Tru Thoughts' Gaffer Rob Luis On Bonobo, Brighton And Being 15

The legendary label is about to enjoy another landmark birthday, and ahead of their celeebration at KOKO I caught up with the boss to talk shop...
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Record labels come and go like the tide. Waves upon waves of musical trends and fashions wash onto the beach of popular culture only to be swept away by yet another stylish swell. But some labels manage to make an indelible mark on this musical coastline. Tru Thoughts are one of those labels. This year they’re celebrating their 15th birthday, and with some amazing upcoming releases, from some of the finest names in the game to the freshest faces, you can see that they’re stronger than ever. The aptly located (for my extended beachy metaphor at least) Brighton label have been producing some of the most important music to come out of the UK over the last decade and a half, spanning everything from genre bending funk, soul, hip hop and house. I managed to catch up with the rather lovely label boss Robert Luis to talk Brighton, beats and building up the brand.

 Freddie: Firstly, congratulations on reaching your 15th birthday; that’s a very impressive milestone, especially for an indie label! The best way I suppose for us to start then, is at the beginning: It’s 1999, pre-millennium; how did it all kick off?

Rob: It’s amazing to think that we’ve been doing it for 15 years. I remember around the time we had our 10th year anniversary, I did an interview with somebody that listed a whole load of labels that started in 1999. It makes me wonder if it was all part of that pre-millennium tension; everybody feeling that they’d talked about doing it for a long time, and that maybe they needed to start it before the end of the world!

At the time in Brighton, Skint [Records] had a big effect on a lot of people with their success, and I think a lot of people were saying that ‘Oh, I’m going to do a label, I’m going to do this and that’ and when Skint did well, a lot of people thought ‘maybe we should give it a shot and try and do it’. Not necessarily within that form of music, but I think it had a big influence there. For me, my background was running club nights and DJing, and to be honest one of the main motivations was just trying to get records to play out in my DJ sets that I’d like! That was quite the motivation for starting a label: to get tunes to play, really.

It seems that Tru Thoughts is quite the Brighton-centric label. You’re still based down there, and you’ve featured a lot of Brighton based artists. Was that part of the motivation at the start, as there was such a burgeoning scene? Have you ever thought about moving it elsewhere?

I think there was just a vibe going on down there at the time and we could definitely feel it. Bonobo was our first album artist we released and he was down here, there was Alice [Russell], TM Juke was down here at the time, Nostalgia 77, Quantic moved down here very soon after signing to us as well. It felt like there was a real motivation, having everybody down at that time and all being in one place. Brighton’s very small, it’s not like living in London. If you live in Brighton you’re going to bump into people. So that vibe, we all felt quite strongly about doing what we were doing, and getting things off the ground, and putting out the music that we were all into.

That just shows the real diversity of the label too, name checking such a wide range of talented artists. Obviously you’ve had 100s of releases now, but there’s such a high level of quality control that covers all sorts of genres; how do you even begin to pick which records you want to sign?

I suppose it’s just my natural instinct. I was always about DJing, from about 15/16, before I even started the label. It was interesting to begin with, because I particularly wanted records that I could play out. But obviously when Bonobo was there he came with an album that was very different but was very good quality, and I just liked the music. So for picking stuff, it’s just naturally my taste and wanting that variety within the label.

When we started speaking to Zed Bias we got a call from someone that knew him that said he was looking for a label as he’s got some new music going on. For some people, we wouldn’t be a natural fit, but we’d had a Maddslinky mix from Zed for an Alice Russell tune previously. He looked at the label and knew we were just into music and he could tell that from what we do and what we play out. So I suppose that’s the vibe that we’ve always wanted to have with people, to try anything: come to us, we’re interested if you’ve got a creative idea with the music. I’m thankfully not pigeon-holed with what we do; we’re not just a drum & bass label or a house label, we can do whatever we want within genres so that’s what I try and do.

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I like the fact that you’re taking some of these older artists that are going back 10, 20-odd years, guys like Zed Bias, Rodney P and Peshay, and you’re picking them up and still getting new stuff out of them.

I like that! A big part that is so enjoyable is signing new artists who are fresh and in their early twenties. We’ve recently signed Harleighblu, who’s 22, and Werkha who’s 22 as well; they’re very young, very hungry. But especially at this stage it’s great working with artists that have that musical experience, that knowledge, but that also want to connect with a new audience. Peshay’s got a following, Zed Bias had an initial following but he’s also got a very much younger following that are checking him out. It’s just about what most indie labels would say it’s about: following good music. It’s a tough industry, the music industry at the moment, so I think that the people that are trying to do something slightly creative aren’t thinking they’re going to be millionaires, or going to get really rich quick from doing what they do, there’s just a passion there to do it. I’ve seen that we’ve got a platform and we could maybe sign older, well known artists but I’m still very keen to sign new, untried artists, people who have never released a record. It’s important to use that platform to support the next generation coming through and that’s exciting for me, very exciting.

 What have been the major milestones over the last 15 years then?

I have to say, when we reached our 10th birthday, I thought that was a great achievement. It’s amazing looking currently about what’s going on with all the different artists, like seeing where Bonobo is today. I’ve got photos of him playing at the Sydney Opera House, and just to have been involved in that journey with a number of artists. I think Bonobo has been a massive milestone, and Alice Russell, and Quantic, and what they’ve achieved with getting their music out there and pushing the music they’re into.

At the moment, I’m very excited about Harleighblu and new signing Werkha that we’ve got as well, that seems good. I just love that we’ve done an indie label and that we’ve lasted 15 years, with 10 or 11 of us getting a full time wage working at Tru Thoughts! The fact that we’re able to have people involved in the creative aspect of the music industry and make a living from it and have our artists do that as well, that feels good to me. That feels very positive, that we’ve been able to achieve that without compromising on the music and on our beliefs on music as well. Lasting that long as well is quite difficult too!

I think what really shines through there, is the decision to not compromise, and that’s always come through with Tru Thoughts. It’s all about the music.

Yes, definitely.

So you’ve got the big night coming up at Koko soon which is very exciting, have you got any big surprises planned? Or just excited for the big night itself?

To be honest we’re just excited for the night! We’ve done a couple of nights at Koko over the last couple of years and I just really enjoy it. Back in the day, when we had loads of the artists there in Brighton, we had a regular Saturday night club, and all the artists would take it in turns to DJ there but everyone would be down there anyway on the night. So I suppose this is the one night where we can get everybody in the same room together and it’s really nice. The vibe is always interesting, you never know what it’s quite going to be, because it’s just such a variety of music throughout the night. I tend to DJ between the bands and try to throw in a few surprises or tracks through that, but for the most part I’m just looking forward to celebrating with a lot of people!

Be sure to come down to Koko in Camden on February 22nd for Tru Thoughts’ 15th Birthday Party, featuring Alice Russell, Nostalgia 77, Rodney P, Ty, Anchorsong, HarleighBlu, Wrongtom meets The Ragga Twins, Titeknots, Werkha and of course Robert Luis. I’ll be by the speakers dancing til the small hours. Get your tickets here.