Label of the Month: Lobster Theremin
Label of the Month: Lobster ThereminJanuary 14, 2020
For our first label of the month, Ben Murphy hears the history behind one of the UK’s most influential modern imprints, Lobster Theremin.
On an overcast day in Hackney, east London in December, we’re sitting in the bustling open-plan interior of Mare Street Market. Festooned with lush green plants and decorated with low-hanging lamps, it’s a vast space filled with café-restaurants, bars, and shops. A hubbub of conversation blurs into the background, as Jimmy Asquith, DJ, producer and founder of the Lobster Theremin label, sips coffee and talks about where the imprint’s distinctive hand-drawn logo came from. “It was probably the first thing I’d drawn since I was about 10, so it looks a bit childish,” Asquith says. “I drew it to show my girlfriend at the time, who is a designer. I was like, ‘If you can draw me something like this, that would be great’, and she said, ‘You really just need to use this’. At the time, there were loads of labels that were really cleanly designed, but I wanted to do something that was a bit more like an indie.”
The simple but eye-catching image of a cartoon crustacean, being ‘played’ by hand like a theremin (an early electronic instrument used by Portishead, among many others), says a lot about the ethos of Jimmy Asquith and his label as a whole. Homespun charm and a DIY attitude, assisted by a tight-knit community of associated artists and DJs, have helped make this imprint a highly influential bastion of underground dance music. Releasing records by wide-ranging acts like Palms Trax, Andy Garvey, Ross From Friends, Privacy, DJ Seinfeld, and Maruwa, Lobster Theremin has become a reliable source of imaginative and devastatingly effective club material, as well as a more esoteric home listening gems.
Bolstered by a host of sub-labels, including Sleep Sequences, Lobster White, Lobster Black, Distant Hawaii, and many more, Lobster Theremin has helped foster a global network of artists and micro-communities across Europe, the US and Australia. And although it was once associated with a certain kind of gauzy, heavy-lidded house, Lobster’s claws have clutched everything from Denmark’s fast techno movement to raw jungle and hallucinogenic electro, and even mind-expanding ambient.
In operation since 2013, today Lobster Theremin is not just a label, but also acts as a distribution company for other imprints (disclosure: I have two labels distributed by Lobster myself), a shop, and a company employing a growing number of staff. The Lobster Records shop is on nearby Sidworth Street. On top of functioning as its base of operations, the space itself boasts a well-appointed selection of records, cassettes, and merchandise, with listening decks and a sofa down one side. Stylish in an understated way — a little like Lobster’s sleeve designs, perhaps — the shop will be online soon, pending further developments in 2020.
Wearing a sober-hued Carhartt shirt, a light beard, and an affable grin, Asquith is friendly and open — only too keen to take a look back through his label’s history. Born and raised in Brighouse, West Yorkshire, not far from the larger conurbations of Halifax and Huddersfield, Asquith appreciated music from an early age, latching onto rock albums by The Cars and Pink Floyd that his dad would play in his red Astra van. In his teens, he began forming his own musical identity, partly inspired by a nearby club, where a door connected a grunge venue with a commercial dance spot. One ticket provided entry to both, with unpredictable results.
“We used to go to this place in Halifax where you could get in to drink, even when you were 14,” he says. “You had all these pilled-up lads in Fred Perry shirts who were into trance, then you had all these grungers. It was total mayhem, but so fun.”
While studying at Newcastle University, Asquith’s ears gradually opened to more electronic music. He moved away from the indie stuff he’d been into and started listening to the crossover blog house and “new rave” of the time, typified by Ed Banger Records, before subterranean sounds came into the picture.
“The first time I came to London was to go to Trash on a Monday to see Erol Alkan DJ,” Asquith says. “He played Arcade Fire and acid house next to each other, and I was like, ‘This is amazing, the best thing I’ve been to’. As I was at uni I got more into different strains of techno, that era of minimal house, very early 8-Bit Records. Nick Curly, Johnny D’ Orbitalife’.”
He began DJing, and started running club nights and booking people to play. The chance to be a music journalist brought him to London, where he moved to work on hipster style magazine SuperSuper as their music editor. “I was like, ‘Ok, so I’m not getting paid’, but I had 12 pages of print to edit.”
Asquith was eager to start a label of his own. And soon, the ideal opportunity presented itself. “Me and Jay Donaldson, who is Palms Trax, were very good friends for a number of years,” Asquith says. “One day we were just having beers at mine, and he played me these tracks. We were just playing random songs we liked, and this tune came on. I was like, ‘This is so good, what is this?’ And he said, ‘This is one of mine’. Over the next six weeks, he kept sending tracks, and we put together the first two releases.”
Palms Trax’s Equation EP was the first Lobster Theremin release, and immediately generated a groundswell of justified hype. The LinnDrum electro-funk rhythms and xenomorphic synths of “Late Jam,” colorful melodies and square wave bass of house cut “Equation,” and sunset hues of “Houses In Motion,” announced an extraordinary new dance producer. All eyes and ears were suddenly on Lobster, too, and Asquith began to set out his vision for a new UK label, inspired by some of the independent imprints he saw as pioneering.
“The biggest influence for me was L.I.E.S. Records, and labels like Trilogy Tapes, Firecracker, Workshop,” Asquith says. “What I loved about them was that they often pushed artists I’d never heard of, instead of picking people who were predictable. I always felt there was room for a new label like that, that was similar to L.I.E.S., where they were kicking out so many releases, properly digging through demos, and trying to find really good artists and give them a platform. That idea excited me.”
The label’s name was a comical take on luxurious French dish lobster thermidor, deriving from an amusing conversation Asquith had with one of his past DJ bookings, Deep Space Orchestra. In 2014, the imprint really kicked into gear, releasing a succession of rapturously received EPs, and the imprint began to develop a reputation for crunchy, raw and trippy electronic sounds. Hungarian musician Route 8’s Dry Thoughts EP made noise with the somnambulant sub-aqua chords and drum machine percussion of “Pacific Paradise.” Mysterious electro producer Privacy dropped the dusty and metallic Hypertext EP. And Australian artist Daze released the gritty, tape-saturated fuzz of the Lips EP, with gems like the thumping cosmic techno of “Drag Ball.” The latter was another enormous early hit for the label.
“I really love that Daze record — I knew it was going to be a good’un, but it just flew,” Asquith says. “Then I had all these people asking for promos and posting about it. I think Legowelt bought it off Bandcamp, and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ A lot more DJs seemed to notice us at that time, and it was really nice to hear people vocalize their excitement for a release. I felt like it really went off with that one.
“Within six months of that record coming out, Daze was on tour, and we were playing Panorama Bar. That was a total whirlwind. The booker from the club contacted me on Facebook to ask if we wanted to play, which was probably a sign of the times. It was totally nuts.”
Though Lobster quickly became a buy-on-sight label, at first, Asquith couldn’t find a record distributor. Despite a hot remix from Willie Burns on the Equation EP, three distributors wouldn’t take it. Again, Asquith decided to do it himself via a small shop in Hackney (Kristina Records), and when it worked out spectacularly well, he realized he could extend the idea to other labels, too. Lobster Distribution was born, becoming a cornerstone of the crustacean cabal. With this element in place, he was able to push other artists and labels he believed in, who were also doing things independently.
“I was like, ‘Actually, I’d like to extend the ethos to a distributor,'” he says. “Let’s find new labels and push those as well. I ended up announcing that and it exploded — we had 70 labels in the first week. Now we distribute around 300.” Lobster Distribution has been a lifeline for many artists, offering a leg up in an industry where it’s increasingly difficult to stand out.
“Lobster has done a lot to bring up new artists over the years, and has expanded to help distribute smaller labels too,” NYC-based Lobster Theremin artist Heidi Sabertooth says. “It seems to me that even though they are a bit bigger now in size, they have not forgotten their grassroots community mentality — that is important in this business.”
By 2016, Lobster Theremin was well established as a go-to name, pushing excellent upcoming producers such as Qnete and 1800HaightStreet. But it was one release in particular that sent the label stratospheric. Released in collaboration with another great imprint, Meda Fury, DJ Seinfeld’s Season 1 EP was not only an example of sublime, smoked-out 4/4, replete with disintegrated Chicago synth bass and filtered top end, but was also described, along with other records of the period, as “lo-fi house.” Both DJs and journalists used the term, sometimes in a pejorative way, to delineate a strain of house with a saturated sound at odds with the clean mix-downs evident elsewhere in dance music.
Irreverent R&B samples, overdriven drums, and an open-minded attitude to rhythmic structure were often features of the sub-genre, even if the people behind the tunes hadn’t engineered their songs that way. And with his tongue-in-cheek name, DJ Seinfeld was pigeonholed with artists like DJ Boring and Ross From Friends. While it generated plenty of hype for Lobster and popularity for DJ Seinfeld and others, not all the attention was positive. Asquith’s label was suddenly seen as the primary outlet for the style, though its output was far more varied than that limited appellation would allow.
Remembering the time, Asquith’s cheerful demeanor briefly clouds, and he waits for a moment before responding when asked how it affected Lobster to be labeled as the lo-fi label du jour.
“What’s funny is we got tagged as that, but I always felt it was out of our hands,” he says. “It’s kind of outside of our sphere because there’s so many different styles and types of music on the label. It became a reason to trash young people making what was essentially really fun crunchy house music. At the same time, it was a way for a certain number of artists to get heard, probably in a similar way to ‘future garage,’ if you remember that. I’m sure that a number of people who had that tag weren’t happy with it, originally. But if that gets you the attention, you can go on to craft your own vision. For us as a label, we had to persevere and ride it out. It’s nice to get attention, but it’s not particularly pleasant when people minimize your work and vision. You feel like you’re not being represented properly.”
Rather than a sound as such, the lo-fi idea was more about micro-communities of producers and DJs doing things for themselves without following the strict rules of the past.
“I think if there’s one thing that ties it all together, it would be an emphasis on a DIY attitude to music,” Lobster artist Shedbug says. “I think this is why Lobster at the beginning was pigeonholed as a lo-fi label, as well as a lot of artists making that sound at the time. There was definitely a bit of a ‘scene.’ But as you can see with the development of the label and those artists, what has stayed beyond that time is an attitude towards how records are made and sold, rather than any particular sound.”
To Asquith, this is what was important — a DIY aesthetic more concerned with passion and emotion than pristine perfection and public image.
“It felt like it grew out of a youth movement. These terms are important because they’re almost like a trend that people can latch onto. It’s a way of people finding something that’s unique to them and is accessible, not necessarily approved by people who are a bit older. It was really fun, accessible, and really free. People found it very empowering, an entry point into making music because it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, you didn’t EQ the kick drum like this.’ Instead, you can just smash this through a really easy mastering tool but it sounds great. Fuck it, it sounds good. The more clinical dance music community were a bit upset by that. It’s not like this sanitized thing. It’s as far away from a turtleneck and a ten grand pair of headphones as you’re ever gonna get. For me, I quite like that.”
In 2020, Lobster Theremin can’t be categorized. The outer limits of house and techno still form a significant part of its release schedule, yet it’s also home to kaleidoscopic breaks, lush ambient, icy electro, and many more musical mutations. Late last year, two examples of the label’s breadth were the sublime M1 bass and rolling breakbeat house of Maruwa’s “On My Mind,” and Bakground & Sangam’s gorgeous “90s Living” — a dispatch from ambient jungle heaven.
Even from the beginning, the label played fast and loose with genres (see tracks like Daze’s break-laden monster “Compton” from 2015, or the spooky IDM/drum & bass hybrid of Slacker’s 2017 tune “Amen To The Lonely“), but today, it releases a vast variety of sounds across not just Lobster Theremin, but sub-labels Lobster Sleep Sequence, Distant Hawaii, Lobster Theremin Black, Lobster White, UNDR, Mörk, There Is Love In You, and more. For Asquith, these mini imprints provide not just musical freedom, but a chance to excite the record buyer with different sounds, styles, and sleeve art.
“How many times can people get the same packaging?” Asquith says. “It’s important to have these sub-ideas to keep things interesting. At the same time, it’s not overbearing people with too many releases.”
Sleep Sequence was conceived as an outlet for ambient music, replete with a little sleeping lobster as its logo. And though it’s been slumbering for a while, Asquith says there are new releases on the horizon. Distant Hawaii, meanwhile, was initially an outlet for Hidden Spheres’ deep house sound, but has become Lobster’s house-focused imprint, encompassing various styles within the genre. Lobster Black is techno-driven, Mörk covers the dubbier end of the spectrum, and Lobster White has gradually moved towards jungle and other forms of breakbeat. “We’re even changing the sub-labels over time,” Asquith says.
Asquith believes Lobster’s artwork is vital to its appeal. He suggests that as necessary as the music is, the visual component encourages listeners to check it out in the first place. “The first thing we do is see a record, unless we hear it in a DJ set. Largely, we’re looking at an image, and if it grabs you… to excite people is what you want. Music fans are definitely owed that level of thought when it comes to engaging concepts — anyone is.”
To that end, the label works with a variety of designers, who each bring a singular optical flair to the covers. There’s Cecilia Martinez, aka cm-dp, whose work graced the sleeves of many Lobster covers until 2019; Pointless Illustrations, aka James Lacey, a Cardiff-based artist whose hand-drawn and mixed media pieces have been integral to the Lobster look; and Australian acid producer Lou Karsh, who’s also a talented visual artist.
Asquith and Lobster also take pride in connecting small pockets of the dance community around the world. The label has championed many artists from Australia, from Ballarat’s Daze and Melbourne’s Shedbug to Sydney’s Andy Garvey, recognizing a musical kinship in their otherworldly southern hemisphere sounds.
“There are a heap of Aussie artists that have released on the label, so there have also been a stack of sick showcases that have happened in Sydney over the years,” says Andy Garvey. “That’s how I first met Jimmy and made the connection to be able to become a part of the label. It has always felt really organic.”
Lobster has released a variety of Hungarian artists too, from Route 8 to Imre Kiss and Norwell. And it continues to champion acts from France (Grant), Canada (Minimal Violence), Italy (Steve Murphy) and Russia (recent signing Maruwa).
“Without the label, I would probably never have reached this many people around the world with my music, and never have played in amazing cities like Tokyo or Sydney,” Route 8 says. “They helped me a lot to spread my sound, and I will forever be grateful to them.”
Making connections between people and places is something Asquith gets a kick out of, and if he binds scenes together, and helps to cross-pollinate styles of music — as his label is intent on doing with its multi-genre output — then even better.
“It’s about being able to provide people with that crossover and that co-love between scenes,” Asquith says. “And also being able to merge some of those scenes. It can be a really positive way to get that symbiosis going.”
Asquith has been able to make many of these connections online, and it’s the way he still finds most of the artists that release on his label: trawling SoundCloud and uncovering clusters of talented but mostly unknown producers.
“I still do runs on SoundCloud, listen to a lot of artists, follow a lot of people on social media. Get sent things. I buy records. I do a lot of buying for the shop, so I hear a lot of new releases. Sometimes I’ll think, ‘I’ve never heard of this artist, but I need to get in touch with them.'”
Asquith’s approach is clearly working. Some of the label’s acts, including Minimal Violence and Ross From Friends, have since been signed to mega indies Ninja Tune and Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder. But rather than being disgruntled, the label boss is thrilled to see his acts do well and considers it an affirmation of his A&R instincts.
“One of the longstanding things I keep meaning to do is to write down all of the labels that the artists I’ve released have worked with, because it’s probably going to be a really big list of labels that I love, or labels that I had very formative experiences with. Ross From Friends doing stuff on Brainfeeder — Jesus, I remember getting Flying Lotus’ Los Angeles, and how much it transformed my music taste. It’s still one of my favorite albums ever. It’s totally incredible for me. Palms Trax went to Dekmantel, and that’s a label Jay and I really love.”
This year, Lobster Theremin has a plethora of releases in the pipeline, including a pummelling EP by fast techno specialist and long-term label affiliate D.Dan. There’s a jungle LP from Tim Reaper & Dwarde, more material from Andy Garvey and Grammar Of Movement, further albums from NTHNG and Julian Muller of 90 Process, and new stuff from Coco Bryce, Saturday Night Rush, and Rove Ranger. There will also be fresh material from Asquith himself — his first release on the label after putting out records on Hypercolour and elsewhere.
Going into 2020, Lobster Theremin’s armored arthropod army is continuing to grow, despite the obstacles posed by scaling operations. “One of those challenges has been growing the business and managing the migration from being a DIY label to being more of a proper independent,” Asquith says. “You think, ‘I’ve got to get in touch with maybe 30, 40 artists this week.’ Manage all these people and things. It’s almost like start-up culture, having way more to do than what you can do, and having to economize while doing good by everyone in the company.”
But as Asquith says, the core principles of the label keep it strong. “Lobster is not just a company, it’s a family, and it has for a long time been DIY,” he concludes. “I still feel like it’s me in my room, just finding artists and trying to do releases. If you don’t keep an anchor to the thing that made you excited, that drove the creative juices that had the effect of making your label what it is, you’re probably going to lose your way.”