The two record label honchos knuckled down over a shared telephone line and let loose their chat.
Seymour Stein is a veteran. He made his first leap into the music industry working as a clerk for Billboard Magazine in 1958. He then went on to co-found Sire Records and become vice-president of Warner Bros. Records, pioneering artists such as The Ramones and Madonna, to name a few, back in the ’70s and ’80s. Stein is credited by many as the man who coined the term ‘new wave’ as an alternative to punk.
Tim co-founded Transgressive Records with Toby L. after the two met at a Bloc Party gig back in 2004. They pride themselves on their wide variety of talent and on not releasing music unless it has been deemed perfect by them. Since 2004, Transgressive has released LPs and singles by the likes of Foals and The Noisettes.
Seymour: So, where do we start?
Tim: Should we start with the start of Sire and how you formed that and how that came about?
Seymour: I think in a way it’s not a bad idea to start that way because it’s the way we started. It’s what has led me on a long, long path to meet up with you guys. You see, when we started Sire we had very little money. And I mean really very little money.
Tim: That sounds familiar…
Seymour: We each put in ten thousand dollars each, Richard [Gottehrer] and I. Richard had made a good deal of money from producing and writing songs and I had made some money mostly through my involvement with George Goldner at Red Bird Records. He was one of my mentors, which I think is important to mention. Another one of my early mentors, in fact the first, was Tom Noonan, who opened up the doors for me at Billboard. He was running Date Records, which was a label of Columbia’s, now Sony. And he got us fifty thousand dollars, so we had seventy thousand dollars to start with. So, we signed some artists and it didn’t work out at Columbia, so we started our own label, Sire, which was originally Sire Productions. Our first releases were all licenses from the UK for the most part: The Climax Blues Band, Barclay James Harvest and Stackridge – the latter was actually produced by George Martin, one of the few things he did outside of The Beatles.
Seymour: I realised this was a good place to go because EMI had trouble with Capitol even getting them to release The Beatles, they rejected them not once but twice, so I took note of that. Also, even after they finally picked up The Beatles, they rejected all these other great bands like The Animals and Herman’s Hermits and all of that.
Tim: It’s really hard to get a US label to like a UK record now I think, maybe because the way we churn our bands out and shoo them off so quickly they’re not taken seriously in America, maybe.
Seymour: I think it comes in waves. I can remember when forty percent of the US chart was British music, and it wasn’t just during the British invasion with The Beatles. I got to know Chris Blackwell very early on. And Chris Blackwell kind of spearheaded the modern day indies through Island records. But although directly or indirectly, I got The Smiths, Aztec Camera and Everything But The Girl through Geoff Travis [Rough Trade].
Tim: Didn’t he distribute Mute as well, Daniel Miller’s Mute Records?
Seymour: Yeah, in the early days. Daniel stuck with him through thick and thin. I met Daniel Miller; he was picking records there and I asked him if he worked there, I didn’t know who he was. He said, ‘No no, they distribute my label Mute and I’ve just put out my first single ‘T.V.O.D.’
Tim: By The Normal.
Seymour: That’s right, by The Normal. So I picked it up in a flash and we did pretty well with it. Then I picked up his next record, which was Silicon Teens, and that one didn’t do that great. Several months later I picked up the NME, it was early in the morning thank God, and I saw that he’d signed a real band. Because the Silicon Teens and The Normal, those two were just his. The band he had signed was called Depeche Mode. So I figured, if this is Daniel’s, it’s got to be fucking great. So I just grabbed my passport, ran to the airport, paid an outrageous price to buy a ticket to get on the Concorde. I had someone from my company meet me, and we drove up to that new town where they were from… What was it called?
Seymour: Basildon, exactly. So I go up there, and I signed them on the spot, they were such wonderful guys. And I have to say, of all the people that I’ve ever met in the English business, Daniel had the biggest heart, the most giving and certainly one of the most talented. He had this dance label he helped start with Martin, what’s his name… You’ll have to help met out here…
Tim: Martin Mills?
Seymour: No, not Martin Mills, he’s a whole other story, we’ll get to him… Am I talking too much?
Tim: No, this is great.
Seymour: Well, Martin, he’d like to be Martin Mills but it’s a far cry… but he had bands like Betty Boo, Bomb The Bass and S-Express and we released all of their records, we were the first to put all of that out as well. As far as Martin Mills [founder of Beggars Group], he was probably the smartest. A music man with a businessman’s mentality thrown in. And he’s done incredibly well, more power to him. He’s really great.
“When we started Sire we had very little money. And I mean really very little money.”
“That sounds familiar!”
Tim: He’s a real competitor to all the majors now, this organisation with so many great indies plugged into it. It’s a force.
Seymour: He always did it, even when the company was small. Then I met you guys, and I saw that spark that you had, that energy And in a way it reminded me of when Richard and I were just starting out. You had it, that’s why I wanted you to come to America. That’s why I wanted you to meet my partner. I think it’s been good for you and good for us. You helped establish Regina Spektor in the UK.
Tim: With Regina, we were a massive supporter of her and it was pretty amazing we got the opportunity to release that for you over here, and it’s still one of the albums I’m proud to have released. Some of my favourite songs ever are on that record, it still moves me. And you mentioned taking us out to the States, that was kind of a dream come true for us. I mean, the guy that released Ramones and Madonna and Talking Heads wanted us to come meet him in New York. I think that really opened our eyes to our possibilities.
Seymour: I’m glad to see how you guys have come along. I can’t say I’m proud because I’ve really had nothing to do with it, but I’m happy. Of your new signings, I really love this guy Johnny Flynn. I think he’s a fucking star.
Tim: What do you see as the future of how things are going? Obviously it’s a strange time in the industry but musically it’s stronger than ever, there are so many diverse tastes. Moving forward, how do you think things are going to pan out over the next few years?
Seymour: Well, the Internet is really a double-edged sword. It’s really frustrating because in one way it depletes our income by making so many things illegally available. Yet, on the other hand, it provides us with so many new sources for new music, it’s incredible. Warners have asked me if I wouldn’t mind to start a blog, just talking about what I’m up to and about past glories etc and I’ve agreed to it. I think you guys are on the right track, you’ve got a great company, and I think you haven’t done it by trying to follow a trend because there’s no way to succeed by doing that. Because once there’s a trend, it’s over. You’ve got your own taste and you perfectly compliment each other.
Tim: Yeah, somebody once told me there’s only two types of categories of music, good and bad.
Seymour: That’s what I always said. I can easily live with the categories of my ill-spent youth; rhythm and blues, country and western and pop (which became rock). But I think that takes away, it creates niches where niches aren’t necessary.
Tim: At Transgressive we’re trying to be the stamp of quality on each release, saying it’s the best in its field. Whether it’s albums by Foals or by Regina Spektor, we want to ensure it’s the best there is. And in your case you’ve got the Aphex Twins and Ministry on the same label as well as Madonna and The Smiths. It’s amazing.
Seymour: And the Talking Heads and The Ramones… I think we’re probably the American label with the most, longest and oldest continuous ties with the UK. I feel just as much at home here as I do in the US. People would always say to me, ‘You’re such an Anglophile’ and they didn’t mean it as a compliment but to me it was the biggest compliment you could pay me.
Tim: (Laughs) Good, I’m glad! I think our continuing allegiance has been really interesting. Because it’s such a small country with such a focus on music, there’s lots of really diverse, hidden things coming out of the cultural melting pot. One of the things I’m striving for is making sure that the world hears it because I think we’ve had a lot of good success at home but we’ve got to work on expanding it. We went on a tour to South America and put on some shows with Young Knives and Johnny Flynn and the reaction there was incredible. Just seeing loads of kids who had never had the opportunity to buy their music before just going crazy to such quintessentially English bands, just shows me that music really does travel and translate.
Interview by Hemza Lasri
Read a full interview with Transgressive’s founders Tim and Toby, in which they discuss the highs and lows of the label’s five years, HERE.