Touring Lindsay Todds ‘man shed’ via video call, DJB got to have a conversation with the elusive, green fingered and (feathered) bird obsessed master behind Firecracker Recordings, designer behind House Of Traps, and owner of the incredible The Living Mountain record shop in Edinburgh. He describes his label as a home to oddball House and Techno, his sleeves are limited edition gems of artistic exploration into the visual side of music and his shop is a collection of all his passions, making it a go-to destination for anyone looking for the avante-garde, obscure and electronic.
DJB: You’ve been running Firecracker recordings for 11 years …why did you start?
LT: In 2003 Nick Linkwood moved into my apartment, and asked if he could move his studio into my bedroom. I was studying studio engineering at the time and said yes, not knowing really what it would entail and that I would end up sleeping in a hum of amps and samplers. I remembering him telling me I couldn’t turn anything off as the drivers weren’t backed-up. We subsequently spent the whole of the summer working on tracks, which culminated in the first EP.
DJB: So how did you come up with the visual design ethos of the label? Did you have a long-term vision or goal?
LT: I wasn’t officially a designer back then – I was funding the project and creatively in charge but Tim, Nick’s brother, was the graphic designer. We had been running through ideas but none were working, till Tim mentioned he had some old Marvel comics, and that was when I saw an image and went “that’s it!”. So Tim put the design together for the first and second one, we worked together on the third and then by the fourth I did. Then in 2007 I got my own printing press and that was it – I decided to do it all myself and became the visual designer for the label.
DJB: How did you get into screen-printing?
LT: In college I did a module based on screen-printing. It was more intense then as it was oil based and we had to do big wash downs with chemicals. It was basically messier and more labour intensive and in 2007 I had to relearn it all.
DJB: What then made you buy screen-printing apparatus then, after running the label for a while?
LT: I decided that I would like to do something a bit more hand made. But I didn’t put two and two together with the screen-printing till a friend who had a studio space and a screen printing press and unbelievably had all the stuff to go with it. He didn’t really use it that much, but he was a fantastic experimental screen printer and he’d print with mold spores and metal; pushing the limits of what could be done. He left for three weeks and let me use the set up and I then spent ages tearing my hair out and just learning. The first screen-printed cover we did was 1500 copies and it took me forever, but there is something about my self-punishment work ethic that this really appealed to.
DJB: How did this work out for you cost wise? Was this cost effective for you to put the time and effort in yourself?
LT: If it wasn’t I wouldn’t be here chatting to you now. But I’m not about to have a speedboat and an inflatable banana down in the River Forth anytime soon.
DJB: Maybe we can post you a little one!
LT: Then I will have made it.
DJB: There is such a cross section of styles and designs on your website, what is your method if you have one?
LT: I have to be the first to admit that I am completely impulsive and everything I do is done by the seat of my pants. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t connect to the thing I’ve done before. As a start point I often commit by buying some new ink or wood I want to try, and then have to work backwards to an idea. So it’s more spontaneous. I’m impatient, impulsive and I need to work fast. The way I’ve steered the label and the music is the way the art has come about. When you don’t have a style or are predictable in what you do or what is expected then people stay a little more interested. It gives a little bit more depth through confusion, if that makes sense?
DJB: It does, though I think there is a more succinct way of putting it?
LT: Perhaps unnovations in design?
DJB: How many releases do you do a year?
LT: I think about 12-15 a year, which I hand print myself. I have several labels, Unthank, Firecracker and Sacred Summits (run with Stuart Leath). Then I used to do Shevchenko, but it seemed ridiculous to have four labels.
DJB: So why did you stop Shevchenko?
LT: I started it initially because the Ukrainian artist Vakula was making so much stuff that I specifically set up the label for him, which I named after the Ukrainian poet. And though I then brought on a couple of other artists to Shevchenko, Vakula slowed down in his productions. I was very fond of the label but in hindsight it wasn’t creative enough, for me. It was a rubber stamp on a white label on a clear record.
DJB: Now you have three labels, and you produce more than one a month – and you do pretty much everything yourself. The design, the printing, the selling – You are looking at me confused! Are you waiting for the question?
LT: No – I am thinking when I hear that back that I am an absolute idiot. I need to delegate. Next month I am running a workshop in Mannheim, Djing and having a record stall – and then there is the mail order and the shop… so there is a lot to organize.
DJB: Delegation could be the key to your future happiness.
LT: That, and an inflatable banana….
DJB: Do you think that the three labels you are running as visually different in your eyes?
LT: No – They all feed into each other. When I started each of them, I thought they would have their own identity. However, I can become very bored, very fast, when I feel that something is becoming homogeneous or generic. If I feel something is becoming homogeneous then I stop which is really what happened with Shevchenko. With Firecracker and the others I can kind of do anything I want – which I guess is about opening up parameters.
DJB: Is the defining aspect of the labels then the music rather than the visual element?
LT: No, it’s a bit of both. Especially with Firecracker. The path that I’ve taken with the music has had a few twists and turns. The common thread has always been House and techno (albeit not the conventional strain), but now we’ve just worked with the forestry commission where we’ve been recording in Iron age forts, burial sites and cup and ring marks, which has created a mixture of folk music and electronic. Hopefully people will still keep paying attention even though it’s gone away from the old path.
DJB: How do you define your label then?
LT: let me check twitter, I always forget! ‘Edinburgh based label specialising in oddball house, techno and electronics. Collectable editions made by hand since 2004.’
DJB: And do you consider yourself to be a graphic designer or an artist, if there is a clear separation?
LT:I am a chancer in both. The music is always the starting point as it always comes first before the design. Because I work absolutely to the wire with deadlines, the music is often mastered and on Soundcloud before I get round to dealing with the design and the product, much to the frustration of the artists I’m working with.
DJB: One of the interesting things is the digital aspect of the design – a lot of designers nowadays only see their work as a thumbnail. You seem to not have that issue apart from the images that are on your website.
LT: I have quite the opposite. The digital side of things is a negligible part of what I do. Assembling, packing or stamping records takes up 90% of my time if not more. The computer is only used for maybe touching up an image… I work on paper to start with and then scan and in very basically in Bitmap mode in Photoshop and then I will edit and do tiny touch ups if needed. Then I get my acetate printed first, then edit that by hand and it then it goes onto the silk screen. Then really the artistic process is matching colors and doing variations and seeing how colors sit on top of each other.
DJB: So you never think how is this going to look as a thumbnail?
LT: No – I completely wing it.
DJB: So, do you ever think about your sleeves your art is in peoples homes?
LT: Recently yes. Because of the way people come into the shop and I’ve started doing prints as well, so the prints are an indicator to me that people do want to display this stuff, where as before it was kind of unknown to me. You put things out there and occasionally people send me pictures of all our art and graphic stuff laid out on their bed, a little like readers wives. And I find that very humbling that some one takes so much effort and has their firecracker section in the house.
DJB: There is no convention in the way that you work; you don’t have the artists name center stage on the record, or a lot of typography if any on your sleeves. Was this a conscious decision?
LT: When I am forced to, I will put typography on them. I keep thinking I should sit down and figure out some typefaces to use, but I have a problem with repetition. Me and type don’t really have a great relationship and I find it difficult finding a font that won’t look dated in 10 years time. And that is part of the process for me as well. How’s it going to date? I have cold sweats about records appearing in bargain bins. Looking back at the 90’s and the early 2000’s it was a bad time for design and people were using a template for labels that was really dull and boring and I ran the other way to get away from that and maybe over compensated… And I hate barcodes, it’s a hassle the way you have to conform to distributers and meta data and we aren’t really about digital sales. That aspect is always an after thought, the best format is in vinyl.
Firstly a lot of my favorite labels from the past were esoteric or the design process was damaged or flawed. For example Arthur Russell and Sleeping Bag Records, and a lot of the alias he used to use.
Secondly, there are little clues hidden in my sleeves that are either a nod to an idea I have for another sleeve, or one in the past. And hopefully people can sit down with my records in an evening and piece together the puzzle. There is a lot more depth and story than it just being a record sleeve.
DJB: You said at the beginning that there is an unpredictability of your work and an ‘undesign’, but then you say you like to leave clues, about new covers?
LT: Maybe there is a clue, or maybe not – I can’t have any sensible system of clue-leaving going on!
There are so many things in this day and age that is predictable, especially working within dance music, it can be so predictable, so bland, including the way one becomes a DJ - so if you can break that mold it’s so much more interesting, but that’s just me. Other people get kicks get their kicks out of barcodes, but I need chaos and things to be a little bit more unorganized.
DJB: I’m just looking at some of your work here – and one of the sleeves I find most interesting is the one you’ve done for Jeff Keen.
LT: That was a collaboration with Jonny Trunk and Jeff Keen’s daughter – the artwork is from his sketch books and Jonny Trunk had the idea to do the colours, so we started off with one color; blue and produced a 100 sleeves in each five colors. When we did a new cover it corresponded with the splatters in the record. So – we started of with blue and there would be blue splatters for the first hundred and a blue sleeve, then the next was red, and you would get the blue and red splatters on the records and a red sleeve, and then the orange sleeve with blue, red and orange splatters… and so on, which is an insane way to make a record but it really appealed to me.
DJB; And here you used type….
LT. It was from the Jeff Keens sketch book as well.
DJB: If you had to pick a couple of records that you are really proud off which ones would it be?
LT: The Sun Ra is obviously my favorite – there are two on my site, but the gold one. It was a triple album. That was a massive project – it was working with Gerald Short at Jazzman and gently persuading him that this was the way to go. I had moved down from Edinburgh to West London in 2009 and I had to sell all my screen printing stuff. I asked Gerald who I was working for doing mail order stuff to let me build a mezzanine floor in his studio. The deal was that I paid for the materials and build, and he would let me have the space cheap and I would be installed in his space doing nice print things and being artistic, which worked well and was the start of a good relationship. The gold Sun Ra one was the first project we printed, and then the silver one. I feel that was one of my most realized projects. The silver one was a see through record and a glow-in-the-dark slip-cover.
The second one would again be for Jazz Man - the triangular one. A complete ball ache to design, we had to design the sleeve with the company that made the sleeves. I decided to make it easy by doing it as a geometric repeating pattern. But it looked amazing when it was finished and I had a friend that did the Arabic writing. It was completely over the top!
DJB: Do you ever insert information, if you refuse to have text on the sleeve?
LT: Yes – the latest linkwood one has an insert.
DJB: Do any of the artists you are working with ever hate the art work?
LT: No – because usually there is already a relationship there based on a mutual respect from me to them musically and from them to me artistically. I get approached but it’s important for me to be musically exploring all the time so I can’t sit around waiting for the phone to ring. I am a massive vinyl fiend and I’m always trying to find new and interesting stuff – and when I am in this process it generally leads to discovering new artists. I am in a convenient position now where I don’t really need to explain what the labels are – Also, if we are musically in the same place then we are usually artistically in the same place as well.
DJB: Are you given free rein then?
LT: Usually. I do consult with the artists and spend time with the music so it can be married with the art work.
DJB: So your work attracts the unconventional
LT: Yes – it’s a calling card. It’s a trap.
DJB: Are there any design rules you follow?
LT: Yes – get as far away from the bed as possible in the morning.