“Early on we got a demo with a letter saying ‘we’re not that good at singing but we’ve got good dance moves and we’ve done a banner!’ recalls Tru Thoughts boss Rob Luis.
“By the handwriting I thought they were probably 12-year-olds who had been watching X Factor. So I decided to phone them up to tell them thanks but it’s not quite right for us. I was like: “how old are you?” and they said: “23!””
Tru Thoughts and Wah Wah 45s - two of the UK’s most respected, original, and forward-thinking labels - both celebrate their 15th anniversaries this year. After a calamitous attempt at a voice conference R$N phoned them separately to find out what their secret is and what is it actually like running a label?
WAH WAH 45s’ Dom Servini, who runs the label with Adam Scrimshire, also remembers a strange demo: “It was this guy just doing spoken word, really really fast and he sounded a little bit ill. It was all just really distorted and strange and it freaked me out a little bit!”
(Robert Luis & TM Juke, aka production duo Me&You, DJing in the early days)
15 years later the novelty of discovering artists has not worn off. “I was almost jumping up and down with excitement”, says Rob of a recent find. “I was like - this is an amazing record! Really well produced, really interesting composition, great drum programming very musical and it was literally the last one I listened to that day!”
WAH WAH 45s big moments:
1997: Wah Wah weekly residency at the Jazz Cafe is begun by the brothers Goss.
1999: First single is released: Benny Pool and Espen Horne double A-side.
2006: Label puts on its own live show at Cargo.
2009: Emeli Sande, Jamie Woon and Matthew Halsall all appear at Wah Wah night before later finding fame
2009: A thousand people turn up to the Wah Wah 10th birthday party at The Scala.
2010: The passing of Simon Goss. “The man who started it all with his brother Chris sadly left us, but his death inspired us to really kick on with the label, and organise an annual event in his memory”
2010: Amy Winehouse join Hackney Colliery Band on stage at The Jazz Cafe. “Surreal, and now a bit sad.”
2011: The Wah Wah tent at Lovebox - three days of Wah Wah celebrated as "the best thing at Lovebox that year" (Ross Clarke, Lovebox founder)
2014: Signing Dele Sosimi. “The man is such a part of musical legend, it still feels like a bit of a dream that he's part of the family.”
2014: The 15th Birthday at Oval Space with Jazzie B. “It hasn't happened yet, but I know it's going to be up there!”
Tru thoughts big moments:
1999: Tru Thoughts is founded by Rob Luis and Paul Jonas, funded by phonic:hoop club night
2000: Rob is given a last-minute Bonobo song for the label’s first compilation, leading to release of Bonobo’s (and the label’s) debut full album.
2001: Natural Self introduces a young Quantic – leads to first album.
2002: Hearing Alice Russell busking in Brighton… a ‘wow’ moment.
2003: Rob meets Lance from The Bamboos in a Brighton club – the start of a long-standing working relationship with the Australian artist.
2005: Label wins the Gilles Peterson Worldwide Award for Best Label (and Nostalgia 77 bags the Best Jazz Album a year later!)
2005: Quantic introduces label to his “side project" called The Quantic Soul Orchestra
2006: Flying to New Orleans to sign Hot 8 Brass Band after hearing their version of “Sexual Healing”
2009: Label ventures into US market as LA office opens
2010-13: Begin to work with some of their own musical heroes like Rodney P, Zed Bias, Ty, Omar and Peshay
2012: First official BBC Radio 6Music Playlist for the Quantic & Alice Russell single “Look Around The Corner”
Now: “Looking back and realising we have been able to sustain a record label for 15 years independently, and we are proudly able to pay our staff and our artists for all their hard work, talent and general dedication to making the world a musically better place.”
Dom is the same: “When I heard the Resonators play ‘Sweet Love Affair’... Oh my god! Suddenly you can see everything in your mind! You can see the future! Right we can do this this and this, we can tour the world!”
The vast majority of Wah Wah 45s’ signings Dom has seen live or knows through “other bits and bobs they’ve done”. Very few are signed from demos. “I guess it’s more inspiring to see a live band than it is to hear a demo track on an mp3 - you immediately get more of an idea of what they’re about as people and everything. But I’m not saying don’t send demos! If you’ve got an amazing demo do send it! But If I’m really into it, my first question is: “do you play live?” And if they’re not playing anywhere in the near future I ask - do you want to play here? That’s usually how it goes.”
Both labels had their seeds in club nights (Wah Wah 45s at London’s Jazz Cafe, Rob was resident at the Concorde in Brighton), for both the ethos was simply a way of getting the music they loved to more people, and both could call on knowledge and contacts they gained from already being involved in the industry. However, while Rob planned for a year in order to find enough artists, (“One thing I always noticed that, particularly the labels I liked released music regularly”), Wah Wah took a different approach.
“The first couple of years we released one single a year - one seven inch every 12 months!” Dom laughs. “In the 15 years the vast majority of our releases have been in the last eight. It started off as really just a bit of fun and to show what we do on our club night.
The sheer expense of licensing old music meant that for Wah Wah 45s to continue as a label they would need to find their own artists - Alison Crockett was the first to make an impact. “I remember we put out ‘Like Rain’ as a B-side and Giles [Peterson] jumped on it and played it every month and loved it. That was a real watershed moment for us”.
Check this 15 Year Flavour of Label Dom did for us:
Despite initially finding it tough to sign artists, (“if you go to someone and you’ve never really had a record label, without a success story behind you, it’s actually quite hard to do”), Rob then found his muse: “I was given the name of Simon Bonobo he sent me three or four tracks and I said “look can we put ‘Terrapin’ on the compilation, but I’d really like to do an album with you” and Simon was really up for it. Sometimes it’s all about those blessings, the stars aligning, whatever - it was right place, right time.”
The advantage of releasing original new music is, if you can find the channels for exposure, it gets noticed. “I always felt we needed to do something against the grain. It does help people to pay attention. Probably why Bonobo did well for us is we captured a moment. Then it was going on chill-out compilations for major labels and it was like suddenly that was an income stream for us, which I’d never thought about. In the digital age it’s harder to stand out because it’s easier to set up a label so there’s so many people doing digital releases. Even today we’re still trying to figure out the best way to do things. And we have one policy one day and another for another day.”
But of course signing artists means you have to manage them which brings its own challenges.
“It can be scary - when Will [Quantic] says he doesn’t want to do Quantic Soul Orchestra anymore and wants to change the name to Combo Bárbaro it was like “Oh my god - you’ve built up this massive following and this massive thing!” but it’s like ok he really does want to do that. Everybody’s face [in the office] dropped when I told them”, Rob laughs “but we did it you know and that’s what you can do as an indy label. I’m there to support a vision of the artist and that fascinates me.
“I like that journey. Even for someone like Bonobo, I like that I’ve been a small part in his journey. form him saying his Atari’s broken and me lending him my Atari so that he could go on making music - I saw a little while ago a picture of his home studio in Brooklyn - it looked absolutely amazing! But that’s been the journey for him. He had to start somewhere.”
(Quantic, 2014 (credit Christina Jorro))
Dom echoes the supportive nature of indy labels: “The big thing is that we do try to create a family atmosphere and we do try to make sure everyone’s loved. But they need to understand that it’s absolutely bloody tough out there to run a record label and you need to work really hard.”
“We’ve had situations sometimes where an artist has a little bit of success and, this isn’t remotely unusual to any record label, it goes to their heads a little bit and they might think they’re a bit bigger than the label and they leave. And maybe sometimes they are bigger they need to leave and do something else and that’s great. If an artist wants to leave then that’s fine. But more often than not, not a lot happens after that. That has happened on a couple of occasions but we’ve always ended up being friends.”
After 15 years, getting artists to finish on time, for Dom, still remains “an absolute nightmare!” since the more time you give the more time they want to go back to things and change it.
“And you don’t want to get a half-arsed album either. We’ve had many situations where we’ve said “actually you know what - have another six months” because we’re not gonna be happy with that album the way it is now and the way we can see it’s going to be in a few weeks. It’s tricky but it’s all part of the fun.”
Both labels have been through dark times.
Woolworths going under in 2009 almost took Tru Thoughts with them since the store owed their distributor Pinnacle, who in turn owed an “incredible amount of money” to the label.
For Wah Wah 45s it was the loss of Simon Goss, co-founder with his brother Chris, to lung cancer in 2010. Dom believes they’ll never fully get over it, “but it’s really pushed us to work harder to make the label something he would have been proud of”.
A highlight for Dom was Simon being present, despite being very ill, at the biggest event they had staged, when a thousand people turned up to their 10th birthday at La Scala.
Dom is particularly proud of rediscovering Henri-Pierre Noel who had been playing piano bars for the last 10-20 years in Canada and the signing of afrobeat legend Dele Sosimi “that goes beyond the word buzz really - to release his music and put on live is a huge thrill”.
A standout moment for Rob was seeing Quantic Soul Orchestra play the main stage at the Big Chill at peak time. “It was tens of thousands of people cheering to them. That was a proud moment, that you’ve taken a project from someone’s bedroom to a main stage at a major festival. It was like - that’s a big achievement.”
So how does a label manage to stay at the cutting edge for 15 years? “Be honest about what you’re releasing.” says Dom. “Don’t release something just because it’s trendy. As long as people keep writing great songs then we’ll keep signing them. The most important thing is to put out what you believe in, whether that makes me relevant or not, that’s more important. Hopefully we’ll stay relevant because we’re interested in new music.”
(Robert Luis nowadays)
“I know there’s a lot of crap artists who make a living from music”, says Rob, “you can take that from the X-Factor genre or pop genre where people are only interested in making money from their music - no interest about the art and that’s always been the motivation with me. So I know if people hear good music they will support it and buy it but they need a platform to hear that music.”
Dom echoes this sentiment: “Everytime I go out and listen to the dross that the majority of the people listen to day in day out I realise how important it is that we have to push this music. What people like me and Rob and other labels do is desperately important. It’s culture - it’s part of British culture.”
We Wah 15 - Saturday October 11th at Oval Space with Jazzie B, Hackney Colliery Band, Resonators, The Reflex & many more!
Tru Thoughts’ 15th Anniversary box set now available for a limited time on Pledge Music and will be officially released on 20th October, the compilation will also be widely available through all the normal outlets on 2CD and digital formats.
You can hear 3 spotify playlists created by Tru Thoughts for 1999-2004, 2005-2009 and 2010-2014 here.