Label of love: Wichita records

As part of their takeover, the Cribs hand our regular Label of love feature over to the label they're signed to, Wichita

Many of the best labels of the past 30 years, from Factory to Postcard, have had a "label sound", but Wichita, along with Domino, one of the preeminent contemporary British imprints, is not one of them.

There is no denying the excellence of a label whose roster includes everyone from Bloc Party to the Bronx, the Cribs to Conor Oberst, Peter, Bjorn and John to Simian Mobile Disco, but there's no use arguing for a consistency of tone or feel – unless you count their promotional CDs, which all come in a uniform plain light brown slip case, with just the Wichita logo for adornment.

"We've done everything from heavy metal to folk and all points in between," says Mark Bowen, who started the label nine years ago with Dick Green, formerly Alan McGee's business partner at Creation. "We always said we were more about quality than genres, and I think we've proved that. Simian Mobile Disco to Espers – that's fairly varied, isn't it?"

Of labels such as Factory or Postcard, and their label "feel", he says, "Both were a massive influence on us, but more from the idea that everything they put out was fantastic rather than them having an overall sound. It's all about reflecting our record collections, which run a fairly wide spectrum of music. It seems daft to have a label tied to a particular sound."

The difference, he says, is that neither he nor Green are label-auteurs such as McGee, Postcard's Alan Horne or Factory's Tony Wilson, whose ideas seeped through to every aspect of their output, from music to design to marketing.

"So many of our favourite labels did impose their aesthetic on the artist," he says, "but we've never gone down that route. It's not about us, it's about the bands – that might sound hackneyed but it's true. I'm not Tony Wilson, and I'm not Alan McGee. I'm passionate and proud of the label but I'm not best at putting it into words."

Bowen, who also worked at Creation, where he progressed from "stuffing envelopes" to A&R, and Green decided to form Wichita towards the tail-end of the life of "what I honestly believe to be the best British independent label of all time." Launched after a drink in Camden's Enterprise pub, it would be a more low-key affair than Creation, although it would have a similar fan-ish approach. Starting as they meant to go on, they took the name Wichita from Jimmy Webb's Wichita Lineman, simply because it was, they believe, the greatest song ever written (the next choice wasn't quite as catchy, and besides, Where's The Playground Susie? wouldn't have fitted quite as neatly on their sleeves).

The Wichita logo – of a telegraph pole, as per Glen Campbell's lineman – was the result of a Dick Green doodle in the pub. All of this seemed to suggest this would be a label with an American sensibility, and their early licensing of US artists (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Bright Eyes, My Morning Jacket) certainly gave the impression of Wichita as a haven of Americana. But it was actually its British bands that kept it afloat. In fact, every Christmas, Bowen and Green would get together in the pub to decide whether they should keep the label going, and it wasn't until a licensing deal in 2003 with V2 and the success of Bloc Party (whose debut album sold more than 1m copies worldwide) that Wichita had a remotely secure future.

"I've always loved American music," says Bowen, "be it the SST label or punk or the Muscle Shoals stuff, but while for the first few years we were guilty of having a very US-based roster, more recently with Bloc Party and the Cribs, and Swedish acts such as Peter, Bjorn and John, we've had a fairly global spectrum. We haven't put out a vaguely Americana record for ages, apart from Conor. The stuff that has sold for us have been the great British bands," he adds, "and in that sense we're closer to Creation or Rough Trade."

Wichita may not have had the budgets or resources of a major, but like Creation and Rough Trade, they have had the attitude (and "attitude", as their motto boldly declares, "is everything") that sometimes acts need space and time to develop; that it's not all about proving yourself with your debut.

Hence, a band such as the Cribs have been allowed to grow and grow with only a modicum of critical respect, to the point where their forthcoming album, Ignore the Ignorant, is almost being seen as their breakthrough. Of course, having recruited one Johnny Marr as their latest member hasn't exactly done them any harm – indeed, it's one of the highlights of Bowen's career.

"The band are fairly unique in that they've been allowed to develop over four albums and given space outside of the media because really no one was interested. It's not been an ideal career path but it's enabled them to find their sound. Johnny joining has been the last piece of the puzzle. Having Marr on our label is the most wonderful, insanely brilliant thing to happen, and is something I'll treasure for my whole life – the guitarist and songwriter from the band who changed my life has signed to my label! I'm also really proud that he joined in a really organic, contemporary way – he's one of the band and he's made them better. It also means I get to ask him loads of dumb questions about the Smiths."

Other highs for Bowen from Wichita's lifetime have been this year's Bloc Party shows at Olympia, and seeing the Bronx on the cover of Kerrang! "Still in this internet age it's hugely gratifying, and it never gets old, seeing one of your bands on the cover of a magazine." As for the future, he's excited about Lissy Trullie's first album, currently being recorded with Bernard Butler, and a new signing from Sunderland called Frankie & the Heartstrings. The one thing he won't be doing is developing a coherent strategy.

"Honestly, it's as random as it seems to be," he says of Wichita's "policy", such as is it. "It's as simple as being told about something and getting excited. That's the strength of being an indie - not having to go through levels of bullshit and corporate bureaucracy. We hear something we like and we try to get involved.

"As music fans we're influenced by the bands we grew up loving," he says, denying any attempts to "tick boxes" at Wichita. "When I watch the Bronx I see the power of my favourite band Hüsker Dü, and maybe Conor is representative of that whole Gram Parsons lineage. But really it's about career artists we can work with over a long time and bands who will stick around."


Paul Lester

The GuardianTramp

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