Ivo, New Mexico
As you drive south along Interstate 25 towards Albuquerque the car sits low in the road. On either side the view is endless. To the right is long flat New Mexico shrub, which suddenly, on the horizon, gives way to the drama of the designated wilderness area of the Bandelier National Monument and its volcanic expanse of mesa. To the left is an arid landscape of desert vegetation that fades into an increasingly blurred middle distance. The road itself is flat and straight. It may technically be an interstate but it has all the mythic properties of a highway.
I pressed play on the car’s CD player and Randy California’s softly strummed guitar picked out the chords to ‘America The Beautiful’, the opening song to Spirit’s Spirit of ‘76. The song segues effortlessly into Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are a Changin’’, then back into the patriotic schoolroom sing-along; two cover versions blended into one song, one that celebrates a country while refuting its sense of destiny. In the expanse of the New Mexico desert America was certainly beautiful.
I had spent the last few days dwelling on the past. I’d been staying with Ivo Watts-Russell the man who founded 4AD, whose This Mortal Coil had covered Spirit’s ‘Nature’s Way’ on their 1991 album Blood and who now lives in the unique pueblo adobe atmosphere of New Mexico. The CD I was playing had been an unexpected present from Ivo. ‘I didn’t know which direction you’d be driving ’ he said as I was leaving ‘but I knew you’d need some music, so I made you this’. Something had been very clear from our time together, despite the ups and downs of the music business he had endured, Ivo was still as immersed and in love with music as he had been the day he started 4AD from behind the counter of a record shop almost thirty years earlier. The CD was an immaculately chosen compilation. It featured decades old album tracks by American singer songwriters and some more current music including a song by Electralane, a band that were signed to the label Ivo had so carefully nurtured and which still trades on the image which he created, but with which he no longer has any professional relationship. Listening through the CD it sounded, with a leap of imagination and wishful thinking, like a compilation of songs for future consideration on a hypothetical This Mortal Coil album.
My week had started in Santa Monica with Robin Hurley, a music business veteran and friend of Watts-Russell who had run the 4AD office in LA as Ivo’s involvement in the label had gradually come to an end. It was through his kind offer of an introduction that I had been able to ask Ivo if he would agree to an interview. To the astonishment of friends and former colleagues in London, Ivo had invited me over to talk. The journey from LA involved a flight from Burbank to Phoenix and then another flight to Albuquerque. To the average American domestic traveller it was doubtless as routine as changing trains at Didcot Parkway, but the tiny departure gates, the subtle shift in time zone and the view from the plane, of infinite and geometric farms with their enormous water towers and fleets of harvesters felt like a journey into the interior.
Ivo had given me instructions from the airport and on arriving at his house I was greeted by an advance party of his rescued dogs. Within an hour we had begun what was to be a days-long conversation. His patience was astonishing, as was, despite his frequent protestation to the contrary, his memory. We talked about 4AD from its beginnings, through its successes and to his eventual uncoupling from the label. If I’d forgotten to mention an artist or record he would interrupt and we’d be discussing the finer details of a recording session or the time it took for 23 Envelope to turn around a particular sleeve.
In Santa Monica I had asked Hurley if he thought that perhaps Ivo’s temperament was that of an artist rather than that of a music business mogul. I had an idea that the most dynamic labels were run by people whose creativity needed an outlet beyond running a record company: Daniel Miller had recorded as The Normal, Silicone Teens and was / is a record producer, throughout Factory Tony Wilson had remained a broadcaster and as Biff Bang Pow, Alan McGee and his co-conspirator Dick Green released more than six albums.
In This Mortal Coil albums there is an intensity and reverence for the source material in Ivo’s choice of cover versions that took the recordings beyond the status of studio project into a hallowed, meditative environment. I wondered if he was recreating the experience of hearing those songs for the first time. “I don’t think we improved on the originals on anything we covered’ he told me, although most people I know who grew up in the sound world of This Mortal Coil would disagree.
Our conversation inevitably digressed into favourite songs and albums and the contact high that certain records produce in their initiates: a smile at the mention of The Notorious Byrd Brothers and a wistful nodding at the hours lost in the spaces of If Only I Could Remember My Name.
My flight back to Burbank had been diverted to Las Vegas. I watched night fall across the Grand Canyon as the shadow of the plane bounced along its contours then faded into the dusk as we began our descent. I realised we were about to fly over the Las Vegas sands that Joni Mitchell had sung about on ‘This Flight Tonight’, a moment of happenstance that hours spent obsessively with records always rewards the listener, whether one likes it or not. It was the kind of detail that had coloured our conversation for the last few days and the kind of feeling that I had been reacquainted with by meeting and talking to Ivo, seeing each small incidental moment through the lens and sensitivity of a song.