Profiling Rough Trade had been on our wish list for quite a while. Call us uninspired or lazy, but doing it for our Rough Edges Issue felt like an obvious no-brainer, or just an excuse to day trip our way over to London. We hopped on the 8.05 Eurostar and started with the label’s headquarter, located West near Portobello Road, before heading to Rough Trade East, the country’s biggest record shop. Merel had a field day snapping the HQ – where all the magic happens – as well as the beautiful people swarming around the ever so cool Brick Lane area. Below are all the shots that couldn’t make it in the print issue, as well as the original piece we ran with.
Photography Merel ‘t Hart
“There never has been and there never will be another record company like Rough Trade,” writes Neil Taylor in the synopsis of “Document and Eyewitness” – the latest book to recount the iconic British institution’s twists and turns, as narrated in the first person by its various protagonists. It sure isn’t the first and it certainly won’t be the last. Of all independent labels, its story – singular, fascinating, at times confusing – is one of the most documented throughout musical history. “It’s definitely one with a lot of human drama,” concedes founder Geoff Travis. “Lots of highs and lows…” Originated in 1978, the record shop cum label cum distributor set itself apart with an uncompromising devotion to putting good music out, crafty DIY skills, and a string of maverick tactics. No hierarchy within the company, equal pay for everyone, a 50/50 split of profits with signed artists. What could be deemed as kamikaze decisions actually paid off.
At the end of the day, it was about music, and Rough Trade Records sure delivered. From the early post-punk days with bands like Cabaret Voltaire, Young Marble Giants, The Fall, Pere Ubu, to the indie explosion led by The Smiths. With a tradition for underpinning raw talent, steered by Geoff and associate Jeannette Lee’s killer instincts, the label has managed to score a very eclectic mix of influential artists throughout the years. Credit issues and bad management led to the venture’s demise in 1991, but it rose from its ashes at the turn of the millennium with rock and roll saviours The Strokes, The Libertines or Belle And Sebastian amongst its stronger-than- ever roster. “Rough Trade released records that no other label would release. Looking back, even if they weren’t all successful, it’s just amazing to see the vision that Geoff and Jeanette had”, notes Ben Ayres, who handles press for the company. The secret to this success is that there is no formula. “We feel passionate about anyone that excites us really,” explains Geoff. Who is he feeling right now? “Well, signed artists are like children, so you can’t really say who your favourites are,” he jokes. He is, however, very excited about the Rough Trade Record family’s most recent additions, Dylan Le Blanc and Warpaint, whose new material was blasting out in his office as we came in.
The family hint is a crucial one. “It’s an exciting place to work, we’re really tight-knit and everyone is fanatical about music. It’s a home for our bands, not just a label,” enthuses Kelly Kiley, who’s been there for almost 15 years and deals with anything from artist liaison to product management, assisting Jeanette, promo, budget, “everything really”. The unorganised structure, casual vibe and chaotic premises have been defining characteristics of the imprint since day one and still prevail – whether in the Golbourne Road HQ or at Rough Trade East, the 1500 square meter store that opened three years ago. Emulating the original shop’s no-fuss atmosphere, it translates as more of a hangout where one can expect real advice and a genuine social experience. The label and the store now operate as two completely separate entities. The fact that they share the same name might be puzzling, but “that says a lot about Geoff and Jeannette,” explains Ben. “When Geoff decided he wanted to put out records more than stay in the shop, he just let them carry on with the name Rough Trade. In a way it was quite an un-commercially minded thing to do, not very business-like… Unusual… Again!”