The most important and influential record label ever to come out of Scotland has just reached its 21st birthday, and I want to pay tribute.
I’ve actually been lucky enough, through my day job in an office just a few hundred yards from their HQ in the east end of Glasgow, to get to know and work on some projects with the folks who run Chemikal Underground. I still pinch myself that I’ve become friendly with musicians whom I idolised as a fan not too many years ago and I’m thrilled that in an era when labels of all sizes have endured all sorts of turmoil and issues as a consequence of the ways we all ‘consume’ music nowadays, that Chem is still able to produce the most wonderfully diverse and rich output you could wish for – and in 2016, thanks to the new album from Emma Pollock, have just released what I think will soon be referred to as a classic.
I did think about approaching Stewart Henderson and asking for an interview from which I’d try to create a blog post, but an article has appeared today in one of the biggest selling tabloid papers in Scotland which really does the business. And so, in the spirit of the villainous ways that I do things round here, I’ve gone for the cut’n’paste approach
THEY started in the kitchen of a flat on Glasgow’s south side, creating a record label to release their own music.
Twenty one years later, they’ve launched the careers of some of Britain’s best-loved indie bands and been garlanded with an array of industry gongs.
Chemikal Underground remain one of the most important and influential record labels the country has ever produced, surviving against the odds with a mixture of luck, loyalty and endeavour.
They were established by the members of The Delgados to release their first single in 1994. Within 18 months, they’d signed Glasgow’s bis, got them a memorable slot on Top of The Pops with single Kandy Pop and started thinking outside the kitchen
Founder Stewart Henderson said: “We decided to record songs and do things ourselves and there was quite a vibrant DIY scene at the time. Putting out the first Delgados single Monica Webster was a high, but bis lit the touch paper.
“It catapulted us out of (fellow Delagados) Paul Savage and Emma Pollock’s kitchen and into an office. Within a week we’d gone from pressing 3000 CD singles to 30,000.”
The label are now based in an office in Bridgeton in Glasgow’s east end.
They’ve won two Scottish Album of the Year Awards in four years, with records by RM Hubbert and Aidan Moffat, seen The Delgados LP The Great Eastern nominated for a Mercury music prize and established the weekend-long East End Social music festival along Duke Street as part of the Commonwealth Games 2014 culture programme.
Stewart said: “It’s significant that a label like Chemikal Underground have been able to endure 21 years. It’s important people see a company like ours surviving when the landscape of the music industry has changed so dramatically.”
Emma Pollock’s new LP, In Search of Harperfield, kicked off the label’s 2016 release schedule, with more coming including a soundtrack to Graeme Obree documentary Battle Mountain from Alun Woodward.
Stewart said: “People talk about labels like Postcard records with love and admiration. But some were like magnesium flares. They burned quickly and brightly then collapsed in on themselves.
“The fact we’ve survived this long is a testament to the amount of music being made in Scotland.”
Here, label boss Stewart Henderson picks his top 21 Chemikal Underground records of their 21 year history.
Bis: ‘Kandy Pop’ from ‘The Secret Vampire Soundtrack’ (March 1996)
Chemikal’s third release catapulted this Glaswegian teenage trio onto Top of the Pops and essentially made the next 21 years possible.
We’ve had so many important acts on the label but bis it the touch paper and no mistake.
Arab Strap: The Week Never Starts Round Here (November 1996)
Controversial to plump for Arab Strap’s debut album rather than their later (more polished) records but this has ‘The First Big Weekend’ on it and remains one of our favourite ever releases.
It’s an incredibly brave, uncompromising statement by a band that would go on to influence and shape independent music in Scotland.
Mogwai: Young Team (October 1997)
If bis provided the commercial catalyst for Chemikal Underground then Mogwai have fuelled our progress ever since.
Nearly twenty years old, this album still sounds furious and beautiful in equal measure: what an opening gambit by one of Scotland’s most consistently creative bands.
The Delgados: The Great Eastern (April 2000)
A big album (in every sense) for Chemikal when it mattered most: with Mogwai and Arab Strap having moved on from the label, The Great Eastern earned the label’s founders a Mercury-nomination and showcased The Delgados’ flair for leftfield orchestral splendour.
Radar Brothers: And the Surrounding Mountains (May 2002)
Another long-standing favourite, the Radar Brothers hailed from Southern California and released five albums with us over the years.
They evoke such a brilliant sense of the outdoors, of longing and of thoughtful reflection that we suspect the only true place to listen to this album is on a long Greyhound bus journey as the landscape dances past the window…
Arab Strap: Monday at the Hug and Pint (April 2003)
The only band to feature twice on this list and with good reason.
Arab Strap’s second spell at the label delivered another batch of great albums but this one got a pub named after it and features ‘The Shy Retirer’ which rhymes ‘moanin’ with ‘serotonin’.
The defence rests.
Malcolm Middleton: Into the Woods (June 2005)
Malcolm’s musical input to Arab Strap was incalculable, the perfect foil for Aidan Moffat’s lyrics, but this album highlighted what a great songwriter he was in his own right.
From the brilliant AA Milne inspired artwork, through a host of musical styles and some darkly comic lyrics ‘Into the Woods’ is a classic.
Aereogramme: My Heart Has A Wish That You Would Not Go (February 2007)
Another giant on Chemikal’s roster, the much-loved Aereogramme made three extraordinary albums including this, their swansong in 2007.
Craig B and Iain Cook would go on to release another two albums on Chemikal as The Unwinding Hours before Iain found global success with CHVRCHES and Craig launched his acclaimed solo project A Mote of Dust.
Various Artists: Ballads of the Book (March 2007)
An important and influential album for Chemikal Underground, this was an idea of Idlewild’s Roddy Woomble who, having worked with Edwin Morgan (Scotland’s Makar), was keen to unite Scottish literary figures’ lyrics with the music of various bands and recording artists.
The product was ‘Ballads of the Book’ featuring stellar collaborations between the likes of Alasdair Gray, Ian Rankine, Ali Smith, King Creosote, Norman Blake, Vashti Bunyan, AL Kennedy, Trashcan Sinatras and more.
The Phantom Band: Checkmate Savage (January 2009)
A debut album from an unknown band that took everyone by surprise.
Only The Phantom Band could fuse Captain Beefheart, krautrock, old world folk and doo wop into one album and pull it off perfectly.
A band for every music fan to cherish.
De Rosa: Prevention (March 2009)
Our second Alasdair Gray designed album cover, Prevention was De Rosa’s second album and remains a high-water mark for sophisticated, eloquent songwriting.
Everything about this album is class and the band have recently reformed too, releasing ‘Weem’ on Mogwai’s brilliant Rock Action label.
Roky Erickson with Okkervil River: True Love Cast Out All Evil (April 2010)
Alt-rock legend and 13th Floor Elevators frontman Roky Erickson teamed up with fellow Austin, Texas band Okkervil River to make this emotional, uplifting testament to faith, hope and forgiveness.
Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat: Everything’s Getting Older (May 2011)
The winner of the inaugural Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) Award, Everything’s Getting Older is a wry, poignant – and at times quite filthy – modern classic.
Wells’ subtle melodies provide the perfect foil for Moffat’s peerless lyrics, just listen to The Copper Top if proof were needed.
The finest song in Chemikal Underground’s entire catalogue.
Rick Redbeard: No Selfish Heart (January 2013)
Phantom Band frontman Rick Anthony released this solo debut under the name Rick Redbeard and gifted us one of Chemikal Underground’s very best albums.
Recorded in his Glasgow flat and his parents’ Aberdeenshire home, No Selfish Heart seems instantly recognisable, timeless even, evoking the careworn confessionals of Neil Young and Tom Waits.
Conquering Animal Sound: On Floating Bodies (March 2013)
The work of Anneke Kampman and James Scott, this dazzling record inhabits a world almost entirely of its own.
Created over 18 months it weaves intricate electronica and samples with Anneke’s extraordinary vocals.
Cosmology, philosophy and semantics framed in all their otherworldly glory.
RM Hubbert: Breaks & Bone (September 2013)
Following his SAY Award win in 2013 for Thirteen Lost & Found, Hubby found his voice on Breaks & Bone, singing half the tracks while the other half highlighted his trademark flamenco-inspired guitar style.
A technically brilliant musician and a gifted songwriter full of wit and warmth, his music’s a key part of Chemikal’s legacy. He’s brilliant at swearing too.
Holy Mountain: Ancient Astronauts (April 2014)
Courted by Chemikal when they were still a blistering duo of guitar and drums, we finally secured Holy Mountain’s services as the ultimate rock power trio channelling the likes of Black Sabbath, Iron Monkey and Deep Purple.
They brought the noise alright, what an album.
Adrian Crowley: Some Blue Morning (November 2014)
On his third album for Chemikal (his seventh in total), Galway’s Adrian Crowley seemed to perfect his brand of evocative, cinematic songwriting.
Currently finishing his debut novel, this wonderfully modest man of letters makes music that brings to mind the drama of Scott Walker, the poetry of Leonard Cohen and the sweep of Lee Hazlewood.
Miaoux Miaoux: School of Velocity (June 2015)
Glasgow-based songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Julian Corrie delivered Chemikal’s finest foray into smart, electronic pop with this irresistible release from last June.
Referencing early Prince and Scritti Polliti while squeezing in the odd Nile Rodgers flourish, School of Velocity is a masterclass in melody and leftfield pop.
FOUND: Cloning (November 2015)
Nearly up to date now with an album by the tirelessly creative Edinburgh outfit FOUND who were responsible for Chemikal’s only edible release – a chocolate 7” back in 2011.
Cloning finds them in full-on synthesiser mode, recalling Vangelis and Tangerine Dream in this glorious sci-fi soundtrack to a film that hasn’t been made yet.
Emma Pollock: In Search of Harperfield (January 2016)
Last but not least then, and fitting that it should be penned by a Chemikal Underground founder and member of The Delgados.
Emma’s first album in six years has already been hailed as a triumph and for good reason.
A sophisticated, articulate pop album that explores family, responsibility and loss is quite simply the best album of Emma’s career and a jewel in the crown of the label she created with three of her friends.
Here’s a few tunes to remind you of the quality of stuff this very fine Glasgow and Scottish institution have brought us over the years:-
mp3 : Bis – Kandy Pop
mp3 : Arab Strap – The Shy Retirer
mp3 : The Delgados – No Danger
mp3 : The Phantom Band – Throwing Bones (single version)
mp3 : RM Hubbert & Emma Pollock – Half Light (recorded live at Aberfeldy Distillery)
They also have has some ingenious films/videos made to accompany various releases. None better than this for what Stewart has said – and I agree with him – is the finest song in the entire catalogue
There is a fantastic on-line shop from which you can buy a fair chunk of the back catalogue.
I really do urge everyone pays it a visit and if you haven’t already, sign up for their newsletter which is always a great and brilliantly-written piece of work that won’t clog up your inbox,
I’d like to mark this momentous occasion by offering T(n)VV readers the chance to pick up items of their choice from the Chem shop, up to a value of £50, that I will pay for in lieu of me sending Stewart & co. a big bottle of champagne and a tacky 21st birthday card.
All you have to do is answer this simple question, the answer to which can be found over at the Chem website:-
Which two musicians make up the Chem act Aloha Hawaii?
Send your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org
First name drawn out of the hat after Monday 29 February will win the prize.