On the Corner – Pete Buckenham opens the ‘Door to the Cosmos’ (Feature-Interview)
Celebrating their tenth full-length release, On the Corner's Pete Buckenham sat down with Ally to talk about their cosmic and beat-heavy album 'Door to the Cosmos', shedding light on the label's past, present and future
Pushing musical boundaries and realms through breaking borders. One of adventurous music lovers’ favourite labels On the Corner are celebrating their tenth full-length release in grandiose style with Door To The Cosmos. Tapping into the language and musical tapestry woven by Sun Ra and his followers, label boss Pete Buckenham has amassed twenty-four artists and producers to create a wonderful sonic odyssey which touches on the label's past, outlining it's presenting form, but is most prominently laying down a foundation of the future direction of the label.
Housed within a beautiful triple-vinyl package, the depth and breadth of music explored on Door to the Cosmos is remarkable. In the signature style of On the Corner, the record showcases far-reaching sounds from music makers such as Peruvian duo Dengue Dengue Dengue, the deep soulful vibes of Rebecca Vamant, the banging beats of Clive from Accounts, the cosmopolitan muses of Sunken Cages all the way to the afro-centric rhythms of Petwo Evans. All these wonderful and eclectic rhythms, beats and harmonies are housed under the border-crossing, genre-defying lead of Peter Buckenham’s On the Corner, but how did we get this point?
The label is founded on the premise of musical exploration, not wanting to be penned in – “Tomorrow’s music today”. Reflecting on the roots and ethos of the label, Pete declares that the “majority of the music that we’re releasing is artists operating outside of genre constraints”, adding “I didn’t come from a music industry perspective. I came from the perspective of wanting to tell stories of musicians. I knew there were fascinating artists and histories out there. I was trying to find a way”. As a small independent, it can be hard not to be penned in, so “when you have something that is aspiring to cross borders and that is aspiring to breakdown genres and be something that is fresh sounding - you’re definitely making a cross to bear". Chuckling, Pete remarks that it’s “not the easiest way to run a record label… but you know, what’s the easy way?”
This yearning to respectfully explore histories and sounds is clear through Pete’s past. Having had a career working at Amnesty International, in the years preceding the label's formation Pete followed his heart and ears by putting his career on hold to go on a “beat odyssey” across Zanzibar, Eastern Africa and the Sahara in 2010. During this time, he outlines that “I found that contemporary street music wasn’t filtering into any labels...I found there was this gap…I didn’t know at the time I was going to set up a label…the idea was not formed”.
Since launching the label in 2013, Pete delineates that it’s “built on the relations between the musicians and my own passion for the music… I’m driven by music that makes me ask that question - ‘What the hell is this?’… I’m interested in music that I don’t necessarily understand, and I don’t necessarily know, but I know it communicates emotion and feeling”. Although there is an “international feel” to On the Corner, it’s driven by Pete’s culture of being a record collector, “it’s much more within that cultural context than going out there as an anthropologist or as a pseudo-ethnographer”. This propensity to explore sounds beyond genres has cemented Pete and the label to become a key part of the London music scene.
What is evident with On the Corner’s ethos, is their care for artists, both artistically and economically. Asked about the message of the label, Pete tells me “I think [the message] is about supporting music, looking at music which is maybe outside of genre, or producing music which is outside genre, and bringing it to a wider audience…There’s a commonality going through it”. In the pursuit of showcasing sounds from across the globe, Pete ascertains that if “the label is truly going to be eclectic, the places from which the music comes from, the relationship needs to ethically be different and considered. The way that you work with artists and producers has to be different because there’s a power imbalance, a wealth division".
Those with a key eye may notice that the label’s name, in part, pays homage to Miles Davis’ 1972 fusion record of the same name. This record was a step away from his previous work – a moment of contemplation for Miles. Drawn to the history and cultural context behind the record, Pete clearly admires Miles’ attitude at the time, “his wanting to connect to funk but also take jazz back to the origin of its social position.” With jazz being born out of oppression, “Miles wanted to take it back to its roots…I think that really attracted me”. In a marked moment of his career and his awareness of social and racial injustice, Miles turned his back on jazz conformity and “tossed it all up in the air…I respect that in a musician – they want to create and not to be boxed in” – something which On the Corner incubates and encourages.
Saxophonist and composer Tamar "Collocutor" Osborn has been an integral part of the label since it’s early days in 2013. Pete muses that On the Corner is quite a “biographical label, which Tamar is a big part”. From Tamar’s first release – Archaic Morning in 2014 – “she became quite instrumental because I didn’t really know what a label did or was at that point…Tamar has been a solid thread”. Pete’s admiration for Tamar is clear, labelling her as “one of the best multi-instrumentalist horn players going. I think she’s up there in the realms of Shabaka [Hutchings]”. Appearing on many of the labels’ releases, “she adds weight to whatever release she is on…She’s so present in the scene. She’s a key figurehead of the resurgence of UK jazz”.
If you’re familiar with On the Corner, you’ll know that the labels’ artwork is as striking as it is sonically, which is courtesy of artistic director Victoria Topping. Referencing the German artistic style of Gesamtkunstwerk – meaning “total art” – Victoria’s work taps into the soul of the music. Outlining their relationship, Pete states that “She gets the music. I treat as an artist in her own right, like an artist in a label”. Since the release of 2016’s On the Corner ‘Versus’, Victoria’s work has become the “visual identity” of the label, found at the “very heart” of the label.
Due to the nature of the music which the label releases, which is inherently difficult to define, it can be difficult to tell how it will be accepted. Pete admits that there are times “even at a test press level, there’ll be a certain amount of [wondering] how it’s going to be perceived. So, that plays an emotive part of something that I also think it qualifies what I’m doing. There’s this double-edged sword of that feeling of anticipation of a release. But also, not having an idea of how it’s going to be received…It’s also wanting to do the best for those artists…There’s no certainty to it. We can add the concept, we can add the artwork and add these amazing bits of music, but you don’t just know”.
Contemplating on the label’s past, it’s extraordinary what On the Corner has achieved in just seven years, having released twenty quality EPs and now on its tenth full-length LP with Door to the Cosmos. During this time “we’ve definitely created something” Pete proudly tells me. This milestone was something which Pete clearly wanted to mark with the herculean Door to the Cosmos. Reflecting on amassing the compilation, Pete jokingly said, “It can be quite difficult coordinating more than twenty-four artists…. I don’t think I knew the extent of the task when I took it on”. This beat-heavy blueprint marks the labels’ future, with Pete optimistically stating that hopefully, “Door to the Cosmos is an opening up of something for us as a label. It certainly brought a new raft of artists onto the label. We’ll be doing an album with a fair few of those individuals who are on Door to the Cosmos…It brings them into the stable”.
Tipping their metaphorical hat to Sun Ra’s ‘Door of the Cosmos’, Door to the Cosmos is a compilation which harnesses this spiritual sonic energy and unleashes its contributors’ inner creativity. The listening experience can be compared to and described as a DJ set, you get a sense of “circulation motion within the three discs – exploring sonic territories and going back in and going round in concentric circles which are going further out in orbit.” Lovingly curated, the compilation saw Pete encouraging the contributors to fully express their musical limits. Enthusiastically, Pete assures me that has “always what’s been at the heart of the label. [Artists] wanting to express themselves in this way and really explore their sound that is pushing genre and is banging. It’s essentially – my job – to get it to our small but invested audience. Being able to do that, it’s a massive privilege. If you told me ten years ago, I was putting out a compilation of artists, then I think that for me, is, a kind of success. That’s the ambition I could have only of dreamed of.”
Door to the Cosmos is a testament to the brilliant ears and mind of Pete Buckenham and the music makers he surrounds himself with. Over its history, the label has “dared to knock at the door of the cosmos”, opening the floodgates of musical brilliance and creativity.
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