spotlight on The Delgados
the making of the great eastern, the fifth anniversary of chemikal underground and more
by Stevie Chick
The atmosphere in CaVa studios in Glasgow had become unbearable, like someone had sucked out all the oxygen and replaced it with pure, sparking tension. The four members of The Delgados guitarist/singer Alun Woodward, guitarist/singer Emma Pollock, bassist Stewart Henderson and drummer Paul Savage had been ensconced in the studio for weeks, eking out what was eventually to become their third album, The Great Eastern. It felt as if they had been at loggerheads for almost as long.
Reel upon reel of raw material had been recorded, string and brass sections had been called in to perfectly execute their grand vision, but a combination of studio-fever and the typically strong passions of the four band-members led The Delgados to a frustrating impasse. They knew, somewhere amongst the hours of music they'd recorded, hid the deserving sequel to their heartily acclaimed Peloton LP. But they were in no condition to sift it out.
"We were all too close to it," remembers Alun now, months later. "It was frustrating, we knew we had everything we needed for the album already there, we just needed someone who wasn't so intensely involved in the project to take a step back and make sense of it all, to assemble it. We couldn't focus on it, we'd spent too long and had hit a wall; we needed someone to be brutally honest about it, to find what we had been striving for."
Alun and Paul are sitting at the bar of Glasgow's The Garage venue, overseeing preparations for this evening's Fifth Birthday extravaganza for their indie label, Chemikal Underground Records. The nightmares that stalked the production of The Great Eastern are thankfully now in the past, Paul and Stewart having taken all the recorded material across the Atlantic to the studios of David Fridmann, the genius producer behind American psychedelic groups Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev's most recent work.
The Great Eastern is The Delgados finest work yet; Fridmann has woven together the disparate elements to create a tender, graceful album that nevertheless aches with the blood, sweat and tears The Delgados spent over it. Not that the tensions and traumas the album brought are an untypical experience for the band; four strong-minded individuals with equally fiery passions, The Delgados' career has been studded with such dramas.
The band were born of such turmoil, when, six years ago, Alun, Paul and Stewart were summarily ejected from a no-hoper local band the gentlemanly musicians refuse to name.
"Initially, we were fuelled wholly by hate. I felt I'd been betrayed by my best friend; it was a deep hurt that propelled me to form a new band that would vindicate us, in a sense," explains Alun, still seething to this day. Beyond hate, however, a healthy creative curiosity and a desire to do things differently were the essential elements of The Delgados' make-up; Paul's partner, Emma, joined the band, and they swiftly set about gigging and recording demos.
The band's first steps into the music industry betrayed the typically headstrong attitude. Hawking their tapes to record labels in hope of a contract didn't appeal to The Delgados, so they simply started a label of their own. And they stress how simple it was.
"Alun and I had always talked about starting up a label of our own when we were younger," grins Paul. "We just bit the bullet, pressed up a thousand seven-inch singles of our first record, and went off to get them sold. Chemikal Underground was born in that moment."
That single, `Monica Webster', was snapped up by famously vociferous Radio One DJ John Peel for regular airplay on his late-night show, and his influential patronage ensured that the single soon sold out of its initial pressing. The band took the cash from that release and promptly invested it straight back in the label, and indulged their vision of Chemikal Underground as something more than a simple vanity label.
"Chemikal Underground was never going to be a vehicle for The Delgados only," states Paul, clearly; The Delgados even recorded their next single on London indie Che Records, ostensibly to help Chemikal Underground foster an identity independent of The Delgados, and also to see how other labels operated. The second release on Chemikal Underground was by electro-pop trio Bis. Their two EPs for the label, Disco Nation and Secret Vampire Club, took the band's `Teen-C Pop' to Top Of The Pops, and won the label a much wider notoriety, along with their first serious chart action and the cash to continue releasing records. Which they did, with impressive zeal.
"We've never had any grand game-plan," admits Paul, modestly, of his label's signings. "When we released our first single, we weren't thinking, like, `Hmm, this is just what the world is waiting for'. We were just knew that we would want to buy the records we released, and that there weren't enough records out there that we truly loved."
"I think we've always had a kind of blind arrogance," counters Alun."We've certainly always been quite seriously arrogant about our musical tastes. I'd regularly make friends compilation tapes when I was younger, because I felt so deeply that they needed to hear the music that I loved; that I knew better than they what they should be listening to, really."
It's an arrogant attitude that has certainly paid off, for as idiosyncratic as Chemikal Underground's signings have been, the label has quite definitely captured, even dictated, the zeitgeist for underground rock throughout the 90s. Bands such as Arab Strap, Mogwai, and, of course, Bis have become the unlikely success-stories and pivotal movers of the UK alternative scene and beyond, despite the initial doubts of some.
"People thought we were mad to sign Arab Strap," grins Paul, "We'd play people their demo tape and they'd hate it, but we loved it so we released it anyway. When Guinness used their song `The First Big Weekend' for an advertising campaign and the single became a hit, that was a very sweet vindication indeed."
"We'd never release a record we didn't like, just to make money," Alun assures us. "We've always just followed our own hearts. We've been lucky enough to hook up with characters as strong as ourselves, who can hold their own. We thrive off working with people like that."
Of course, it was just this headstrong attitude that caused the sessions for The Great Eastern to seize up so disastrously. "The problem is, no single member of this band has veto," sighs Paul. "Because we all have strong feelings about things it makes for a lot of arguments. Even if you're all moving in the same direction, it can be difficult to make everything just perfect."
But, similarly, it is this commitment to perfection, this arrogance, that makes The Delgados' music (and, by extension, that released by Chemikal Underground) so essential, so heartfelt. When the band step onstage finally tonight (John Peel introducing them as "The best band in the world"), it is with a sense of relief that their most trying project is finally behind them, that their every struggle and sweat has been profoundly justified. No compromises considered, no expense emotional or otherwise - spared. And when the adoring applause finally comes, it is an affirmation they have so definitely earnt.