Celebrating Independence with... 4AD


In honor of Independence Day, KEXP is saluting some of our favorite indie record labels who’s DIY-spirit helped revolutionize the music industry. As an independent radio station ourselves, KEXP is thrilled to give a 13-gun salute to these pioneers with a series of label spotlights through the Fourth of July. In this profile, we look to one of our UK forefathers, 4AD:

Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent had humble expectations when they began the record label that would become 4AD in 1979. They were just two guys working for the Beggars Banquet record store, but their idea was this: Beggars Banquet -- a larger label based in Earls Court, UK -- needed testing grounds for new bands looking for distribution. Watts-Russell and Kent could bring on upcoming acts, and if they proved successful, they would switch over to Beggars Banquet. Apparently, Beggars liked the idea. They gave the two the money they needed to start Axis Records. In 1980, Axis realized that the name was already in use, and in an instantaneous need for a new name, the two picked 4AD almost out of thin air (shortened from 1984 AD, despite the year being 1980). As it turns out, the “graduation” idea was short lived, as Watts-Russell and Kent bought out Beggars Banquet the same year, though they still gained funding from the larger Beggars Group organization.

From the get go, 4AD became a home for goth and cult post-punk acts that weren’t gaining much recognition elsewhere. 1980 saw Bauhaus release the “Dark Entries” single and In A Flat Field. In 1981, The Birthday Party released their breakthrough album Prayers On Fire. In 1982, Cocteau Twins released Garlands. But 4AD wasn’t all dark. Modern English was on board since 1979, and along with Ramu-Ramu (some of whose members ended up in The Wolfgang Press), 4AD had a good lineup going when new wave began to take off. Wanting to give some sense of continuity to the label’s releases, Watts-Russell hired designer Vaughn Oliver (credited as 23 Envelope) to design art for some of 4AD’s records. Oliver is responsible for most of the art on early 1980s Cocteau Twins records and those from Dead Can Dance. 1986 marked 4AD’s first American band release with the Throwing Muses debut album. In 1987, Pixies released their timeless EP Come On Pilgrim. Throughout the late 1980s, more and more underground American rock acts came to 4AD to find a home, resulting in an expansion of the label to an office in Los Angeles.

Since the late 1990s, 4AD has been run completely by Beggars Group, but they still have a phenomenal roster of American and British acts, as well as a handful of Canadian artists. They remain a fantastic example of how those with a DIY spirit can create much out of very little.

Here’s a list of some of 4AD’s best, as well as some from their current artists:

  • In A Flat Field - Bauhaus (1980)
  • After The Snow - Modern English (1982)
  • Treasure - Cocteau Twins (1984)
  • It’ll End In Tears - This Mortal Coil (1984)
  • Surfer Rosa - Pixies (1988)
  • Last Splash - The Breeders (1993)
  • Split - Lush (1994)
  • Misery Is A Butterfly - Blonde Redhead (2004)
  • Halcyon Digest - Deerhunter (2010)
  • Strange Mercy - St. Vincent (2011)
  • Visions - Grimes (2012)

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