Jan 16, 2023
By Andy Robbins
In a history littered with greats, The Delgados are one of Scottish music’s most important bands. Not only did they release five albums of timeless guitar pop that ranged from lo-fi to orchestral, but they were also the brains behind Chemikal Underground Records – the iconic label that introduced the world to Mogwai, Arab Strap, Bis, Aereogramme and many more.
After forming in 1994, and launching the label the following year, they were at the very heart of a Glasgow music scene bursting with riches during the mid to late nineties and early noughties.
Their debut single “Monica Webster” and album Domestiques quickly won the support of legendary BBC radio DJ John Peel who championed the Lanarkshire four-piece throughout their career, calling them “Truly, one of the greatest bands in the world.”
It was perhaps their third record The Great Eastern which saw them at their peak, when it was nominated for the 2000 Mercury Music Prize. But after releasing two more records – 2002’s Hate and Universal Audio in 2004 – the band called it a day, choosing to focus on solo careers, Chemikal Underground and their studio Chem19.
Then in June last year The Delgados released a statement. They were back. Emma Pollock (guitar/vocals), Alun Woodward (guitar/vocals), Stewart Henderson (bass) and Paul Savage (drums) announced “…the thought occurs that it might be good to play together once again.”
Ahead of their first shows in 18 years, Under the Radar’s Andy Robbins spoke to Emma Pollock to find out why they decided to get back together and what the future holds for The Delgados.
Andy Robbins (Under The Radar): For those who don’t know, tell us a bit about how The Delgados got together in the first place and the birth of Chemikal Underground Records.
Emma Pollock (The Delgados): We were all four young music fans who had recently graduated from our various courses. Alun, Stewart and Paul had all been to school together. They’d been in a band together before with some other people, but then that band had split up. They decided they wanted to carry on doing something together and by that time I’d started going out with Paul while we were at university, so we got together to just see what would happen in the rehearsal room.
The nineties in Glasgow were absolutely incredible for creativity, for making things happen and believing that things could happen. I remember that tangible idea that there were so many bands around and there were so many things happening.
We got to know a few of the BBC DJs really early on. We would listen to the records they were playing and go and see bands at a bar called The 13th Note on Glassford Street. There was this very rapid rise in a scene which was nothing to do with anything except Glasgow, which is what was quite inspirational about it.
We thought the next step would be to record something, but we wondered how would we get it out. The independent label had a great legacy in Scotland. There had been the likes of Postcard Records and Fast Product, so there were already lots of examples to say “You can do it.”
Gradually we thought it would be really cool to put out other bands as well and then Bis came along, and then Arab Strap and Magoo and Mogwai. Before you knew it, you’d got a really rapidly expanding roster.
It sounds like an incredibly productive and creative time.
Oh, it was. There was a real ‘can do’ attitude. A lot of people seem to think that the internet is the first time we’ve been able to look for information, but that’s not really true. The way that you got information back then was just to pick up the phone.
I remember trying to work out how you physically have a piece of vinyl made. You know, how do you get a seven-inch single made? I remember ringing up Key Production, who we still work with now, and a woman called Karen talked me through it over the phone.
It was a very analogue world at the time back then, so for artwork we literally drew out a template for a seven-inch single and then Sellotaped photographs to it. And that was how we made “Monica Webster/Brand New Car” which was the very first single, a double A side.
The funny thing about it is we drove all the way down to London with it in a clapped-out VW Polo as it never occurred to us that we could get a courier to take it. We broke down two or three times on the way there.
Basically, if you wanted to do a thing you found out how to do it and you did it. If you needed some money to do it, you’d have a whip round. All you needed at the very start was a couple of hundred quid each.
Both The Delgados and the Chemikal Underground seemed to become relatively successful quite quickly. John Peel and then Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley on the BBC Radio 1 Evening Session became big champions of The Delgados and a lot of the bands on the label.
In six years The Delgados had gone from forming to being nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. That rate of productivity in your 20s is quite hard to sustain though. You don’t have any of the distractions that middle age might bring, like families and children. When you are young adults its incredible what can be achieved. You’ve also got the energy and the passion for it.
Even when we were putting out our very first single, we were always thinking how we could do it better. We were thinking how we could we get them out of the boot of a car to being on sale in your local record shop? How could we get it played on national radio? How could we get it in all the shops around the UK? We had that ambition right from the very beginning.
We could have been accused of it being arrogant but, in another way, you could say it was just pure ambition. It was just a wish to push it as far as we could make it go. It’s exciting to do that because if you set your ambition too low then you’ll never know how far you could have got. I guess we were always curious about how far we could get.
You must look back on those early years very fondly.
Oh yeah, it was intoxicating. It was fast paced and it was very busy. When you go through periods of your life like that, you risk not being able to understand or appreciate what’s happening. It’s a bit like the day of your wedding. You’re running about like a headless chicken and you hardly get the chance to say hello to your best pals who’ve come to see you. It’s only weeks and months and years later that you get to enjoy it.
I think so much of what we did in those first five or six years was all about an ascension for both the label and the band. Then you reach 2000 which is when CD sales were at their peak, but then they began to decline from that point on.
The Delgados had received a Mercury nomination for The Great Eastern, but the sales couldn’t really match it after that. We thought it was the Mercury effect but in reality it was the whole industry that was turning. It was changing in front of our eyes, but none of us could see it yet.
Was it difficult to find yourself in that situation, at a time when you’d started to enjoy critical and some commercial success?
Oh yeah. Everyone talks about record deals being the be all and end all, or they used to, but they weren’t. It was the publishing deals. The publishing companies were able to get involved in a scene and invest with less risk. They could invest a few thousand pounds here or there and they didn’t have to make the record. They didn’t have to press the copies. They didn’t have to pay for the promo. They just had to give the band a bit of an advance.
Because we owned Chemikal Underground – astonishing as it might seem now – we didn’t take royalties. We actually invested that money back into the label. That’s what happened. We didn’t take money from our record sales. It didn’t even occur to us. It seems bizarre, but at one point I think we were employing three or four people with the label and everything we did with the band was voluntary.
So publishing deals were essential. We needed a publishing deal to live off and we were very lucky because we had publishing deals all the way through our career. As soon as that started to look a bit doubtful, Stewart was the one who broke silence and said “I don’t think I can do this anymore.”
Was it tough to take at the time, once you’d decided to split up The Delgados?
It was very tough. There were some very muted discussions, but I think we were all tired and ready for a break. I was already thinking about a solo career. The band were ready for a change but at the same time it was very difficult.
I remember Paul and I had just moved house around the same time and the upheaval of that and then losing your way of life from the past decade, something which had come to define you as a person…all of these things were then just thrown into doubt.
It was a real period of flux for a number of years. I remember pretty much as soon as the band split Paul said that we were going to rebuild the studio, Chem19. That turned out to be one of the best things we did.
Did having Chemikal Underground and Chem19 to run give you something to focus on after the band split?
Yes and no. I think some of us were happy to go and investigate pastures new, but some of us were really quite gutted by it. That was something we all had to individually deal with.
It was also partly down to personal exhaustion. We didn’t tour as much as a lot of bands but we did go away for maybe four weeks at a time and it really began to take it out of you. Sometimes, if it starts to become a bit tougher than it had been the last time, your spirit can start to go a bit. Then you start to think “I don’t know if this is for me anymore.”
I’ve seen it happen with other bands where somebody just leaves one day. They can’t explain it, but they just can’t do it anymore.
To be honest we’re not a band that has really talked about how we felt about that period, but I’m really heartened now to know we can all still be in the same room and hear those songs happening and know there’s a future there. It might not be one in a similar shape or size or function of old but, if we want it, we can have it.
In the statement the band released to announce the return of The Delgados, you said you decided to reform after you travelled together to Mogwai guitarist Stuart Braithwaite’s wedding. Had you ever spoken about getting back together before then?
No, we hadn’t discussed it before. It was probably the one thing we were never going to discuss casually. It’s always been a precious thing and I think that’s partly why it was so hard sometimes. I don’t mean to paint us as tortured artists, it’s not like that. It’s more that we care about it greatly, so when it wasn’t doing what we wanted it to do any more and it wasn’t feeling like we wanted it to feel any more, rather than do it badly we just decided not to do it at all.
We needed that break and it will be 18 years since we last played in front of an audience by the time we step back on stage. It was Alun who asked us (Emma and Paul) out for a drink one night, which was rare as we didn’t really see each other casually, and he just said “So, I was thinking about getting the band back together.”
It was a total bolt out of the blue. We had a think about it and I think we all thought that if there was an opportunity then we would do it. Then we got in touch with Stewart and said “What do you think?”
Everybody was nervous but really excited. There was only one answer really. It just needed somebody to ask.
Was Stuart Braitwaite’s wedding one of the first time you’d all seen each other for a long time?
Yeah. Stewart couldn’t make it, but it was Alun and Paul and I who were there. We travelled up together in the car and it was really lovely. I think that’s what made Alun think it could work again.
You must know so many musicians and people in and around the Scottish music scene. Did many of them encourage you on to reform The Delgados before now?
It had gone on for so long that we were just no longer a band. Any time anyone asked us if we were going to get back together the answer was an emphatic no. If people had asked me a few years back I’d have said no and I’d have absolutely meant it. I was so far away from knowing whether anyone else would want to do it. The assumption was that if I’m not going to suggest it (reforming), then I really wasn’t expecting that anyone else would.
Over the past few years people started asking us though, would you ever think about it? That started to get more frequent and it probably did get us thinking.
The funny thing was we had decided before the pandemic that we were going to get back together, but we couldn’t tell a soul.
Have you been rehearsing and gradually planning your return all this time?
It has been a long process, but we didn’t start rehearsing until after the pandemic. There was a big block of time when nothing could really happen and we forgot about it to some extent.
Some of us lost parents during that time. Not to Covid, but there were periods where things were very, very hard personally.
Then the idea of getting back together began to reappear. I suppose it had a new value to it because, having come through the pandemic, the idea of doing something with the band became really special for numerous reasons.
It was no longer about just doing it because it would be fun. It was more a case that it would be really life affirming after everything that everybody had been through.
Did you feel the pressure not to taint the legacy you’d created, once you’d made the decision to get back together?
Yeah, there is a bit of pressure but all you can do is try and manage it and make it a positive, because the reason you feel that pressure is because you care about it.
We’ve been getting together most weekends and I’m really excited about it. We’ve been playing these songs to each other for the past year in the rehearsal room. We haven’t had the chance to play them to anyone else yet, so that will be amazing.
What’s really interesting is looking back at the technology we had at the time we split up. We’d be carting around these old samplers that you’d have to load with floppy disks before the shows, and then if someone switched them off before the show you’d be absolutely knackered because you’d have to load them all up again.
Now of course, everything is so accessible. Sample banks can be plugged into a laptop, so a lot of what we’re doing is so much easier and more powerful. They’re still the same songs though. We’re still using the same recordings as reference, but hopefully we can recreate them live with a little more ease.
We’re just excited about getting up on stage now, seeing what we can do in front of people and bringing songs to life again.
You’ve got shows lined up in Brighton, London, Manchester, Sheffield and Glasgow in January, before festival appearances at Deer Shed and Primavera this summer. Are there any plans after that?
I think we’re going to make this an ongoing thing. We’d definitely like to write again and we’ll start thinking about that once we’ve got over these shows. It’s just trying to fit it in because I don’t think we’ve got the time to call it our main job.
Paul has got the studio, I manage the studio, we’ve got the record label which takes up quite a lot of time to run and then I’ve got another solo album which is being mixed at the moment, so there are a lot of different things that the band will have to compete with.
But we’re really lucky because we’ve got Paul who has become a really great producer over the years having worked on some incredible albums (by acts including Mogwai, Belle & Sebastian, Deacon Blue and The Twilight Sad), and we’ve got access to our own studio as well. We just have to find the right time and make things happen.
Your songs range from fairly lo-fi pop to some which are more orchestral and feature string arrangements. What can people expect from the live shows? Will you be playing a career spanning set?
There will definitely be a nod to all of it, which will be really lovely because we’ll be playing longer sets than we’ve ever played before. When you’re a working band you’re mostly populating your live setlist with songs from the album you’ve just put out, but this is going to be really different.
We’re still at the point where we haven’t written the setlist yet. We already know what songs we can play, but we don’t necessarily want to play the same thing every night. There’s going to be quite a lot of people coming to numerous shows so we want to give them something of a variation. We definitely want to put out a good representation of what we did and make it a celebration of that.
The Delgados will play:
20 – Brighton, Concorde 2
21 – London, 02 Shepherds Bush Empire
22 – Manchester, Academy 2
24 – Sheffield, Leadmill
25 – Glasgow, Barrowland Ballroom
2 – Barcelona, Primavera
9 – Madrid, Primavera
31 – Topcliffe, North Yorkshire, Deer Shed Festival