Life in Rough Trade: How Geoff Travis became a major player for indie bands

By Paul Lester, February 17, 2014
Geoff Travis in the early days of Rough Trade

Geoff Travis in the early days of Rough Trade

As founder of the Rough Trade record store, distribution company and label, Geoff Travis has done as much as anyone to promote indie music as an alternative to mainstream, major record company product.

The shop he started in 1976 has become a byword for serious music appreciation. And if not for his efforts as a distributor, the likes of Joy Division, Depeche Mode and UB40 — to name but three bands from other labels — may not have achieved such rapid success. The label itself has released music from some of the biggest names in leftfield rock and pop, punk and postpunk, electronica and reggae, from Swell Maps to the Sundays, the Smiths to the Strokes, Robert Wyatt to Warpaint, Aztec Camera to Antony and the Johnsons, Lee “Scratch” Perry to the Libertines, and all points in between.

Travis is one of several prime movers taking part in the Jewish Roots of Punk event at this year’s Jewish Book Week, along with Daniel Miller (boss of Mute Records, home of Depeche Mode, Erasure and Nick Cave); Vivien Goldman (former music writer and punk provocateur turned professor of music at New York University) and Charles Shaar Murray (along with Julie Burchill and Nick Kent, one of the NME’s most notorious graduates).

All four have known each other since the mid-70s. CSM (as he’s known) used to interview Travis’s bands, Miller had an album out on Rough Trade and Travis used to share a house in Ladbroke Grove with Goldman, as well as Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders and “half of Jamaica”, he jokingly recalls.

It was not the life that might have been predicted for Travis, now 62, growing up in Finchley with his two sisters and brother (the latter now home news editor of the Guardian), his housewife mother and loss assessor father. “We were quite a middle-class Jewish family,” he reminisces. “It was pretty ordinary.”

He attended the local primary and then Owen’s School in Islington. His Jewish education didn’t end with his barmitzvah. “I was very religious for a while,” he says. “I used to go on Sunday mornings as well as Monday and Wednesday nights. The rabbi seemed to really like me, for some reason. For a couple of years, it was really intense.” Did he sense a religious destiny? “I don’t think so. I think the rabbi did some genealogical research and found out I was related to some famous Russian rabbi.”

Travis’s grandparents, who owned a shoe shop in Dalston, came from Romania and Ukraine. “They left to escape the pogroms, basically, and were very poor. They didn’t really talk about it, apart from tales of walking hundreds of miles with their cart. And we were too young to know to ask them. It was quite a religious background in many respects. My mum kept kosher. She still does.”

His parents “were always quite liberal, except for a certain fantastic Jewish embracing-of-humanity attitude,” he says, with heavy irony. “You know, that one where whenever you brought a girlfriend home who wasn’t Jewish, they’d be absolutely horrible to her. That used to drive me insane. It was quite distressing.” When he first introduced them to Carolyn, his partner of 35 years, in the late-70s, Travis remembers his father’s unpleasantness. He actually said: ‘You’re doing Hitler’s work.’ I was shocked and didn’t know what to say and Carolyn was annoyed at me for not defending her, quite rightly.” His father did eventually mellow towards her — indeed “he absolutely loved her” — and helped bankroll his son’s record shop with a £4,000 loan.

“To his credit, it would have been a lot harder without him,” he admits. He remembers Travis senior visiting him at Rough Trade HQ on Kensington Park Road, surrounded by punks with their safety pins and bondage trousers and rastas with their dreadlocks.“We’d have these massive speakers that would pump out reggae all day — you could hardly hear what people wanted to buy. Dad came in a couple of times. He said: ‘Why don’t you sell luggage?’ I had to explain it wasn’t a chemist’s.

“Some people do say that love of music is really a displacement for something else,” he adds, harking back to when he “lost interest” in going to synagogue and Hebrew classes and started attending gigs.

In his mid-teens, Travis saw the Beatles, the Stones and Cream in concert — recalling the latter as “mind-blowing”. He’d go to the Marquee in central London and the Roundhouse in Camden every Sunday. It was “much more fun than going to shul”, although around this time he enjoyed an eye-opening visit to Israel. Members of his family from Leeds had emigrated, to a place north of Haifa, where they lived on kibbutz.

“It was before they got turned into profit-making capitalist machines,” he says. “When they were still based on socialist ideals. It really affected me and I think subconsciously I used some of the things I learned about the communal nature of the kibbutz, and the notion of the collective, at Rough Trade.”

He had some experience of communal habitation in London when, after graduating from Cambridge with a 2:1 in English literature, he lived in a series of squats. Uncertain about what career to pursue, he taught for a brief period at a girls’ school in Mill Hill. “The girls were great but the teachers were horrendous. I had a big Afro at the time and they treated me like a total freak. I felt like an outcast.”

Disillusioned, he quit and spent time travelling across America. It was in San Francisco, inspired by “the community-based environment” of the City Lights bookstore, that he got the idea to open a record shop back home. By 1977, Rough Trade had become the meeting point for every rising star of the punk and new wave scenes.
The only musicians or punters not welcome were those sporting the then de rigueur Nazi insignia that punks wore for the sake of provocation. “I hated that. I wouldn’t have allowed anyone with a swastika to walk around the shop. The offence outweighed any art value.”

By 1979, Rough Trade — with self-described “closet intellectual” Travis at the helm — was a distribution company and label whose acts defined the era, with its maverick intelligence and radical collectivist stance. When he signed the Smiths in 1983, the label became even more influential.

“They’re one of the great all-time British bands, up there with the Beatles and Stones,” is Travis’s assessment today. He’s not sure, though, how he feels about being the subject of a Smiths song, Frankly, Mr Shankly, with its less-than-complimentary lyric (“You’re a flatulent pain in the arse”). He is amused when I suggest it’s better than having no song written about him at all. “That’s a very Jewish way of looking at it,” he responds.

Travis considers more recent signings such as Antony Hegarty and Sufjan Stevens to be every bit as characterful as Rough Trade 80s stalwarts such as Mark E Smith and Roddy Frame. And they don’t come any more waywardly compelling, and fascinatingly flawed, than Pete Doherty of Babyshambles and the Libertines.

“I tried very hard to get Pete to straighten out,” he sighs, discussing the musician and drug casualty. “Addicts are a law unto themselves. I drove him to rehab and two days later he ran away.”

However, he acknowledges the importance of maintaining some distance from his artists. “You have to be careful because you do have an economic relationship with them. You’re not their family. Otherwise you get caught up in every drama and tragedy.”

Acts he would like to have signed include the Stone Roses and the Rolling Stones. But those who did put pen to paper have produced a “pretty consistent level of quality. We haven’t released many bad records. That’s one of the things I’m proud of.”

As for the commercial foresight of Travis and Rough Trade partner Jeannette Lee, he admits that “we’re not right every time. But when we really love something there’s usually something there. We’re not like a normal label.

“It’s not about how much money we made or lost, about winning or losing. It’s about trying to help people make something worthwhile.

“Ours is a completely different mindset [to a major label]. But also a tough haven where you can’t be a slacker.”

The distribution side of Rough Trade did go bankrupt in the 90s, but Travis feels the label, supported by the Beggars Banquet group, is currently in a healthier position than ever. “We’ve been through lots of business ups and downs, but we’re in a very stable situation now. There’s an intelligence and empathy of ideology that we’ve never had before. So it’s a happy ending.”

Despite being surrounded for most of his adult life by creative types boasting the full gamut of personal habits, Travis has never succumbed to narcotic excess or degeneracy of any kind.

“I’m not really into that,” he confides. For him, the thrill is in the grooves and the lure of the next musical fix. Besides, he’s got an example to set.

“Music is enough for me. Also, I have a level of responsibility and I take it seriously. I’ve got people’s lives in my hands. A 21-year-old musician doesn’t want some idiot who’s off his head. They want someone they can respect.”

The Jewish roots of Punk is on March 1
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Last updated: 1:53pm, August 28 2014