IF YOU want a summary of why so many people loved John Peel, the story of Edinburgh label SL Records speaks volumes. It’s a tiny operation, run by one man, Ed Pybus, from a room in his house, on the smallest of profits, often in his dressing gown.
The SL stands for "student loan", much to the amusement of Pybus’s friends, and his own slight embarrassment seven years after he started the label "on a whim", fresh from university. SL’s biggest band, Ballboy, has never made a record that could be properly described as a hit, and probably never will.
Peel didn’t care about any of this. The late DJ championed SL at every opportunity, once devoting most of his high-profile Radio One show to them. Every band on the label was played by Peel at some point. A recent SL signing, The Aphrodisiacs, recorded one of the final Peel sessions, just weeks before he died. Last year, Pybus went to a Christmas party at Peel’s house. "His wife cooked dinner and the neighbours came round," he recalls. "Then we did a radio show. We felt part of the family."
Despite all this, Pybus is quick to point out that he wasn’t a close friend of Peel. This was just how Peel acted with everyone whose music he liked.
"I could send him stuff and he would send an e-mail or phone to tell me what he thought," he says. While other high profile DJs have supported SL, Pybus says, this personal touch was unique.
This year, then, SL’s annual Christmas parties - two gigs this week featuring all of the label’s current acts - will have a bittersweet taste. Pybus has lost his biggest champion just as he is about to put out five new albums, and he needs the money, having lost the master tapes of two others when the studio he uses was burgled earlier this year. But he’s optimistic.
"I feel lucky because we had that exposure we needed at the beginning," he says.
SL now sells CDs by mail order all over the world. "A lot of that comes from John Peel. So many people listened to his show on the internet. Without him it’s going to be a nightmare for new bands and new labels."
It’s easy to see why Peel and Pybus hit it off. Pybus, like Peel, is a music obsessive who will listen to anything, and his signings are as eclectic and constantly surprising as Peel’s playlist. The SL sound ranges from thrashing guitar rock (Degrassi) to string-soaked romantic pop (The Starlets) and Bonzo Dog Band-style wackiness (Misty’s Big Adventure). None of these bands has technically "signed" with SL. Pybus can’t afford to pay advances or recording costs; instead he helps self-motivated bands to put CDs out, uses his contacts to get them exposure, and splits the profits 50/50. Mostly he makes it up as he goes along.
"With a contract everything’s set in stone," he explains. "It seems pointless because both I and the band will probably end up ignoring aspects of the contract. It’s all done in good faith."
And if it doesn’t, they can simply leave? "Yes, and that’s fair enough because I’m not in a position to guarantee I’ll be able to release their next album. I’ve no idea what my situation will be in a year’s time.
"Sometimes it’s really stressful. There’s no security. I never know from month to month what money is coming in. But at the same time I’m my own boss. When I get the albums back from the pressing plant, I’m still amazed that I’m actually putting this out and that I’m running a record label. I love that."
The SL Christmas Party is at Rockers, Glasgow, tonight, and the Bongo Club, Edinburgh, tomorrow. Tickets on the door. For gig listings, and to listen to songs by all of SL’s acts, visit www.slrecords.net