Features Interviews

No Restrictions: 10 Years with Cruel Nature Records

Celebrating a decade in charge with the release of new compilation, ‘Spectrum’, we talk to label founder, Steve Strode.

Since the inception of Sun 13, we’ve been extremely luck to have received submissions from so many artists and labels from all across the globe. However, Cruel Nature Records have also proved the most interesting and consistent, to the point where many of the artists on Cruel Nature have been vital parts of the furniture around here.

The Tyneside label’s ability to unearth the finest esoteric treasures from all across the world is something that no other label is doing.

It’s all down to the hard work of label founder, Steve Strode. A stalwart across the DIY community and, like most within it, a true lifer whose key objective is to harness the spirit and talent of the true outlier.

Formed in 2013, Strode’s incessant attitude for diversity sees the number of Cruel Nature releases at over over 250, thus just about defying the odds. Through the storms of economic uncertainty, capitalism eroding the value of art and, of course, Brexit, Cruel Nature just keep coming, with anything from up to five new releases each month.

It’s actually frightening when you think about it, but the best things often are. Amalgamating the labour of love with incessant artistic relevance, Cruel Nature is home to some of the most forward-thinking artists out there, many of whom feature on Spectrum, the Cruel Nature compilation that celebrates the label’s 10 years in operation.

With all proceeds going to The Toby Henderson Trust, an independently funded charity in the North East offering support to autistic youth and adults, Spectrum is a wonderful snapshot of the label’s rich history, showcasing the diversity and borderless terrains Cruel Nature continues to take us across with each release.

In the lead-up to the release of Spectrum, we caught up with Strode who talks us through the ideas and the journey of the label so far.

Label Watch: Cruel Nature Records

Sun 13: Firstly, congratulations on 10 years, Steve. How does it feel to be going for this long?

Steve Strode: “Thank you!  There’s certainly a personal sense of achievement. Any longevity, particularly within this industry and for a small DIY label, is something to be celebrated. I certainly didn’t set out with a five or 10-year plan. Just a ‘see how it goes, take it as it comes’ approach and if it doesn’t work out, then make changes or bring it to a halt. I’m not tired of it yet, not feeling worn out and knackered, or that it’s become a chore. I think it helps that every release feels fresh, like it was the first and there’s still passion and excitement for the sounds that I’m introduced to.”

S13: Do you remember the first time you thought about putting the label together?

SS: “The origins of Cruel Nature go back to my involvement with Distraction Records, which I started with Darren Hubbard in 2002. After spending five years with Distraction, I took a step back from any active music interests, although I was still tinkering with my own sound projects in the background.

“This tinkering led to collaborations with other artists and some label releases, such as Irish experimental label, Haunted Trail. Although I was recording all my sounds directly to tape, on standard TDK C60s, I was converting them to digital for the labels to release as CDRs or downloads.

“The epiphany came when I discovered Tapeline and entered an Aladdin’s cave of brightly coloured shells and cases, for any desired duration. It was pure cassette heaven. That’s when I first thought of doing limited edition cassette releases of my own sounds but dismissed that idea and instead considered releasing some of the artists I’d been communicating and collaborating with, starting a new cassette-based label. This thought took a year to evolve before the label was born.” 

S13: And what about the name. How long did it take you to come up with?

SS: “I don’t recall it being that long. There was no lengthy process of short-listing names. It was inspired by where I was living at the time, a collision between my lifelong interests of music and the natural world. Over the years, I’ve slowly moved away from living in the city, out into rural Northumberland, enjoying exploring the coast and countryside, and getting to see all kinds of wildlife. Quite often chancing across the disembowelled remains of rabbits and pigeons, the spoils of a predator. A vision of violence punctuating the natural beauty, peace, and solitude. I think that was in mind when the name popped into my head and it seemed to loosely connect with the early releases for the label: menacing, intense, challenging, vicious sounds, that would come on brightly coloured cassette shells, wrapped in elaborate artwork and colourful cases.” 

S13: What about mission statements? I mean, you’re one of the few labels that releases records from artists all throughout the world. Did you envisage that from the outset?

SS: “Yes, that was the intention right from the start. Music without borders. To provide a platform for new artists, irrespective of location. The label evolved out of collaborations with global artists and communities, so this was something I wanted to sustain; and it feels more even more important now in the post-Brexit era, where we have a government even more intent on spreading xenophobia.

“No restrictions on genre, is another key aspect. Aside from it being reflective of my own personal genre-busting music taste, it’s also a throw-back to my days as a promoter in the early 2000s, where we’d regularly put on eclectic shows and festivals, with noise acts sharing the same bill as indie bands and electronic artists. As an audience, you never really knew what you were going to get next. As a promoter, it didn’t always work out, but there was always the chance that someone would get switched on to something new that they would never have considered checking out before. And that’s a principle I’m looking to continue with the label: switch people on to something new.

“I’ve always been a risk-taker, and running a label where cassettes are the primary physical format allows me to take those risks. Just look at the tapes that were released in March. You have disturbing psychoanalytical, electronic drones from Beckton Alps2; straight-up hardcore punk from Disciplinary; techno, funk, hip-hop plunderphonics from Tibshelf, and atmospheric minimalist ambience from Arthur Arsenne. As our strapline states, it’s about channelling sonic diversity.”

S13: A lot has happened from when you first started Cruel Nature – namely Brexit. How much has it effected the label?

SS: “It was unsettling to begin with. Due to the rise in shipping costs, along with the prospect of additional hidden custom charges, EU support dried up quickly and like many others there were thoughts of jacking it all in. But acquiring an IOSS number to mitigate the additional customs charges and keeping the shipping costs as low as I feasibly can, mean that whilst it’s not quite back to how it was pre-Brexit, it’s improved. There are still blips though, such as not receiving the email that Bandcamp had changed their IOSS number until 3 weeks after the change, and despite all other EU countries still accepting the old number, almost an entire month’s worth of packages that went out to Ireland and Germany were returned, with no refund possible due to the time lapse. That sort of stuff has you screaming at the wall.”

Katie Gerardine O’Neill Interview: “I’ve finally tied together a lot of my processes with this album”

S13: Although your label has been going much longer, I feel like it and this site have certainly similarities – insofar as the work that goes into things, spinning plates with day jobs and all the rest of it. From your perspective is it a vocation that consists of forever putting out fires?

SS: “It’s a vocation that requires a lot of flexibility, as I must balance it around the priorities of supporting a family, the day job and other life demands. Working with incredibly patient artists is also a big help, because unless there is a fixed release date (such as the need to align with a tour or another label), my release schedules tend to be quite loose. But you don’t do this for 10 years without establishing some form of organisation or routine, and I think I’ve got a pretty good rhythm going now which usually involves doing label work either really early in the morning or really late at night and not getting much sleep.

“If you’re passionate about something you will put in the graft. The time and effort required. Experience has shown that nothing comes easy. That’s why I try to spend some time every day on the label. Be it seeking out and contacting new media sources who might want to review or cover the latest releases, listening to new submissions or planning and preparing the future releases for production. I also keep grounded by remembering that family, life matters and the day job come first. I don’t draw an income from the label. It’s self-sufficient and sustained by the support through sales. If there is no label cash to publish a record, then it doesn’t come out until there is.”

S13: There have been so many, but do you care to share some highlights since the beginning?

SS: “Getting the first release out and launching the label off the back of it was understandably a highlight, after all the preparation and then seeing how it was received; starting the journey for the future releases and where we are now.

“Releasing the first FRAG tape for Stephen Burroughs is another highlight. I knew of Stephen from Head of David, who were a band I massively admired – I used to have their ‘Psychedelic Killer’ poster on my bedroom wall as a teenager. LP which was released by Blast First is one of my fave albums. Following the demise of the band in the early ’90s, Stephen made a conscious decision to opt out of the music business to pursue a lifestyle in the cloistered world Buddhism. But the urge to create sound remained, and he made some recordings as FRAG in 1994.It was a project never intended to be seen or heard, until Stephen decided to make them public via Cruel Nature in 2018, 24 years later. He’s since said that releasing that tape was a pivotal move for him and continues to record as FRAG. Being part of that was a key moment.

“Also being introduced to Russia’s Mirrored Lips and releasing their album MOM in 2016, which was followed by organising and accompanying them on UK tours in 2017 and 2018. These included the recording of their subsequent albums at the now sadly closed, Sound Rooms in Gateshead. Aside from cementing friendships for life, it also defined the label’s mission of providing a platform for new artists, irrespective of location or genre.” 

Spectrum - Various Artist

S13: How much does Newcastle influence the label?

SS: “The Newcastle and the North East DIY community has certainly influenced and subconsciously instilled the courage that led to the evolution of the label. Whilst I’ve always taken a DIY approach, from forming bands, organising gigs, publishing a zine and running a tape distro during my formative years in Bristol, what was happening in Newcastle during the ’90s / ’00s – with DIY labels like Slampt, Matching Head; nights featuring the likes of Prurient and Emil Beaulieu, Jazzfinger and 10 other acts on the bill in a function room above a local pub; to clubs serving up jungle, dub and drum ’n’ bass all-dayers in the backroom and kicking techno in the main room; the hardcore scene; folks like Protect and Survive, No-Fi and a host of others putting on shows – all inspired the creation of Distraction Records and the events we organised, which in turn laid the foundations for Cruel Nature and we’ve published many artists from the North East since our inception. 

“Our March releases featured Newcastle-based acts, Tibshelf and Disciplinary. Chris Tate is a regular contributor, be it through his solo project Score or his work with One Key Magic and Salisman. I’ve known Chris from when Distraction released records for his band d_rradio. He’s amazingly prolific. Similarly, Summer Night Air were also released by Distraction, who I continue to work with. Collaboration plays its part, particularly from nice folks like James Watts (Lump Hammer, Lovely Wife, All The Heavens Were A Bell et al), who runs Panurus Productions and helps me out massively with layout design and artwork. 

“Although it’s more challenging now for DIY communities to thrive, what with venue closures, post-Brexit / COVID impacts, increased costs and the effect of austerity from a government who cares little for independent arts, the region continues to be a source of diversity and experimentation. There’s a wealth of talent and collaboration, with many artists, labels and promoters continuing to push and drive the support for arts and culture. You can’t help but be inspired by the tenacity.”

Empty House: Secret Suburbia

S13: Tape culture has really caught on over the past decade. How has Bandcamp played its role into a label like yours?

SS: “By providing a fairly easy to use platform to showcase, share the releases and deal with all the ecommerce side of things, it’s worked really well. Access to download codes, links for sharing have also been useful for promo. Although Bandcamp has been around since 2007, the launch of Cruel Nature caught it when the wave was rising, so the timing worked well in that respect and having access to IOSS numbers have helped navigate all the post-Brexit fallout. It was also good of them to feature the label their recent Bandcamp Daily Tape Label Report.

“Cruel Nature is also represented on Discogs and BigCartel, but Bandcamp is proving to be the platform that generates the most interest, complimented by the standard social media channels, Soundcloud and of course the support from good folks like yourself, which is always very appreciated.”

S13: How hard was it to pick the artists who feature on the compilation from so many?

SS: “Overall, I wanted the compilation to represent the diversity of Cruel Nature and act as an introduction to the label and the artists. The tracks needed to be exclusives, unreleased material, and by artists who are still active; the only exception being Mirrored Lips, who just had to be represented due to their involvement with the label. Luckily, they had an unreleased home recorded track available.

“I very naively thought at first that I might be able to fit it all on a C90 but the very long list of candidates soon led me to make it a double-tape compilation; which let’s face it, if you’re going to celebrate a decade of music, you need to go big, right?

“To shortlist, I looked at those who I’ve worked with regularly. Artists like Whirling Hall of Knives, David Colohan, Score, Mike Vest, Lovely Wife, St James Infirmary, people who I’ve been releasing material for over five years and more recently Charlie Butler, Salisman, Aidan Baker, Omnibadger, Tankengine and Pound Land. Then I considered artists whose work had deeply impacted me, some of whom more recently. I’m thinking here of Clara Engel, Gvantsa Narim, Petrine Cross, Katie Gerardine O’Neill, Kitchen Cynics, VHS¥DEATH, K of ARC, Empty House, Nathalie Stern and Holy Island; the latter also acting as a reference point to Sun Skeletons; as Graham was the drummer in them and he’s also the bassist for Easter, both bands having albums published by Cruel Nature.

“Finally, there had to be some form of overall sonic cohesion, which Chris Tate helped with. I think he ordered all the tracks based on the key they were in and then we just shuffled some around to make it flow better. Nick Harris from Pound Land assisted on some of the mastering / normalisation. James Watts did the layout design work, and the cover art is by Aaron Lock, who was a member of At The Heart Of It All, the band which launched the label on 20 April 2013.

“It was always intended that the compilation would be a charity fundraiser.  We’ve held some fundraisers in the past for BLM; Ukraine Crisis Support; Refuge; Shelter; The Trussell Trust, and others. With the compilation, I wanted it to make it more personal and for cause close to my heart.  My son Davy is autistic with ADHD, and he also turned 10 earlier this year. As a family we’ve been on quite a journey over the past decade supporting him, navigating the social care and special educational needs systems; learning about his condition and neurodiversity. At times it’s been very challenging and an emotional rollercoaster, often leaving you feeling very alone.

“The Toby Henderson Trust are an independently funded charity in North East England which supports autistic youth and adults, as well as their families and caregivers. They provide an important service with increasing awareness, giving guidance, and they’ve been supporting Davy with overcoming some of his social interaction and engagement challenges through the monthly activity clubs they run. So, all proceeds from the compilation are going to them in the recognition for the amazing work they do and to help them keep on doing it. It’s an area of speciality that’s massively under-funded and under-resourced, so there is a big reliance on public support.

Spectrum made a great title for the compilation of course, as apart from referring to the cause it is supporting, it’s a nod to the wide range of sounds emitted under the banner of Cruel Nature.” 

S13: Lastly, another 10 years around the block, do you think it can happen?

SS: “I like to think so. As long as the quality sounds keep coming, the good support and interest for the label continues and the passion is still there, then it should be achievable. And with a submission list and release schedule that’s currently drifting well into next year, it’s looking very likely.”

Spectrum is out now via Cruel Nature Records, with all proceeds going to The Toby Henderson Trust. Purchase from Bandcamp.

3 replies on “No Restrictions: 10 Years with Cruel Nature Records”

[…] Redefining – if at all possible – the label’s mission statement for sonic diversity, every artist who features on Spectrum brings their A game, with most releasing their best sounds yet (Katie Gerardine O’Neil, Empty House, Petrine Cross, the list goes on). For more information, check out our interview with label founder, Steve Strode, here. […]


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