Label Watch: Phantom Limb

In the past six years, the Brighton-based label Phantom Limb has released an astonishing variety of records. Stylistically ranging from abrasive experimental hip-hop to soothing ambient music, they are all linked by what founder James Vella calls »the power of expression.«

Did you ever have that uncanny sensation that there just must be something even though you know perfectly well it isn’t? That is broadly speaking what the medical term »phantom limb« describes, the feeling that a missing body part is still there and functional. When James Vella came across it in a paper by the neuroscientist Vilayanur Subramanian Ramachandran, he knew that he had found the perfect name for his new project. »I had spent so long working for bigger labels, coming to understand the mechanics of releasing at that level, but that time was spent on other creatives’ wishes and desires,« he explains. »»The motivation, having worked in independent music for some years, was to fulfil my own creative vision.« And thus, out of the desire to create something that just wasn’t there, he founded the Phantom Limb label in 2017.

Vella is a seasoned musician, having released a plethora of albums under his A Lily moniker as well as part of the legendary post-rock band Yndi Halda, but has also worked as an A&R for the indie giant FatCat before starting Phantom Limb. He was soon joined by others who brought more music industry experience to the table: Ken Li had worked for Thrill Jockey and others as a publicist and George Clift runs the Hot Salvation record store in the label’s home town Brighton soon completed the team, after which live agent Andy Halliday brought in his own people and former Mute employee Dean Wengrow took care of the newly founded Phantom Limb-affiliated label management company Five Worlds. 

It did what newly founded indie labels always tend to do: a whole bunch of mistakes.

With literal decades of combined experience in the business and »well stacked address books,« as Vella puts it, the Phantom Limb team got to work and did exactly what other new labels do: make plenty of errors. »For a long period we didn’t have a single release without a mistake on it somewhere—a misspelt title, a fuzzy design element, even a whole song missing from one record,« remembers Vella. The growing pains of their phantom limb were however quickly alleviated. Early releases included albums by Cibo Matto vocalist Miho Hatori’s side project New Optimism, Bristol duo Hirola and Icelandic theremin virtuoso Hekla Magnúsdóttir before the label started picking up the pace in 2019, putting out new releases more regularly and even further diversifying its roster. 

Soon, composers like Dylan Henner or Richard Skelton with their very different takes on contemporary minimal music started rubbing shoulders with the bass-driven post-everything dub-club music of WaqWaq Kingdom or collaborations between Uganda-based Nyege Nyege affiliate MC Yallah and techno producer Eomac. At the same time, Phantom Limb started introducing new imprints like the ambient-focused, digital-only Spirituals, the sublabel Geist im Kino for avant-garde movie soundtracks and rescores as well as a vinyl compilation reissue series for unconventional and overlooked music. »We like to describe our roster as a mosaic,« says Vella. »The big picture is formed by a multitude of colours, shades, and forms.« 

The Power of Expression 

This plurality of sound aesthetics not only represents the stylistic breadth of the respective record collections of the Phantom Limb team members—»omnivorous listeners,« as Vella calls them—but is also tied together by what the label founder calls »the power of expression.« This applies to everything from gentle ambient sounds to noise, pop-inspired experimental music to hip-hop or industrial metal. »We of course don’t expect every Richard Skelton fan to love dancing to WaqWaq Kingdom, or expect every Infinity Knives & Brian Ennals fan to meditate to Ami Dang, but we hope that our passion can be felt in them all.«

Browsing through Phantom Limb and its sublabels’ respective catalogues, you are going to experience one surprise after another—here’s Kevin Richard Martin a.k.a. The Bug’s own score for the groundbreaking Tarkovsky movie »Solaris,« there is a record by electronic music maverick Loraine James and in between you’ll find a score for a Maltese film by The War On Drug’s Jon Natchez. A few names keep reappearing, a clear indicator that Phantom Limb strives to establish sustainable bonds with its artists. »We like to think we can offer a mutually respectful and understanding relationship,« says Vella. »We always work with people that we love, as well as the most talented musicians we can find, and we believe this is only helped by the background in performing of most of the staff here.« 

An architecture for the impossible

This »for musicians by musicians« approach includes a variety of other services Phantom Limb offers its roster. More than a record label, it is also a publishing house, takes care of touring, and even distribution for its artists. Vella describes the firm’s approach as a holistic one. »We often work with artists without prior publishing deals or live agents, and we believe it’s important to have these rights robustly represented,« he explains in regards to his team helping the label roster to navigate through the complex world of sync licensing and other legal or financial issues. 

The almost all-encompassing services Phantom Limb offers and the wide-reaching network Vella and his team have established in just roughly six years are no doubt impressive, but they also attest to a change in the indie label landscape. Having primarily been gatekeepers and tastemakers for decades, indie labels’ relevance is often questioned in times where everyone can potentially release their music themselves. »I admire artists that can do it on their own, and I have seen artists achieve fantastic results without a label,« says Vella. »But my feeling is that these are exceptional cases. A label provides an architecture very difficult—impossible, perhaps—to come by alone.« In other words: something that feels like it should be there, though often it isn’t. But Phantom Limb is here now, and it has come to stay.