Culture

The story of the renowned Welsh record label ready to be rediscovered after 20 years

31 Jan 2021 12 minutes Read
Huw Stephens and Geraint John

David Owens

It’s a story of youthful idealism, a grand plan and two music fans with a widescreen vision – to put Welsh music on the international map.

It’s a tale that features a cast of notables, including a Manic Street Preacher, a Boo Radley, a broadcasting icon and a missed opportunity to release one of the biggest singles of the noughties.

As a new millennium heaved into view, Geraint John and Huw Stephens had one objective – to be involved in the music industry.

These firm friends and music obsessives were schoolmates at Ysgol Glantaf in Cardiff.

Geraint (known as Baz to his mates) had his own band, Y Void, while Huw acted as the fledgeling outfit’s manager.

The pair were fixtures on the local scene in Cardiff. Music was their life and they immersed themselves fully in what the Welsh capital had to offer, attending gigs most nights of the week.

With a head full of ideas and a keen propensity to plot, the duo came up with the idea of Boobytrap Records.

Now, 20 years later, what started as a singles club and blossomed into a fully-fledged label, is set for a comeback.

To tie in with Welsh Language Music Day / Dydd Miwsig Cymru, on Friday, February 5, the 24 singles that constituted the monthly Boobytrap Singles Club are to be available digitally for the very first time on Spotify. The full back catalogue, some 54 releases, will follow in incremental stages thereafter.

This collection of benchmark releases will include tracks from such fondly remembered and much loved Welsh music luminaries as MC Mabon, El Goodo, Derrero, Zabrinski, The Loves, Brave Captain, Big Leaves, JT Mouse, Texas Radio Band, Pep Le Pew, Keys and Cardiff’s legendary boisterous bin basher, Ninja.

‘Huge platform’

Boobytrap

Once dubbed ‘the best record label in the world’ by Rolling Stone magazine, Boobytrap released its first single in 2001, ‘Having and Wanting’ by one of Wales’ great lost bands, Tommy & The Chauffeur.

“The label started from a venture called Boobytrap in a Bag, which was a load of flyers, stickers and a newsletter in a bag, to hand out at gigs and in shops,” recalls Huw, who at this point had already a sizeable imprint having become the youngest DJ on Radio 1, as presenter of the Session In Wales alongside Bethan Elfyn.

“Baz and I lived in a flat above Pizza Express on the High St in Cardiff, and we loved Murry the Hump who had just released a single (as part of a singles club) with Oxford label Shifty Disco. We thought Wales should have a singles club, so we started Boobytrap.

“The main thing for all of us was to put music out by Welsh bands we loved, and give it a huge platform.”

Both Huw and Baz are keen to point out they couldn’t have done it without another key pair of players in this story – Welsh music kingpins Ceri Collier and Greg Haver, whose footprint is all over the ‘90s Welsh music uprising as owners of the Big Noise Recorders studio and label having worked with Manic Street Preachers and Catatonia.

“We approached Ceri Collier and Greg Haver who ran Big Noise, and they loved the idea and got on board with us,” adds Huw. “We really benefited from their experience, and we all loved going out to see new bands. Greg was producing a lot of bands in Cardiff then, and we all got on brilliantly.”

With a pair of experienced hands at the tiller, the label was born.

(Left to right) Greg Haver, Geraint ‘Baz’ John, Huw Stephens, and Ceri Collier.

“We hit it off with Ceri and Greg straight away,” remembers Baz, who had recorded at Big Noise as a 15-year-old with his school band Y Void. “They’re a lot older but they were great at navigating us through stuff.

“We all put some money in and got some amazing designers on board. It was 2000, so the internet was exploding. We created a Boobytrap website, which had a messageboard. It was chaos with bands arguing and people ripping the sh*t out of each other. It was hilarious.”

“So we had the designs, we had the website, we had distribution through Ceri and Greg, which was key because we wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise. Now it was a case of how are we going to find different bands to put out on a monthly singles club.”

Although that didn’t appear to pose a problem for the pair.

“Thankfully because we were so immersed in the scene and mates with all the bands, it was our lives and the scene was really growing,” says Baz. “So we didn’t have a problem sourcing the bands.”

‘Spectacular’

However, a monthly release was still a sizeable commitment on behalf of this fledgeling label.

“We loved the idea of a singles club, that monthly commitment of putting out a single every month. That pressure!” laughs Huw. “It was a CD single too, so there was a huge commitment in putting it out every month, a deadline and a lot of money involved.”

Luckily, they hit paydirt with their very first release and the input of a certain Manic Street Preacher.

“We were ambitious from the off, we didn’t want it to be just a local thing,” says Baz. “We wanted to find local bands and give them the opportunity to get heard by the whole of the UK and the world, and that’s what happened pretty much instantly.

“The first single Tommy & The Chauffeur was number two in the indie charts and got played on The Evening Session on Radio 1, so we were rocking straight away.

“Pretty much instantly James Dean Bradfield heard Tommy & The Chauffeur, went to a football game with Rob Stringer who was the head of Sony Music and said you’ve got to listen to these two kids releasing records in Cardiff.

“Next thing we know we’re in Rob Stringer’s office in London, and he wants to fund us. That was after the first release. It was pretty spectacular. That really sorted us out. That meant we could cover studio hire, we could cover the pressing, and the rest. It was such a big thing for us. We’re 18 and from Cardiff and there you are in the big boss’ office, so we’ll always be thankful to James for that.”

James Dean Bradfield and Martin Carr

As their reputation grew, so did their starstruck encounters.

“Baz and I loved Creation Records, Oasis and The Boo Radleys,” recalls Huw. “So imagine our delight when we walked into our local one day to find (Boo Radleys’) Martin Carr in there. Of course we asked him to do a single (under the moniker Brave Captain) and he said yes.”

“The first year everything we were releasing made sense,” remembers Baz. “We were completely immersed in it. Meeting Martin Carr was a big deal. The first single I ever bought was ‘Wake Up Boo!’ We met him and persuaded him to release a single with us.

“A journalist from Rolling Stone heard the single, and subscribed to the Singles Club. He fell in love with the fact that we were pushing out so much good stuff and we were Welsh. That’s when he wrote about us and described Boobytrap as ‘the best record label in the world’. As you can imagine we were quite chuffed about that.”

‘Millions’

When it came to which artists to release, it was a broad church, the singles were diligently eclectic, carefully pored over by the Boobytrap team.

“We’d always go and see them (the bands) play live,” recalls Huw. “Barfly was up and running, the Toucan, of course Clwb Ifor Bach. We all basically lived in these venues, going out almost every night of the week. I think bands would approach us, but mostly we asked them. We’d have discussions in the office about who to release.

“For every single that we did release there were 10 that we could have released.”

Ask them about the releases that were their favourites and there are a few highlights – including a particularly successful ruse and broadcasting titan John Peel.

“What was brilliant was that John Peel would give all the bands sessions,” says Baz. “When we released the single by Zabrinski, I wrote a fake press release saying that the singer was a jockey from Carmarthen. Peel actually read the press release out on air. It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard.”

The pair also cite releases from Keys, Derrero, Mclusky and Texas Radio Band as especial favourites.

“We released the Keys single, which was the one of the best songs they’d ever written and that got played on daytime Radio 1,” remembers Baz.

“Then there was the moment when Derrero got playlisted on Radio 1 and they were being played by the likes of Mark & Lard, listened to by many millions of people.”

Huw adds: “Personally, I was thrilled to release a single by Mclusky. I also remember John Peel playing the Texas Radio Band single on his show, and it felt amazing.”

‘Not great’

For all their successes, critical acclaim and radio play, there is one episode that will, by his own admission, forever haunt Baz.

It involves theatrical rockers The Darkness, a missed opportunity and a multi-million selling record.

“So we put on The Darkness at The Point in Cardiff Bay, who were supporting Tommy & The Chauffeur,” says Baz, taking up the reins of this sorry tale. “The band went on first to a half empty room. I didn’t know what the hell was going on really,” he laughs. “One minute the singer Justin was on the bass player’s head, the next he’s running around the stage.

“We finished the gig and (singer) Justn Hawkins gave me a CD and it had multi-million selling single ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’ on it, along with what would constitute their (multi-platinum) debut album (‘Permission To Land’).

“I’ll take responsibility for this,” he sighs, resignedly. “So I put the CD on in the office. Everybody else wanted to release it, the band wanted us to release it because they liked the label, and I just point blank refused. I think I said I’m not putting my name to this. And then it obviously sold several million copies.

“There were a few of those actually,” Baz reveals. “I remember we were going through demo boxes and we’d been sent ‘Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)’ by Spiller, featuring Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Another massive seller,” he laughs. “So yeah, not great.”

After seven years, the label came to a conclusion in 2007, with Huw having already left to concentrate on his broadcasting career and Baz wanting to move on to pastures new.

“I carried on running it after Huw had stepped away by the end because of his commitments with radio and Ceri and Greg had got busier and busier,” recalls Baz. “After the singles club we released lots of albums, which were critically well received like ‘Seven Sleepers Den’ by (Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci’s) Richard James and there was a band called The Boyfriends who went on tour with Morrissey by his request, but it just fizzled out. Life takes over. I was ready for the next stage.”

‘Proud’

For Baz, who now owns his own podcast company, Move Sounds, revisiting the Boobytrap back catalogue in readiness for its appearance on Spotify on Welsh Language Music Day / Dydd Miwsig Cymru, has been both a strange but also enjoyable experience.

“It’s very strange immersing ourselves back in it,” he says. “We’ve got a hilarious Whatsapp group with the four of us in. We all get on so well and we’ve been reminiscing and sharing stories.

“We’re proud that we did it so young. It was 20 years ago. Me and Huw are getting on a bit now. We’re both 40 this year and it’s like ‘wow look at what we did’.”

Boobytrap has a special place in many people’s hearts. It acted as a galvanising force for the Welsh music scene at the time, as well as a wonderful creative outlet for some exceptional musicians. The back catalogue’s appearance on Spotify will offer a great opportunity for those who were around at the time to revisit songs that have never been made available digitally previously, while acting as an entry point for a whole new audience to discover.

“I’m proud to have been involved with Boobytrap because it was a label that brought lots of scenes together,” says Huw. “Welsh language, English language, valleys bands, north Wales bands. The only thing in common all the releases had really was that it was all Welsh. And we took the music to a new audience, through the radio, press and gigs.

“We’re making sure that all this brilliant music we released doesn’t get forgotten about. The history of Wales’ music scene deserves to be remembered.”

The Boobytrap Singles Club releases will appear on Spotify and Apple Music to coincide with Welsh Language Music Day / Dydd Miwsig Cymru on Friday, February 5. Find out more here.

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