Steve Hartwell

This page gives an overview of most of the musical ventures I was involved in during the decade 1983-1993. This involved running a record label (Peeved Records), recording in a number of different groups and pseudonyms and writing for a local music magazine (Scene And Heard).

Followers of European cassette compilations cannot have failed to notice the increasing number of musical contributions from Dead Goldfish Ensemble to these artefacts. It's a curious music, not always comfortable or obviously melodic, but always absorbing and often challenging. The Dead Goldfish Ensemble is less a group than the ad hoc vehicle for the peculiar muse of Peeved Records' supremo, Steve Hartwell, in solo guise. Remember that originally Peeved used to be called Goldfish Records until a writ arrived informing Steve that the name 'belonged' to another label, thus forcing him to quickly rethink a new name... enter Peeved Records! Other solo Hartwell offerings have also been released under the pseudonyms such as Machine Maid Man and Pink Goldfish. High Tech Pagodas are the duo of Steve and Rob Baylis (The Detective), whilst Deaf Goes East are the duo of Steve Xerri (Perfect Vision). A Band Of Steves are Steve and Steve Buttercase (The Principle), and is the only 'band' to have actually made a live gig appearance! Johnson's Fiver are Steve and Steph McNicholas (The Sound Assassins / The Sweet Young Things). Featuring Karen Wheeler is the duo of Steve together with Chris Mann (House Grinder). Rites Of Post is yet another variation of name by Steve and Rob Baylis (The Detective). The final Hartwell alias that I am aware of is .Y? (And Why Not?) who comprise Steve, Gordon Chambers, Sue Fielding and Helen Kibble. I have no doubt that there will be many other guises forthcoming, but at the time of writing this brief expose, the above constitutes all his known musical disguises.

Introduction from SIIYE #176 (1991) which was a fanzine produced to accompany the Fish & Micro Chips tape by the Dead Goldfish Ensemble that was released by City Spools

If I told you I'd just been to the building which houses Peeved, Cambridge's most prolific indie tape label, and that the same building serves as a base for local acts (solo and otherwise) The Dead Goldfish Ensemble, Machine Maid Man, Deaf Goes East, Featuring Karen Wheeler, Rites Of Post, Johnson's Fiver and the High Tech Pagodas, you could be forgiven for thinking I'd been visiting an office block, or at least a rambling house used as a musos' commune. But in fact all of these projects are the brainchild of one person, Steve Hartwell, and he packs himself and the paraphernalia he requires to inhabit all these aliases into a bedsit measuring an incredible ten by twelve feet! Tiny and, by pro standards, modestly equipped Steve's home studio seems nevertheless capable of miracles when it comes to finding space for a growing list of gear (which swallows a 'large enough' slice of his salary as a project engineer in an electronics firm): and the size of the last three years output - five full-length tapes and many additional guest appearances on indie tape compilations at home and abroad - is certainly impressive.
Given the constraints of space and the fact that there are other people who may be trying to sleep in rooms only inches away from his mixing console - a table on which a Boss 16-channel job is wedged between his Atari computer (using Steinberg's Cubase software) and a Revox B77 for direct mastering - it comes as no surprise that apart from an electric guitar, some chime bars and a few other hittable objects with which to generate sounds for his Akai X7000 sampler (including a bass drum-like tone made by slamming a book shut and various percussive noises which result from liberal slapping of his own body), most of Steve's equipment is electronic and can therefore be operated at low levels with little or no loss of quality. Even the guitar is used primarily as an input to a second-hand ETI Vocoder as guitars usually like to be. Working quietly comes naturally to Steve: 'I monitor off the hi-fi, using Goodmans Quartet Q30 speakers, or headphones. That's how I listen to things, on that sort of system, so that's how I record them. It's taken most of my neighbours years to realise I was making music'.
Steve listens to all sorts of music, ranging from The Legendary Pink Dots to Marc Almond to Ian Boddy, and he goes to lots of gigs: but as a writer his preference is for systems music, in which the main pleasure is derived from surprisingly various permutations of a limited range of precisely controlled musical figures. Recently he has been wedding this approach to a more 'house' feel, occasionally in collaboration with drummer and programmer Chris Mann (under the name Featuring Karen Wheeler). 'But it all began', he says, 'with Kraftwerk. I bought their Autobahn LP and I'd seen somewhere that they built their own equipment, so I spent years trying to do the same. But it was too difficult to make stable instruments and it became really cheaper to buy the ready-made ones which are more versatile than anything I could make in a realistic amount of time. I really got overtaken by the urge to make music instead of making instruments.'
A striking feature of Steve's set-up is that it seems to have evolved, not by that kind of 'seen it, want it' reflex which can send music buffs delirious and be the despair of their bank managers, but to meet specific needs as they arose in his music. Working patiently with what was available and affordable rather than yearning after the impossible, he proved to himself the truth of the old cliche about ideas being more important than the possession of Fairlights and the rest. Though he's about to go six-track ('very useful for vocals', reckons Steve, the point is that while it would be nice to have access to lots of flash gear, it is still possible to enjoy music made by humbler means. 'I started with a Korg MS10 and a Casio VL1, the little one with a nursery rhyme as the built-in demo, then came the Roland 101 and 202. Working with them involved programming the music one part at a time, with no real means at that stage of recording it properly. I was dubbing between two cassette machines, and that meant always having to have one track as the sync-track, and bouncing in mono on the other. It took a very long time and it was very difficult to change things after you'd done them. It was the CX5 music computer that kicked it all into gear, by allowing you to put down 8 parts at a time and hear them all going at once.'
Sequences of notes, sometimes chanced upon and sometimes carefully chosen, were written in step time, enabling Steve to overcome his admitted difficulties with timing ('obviously I've no claim to be a musician because I'm not playing, but as a composer this is a way of hearing what I'm doing') and the required repetition, staggering and overlaying of patterns were achieved with relatively little labour by means of the computer: but there was a catch. Explains Steve, 'The problem with the CX5 is that it doesn't play in time: if you give it lots of notes and then just one, it speeds up and slows down.'
This happened, he found, whether or not the computer was MIDI'ed up to the expanders he went on to acquire as his compositions increased in complexity from the more mathematical feels of Structures And Strictures, his first tape release. The addition of the Korg EX800 and Roland MT32, as well as the Korg DDM 110, one of the first cheaper drum machines to incorporate analogue samples, brought a greater range of potential sound, as did the Akai sampler, which Steve loves for its percussive noises and factory supplied human voice samples.
Help for the overloaded CX5 came from the timely appearance on the market of the Atari ST: with its superior processor and more flexible programming. It proved a more reliable time-keeper for the whole process. At first, using Pro 24's 'incredibly difficult' step-time writing proved cumbersome, so Steve continued to compose on the CX5, handing the score over in sections to the brainier Atari. Now he uses Intelligent Music's 'M' program, which allows a kind of controlled improvisation: once a selection of notes has been entered. It's possible to tweak and MIDI variable parameters (e.g. velocity, duration, voicing), either by choice or at random. 'It's useful for generating musical ideas', declares Steve. 'It keeps you away from your own musical cliches, because you are encouraged (or least I am!) to write things that sustain, and so it stops me writing everything in eighth-notes.'
Steve has also written his own fractal music program (as yet unpublished) which uses the idea of self-similarity to generate multiple lines using the same note-sequence with notes organised in the same relations but at different levels e.g. according to pitch or duration.
The final gloss on Steve's recordings, which are 'literally record mastering quality' comes from his judicious use of a Yamaha REX50 effects unit, whose reverb he finds useful to soften the more strident of the CX5's voices. 'Sometimes it's nice to have a 100-sec reverb, great washes of it; sometimes it's better to have none at all. I go purely on what it sounds like - especially on the rhythmically repetitive pieces it's nice to take the edge off it, make the rhythm less grating.'
Not that he shies away from the mechanical aspect of his music, declaring 'It's no more lazy than when people play the same three chords in the same old way and to write verse-chorus-verse-chorus is in a way just as systematic as anything I've done. But the judgement is always as to whether it sounds good, regardless of how I've got there and I think that's the only criterion you can use in listening to music, whether it's produced by orchestras, groups or machines.'
But what of an outlet for his creations? That's where his involvement with the vast underground of tape-labels comes in. He got into it via the British fanzine 'Stick It In Your Ear'. 'The idea of all these untapped, unwashed millions making all this music seemed great and I bought loads of tapes at that stage. Five years on, swops between his own and other labels mean that he has appeared on a staggering 70 or so releases and his music is reaching listeners in Europe and the US. Much of his activity involves Europe's network of what he terms 'die-hard fanatics' who are prepared to lend an ear to musics that don't find a ready home in the commercial sphere. 'Some of my stuff gets onto radio, especially in Belgium and Holland, where there are large numbers of radio stations', he says. There are also active scenes just waiting to be tapped into in France, Germany, Italy and even Norway. One track of his appeared on a compilation LP based on treatments of Strauss' 'Blue Danube', but he has no hankerings after more vinyl exposure, nor does he regard his home taping as a stepping-stone to a music career, preferring to gain his pleasure from working down market to a high standard. 'In terms of monetary reward and so on, I don't really care.... it really is for amusement in a way. The idea of having to deal with the music business for a living horrifies me. My music is there if people are interested, and if nobody wants it, then fine - I shan't sulk too much.'
So is the proliferation of home taping gear and ever cheaper keyboards a development to be welcomed? Steve expresses a final caution: 'I think it'd be a mistake if we went all the way down that road to where everybody was making their own little noise but not paying attention to the rest of what was going on, or even playing in groups - that's a valuable experience in itself. I've greatly enjoyed collaborating with Chris Mann, for example. I think of music as something done in plural: all the names under which I put out my music - even Machine Maid Man - could be and usually are taken to belong to groups. It just so happens that usually all the players are me!'

This interview was published in SIIYE #176 was originally written by Steve Xerri for International Musician (hence the concentration on the technical information). When they failed to publish it (after sending a photographer from London to Cambridge to take some pictures) it was printed in Electronic Cottage #5.

Recently arrived in Cambridge to work is one half of the Peeved Records conglomerate, Steve Hartwell. A quiet shy man, he has, with his partner Peter Skelley, quickly established an ever growing catalogue of product, with ten releases already.
The first release was a tape by Southampton band The Gestalt, which documents themselves painfully shedding themselves of their progressive rock stance and turning into a normal pop band. The culmination of this was their name change to The Primary, and the production of Peeved's first and only record release, the single "Radio Silence/Responding" - not a bad record by any standards, but as Steve acknowledges it's neither unusual enough to pick up independent sales, nor special enough to crash the insurmountable barriers to the charts.
Subsequently they have taken on sales of Perfect Vision's "Demonstration" tape - a good document of how the band sounded 9 months ago - have released Martin Baxter's collection of eccentricities "Because It Was There" and have licensed 5 deleted tapes from the Unlikely Records catalogue. These 5 all feature different incarnations of a Robert Cox, and range from the abysmal to the pleasingly ambient - the best being The Same's "Sync Or Swim" and Rimarimba's "Below The Horizon". Total sales of this series so far number one copy.
Steve modestly describes overall sales so far as "slow" - he hopes a prospective distribution deal through Backs will help. He eschews any ambitions to be Richard Branston; he runs Peeved "just out of interest", and to enable people "to hear things they might want to hear".
I suggested to him that he might just be providing a service that no one wants; flooding the market with unlistenable tapes that have no audience anyway. Music is not just commercial or uncommercial - it can also be good or bad. His response is reasonable; "Who's to say what people want to hear? It comes down to my personal taste. I have to listen to them everytime I make a copy! I have turned down at least one tape....."
What will the future bring for Peeved?"Selling a few more copies" Steve says hopefully. It will also bring at least 4 new Peeved tapes. The Detective are a London-based band with Cambridge origins - the first side of their "Behind Wires" reminds me of the quirky pop sensibility of "Taking Tiger Mountain" period Eno, and is rather good. The second side features two terrible unnecessary 'experimental' synth pieces.
Americans On Heat will posthumously release a tape "if they ever get it together" (they featured Chris and they never did), and Peeved also hope to release a tape by an unknown London band whose demo has strayed into their hands. Steve suggested to me that they sounded like Echo And The Bunnymen - one listen confirmed that in fact it sounds more like Echo And The Bunnymen than they themselves do. They even have a song called "(This Time We'll Do It) Nice And Clean."
Finally Peeved expect eventually to release Martin Baxter's "True Confessions Part 1". Intrigued by the combination of the atrocious, ambitious, adventurous and amusing on his first tape, I wandered Cambridge in search of Martin Baxter....

Chris Heath
Blue Seude News
Yes, THE Chris Heath, most recently famous for his Robbie Williams book.

It's a depressingly familiar scenario: bright shiny new band, full of hope and big ambition, make tape they think will knock 'em dead. Band sends tape to grizzled A&R men. Tape comes back time after time with screed saying, in thin disguise, "Piss off, we can't be bothered with this." Band suspects music that supposed to gladden the ears of millions hasn't even been taken out its cassette-box. Band weep into their beer. End of story.
Or is it? What if I told you I know of someone without a record contract who has, since 1986, appeared on 68 releases and been heard all over Europe and North America? And no, he's not so rich that he's been able to afford to put out that many records on a self-financed label. In fact he hasn't appeared on more than one or two records at all, and he's rarely had to lay out more than a few pounds to achieve the international attention he's gained.
Steve Hartwell, who lives in Cambridge, writing and recording music in his bedsit on an electronic system with an Atari computer at its heart, has discovered that there's a worldwide audience that can be reached without having even to think of dealing with record companies, major or indie. The network which gives his music its distribution and airing favours the ordinary, easy-to-post and mercifully cheap cassette - the very item which all too often fails to function as the stepping-stone to a record deal.
Of course, there's nothing particularly new about this method of putting your music out: doesn't practically every band, no sooner than it's done its first gig, think of making a cassette of its songs complete with a Xeroxed inlay? Even if the record companies remain staunchly unimpressed, at least it gives you something of the excitement of hearing yourselves play, and it may come in handy for showing gig-promoters what you sound like. Some take it a stage further, making a batch of tapes to sell to friends and fans - especially at the end of a gig where you've wowed the audience into a condition where they're hungry for more of your music.
OK, so we're not talking on a huge scale. But quite apart from the old saying about oak trees and acorns, there is a lot of satisfaction to be had from taking part in a musical venture which is run by and for enthusiasts. If you're dead set on being the next U2, this kind of amateur networking may not be for you, but if you like the idea of being part of an underground that beavers away at a tangent to the recording industry, you will find it surprisingly easy to become part of a music that is simply not available through shops.
For Steve Hartwell, that pleasure is compounded by finding that there is an international set of what he terms "diehard fanatics" prepared to give a chance to music that does not find a ready home in the commercial sphere. "It could come as a bit of a shock to someone who listens to the Top 40," he says. "There's no resemblance to that at all. If you're interested in more obscure music than Radio One, it wouldn't be quite so strange." It's not so much that all of the compilations do ask specifically for electronic or industrial music. Rather, their spectrum of 'acceptable' kinds of music is extremely broad so you are more likely to come across some experimental gem (or complete turkey) among these more risk-taking releases than if your only purchase of a compilation next year is from K-Tel.
The point is that by looking around, by maybe buying a couple of tapes and writing selectively to the acts which you find you have an affinity (most tracks come complete with a contact address), you soon find yourself in a sub-section of the network, swapping music and compiling tapes for all you're worth. The beauty of it is that it's open to anyone prepared to join in, with the simple and obvious proviso that your music has at least to find favour with those running the tape labels you send it to. All they will usually want from you is a cassette of your stuff (chrome tape, preferably), some info including your address and, occasionally, a bit of artwork. Often, there will be a particular theme linking the tracks of a compilation. In return you'll get a copy of the final product (itself useful for further contact with other musicians) and the knowledge that your music is travelling the globe. You may not be dealing in thousands of listeners, but doesn't the idea of your music tinkling (or booming) away in the life of a music freak in New York or Norway have a kind of secret thrill to it?
"Some of it does get on to radio," says Steve, "especially in Belgium and Holland where there are large numbers of stations. And quite often the people running there little labels are doing radio programmes as well." You might gain access in a similar way to college radio, an important outlet in the USA and Canada, so you shouldn't think of the whole cassette lark as simply a repository for the crap that the record companies have no time for - we all know there's an awful lot of challenging new music that gets the thumbs down because it doesn't fit the narrow requirements of the industry. Even if you intend to carry on looking for that elusive deal, you can in the meantime have your creation winging its way to people who, if they trouble to write back to you, will do so for that most positive of reasons. Because they like what you do.

Steve Xerri, Making Music, #45, Dec 1988


PEEVED RECORDS is one of the two major tape labels which promote Southampton bands and the only record label, with the breath-taking single they released for THE PRIMARY last year. The other tape label is STICK IT IN YOUR EAR which has put out cassettes by Look Back In Anger, The Reptiles (which I have got and recommend) The Gestalt etc. PEEVED is now trying to concentrate on Cambridge acts as well - I wrote to Steve Hartwell who is joint director with Pete Skelley, a friend at Imperial College, and here is the information I received....
PEEVED records, as you rightly say, started life as GOLDFISH records. I've had the idea of forming a tape label since summer '82. I was still at Imperial College at the time so it didn't get anywhere. The '82/'83 academic year was my final year and after I finished my exams I was still without a job so I decided to do something about the record company. I knew Pete (Skelley) from Imperial College where we used to do a manic programme called "2 Pints Of Milk And A Packet Of Cornflakes Please!". He was very taken with the idea of running a record, rather than tape, label. The name GOLDFISH arose from one of our more successful 'Two Pints' when we talked to, boiled and ate a Goldfish [not really!] (it annoyed the station manager immensely!). Having got a name, and term finishing, we started looking for our first act. I'd known the GESTALT for about two years so I asked them to let us put out all their studio tapes-they initially said no, but we could do a single, and we ended up doing both. In the meantime they had changed their name to the PRIMARY.
Meanwhile, I'd got a job in Cambridge but continued to use my home address in So'ton because I haven't found anywhere permanent to live in Cambrdige. The single is now being distributed by BACKS records and the Cartel. Sorry-I'm jumping the chronological sequence!-about 2 weeks after the single was first released we had to withdraw it because Goldfish Productions Ltd objected to us using the name so we changed it to PEEVED because we were rather upset (and it ties in with our names PE(TERST)EVE) so if anyone else objects we'll be called TERST!
Since I live in Cambridge there are now 3 Cambridge acts on the label: PERFECT VISION, MARTIN BAXTER and THE DETECTIVE. The label works by allowing the acts to retain all rights and pays them a royalty on each tape sold. Five of the tapes were originally available on Unlikely Records but UR deleted them on 01/12/83.
Forthcoming releases are a dangerous thing to predict but some probables are:
Americans On Heat-a posthumous release from a Cambridge band
Martin Baxter-True Confessions-loosely based on J.G. Ballards The Atrocity Exhibition
Water Music-a soundtrack to an exhibition
An unknown London band whose demo came our way (if we can ever make contact with them)

There are a number of other vague possibilities but they are all very much up in the air at the moment.
I think that's enough of the background-I'll try and answer your questions more directly below (it must be pretty confusing!).
1. When did you start the company, and how did you get it going?
GOLDFISH Records started in June '83 and changed to PEEVED in Nov '83. Getting the company going was very simple-there's no need to register the name, getting a bank account is easy, and you're away. The first release cost us 15 (cost of master-tape). The single cost us quite a bit more-mainly because we had to buy 500 of them, whereas with the tapes you can buy them as required.
2. What inspired you to start a record/tape company?
The inspiration for starting the company came mainly from Stick It In Your Ear. I had got to know the people at SIIYE very well during summer '82. They were keen to see someone else putting stuff out from So'ton acts. I am also into the Indie cassette scene which emphasised the idea of 'doing it yourself' so the label was also intended as a vehicle for my own material. As yet I haven't got round to recording anything, but one day...(promises!)
3. How many demos did you get sent at first?
We'd had one demo tape sent to us (which was awful)-the rest of the interest has come about from meetings at gigs and friends of friends. At the moment we're not too concerned about the lack of demos since we are not really a record company-there are no plans for another single-and we don't want to release too much. We like to promote each tape properly which is impossible if you've got one coming out every week. This is a trap SIIYE have fallen into-so we were forewarned.
4. How many tapes have you released so far?
So far we've released 9 tapes. The artists are The Gestalt, Perfect Vision, Martin Baxter, The Same, General Motors, Rimarimba, Robert Cox and the other is a compilation tape. Oops! forgot The Detective.
5. I've heard that The Primary single is being distributed by ROUGH TRADE, is that true?
The Primary single is being distributed through BACKS and the cartel. We tried to get distribution through Rough Trade but they may well be running into problems so we were referred to Backs. Rough Trade is in fact part of the Cartel.
6. What are your future projects and what has the interest in So'ton been like?
Future projects are mainly the release of a few more tapes (and selling those we've got). Interest in So'ton has been minimal.

THANX STEVE! Let's hope that the Primary single gets the full attention it deserves now that it has major distribution and that future releases are successful.

Pigment #1 (April 1984)
The magazine was co-written by the younger brother of Peeved Records other half Peter Skelley.


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