It’s been eleven years since Tim Dellow and Toby L bumped into each other at a Bloc Party gig and decided to launch a label.
Since then, Transgressive has proven itself one of the UK’s most successful and revered independent record companies.
In addition to its plethora of recorded music releases, Transgressive also operates across the world of publishing (where signings include Two Door Cinema Club) and artist management (including artist and actor Johnny Flynn and a digital consultancy with musical icon Robert Plant).
It also boasts two fast-rising sister companies: LoveLive, an online video and multimedia company, and Rockfeedback, a live promoter and online music magazine which was nominated for a Music Week Award last year alongside Live Nation and AEG.
But the hub of Tim and Toby’s operation remains their record label – a valued partner of [PIAS] Cooperative, and an award winner in its own right, having picked up Best Independent Label at the AIM Awards 2015 (pictured, with Charlatan Tim Burgess).
“Too much pressure kills careers and is a hindrance to artists. As a label, we recognise that.”
Transgressive’s roster depicts an eclectic machine, from the ‘desert blues’ of Malian group Songhoy Blues, to modernised jangle pop (Alvvays) and nuanced electronica (Flume).
The label attracts uncommon loyalty from its acts.
Lilas Bourboulon, the third partner of Transgressive who joined the business in 2006, explains: “Too much pressure kills careers and is a hindrance to artists – as a business, we recognise that. If you put too much pressure on that first album, it becomes a nightmare.”
Such practices are usually more associated with the world of major labels, the pros and cons of which Transgressive know about intimately.
The label signed a partnership with Warner Music Group back when Infectious founder Korda Marshall was in charge of the UK – but it wasn’t to last.
Through that relationship, Tim and Toby forged a close alliance with Seymour Stein, who remains a trusted mentor to this day.
As Dellow points out, Transgressive has sold “millions of records” in the past decade, across acts that also include Graham Coxon, Gengahr, Regina Spektor, The Antlers, Africa Express, The Noisettes, Iron & Wine, plus two established legends who got hearts fluttering at the label – The Shins and At The Drive-In.
[PIAS]’s Kenny Gates sat down with Tim, Toby and Lilas to get a flavour of what makes Transgressive unique – and why its founders are quite so excited about the next 12 months…
Welcome to The Independent Echo!
Tim: We know all about you. I’ve been reading with relish. The Daniel Miller interview is my favourite so far.
Tim, Toby – how did you meet?
Tim: I was doing really DIY stuff, playing in a math rock band and trying to get a tour together that we were booking ourselves and driving to in the back of a Ford KA. With my bandmate, I started a small 7” label called Trash Aesthetics, and we did a couple of releases – the first one being the debut Bloc Party single.
I was really close with Kele at the time, and I [promoted] their first ever gig. I didn’t realise, but about six people turned up to that show and Toby was one of them. We didn’t speak.
Toby: I was with my dad!
“The fact we were both trying to exploit each other was a good sign…”
Tim: It was at a later Bloc Party show [that we met], which Toby was promoting. They were starting to break by that point – they had a manager and were in that interesting zone before they signed to Wichita.
I was selling their debut 7” and trying to get Toby to buy one. He was trying to get me to pay to get in. We thought: ‘This seems like it could be the start of a beautiful relationship.’
Toby: The fact we were both trying to exploit each other was a good sign of where things would go! I was doing a lot of writing, putting on gigs. I had started dabbling in TV and video production at that point. I didn’t have an aspiration to start a label at all.
Tim: In fact, you were like: ‘Labels are dead. Everything’s going to be online. What are you talking about?’ I bullied him into it.
2004: that was an interesting time for the music business, no?
Toby: It was the best of times and the worst of times to be kicking off what was essentially a physical singles label. iTunes had just launched [in Europe], YouTube was a couple of years away and streaming services hadn’t arrived yet. But the music was amazing – we didn’t really think about the mechanics.
How do you divide your roles today?
Tim: It kind of varies act-by-act as some of us have closer relationships with certain bands personality-wise.
Broadly, Toby is A&R with live strategy, and I’m A&R with creative bits, negotiation and making sure the bands are happy. Then Lilas is more business and strategic.
But it depends; if you look at Songhoy Blues for example, Lilas probably has the closest relationship with them – while Foals were my friends to start with and now Toby might be closest with them.
“We’re creatives who in all honesty have learnt business along the way.”
Toby: At the core of it, we’re all creatives and in all honesty we’ve learnt business along the way. I’d say we’re all moderate to very good business people now and that’s only ever going to improve with time. When you want to turn something you care about into a venture, you have to learn the [nuts and bolts] of business to make sure you can sustain it.
Tim: One thing that gives us an advantage over other labels is the team aspect of Transgressive. We’ve built a family where everyone appreciates everyone else is a really hard worker. When you sign with us, you soon find out there’s a central culture here – everything is a team decision.
How would you describe the culture at Transgressive?
Toby: This is a family thing, a passion thing. It’s not a job – everyone’s on call 24/7.
Tim: The culture stems from a confidence in what we do. Finding a hit in music is luck. Finding multiple hits and multiple groups is a real challenge. You have to have a confidence in yourself and your team that you’re bringing real value to whatever’s in the contract.
One example is the Mystery Jets – the third single we ever did when it was just Toby and I at the label. We didn’t have any infrastructure or budget, so the only thing we could do was a 7”. From that, they went on to sign with 679 for records and Zomba for publishing.
We stayed friends and even did handclaps on their first album. When their publishing was up with Zomba we published two albums with them. And when they were between [labels] we put out a live record as a one-off friend thing.
“This is a family thing. A Passion thing.”
Their new record’s on Caroline. If you look at the different options, labels and paths in their ten-year career, we’ve been a constant – either professionally or as friends.
It happens at other labels too; look at Geoff Travis and his relationship with Green Gartside – he’s been label, producer, friend, manager, publisher. That’s what we try and cultivate with our acts.
By keeping your promises and working really hard, it’s like an open door. We believe that, karmically, it means people will keep being attracted to us and wanting to sign.
What did your parents say when you told them you were starting a record label?
Toby: My dad’s always been really encouraging, as has my mum. They were like, ‘Cool, go for it.’
I remember when we got our first delivery of 7”s – I was still living at home in High Wycombe. All these boxes turned up so I just had them in my living room. The first thing we did was The Subways, and the other releases followed suit – these boxes would arrive and then quite quickly go into the post office. They could see they were selling.
Tim: If you look at a lot of the modern music industry – and this isn’t a criticism, it’s just a fact – lots of people come from [dynasties]; sons and daughters of people that have been in music before. None of our parents were in music, but they’ve all been supportive.
When we started, we took £500 out of my student loan, and then my dad gave us another £500. I guess he thought: ‘Worst thing that can happen is he learns something entrepreneurially.’
“It was really exciting to meet korda because although he was at a major, he ran it like a big indie.”
I think he was quite surprised that by our fourth release I was offering him the £500 back. He said: ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s great you’re doing something that’s growing.’ We managed to go full time on the label as I left uni.
Toby: Korda Marshall [then boss of Warner Music UK], gave us a shot to release albums. That was the turning point. Suddenly a lot of majors wanted to distribute our catalogue and it was like, oh shit, this hobby has become a vocation.
It was really exciting to meet Korda because although he was at a major, and there’s big discrepancies and challenges between the major and indie culture, Korda ran Warner Bros like a big indie and it was very comforting to us: ‘Make mistakes, sign amazing artists, learn a lot.’
He gave you a label deal?
Tim: Yeah. Our challenge initially was obvious if you look at these 7”s we were doing. Four out of the five [artists on Trangressive’s] first singles went on either to massive indies or major label deals.
We were really conscious – in the best way because I love them – that we didn’t want to become just a singles label. We wanted to make albums. We were confident we could make better albums than [other labels].
“We were seeing bands we loved getting ruined by major label a&R systems.”
We were seeing bands we loved doing these deals and getting ruined by major label A&R systems. That was our motivation more than making a living from it, really.
Because we had that track record of finding stuff that was going on and getting signed, we were offered a lot of A&R jobs. But we were like: ‘We’re not interested in A&R jobs, but we would do a label deal.’
That grew, we got some funding and the first things we signed [into the Warner deal] were Jeremy Warmsley, who’s now in Summer Camp, The Young Knives, who got a Mercury nomination, and Foals, who have continued through with Warner. We did some really great, unique records and learnt a hell of a lot.
So you started Transgressive on £1,000?
Toby: At the time we didn’t think about it. But now it’s like, starting a business with a grand and getting to this point where you’re still growing it sounds unbelievable.
Tim: We’ve all put in the time. I did a fanzine that lost money on every issue. I worked at a well-meaning but not very successful indie label before that.
Toby: It took me six years to receive my first proper salary payment from music; six years of working for free or making £100 from a club night.
Tim: Music is so rewarding. Bringing something into the world that wouldn’t otherwise be heard. Even that first Bloc Party single – the drums for that were recorded on a minidisc player with a single microphone in the bath. Then when it came to doing the album [on V2 – the label] was like: ‘Let’s do a new version – but how do you get that amazing drum sound?’
You look through some of the people we’ve worked with, especially producer-wise, and it’s the stuff of childhood fantasy.
So what’s the purpose? Why do you do this?
Toby: Because we’re huge music fans and we want to contribute to society and culture. Artists often don’t get looked after or nurtured in the right way. We’ve always had an affinity with musicians and always wanted to push that further. It’s that basic.
Tim: A lot of people are stressed about the current shape of the industry but because we never worked in the golden years of the industry, we look at everything as an opportunity. For an indie label, it’s very important.
Some of my favourite labels – Stone’s Throw, Motown – had a singular identity which worked for a time but the labels that we’re aligning with are like Island when it was an indie, Sire, Elektra – these massively diverse, hugely ambitious artists in their field on one label.
When you look at Flume and Gengahr and Johnny Flynn, these artists don’t have too much in common musically except that they’re astonishing and vital.
Where did the name Transgressive come from?
Toby: It took ages. We actually signed our first two singles without having a name. People were like: ‘Cool, you’re doing a label. What’s it called?’ I was like: ‘We’ll get back to you on that.’
Tim: I decided to do this with Toby because things were falling apart with my band and there wasn’t necessarily that family, ethical thing [there]. The next thing I had lined up on my previous label was The Subways, which became the first Transgressive release.
It was one of the most reassuring things ever to tell their manager: ‘I’m doing this with a new partner, we don’t have a name yet.’ And he said: ‘It would be really good to be on the same label as we are now because of the association with Bloc Party and The Rakes…’
And I was like: ‘Yeah, but this guy that I’ve met is totally right. His name is Toby L.’ He stopped and said: ‘You’ve said the right name. He’s an amazing guy. Let’s do this.’
Was he right?
Toby: Time will tell, Kenny. Time will tell.
Tim: Well we’ve lasted longer than most marriages so I think we should be alright… The name actually came from when I did English and Film at uni. There was this scene in cinema called ‘The Cinema Of Transgression’ which was linked to the No Wave punk movement in New York, with bands like Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, really early Sonic Youth – really nasty stuff!
It was born of a period when home video had just come on the market. These filmmakers, in the middle of Reaganism, had the first punk tools to make their own video, so they’d do these really horrible short films and distribute them.
A lot of them are really distasteful – I wouldn’t recommend them. But the idea was that once you’ve set a line in the sand as society, it’s your duty as a human to transgress it, move one step further. It’s about pushing things further.
“We’ve lasted longer than most marriages…”
Toby: We’ve kind of reclaimed it as a positive. We were angry when we started, seeing good artists get screwed over. We really wanted to create an ethical label that looked after people. We wanted to appeal to people as well.
Even if we do challenging records, we want them to find as many people as possible. One thing we don’t like is indie defeatism or an ‘indier than thou’ attitude. To that end, we’re very ambitious. We were born with a drive for all our artists to go as far as possible.
Tim: I’ve got a lot of time for the majors. We’re not indie purists and we work with them very well sometimes. But there does seem to be this cookie cutter thing that happens on a large scale with the majors: ‘We’ve had success with this kind of artist, let’s try and replicate it.’
Toby: There’s a hell of a lot of cynicism.
Tim: I think that seeps into the indie sector as well – we’ve had one that’s’ great in this field, let’s sign three of their mates. It’s an old idea; Creation used to do it all the time. ‘We’ve got the scene and one will break through.’ But for us, it’s like: ‘Select the best. Nurture them. Then select another oddity, and nurture that too.’
Is independence important to you – being part of the independent sector? You say you’ve worked well with the majors, but don’t you regret a bit that Foals go through Warners?
Tim: When we did the Warners deal with Foals, it was one of the best things we could have done because of our relationship with Korda who was very understanding.
We had a thing really early on where we gave them their first advance and they’d spent it within, like, ten minutes. We were like: ‘Fuck. We’re going to have to get some money.’
We went and recorded this album, which was exactly the right thing to do but didn’t turn out as we’d hoped, so we had to extend the album budget. Korda was like: ‘I see you’ve got something here.’ He backed us and it went on to be a hit record.
But when Korda left, a big part of that culture in the UK went with him. This is the danger with majors – a lot of it is about the bottom line and the machine. You have to look at things objectively. We still have a very close relationship with the band. And there are some amazing people at [Warner] who really understand them marketing wise.
Foals have earned a position with a major that makes it okay – the system is solid and they’re going into it with their integrity, not having their music compromised.
And if it was now?
Tim: It would be different. If we called [Kenny] up and said: ‘We’ve found the new Foals…’, well, we know what would happen – it’s been born out in the past. You’d be like: ‘Okay, let’s compete on this. Let’s do it.’ That wasn’t available for us at that moment.
Toby: We were 21 or 22, really young, and we learnt a lot from that deal. It was a really amazing apprenticeship; the beautiful parts of the industry and the awful parts combined. We learnt how marketing campaigns work globally. We know what it’s like to have all of those people rallying on your band’s behalf.
So what’s the difference between an independent and a major?
Toby: For me, it’s a physical and very basic thing. When you go to a major label, it’s the cliché. You enter big glass buildings and see a couple of receptionists that change every time you go in. In the lobby there’s big TVs showing the artists they have in the charts at that time.
Then you wait in reception and get your visitor pass. 20 minutes after your meeting time, you go up in a glass elevator and sit in their office for five more minutes.
“Entering a major label office, you’re confronted with a completely different world of that of any independent company.”
They come in rushed off their feet and their assistant offers you a tea.
It’s already a completely different world than that of any independent company! And it mirrors that of any other major corporate business.
I think in this environment, in or outside of it, you need to keep your eye on, and fight for the ethereal, beautiful creative of the artist. No matter how much we try to legitimise it, music is a completely human craft that is hard to distill and bottle.
Majors are more interested in signing hit acts, but not creating a culture that can be a magnet. I’m very impressed that you recently won the competition of signing an act who shall remain nameless – I hear you beat five labels. What do you tell them?
Toby: We get really excited. The word you said there – magnetism. It’s a mutual thing. It has to be very instinctive on both sides. If we meet people, we love their music and we get on, that’s when there’s no holding us back.
We don’t play political games. We just call people up every day and tell them how much we love their record. You can only do that if it genuinely means something. You can’t do it out of desperation.
Tim: It’s a team thing as well. If there was no Transgressive and I was just an A&R guy for [PIAS], a band might think I had gaps in my [personality and ability]: ‘We liked him, but did he really have a plan for the live side? Also, I’m not sure about that beard…’
For example, with Gengahr, Mike [Harounoff, A+R at Transgressive] told me to check them out. I went to Liverpool, we got on really well – we connected really early on. I was probably more convincing than the other A&R guys who were also chasing them by myself, but when they met these two and the rest of the team a week later, the pieces came together; We’re like Voltron – all of the different parts combine into this awesome thing, and it’s an easier sell.
Toby: Weirdly we’re often competing with major labels, on acts like Gengahr or before them Theme Park – they both had major label offers but they wanted to be on an independent. As time goes through, it’s always clear what the right fit for an artist is. I don’t begrudge artists for not signing to Transgressive. It’s got to be a mutual thing.
Tim: Besides, the joy of being a label as opposed to being in a band is you get lots of opportunities to try different things.
How does an independent label from London sign a band from Mali called Songhoy Blues?
Toby: We do a lot of filming through our other company [LoveLive] and their manager said, look there’s a documentary going to happen – we’re going to send a load of musicians over to Mali from the UK to make a record in a week, would you like to make the documentary?
I said I’d love to, but for whatever reason it didn’t happen. But I thought, wait a sec, he said they’re making an album in a week – who’s putting out this album?! He goes: We don’t know. So we put our hands up. By this point we knew Nick from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was involved, with Damon Albarn and Brian Eno.
Tim: This wasn’t Songhoy Blues though – this was Maison Des Jeunes, the Africa Express project.
“Songhoy blues should be the clash. They’re that important.”
Toby: The plan [in Mali] was to audition all these musicians for the album. Songhoy Blues turned up on the first day and started jamming out this idea, with everyone else jamming too. That was Soubour, which was the first song we heard from them. It was very exciting. And we decided that when we did the album launch in London, Songhoy Blues would be one of the bands we’d fly over. They played for an hour in London, and at the end of it, we all looked at each other and it was really clear we had to work with this band long term.
Tim: We’ve done really well with this first record, and I think it will be an amazing catalogue item. But with the next one, ambition is kicking in. We’ve established this band not just as a world music act but as a great rock band.
The lead singer is one of the best we’ve worked with in our 11-year history. He should be an international star, in a very serious way. We want to make it a massive record.
Toby: This isn’t just a band that’s making great riffs. They’ve got a genuine message, a manifesto.
Tim: They should be The Clash. They’re that important. That’s where other indies sometimes stop: ‘This is great, do what you want on the next album.’ We think we’ve hit a ceiling and now we want to smash through it.
Let’s transgress the line!
Tim: Exactly! It’s like with Gengahr – we think we’ve made their Pablo Honey and that they can go on to be the next Foals or Radiohead. We’ll be drilling down into them to make sure that next record is a good as it can possibly be.
Transgressive is much more than a record company. It’s a publisher, management company, media company, promoter…
Toby: Who needs to sleep, right?
I think it’s very smart because it gives you different avenues to spot talent. You found Songhoy Blues through your film company, initially…
Toby: Very true. Many of the bands we’ve ended up signing, we’ve found through [Rockfeedback] events, or agents have said, ‘By the way, have you considered this for Transgressive?’
The Antlers came to us because we were working with [agent] Natasha Bent on Foals, The Noisettes and Pulled Apart By Horses, and then she brought us Unknown Mortal Orchestra and we ended up promoting them.
Also, having an integrated live campaign with a release campaign is more important than ever – being able to build releases around key launch events and having the marketing totally entwined can create a fan realisation about how all these facets come together.
What else makes Transgressive special?
Toby: One thing we haven’t really mentioned is that we’re quite social as a company. Every year we take over a stage at Reading and Leeds. Our bands and any other bands we like joins us – everyone piles in and we have a mess fest. I can’t believe they let us back year after year.
The funniest rock and roll anecdotes of my life have happened behind that stage. We do it for the love of it. It’s not about making money.
Tim: You’ve got to celebrate your successes when they happen because there are enough hardships in this business. We’ve put out some great records that I believe will have their time – they could be the Nick Drakes of the future. You’ve got to keep that state of mind.
You won Label Of the Year at the AIM Awards. What did that mean to you?
Toby: It kind of just made us feel like we were on the right path. What was great about that night was it was a brief chance to self-indulge and pat ourselves on the back. But literally the next day we turned up to work and carried on. It was a really supportive statement from the industry.
Why start a label, not a tech company?
Toby: I’ve noticed that if you want to raise money, you just have to call yourself a tech company, even when you’re not.
So there you go. We’re a tech-ord label. Speaking to The Independent T-echo.
Tim: You’re tech-in the piss…
We’ve had big conversations about what we collectively value. We want to make a load of money, of course, but we want to do it properly and share it with our friends and the people around us.
“We’re domino before franz ferdinand; Creation before oasis.”
A lot of tech companies will raise a load of money from tax loss investment and it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. A lot of labels are really short sighted: ‘This is my one band. Let’s just fucking rinse it dry.’ That’s just depressing.
We want sustained careers for all of us growing bit by bit. We’ll make some money and take some money but we’ll bring real value to it. We’ve put out loads of great records and done some brilliant things, but in our entire history as a label, we’ve not had a runaway ‘hit’ as such.
Don’t Upset The Rhythm by The Noisettes was No.2 in the singles charts – we’ve never had a No.1.
The best is yet to come.
Tim: Exactly. We’re Domino before Franz Ferdinand, Creation before Oasis. When it happens – and it will happen – we’re going to be really well placed for it.
Why did you sign with [PIAS] when Communion or PMR and other labels would have signed to UMG?
Tim: When we first did the deal with Warner, we were quite arrogant about our abilities in the UK. The reason we did that deal as a label was because we thought: ‘We’re going to get our records out universally – the whole of the world.’
That was a big factor; we don’t just see ourselves as a niche UK label. It was a crushing disappointment to see that they weren’t even going to bother releasing any of our records internationally until we hit certain [UK] sales thresholds. It seemed very antiquated. And that still exists, depressingly, today.
Talk to a company like [PIAS], and you have real and nice people who you can get on the phone with in each country, and they’ll put your music out. Not all of your records will be hits, but it will be worked and be given a shot.
“At a company like [PIAS] you have nice people who’ll put your music out in each country.”
It’s a massive competitive advantage on what the majors are offering. It’s the same as the advance thing [majors offer]: we could have got tens of thousands more pounds going with someone like Universal, but then we’d be thinking: ‘Fuck, how are we going to get our records out internationally?’ It’s short-sighted.
Also, three new artists in the UK in 2015 sold over 100,000 albums. That’s dismal. There’s no reason a company like [PIAS] cannot sell that number of records – or more. If it’s a level playing field, why not go with the people who care most about music?
On paper, Songhoy Blues might not have been the most obvious signing – now all of the majors would really like them because they’re selling records. But they wouldn’t have taken that risk. Look at Bohemian Rhapsody or Paranoid Android – hits come from strange places.
Toby: Although credit to Atlantic in America for signing [Songhoy Blues for the US]. In terms of what that brand and its legacy, that’s the sort of artist they should be signing.
Who are the people who most inspired you when you started the label?
Toby: I’ve always had great respect for Alan McGee – he’s hilarious. He’s got the gusto and ‘fuck it’ ambition that only a person who comes from nothing can have. I respect his aspirational endeavours, but also the fact he clearly doesn’t give a fuck what anyone thinks – that’s really cool.
Tim: Ivo Watts-Russell and the early 4AD thing was almost the opposite – art-focused and ego-driven. Alan McGee was always, the ‘I’ll sort this out it’ll be great’ kind of blagger. Ivo had the arrogance as a label owner to say, actually I’m going to make my own records and produce stuff and tinker.
We try and blend those ideas – the character, showbiz, energetic trailblazing blagger, which we all have in us, and the cerebral, respectful, art-led, focused guy.
These are the characters that have fed into what we do – Chris Blackwell too. When you’re talking about great indies, Elektra and Island were about the best there’s ever been. [Island had] King Crimson, Linton Kwesi-Johnson and Nick Drake all on the same label!
“I’ve always had great respect for alan mcgee… and then you look at Ahmet Ertegun.”
Toby: And then you look at Ahmet Ertegun. If we’re talking about proper artist development and entwinement with an artist – hands-on with the songwriting process. We look up to people who were bold and brave.
Tim: I also look at Motown. This is one of the things as an independent industry need to get better at: the singles market. That’s how a lot of people engage with music. We all love making albums, but we’re really getting more and more focused on delivering [hits], in a Motown-esque way.
We’re challenging our artists in that way. But we’re not about artist exploitation in the way [Motown] allegedly was back then – we combine the [A&R approach] with the punk values of SST or Dischord.
Toby: He’s amazing. He’s always had a great affinity with the British independent labels. When we did our Warner deal, Korda told him about Transgressive and he made the effort to say, ‘Hello welcome to the Warner family – I want to bring you guys over to New York.’
Tim: Once we’d done the deal with Korda, we were pretty obnoxious, truth be told. Although with my more egotistical hat on, the way the majors started doing more 7-inches and multi-format releases… they were all our ideas that we brought into Warners.
I think Korda saw us as a violent force for good, which was nice. But we were also coming up against the traditionalism and stresses in the major label system we’ve talked about. Right at that point, Seymour reached out and said: ‘Guys, don’t worry, let me take you under my wing.”
“Seymour Stein basically taught us the music industry in a four hour meeting.”
Toby: He basically taught us the music industry in a four-hour meeting. It was inspiring and hilarious and touching. He made things seem possible, even if they were loftily ambitious.
Tim: And he was human. That goes back to why we like working with [PIAS] – we know who the people are, it’s not a faceless thing. One of my favourite Seymour stories was him talking to us about not letting go of a signing. We were trying to sign an act, but Korda wouldn’t sanction it because… we’d spent a shit-ton of money, basically.
Seymour said, just fucking sign it anyway – he said he was in the same situation with Echo & The Bunnymen, no-one would give him any money. So he started a publishing company and signed them for publishing instead. Without that nod and ‘fuck it, sign it anyway’ thing, we probably wouldn’t have signed the Noisettes and we’d have gone bankrupt. For two glorious records, we put out some really good music and still have the platinum disc on the wall to prove it.
Can you break an artist without having hits on the radio?
Tim: I think radio’s still really key. It’s a shame because there’s confusion amongst the biggest players in the UK how their audiences should be tackled.
Toby: If you’re a solo artist or ‘EDM’ or dance act, you can get hits at the moment. But for bands, the game needs to be upped. I like the way Noel Gallagher talks about it, which is ‘write a fucking chorus’.
I think there are a lot of bands out there who are quite fearful of going out in front of a crowd and trying to inspire them in the way any of those Britpop bands did. If you think about all of that era, regardless of how naff it became, one thing that united us was the big singles. Bands as gangs today can definitely up the ante in trying to write killer choruses.
“Bands as gangs today can definitely up the ante in trying to write killer choruses.”
Pop songs need not to be looked upon with disdain. Because pop, in a weird way, is a filtration of the highest art. It’s a smorgasbord of everything beneath it, pulled up into a distillation. That’s why I respect what Grimes is trying to do – whether or not she’ll be able to convert the mainstream. There are loads of bands who kept their integrity while appealing to millions of people.
Tim: One of the challenges we have as an indie group is that you can attract fans with a great band, but learning to nail these songs takes some time. Blur put out two albums – with some great moments – before they started having hits. Or look at Pulp – they had seven albums with no hits before they had hit albums.
What have been your highest moments and your lowest moments at Transgressive?
Tim: Normally Friday, and then Tuesday!
Toby: I like watching audiences with our bands. There’s nothing like a band headlining a festival or play their first Brixton. Those moments are amazing. Also, working with your heroes is amazing! You know the ‘don’t meet your idols’ thing? We’ve never been let down. We’ve met a lot of our idols and they’ve been fucking awesome.
Tim: When we did that Maison Des Jeunes record… well, I’d always fantasised about being in a studio with Brian Eno. We were in a committee scenario in the studio with Two-Inch Punch, the three of us, two of the guys from Africa Express, Damon, Brian Eno and Steve Sedgwick, the engineer.
We’re picking the final track listing and there’s 30 really good songs. And Brian’s like, ‘Let’s do a card game [to decide]!’ We sat there and he’s going, ‘Tim, make some notes.’ Watching him working through it in that way – going through a genius’s process.
Toby, because he’s a dear friend, took a sneaky photo of me and Brian talking. I texted it to my dad and said: ‘Here’s me working with Brian Eno – he actually thought I had a good idea!’ My dad comes back: ‘It looks like you’re ordering a takeaway.’
Another one was going into the studio on the third Foals album with Flood and Moulder. For me as a teenager, Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness [Smashing Pumpkins], Downward Spiral [Nine Inch Nails], PJ Harvey’s album [Is This Desire] – those records meant so much to me, they shaped my stressy teenage years. Having those moments, having people you really respect giving you a bit of attention, it’s so rewarding.
Toby: These people are good radars. The fact they indulge our conversations and thoughts is a good sign. I think the reason for that is because we’re going in with a genuine interest in what we’re talking about. We’re not trying to exploit the situation. We want to conjure the best energy and outcome as possible.
Tim: We’ve only had one really bad studio experience. It was disappointing. We’ll save that one for the book. But one in eleven years isn’t too bad a rate.
What about your bad times – your insecurities?
Tim: My regret is that you tend to spend less times working on your successes. If you have a good team, that part becomes a machine.
Toby: I remember speaking to Andy Ross from Food when we first started out, asking what it was like working with Blur. He said: ‘Well it’s great, but it’s like an enterprise. You get the tour management people, the management people, the marketing people… before you know it there’s 100 people working around an artist.’ In terms of real tangible lows, when we broke up with, it was hard – all the people we had been working with were let go with relatively short notice.
Tim: We had a bleak time. Interestingly, in that ‘bleak’ time we put out the first Liam Finn album, the second Johnny Flynn album and the Graham Coxon album – as well as the Noisettes record which went top-10. Those are some of the best records musically we’ve ever done.
“In the music industry, you’re going to get fucked over…”
Toby: This is funny: When we parted ways with Warner, the next artist we were going to sign to them was Two Door Cinema Club. We ended up signing them to our publishing company instead. When we had that awful piece of news [about Warner] months before we realised it, we were about to have our best ever year. You have to hang on in there. If you believe in what you do and work hard, typically good things happen… eventually.
Tim: In the music industry, you are going to get really fucked over. The first time I was fucked over, it hurt so much. I realised I was at a juncture: you could either become one of those guys in the pub who says, ‘I once put out this 7” by this one band.’ And then you’re bitter about what could have been for the rest of your life. Or you’re like, okay, I was screwed over there, pick yourself up, then do it again. You probably get screwed over another four times before you learn your lesson.
Toby: Failure is giving up. Just keep going.
Do you consider yourself romantics?
Do you think you’re hopelessly romantic?
Tim: We’re hopeful romantics. Where we’ve been luckiest, we’ve seen the fruits of romance and ambition. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if over 11 years we hadn’t sold millions of records – for different people in different scenarios – but we’ve had successes. This is a heart and soul business.
What are your long-term aspirations?
Toby: I want us to be the biggest music company of our generation. What I mean by ‘biggest’ isn’t scale of people – I mean the most respected, credible, successful and influential.
“I want us to be the biggest music company of our generation.”
Tim: We’re greedy. We want multiple books and films to be made about us and our artists. I want massive No.1 hits with massive cultural relevance. And I also want us to be able to still do cool little punk things when we want to.
The best thing about the music industry now is that there’s no reason why you have to compromise on those things. You just have to work really hard for it.
Toby, the first time we met you had a black eye. Can you explain?
Toby: That was quite a first impression.
Tim: Ed Harcourt laid Toby out, which is funny because they are best friends as well. I’ve nearly had drunken fights with Ed a few times – he’s a brick shithouse.
Toby: Can I just say for the record that (a) I didn’t pass out and (b) he did.
Lilas Bourboulon: ‘There’s no limit to what we can achieve’
Bourboulon joined Transgressive in 2006, two years into its history.
After growing up in Val d’isere, she moved to London in 2004 because she “felt something happening in music” in England’s capital.
Going to gigs night after night, she saw The Young Knives play in Islington, and was so impressed, she contacted the band’s label through MySpace to ask if they needed any help.
“I met Tim and Toby in what used to be a very crappy office on Holloway Road – and we hit the ground running,” she says.
Bourboulon saw Transgressive’s Warner years – and their subsequent parting with the major – first hand.
“There’s such a high turnover of staff at major labels, you’re always dealing with new and different people, so it becomes a process-driven environment,” she points out. “When people change jobs every two to three years, it has to become systemised.
“Once you have a functioning team and the right band, there’s no limits to what you can achieve.”
“It’s not like that at Transgressive. Most of our staff and partners we’ve known for a very long time.
“Once you have a functioning team and you have the right band, there’s no limits to what you can achieve.”
She adds: “We’ve been through highs and lows. When the Warner deal stopped, obviously the funding stopped as well as that was a tricky year – we had to survive on our own resources. And we did it, but now we have a bedrock.”
Bourboulon names the signing of The Shins to Transgressive, one of her favourite bands of all time, as the high point of her time at the label so far.
“Over the years, we’ve learnt when to push the marketing buttons,” she comments.
“We used to go full guns blazing on the first single but now we know there’s a right time – you have to know when to hold back just as much as when to go.”