15 years is a long time for anything, but for the lifetime of a record label it’s a particularly lengthy stint. Kasra Mowlavi launched his drum & bass label Critical Music in 2002, and through the years it went from being a passion project of a hobby into a full-time existence of A&R and DJ gig.
Critical is by now regarded as one of the most boundary-pushing platforms in drum & bass, but given Mowlavi’s background in music that shouldn’t entirely come as a surprise: before he launched Critical, he’d already had experience of working in music in international artist management companies and at the respected independent imprint Rough Trade Records.
With Critical’s landmark birthday happening this year, Mowlavi is as busy as he’s ever been: on top of his regular gigs, there’s also an international tour, and a forthcoming boxset featuring some of the label’s key artists from across their history.
With the launch of the 15 years of the landmark 15 years of Underground Sonics album happening in Room Two tomorrow night, Mowlavi got in touch to send us a premiere of his track dropping on the compilation, and to talk more about drum & bass, the music industry, and holding things down as an independent.
So this is quite a big year for you – what’s been keeping you busy so far?
It’s mainly been everything tied to the 15 year celebrations – including putting together the album itself. It’s a 5-piece vinyl boxset with 15 tracks and the packaging process has been quite involved, and given I’m quite stickler for attention to detail it can take up a lot of time. That’s as well as merchandise, and all the shows and festivals, then regular EP releases… It’s a constant stream of music – it’s highly enjoyable, but also relentless.
How much of your time do you spend balancing the label and DJing?
It enthuses me that I still DJ pretty much every week even though I don’t really make music. My DJing pretty much always happens on the weekends, unless I’m on tour. During the week I focus more on the various things that running a label involves, with a small team of two others. We play to our strengths, but the most important thing is the artists and the music. So it’s making a dialogue with them and working on the releases, which is an involved process. Because that’s not just an email – it’s a constant dialogue involving many thoughts and ideas, agreements and disagreements. So it’s time consuming but fun and incredibly rewarding.
Sounds pretty stacked. How do you still dedicate your time to looking for new producers?
It’s really important to find the time for that. Even though the label is 15 years old, it’s only really in recent years that we’ve formed a group of artists synonymous with the label. But you always want to find new and interesting people to work with. It’s impossible to check everything. But I have to say in recent times, one of the best A&R sources has been the other guys on the label, or just getting a tip-off from a friend. Sometimes it’s difficult to have the filter yourself – it helps if you have the opinions of people you respect. Sometimes if we find things or get something and realise straight away it would work for us. But if I spent all my time searching, it would probably be all I do.
How recently did you commit to drum & bass as a full time job?
I’d been working at record labels and in music for quite a few years. When I started Critical I was working at Rough Trade Records as a marketing manager.
As in the shop in Brick Lane?
No – as in the record label, which is separate from the shop. I used to work with people like Arcade Fire, The Strokes and Sufjan Stevens. I had started Critical at the time, and I was also DJing here and there. Then I did some work in artist management for a prestigious management company. It was 7 or 8 years ago that I fully dived in. There came a point where there was a lot of interesting music around, and there was an identity surrounding it. It was that step of committing to it, and say ‘I want to make the label a success, build a DJ career, and more importantly other artists’ careers.’
What first attracted you to working in the music industry?
I started my first record label when I was 15 – music is all I’m good at. I got a degree in ancient history but really, music is all I know. I’ve always been fascinated by both the feelings and the mechanics of the music. The most important thing is how the record sounds, and how it makes you feel – that’s the bottom line. But then there’s also the other stuff; the way a record looks, how its presented, the way you can get involve with something you feel passionate about, whether that’s buying a t shirt or a ticket to a show. Those are all small parts that make up this wonderful world that I still find exciting.
Was drum & bass the first sound you feel in love with?
In electronic music, yes. But outside of that, my main musical passion is underground alternative guitar music. The first groups I fell in love with were Nirvana, Sonic Youth and Pavement, and things like that. And I loved that whole DIY punk idea of just making records with what you had in a garage. Early drum & bass kind of replicated that – you made it on a computer, then you got it pressed up, and drove round dropping it off to record shops and sat up all night listening to pirate radio – it was basically the same thing. It’s just an idea of “I want to do this, I don’t want to go to someone else to do it differently from how I want to, and so I’m going to do it myself.”
How did you approach compiling the 15-year release (15 years of Underground Sonics)?
The process itself was a hit list of people I wanted to be on it, then some people I thought I’d ask but they probably wouldn’t be able to. It kind of came together quite easily, because for the most part it’s close label affiliates, with a couple of guests.
Is there a theme to it?
The music’s brand new, the producers are all really exciting in the field of drum & bass and 170 BPM music. It was an album where I wanted to showcase where the label’s going and where it’s at, rather than a retrospective. I don’t feel we should be retrospective at this point – it’s more about looking forward. That’s the thread.
Where do you see drum & bass’ standing in electronic music?
Sometimes I feel like it doesn’t get the respect it deserves. But I think the lack of understanding of the music is part of what makes it amazing. The people that love it, absolutely love it. The drum & bass fans are really passionate about the music which is something that makes it great. I think in general it’s not seen as very cool. But I think it’s great that it’s not very cool, because it isn’t subject to fads, and kind of just exists in the shadows. And I think we’re all alright with that.
What do you think has given Critical a 15-year stronghold?
I suppose we just stuck to our thing. We’ve just existed in our own orbit putting out records we really love, and working with good people. For me the most important things are putting out great music by people you enjoy working with, and presenting the music in the way the artist wants the music to be presented. I think we’re good at forming the relationship with the artist to be able to do that exactly how they want it done.
What’s your relationship been with fabric through Critical’s lifespan?
I was there the night the club opened in 1999. Several years later and my label now holds a residency there. It’s been a huge part of our growth. I had the honour of recording an album for the mix series, and that was ones the biggest things I’ve ever done, a real bucket list moment. Critical Sound has now done 20 or so shows in the club. The connection is very strong – it’s the club I’d been going to for years as a clubber, and part of the reason the label exists.