Athens Of The North boss Euan Fryer tells us about the passion that drives his crate-digging
It would be fair to describe Athens Of The North founder Euan Fryer as a completist. If it's not funk it's soul, if it's not soul it's boogie, and if it's not boogie it's whisky. Whatever rabbit hole he explores, he explores as deeply, passionately and exhaustively as possible.
"It's collecting isn't it? You know how it is," grins the Scottish label owner. "I get into things, I get obsessed about knowing the details."
Fryer's serious collection began when he was added to the infamous Soul Bowl list in the mid-90s. A weekly fax sent to collectors around the world - including famous diggers such as Bob Jones, Keb Darge and Snowboy - Soul Bowl kickstarted (or maintained) digging addictions around the world for many years.
"I was working as an IT manager at the time," explains Fryer, "and I thought, 'Right, I'm going to spunk all my money on records!' That's what I did for years."
Then a chance meeting with a guy called Gerald [Short] turned Fryer's collection into an occupation, when in 2001 he accepted an invitation to move to London and work for Short's Jazzman Records label. Fryer remained with Jazzman for over 12 years, learning all the soul historian tricks of the trade, adding to Jazzman's portfolio of labels such as Soul 7, Soul Spectrum and his own eponymous imprint Fryers.
2014 saw Euan go solo and establish Athens Of The North. Applying the strong sense of documentation and the ethical digging process he'd learnt, in a short space of time ATON has secured serious status in soul, jazz, disco and boogie circles and has rescued some incredible records from the voids of obscurity. Not just 45s, either, but entire albums that have never seen the light of day in the 40-50 years since they were recorded.
Keen to also document the stories behind each release, Athens Of The North doesn't just feed Fryer's sense of completion, it feeds the entire scene for a new generation. For Fryer, democratising the music is just as important as excavating and celebrating it. Something which hasn't always gone down too well with the 'old guard' of soul collectors.
We called him to find out more…
I picture you like Indiana Jones, hunting down long-lost artefacts. Maybe with a dash of Robin Hood, too. Are you okay with this?
"Well, it's not quite as romantic as that! Searching for people certainly isn't. All the cold calling and dead-end leads... and then when you do find the person who made the record, they're often quite cynical and you have to spend a lot of time gaining their trust and managing expectations.
"But you're right about the artefacts... and bringing them to life for everyone. Getting the stories before there's no one around to tell them. In 20 years' time they might not be here and their kids might've thrown their tapes away thinking they're worthless. It's a race against time. I'm not the only person doing this, by the way - there are many of us doing it, and there needs to be. It's historically important music."
Is that the difference between today's digging and, say, the northern soul culture... really capturing that story and history?
"The northern soul scene scratched the surface. Some of the guys were interested in capturing the story, but largely it was about the records. We've definitely gone deeper in terms of licensing it all properly, telling the stories, documenting it, putting structure into it and giving fair dues.
"This scene has thrived on exclusivity for too long. People want to keep a $4,000 record to themselves. But if you want to keep a scene going, then you need to maintain enthusiasm and participation from the people getting into it. How many 17-year-olds do you know have £1,000 for a 45?
"I've never been into DJing to a bunch of old fogies. I mean this with all due respect - I've met some very sound people in the soul scene - but I prefer DJing to 18-30 year olds. So doing it this way, people get to buy the records at a fair price, and the artist gets recognition and some revenue. That's far more beneficial than one guy keeping a record all to himself."
The Fruit album is one of my favourites... finding a whole unreleased album must be a digger's holy grail?
"Yeah, it's always fulfilling, but it happens more often than you'd think. I was speaking to a guy yesterday who'd put out one 12-inch and he explained how he'd done a whole album but his ex-wife had thrown the tapes away. For every record we put out, we've got another 50 dead-ends or failures. It's very frustrating. Their ex-wife has chucked it, you can't find the person at all or, if you do, they think you're being funny. A huge chunk of my work is cold-calling."
How do you get these leads?
"Knowing the music is the main thing. Finding a name on a writing or production credit and literally going through the phone book for that area. There's a network of collectors in certain places, which is helpful, but more often than not it boils down to ringing every person with that name until you get, ‘Yeah, I made that record'."
I'm assuming you fly out to the States a lot to deal direct?
"Sometimes, but the internet has changed that. I do go to America but it's to look for records and hook up with collectors. Keeping my finger on the pulse on what new records have been discovered so I can go out and find them! It's very competitive, we're all friendly and respectful but we all want that unreleased LP."
I've heard you can end up in some dubious situations…
"I've had a few hairy moments where I've thought, ‘Maybe I should've told people where I'm going!' But I've usually come away with the records and a licence and they're happy and that's the main thing. Everyone wins."
Are we talking violent situations?
"Never violent... just shady. The one I always recall was an apartment in Manhattan with porn everywhere, a duvet over the window and what looked like a bar of soap in a sock, like a prison weapon. I thought he was going to kill me!. But it turned out his new career after producing, writing and scoring many big disco hits was as a porn photographer and I wasn't getting murdered after all."
Let's have some of your favourite finds on Athens Of The North so far…
"Rasputin's Stash was amazing because some came from the Curtom archive and some came from the band, because it had been recorded at the same time but never put together. I never thought I'd get everyone to work together and make it happen, but if you put yourself out there and ask, people respect that.
"Fruit was great, too. That began as a tip-off. He was tough to begin with, he broke my balls but I kept coming back and eventually we had a long call and got it sorted. But to be honest, I love every single thing I've found and released. Athens Of The North is about records that I love. I'm releasing my fantasy record collection!
And things are being released almost weekly!
"It does feel like that, yeah. But it depends on how many people I've found, how much money I have to license things, how much I have to manufacture. It's dictated by so many factors. Record manufacturers are also unpredictable - they'll suddenly drop four records on me at one time and I need to get them out quickly."
Are you affected by major label represses at the moment?
"It slows down manufacturing, but what really lets me down are some of the majors who are sitting on wonderful archives. Universal has some incredible jazz and boogie, for example. They won't license it to anyone but they won't repress it themselves. It's like, ‘Why are you repressing Born In The USA? I can pick that up at Oxfam!'.
"Other majors have been pretty good, though... and it's great to see their archives going on streaming platforms. That's created a democracy in itself. Especially when a DJ creates a playlist and an artists can get up to a million streams for a track that hadn't been heard before. For something that was about to disappear to suddenly have that new lease of life and touch people in the way the musician always intended… that's amazing."
This is what it's all about for you, really, isn't it?
"Yeah, it's about passion, about democracy, it's about not keeping it to yourself, it's about getting the music out there and having fun. That's what I got into DJing for."
You must have ruffled some feathers along the way?
"God, yes! Myself and Liam, who runs Jukebox Jams, have been involved in huge arguments on Soul Source, because some of the guys feel like you're stealing their record. They get confused - they believe that because they've paid $5,000 for a record, they own it. But they don't.
"But nowadays 95 per cent of the scene understand it and respect it and have come round to it. Because we've done it well, we've documented it, we've got the sound as good as possible – it's not a dodgy bootleg, it's done properly, we get the artist to register their publishing. I think it's hard to knock us. Someone always will, but I don't mind."
Words: Dave Jenkins