Tim Whelan is a composer, producer, and multi-instrumentist in the notorious collective Transglobal Underground. Sometimes written as Trans-Global Underground or simply TGU, the group shines with a fusion of western, Asian, and African music styles. Since 1991 they released a large selection of beats, dub, dancehall, acid house, drum and bass, oriental fusion, bhangra, funk, and hip-hop music. Regarded as the original fusionists, they are credited for being the collective that first brought together club culture and world music to create a whole new onstage experience.

Formed by Hamid Mantu, Count Dubulah, and Tim Whelan in 1990, the band expanded into a collective of musical collaborators creating eclectic journeys with each album released: Dream of 100 Nations, International Times, Psychic Karaoke, Impossible Broadcasting, and even collaborations with the Albanian folklore group Fanfara Tirana Meets Transglobal Underground - Kabatronics.

Their latest albums, the Walls Have Ears and A Gathering of Strangers, is unity through diverse pan-European projects recorded in London, Paris, Prague, Budapest, and Sofia.
When TGU started, you began it under an alias: Alex Kasiek. Why did you choose this alias?

Alex Kasiek was a middle-of-the-night decision. A lot of people were using all kinds of strange names on their records, and it was just quite normal at the time. We didn't want any connection with anything we did before, nor to connect TGU with Furniture or other bands I have performed in with my real name. We were not searching for an evident statement, and that was true of our entire collective. But we also didn't take that direction because at the very beginning and not just the beginning, later on to it was never quite clear who was in Transglobal Underground. People were always in transit, running around and making music, doing stuff. You didn't quite know who's who and what in the band. So we kind of thought, well, let's turn that into a positive thing. And we'll just invent all sorts of fake people like Alex Kasiek, Hamiton became Hamid Man-Tu, and Nick Count, Dubulah. It also meant we didn't have to turn up for the photo session. Sometimes it didn't matter who was in the fridge.

You used the same alias for producing other music, too.

Yes, we did, Hami, Nick and me. The first album Diaspora and the next one Halim, Nation Records asked us to do it. And then, we did work for the third album, Gedida, this time for Mantra Recordings. Even in the 2000s, we did some tracks on every release she did, from Ayeshteni, Something Dangerous up until Mish Maoul.

How was your ongoing production relation with Natacha? What are your most proud musical achievements with her?

It depends. I have different favorite songs depending on my mood. Now I am in Paris and it is Mon Amie La Rose, which is one of the European hits that we had together. This is one that I return to often. I think, you know, in the big things to what we were trying to do there always was this kind of bridge.

Our sound is a connection between Western music and Eastern music in a way that both these audiences could appreciate. And that's something that physically me, Hamid, and Natasha always wanted to do. That is something we needed. The third solo album, Gedida, that she put out, she thought of it as very obscure. She couldn't imagine anyone buying that music. And it went the other way, became a great success. She said: “I think Europeans will think Gedida is too Arabic. I'll have a few foreign students that will like it, and that will be it”. But there were many more of those people than she thought of. You had this whole new generation of Arabic people coming into Britain and Europe. 

Our relationship is that chemistry and her willingness to experiment. I think everyone goes on a journey listening to Natasha sing and what she’s doing musically and in terms of what she did. She is a trendsetter, her music and lyrics were very much in tune with the times Arabic people were going through, in Egypt and the Middle East, and Asia.

But she also got onboard happily in the TGU reunion, and it was quite nice to do gigs together. She enjoys re-revisiting the past without feeling it was a kind of a duty or an obligation to make that kind of music anymore. It worked out quite well for both. She would come in and do something very different than what she's doing these days. And feel very relaxed about it too. When she was in the studio with us, she stayed for about six or seven hours singing and trying different things. That is all about technique, to be able to do that. She did two of the three songs on Walls Have Ears with Shima Mukherjee on vocals too, Ruma Jhuma and Stand Up (Nifhamou). The two of them together are very powerful. We had the basic ideas before we went into the studio, but what came out, it's intense and spontaneous.

In 2020 you started working on the Walls Have Ears album, where most of the original members have returned. What was the vibe on this comeback of all the crew?

We had to make the Walls Have Ears record for ourselves really. Firstly, when we started, we decided to try a funny situation, we had three different bands recording at the same time in different places. I and Natasha were in Paris, Hami in London, and Nick in Spain. We had the band that usually plays, that would have come to Bucharest, in club Control, if the pandemic wouldn’t have canceled everything. We also had the reformed band, that occasionally got together, with original members like Nick Page aka Dub Colossus, Natacha Atlas, and Inder Goldfinger. But that version of TGU comes together not so often, we just started touring back a couple of years ago.

So what do we do next? It was mainly me, Hamilton and Natasha. We did a few tracks for an EP called The Colours Started to Sing Again, and that came out at the beginning of 2019. And that got us thinking. We then thought, well, the only way we can do this is by crowdfunding it, but also the point of the campaign was: is anybody listening to TGU at all now? Is there anyone out there? Yes, partly we raised the money, but also we needed to re-communicate with people. Reach out to the audience and see who was there. If not many people responded, it would have been a different outcome, I think. Because we got a good reaction, everybody got enthusiastic. And, so it was kind of partly due to all the people being interested in wanting to hear new Transglobal Underground music. Nick started putting more into it, and Natasha came over to the London studio.

These days, I think part of the music, if you are a band that is here for as long as we have, a part of that energy has to come from outside of you, from the audience and the people being around you.

But, from our experience, crowdfunding is difficult. We worked with Joanne Breeze, who was very helpful. She was our crowdfunding consultant. We are not the sort of people who are good at saying: "Hey, we're wonderful! You got to listen to us. Come on and give us some money.” It's not our thing. And we said, look, we need somebody to kick our asses. So we paid somebody to do it, and it all went very well.

After so much time spent in the music industry, how do you feel about the ever-evolving music industry and platforms like Bandcamp?

In hindsight, things have changed a lot, and, yes, our sales have so far been on Bandcamp. Bandcamp has been a very supportive business for musicians, they've become an important part of the industry in a good way. It's only opening up beyond Bandcamp. Financially, in a pandemic, the situation is not what we would have expected, without gigs in the last year to promote our two records the Walls Have Ears and A Gathering Of Strangers. This is why we launched the Bandcamp subscription. The distribution is completely online and done personally by us.

Hopefully, that will change, but as you know, it's really streaming or Bandcamp. It isn't much else. Streaming, as we all know, makes nobody any money, except for the people who operate the streaming, it is just a useful form of publicity. And it's a useful way to find out where your audience is, but it is a terrible way to make money. It's strange, I mean, I do know people who make money out of streaming, so I'm not going to completely knock it, but for a band in our niche, it's very hard. But on the other hand, the interest of people at the moment is in buying stuff online, it is quite different from ten years ago, stronger. So if you have a good sight on something like Bandcamp, which is obviously the best site for these things, it's a good way both to keep in touch with the audience and sell what you do.

I honestly would like to be able to sell records through record shops and I would much like people to be able to our albums physically, but at the moment, you know...

Back in the 80' you toured Romania with your band Furniture. Do you have memories with that time and of Ceaucescu's regime?

With Furniture, in the 1980s, we've acquired doing quite well in Britain and the British Council wanted to find a band that they could take to some exotic countries. They had in mind to promote British music in countries where the government authorities were not fans of rock music but open to foreign bands. So they couldn't send a big rock band, they were subversive and decadent. They wanted somebody who was successful in the tops at the time, but with music was less straight capitalist and we suited to that image. So they took us to the Middle East, we toured Egypt and Jordan.

The tour went really well so they took us on a second tour, this time in Eastern Europe. Well, we played in Romania at the time of Ceaucescu’s trial. It was a full-on Romanian tour, we’ve been to Cluj, Brașov, Sibiu, Bucharest, and Constanța. Politically it was business as usual, basically, we were followed by the secret police everywhere. The audience that came to our show was then followed by the Securitate. The first thing that happened was we went over the border from Bulgaria and two guys were constantly behind us in a car. Girls came to the events and stuck their gums through the window and asked for cigarettes. We knew about that and had several hundred cigarettes with us. We were basically paying for things in cigarettes and I think we just got very drunk on palinka for about five days. Romanians had some tough times in that period you could see the despair as we drove over the border to Hungary. It was a time where the government would try to make these Eastern bloc countries completely self-sufficient, so there wasn't very much to buy or experience. Hami went to Muzica and bought some vinils, folk rock, Celelalte Cuvinte and some pionieri choirs. 

Ceausescu had such a big ego and I remember from the TV he would make such strange scenes. It was more interesting for us to play Romania because at least for the Romanian audience, anything that came into the country was interesting. In Yugoslavia, we realized that musically, in many ways, they were ahead of Britain on so many levels, so they didn't need us there. Those were some fast times, as we drove right through the border into Hungary we were already thinking about becoming Transglobal. 

We came back to play Romania and did three shows and a tour with Courtney. I think it was the tenth anniversary, it was 1998 but 1999 too. We played Cluj and Constanța again.

In the nineties, you released your first albums with Nation Records. How did you get to release music to such a big label?

National Records wasn't a big label. It was a small, independent label, just six people in a basement. It was in the days when you could still have an independent label that could exist as a record company. They were linked to Beggars Banquet. This was a complicated deal because just before they did that link, Sony came with a deal for Transglobal Underground only. So we were never part of the Beggars Banquet part of Nation.
But we then did one album, International Times with Sony, and it was a complete waste of time for both of us. And then, MCA Records from America got involved. Our third and fourth albums, Psychic Karaoke and Rejoice Rejoice, both came out on MCA, and they worked pretty hard on it. We went to America with them, and they did a good job, but in America, I think, the kind of music we make doesn't quite sell. There's a small American audience for us, not a big one. They tried pretty hard, a lot of respect to them.

After that, we had this one album deal with a company that no longer exists: Ark 21. We released the Yes Boss Food Corner album. Ark 21 was trying to publish Arabic music in America and so they were involved with a lot of world music and what Natacha Atlas was doing. They were trying to become a more commercial label. They were working with people like Sting, Cheb Mami, and Squeeze, and quite big bands. They were aiming for a big tour in 2001, and then 9/11 happened, and that was the end of their concept of pushing Arabic music in the States. From then on, we've not even tried to associate with a major label. There just was no point. If I look at it now, all our business with music labels has been small. We had very little to do with the majors. Maybe it was all for the better. We are grounded musicians.

As TGU, we were able to get to a certain amount of success. We've been part of the music industry, but not the music industry everybody knows about. I think the days when you could have people like Nation Records were unique. Yes, in the UK, you had Creation Records doing the more psychedelic rock stuff with bands like Oasis and Primal Scream. Food Records was doing the indie stuff, like Blur. Some very big bands and these quite small labels were all doing deals with big majors to do the distribution. That wasn't a bad system, I quite liked that system, but it's all gone now.
Now you have the major labels that act differently, they use the energy and the ideas of the small labels, and the small labels got the records properly distributed. In my opinion, it was a good thing going for both. But that was in days when you had record companies. Aren’t they kind of gone now?

But also, once a group's been going more than 20 years, most record companies, you know, aren't going to work with them anyway. Because generally, whatever team there was around the band, they are very likely to know more about the music business than many people in record companies, simply because they've been doing it a long time.