What I’ve always tried to do with every piece of music I’ve released―or been involved with or produced or written―is create something that stands outside of time. It would’ve been very easy with International Feel to have jumped on the disco-melted-back-into-house bandwagon.
If you haven’t heard of Mark Barrott yet, don’t be too embarrassed: the British DJ, producer, and label honcho has made a career out of anonymity. Starting in the early 90s, the man began releasing music under the moniker Future Loop Foundation, which, originally, was a drum ‘n’ bass outfit, but quickly became something more engaging, timeless, and―for lack of a better word―elegant. Imagine blissful, Balearic deep house atmospherics before most even knew where the heck Ibiza is located. Fast-forward a few years and two location changes―from his hometown of Sheffield, he went to Berlin, then to Uruguay―and Barrott had become the guy working behind the scenes at International Feel, a dance music imprint that sprung from nowhere, but speedily gained acclaim for its focus on quality and alignments with legends such as DJ Harvey, Bubble Club, and Coyote.
For the past three years, International Feel has been dropping 12″s of the highest caliber and, in an effort to crystallize the narrative of its maturation for the general public to appreciate and enjoy, Barrott opted to put together a three-disc compilation album featuring the highlights of its short yet spectacular tenure.
A few weeks back, we caught Barrott, via Skype, while he was preparing to wrap up the Uruguay chapter of his life and move on to Ibiza. Read on for an exhaustive, in-depth, and compelling conversation with the maverick.
International Feel will release A Compilation on October 8.
How’s it going, Mark?
Nice. It’s the first hot day of all summer in Berlin.
What are you doing over there? How long as you been?
This trip, a month. And we’re leaving tomorrow for Ibiza. We were meant to be here for two months, but the weather was just so bad until the last couple of days. It was like fall here.
Who’s the “we” you’re referring to here?
Oh, just me and my wife.
My wife’s German so we’ve lived here… three and a half years ago for four years, and a few years before that for a couple. I think we’re at the point now where we’re ready to stay in one place and that place is going to be Ibiza. We’re doing the whole of August in Ibiza, then to the UK to see parents in September, then back to Uruguay to grab everything.
The first trip to the island was six weeks ago―we went for two weeks―and we thought, We have to live here. We thought it was like Uruguay, but not twenty-million hours from everywhere. And it’s cheaper! What people don’t realize is that Uruguay, over the past few years, has become astronomically expensive to live in. We can actually move to Ibiza and save money. [Laughs]
What brought you to South America to begin with?
We lived in Berlin and had a really nice house. It was time for us to negotiate the rental agreement again and the owner wanted us to commit to longer than we wanted. So we kind of decided, Well, as long as we have good Internet, why not cast the net wider for a few years? We looked around a bit for places that were safe and had Europeanisms we were used to… and we just wound up in Uruguay.
Very cool. I wish you luck on the next chapter. How about we go back further here and―
Oh, is this past life hypnosis? [Laughs]
Yeah, let’s call it that. Anyway… what’s your whole story? What’s your origin, so to speak?
You mean going all the way back? I sound like a DJ, don’t I? I’m originally from Sheffield, in the north of England. As a kid, I came from a pretty musical family. All my cousins were musical. It skipped my father’s generation, but my grandfather was a very accomplished pianist so I learned [how to play] very young. I don’t know if it was because I was in Sheffield with Human League and Cabaret Voltaire and all of that kind of stuff, but I just developed a fascination with synthesizers. After piano lessons, I progressed to one of those dual manual organs―with a bossa beat―and… yeah… I was really lucky to have parents who bought be a very small Roland synthesizer in 1981, when I was 13. And I saw Kraftwerk perform on the Computer World tour. I kind of didn’t look back. I did the normal teenage thing of playing with bands. As I got closer to being 17, 18, 19, I got a little disenchanted with bands since I seemed to be more motivated than those in [them]. They seemed to be more interested in discussing at a bar what the name should be. I wanted to try and make a career out of it. When I got to that age, a number of things happened. Acid house started, which was my punk, if you like. I was a bit too young for punk… and punk was more of an attitude. What was impressive about acid was that D.I.Y. ethos. All of a sudden, there were people in Sheffield [making it]. All of a sudden, you could just do it. You didn’t need to go into a studio, you didn’t need to own a £60,000 mixing board, you didn’t need to have a major record label. I really loved that expression of control. All of a sudden, you could be your own little cottage industry. It didn’t seem ridiculously impossible. So, from my point of view, that, married with the fact that I was working and could afford some equipment, married with the fact that I was more motivated than everyone else, married with―you know, my first love was the ambient sort of chill-out stuff. That led me to Steve Reich and that led me to John Cage and Philip Glass. That was mixed with the Orb stuff and whatever. All of that married together, which eventually led to Future Loop Foundation, which was really just ambient music with break beats.
It seems to me that that cottage industry you spoke of has become even easier to attain.
Yeah, it has. In some ways, International Feel was a reaction to that. Instead of doing, say, the 200 hand-stampers and having a hobby label―and I don’t mean that disrespectfully―I said, let’s do something a little bit more… super high-quality. Like the Louis Vuitton of vinyl. It was just wanting to do everything to a very high standard of professionalism. The same motivation I had when I was a 17-year-old and falling out of a band because I wanted to do it by myself.
There’s not enough of that today.
Well, I mean, the story of why that came about… sometimes people think, Oh―they got Harvey to do a remix and they’re based in Uruguay and they have all this great artwork… is this some kind of twisted brainchild of Mister Evil P.R. in Dalston, East London or Williamsburg, New York? And it wasn’t that! The story’s much simpler. I moved to Uruguay, we were waiting for the shipping container, I [made] a track on the dining room table with a laptop, headphones, and a little mini keyboard, couldn’t get a deal for it anywhere, and thought, Okay―I’ll do it myself. Then I thought, Well―if I’m going to do it myself, I should do it to a really high standard. If I did it like everyone else, I’d put myself into a sort of lottery. No matter how much I believe in the track, if it’s not going to be something out of the ordinary, it’s just going to sit there with a whole host of other things. That’s why I got Harvey and the hand-drawn artwork and the heavyweight vinyl. Once you’ve done that for one release, you’ve kind of set your brand standard. You can’t really go back and do something really shitty on bad-cut vinyl for the next one. There was no master plan―it just came out of that first release, which came out of frustration.
I think that’s the way to go! Things that are born of frustration or some sort of displeasure with your surroundings… that stuff tends to be the most engaging.
And then all of a sudden, you’re a label. You’re five releases in and you’re bombarded by demos. Harvey needs more nubile wenches delivered to the studio along with a bunch of uncut diamonds and… you’re in.
You do all your production and distribution on your own, yeah?
No. Well, I mean, I’m the one who commissions the artwork, decides what gets released, handles the mastering, the production process… but then our distributors are N.E.W.S., in Belgium.
Okay, right, but you handle everything aside from the distribution…
Yeah, right. I guess what I am is three things: I’m a curator, I’m a bank, and I’m a factory manager. It’s a marrying of those three jobs.
Right. I mean, there’re a lot of companies out there right now that are handling production and distribution for dozens of labels all at once and puking it all out onto the market.
Yeah, there’s been a real explosion in vinyl. I talked to my vinyl brokers and they’re very busy, but they’re doing a load of 200-copy runs, which is frustrating for them because [each run] is the same workload as, say, a Harvey single with 2,000 copies. They’re having to do lots of that to stay in business. So the vinyl business is very buoyant, but, in a way, it’s just one step up from a digital-only label, where it’s too easy to do and there’s no quality control.
On one hand, it’s appealing for an artist to have these resources so readily available―like, Wow, I can make an imprint and press 200 – 500 records with a small investment―but, on the other, you’re diluting the impact of what said records could achieve if they were done more to the International Feel standards.
Yeah, I guess so. There’s always a financial constriction. I suppose what differentiates International Feel from others is that a lot of labels are doing [runs] of two or three hundred and breaking even. They’re using the label purely as a shop window for their DJ’ing career because that’s the only way to earn [money and make a living]. Back in the days of Future Loop Foundation, particularly with the first album, when I was selling thirty-odd-thousand albums, the touring was a break-even as a shop window for the albums. Now it’s a total reversal: the records and the remixes are a shop window purely for the live side or the DJ side. What International Feel is… it doesn’t have that agenda. I’ve not DJ’d once off the back of the label. Its purpose is to be a mechanism for my own music and also to execute artists’ artistic visions to a real high standard, and to put them in the spotlight. [The artists receive] great art, great mastering, great remixers. And what they do with that, that’s up to them. But they will get, with an International Feel release, a moment in the spotlight because of the label’s method of execution and the label’s standing.
Absolutely. But you stand apart in that capacity. I was talking to someone recently and he mentioned his frustration with being tied to a multitude of great labels, but never getting gigs through them. It’s the label heads who get them.
Yeah, there, in some cases, they’re choosing what to release to generate their own DJ careers―because they’re not making money with the label.
Right―so it’s like helming a record label to increase ones equity across the board.
It’s the nature of the industry right now and I don’t think it’s going to change any time soon. If anything, it’ll get worse because more and more people will try to release small-run vinyls. And for every excellent track that comes through that mechanism… it’s a bit like going through Beatport, which is 99% shit.
I feel like the market is constantly and perpetually flooded.
It is. And so are the shops. I think the shops do a great job of selling vinyl―we’re kind of indebted to them―but it really is a volume business. If you throw enough mud at the wall, some of it will stick.
Right. And it’s also self-perpetuating in that if you stop releasing records on a particular schedule―monthly, bimonthly, whatever―you sort of fall to the wayside.
I think that, with International Feel, well… I don’t really know what’s next. It’s time to take a break. We’ve done a release every month for 36 months and I’m a bit tired. I need a break and I need to be re-inspired and I need to see what’s next. But one thing that I know is that, one release a month―those days are gone. It’s labor-intensive and the labor runs to break even. It’s a lot of work and a lot of passion―a labor of love! I’ve got a lot of other things in my life, other than International Feel and other than music. And having had a 15-, 16-year-long music career, there’re always peaks and troughs in that, and I think I’m at a little bit of a point now where I need to walk away from music for a little while so I can come back with inspiration.
I remember doing the first early Future Loop albums and walking around town with a friend, after the first one, and going, That’s it―I’m never making another one again. [Laughs] I’ve made over 500 tracks since that “I’ve retired” statement. But it does very much, at the moment, feel like I need to take a break from music. When you’re more excited by listening to an audiobook than a demo, it’s time to take a break and refocus.
Maybe this is married to the fact that I’m moving to Ibiza, but I find myself very interested in ambient music again. You know, I look at all these big clubs and… it’s very interesting to me how the main rooms in terms of lights, sound, music, atmosphere, and drugs are far more intense than they ever were, yet there’s no chill-out spaces anymore. I’m kind of quite interested in that early 90s ambient scene―the KLF and that kind of thing. But I’m not going to say anything either way. What I am saying is that, after this label comp comes out, I’m taking a break. I’m proud of what we’ve achieved―but I don’t really have a good sense of what we’ve achieved because I’m in Uruguay, so you have no idea of how it’s viewed in London or New York or Ibiza or Barcelona or Sydney or wherever it may be. That’s good because, as a result of that, you follow your own path, rather than being influenced by being in a scene. I’ve been able to curate the label with a clear mind.
Sure. But you’re still very much in the thick of it. Running a label, you’re responsible for and accountable to so many people, from distributors to artists to the guys making the sleeves.
That’s the “factory manager” part of it. That, more than anything, may be what I need a break from. That is very labor-intensive. And the vinyl-manufacturing process is, by nature, a little bit fraught with potential disasters, whether it be bad [test pressings] or a cut going wrong or the labels being off-center.
I guess the move to Ibiza is well-timed.
Yeah―there’s something about that island. A mystical “X factor.” I’m hoping very much―and I feel very much, on an instinctive level―that that will be a turning point.
Well, since you brought it up a couple of times, let’s talk about the compilation a bit. First of all, it’s awesome. You clearly put in a lot of time and effort to make it into a standalone piece as opposed to just regurgitating the past three years.
The first reason for doing it was to draw a line under everything, so there was a mark in the sand. Secondly, it’s to act as an introduction to people who maybe haven’t picked up the vinyl releases. [And, thirdly], to also… [make the limited-edition white labels] more available to people as a thank-you to those who stood by us. The overriding sensation was to make a great mixtape. Alright, it’s a mix, for obvious reasons, but it’s two, two-and-a-half hours of great music that works in the car, in peoples’ homes, in club environments, wherever. To marry all those things together and marry that with the International Feel ethos. I think it has a really nice flow to it and I think it will stand the test of time. It’s also a good document to show what the label’s done over the past three years.
When you’re dealing with 12”s and singles and EPs, it’s difficult to bring that music to new audiences… and to contextualize it all in a meaningful manner, too. Like, if you pick up an International Feel record or two here and there, you’re not going to understand the bigger picture and the narrative you’re trying to articulate.
I think that’s absolutely true. I’m sure there’s some guys in Japan that buy everything―god bless them―but most people say, I like these two so I’ll get them or, I like this one, but not the next, so I’ll skip it. That’s how they make their buying choices. The compilation is a statement of―overall―what the label set out to―and did, I think―achieve over its three-year history. So you can pick it up and, even if you don’t like all the tracks, you can get a sense of what I, as a curator, tried to achieve.
Is it both a digital and CD release?
No, it’s literally only a CD.
How do you feel about that? I have no idea how the CD market is these days, at least when it comes to this sort of music. Everything seems to be vinyl-only, digital-only, or vinyl and digital, but there aren’t many CDs.
There’s no point in putting it out on vinyl because many people own some or most of the [releases] on vinyl [as is]. To do it digitally doesn’t allow you to manifest it as a physical object. As long as you’re not going into this expecting to sell 20,000 CDs, there’s still a CD market. For this, it’s between two- and five-thousand copies. And I’m happy with that. It’ll find its own place and it’ll act as a document, and, maybe, in 20 years, someone will pick it up in a thrift store and it’ll act as an historical document from that angle as well.
I like your outlook a lot.
What I’ve always tried to do with every piece of music I’ve released―or been involved with or produced or written―is create something that stands outside of time. It would’ve been very easy with International Feel to have jumped on the disco-melted-back-into-house bandwagon. I don’t feel the need or desire or longing to do that.
When you’re in the present, I think it’s very easy to get wound up by whatever’s trending at the time. But, when you look back on the way things evolve, there’s oddly a lot of logic to how one genre leads to another while other fall to the wayside or become sidenotes.
I’m sure history will show us to be the best-ever label in the history of vinyl! [Laughs] I’m doing this for my own personal gratification and fulfillment, and to give something back and to give artists opportunities. It was never done to make money and never done to be trendy. I’ve been offered a lot of DJ work off the back of this―and I’ve never taken one [gig]. It was never about that. It was about scratching a personal itch and giving other artists an opportunity and keeping an eye on the finances to make sure we broke even and, also, having fun building a brand.
Do you have any children, out of curiosity?
No, no, no―I am Mr. Only Child.
Yeah, I had a hunch. When you’re this dedicated to a brand or company that you’ve created―
Yeah, it’d be very hard to lead the life I live with children. We did, up until last November, have a cat, who unfortunately died at 18. He was like a child to us. He travelled around with us―from England to Berlin to Italy to Berlin to Brazil to Uruguay, and that was his final sayonara. But now we have the ability to live this more bohemian, transient lifestyle…
I just want to pare my life down to the cult of nothing. In the process, maybe part of that is throwing away International Feel―I don’t really know.
Earlier, you said you turned down a lot of DJ gigs. I understand why, but… is it also something that you just don’t want to do anymore?
Yes. To be honest, I kind of crave a quiet life. A life that has silence in it. After a lifetime of making music under lots of different guises, I really crave silence, peace, the time to meditate and reflect and follow a more esoteric path. As the world heads towards Simon Cowell’s vision of the future, I’d rather head back towards a Tibetan monk’s vision of the future.
I like how you’re enabling yourself to do that while, simultaneously, giving so many others the chance to do basically the opposite… to thrive in the limelight, in clubs, on podcasts and mixes and charts.
I think that’s great. I think that’s lovely. It’s lovely to empower people if you have that opportunity and fundamentally wrong not to. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way; I mean that in a very matter-of-fact way. For me, personally, I think the short term and the near term involves… compassionate selfishness. What I mean by that is taking a break from the label and commitments and responsibilities towards other people… and really focusing for a while on the journey within as opposed to the journey without.
What’s interesting in coming to Europe and talking to journalists such as yourself is that I think that the label is a lot more loved than I’d imagined it to be. Because, when you’re in Uruguay, you’re cut off from culture and you’re also focused on the next release. You’re either listening to another demo, screaming at the vinyl manufacturing plant, checking the artwork, harassing a remixer, completing a calendar schedule… So, by the time a record comes out, you’re already two more down the line. It’s only now that there’s a little break in vinyl releases―I just did the Harvey one and the next is in September. I say this totally guilelessly, but it’s interesting to find that people like the label a little more than I’d thought. I didn’t think about it [before]. There’s a part of me that says, Don’t throw that away, don’t throw that brand away, don’t throw that currency that you’ve built up away. And the other part of me says, Fuck that―do what you want, when you want, and see what happens. And we shall see. So, I go forward, from this moment, with a real open heart and a real open mind, knowing that the label compilation might be the last ever International Feel release. Or it might be the last release of this stage. I honestly don’t know. But I have to be excited and motivated or I can’t expect others to be excited and motivated.
How do you handle the A&R side of things? It sounds like you get a lot of demos, but then there’re also a lot of personal relationships, too.
Well, I get sent a lot of demos. I get sent a lot of stuff through people. The Harvey relationship started because I rang him and asked him to do a remix. Nothing more, nothing less. Once you build up a group of people around you, it’s more likely that music will come through them or second-degree-of-separation through them than it will come through a demo. I still listen to every demo, but, predominantly, it’s rarer that you will sign a demo sent through SoundCloud. That’s not to say you don’t get good stuff―it’s just to say you’ve always got a back catalog of good stuff needing to be released, anyway.
I suppose that, if there is a “secret” to the label, it’s that I’ve done a lot more of the music than people probably think. I’m not going to reveal all, but a lot of the one-offs are me in other guises. And I’ve had a lot of hand in a lot of the other records where it’s maybe obvious that it’s someone else. Ultimately, it was a mechanism to release my own music―that was the initial reason.
What’s the deal with the International Feel Studio stuff?
That is me and I’ve always said it’s me. It was just me wanting to release a certain style of slightly Board of Canada-esque, wonky 70s, nostalgic library music with a twist. Personally, I can listen to [that style of music] all day.