Only Foals and orgies: looking back on 15 years of Transgressive Records

The label turns fifteen this year – so we popped into their offices for a trip down memory lane.

With Foals, Alvvays, SOPHIE and Let’s Eat Grandma on its roster, Transgressive has probably released at least one of your favourite albums since it started up in 2004. Originally known for putting out cutting-edge indie from the jangling, math-rocky bands of the early noughties, Transgressive has lived up to its name over the years. There’s no one sonic thread that links the diverse range of artists who have found a musical home here – instead, the acts they work alongside share a talent for pushing boundaries. “Transgressive has become this tapestry of relationships, and artists of different disciplines and genres,” says co-founder Toby L. “It makes more sense now than it did at the beginning. Our ambitions were always about 15 years ahead, if that makes sense.”

2004: Two teenagers with a dream

Way back in 2004, Transgressive started life by sheer fluke. The label’s very own Toby L was running club nights around London when he was introduced to Tim Dellow at the Bloc Party show he was promoting (Tim was there flogging copies of the band’s new single). “Like any sort of story, it’s about whether you’re in the right place at the right time,” says Toby L today. 

The pair struck up a friendship straight away, and soon floated the idea of starting up a record label together. Three weeks later, with one grand in the kitty, Transgressive was born, and Toby L and Tim headed to Welwyn Garden City, where they pitched to release The Subways’ ‘At 1am’ as their first ever single. “Billy [Lunn’s] mum made sandwiches,” remembers Tim.

“Tim and I were sat together, opposite The Subways’ manager, the band themselves, and their parents,” Toby chips in. “It was us two, against six or seven people. We were 19, and we didn’t have a name for the label, but somehow at the end we shook hands. How on earth did we agree that?”

“We still pitch like that now,” laughs Lilas, who joined the label two years later after being drawn to London’s music scene “like a moth to fire”. “Food is our secret thing,” agrees Tim. “If you eat with your artists, it’s a bonding experience.”

Key release: The Subways – ‘At 1am’ 

2006: Disaster strikes

These days, Transgressive occupy an office in Highbury and Islington, sprawling over a couple of floors. Most operations centre around the bustling HQ downstairs. Upstairs, sofas and various prints from the label’s fifteen year history line a cosy nest, where the team usually chug cups of tea and listen to demos and upcoming records. One wall is dominated by the artwork from Blaenavon’s debut record ‘That’s Your Lot’: it feels a bit like wandering into a mate’s living room. But it hasn’t always been this… homely. 

“Around the time Foals stayed with us [towards the end of 2006], we had slugs,” grimaces Toby, painting a picture of Transgressive’s old office. “There was mysterious debris on the tables. It was like a haunted hospital. People used to have orgies there at the weekend!””

“I walked in on one, once,” exclaims Tim. “I opened the door and there was all this plastic sheeting on the floor. I was like, oh cool, what is this, a video shoot? Oh right… it’s not a video shoot! No, I don’t want to join in, thank you very much. Very awkward. But we had a fun time,” he says, more brightly. “Foals lived there for while. Art Brut kept their equipment there. One of Savages had an office, stroke lived there for a bit.”

“We’ve definitely done our time, for sure,” Toby laughs. “After that we did four years at The Lexington. I can’t remember those years at all. And then this feels like a wonky flat.” “When artists come here,” Lilas adds, “they feel at home immediately.”

Key release: Mystery Jets – ‘Zootime’

2008: A little band called Foals release their debut album

“I knew Yannis [Philippakis] from The Edmund Fitzgerald, his first band,” Tim says. “He’d say, ‘why are you wasting your time with this band, you should be spending it on my band, because we’re much better.’ He was pretty competitive, always.”

Yannis’ new band had the tunes to back up the bravado, too. After being sent an early Foals demo, the Transgressive gang were blown away the minute they stuck it on the stereo – they knew this was a future festival headliner on their hands. “Tim put it on, and it was like phenomenal. Literally undeniable,” Toby says. Many of those early songs – which included ‘Balloons’ and ‘Two Steps, Twice’ – are now live favourites, and highlights from the band’s 2008 debut album, ‘Antidotes’. 

The early days weren’t plain-sailing, mind. While camped up in Transgressive’s offices – and essentially living there – Foals would brazenly book in showcases with other labels, and openly speak about it, as their contract with Transgressive was being finalised. “They’re fucking bastards,” laughs Toby, affectionately. “Ethical bastards,” agrees Tim. “Their music is serious and meaningful. Lots of people think they might be intimidating as characters – and they are to an extent – but it’s because they’re really smart. They do have that sense of ethics, but they are also hilarious.” “A lot of it,” adds Toby, is sparring. “They like intellectual jousting.”

Key release: Foals – Mathletics 

2013: The pinch-yourself moments

Looking back over 15 years, there have been quite a few surprises: no doubt conjured up by the team’s collective talent for taking a punt. Before Transgressive was even a label, and Toby was still running a club night at the now-defunct Buffalo Bar around the corner from their current offices, he ambled up to Graham Coxon and asked if he would consider playing the night’s first anniversary party. Unexpectedly, Coxon said yes – despite the fact it was 2003, and he was supposed to be keeping a low profile following Blur’s split. “He played under the pseudonym Black Saveloy” Toby says.

And in Transgressive’s lifetime, flukes are a regular fixture. Once, in 2013, a little old band called At the Drive-In got in touch with the label through the general enquiries form on their website: casually asking if they fancied re-releasing ‘Relationship of Command’ and ‘Acrobatic Tenement’. “At the time Tim was getting married, and there was stag-do vibes,” Lilas says. “We were like, great! Nice prank. We almost left it! Luckily we did reply.” 

In similar spirit, Transgressive also ended up releasing The Shins’ 2007 record ‘Wincing the Night Away’ in the UK six years before that, after rescuing it from the floor. They were meeting with Warner at the time, who helped to distribute some of Transgressive’s other releases internationally. “We just saw that there was a new Shins record, lying discarded on someone’s desk,” Tim explains. “The CD was actually on the floor!” says Toby. “I won’t name and shame, but this person from the label said ‘there’s no hits on it, you don’t want that.’ So we took ‘Wincing the Night Away’ with us, and obviously it became a Top 20 album! We downplayed it when we got the record. We were like, nah, you’re quite right. No hits. You don’t want that.”

“That imagination, and that belief that anything can happen, fuels everything,” adds Toby.

Key release: The Shins – Australia

2019: Time to celebrate

On the whole, Transgressive are most interested in looking to the future, and currently they’re working with plenty of exciting newer acts: KOKOKO! and Julien Chang are both on their roster, along with Benny Mails, Arlo Parks, and a brand new signing that they can’t talk about just yet. Marika Hackman has just headed off on her biggest US tour yet, and the next Foals album, Tim teases, is “beefier” and ready to blow people’s minds. Over the last fifteen years, Transgressive artists have scooped up Mercury nominations, Grammy nods, and festival headliner slots, and Toby, Tim and Lilas are focused on making even more history over the next few years.

That said, Toby admits that occasionally it’s nice to look back. “Every now and again it is good to have a bit of self indulgent celebration,” he laughs, “I think it’s important in an industry that hurtles forward so quickly. It’s weird and awesome, especially when you think about the humble beginnings. Back at the beginning, every single we sold had to fund the next one. We had slugs in the office, minuses in the bank account. Looking at all of those things in context, and you just feel appreciative really – it has been fucking amazing.”

Key release: Julien Chang – Of The Past