“I’ve killed bambi…”
Stephen ‘Tav’ Taverner had learned to expect the unexpected in his artist management career, but this was a new one.
A cryptic note referring to the murder of a beloved Disney character had been shoved under his hotel room door by his star artist, Tim Wheeler of Ash, just before the singer-guitarist went AWOL, leaving a blood-stained hotel room behind him.
The year was 1999, and Wheeler had been determined to leave his fresh-faced indie pin-up image behind him.
That mission – this being the ‘90s – involved filming a sex, blood and drug-fuelled video with a dominatrix for Ash’s single, Numbskull, in a Manhattan hotel.
Tav’s role was to keep the record label’s video commissioner occupied in the bar downstairs until the promo was in the can, a process that – again, this being the ‘90s – involved them both getting smashed.
“Eventually, we went up to see what was going on,” he reminisces.
“The room was empty apart from feathers a foot deep across the whole floor where they’d slashed the pillows. I looked in the bathroom and there was blood on the tiles, but I couldn’t find Tim anywhere. At which point the poor video commissioner started having a nervous breakdown. I said, ‘don’t worry, we’ll get this sorted’ – and the only way we could sort it was going out and drinking more…
“By the time I found the note, I was very drunk and panicking. I literally thought he’d killed someone…”
Taverner eventually tracked his client down a few days later. Wheeler and the dominatrix had been having a lovely time, oblivious to the chaos and confusion left in their wake.
“That’s probably the weirdest it’s ever got for me,” he laughs, 23 years later.
The fact that he adds ‘probably’ is telling. Because Tav has seen pretty much everything in his career as one of the UK’s most successful managers, the man behind everyone from Ash and the Ting Tings to alt-J and Wolf Alice.
He’s at pains to point out not every band he’s managed has made it, but it’s not a bad track record for someone who never even planned on becoming a manager.
Taverner originally aspired to be a producer, before lucking into a gig at the Rough Trade distribution warehouse, where – this being the ‘80s – his job interview consisted of tracking down his supremely stoned manager in a nearby squat.
Eventually, Rough Trade spotted his potential and asked him to set up a plugging department.
There, he successfully worked the likes of the KLF, The Lemonheads and Soundgarden, until Rough Trade went bust.
He carried on plugging at real time, before Steve ‘Abbo’ Abbott and Linda Obadiah’s Big Cat Records and Bedlam Management asked him to use his US connections – Tav had spent time in New York in his teens – to sign some American artists.
He duly brought in the likes of Mercury Rev for management and Pavement for records (in the UK), enough to convince himself that, “I knew what I was fucking doing now”.
He decided to set up his own label, working out of Anton Brookes’ Bad Moon publicity office, while carrying on plugging for the likes of Hole.
One day, Bad Moon’s Paddy Davis played him a demo by some Northern Irish schoolboy pop-punks he’d been sent by a fanzine. “Ash were scrappy kids in a shed, but the melodies and the sentiment just blew me away,” Tav says.
He put out their debut single, Jack Names The Planets, on his own La La Land imprint, but then decided managing the band was a better option.
A deal with Korda Marshall’s Infectious Records followed, along with hit singles, No.1 albums and – this still being the ‘90s – an awful lot of on-the-road carnage.
Taverner managed Ash for 17 years, before they took a seven-year break from each other (“we’d just come to the end of the road and needed time apart”). But he is now back at the band’s management helm (in conjunction with Remote Control’s Pat Carr, with whom he also runs the Vertex label).
Along the way, Tav also steered the Ting Tings to stunning global success with 2008 debut album, We Started Nothing.
But, despite taking them from a failed career under the name Dear Eskiimo to a No.1 UK single and album and a Hot 100 smash with That’s Not My Name, the band dropped him immediately after their debut campaign, in favour of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation.
Disillusioned, he briefly contemplated packing it all in, before regrouping and finding even more success with alt-j, Wolf Alice and even pianist RIOPY (who hit No.1 in the US classical charts with 2019 album, Tree of Light), while his East City Management colleague Louise Latimer looks after the likes of The Big Moon and current alt-pop sensation Self Esteem (“Louise is a very good manager with great ears, she could be huge globally,” he says, proudly).
“By the time I found the note I was very drunk and panicking. I literally thought he’d killed someone.”
Steering so many big names for so long would stress most people out.
But – as well as a history of innovative ideas such as Ash’s A-Z Series subscription scheme and even designing Alt-J holograms that could be used if one of them went down with COVID on tour – Tav’s reputation has always been as an oasis of calm amidst the chaos of rock’n’roll life on the road.
He’s often cited by Ed Sheeran’s manager Stuart Camp as one of his managerial role models.
“There have been, in the past, complete shysters [managing artists],” he says. “It’s awful when you hear those stories. But I pride myself on my honesty and integrity, those things are very important to me. And artists need to be surrounded by people like that…”
Time, then, for MBW to sit down in another hotel bar and catch up with the life and times of one of the UK’s greatest managers. Although this time – this being the 2020s – he’s drinking nothing stronger than coffee and no cartoon deer are in danger…
Ash were actual children when you started managing them. Did that make things complicated?
When they got offered the Elastica tour, I had to go and meet their headmaster because they were supposed to be revising for their exams.
I promised I would make sure they did their homework on tour. And, of course, we got out on the road and they absolutely refused to do any work at all! I did try, but they were just like, ‘No fucking way, we’re on tour!’
Having your first client become so successful must have been quite a steep learning curve for you?
Oh Christ, it was massive! I was not prepared for what I was going to go through.
Ash were hedonistic, because they were kids. They were talking to their mates who were at university, going out and getting hammered on cheap booze every night and they were like, ‘We want to do that as well. And this booze is free, so we can!’
They were young, and I was inexperienced. In the end, I gave up trying to stop them drinking and pretty much joined them.
Why did you get back together after seven years apart?
They say never go back, don’t they? But they’re like family, so it’s not your normal management relationship.
They’re such lovely guys and it’s probably better the second time around.
We can do a meeting and just be in stitches, because we know each other so well, cracking the old jokes.
They’ve reached a point in their career where they make good money playing live and from their publishing, and anything else we can add onto that is a bonus.
And they’re a lot calmer. I couldn’t handle that again…
And then, with the Ting Tings, you also cracked the US…
I’d had 10 years of misery trying to break America with Ash.
We tried and tried and couldn’t make it work, but over those 10 years I learned how it works out there.
I realised there are a myriad of radio stations, a lot of politics, a lot of things you have to do to get up the different levels.
So, when I came back with the Ting Tings (pictured inset) and Rob Stringer, who was running their US label, the door was open and I could see the path.
I always thought America was like a second home to me. So it felt like validation when Ting Tings broke, especially after not getting Ash away over there.
It was really exciting – but sadly they let me go after that.
That must have been tough?
At the time, I was completely shocked.
I couldn’t understand what I’d done wrong. But I couldn’t compete with Jay-Z and his team at Roc Nation. We are friends now, but at the time I was like, ‘What the fuck?’
Did you at least enjoy some schadenfreude when their career tanked soon after they dropped you?
The weird thing was, I was angry with them for that as well!
They had everything on a plate; we’d worked so hard to get their album to where it was, all they had to do was deliver a great record, work it in the right way and they were set for life.
We’ve talked about it subsequently and they agree they’d lost their way.
I still help them out from afar. They rang me when [That’s Not My Name] went viral on TikTok recently. I explained, ‘Don’t get too excited, because it can be very fleeting. Sure, it’s massive and Madonna and The Rock have just done a version, but it can disappear pretty quickly as well…’
How did you regroup after that split?
What I thought at the time was, ‘I’ve had enough of this, I’m going to leave the industry.’
I’m not a rip-off merchant, so to get dumped like that out of nowhere was just so weird and upsetting.
But I thought, ‘No, I’ve just got to keep going and hopefully find something else that will be just as big.’
And along came alt-J and Wolf Alice…
Yeah. With alt-J, I went back to what I did at Rough Trade really – which was word of mouth, letting the music do the heavy lifting.
We spent a year developing them, utilising SoundCloud free downloads.
Ellie [Rowsell, Wolf Alice singer] sent me all of their demos and I was blown away so I thought, ‘Why not?’ Not thinking for one minute that now they had to go and fire Jamie [as manager] and I’d be working with him as the label!
[For that reason] the first album was tough. We were at loggerheads, but we managed to get through it over the course of three albums.
I’ve got a lot of respect for Jamie – he stepped up and saw their potential. Same with The 1975; he’s stuck with them through thick and thin and you’ve got to admire someone like that.
Rumour has it that Wolf Alice have now signed a label deal elsewhere – at a major record company…
Yes, we renewed their deal with RCA in America and we’ll now be coming out through Columbia exUS. Ironically, with Gus from alt-J’s brother [Columbia UK boss Ferdy Unger-Hamilton], which is quite funny.
“I’m not a rip-off merchant, so to get dumped out of the blue like that was so weird and upsetting.”
Obviously, Jamie was pissed off at first.
But he does understand – they were signed to him since their early 20s and they want to see what it’s like elsewhere. It’s nothing personal.
The band wanted to experience something different and Rob Stringer is a huge fan. And I’d had that experience with Rob with The Ting Tings – he’s a man of his word so when he tells me, ‘I’m going to do this, this and this,’ I believe him.
East City has broken several alternative artists during an era when that’s been harder than ever. What’s the secret?
Ultimately, it’s down to the music, but the three things I obsess over are positioning, timing and perception.
I see so many artists get just one of those three things wrong, and it seems to affect everything else.
You need time to grow and develop as an artist, especially these days when you’re expected to have a hit on your first album, or serious numbers on TikTok.
That kills artistry and gives everything a limited lifespan – and real artists need time.
Can alternative rock ever get back to the centre of pop culture?
[Laughs] Do you know how many times I’ve been through this ‘guitar music is dead’ thing? Four times now, I think!
When I was at Rough Trade, Kylie and Jason were massive and Stock Aitken Waterman was saying, ‘Alternative music is not happening.’ But it always comes back.
At the end of the day, people need something with substance and emotion to latch onto and, after a while, three minutes of ‘Ya-ya-ya’ gets a bit wearing for anybody.
If you could change one thing about today’s music industry, right here and now, what would it be and why?
That’s quite easy: I’d like to see total transparency in accounting and the way artists receive streaming royalties.
It should be transparent from the DSP through to the artist. As more artists come out of their deals, they’re going to be looking at that.
Finally, you’ve been at this for a long time now. How do you maintain your enthusiasm?
I love the music side and I love discovering new things.
I listen to music from the minute I wake up to the moment I go to bed. The business side can be frustrating, I don’t particularly love that, but I’ve been very lucky to have the successes I’ve had over the years.
One of the things I always say to younger managers is – I know it’s easy to say this, but – don’t give up.
It’s very tough when you first start. Ten years of me in America trying to break Ash… I could have given up many times, but I stuck at it. It didn’t work with that artist but with the next artist, it did.
It’s a funny old business, there’s no rhyme or reason to it sometimes. I’ve got a couple of friends who literally cannot listen to music anymore. But I just couldn’t live like that. I’m always searching for the new thing, I can’t help myself.
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