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The Welshman who brought us Seasick Steve

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Bethan Elfyn Bethan Elfyn | 08:27 UK time, Friday, 6 July 2012

Sometimes it's quite surprising where you'll meet a fellow Welshman in a distant part of the world.

I was in the heart of Texas at South By Southwest (SXSW) festival when I first met Andy Zammit from Bronzerat Records, a one man operation that managed to land a few punches when he signed and made a success of Seasick Steve in the UK.

His life and story need to be told, so I caught up with him a few weeks after SXSW.

Andy Zammit

Andy Zammit

Andy was born in Carmarthen and raised in Llanelli, in a musical environment. "I grew up with rock music around me," he says. "My father was and is a big fan of the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Steely Dan and Led Zeppelin.

"He had a big vinyl collection which I was allowed access to from the age of four. He took me to see Man when I was nine, and Pink Floyd when I was 11."

Merely listening to record wasn't enough, though: "I made my own drum kit out of bits and bobs, so my parents worked out that was where I was heading. I was gigging by the age of 13 in a variety of 'function' bands, and was sitting in with thrash metal bands and U2 cover bands: the usual local fare around that time."

After his grounding in what Carmarthenshire had to offer the budding musician, Andy moved to London, playing with musicians there, and developing a knowledge of the music business.

"I tour managed many national and international circuit acts as my main income," he explains. "I accidentally learned a lot about the industry side from this, as well as from a couple of years in the Performing Right Society (PRS), and from being a musician on the other side.

"I was accumulating this knowledge/understanding without realizing it. I always had this glimmer of an idea to have a label, but as a bit of fun rather than with some business model."

As with many label start-ups, it came from a desire to help artists he liked, but who seemed not to be having the luck that's essential in climbing the musical career ladder: "I was seeing so many of my favourite musicians and artists struggling to find an outlet. I was seeing all this faddy scenester/hipster music coming out from the UK with a lot of label support and marketing behind it.

"They were bands that had this public schoolboy-cum-London-street-urchin image and whose musical ability was, to be frank, offensive to me. I was angry and so the label was borne of that, in 2006 to be precise."

Seasick Steve

Seasick Steve

In those early days Andy had the type of break that's incredibly rare. "I got lucky. I'd become mates with Seasick Steve, and he was struggling to get anyone to give him an outlet, so we partnered up for his Dog House Music album. It was all chaos and determination, but people loved him, and next thing you know, I was in the deep end."

Having had that kind of success with his first venture, he has continued to link with some major and up-and-coming names: "I've just signed The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion for their comeback album, which is very exciting.

"My long time collaborator Gemma Ray has been on the label since day one. I also work with Dutch experimentalist Elisabeth Esselink aka Solex, London brother/sister duo Joe Gideon And The Shark and Jon Spencer's other band Heavy Trash.

"Alumni of the label include Congregation, Seasick Steve, Chicano and To Arms. On the label side, I keep it slim."

Running the label isn't easy, so what's been the most unexpected thing about running a record label? "It's so admin-heavy," he says. "The creative part, which is what I'm about, can easily get buried under the bureaucracy involved.

"I didn't have any expectations, but when things became legit, I had no business training. I had to really juggle new struggles, and I wasn't prepared to have to find staff, which is very hard to get right, at least the first time around. It took years off me!

"But you know, I've kept it small and flexible. I don't put out loads of records. It's a big responsibility so I just concentrate on a couple of things at a time, and for a long run. For better or worse.

"I was starting when lots of people were shutting down, so I don't feel that mourning that a lot of the industry is feeling. The label is not the be-all-and-end-all; I have different hats on at any given moment (musician, manager, booker, label, 'sync' agent), so it's all holistic and adaptable. I've never understood how such a gamble-based industry can prop up so many different job titles."

Despite his time working for the PRS, he professes to be confused by royalty collection societies and their ilk: "I still don't know how the industry really works. All these societies and associations and institutes we're supposed to be a part of. It mystifies me. I've been doing the outside dance the whole time.

And about social media: "These days, I'm dismayed by the way the world has become obsessed by Facebook and Twitter, and how everyone is consuming and spitting out so fast that it's hard to get anything to stick. I am a bit old-fashioned and I'm worried that we are paving the way for generations of cyborgs."

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

I've seen Andy out and about at festivals around the world, like SXSW, but he doesn't class his globetrotting as 'scouting' as such. "You know, I'm not really scouting. Anything and everything I've worked with has happened organically or serendipitously. When you see me there, it's usually to support my own.

"I've done a hell of a lot of traveling since 2006, and it's constant, by choice, otherwise I'd essentially be doing a desk job. I go to the US a lot; to Australia every year; SXSW most years; Canada... all European countries constantly. Even South Africa has entered into the equation. I spend a lot of the year in Berlin these days."

He's not solely working with Bronze Rat these days, either, as his business expands. "The label is the fall guy almost, or sometimes a shopfront for the holistic approach," he explains. "I manage Australian artist CW Stoneking, which kept me busy in 2011, and I'm back in Gemma Ray's band, having co-produced her new album.

"I have been working on this pseudo-'library music' idea for a while, called Series Aphonos. Not library music in the strict sense, but the presentation of it is gonna be that way. It's an outlet for extremely left of centre musical projects. I have the first and second lined up. The first is Solex, who travelled the Netherlands on a canal boat and made 30 minutes of spontaneous music with over 40 musicians from all different provinces. That will come out, with a DVD. It's lovely and called Solex Ahoy: The Sound Map of the Netherlands.

"The second is a mostly instrumental album by Gemma Ray, an album of fantasy soundtracks. It's really special and the drummer is Thomas Wydler of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, who is one of my favourite drummers of all time."

Astonishing passion for music marks out Andy Zammit as someone who's able to keep control of those disparate aspects of his work; he's one Welshman who's pushing a whole range of boundaries.

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