The story of Transgressive is “well documented,” admit founders Tim Dellow and Toby L, but it’s one worth repeating. With a combined fund of two grand between them, in 2004 they joined forces to put out 7” singles from some of their favourite bands because nobody else was doing it. The Subways, The Pipettes, Mystery Jets - these names run off like a who’s who list of the bands blue-tacked to teenagers’ walls circa-2005 in the form of giveaway posters. Little did they know at the time, but both founders were immersed in a wave of excitement that was running straight off a New York scene, diverted towards London. “The 7” singles just kept selling,” remembers Toby. “My cat was living on them at home in High Wycombe and then suddenly the next week they were gone. We had press interest saying we were the next Creation Records and stuff like that - we just found it hilarious.”
Since then, the label’s ambitions have changed. No longer chancers frog-hopping their way from one release to the next, they’re more interested in a narrative and the career of an artist. Ten years probably feels like forever for both involved, but in the grand scheme of things it’s no time at all. Still, they’ve successfully managed to oversee the good times and the bad with bands like Foals, The Noisettes, Johnny Flynn and Dry the River. “To start with, I was obsessed with records, physical records. But as you grow, you get two types of people in the music industry, and the best labels are the ones that care about people and the bands,” says Tim. “Very early on we did a few one-off singles and we thought it was great, but we saw bands that we loved going off and being ruined.” Toby agrees. “These bands were being chewed up and spat out the other end - they were ending up disillusioned or making albums they didn’t want to make. And we were into an ideal, ethical approach to making music.”
“We as a music culture and we as an industry aren’t patient enough.”
— Toby L
It’s no surprise that these two are in no mood for looking back. They’ve a handful of exciting new artists on their books - the likes of Gengahr and Marika Hackman - and it’s this faith in ‘what’s next’ that’s held them in such good stead. “You sign bands you love. You hear stuff in formative stages and you think about people losing their shit over it,” Tim declares. “We never try and sign the same thing again. We never want one band to be an imitation of another on the roster. We started and we were all about being a punk label - that changed as soon as we saw The Pipettes, thinking they were the best pop band around.”
Anyone taking notes on how to start a label might not be fortunate enough to get an early run as rich as the one that struck Transgressive. They’re also sitting here celebrating the big one zero for a reason. Before the label, Toby was running club nights under RockFeedback. Tongue placed firmly in cheek, he’d make ludicrous offers on the off chance he had a decent response. Graham Coxon attended one of his nights when he was just seventeen, post-Blur’s split. “He was out the press, God knows what was going on with him,” Toby remembers. “I cheekily said ‘Oh it would be amazing if you ever wanted to do a secret gig at my club night,’ he was like, ‘Yeah alright’. I gave him my email address - the next day he emailed directly and he played there the next month for our 1st anniversary. The first night he’d ever played without Blur. He debuted ‘Freaking Out’. That was that.”
They eventually ended up putting out his first solo record. It’s this kind of outlandish but deadly serious ambition that’s been a running thread in their run of form. When speaking about how bands work best, Toby claims that “everyone learns more and works better when they’re out of their depth. The moment you’re at a comfortable stage, you produce your worst work.” And that’s an ethos worth applying to a label - aim big, prepare to fail and act against adversity. Then the results come. Often they’ll sign bands due to chance happenings, friends of friends. One of the few “disappointments” they’ve encountered, they say, is the lack of good music submitted through a form on the Transgressive site. “Oh yeah,” stops Toby. “Except the time At The Drive-In wrote in saying they wanted to re-release ‘Relationship With Command’ via our label.” So there you go.
“The moment you’re at a comfortable stage, you produce your worst work.”
— Toby L
“We as a music culture and we as an industry aren’t patient enough,” says Toby about the nurturing of new bands. “We need to be a lot more fucking patient and supportive.” Tim cites Radiohead’s rise to the top as an example. “They made a perfectly good debut album. They then made an incredible second album. A ground-breaking third album, an even better fourth album. They were nearly dropped. The same with Blur. Those albums nearly didn’t happen.” Gengahr, he says, were signed “because of the band they’re going to become.” It’s worth taking note of this leap of faith, because a lot of bands are still left hung out dry before they’ve even made a first step. ‘Sound Of’ polls and January-led expectation place pressure on a group for it to be ‘their year’, for a debut to be their ultimate statement. Given the long-term ascent of Foals and the gradual growth of Johnny Flynn and Dry the River, there’s little doubt that Transgressive aren’t the types to judge everything on the present day.
Toby says it was “idealism” that motivated them in the early days. Now Transgressive oversee several companies, with management, promotions, publishing, live streaming all on the agenda. They’re not small fare, but they’re also avoiding being tarnished by business-oriented ambition. “With indies you have idealism but you don’t have the resources. With us, we’re getting further to having the idealism, the ambition and the means to build on it. That to me is so fulfilling. To go from speculation to actual attainment,” he continues. Back in the day it was “papercut central,” where records were being hand-stamped, printed and sent out to plucky, excitable punters. That’s still going. “Every record that turns up, you get that glow. But it’s all momentary. The pride comes in succession.” All eyes ahead, Transgressive’s 10th Anniversary is less a means of looking back, more a reason to press on.
Taken from the September issue of DIY, out now. Johnny Flynn & The Sussex Wit, Mystery Jets, Marika Hackman and more play Transgressive's 10th anniversary gig at London Barbican on 30th September.