The Domino Recording Company was founded in Putney, South West London by Laurence Bell in 1993. The label’s start-up capital consisted of a weekly £40 Enterprise Allowance Grant, some demos from friends in the American underground, the idea that self-expression was still possible in the corporate 1990s and a phone and fax machine on the bedroom floor. Twenty-five plus years later, the Domino headquarters are a short walk away from Bell’s first ‘office’ and the company’s ambitions, operating procedures and ethos remain the same – to represent and release music by artists who have no choice but to make music and to draw them to the attention of the world.
The label’s first release was Sebadoh’s “Soul And Fire”, a song of lovelorn honesty that cut through the prevailing bluster of grunge and introduced a new style of singer-songwriter recording that became known as Lo-Fi. Though always keen to avoid genres and nametags, the first generation of Domino artists became synonymous with the hallmarks of Lo-Fi: home recording, a free hand, and an outsider mentality, one that was unconvinced by wider ideas about commerce within the music business. Among the label’s earliest successes were Will Oldham under his working name of Palace and its variant modifiers (Palace Songs, Palace Music and Palace Brothers), Smog and Royal Trux – artists who all released epochal, highly praised albums that earned the label a unique position and reputation in a UK that was musically fixated on the monolithic good times of Britpop. In a move that typified the label’s unique sense of resilience, Domino also released titles by wayward and experimental domestic acts such as Hood, Flying Saucer Attack and The Third Eye Foundation that, together with their signing of The Pastels, ensured Domino celebrated a very British sense of regionalism and, at times, eccentricity.
In 1997, Domino released Pavement’s landmark commercial breakthrough Brighten The Corners which was followed a year later by Elliott Smith’s Either/Or and in 1999 the debut album by Will Oldham as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, I See A Darkness: a series of albums that confirmed the label’s reputation as the preeminent European home of American music. Bell’s desire to work with British bands as innovative and singular as his American artists reached fruition in the late 90s with the signings of Four Tet, Clinic, James Yorkston and The Kills.
All were acts with a distinct identity that established Domino as a label interested in creativity rather than any particular sound or style. Towards the end of its first decade, the label became synonymous with this new set of artists who provided a catalogue for Domino’s newly opened New York office to release into the American market.