Label Love #62: Tummy Touch
Earlier this month, whilst trawling through the usual notifications, invitations and political ranting on Facebook, my timeline pricked my memory when I glanced a birthday party being thrown in Shoreditch. Reading the event name and the hosts threw me back to the end of the last millennium, when I still bought records properly and delighted in some of the more obscure and quirky vinyl in the high store racks. The odd little Oriental cartoon girl adorning them, and the intriguing monikers and titles. And that was before I’d listened to them.
Tummy Touch and label owner Tim ‘Love’ Lee were hosting a 20th anniversary party, back at their London haunt The 333. The milestone had me both concerned (where the hell has two decades gone?), but also a feeling of contentment that such things could still occur. And then realised that I had a lot of catching up to do.
It was a few days after the bombings in New York, when I called Tim in sunny Brooklyn. He was busy moving house, and the weather was “super sticky”. He and his closest had been unharmed by the terror acts. “It’s a big city with a lot of people and you know, shit happens and people six blocks away have no idea. People just seem to shrug it off and get on with it”, he said calmly.
I’d been unable to get along to the 333 reunion, but had a good nosey at the response online. The first thing I saw was a little fella in only his undies behind the decks, along with Tim, more suitably attired. Tim laughs loudly, he laughs a lot, in quite a child-like giggly way.
“Hahaha, Crispin! No man, that’s an old picture from Fabric, maybe our 5th birthday or something. No he was fully clothed this time”.
He goes on to tell me it was great fun, and was more about the early days of throwing parties before the label found it’s feet, a bit of Nineties naughtiness.
“For a lot of people Tummy Touch is known just as the parties that we did in London. We started in Nottingham, and then started doing illegal warehouse spaces in London and then onto the 333, once a month on a Saturday for 4 or 5 years. They didn’t really know about the label. So this was kind of a reunion for the club days, and the club hasn't changed a bit, it was just a bunch of 45 year olds stood around in a shit-hole bar thinking, ‘What the fuck am I doing here again?’”
Before Tummy Touch, Tim was running another label, Peace Feast, for several years in the 90s. Young, frustrated and impatient, he was making music and DJing in Nottingham. He was also a bit full of himself.
“The label itself came around by accident really, two things happened. The first was I got fired from my regular DJ gig in Nottingham, I was too fucking big for my boots and said something to the boss one time.
"This was at The Box. It was a pretty cheesy club but they did an acid jazz night, the only place in town and it was pretty successful, and I told the boss I was the most important person in that night, and so he fired me. Consequently the club carried on brilliantly without me, which was a valuable lesson. So, fuck it I started my own night and we called it Tummy Touch”.
The label came soon after, as Tim was looking for an outlet for his own music, and his youthful arrogance instigated that move.
“I sent demos around and I got some pretty positive responses, ‘Maybe next year we can find a slot’ and so forth. But I was young and impatient and I was like, ‘I’m not fucking waiting’. This was before digital and MP3, so if you made a tune you had to get it pressed on vinyl, and back then you could turn a pressing around in a few weeks. Certainly not the case right now”.
And the second thing thing that happened was a further example of his occasionally misjudged eagerness.
“I had Peace Feast, which was a weird, dubbed out, sort of a trip-hoppy thing really, and a mate of mine was doing a release for that label. I’d booked a cut, and I’d never heard the track. He’d sent me a DAT and I didn’t own a DAT player, but I just assumed it would be right for Peace Feast because we knew each other really well. I’d never bloody listened to it, and I’m at the cutting and he puts on this DAT and it’s like this disco thing, like an uptempo danceable disco track, and I’m like ‘Fucking hell, that’s not what we do on Peace Feast!’”
“But I’m already paying for the cut, so it’s like, ‘better start another record label then’, and there and then I started it, named it Tummy Touch and that split single was the first release”.
'The Nightflight EP' by Stop and E.D.O. came out in 1996. The label name was snatched from a poem by underground cartoonist Vaughn Bodē. “He had a character called ‘Cheech Wizard’. His whole style, both visual and his text, inspired a lot of graffiti and hip-hop stuff. He wrote a collection called ‘Poem-Toons’, and I nicked the name from one of the poems in that. I just liked it”.
“The warm tummy's the key, you see.
It hold all the first parts…
It's got things above and things below…
It's got this fantastic flaccid bellyhole for fingers to go…"
Several London based labels from that period were keeping Tim busy, buying and spinning and generating that impetuous energy in him, and piquing his confidence.
“Dorado, Mo Wax, Conscious and Boogie Back, Talkin’ Loud, all of these were definitely an inspiration to me. And I had an idea that I could compete, without actually knowing what I was doing. There’s a lot of the arrogance of youth involved in all of this, on a lot of levels! One, I thought the tracks I’d made were so ‘fucking ace’ that I had to get them pressed and get them out, you need a bit of that full heartedness and arrogance to push you into doing it, because really it’s a stupid idea”, he chuckles. “I would hope I’ve got over some of that arrogance by this point”.
Just three releases in, the next act on the fledgling label would have considerable impact on it’s future. In 1997, Groove Armada put out their debut single with Tummy Touch, ‘Captain Sensual’. The success of the band at a very early stage was a prime example of Tim’s cavalier approach to marketing, and his obvious naivety.
“Tom’s from Cambridge, my home town. We were in rival bands, when I was 16/17 years old. At this point we were both in London, and he knew about Peace Feast, we’d done about ten releases by then, and the first couple of TT releases. We’d caught a bit of a wave I guess, that sort of ‘disco’ sound was coming back in, through no planning on my part, no grand vision. It was just exciting quite a few people, and people were sending me music in. Tom was doing his party and making some music with his mate, just for fun. He had a successful career doing sports branding and sponsorships, Nike and such. The music was just on the side. So he’d sent some stuff over, and we put it out and we were all surprised at how that blew up. It was really the release of ‘At The River’ when it all happened, which we just did as a little 7” at Christmas time and I knew it was a cool track, but I guess I wasn't thinking big enough. People just jumped on it”.
So just a year after getting kicked out of The Box in Nottingham, Tim and Tummy Touch had a record that hit the Top 20 after getting licensed by a major, became “that record off the radio” which was hummed to me in my record shop and later soundtracked ads and coffee table after parties. Was that fiscal fillip beneficial to the label’s future?
“Definitely. With 20:20 vision and hindsight I wish I knew then what I know now about how to get the most out of an opportunity. I was just having fun, getting DJ gigs, free booze, getting flown around Europe, you know. I thought that was the be all and end all, I’ll do this for the rest of my life, thank you very much! Thank God for the people at the distribution company, they were like ‘Tim, this is what you’ve got to go and do’. The album was getting ‘Album Of The Month’s and stuff like that, but they really held my hand. We licensed that song onto BMG, and got an advance and we still get royalties from that song. It really helped the label, but in those early days I didn’t know how to capitalise on that. Or what to do next?”
With a gift horse like that, obviously you would consider your business assets and strategise your future?
“Very quickly I decided to put out really obscure downtempo singles, because I liked it”, again he laughed at his judgement. “That’s always how it’s been with the label, it’s been as inconsistent as I am, what I’m interested in and excited about. Successful labels are very consistent, we have been the opposite. Not from a quality point of view I don’t think, but from a genre point”.
That magpie attitude though is what can make a label so unique, you can always be left guessing what might come next. Ahead of our chat, I printed off the Discogs page for the label. It ran across 10 pages of A4, with names that I recalled and so many others I don’t remember. It’s very, shall we say, disparate?
“Yeah, that’s a good description. Because it’s such a small label, it just depends on what kind of mood I’m in on any given day, and my tastes change, as have my surroundings. I’ve been in the US now for 15 years”, he explains, as if to make some kind of unnecessary excuse.
The label has two offices these days, one in London and the other in Tim’s now home town of Brooklyn. How did he end up out there?
“I met a girl and fell in love, and came here to be with her. Married her, divorced her and stayed. Not quite so romantic, but we’re still friends. I just followed my heart really. Interestingly, part of that was just getting away from the club life. My life in New York has just been video shops and supermarkets, Nottingham & London was all about buying records and going out. I kinda had to get away from that. That was reflected in the label’s output too for some time”.
“However, for this anniversary, we seem to be going back to our roots, and just putting out a bunch of twelves. Vinyl only, DJ stuff, like when we started. The only difference being that it takes 6-8 months to get the bloody stuff out. Everyone’s pressing on vinyl again, and all the pressing plants have shut down. Six to nine weeks used to be bad, you know like ‘What The Fuck!’”
Out of those bunch, the EP by Eugene Tambourine has stirred some very positive response. ‘Blue Lagoon’ is a well Balearic revision of the Laurie Anderson 80s track. That must be encouraging when your label is getting long in the tooth?
“It’s been fun, sort of not bothering with any promo really. Just getting them into the specialists and then to the right DJs and letting it do it’s thing, which is how it started. It’s not a great way of making money, but it’s certainly a more fun way of doing a label rather than chasing for press and setting up a social media campaign. It’s becoming more and more difficult for me to stomach this, trying to get people’s attention. We’re all bombarded from every angle”.
Like most birthdays, there is a time for reflection and introspection. Tim is having a renaissance, both with his plans for the label and personally. He’s getting out more, and watching less videos.
“I’ve been going to The Loft, the original ‘disco-church’ which started it all. All this time I’ve lived in New York and I’d never been, I knew it was going on and my friends would go and I just never went. Then about five or six years ago, I started to go and I just remembered why I love DJing, and I love dance music and I like to be out. And it’s like 5pm till midnight on a Sunday, ‘an acceptable time to be out’ (hehe). New York is great for that, great for adult disco opportunities. Maybe London is now, I don’t know”.
The haphazard forward planning in Tummy Touch is there for all to see across those sheets of A4. Misfits, mischief, mistakes and money trees. There seems a fair bit of serendipity in this story.
“Almost every band or act I’ve worked with has just come about by coincidence, or just stumbled across it through some weird connection. Tom Vek was the biggest surprise, here was some young kid that we’d worked with for years. He was just doing really weirdo lo-fi stuff at home and was still at school, and I kept saying ‘let’s just keep working on it, but finish school’ and that was for a couple of years. And then he’d finished college, and his demos were better and we put out a single, and people went fucking crazy. I was like ‘How the fuck did that happen?’ Literally people waving chequebooks at us, and I thought ‘God I wish I knew how to do that’. That was an exciting time, way beyond anything with Groove Armada (although I think they’ve probably had a better career since) in terms of the buzz and people just going nuts over an artist it was just like ‘woah’”.
That excitement has been continually tempered, not only in sales or critical response, but also in the actual relationship stuff. Where the artists are left with crushed dreams, and the dream maker is left despondent.
“It’s a tough business and most of what you work on doesn’t succeed, they say 90% of what comes out falls flat on it’s face. I get so excited about stuff that we work with, and I get so passionate that, you know, I’m like ‘this is the best stuff I’ve ever heard in my life, and these people are so talented’ and it comes out and nobody agrees with you. I tell you man, after twenty years it gets kinda draining. It’s kinda heartbreaking because you really believe in that stuff. The cumulative effect after decades can get…”, he pauses for the longest time. “It can be difficult”.
“We always took pride in being able to provide some kind of living for the artists, or some decent pocket money, but that is becoming less viable. As a label we can make money across the catalogue, but for the artists that we work with it’s like, ‘Well here’s the £30 that you earned this year’, what’s the fucking point? When you are dealing with really niche stuff it’s tough to make the kind of money for people to sustain themselves”.
Tim fires up his excitement again after that deflation and tells me about what’s coming next. Los Chicharrons were there at the start and they are back up next if he can get some vinyl pressed somewhere, anywhere, soon. Or some kind of back-up plan.
“I’ve been thinking about releasing cassettes or something, they are pretty cool but you can’t really DJ with them!? Although I remember going to a club in Honduras, the guy had three cassette decks, he was DJing with two and his buddy was cueing up on a third, fast-forwarding and rewinding till he found the right songs that the DJ was asking for”.
While digging about ahead of this, I found out that before making numerous mistakes (and several successes) with his label he was once in pop combo Katrina & The Waves, thanks to his mum’s cousin, the drummer. He apologised for not letting me know earlier.
“It was great fun, when you’re in your early 20s, and we’d do these big festivals in the summer. It seemed in places like Belgium and Switzerland every small town would have a festival and we’d open for like, Status Quo and The Troggs and The Kinks and De La Soul. And then we’d do all the airforce bases in the UK, like opening for the fucking puppet show, so it was real ‘Spinal Tap’ kinda stuff. But I was getting paid £100 to drink beer for free, ‘this is the greatest thing ever’”.
He ends by sharing a little more, and getting excited about some improvised music he’s been getting involved in with his friend Michael Alan. Just for shits & giggles like.
“I’ve got a lot of joy from New York, just doing these live art events that my friend does, really nuts out-there extreme shit. Just making the most bonkers music that I can, for the art of it and nothing else. I didn’t want him to record it, I was just creating a really insane atmosphere, for his artwork. That’s been a lifesaver for me, doing something that has no commercial purpose”.
Follow Tummy Touch on Facebook. Take a listen to the recently found mixtapes from the original parties HERE.