Click here to listen to the Carhartt WIP Radio Show featuring Phantom Limb
The trajectory from music obsessive to label founder seemed preordained for James Vella. “My ancestors were composers. It's in my blood. We were always destined to pursue this path,” he says. Vella, a musician and producer himself, launched the Brighton-based imprint Phantom Limb in 2017, after completing an eight-year stint at FatCat Records. Vella now runs the label alongside a collective comprising Ken Li, George Clift, Andy Halliday, and Dean Wengrow, who when combined, have over 50 years worth of experience in the independent music industry. As well as releasing and distributing music, Phantom Limb has a publishing arm, and acts as a tour booking agency for its artists. Its team also has plans to launch a composition agency in the future, which will take care of projects such as film and TV scoring.
With “Weird jams since 2017” as its tagline, Phantom Limb’s diverse musical output includes genres such as ambient, neo-classic, folk, hip hop, dub, electronic, as well as indie rock and minimal. Its ever-growing roster features the likes of experimental composer Richard Skelton, Indonesian musician Senyawa, UK producers Loraine James and Kevin Richard Martin (AKA The Bug), as well as the up-and-coming Baltimore hip hop act Infinity Knives.
For this year’s last installment of Carhartt WIP Radio, Phantom Limb founder James Vella created a mix that, in his own words, functions as a “bird’s eye view” for new listeners, while highlighting some “deep cuts from the vaults” for existing fans. The mix also offers a glimpse into Phantom Limb’s 2023, by including music from recent signings, as well as from those who have not been announced yet. As ever, the show is accompanied by an interview with Vella, who discusses how growing up in a musical family led him to launch his own label; maintaining relationships with artists all around the world; and the “guts, teeth, brain and heart” of great music.
How and when did Phantom Limb come about? And did your previous work at FatCat Records inspire you to launch your own label?
James Vella: Phantom Limb began in 2017, shortly after I left FatCat. I had been there for eight years, and while the label and all those around it contributed a great deal to my relationship with releasing records, I feel richly creatively rewarded by starting my own venture. It's a very different working environment, in many ways much leaner, but I'm grateful for the years I spent learning how to navigate the ecosystems and environments of a bigger label. All of us here at Phantom Limb came from music, with many years of collective experience to lean on. We're lucky that we were able to hit the ground running. And we're also very fortunate to be able to represent music that we all love; music that means a great deal to us personally and feels exciting to support.
What is your musical background?
James Vella: Primarily as a musician. My mother is a choral singer and my father plays the piano. My sister is a musician too. My ancestors were composers. It's in my blood. We were always destined to pursue this path. I started playing in bands and writing songs when I was a teenager, having learned drums, guitar, and piano largely from exposure to the instruments. There are family home-videos of me and my little sister duetting on the piano before we're barely old enough to talk. It's been the air that I've breathed for my whole life. I started buying music for myself as a kid, and started drum lessons when I was ten. When I was twelve, I was given a crate of home-dubbed cassettes by the son of my dad's then-partner. It was my first discovery of music like Metallica, Slayer, Pantera, and Sepultura, and it totally revamped my brain. I was already a music dork, but I became an obsessive. When I was 19, I started my own record label, O Rosa Records, and enjoyed the ride before our distributor sadly went bankrupt. Sadly, with all our capital and stock. Around that time, I started working for FatCat, while also continuing to create music myself, and since then, have been working to balance these two concurrent careers.
Phantom Limb’s roster includes various artists from all over the world. How do you maintain so many of these relationships?
James Vella: We're very greedy listeners. We love hearing music that excites us and challenges us in the right ways. We're also a very 21st century label in that there are plenty of artists on the books that we have never met. Our relationships begin, develop, and blossom through email, WhatsApp, and Zoom calls. It's never the same as real meetings, but we've learned that it's possible. We work hard to maintain diversity across the roster and catalog, and we hope to offer our platform to empower musicians from all backgrounds to release music they love.
What is your process for finding new artists? What qualities do you look for as curators of music?
James Vella: I like to think of this in terms of biology. We look for music that has guts, teeth, brains, heart, and a voice. Guts refers to courage – the desire to push boundaries and resist conventions; to create art that stands aside from preexisting institutions, trends or scenes and backs itself to stand out. Teeth are important too – music needs contrasting textures to truly land; it needs grit and texture, or it will float away like air. It will need brains – an intentionality, something considered and understood, so that its purpose is clear and its meaning evident. It needs heart – a core vulnerability that affords the expression authenticity. Lastly, music needs to voice something true to the creator; it needs to express a truth about the soul or the cosmos that we have not heard before. This evaluation process comes in many ways. Sometimes we sign artists from demos, and sometimes we rely on our own senses to find interesting musicians.
What exciting projects do you currently have in the pipeline?
James Vella: We recently released Loraine James' stunning homage to the late composer Julius Eastman. It was a project very close to our hearts and a really exciting step for a small label growing into the world. Loraine is a wonderful musician and a joy to work with. We couldn't have asked for a better experience. The record is truly special, and I hope will be recognized by listeners – fans of Loraine's, fans of Eastman's, and newcomers too. In the past months, we have also released music by Icelandic theremin soloist Hekla, Punjabi-American sitar player and songwriter Ami Dang, and Baltimore-based experimental hip hop duo Infinity Knives. Next year will be busy. We have new music by some of the label's best-known acts, as well as some exciting new signings we're itching to share with the world.
Do you have a ‘wishlist’ of musicians you'd like to see on Phantom Limb?
James Vella: Yes. It grows quicker than we could ever check them off. I've been a fan of both Brian Eno and Terry Riley all my life. I love Laurel Halo, Julia Holter, and Mount Eerie, and have pestered them for years with ideas for working together. I hope it will happen one day. But we're also proud of our role as a discovery label, to help new and emerging talent develop and build legitimate careers in music.
How involved are you with the development of the artists you work with?
James Vella: Highly. As a ‘music group’ (as opposed to a pure record label), we also book tours, publish music, distribute records, and manage artists, and we'll shortly launch a composition agency. We provide a holistic support network for every artist we work with and take great pride in being able to empower musicians to achieve greater things. Almost all of us here are musicians, so we understand the relationship from the other side of the table. We can also advise and guide, with ears more attuned than those without musical experience. We like to offer long-term relationships to our artists and aim to set out a relationship of multiple albums over a long period of time. This is so we can closely and meaningfully guide each new step, and gain ground together in mutual symbiosis.
What has been Phantom Limb’s biggest hit so far?
James Vella: They're all hits. Everything we do is a hit for us. We believe in the music we represent, every note of it. Of course, some records sell more, and some records enjoy wider promo coverage, while some records open doors for artists that other records don't. But the metric we use to measure a hit is not sales or PR hits. It's creative fulfillment. The environment we want to offer is one where a good record will always be a hit because it means something truly valuable for all that have contributed to it. We want to be able to pay artists good and dependable royalties, and to offer trust that we can and will build their career, but a real hit is a hit in the heart, not on the accounting spreadsheet.
How do you stay on top of all the new music being made right now?
James Vella: I dedicate a big (big!) chunk of my working week to listening. I subscribe to newsletters by many of the major music retailers and distributors, and listen to everything systematically. It's crucial, not only to stay abreast of the climate of releasing music, but also to digest new music in an organized way. I've discovered some of my favorite artists and records this way. I also love NTS and Bandcamp's discover system. I often use Camp Explorer to cross-reference Bandcamp tags and see if I can uncover interesting combinations.
How do you think music journalism and PR affect the way music is perceived by the public?
James Vella: PR is a challenging world and I don't think any label, big or small, would say otherwise. We're very lucky to have an incredible publicist on-staff here. Phantom Limb wouldn't be Phantom Limb without Ken. He was the first person I contacted when I thought about setting up a new label, and he is just as much a part of it as I am. We're like co-parents to our little experimental music baby. In that respect, we're traditionalists. We send out listening links to press and radio, and we nurture those relationships as best we can. It can certainly help the lifespan of a record and benefit the insular ecosystem of releasing music: distributors and record stores like seeing a good press report and that helps sell records. I also love seeing music built outside this conventional model, and we love working with artists that have developed their own universe without them. We're just as excited by flexibility and agility as we are by a good PR campaign.
How do you think non-mainstream music can reach wider audiences?
James Vella: By uniting the weirdos. Consider the biggest, best loved institutions of non-mainstream music. In the UK we have Cafe OTO, the Wire magazine, Bleep, and Boomkat. These are successful endeavors that receive a huge amount of love, from us included. While they're certainly not mainstream, they are beacons of quality. They are selective, sure, but it is this reliable and trustworthy curation that affords them such a rewarding position. The key is community. Whether that's local or online, bringing fans of boundary-pushing music together in a common forum is a crucial step in offering a valuable listening experience. A fantastic example is LA's Leaving Records, who have an active Discord server, as well as regular local events to help interact with their own communities. As labels, we should not try to elevate ourselves above the listener, but be one with them. Be in it together.
What was your process in selecting the tracks for your Carhartt WIP Radio show mix?
James Vella: I wanted to hit three markers: firstly, a bird's eye view of the label for new listeners who aren't aware of our work. Some key releases and easy access points to a growing catalog. Secondly, for existing fans of the label I wanted to highlight some deep cuts from the vaults – tracks that weren't released as singles or included on albums, but tracks that help establish a rounded insight into the label's breadth and unabashed musical nerdiness. Thirdly, I wanted to offer a glimpse or two into Phantom Limb's 2023. I've included music by a few new signings, some of whom have not been announced yet and will be a special preview for listeners of this show.
You’re in the band ydni halda, as well as having your own solo music project A Lily. How did these projects come about?
James Vella: I met the guys in yndi halda when we were 11, and we have been playing together ever since. In our school days, we graduated from playing covers to writing music and recorded our first album when we were teenagers. Likewise, with my solo music. It's not a tap I can turn off.
What is your creative process like?
James Vella: I create music all the time. Whether it's making up silly songs with my daughter or banging on the kitchen counter with cooking utensils while I'm making dinner. Everything is music. Sometimes that music becomes a real recording and is released into the world, either with my band or solo. But it's all the same music. It's the only language I really speak.
Can we be expecting any new releases from you?
James Vella: I'm currently working on new solo music. One project I feel very energized by is a collaboration with the Maltese archival project Magna Żmien, who have allowed me access to the recordings of Maltese emigrés of the 1970s and 80s, many of whom sent news back home on home-taped cassettes through the medium of song: Għana in Maltese. I will be forever heartbroken that my grandparents weren't around to meet my daughter, but this new project is about creating a bridge of music between those who have passed and those who live. And yndi halda are continuing to write music at our characteristically slow pace. We'll get there in a few years.
Are you cautious about being put into a box?
James Vella: Totally. What is music if not breaking out from boxes? With Phantom Limb we always like to keep things surprising. We recently signed our first true songwriter, which I think will be a curveball for a lot of our listeners, but it's something we're really inspired by. I think it's important, both for a musical organization and for a musician, to reinvent. Every release is a snapshot in time of where we live creatively at that moment. It doesn't have to be a product. It's just a quick camera click of where our creative lives reside. We should be creative nomads, answering only to ourselves.
If you could be in any band, living or dead, for a day which band would it be?
James Vella: I've loved the Beatles since I was a kid and Metallica since I was a teenager. But they're boring answers, aren't they? I'm a huge fan of hard bop and post-bop. Charlie Mingus sounded like a hard leader. I think I would like to have been in John Coltrane's band. Perhaps to have been Elvin Jones.
What musicians are you into at the moment?
James Vella: Wu-Tang Clan, Erykah Badu, Keiyaa, HiTech, Heiner Muller, Arushi Jain, Helado Negro, Tyler the Creator, Mister Water Wet, Enumclaw, Midori Takada, Joe Rainey, Salamanda, Claire Rousay, Dialect, Dasom Baek, Nefertiti, Alice in Chains.
What old albums have you rediscovered lately, and what makes them special?
James Vella: I've been fully immersed in Wu-Tang folklore recently. I started watching the biopic on my wife's Disney+ account and have been totally hooked. I knew some of those stories already (or at least those said to be true), and both the Wu-Tang group and solo albums (by ODB, Raekwon, Meth, Ghostface, and GZA) have been sitting on my record shelves for years. But this was the first time I'd seen the history played out in real time. I've been diving deep into the records, hearing them almost like new now, that I have this new anchor into the worlds that forged them. It's been a trip. Also, since working with Loraine on her Julius Eastman album, I've also been revisiting those albums too. They are transcendent in so many ways.
What are three albums that you'll never get tired of listening to?
Terry Riley & Don Cherry – Live in Köln (Alternative Fox)
John Coltrane – A Love Supreme (Impulse)
William Basinski – The Disintegration Loops live at NPR's Remembering Sept. 11 event
What keeps you awake at night?
James Vella: The state of the world. Politically, economically, socially and environmentally. We're living in very weird times. I hope my daughter grows up to a better world than this.
What has been the best thing about 2022?
James Vella: My daughter was born at the start of the year and it has changed every single thing. Every note of music I write, I write for her. She is the greatest joy I have ever known.
Do you think that Brighton has a strong influence on your work?
James Vella: It does. I lucked out landing in Brighton. I moved here to study (an MA in Philosophy) some years ago and have been stuck here since. I grew up partly in Malta and partly on the southeast coast of Kent, so the sea is hugely important to me. In Kent I was surrounded by deep countryside, woodland and farmland. Brighton is beautifully located just a few minutes from the countryside in every direction, but it's also a big enough city to have concerts and a fertile creative scene, and restaurants from all over the world. It has enough city life for me to do all I need for work and enjoyment, and enough rural surroundings to feel back at home when I need to. It's a great balance.
Phantom Limb discography