In February 2017, I sent Jowe an email asking him about the early days of Swell Maps and the influence and impact of the
British DJ John Peel on their development. Here's what he had to say.
I was thinking about Peel yesterday. I was discussing, with Mute Records, the release of all 3 of Swell Maps' sessions on an album, which would be a great project. John Peel was, of course, one on the top our mailing list when we made our first single 'Read About Seymour'. We actually glued a photo of him in the corner of the collaged back sleeve design, with a little caption, labelling him (as I recall) "a means of bringing maps to the customer"! He might have enjoyed that, but anyway he immediately started playing the record as soon as he was given a copy. It is difficult to describe the excitement caused by that first moment when one's first radio play occurs. It's a mixture of disbelief, rapture and wonder: "We are almost like a real band!" Thereafter, each of us took turns recording his shows each night in the hope that he might play our song again, which he did, regularly. I have discovered a stash of cassettes with extracts from his shows featuring us, with him making typically making droll comments in that dry lugubrious Scouse monotone.
We produced that first studio recording ourselves, inspired by the first releases by Buzzcocks and Desperate Bicycles, and then we found the pressing plant and printer to make the discs and covers for us; we packed them all up in a bedroom, and sent out copies to John Peel, and a few journalists. We also did a modest mail-order operation for a while. It was all self-financed by wages from menial jobs that we saved up. Peel playing the record made all the difference in getting the record into the shops and distributed more widely. Rough Trade were impressed enough to take as many copies as we could give them. And when they ran out, they reissued it for us.
I never got to meet the man, but our singer Nikki did, I recall him saying. I remember the Radio One office at Portland Place was one of Nikki's haunts. He'd try to accost Peel or his producer John Walters, on their way to work; the wisdom being that if you could make a personal connection, and present a new release in person, it would be more likely to result in the broadcast of your disc. This was still the time when bands releasing their own records on their own DIY labels was very new, so it was something of a novelty, and he seemed impressed with our resourcefulness and creativity, perhaps more than our lack of musical virtuosity!
It was a thrill to be asked to record a session, at BBC's Maida Vale studios. We were still developing some of the material that ended up being recorded later on our first album, so some pieces like 'Harmony in Your Bathroom' and 'Full Moon' were still a bit rough-and-unready, but it was an ideal opportunity to be bold and try them out. My fondest memory was Epic and I dashing into the toilets to fill up a jug with water, then using a pair of straws to make a bubbling sound for 'Harmony'. In our excitement, we splashed some of it on the floor and near one of the microphones, so we were only allowed one take, but it was very effective, with some reverb added in the mix, but we were reprimanded very firmly by the producer and engineer for causing so much chaos!
We thought that was the end of it, but amazingly our records continued to be played and the little following grew. Some people seemed to enjoy the element of chaos that we trailed along with us. Other put us down, and said that we were juvenile and amateurish, as if that was a bad thing! Anyway we got invited back for more, so being bold we brought in a few friends to add to the chaos; Lora Logic with some wild alto sax, a few others banging things and joining in the chants and choruses. It sounded even better!
Remarkably, each of the three sessions was repeated, and Peel would play each of the four singles repeatedly and many album tracks as well, so he was a valuable supporter throughout our brief but eventful "career" as a band. He was also a great mentor, in terms of having exposed us to some of our formative influences: Faust, Can, Henry Cow, The Damned, Sex Pistols, and so on.
Jowe Head, 25th February 2017
There are a couple of interviews from April 2013 on Youtube in which Jowe talks about this period.