothing and nobody picked it up at all! Maybe it's due a bit of a re-release.
"The recent collaboration with A Certain Ratio (as Sir Horatio) would stand as a key release too. A real nice package with all the extras and inserts, along with some incredible remixes… plus, working with a band I massively respect was great!
"The Justin Unabomber release also holds a key place: it was the first vinyl release we did and sold out in an instant. I work for Luke and Justin Unabomber in my 'day job' – I look after the all the music and events for venues that they own. But as well as being my boss Justin is a hugely influential person in my life in many ways, so to get his blessing to release a track of his on the label was indeed an honour… I just wish I could get him in the studio again to do a follow up!
"The Jakarta Connection EP featuring a bunch of artists from Jakarta is also a special release for me. It was the first release we did that had tracks that sounded very different from anything else we had put out, but the talent on that release was just incredible and it was so well received by people. It was also great to spotlight some of the brilliant artists I had met while in Jakarta."
Your label artwork is particularly cool. How important is the visual side of things to running a label?
"Very important. I think it massively helps create the aesthetic (along with the music of course!) and it can be tough to get it right. I’m a firm believer in keeping things quite open and generic as it allows you to develop and not get too pigeonholed too much. A huge influence for me when I was starting Sprechen was Kompakt, who have such a cool look to their releases. Their sleeves keep an air of intrigue as to what they're about, which I believe allows them to be as diverse as they are."
Where do you see Sprechen’s place in the larger world of dance music and DJ culture?
"I’d like to think that, in a world of over-saturation and airs and graces, we try to keep things as real and grounded as possible. I’m just happy with how things are going currently and what we’ve achieved, as well as who we’ve worked with!
Finally, what else is going on in Sprechen’s world right now that iDJ readers need to know about?
"We’re currently looking to create some kind of event or exhibition that will incorporate art and photography, as well as music produced by Sprechen artists. It's very early days yet but Rich has got a gallery here in Manchester which I think will be the hub for it all. We’ve got to have a Zoom call about it later this week."
Words: Harold Heath
Berrocas & Tracky Bottoms by Paper Street Soul is out now – buy it here
Tags: Sprechen, Chris Massey, Manchester, Unabombers, Paper, Paper Wave, Paper Street Soul, Ben Davis, Bill Brewster, Indigo Jung, Supernature Disco, Justin Unabomber, Flash Atkins, house, disco, Italo, Balearic, Danny Russell & Roland Christoph