We Are Not Saints is a first for the UK – a record label designed and operated to support those recovering from addiction get into music.
Head of WANS, Chris De Banks started the label to help artists get into the studio to record their music and grow creatively.
By nurturing and investing in the unique talent within this group of creatives, great music has been made and more importantly, many have gone on to lead better lives.
We spoke to Chris about the birth of the label, the ethos behind it all, and September’s recovery month.
UC: WANS was established in 2018, what was behind starting the project?
Chris: WANS came about from my own experiences and what I saw around me when I got sober. I’ve been in and around the music industry since I was a teenager either as a musician or on the business side so I’ve got a pretty colourful past. My addictions kind of ran hand in hand with my career so I’ve got a lot of first hand experience of the excesses that are available. I drank and used recreationally when I first started but by the time I was 35 I was full blown alcoholic and addict, jobless and destitute.
When I got sober in 2015 I started going to some sober open mic nights hosted by Cascade Creative Recovery and I saw talent there that just blew me away. In my professional life I’d gone back to work as a booking agent but really struggled with going to the shows and being in the thick of the action. I’d often have to make my excuses and leave bands to it which was really unprofessional but I couldn’t put my recovery at risk.
It may sound dramatic but whether to hang in there for another hour with people drinking and partying with all the potential triggers that presented or just to leave and head home really were life and death choices at that point.
I felt that something big had to change and I can actually pin point the exact moment that WANS was born and it really was on of those Eureka moments.
I was at The Great Escape conference in May 2018 just looking for contacts and trying to see what was going to happen next musically in the UK. I’d had a pretty miserable time because every networking thing I went to had a free bar and everyone else had clearly been making full use if the hospitality so the conference had been a bit of a bust for me. I went to watch Imogen Heap deliver a panel at the Queens Hotel and something she said about DIY in the industry really hit me. It got me thinking about labels like Creation, Factory, and Rough Trade and how those guys had built a scene and a business around them rather than integrating into the system as it was. If they could do it why couldn’t we?
So the idea was born, set-up a record label that only worked with musicians in recovery. Host gigs for the sober community and create a music business within the music business that puts everyone’s welfare, mental health, and creativity above units sold and cashflow!
It sounds insane now I’m saying it but that’s exactly how it happened.
How has the project grown in this time, have there been any real highlights you’d like to discuss?
When we started out it was me and a laptop and some friends helping out. We did a Crowdfunder and secured £10k which felt huge at the time but when you start making records is not much at all. We got our first three singles out but none of us were making any money, my best mate Chris is a graphic designer and photographer and he gave so much of his time for free it was unreal. I’ve got really fond memories of those early days as it all felt like we were at the cutting edge of something so different and new.
At first being the only label in the country working exclusively with musicians in recovery no one quite knew what to make of us for a long time. The music business seemed to think we were a charity and the charity sector thought we were a business so we had a really hard second year just running around trying to secure funding but finally after making enough noise and making people listen we managed to keep going with a few more singles and EP’s.
When Covid hit in 2020 we only made one record the whole year which is the acoustic compilation “Liberation Through the Looking Glass” it features eight musicians sharing songs about their experiences of what it was like going into lockdown when you are in recovery, what it’s like when all your support and connection is gone and all you have left is you and four walls. What could have been a really bleak soundtrack was actually an incredible message of hope. We put that record out on vinyl and that was a huge moment for us and I’m extremely proud of it.
Looking back over the last three years there’s so many highlights that I could mention like curating the festival stage at the South Coast Recovery Walk in 2019 or our Christmas bash the same year. The list really is endless but I’d say the biggest highlight of them all is where we are right now. Milky’s album The Milky Way is doing incredible things, we’ve got Deiphos Jay’s debut coming in November, there’s three more albums either finished or on the way and we’ve got five more EP’s coming too. We’re now working with recovery organisations all over the UK from Scarborough to Southampton helping them set up recovery/sober music nights. We’ve really grown in the last six months and it’s a real buzz.
I suppose for us the highlights don’t ever seem to stop. I find it always pays to be grateful then even the sh*t can have a silver lining.
Have you found responses to be positive? Have you found that the themes of music and recovery have resonated with a lot of people?
When we started the label I was really keen that the musicians we work with should be allowed to express themselves creatively in whatever way they choose, so a lot of the music we release tends to be inspired by their experiences or observations rather than being specifically about recovery. That gives us a really beautiful spectrum of life experiences that audiences can relate to because you don’t have to be in recovery to have experienced loss love, hurt, or anger or whatever the theme may be.
I think it’s this really humanistic approach that has meant that we always receive a great response to the music we release and the artists we work with. If we just released songs about recovery and addiction it wouldn’t be as accessible for a lot of people but anyone can relate to our artists and their personal stories are what intrigues people further.
All that said there is one massive exception which caused us a lot of controversy and that was “Sensible Centrist” by Callum Johnstone. It was a track that Callum wrote during the Brexit referendum about the so called “Centrists” on Twitter who seemed content to stir the pot but not take a stance on the referendum. We recorded and released that track for the November 2019 General Election and some people got the tongue in cheek nature of it but there was a lot of backlash from the political right which was quite funny at the time but probably lost us some supporters.
September was recovery month. How important do you think it is to draw attention to trials of recovery? Do you think this is something that people may not know enough about, or maybe not fully understand?
I think the important thing about recovery month is that it’s as much about celebration as it is about awareness and education. People in recovery don’t tend to be a miserable lot, we’ve had our battles and we’ve mostly won them. The war isn’t over for us and one drink, one line, or hit, could be the relapse that kills us but we can’t dwell too much on that. Maintenance of your recovery is a year round thing and that’s really down to the individual. September is a chance to stand up in society and say “Yeah look at us! We used to be f*ck ups but we’re here, we’re free, and we’re proud of who we are and our survival”.
There’s an amazing amount of work that goes into events all over the country every September and they’re always well received and well attended by the local communities and families.
If you’ve never had a problem with drink or drugs, or addiction has never touched your life, then you probably don’t know enough or understand but that’s okay. We’ll be here if you ever need us but for now just live your life the best way you know how.
Our Events Assistant Jax puts it best when they say “WE RECOVER LOUDLY”, that’s a statement about owning who you are and showing that a life free from drugs and booze can be a raucous one full of fun and laughter and I guess if we get a chance to show that every September then the more people take notice the more people may want to try an alternative lifestyle like sobriety.
Alongside releasing music you organise events safe for those in recovery – which knowing the general vibe of most Brighton gigs is a real departure – How has the response been to these been? Do you feel that they are an important thing to do to almost break the assumption that live music has to involve a rider full of lager and people spilling pints on each other?
The gigs we put on are definitely a great advert for the fact that you don’t need booze to have a good time. When we did our launch event we sold out the upstairs of Marwoods Coffee shop which was a tiny space that held just fifty people. I was shocked at the time that we managed to sell it out but people came and really enjoyed the experience. I remember someone saying to me how safe they felt because people were respectful and not falling into each other or pushing each other out of the way.
These days we’ve had to upscale our shows and we’re just approaching the end of a run of bookings at the Unitarian on New Road. When we did our post-covid show there in July I could have sold it out twice over. I had people calling me on the day asking for tickets that we just didn’t have. I think that’s a testament to the popularity of our gigs but also to the fact that attitudes are changing. Whether your in recovery or not you are welcome at our shows just don’t expect to be able to get a spirit with your mixer.
We’re definitely not evangelical about it, venues shouldn’t suddenly stop serving booze and open coffee bars, that’s not the world we live in. I will always have a soft spot for sticky floored, smelly, sweat pit venues and I hope that grass roots venues like the Hope & Ruin and Green Door have a long and happy future because it’s places like those that give young musicians their first chances and they are so valuable to our city.
What I am saying is that we do it differently, it works, people like it, so come along if you want a taste.
You mention on your website that music in recovery isn’t just “all a bit kumbaya” is this a misconception you’ve run into a lot?
Haha, good spot, that’s kind of an in-joke really.
I’ve never wanted us to be seen as this charitable organisation that people give credit to because of the “poor addicts, you must have had such a terrible life” mentality and that stuff can happen if you don’t set your stall out from the start.
I’m really passionate about quality and making sure what we put out is the very best thing that we can do, whether that’s records, gigs, merch, whatever, it has to be 100%. We Are Not Saints has always been run as a business and yes we do have an unusual mission but our core structure is that of an independent record label, music is a tough business to be in and we have to be the best we can be so we avoid the happy clappy stuff and just try to keep it real.
Are there any upcoming releases, acts, projects or events you would like to highlight?
We’ve just released the brilliant “The Milky Way” debut album from Milky which is gathering momentum all the time and is available on all streaming platforms now. We’ve also got the debut album” Computer Music Bedroom Disco” coming out on 12th November from Electro-new-wave artist Deiphos Jay.
On the gigs front we’re taking over the cellar bar at the Brunswick on 14th November for We Are Not Saints presents Get In The Cellar – a night of Punk and Rock. We’ve also got our end of year Christmas Smasher on 17th December at Unitarian on New Road which will be a summary of our releases this year and new stuff coming in early 2022
In the meantime if anyone’s interested in booking any of our artists or reaching out to say hi they can get in touch via our social media.