Interview by Rob Schenk

Behind The Label explores the many record labels in the global sound system community and the stories behind them. Big and small, everyone has a story about the music they love; Our first installment is an interview with Lo Gautier of Bent Backs Records, the label behind Jonny Go Figure’s 2019 smash hit “Vinyl Lover.” Starting in 2009 as a sound system crew in the city of Rennes, France, Bent Backs since relocated to New York, turning into a fully fledged record label championing the 80s digital reggae revival sound.

Rob: How did you meet Simon? What inspired you both to collaborate together to create Bent Backs, and why move to NYC? What started you down the path of collecting records?

Lo: I met him through a common friend, we were the two only guys in our villages in the suburbs of Rennes (France) who were collecting reggae records, and she decided we could hang out well together. Turned out we knew each vaguely (we both went to the same middle school, crossing paths in ping pong tournaments too as we were both players when younger). We both had a good time for a couple of years, playing mostly for private parties for fun, but unfortunately he got promoted professionally and couldn’t spend more time developing the sound. I was then joined by a childhood friend (Slim Tom) who had recently fallen in love with reggae, and two other dudes (Bobby & Esteban) who were playing in another village, who I met through common friends too. With that crew we played bigger gigs in Rennes, and started organizing our own events. Then in 2011, I finished my studies and got a job in NYC.

I don’t really know why I started collecting records, in middle school I got somehow hooked by reggae. I was buying magazines to know more artists and they were featuring the latest vinyl releases from Jamaica, and I found out that in Rennes there was a record shop that specializes in Reggae. I dusted off the old record player of my mum that was sleeping in the attic, went to that shop, and bought some 45s. I’ve never stopped since then, that was in 2001 I believe.

Lo Gautier at the controls, Photo Courtesy of DJA Photographie

Rob: What do you think is unique about the 80’s era of reggae, and why did you choose to pursue that as the sound of Bent Backs? 

Lo: The sound is unique, the way producers added the newly available technology (drum machines, synthesisers..) to their sound, was really innovative. It opened the door for artists to be very creative in their flows. But it’s just my opinion, I might overthink it. I got into it for the vibe; when played in a session, it always makes people dance, so we were playing more and more as I was discovering the depth of this period

Rob: What do you think is a defining feature of Bent Backs? How does it stand out?

Lo: I don’t think I am the best person to answer that, but what I’ve tried is to bring back that vibe but with our own sound technology.  

Rob: Your label focuses on recording established Jamaican artists, and their experience gives your recent 12” releases a lot of weight and depth. How does it feel to record with such established artists?

Lo: It’s like dreaming awake! Meeting the artists I have listened to and admired for years is such a  blessing. Realizing they are cool people full of stories is even better.

Bent Backs Records’ first release, ‘Musical Shot’ with Johnny Osbourne and Devon Clarke in 2014, Photo Courtesy of Lo Gautier

Rob: Jonny Go Figure is one of the fastest growing artists on your label. How did you two connect, and why did you choose to record his first record? And what do you look for in more up-and-coming reggae artists? 

Lo: I met Jonny when we released the first 12”. Deadly Dragon hosted our release party with Johnny Osourne and Devon Clarke and Jonny was DJing that night. Our paths were crossing more and more and when I saw him start taking the mic at dances, I proposed he pass by my studio, hold a vibe and record a dubplate for Dub-Stuy if I remember. It was the same day I was recording Shashamane Living with Fari DiFuture and Autarchii. Jonny heard the riddim and instantaneously connected to it. I explained the concept of the EP, that I needed a song about New York. A week later he came up with a hook that convinced me that it was gonna be the song on the record! Life ina Brooklyn!

Jonny Go Figure in the studio, Photo Courtesy of Lo Gautier

Rob: Your most recent 12” with Roll & Record was fantastic; roots focused but also fresh and distinctive. How do you achieve that balance of making a contemporary reggae song while paying homage to the traditions and roots that the music comes from?

Lo: Thanks a lot! I’m glad you like it that much. I think the work is just to put people in their comfort zone. Roll & Record is a huge fan of digital and he composed the riddim like that, as a digital riddim driven by a heavy bassline. I love it, but when I heard it I instantaneously asked Green and Fresh band to play this riddim with instruments, respecting the traditions and inspirations we have in common. The mix by R&R also plays a role, he made it 100% analog, which gives that touch of old school vibes, while the mastering is dictated by my own tastes of modern music and the talent of Noxious No. I had the riddim to record a dubplate with Tristan Palmer and he was so comfortable on it that he wrote another set of lyrics and that was Woman Woman!

Rob: The Bent Backs logo is simple, but distinctive. Where does your label artwork come from? Why a water tower?

Lo: Simple, yeah that’s the word. It obviously represents NYC, where I created the label and where I take the inspiration from. But in the village I grew up in, there was an old mine with a similar water tower behind my house, stuff pretty rare in our region. I always had that connection in my head since I moved here, and I like the fact it has nothing to do with either reggae nor record labels, not even music. 

Rob: What can we expect from Bent Backs in 2021? How do you feel the label’s sound has changed since its formation in 2013?

Lo: The label has changed since the 1st EP. After being 100% digital we are now working with a band, Green and Fresh, and it gives another vision of the 80’s era in Reggae. Obviously the time is not ideal to release music because of the incapacity of supporting it live. We don’t know what to expect this year. But in the past year we had time to work with G&F despite the fact we can’t travel and see each other. JonnyGo Figure has spent some afternoons in the studio too, so we hope to keep on doing what we love! 

Jonny Go Figure performing, Photo Courtesy of DJA Photographie

Rob: Why do you love reggae/dub/roots? 

Lo: Because it makes me feel better than when I don’t listen to it. 

Lo Gautier, Photo Courtesy of VM Creativ