Rough Trade Records
How a box of used American vinyl sparked a cultural phenomenon in East London that has lasted for over four decades and wound up back in the U.S.A.
by Debra Scherer
With the resurgence of interest in vinyl records, the digital age might still have some room for analog technology after all. With this in mind, I spoke with Nigel House, one of the owners of Rough Trade. Starting off as a record shop in London in 1976, and in 1978 becoming a label as well, Rough Trade has launched the careers of so many bands, from the Smiths and The Fall, to independent counterculture pioneers of today like Arcade Fire, The Strokes, The Libertines, Sufjan Stevens, The Decemberists, The Hold Steady, and Warpaint.
Inspired by the community-based environment of the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, where visitors socialized as much as purchased products, Rough Trade served as an alternative to the mainstream music shop, quickly becoming central to the DIY and punk scenes bourgeoning internationally at the time.
In 2013 they opened what is now New York’s biggest record store out in Williamsburg, where I caught up with Nigel to talk all things analog and the kids of today. The space is enormous and filled with books and records and stuff and things that draw you in and keep you there for hours at a time. We spoke about the ethos of Rough Trade and how it finds its place among all of the screens we stare at all the time. There seems to be this want for experiences in the real world that express the muffled concept of the counterculture itself.
Nigel House: The label started in 1976 with Geoff Travis. He graduated from Cambridge, came to America, bought a load of secondhand records, took them home to Notting Hill Gate, Kensington Park Road, and opened a record shop selling secondhand American vinyl, and some reggae as well. It just happened that punk rock started at that time, so he started selling punk, and then things took off from there, and it became a label and started distributing punk and new wave records.
In 1981 I was offered a job there. I had been a customer in the shop, and they needed someone. I was doing a postgraduate in landscape architecture, and I couldn’t get a job doing that of course. I took the job, and then Rough Trade went through one of its periodical financial crises, and they were going to shut the shops. Three of us who worked there, me and Pete Donne and Stephen Godfroy, we bought the shop from Geoff, it suited everybody. We didn’t pay very much for it. We paid for the stock that was there, and that’s all we paid for. It suited the label because they wanted to have a shop, but they wanted somebody else to run it.
We moved it around the corner to Golborne Road and have been there ever since 1981-1982. After that we started selling skateboards. We used to bring in big shipments from America of hardcore punk, so it would be Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Minor Threat, and Hüsker Dü. It was incredible. We would ship over these boxes of records, and somehow word would get around that a new shipment would come in, and all these people would come by the shop and buy loads of American punk vinyl, and at the same time we were selling Thrasher magazines. There was this whole skateboard punk culture that wasn’t being catered to at all in England. No one was selling skateboards, so we just started selling them along with other Thrasher merch. We opened a shop in Covent Garden that was skateboards upstairs and records downstairs. Saturday afternoons were just crazy! All of these Americans from the American military bases would come in and buy skateboards and records.
DS: That’s so interesting because being from New York at that time, we would be sitting there on the other side of the pond waiting for the imports coming from you guys over in England. There was one radio station that was broadcast from outside of the city called WLIR. They played all the newest, coolest music, before there was even such a thing as indie music. It was hard to even pick up the signal, you had to have really good stereo equipment and fiddle with the dial to pick it up. Even with a little bit of static, it was the only station we listened to. They had a program every Sunday night called “Off The Boat,” which was the new music just arrived from the U.K. We would set up tape recorders and record the songs because we couldn’t even wait for them to arrive in the stores!
NH: It’s the same with hip hop records. In the U.K., if a hip hop record was shrink wrapped, people would just buy it like that, without even listening or knowing who the artist was. But at that time, in that American hardcore scene, there were so many great bands I suppose after that first New York East Coast thing in the late ’70’s, early ’80’s, and the West Coast skateboard thing was amazing. We have only ever shut the shop once, apart from Christmas day. It was when Hüsker Dü was playing a show at the Camden Palace Theatre. It was their first London show, and they were filming it for television, so it started early at 5pm, so we shut the shop at 4pm and everybody went down there and it was fantastic! The only time we ever shut! My wedding day, we were opened. Even for both Princess Diana’s wedding and funeral, we were open.
DS: You had to be open on those two days, come on!
NH: Yeah totally! Mind you, they were some of the quietest days we ever had.
DS: People could still shop for their beloved Elton John records.
NH: He has become a great customer actually. He is so knowledgeable about music and he knows so much about what’s going on.
DS: How did you start to expand and change over the years, and what has stayed the same?
NH: After a while, Covent Garden started to really change, sort of like Williamsburg or Shoreditch. They become very mainstream, very touristy, and all of the sudden not very cool. So about 7 years ago, we looked around and saw that for the size of the shop we had, which was tiny, we could get in Shoreditch something much bigger, a bit like the one here in Williamsburg, with a café, space for records, and a venue. It was the right thing at the right place at the right time.
Overall we have always wanted the shops to be places for people to come and hang out. Yes, it’s about buying music, but it’s also about hanging out and being cool and meeting people. There was a band called Television Personalities, an indie punk band in 1977. One of their songs talked about meeting and “hanging out down at Rough Trade on a Saturday afternoon,” and that’s what we’ve always wanted. I want people to come here, talk about music, buy music, see new music. For me music is such an important part of my life. There are so many people that feel the same way. Last night we had The Dream Syndicate here, and people who were into them the first time around are coming down and now buying some new music, talking about Steve Wynn, about seeing him the first time at Rough Trade. That’s what we want.
So now the east shop has opened and done really well, people really like to hang out there. The younger kids who are like 16, 17 years old come in and use the photo booth because as we know they love to take photos of themselves rather than just buy records, but they love to hang out there.
Then we thought we should branch out a bit and started looking for a space in New York. It just took a long time to find the right place.
DS: What made you want to open in New York City?
NH: New York is such a big city and there is so much music here, but beyond a handful of small specialist shops, there is almost nowhere to buy music anymore. Virgin shut, Tower Records closed, HMV closed down, so I thought there must be demand here. There was still J&R music world, which has a great selection, but the guy at the counter didn’t know anything about what he was selling. He was probably selling TVs the day before. In order to sell music, you need to make it exciting and interesting and cool. Williamsburg was kind of happening, so we thought, “Let’s go there.” It took us a long time to find the right place, but hopefully it’s like our shop over in Brick Lanes, a bit ahead of the curve, and yet of course now it’s all changing around here as well. Hopefully it will stay a little bit cool and interesting.
DS: There were so many interesting record stores in New York in the ’80’s. There was Tower too, but mostly we went in to the little shops to talk with the people and also to find out what was new. Record stores were places full of information about music, about culture, when bands were playing, and generally just look around at the other cool kids and what they were wearing, what kind of jewelry, what kind of makeup. It was like a weekend ritual. I find that now with music streaming, there is no dialogue, no exchange of ideas or information and opinion beyond lists of tracks, lists of genres, lists of names and lists of categories. Music culture is about a kind of unclean mish mash of stuff.
NH: We are trying to make it into a cultural hub with books, magazines, authors doing live readings… It’s the whole thing. Its not just about music, music is just one part of the cultural landscape I suppose.
Record Store Day last year, a One Direction picture disc came out, and there was a bit of a debate here about whether or not we should even stock something like that. I said yes we should because I want some 15 year old girls who love One Direction to come in because they just have to have that, but then look up and see on the wall a bunch of Blondie or Clash posters and see all these other cool kids buying all this other music because they might think, “Oh, there is life beyond One Direction!” and ask,“Who are Blondie? Who is Debbie Harry? And who are The Clash?” The hard thing is to get kids excited about coming into a record store and seeing how cool it is, and these days there is so much on the Internet, between Youtube and Spotify, so you have to make it exciting for them.
DS: They need an exchange of ideas. That’s why MTV was important for us. We wanted to see the bands, hear what they had to say, see how were they dressed, what was their makeup like? The videos then were so clunky and crazy and a bit silly because they hadn’t come up with a formula for them yet. It was all so irreverent then.
NH: Yeah, now you have to be so careful about what you say all of the time. Why can‘t you say actually U2 are shit? There’s nothing wrong with saying that! People are so scared about having opinions about music these days. U2 are a bunch of rubbish, that you can quote me on!
DS: Tell me about the retail concept behind Rough Trade? It’s so much about the culture and how it is tied to retail. Some think that’s an outdated concept in the world of e-commerce, but the truth is, I think the millennials will save us all from the over-branded Starbucks world we live in now. They want more authentic experiences. Surprisingly for the newest generation, it’s becoming less about the mall and more about the little shop on the corner that only has a few peculiar things.
NH: Well, there is going to be a café, there is a venue, and there is a bar in the venue. Music for me still has that sort of coolness to it in terms of one’s individuality. What if maybe you don’t want to be like your parents, or just like your schoolmates who are more conservative. What if you want to be different? That’s who we are trying to appeal to. The people who can say, “Fuck you! I don’t want to do that! This is what I want to do. I want to listen to music I like, and I want to do it physically, not digitally. I’m going to be different! I’m going to dress differently! I’m not going to go there! I’m going to go somewhere else!”
I’ve always wanted it to have a kind of outsider ethos to it. It does depress me sometimes when you see people with their iPhones all “Apple’d out” and stuff. In the ‘60s, you could easily tell who was “the man” because he would have a suit on, but now they all look like us, and I don’t like that. I don’t like Google, I don’t like Apple. I don’t like any of those people. I don’t trust them, and I think people need to be a bit more weary about things like Facebook. They want to run the world. I don’t think that’s good.
DS: That’s like when Alice Cooper decided to focus only on things that kids knew their parents would hate. The makeup, the sound of the music, ripping heads off of chickens, the whole thing, and in a calculated way. That was his performance art.
NH: I guess that means my children will become accountants and lawyers and things like that. I have a son who is actually doing his degree in politics right now and thinking about going into law.
DS: Well then he would make a great manager!
NH: Exactly! That’s what I keep trying to tell him to do, but half the time he wants to save the world, and half the time he wants to own the world!
DS: So what is the relationship now between you guys and Rough Trade the label?
NH: Geoff still runs the label with Jeanette. They are just up the road from the shop in West London and he comes in every Saturday buying records. In fact he put money into this shop as well. We are philosophically and spiritually connected, but not financially apart from his investment in the New York shop. We still have the same ideas about what we are trying to do and what Rough Trade is, so it’s worked out well for both of us. He is good at knowing what will be the next big thing, what’s interesting; not necessarily what’s going to sell zillions, but what’s cool and interesting.
DS: Like what’s going be influential?
NH: The number of bands that he signed that have gone on to become really important is incredible. All the way from The Smiths to The Libertines to Arcade Fire. He has such good ears and he knows so much, he feels the zeitgeist of exactly what’s interesting. He and Jeanette are fantastic at that.
DS: Do you still go to live shows often?
NH: I do go to see bands all of the time, and I have to say when I come to New York, I go and see zillions of bands because there’s so much going on here. I went to a squat gig the other night at Death By Audio (R.I.P.), which is just down the road, it was amazing and so New York.
DS: Yes, there is so much amazing music here also because so many musicians live here, especially the young jazz musicians. You really can go any night and hear some of the most incredible live music in New York. Do you see big differences in what people buy in the U.K. versus here in the city?
NH: That’s what has amazed me about this shop in Williamsburg is the amount of jazz vinyl we sell: Coltrane, Rollins, Monk, all those kind of classic jazz albums.
DS: Those classic jazz records have the incredible album cover design. The graphics alone are worth buying. For me album cover design has always been of great source of inspiration for all of my creative work. There was Reid Miles at Blue Note Records, and then some of Roger Dean’s work, and of course Storm Thorgerson at Hipgnosis. He did so many famous designs, like the Dark Side of The Moon “prism.”
NH: I love the work he did with Led Zeppelin on Physical Graffiti with the windows and all of the moving parts.
DS: He always said that good album cover design actually has no impact on record sales, funny enough. It’s just that we happen to remember the covers of great records. It’s not about vinyl… It’s about the coolness and the excitement of the whole experience. The way it smells and the way it feels. It’s a countercultural experience that messes with all of the senses.
NH: I want more anger, I want more politics in music! Why aren’t people more angry? Why are they so tame? Music today feels a bit too happy with how things are in the world.
DS: It’s the celebrity and the over branding and marketing of everything. They can’t speak out because it would hurt their celebrity.
NH: It would hurt their brand.
DS: Where is the next Sinead O’Connor ripping up pictures of the Pope? Now The Pope has himself become much more politically avant-garde than any of the bands.
NH: He is definitely the punk Pope!
DS: We have been feeling that lack of avant-garde culture especially in this past year when voices are starting to spill out into the street again to protest against police misconduct, yet where is the music that goes along with that? Neil Young had “Ohio” already recorded 17 days after the Kent State Massacre. Hip Hop especially has been criticized for being silent on these issues, while only recording a group of star rappers who promoted the luxury consumer brands they have an investment in, with the aim of donating money to victims’ families. That’s a long long way from N.W.A. and Fuck The Police.
NH: That’s what we need a bit more of. For me I want Rough Trade to be about getting the balance between being different and still giving people what they want. In London it’s easier because people know us, they know the name Rough Trade and what it stands for, so we can sell a lot of mainstream things there as well. That’s for people who want to buy into the coolness, who might not feel so cool themselves but yet they too can be a part of it.
DS: Isn’t that the goal of any retail concept on or offline? “Come to our world, and voila, change for the better awaits you.” Music is a bit different than clothing or selling anything else. It is so personally tied to our identity in I think a much more profound and emotional way than any other consumer product. The digital age has blessed us with convenience and access to music in an incredible way, but the culture of music is more than can be transmitted to someones phone. It’s best consumed live.