What do Bright Eyes, Bloc Party and Los Campesinos! have in common? They were all introduced to music fans by Wichita Recordings, the London-based indie label founded by Mark Bowen and Dick Green in the wake of the dissolution of legendary indie Creation Records. Wichita’s debut release – Bright Eyes’ breakthrough Fevers and Mirrors, released in the U.S. on the then-tiny Saddle Creek – set a standard for the label’s roster they have maintained for 15 years.
“Fevers and Mirrors set a template for Wichita,” Bowen says. “A basically unknown artist, delivering a body of work way beyond what might have been expected of them, and beginning a career that lasts forever and takes in huge artistic growth. I think with each new relationship [we have] that is the goal.”
In the label’s early years, it provided U.K. distribution to already-signed but low-profile U.S. artists like Bright Eyes, and it still searches coast-to-coast: 2015 saw Wichita release albums from young stateside artists Waxahatchee (from Alabama, by way of New Brunswick), Girlpool (from L.A.), and FIDLAR (very much from L.A.).
These days, the label has expanded its reach and builds its roster from scratch, with U.K. bands like Los Campesinos!, Cheatahs and Sky Larkin. (Bloc Party and The Cribs have since departed, but the albums you probably think of when you think of them are Wichita albums.) Their latest signing, the young, lanky singer/songwriter Oscar, came to them in 2014 “sitting on the most perfectly formed set of demos I’d ever heard,” Bowen says. “To be honest, I was nervous to meet him because there had to be some kind of catch.”
Over the course of 15 years, Bowen and Green have learned to be wary. But they’ve also accrued plenty of knowledge working with artists like Oscar: young, overflowing, maybe unformed, but vividly unique. This experience also informs the ins and outs of an artist’s career beyond releasing records. As the label grew, Wichita’s management arm shepherded the careers of noisy Ohio indie kids Cloud Nothings and Times New Viking, wry L.A. rapper Open Mike Eagle, and Los Campesinos! tourmates Sky Larkin – its stable of artists is as scattered and eclectic as the label’s roster.
It’s easy to see how Bowen maintains such a broad artist lineup, because he knows that “every artist has their own unique situation.” Sometimes that situation can be as simple as hearing a record. Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield released her 2012 debut, American Weekend, on the tiny New Brunswick punk label Don Giovanni, home to Screaming Females. When Bowen first heard it, he “fell in love with it.” When Wichita approached Crutchfield about distributing the record internationally, “her response was, ‘Sure, but I have this new record Cerulean Salt almost finished and you should hear that too.’ So we ended up releasing the second record first,” he says. In 2014, the wry punk duo Girlpool lept from Bandcamp to Wichita without a U.S. intermediary. Bowen says he “watched them in an empty room and had my mind completely blown – we sat down that week.” Wild Flag, the indie rock supergroup that incorporates two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney and whose debut was released on the venerable, U.S. indie Merge are, in Bowen’s opinion, “possibly the best live band we’ve ever worked with.”
Wichita also paints a portrait of an ambitious indie label in the Internet era: sprawling in geography, discerning in selection, equally comfortable with never-signed L.A. punk bands and cult Nebraska songwriters and major indie titans.
“The Internet has brought challenges in terms of the value of music,” Bowen says, “but more positively, it allowed us to talk directly to a global audience. I often talk about how selling 10,000 records in 10 countries adds up to a lot more than 60,000 in one, and the Internet makes that possible.”
A label this native to the digital world is naturally one that’s looking forward to the future. Bowen is proud of Wichita’s history and is enjoying this year’s festivities –– there’s anniversary shows in London and L.A., plus November tours from Waxahatchee and the clamorous, big hearted indie-pop punks Los Campesinos!, possibly the iconic Wichita band. (“Such an important band for me,” Bowen says. “Political, spirited, righteous…”.) He clearly is most excited about Oscar, who’s so far only released an EP. “A quick drink in the pub turned into five hours of us all talking about music, and I was blown away to find out that this young kid had a seemingly exhaustive musical knowledge – from obscure techno to reggae and all points in between. He’s so educated about what came before him it’s terrifying.” In Bowen’s mind, Oscar is the kind of kid who might create what Conor Oberst did, a “career that lasts forever.”
“It’s maybe taken me 15 years to work it out,” he says., “But I think that’s what we’re here to do.”