Retro formats seems to be big business for music lovers. We are constantly hearing about how vinyl is refusing to die and even the good old cassette occasionally resurfaces as a must have format.
But what of the flexi disc? This particular format seems to be constantly overlooked in these revivals.
Or at least until now, when the ever excellent label Mai 68 has launched their very own flexi club. Members of this club will get a 7” flexi single each month from the likes of Sunstack Jones, The Shipbuilders and COW.
These flexi discs will contain music unavailable elsewhere and will be limited to 300 copies. First in these soon to be collectors’ items is Can’t Go Back Home by the mighty Sunstack Jones, which was made available on the 26th of this month. The full release schedule can be seen below.
Flexi discs are records pressed on to thin sheets of PVC and played on ordinary turntables. Because of their lightness, flexi discs often used to come with a circle on the label, for users to place a coin so that the record would turn once the weight of a turntable arms was placed upon it.
There is a low tech glory to seeing the flexi disc revived by Mai 68, something that takes me back to times when I would desperately seek out new music in whatever format I could get my hands on.
The flexi disc has a long history. In the early 80s, there was a magazine called Flexipop that featured a flexi disc mounted on the cover of each magazine, featuring artists such as The Cure, Depeche Mode and, bizarrely, Adam and the Ants covering the Village People’s YMCA.
Joy Division released one of their greatest songs, Komakino, as a free flexi disc. This was given away at gigs and was also available direct from Factory records to anyone sending them a stamp. Rumour has it that Factory would also attach this to letters they sent out, sometimes with a staple through the grooves, making playing the record impossible.
In the Soviet Union in the 50s, jazz and rock n roll were banned by the establishment. One way around this ban was to press up flexi discs of the latest records on to discarded x-rays. Because of the content of these x-rays, these discs came to be referred to as ‘bone music’ and became an essential way for western music to infiltrate the Russian underground scenes.
Mai 68 said of their Flexi Club, “We are announcing the Mai 68 flexi club. Brand new exclusive music each month over ten releases. No streaming. No downloads. Just pure ephemeral pop music that exists solely on 7” flexi disc, just for you and just as long as you possess it.
Why flexi? The ultimate DIY independent medium. It’s fast to produce, it’s cost effective and its ultimately disposable. By playing it, you destroy it in the process. Inevitably the quality is not as good as vinyl. There is a higher surface noise. But like john peel said…life has surface noise.”
Ahead of their first release, Sun 13 spoke to Si Jones, head honcho at Mai 68 and Sunstack Jones‘ singer and guitarist Chris Jones during a break in recording their new album.
Sun 13: My first question is about the Mai 68 Flexi Club and what a brilliant idea it is. When flexi discs first appeared, there was an immediacy about them, you could record something, get it out there, give it away at gigs, is that something that appealed to you?
Si Jones: “It was very much born out of necessity. Necessity and frustration have pushed us towards it. Golden Repair the album did so well and so many people and so many people have expressed an interest in it, so we thought we’ll do a repress. And it took a few months, and then a few months longer and a few months longer.
We were locked and the pressing plant said ‘we can’t do anything’, you’ve got Little Mix getting their album pressed and the 15th reissue of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.”
Chris Jones: “Don’t pretend that you didn’t buy the Little Mix album with the pull out poster! [laughs]”
SJ: “It was all about this idea of immediacy, that if people had tracks we could get something pressed within two weeks compared to 8 or 9 months. And I think as a format, it’s not something that has been explored much recently.
I remember as a kid in the 80s you’d get them on the front of magazines. I got a surf guitar one with packets of Hula Hoops that I had to send off [laughs]. I thought while we’re stuck min this
The other things is when we speak to all bands on the label, with streaming services and how much everyone hates them. We spend so much time pushing, promoting and trying to get stuff listened to and even when you do really get stuff out there and it does well, there’s little or no remuneration comes from it.
So we thought we’d do something that’s direct from us direct to fans.”
S13: And what’s the response been so far?
SJ: “It’s been great. We did 50 subscriptions for the first 5 releases, they went within a day, within a couple of hours really.”
CJ: “Talking about the immediacy of it, we could use the Internet. I could record something, put it up on our Bandcamp page, but it’s just not special. We’re old school, we like something to show for our hard work.
There’s only going to be 300 copies of this song and a couple of the lads were saying ‘this tune’s amazing, it should be on our next album’, but all the bands that we love had these b-sides that were thrown away and later on they were discovered. If you’re good, even your throwaway stuff should be amazing.”
S13: Good attitude. Does the retro feel of a flexi disc fit with the Sunstack Jones ethos?
CJ: “It does, yeah. From the beginning we always said everything we do, we’re going to put it on vinyl. There’s only two tracks that we haven’t so far, but they’ll all be on some compilation in the future. But it totally fits because from day one, and that’s nearly ten years ago now, not everyone was banging stuff out on vinyl and that’s always been our main goal, we weren’t thinking pf playing live we were just thinking ‘let’s make records.’”
S13: How do you think you’ve changed over those ten years?
CJ: “We’ve just got better. Weirdly, as I think most bands start off great and then they just dip, but I think because at first it was more of a bedroom idea it became a band more around the time of the third album and we just got more focused and we know what we want to do.
I find it weird about how bands become crap. We read enough books and we listen to enough music to know what to avoid and how to get better. Now we just need people to listen, it’s alright getting better and better, but we’ll see.
It’ll be interesting to see what we’re going to do in ten year’s time. But surely at some point we’re going to go shit [laughs].”
SJ: “I love those parallels with yourselves and a lot of the 80s indie bands. They were afforded time to grow, they didn’t feel they had to blow their wad on the first single, become flavour of the month in the NME and then they’re gone into obscurity. The likes of REM grew over each album, and bands like Husker Du.
If you’d started ten years earlier you might have made more money, but the likes of the NME chew you up and spit you out and then move on. It’s given you the time to grow.”
CJ: “You’ve got to factor in that with a successful profile you’re always fighting to do something amazing. We feel that we have to prove ourselves every time, there’s no laurels to rest on.
You get bands who do one album and everybody likes it sells enough so that they don’t have to go to work and they they’re still hawking that shit every Christmas. There’s millions of them. There are some great ones obviously, I’m not doing anyone down, I’d probably do the same as well but we want to be a good band. Maybe some people are not that arsed after they’ve been successful.”
S13: Well maybe. I was watching documentary the other day about Pink Floyd making Wish You Were Here and how, after the success of Dark Side of the Moon they thought they all sat around waiting to be satisfied at the fame and money it brought them, but that didn’t happen. Do you feel that perhaps your lack of success has given you that fight?
CJ: “Yeah, I think it has, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone [laughs].”
S13: But again that’s a great attitude, ‘we want to make something that will make the world sit up and take notice’, that’s a great starting point for any album.
CJ: “Surely all bands do that, you don’t want to just make an alright record, you want to make the best record, so you’re not embarrassed if put on your favourite record and then that comes on and people go ‘ah, this is shit.’ You want to them to say ‘What’s this!” and you can say ‘That’s our band.’
All the feedback we’ve had from the record has been great, it’s just that we could do with millions more people hearing it. But it is what it is and we’re on to the next one now and that will be better again hopefully.”
S13: And how is the new album going so far?
CJ: “It’s going good I think. We’ve got enough songs to do maybe a triple album but we’re concentrating on getting a bunch of songs that work perfectly together. We’ll probably lose a load and we’ll probably get some more. We did a session that this flexi tune came out of and we weren’t happy so we’re going to go in in November, but with the wait [for pressing] it’s going to be a while before anybody gets to hear anything. But all the gigs we’ve got coming up we’re mostly going to be playing new stuff. There isn’t loads, there’s only about six or seven at the minute but we’re going to get the bulk of the album recorded by the end of the year.”
S13: And you’re supporting your celebrity fan Tim Burgess. Is it two listening parties you’ve had so far?
CJ: “Three darling, three [laughs]. Yeah, that’s nice, we’re looking forward to meeting him.”
S13: Has it made a difference to your profile or sales being on his Listening Parties?
CJ: “It’s got to hasn’t it, more people have heard of us from doing those things. I think all the records had gone by the time we did the parties but we get a lot more people interacting with us.
He’s got some real nice fans and they get in touch which is nice. And we get involved with the Listening Party podcasts. It’s been great, we’re really happy, made up that he asked us to play, it’s really kind.”
SJ: “A predictable scenario we found ourselves in, I think it was in January, the back end of the year, is when Steve Lamacq played the opening track off Golden Repair in full on a Friday afternoon on 6Music and then on the Sunday two days after we had the Listening Party and we sold out of vinyl an hour before, all the stock had gone which is a very Factory Records kind of thing to do, people trying to hit Bandcamp and everything had gone. And then we had to wait another seven months to get the repress.
But it’s good to see some positive momentum and things that you don’t have to really fight for, it’s so nice when it happens and we see people really digging it.”
S13: I’m just astounded by the quality of the records Mai 68 release. How do you do it, how do you track these things down?
SJ: “It’s pure luck really and me and Sally misspending our time in clubs and bars. A lot of them are really local to us in Chester and North Wales and the rest have been happy accidents through people who’ve heard stuff that we’d like, that’s been absolutely key.
The Shipbuilders I knew through a lad, Gibbo, who puts gigs on in Liverpool and I thought ‘this is really good, they’d be prefect for a seven inch and then while were working the merch stall at one of their gigs, Chrissy and I spent a night talking about The Byrds and Gram Parsons and I thought ‘if someone is into chatting about The Notorious Byrd Brothers then they’d be perfect.
We’ve always tried to be as genre agnostic as possible, just get stuff that you really love and can get behind and people you can work with was really key. We’re all big mates on the label, I love the fact that COW will go on tour with Campfire Social or Shipbuilders will go with Ennio and Sunstack are on a boat with Ennio next month and everyone seems to get along and get the ethos.
Whenever we get anything, when someone sends us a Soundcloud link or whatever, if we just hammer it in the car or at home when we’re having some wine and think ‘Oh this is dead good’ then…
If it’s just a single it’s never a huge commitment, but everyone who’s been on the label has stayed. The idea at the fist stage was just to do singles and hopefully they’d end up at Rough Trade or somewhere, but we’re a burgeoning family of North West and North Wales misfits at the moment.”
S13: It’s like a scene, you’ve got a scene going.
SJ: “Yeah, it’s so nice. Four of five years ago when we were putting on gigs everyone was saying that the interest was great, but the bands were coming up on Spotify and then the interest was gone, So I thought ‘let’s have a look at getting some singles out’ and I like the idea of that super fast thing, like labels like Fierce Panda used to be in the 90s. They had this rolling rota of bands and to be able to be pushing those out once a month is so exciting.”
CJ: “But since you started it [the flexi singles], I noticed that quite a few high profile people have started doing it, so you need to get them done before someone steals it away from you [laughs].”
SJ: “Yeah, Snail Mail’s album is coming out with one, there seem to be a few people who’ve got on to it.”
CJ: “I Think we’ll try to put a mini disc out for Christmas then, because no-one’s doing them yet [laughs].”
S13: Returning to Sunstack Jones, I want to ask you about your influences. What influences go into a Sunstack Jones song?
CJ: “Because there’s five of us, there’s loads, you don’t know what anyone’s thinking when we start playing something, there’s just so many influences. I suppose the usual touchstones for people like us, but there’s loads. That’s so hard to answer, can’t answer it.”
S13: If you were to sit down for a night with the rest of the band, would there be a fight over what sort of music went on to the turntable?
CJ: “[Pause] Yeah [laughs]. We’ve never even sat down and listened to the last LP together. There are things that we all get along with, even if its’s things that we don’t sound like. Everyone loves Nirvana, if someone puts Nirvana on that’ll stay on. Everyone’s good with The Beatles.”
SJ: “I really like that you and I bonded over A Tribe Called Quest.”
CJ: “Yeah, I absolutely love them, but that wouldn’t be something that jumped out of the speakers to somebody with the last album I wouldn’t have thought. Maybe more with what we’re working on at the minute, the bass is way louder, the drums are way up in the mix. That kind of thing is more about how we mix things, but we’re playing guitars so you wouldn’t go ‘this is a big Tribe Called Quest track’, it’s all in the pot, but ultimately it comes out like, hopefully, very good guitar based music.”
And maybe that’s how we can best sum up Sunstack Jones, very good guitar based music. Although maybe that description is a little pedestrian for the kind of guitar based music Sunstack Jones produce. Listening to them can transport you out of yourself, take you away on huge washes of sound to another place, another time.
If there is any fairness left in this world, the next Sunstack Jones album will take them stratospheric. Everything is in place, all it takes now is a little but of luck and a pressing plant that can turn out enough copies of this to meet the demand that should surely follow.
In the meantime, jump into the Mai 68 Flexi Club and discover another of your new favourite bands.
Mai 68 Flexi Club release schedule
September 26 MAI201 Sunstack Jones – Can’t Go Back Home
October MAI202 The Shipbuilders
November MAI203 By the Sea
December MAI204 COW
December MAI205 Mondegreen
January MAI206 Anna-Jane Houghton
February MAI207 Ennio the Little Brother
March MAI208 Campfire Social
April MAI209 Friends of Our Youth
May MAI210 Special Guest TBA