In 2004, U.K.-based independent label Memphis Industries released the sample-heavy, intentionally lo-fi and daringly jarring “Thunder, Lightning, Strike,” the Go! Team’s debut full-length CD. The buzz was deafening, so in 2005, the label entered a joint venture with Sony BMG to distribute the album internationally, with the major’s Columbia subsidiary handling it in the United States.
It’s a turn of events that every band dreams of — unless that band is the Go! Team.
The brainchild of Ian Parton, the Go! Team was never supposed to be mainstream. Parton set out to make “dirty” pop songs — danceable, catchy tunes that were enveloped by chaos and besieged by left turns.
“It wasn’t ever going to be a polished, radio-friendly outfit,” Parton says. “That’s why I went with Memphis. I would bring in a mix and they would tell me to go back and make it dirtier. That was a good sign.”
The so-called “team” was actually a one-man operation for several years. Setting up in his parents’ kitchen and working almost entirely on his own (brother Gareth helped with engineering), Parton dug through old records and started combining all his “favorite things,” from detuned no-wave guitars to Motown brass, old-school hip-hop beats, action-movie soundtrack music and cheerleading chants.
His work was refreshingly original and, despite Memphis Industries’ lack of financing at the time, the singles released leading up to “Thunder” made their way around the world in a promising manner.
Parton, who says that “the plan was always to be a gang,” put a band together in a matter of weeks in 2004. The live instrumentation and vocals were the final touches his music needed, and the sextet was off.
“Thunder” was nominated for Britain’s prestigious Mercury Music Prize in 2005, but was still unavailable stateside. Sub Pop’s head of radio promotion, Sue Busch, had contacted Memphis Industries earlier about giving the album a home domestically, but had to pass once the depth of its sample list became clear.
“At that point in time we just didn’t have the muscle to pull it together and get all the samples cleared. It was just way too much money,” Busch says.
But Memphis Industries co-founder Oliie Jacob saw an opening. He knew Parton was independent-minded, but “Sony put a ridiculous deal on the table and we saw the opportunity to get proper funding for the band and get them out of their day jobs.
We decided on a joint venture for the one album, knowing it would help get Ian to a stage where he could later do a lot of smaller deals around the world with indie labels.”
Parton says they were careful from the get-go. “Sony thought we weren’t interested in selling records, but that wasn’t true. We’re just anxious about being presented a certain way. There were things they wanted to do that seemed a bit desperate. So we’d say no.”
But what might be called a buying-in-without-selling-out strategy paid off. Though Columbia sold only 48,000 copies of “Thunder” in the States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, the album has made it to a quarter-million in international sales, according to Memphis Industries.
And now Jacob and Parton are celebrating the band’s territory-by-territory deals with “clued-up” indie labels around the world, plus a move in the States to Sub Pop.
The Seattle-based label, in a far stronger position than a couple of years ago, wasn’t going to let the Go! Team get away this time, and the sample list for new album “Proof of Youth,” due September 11, was much more manageable than the rights-clearance hurdle “Thunder” had presented.
“The last few years have been very good to us, and we were able to come to the table with much more to offer,” Busch says. “Their taste and the way they approach things, which is sort of guerrilla-indie style, is more in line with what we do here.”
The Go! Team kicks off a 10-date U.S. tour in October, hits Europe in November and then heads to Japan in December.