Rough around the edges: Former Smiths record label manager talks about his latest batch of Irish acts

Rough around the edges: Former Smiths record label manager talks about his latest batch of Irish acts
Geoff Travis of Rough Trade. ‘I don’t think I’d recognise the Morrissey of today. It’s sad what he’s become, in terms of his views.’

Geoff Travis may have had a hand in the rise of bands such as The Smiths, but it’s his new crop of Irish acts that has him excited in advance of his visit to Cork, writes Ed Power

The first question you must of course ask Geoff Travis is what he thinks of Morrissey’s ongoing descent into far-right notoriety. Back in 1980s Travis discovered The Smiths and, with his record label Rough Trade, helped propel Moz toward gladioli-flourishing immortality. How long ago that must seem — how bittersweet the memories.

“Not bitter, no,” says Travis. “It was one of those periods that went by in a flash. Morrissey wasn’t the person he now seems to be. He was an interesting character to be around. As a band, The Smiths were an unstoppable force. A lot of years have gone by. I don’t think I’d recognise the Morrissey of today. It’s sad what he’s become, in terms of his views.”

Travis isn’t here to talk indie icons turned into right-wing pin-ups. He’s looking towards the second Quiet Lights festival in Cork, which features several signings to Rough Trade’s folk off-shoot, River Lea (which he describes as “a new record label, releasing beautiful and strange traditional music from Britain, Ireland, and beyond”). Ye Vagabonds from Carlow, and Lisa O’Neill from Cavan, are among the Irish artists a ttached to River Lea. Pride of place, though, goes to Dubliners Lankum, whose new album, The Livelong Day, arrives festooned in five-star reviews.

“I love Joyce, I love Van Morrison,” says Travis (67), detailing his passion for Irish culture. He cites the Bothy Band, Planxty, and Christy Moore as touchstones.

“Something about [Irishness in the arts] touches a nerve and seems so interesting and loquacious and deep and unpretentious. Irish culture has all those things.”

He’s pleased that Lankum have been heralded, both in Ireland and the UK. It is ironic, I say, that it took the support of a trendy London indie label to turn the Dubliners into a sensation. Prior to Travis and Rough Trade, Lankum (then called Lynched) were hovering very much below the radar in Ireland. There remains a deep ambivalence — perhaps “shame” is too strong a word, but only just — towards indigenous culture back home.

“Jimi Hendrix was playing the Village in New York and nobody took a blind bit of notice until Chas Chandler brought him to London,” Travis says. “Sometimes, an outsider has a different view. The Velvet Underground never really had an audience in New York. What’s under your nose… sometimes, you don’t quite appreciate it until someone else has pointed it out.”

It saddens him that folk music has become ghettoised. “When I was a kid, and the English folk revival was happening, you had bands like Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band... those were incredibly important to me. It was all part of pop culture. It wasn’t cut off.

“These separations are artificial. If it’s great music, then you might well like it and leave those preconceptions at home,” Travis says.

River Lea is named for Travis’s business partner, Jeannette Lee (formerly a member of John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd) and also for the river that flows (partly underground) through Walthamstow, in north London and close to the home of the label’s third founder, Tim Chipping who originally introduced Travis to Lankum.

The idea of deep, ancient waters, partly obscured from plain sight, seemed appropriate. “We didn’t, at the time, think about the river in Cork,” he says. “It’s a happy coincidence.”

Rough Trade, which began as a record store in 1976 and blossomed into a label and distributor, has a history of supporting Irish talent (the record store is now a separate entity). It was Travis who released the first Stiff Little Fingers single and signed Virgin Prunes when the rest of the UK record industry was pursuing their pals, U2. In the early 1980s, the label became a backer of Cork’s Microdisney, an alliance between frontman Cathal Coughlan and guitarist Sean O’Hagan.

“That was a time when Rough Trade was really flourishing,” Travis says. “They came to London and had some supporters in our distribution warehouse. I was so engrossed in running the label and packing up boxes and writing invoices… I didn’t really have the time to get to know people as well as I might have wanted.

“But they were a brilliant group. We heard them and fell in love. Cathal was writing such interesting lyrics. He was a little bit scary. Sean, of course, was writing brilliant melodies.”

Rough Trade went out of business in 1991, before relaunching in 2000. So Travis didn’t have an opportunity to sign Blur, Suede, or Oasis. However, he and Lee were very much part of Britpop, as managers of Pulp. They also worked with The Cranberries during the Limerick quartet’s ascent to global stardom.

“They were unfashionable. But the reason we really wanted to work with them was because of songs such as ‘Linger’…. just brilliant songs. We helped make them slightly less unfashionable. We put them on tour with Suede in America. That was a really good move,” Travis says.

Having started over in 2000, Rough Trade struck gold when Travis and Lee went to New Brunswick, in New Jersey, to catch a rough ’n ready young band from New York.

“Nobody was watching The Strokes, except for us,” he says. “And they were astonishingly good. When you see a band like that… it’s really obvious. We were just lucky to get there first.”

They signed Peter Doherty’s brilliantly shambolic The Libertines soon afterwards. As with The Strokes, the Londoners burned briefly, released some classic songs, and then faded away.

“We felt that people didn’t appreciate what a great songwriter Peter was,” says Travis. “Maybe that has come later, though he is doing his best to destroy that. On their first two albums, there are just some great songs.”

There is a perception that The Strokes and The Libertines never quite achieved their potential. Travis doesn’t disagree. “There is some truth. It’s kind of fair. That’s the problem with human beings. They always mess it up, don’t they? We were lucky they left us with something.”

Hopefully his new crop of Irish acts can go even further.

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