As Northern Irelands leading record label goes through a period of significant change Getintothis’ Chris Flack reflects on a label of love and the legacy of its creator, Lyndon Stephens.
At one of our editors’ meetings, as we talked about kicking some energy back into our Labels of Love column, I spent some time trying to decide if any of our readers would care much about a record label based in Belfast.
I always wondered if there would be room for a story about a scrappy little company from the city and if there would be an interest in its output or fortunes, as all will become clear, the decision made itself.
It’s always events, dear boy, always events.
I first met Lyndon Stephens sometime in the mid-’90s, I didn’t know him particularly well, he was just a bloke in a shop that had a remarkable range of clothes and music, a shop that I happened to frequent.
Every trip into BLT was an education, you learned about the clothes, who made them, where, why, you learned about new music and on each visit, you left with a new record, some threads and a fistful of flyers for whatever night or gig this lad was flogging.
He was very rarely wrong.
Lyndon was ever-present, always on the radar and always, always running some new scheme or plotting some fanciful concept. He took the time to speak to everyone, regardless of where he was or what he was doing, even me, an odd kid from the country; if he was walking through town with the cool kids he made everyone stop to say hello.
As the parlance goes at home, he never passed ya, we met properly around the time a few of us had been hoodwinked into helping bring life to a ridiculous idea for a new music space in Belfast.
A disused, drafty place on a street most people avoided after dark would become home to a centre for music and change a few lives, it could be argued that place helped change my life and that of Mr Stephens too.
That space became the OhYeah Music Centre and Lyndon would be one of it’s earliest tenants, as one of his hairbrained plans needed a home, one that didn’t cost the earth and might connect him with music heads.
As an idea, it was ballsy, outrageous and down to whatever ridiculous ideas had been knocking around Lyndon Stephens‘ head, but to give you some perspective it is perhaps fitting to give you a quick history lesson.
Lyndon went to the University of Ulster in Coleraine, a place that sits between three towns near the coast, it is a dystopian vision of education bathed concrete and brutalism, all rugby cliques and not a lot of community.
Most students didn’t live on campus, they bus in and out from surrounding towns, being shuffled out of their rented pads in time for the summer holidayers and caravaners, they spent as little time near it as possible.
On leaving university, it seems that Lyndon tried his level best to change his place, he ended up working on an early incarnation of Red Or Dead with Wayne Hemmingway in Camden Market, he found himself being sucked into the coolest club nights and mysterious warehouses around the M25.
Around the start of the ’90s Lyndon found himself back in Belfast at about the same time that one young lad called David Holmes was talking people like the Dust Brothers into coming to Belfast to play his club night in the Art College, the infamous Sugarsweet.
We can only guess Holmes spent most of his time pleading with them to ignore bombs and the bullets on the promise of little more than the spare room in his mothers’ house and a home-cooked fry on a Sunday morning.
In a world of prohibitive Protestantism, paltry parties, punishing politics and fishy pharmaceuticals, Lyndon opened a clothing store called BLT in the little-used Rosses Court in Belfast, which is where I first met him.
BLT flogged Carhartt, Stüssy and cool clothes from the spots we were watching, brands from Manchester, London, Red Or Dead sneaked the odd piece in; Lyndon could get it and knew there was a market for it.
The T-Shirt that first introduced me to Lyndon was made by a brand called 40 Acres and a Mule, a name that I’d never heard of before but one that came from a name I did know; if you ever wanted to know about Spike Lees clothing line, Lyndon Stephens was your man.
If memory serves me well it took half an hour to buy that shirt, his energy, knowledge and passion for his place were infectious and I will always remember the way his laugh reverberated around the store.
He, not unsurprisingly perhaps, ended up running his own club night, bringing hip hop artists from far and wide and filling floors with kids who were sick of the torture and troubles coming through the tube every morning.
It was through the shop and his Beat Suite club night that he ended up working with Stüssy on branding and influencing, long before Instagram, this was word of mouth stuff and having the guts to try and pull it off.
He ended up working with Red Bull on PR and eventually running events, though one can only guess he talked himself into a role that he perhaps didn’t have the CV for. His Red Bull days saw him traverse Europe, watching cities like Berlin attract young people to its streets and it was that vision that brought him back to Belfast.
The contracts and contacts he had built up focussed his attention on what you could do in a city that had its troubles. That energy came to a head when a rabble of reprobates took on a three-storey building in a decidedly unattractive back street in the city with a harebrained idea to do something for music.
That harebrained idea was based on a form of attack that involved taking on the world, being as big as anywhere else, challenging the status quo and doing something different.
It attracted a newly revived and recently arrived Lyndon and his idea for a music management company, it was 2008 and there was immense energy in the city that was contagious.
“Local” bands were attracting thousands of kids into basements and up mountains for festivals and shows, one gig, in particular, a weekend called A Little Solidarity that was laid on by ASIWYFA, filled three floors of Queens University Students Union for three days with thousands of kids who had bussed in from all over the country to see a line up of dozens of bands, hear talks, share music and take it all in.
That they were doing it themselves without the help of corporate sponsors or government agencies was noted fairly early on, and it was that energy that Lyndon thought he could bring his little black book to.
Lyndon reckoned the only thing these kids needed was the right contacts; the music market was being torn asunder, Lyndon knew the insiders and the change-makers, the influencers and the influential, he reckoned he was the man to help these kids take on the giants, in his heart he knew they could make a success of it.
For Lyndon setting up in Belfast meant everything was cheaper, office costs were all but non-existent in Ohyeah; recording, design, PR and production were close at hand and cheaper, you could take all that and make a coherent product of it, a product people would part with cash for, and you could pay the bills doing it.
Lyndons first thought was that all these kids needed was his phone book, he could be the man to put it all together, make everything tick. It worked, it became Champion Sound Music. Lyndon managed bands and artists, flogged the phone book until it was begging for mercy, he’d support anyone if their sound worked.
There was no hierarchy, everything and anything was welcome, dance, trance, folk, rock, metal, madness and even some stuff none of us had heard before, every noise that made his pulse quicken was in as long as there was a work ethic and you could answer one question that was asked of everyone that crossed his door.
What makes you so special?
Champion Sound Music begat Quiet Arch records, Lyndon figured he could do all of it, be the manager and the label, and with this many years under his belt in the game, who were we to argue?
The roster at Quiet Arch records is something to behold. Ryan Vail was the first signing, co-authoring the Quiet Arch ethos, joining him was Ciaran Lavery, Joshua Burnside, Malojian, Pat Dam Smyth, Beauty Sleep, and recently Cherrym, the projects that emanate from Quiet Arch are arguably the most exciting things Ireland produced in a very long time.
Quiet Arch records have produced three of the last four winners of the Northern Ireland Music Prize. Ryan Vail and Elma Orkestra won it with Borders this year, Joshua Burnside won it in 2017 with Ephrata and Ciaran Lavery won it with Let Bad In in 2016, it is a remarkable achievement for one small label.
Quiet Arch artists have stacked up millions of plays across the world, they have toured just about everywhere, stunning everyone in every room they walk into.
The artists on the label know that theirs is a relationship built on trust, and love, and passion, and an utter belief in what they all do; every decision made is based on how the artists will be treated, on how they will be presented and represented, and on the value of that interaction.
Every decision Lyndon made was based on how he thought you would treat the artists, on how he thought the relationship would work and if he could trust you, there was a lot built on trust.
Many moons ago I rang him on behalf of a festival I was helping out with in the city. Now, their version of the story might be different but the truth is important, it was certainly to Lyndon at any rate, as his wife Lisa states often, Lyndon never dealt in bullshit, not once.
I rang him as I was scratching around for shows and artists that could play this festival, I was digging around contacts I have around Ireland trying to get a sense of who would travel over for a festival they’d never heard of, asking a lot of people to trust me, to take my word for it.
I had an idea that Ciaran Lavery would be a good fit, I was a fan and Ciaran was making waves on Spotify and playlists all over the place, before I put anyone’s name in a hat for anything I’m involved in I contact them, a simple courtesy. I check if it works, see how it feels, give them a heads up, see if it’s okay.
I rang Lyndon, I told him about the festival and my thoughts on what Mr Lavery could do and I asked if he thought it might work in some far off distant planet, hopeful, praying that it would.
There was an uncomfortable, awkward silence.
Now, Lyndon knew me, he was a talker, he was famous for it, we’d known each other a long time and I’d never had uncomfortable awkward silences. When I first stumbled across him at the music centre he remembered me from the shop days, he remembered the details, we talked about flowery shirts, about Road Jeans, Madchester, Beat Suite, Vicos club nights, the Art College, my love of corduroy flares and days gone by.
We talked at length every time we met, we worked shows together, I DJ’d for him a couple of times and helped him promote artists, flogged gigs, chipped in on all manner of schemes, Lyndon was a talker who was famous for his gift of the gab, famous for his sell.
An awkward, uncomfortable silence was new. An awkward, uncomfortable silence was a little weird.
The silence was broken by the words “I’m going to send you an email, call me back in twenty minutes” and with that, he was gone. Shuffle. Click. Beeeeeeeeeeeeep… Silence.
I waited with bated breath and an entirely untrustworthy broadband connection, what appeared in my email was just 19 minutes long and sounded like it was recorded on an iPhone. In conversations since with Lyndon, Ryan and Ciaran, I have discovered parts of it probably were.
What arrived was Sea Legs.
I’d never heard anything like it. Crashing waves gave way to piano, electronics, bips and bleeps, heart-wrenching guitar, haunting lyrics and a heart and soul that I’d just never heard before, I rang him straight back.
This project, this mythical, strange beauty, this Sea Legs, was a collaboration between Ciaran Lavery and Ryan Vail, the latter of which I had barely heard of, and two artists who couldn’t be any more different.
It seemed I could get Ciaran but this other bloke would have to be part of the deal, which, in anyone’s book, isn’t a bad deal; I’ve since discovered that Ryan was as unimpressed with Ciaran‘s approach as I was with his inclusion in the initial discussions.
Though I needn’t have concerned myself.
Early conversations suggested that Sea Legs wasn’t really meant to be played live and at that stage, they weren’t even sure if it could be, there was too much involved, the architecture wasn’t there, metaphorically or physically, in so far as they didn’t know how they could get the two of them to play everything required without the aid of a structural engineer, a scaffolding firm and an electronics whizz.
They ended up opening the festival with it, one of only three times the record was played live in its entirety and it was simply sublime, unlike anything I’ve heard. And therein lies the skill of Lyndon Stephens.
He could take two artists from either end of the spectrum and get them to experiment with new sounds, with Sea Legs he had Ryan walk along the Donegal Coast recording the sounds of the sea, swearing fishermen, noises in ports and on small boats.
In another, more recent experiment, he had Ryan Vail work with Eoin O’Callaghan to make a record called Borders. It is an exploration of the border in Ireland and an issue that for a long time looked like it had all been quietly settled but is being forced into the consciousness again with Brexit.
Borders has been toured and played across the world.
I got to see Ryan Vail and Eoin O’Callaghan perform Borders live a week or so ago in Belfast.
Lyndon had been unwell of late, he was diagnosed with cancer in 2017 and fought a battle the likes of which none of us had ever seen. He changed everything about his life and for a while, it looked like he was beating it.
Through radiation therapy, an extreme health kick, extraordinary charity bike rides and the fight of his life he still managed to create spellbinding music, to care for artists in a way few can and create crucial conversations.
He looked after his kith and kin, he looked after his friends, his family, his colleagues and compatriots, he looked after his label, his artists and he did it all with the banter he was famous for.
Lyndon Stephens sadly passed away on the 10th of January, on the day of the show that was to celebrate the label he was stepping away from for a while so he could concentrate on his health.
I had talked to my other half about going to it a week or so earlier, figured it was too rich for my blood for just one night, besides, I’d see Lyndon soon enough. When the texts and calls started coming through I immediately booked a flight, I knew I couldn’t make his funeral but I could spend some time with friends and celebrate Quiet Arch records and say farewell to a friend who gave so much of himself to his craft.
The show became of wake of sorts, each artist performed in ways that were unreal, almost unimaginable, Laytha, Malojian, Ciaran Lavery, Joshua Burnside, Ryan Vail and Eoin O’Callaghan played impassioned sets that highlighted how diverse a record label Quiet Arch is and just how much it can offer.
But here is the thing, just hours after you hear of the death of a friend you get on a stage in a packed room, on a night for a label he created, and play with every fibre of your being. There is nowhere to hide. To me, that is true comradeship, true friendship, love.
The night ended with Borders, a record that as far as crowning glories go is almost unsurpassable, an audiovisual experience that stretches the mind and soothes the soul, as an end and as a way to remember Lyndon, a man who had a huge impact on the city he loved, was both inspirational and heartbreaking.
It was a beautiful night spent in a room full of artists and friends, many of whom rushed to Belfast on the news of his passing, who shared their stories, hugs, tears and tales.
I went along filled with trepidation about how difficult it would be to say goodbye to a friend and came away inspired by his energy, energised by the strength of his wife Lisa, of his children, buoyed by the determination of his friends and family to celebrate a legacy that will live on.
If I didn’t know any better I would almost say he planned everything in advance, if you’re going to go out, why not go on a day when your family and every friend in the city and beyond have an excuse to gather together and enjoy the fruits of your labour, be together over whiskeys and share stories.
It would be a very Lyndon thing to do.
A sign of someone’s ability to change his space is what people say behind your back, or after you’re gone.
Artists Lyndon didn’t work with or those he couldn’t work with spoke eloquently about his energy and his verve, there were unrepeatable jokes, quite a few of those jokes you know have an element of truth about a man, a grafter, a chancer, who would have taken every gamble in the book and come back for seconds.
The one line that came up, again and again, was “He didn’t owe me anything, but…” and that sums Lyndon up almost perfectly. He didn’t owe you anything but if he had time he’d move heaven and earth to help, open his phone book, do everything he could if you could answer that age-old question.
What makes you so special?
Before Christmas Lyndon spent some time in a hospice, fighting a battle he would heartbreakingly lose, and yet from that bed, he managed to get married and get out to see Fontaines DC, he didn’t allow medical apparatus or his physicality to get in the way, he was desperate to see a band that he loved, to see a band that he raved about during our last conversation, a band he probably wished he’d signed.
While he was in the hospice he was still listening to snippets of songs, still texting his artists, still on the phone, wheeling and dealing, making sure that his family and business were taken care of, that when the inevitable came he would go out with a party of his planning and that people wouldn’t have much to do.
He was working to ensure that his artists were taken care of and by all accounts still coming up with fanciful ideas, from what I hear he was still saying his most famous of lines that started every crazy tale…
“Here, I have an idea, what if we…”