“We didn’t really know what we were doing everything was complete intuition and naivety” – Alun Woodward
Chemikal Underground started in 1994 on a whim when The Delgados found that they had a) some left over studio time and b) some unappealing offers from A&Rs. Harnessing the power of single bloody mindedness and the DIY aesthetic they made some recordings and forged ahead on their own. John Peel’s astute ear and Melody Maker’s blessing added the commercial seal of approval that kick started a fiercely independent label, possibly the biggest cult label in the UK. Amazingly, Kandypop by Bis, of all singles entering the top 30 meant Chemikal Underground could go on to release albums by The Delgados, Arab Strap and Mogwai, amongst others.
Alun and Stewart [Henderson] still run the label (with Emma Pollock and Paul Savage in charge of the associated recording studio Chem 19). Being surrounded by music, their drive – or “obsession” as Alun puts it – with wanting to be in the thick of it meant that it grew in to wanting to set up a label, though Alun admits that they were “lucky” enough with their experiences for it to seem like it was “the easiest thing to do.” The British music scene was unappealing, so setting up their own label seemed a “natural step.”
Now its been 18 years of living and dying by the “idealist notion that there is a meritorious correlation between money and success.” But, Alun laughs, “they disprove me every time” what keeps them all going is the realization that “you love music otherwise you’d go mad, or do something easier!” Central to this ethos, and central to Chemikal Underground’s success, its universe almost is Glasgow – all it stands for, all it is and all it produces. “We’re in a city that is in love with music” says Alun, we always have been and we’ve got the back catalogue that people want to hear.” Like the diplomatic parent Alun says it is “utterly impossible” to pick a favourite “there have been so many releases that for different reasons are memorable and fill me with pride.”
And music lovers they must be, how else to reconcile Bis’ hyper-fructose bounce with Aereogramme’s elegiac howl. But his own band, The Delgados are definitively indie, the Phantom Band explore what indie can means. You need only look to the chameleon like genre creep of Arab Strap to understand Glasgow’s love affair with musical invention, then look beyond Arab Strap’s split to see Aidan Moffatt and Malcolm Middleton’s metamorphosis and mutation. Indeed, Chemikal Underground “would work with anyone” says Alun “irrespective of style” there is no sense that a ‘genre’ defines them, or they wish to define themselves by genre – a few bands were “influential on the post rock thing” Alun modestly offers.
Which brings us neatly to the noisy elephant in the room, I ask the question, how does Chemikal Underground feel about having two relative giants on the books. Alun replies that “most labels would give their left ear to be associated with bands as great as Mogwai and Arab Strap” The noisy veterans and the purveyors of dour euphoria loom large when you think of Chemikal Underground, but they don’t define the label (there are after all another 20 bands past or present on the books, the only thing they have in common being Glasgow and a restless creativity). The problem is “that most labels have acts that define them but often aren’t particularly good, just popular. If people know us because of Mogwai and Arab Strap then I certainly don’t have a problem.”
It is the 21st Century, people don’t pay for music. In the world of Chemikal Underground “everything and nothing” has changed unfortunately the number of people on the label who make music full time has shrunk, magazines have gone out of business (but websites are really getting some traction now). The label advertises less than it did 10 years ago but, it is here that the word of mouth, the ‘cult’ status can really pay off for Chemikal Underground, it is easier to communicate with people into music through social media and as long as there are people who value music and are prepared to pay for it” says Alun “we will still be releasing records.” The great thing is that new music is as strong now as it always has been, Alun agrees though “that said I have listened to nothing but 20’s blues for the last few months; Blind Willie McTell, Son House, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson…”
Chemikal Underground’s immediate focus is on releases from Holy Mountain (“combining the riffs of Black Sabbath, the frenzied energy of Lightning Bolt and the attitude of the MC5” or to put it another way AMAZING), Miaoux Miaoux (synth pop to shift your feet) and Adrian Crowley (“I’ve been listening to an unmastered version of his album and it is ALREADY amazing”). How does Alun feel about the state of music, the future of the label, life in general? Never “disappointed or disgusted… I’m a total optimist about things” spending vast amounts of my time “excited and perplexed” by the business of music. Excitement about the label, about Glasgow about music.
This post originally appeared on The What Where When on 12 April 2012