After a 10 year hibernation peppered with occasional sporadic releases and a relocation to Warsaw in Poland, the once Glaswegian record label has woken from its sleep and returned with a full back catalogue of digital downloads and a future that promises new e.p.s, albums, split singles, projects and compilations of some of the best post-rock, indie-pop, ambient, modern-classical and electronic artists we can muster.
The first time I meet Neil Milton, it’s November. We’ve grabbed a booth and a drink in the 13th Note, which has made for an hour of hard-to-decipher tape with the jukebox and the crowd and the fact that seemingly everyone in Glasgow seems to know Milton and has to stop to say hello. He doesn’t realise, but as he starts to talk about the history and the rebirth of his Too Many Fireworks label I’m distracted by a poster for a local Guy Fawkes-themed display over his right shoulder, the word fireworks seemingly protruding from his spine. It’s a picture-perfect moment, and I can’t shake the feeling of things coming full circle.
“I don’t even know where to start…!” he says, as the tape starts to roll. “But I suppose Troika was the beginning.”
HALLOWEEN, 1999. Troika, an alternative band from Glasgow, Scotland was born, consisting of drummer Paul Agnew, bass player Iain Murnin (briefly replaced by Gavin Thompson, formerly of Flying Matchstick Men and Findo Gask, before the band’s 2005 split), Milton on guitar and vocalist Andy Bonar. By 2001, the band was a well-known name making frequent appearances in the Glasgow and Lanarkshire area and they were ready to move things up a gear. Joking that the band had already “tainted” themselves with some of the local labels that they might have wanted to get involved with by sending them scrappy, early, home recordings, by the time Troika were ready to put out something more polished they decided to do it themselves.
The name Too Many Fireworks was stolen from an online fanzine that Milton and Murnin had been working on together at the time.“Iain might disagree [with how the name came about], but let’s just say this is canon,” says Milton. “The name came from the fact that, at the time, a lot of the bands that we were listening to seemed to have a song that referenced fireworks. And I think Iain just flipped out one day and went ‘bloody hell, there’s just too many fireworks’. And it stuck”
That first release, dubbed The Missing Passport EP, ran to a couple of hundred copies at most. Never intended to become a huge project, the label fell by the wayside for a couple of years. Troika carried on, playing gigs and making contacts – even briefly attracting the attention of 4AD at one point, on the back of The Missing Passport. Meanwhile, Milton was delving deeper into the music industry and the mechanics of running a record label through the “Electric Honey” course at Stow College and the course was to shake things up in unexpected ways – a trip to Manchester’s ‘In The City’ trade show, and meeting the team behind Valentine Records, reawakening Milton’s interest in his own fledgling label.
“When I met the Valentine Records team in Manchester, I just fell in love,” Milton remembers. “Dave was charismatic and I loved Sarah to bits and I ended up going along to their showcase. In fact I took so much away from the whole ‘In The City’ experience – even meeting the late, great Tony Wilson – if only to ask for directions. When I came back, Sarah and Dave had really talked me around how to release a 7” – how to get it printed, where to get it pressed – and I had such big ideas. I wanted to create a record label, I wanted to bring Too Many Fireworks back.”
Deciding to release 7” singles rather than CD-Rs like many of the small labels who were springing up at the time was a conscious decision on his part: “I was really pompous about wanting to be a Proper Indie Label,” he explains. The first 7” came together quickly. “Almost as if we hadn’t planned it!” laughs Milton. Trundlewheel, another local band the Troika boys had been hanging about with at the time, contributed a track for the split release, and Troika recorded “Catkin” at the old Chem19 studio.
Glasgow’s Chemikal Underground label was a major influence on Milton’s new business model – as a big fan of the Delgados, knowing that they had put a label together to release their first album and had had it become such a success was nothing short of inspirational. “One lovely sunny afternoon at Chem19, I ended up talking to Paul Savage about Too Many Fireworks,” Milton remembers, “and he gave me some suggestions and advice. That was lovely.”The Troika/Trundlewheel split single was the first of what became the Dialogues series – so called because it matched two bands, if not in ‘call and response’ form then at least in basement aesthetics. The Dialogues were to be a run of 7” singles, initially planned for over the course of a year, with artwork from photos taken by Milton or his Troika colleague Iain Murnin. “The first was an entirely undeliberate out-of-focus photo of the front cover of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark – my favourite book.”
To cut costs the records were pressed without covers which were printed seperately and as there was no distribution deal at the time Milton delivered it personally to Glasgow’s record shops as well as selling copies at gigs.
“We covered the costs, certainly – though I can’t say we ever made a profit,” Milton recalls. “But it meant more just having the records: if, as a band or as a label, you can give someone a 7” single, it feels more exciting than handing over a CD in a jewel case. It looked good.”
The second Dialogue appeared very quickly afterwards, featuring Adam Smith’s Hector Collectors. Struggling for an act to pair the band with, a chance introduction to one Graham Peel in Nice n Sleazy’s was to change the course of Too Many Fireworks in more ways than one.
“Graham was – and probably still is – the most mental person I have ever met. And probably ever will meet,” says Milton with an affection almost bordering on reverence. “The most enthusiastic, crazy fucker! I liked him as soon as I met him. If memory serves, he was introduced to me as a potential keyboard player for Troika but I walked away that night knowing I had to check out his band.”
“And as soon as I saw Flying Matchstick Men for the first time I… I just thought, ‘this is mental!’ It was this mish-mash of musicians that didn’t look like they cared what they were doing, and it was deliberate! They were just enjoying it, having fun. I don’t remember much about that gig, but I remember that it made me happy.”
The result was that the Matchsticks provided the second track for Dialogue Two. “They gave me ‘Kids! Revolution!’ which was Graham’s rant at Heat magazine culture, and it was infectious,” says Milton. “It reminded me of everything I loved about The Yummy Fur.”
As the Matchsticks’ lineup began to gel, and the band grew in confidence, an album on Too Many Fireworks seemed like the next logical step.
“The idea behind The Sleeping Sonqztq was a Flying Matchstick Men record that didn’t sound anything like the Flying Matchstick Men,” Milton explains wryly. The odd spelling intended to emphasise the ‘glitchy’ nature of the record, what ultimately emerged was a “strange, electronic-based folk” collection of Flying Matchstick Men songs remixed by Gav Thompson – later to join the band full-time on bass – as grnr.
“The album took an absolute age to come together because Gav is such a perfectionist,” Milton remembers. “But I loved it – still do – although I think Gav couldn’t get past the fact that two of the songs sounded a little underproduced. Which is a shame, because at the end of the day they are two of the finest songs on the record.”
Troika and the Matchsticks then hit the road for the first Too Many Fireworks tour. “It was ill-fated to say the least. One night we arrived in Dundee and found that Graham had managed to left his synth, the lynchpin of the band, in Glasgow!” recalls Milton. “Graham performed that show with what amounted to a toy keyboard, and every so often he would select the preset samples and the keyboard would shout ‘dic-shun-a-ry’ at us. It was good fun overall though.”
The Sleeping Sonqztq was released towards the end of 2003, by which time Milton was already talking to Laeto. Fraser from the band had been in the year above him at school, and had formed the band with friends while at university in Dundee. Laeto had released a record on Guided Missile in 2001. “We had kept in touch, and I thought I’d ask whether he’d be interested in putting out something with me, not expecting a yes,” Milton remembers. “I think they saw that I was honest and passionate about what I was doing and trusted me with their record.”
That record was Zwoa, and in its production Milton was to find himself pushing the envelope once again. “Laeto are possibly one of the most serious bands about what they do that I’ve ever come into contact with,” he says. “They’re gear geeks and when recording they actually hired some serious fuck-off equipment recommended to them by Steve Albini’s Electric Audio studios forum. When it came time to master, Laeto wanted the album mixed by Dave Collins, the former Chief Mastering Engineer of A&M Studios in LA, who had just gone out on his own and was looking for clients.
“I don’t mind telling you it terrified me a little. This guy mastered records like Evita by Madonna and Superunknown by Soundgarden – this was a major player. I suddenly felt quite small-fry. It even cost me fifty quid just to get the record to him. But, in the end, it was one of the best things we did, because the record came back and it sounded ridiculous. So warm, and so big – it’s one of my favourite albums of all time, quite sincerely.”
THE next couple of Dialogue singles came, short and sweet and very fast. Gerry from Churn, a Glaswegian metal band, was a colleague of Milton’s at HMV. Churn were paired with Macrocosmia for Dialogue three, which was followed swiftly after by another this time featuring two Dundee bands, The A Forest and Mercury Tilt Switch. The last released Dialogue, number five, featured Errors and Findo Gask – two bands who were matched perfectly.
Still in touch with the Valentine Records crew, Milton took the idea for his own Fire:Works club night after attending a similar event run by the Manchester label. “Our first couple of attempts at the Woodside Social Club in the West End proved to be ill-attended Thursday night affairs, and I think we’d have chucked it had the promoter of Barfly not come along to one of the nights, noticed the potential and offered us a Saturday night each month,” Milton recalls. “From the very beginning in Barfly we did just seemed to do it right. We worked hard and, with the Barfly name behind us, found it easy to bring in some decent names: the Blood Arm, White Rose Movement, Soho Dolls and many more.”
With Graham and Gav of Flying Matchstick Men DJing downstairs and Milton upstairs with Calum Gunn (now of Dananananaykroyd), the night became so successful that it eventually ran two Saturdays a month.
Titus Gein was to prove Too Many Fireworks’ last released band before the 4 year hiatus. Milton saw their debut show at the 13th Note “by complete accident”, as Laeto were headlining. “This incredible assault of guitar, drums and synth appeared before them,” he recalls. “I had known the guys a little bit before that, but just by name. It was so good, it didn’t take me long to discuss putting them on one of the 7” singles which, after a bit of thought, switched to a fully-fledged release very soon after.”
As the album took a little longer to put together than Milton was expecting, it was ultimately put back and replaced with a 7” single – the only Fireworks single not part of the Dialogues series and to be released on 180g vinyl. The album itself was perhaps Milton’s most successful release, eventually making its way to publishing houses and having tracks picked up by games manufacturers – songs appeared on the PSP game Juiced, and MotoGP ’06 for the Xbox 360.
“I guess, the reason I’m bringing back Too Many Fireworks is partly out of nostalgia and out of having something to connect me to Glasgow when I’m in Poland, but also because I miss it and I would like to be involved in it again,” Milton concludes as he finishes the last of his drink. “It’s exciting to have such a back catalogue to take forward into a new decade especially as my own project, ‘beneath us, the waves’ is starting to take off and I have some really cool other releases planned.”
He may be lighting up the skies in another country then, but with the relaunch of Too Many Fireworks Milton promises to get back to doing what he has always done well: refusing to cut corners and bringing music he truly believes in to a wider audience in the most beautiful form possible.
– Lis Ferla. 2010.