Chemikal reaction

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Oisin Kealy speaks to Stewart Henderson about his record label, Chemikal Underground

Did you start Chemikal underground primarily as an outlet for your own band, The Delgados?
Well actually, I’ll disabuse that notion right from the start. The Delgados were certainly the first band to be released, but Chemikal Underground was not created by us as a vehicle for The Delgados, it was always our intention that we would create a full grown record label and start signing bands as soon as possible. It was definitely born out of naivety as much as anything else. At that time as well it’s fair to point out that Glasgow was experiencing a rebirth, if you like. For a number of years prior to when we started the label, Glasgow had been stagnating a bit, after the success of Teenage Fanclub you had a lot of copycats floating around.

What were the main teething problems you faced?
The biggest issue for us was that we had too much success too quickly. We had started working with Bis, and we got a phone call to Paul and Emma’s kitchen (which was our office at the time) to say that Bis were going to be on Top of the Pops and we needed another 30,000 CDs. We had only manufactured two, we only had a couple of hundred quid in the bank. So we had the Bis thing, The Delgados were getting pretty good press, then we signed Arab Strap from a demo we’d been sent, and Mogwai came on board shortly after. Arab Strap were a bit of a phenomenon, and then Mogwai just took off like you wouldn’t believe. So we were up, and running, flying even, before we knew it. Given that none of us had ran a business before, it got a bit messy. There was a lot of money being spent and not a lot of budgets being done. Not to mention the fact that the Delgados were trying to balance running the label and being on tour at the same time.

Now celebrating fifteen years in business, would you say you are any more or less selective in the bands you sign?
Certainly not any less selective. I would like to think that it’s incredibly hard to get signed to Chemikal Underground. We also don’t have the time to wade through all these postbags of demos, which, in the main, I mean ninety-nine percent of the demos we get sent are fucking rubbish, no point beating about the bush. I think from Chemikal Undeground’s point of view, we’ve always tried our best to satisfy our own taste in music. It’s not a public service, it’s a vanity project. It’s about trying to find something that appeals to the four of us.

Would you say you are quite hands on with your Glasgow-based bands in terms of encouragement and advice?
Yeah, I’d say more as time goes on. As we’ve got older and more experienced, the bands got younger, and there does come a point, it’s not in an interfering way, but we do feel that having been in a band ourselves, we do have experience of things that some younger bands wouldn’t have. I think that we would sit down and suggest things to bands now that we wouldn’t have suggested back in ‘96 or ‘97, sat around a table with Arab Strap. At the time we were learning ourselves, everything was done on hunches and instinct, but after you’ve been doing it for fifteen years, you start to get some sense of… “That’s not really the best idea, I don’t think you should be doing it like that, because we did it like that before and it was a fucking disaster.”

Have you felt the effect of online downloading on business?
Absolutely. I don’t want to sound like a Chelsea pensioner, but the last fifteen years that have coincided with the time the label has been running have recognised a siesmic change in the music industry, it’s unrecognisable from when we started, the internet was a babe in arms when we started. There will always be traditional music lovers who will want to go to record shops and buy vinyl, but they will be in the very sizable minority. We can’t compete with all the big supermarkets, so what we have to try and do is to set up our website, set up our online shop, and make the punters feel like they are part of the company, that they are supporting human beings. We’re not philanthropists by any stretch, we are trying to make a profit, but if people respect what it is we do and feel that we’re worth helping and supporting, that’s the best way that we have to try and secure our future.

What does 2010 hold in store for Chemikal Underground?
We’ve got an Unwinding Hours album, that’s the new project from Craig and Ian who used to be in Aereogramme. Emma Pollock from the Delgados, she’s got a new album that’s coming out in March. We’re also going to be reissuing the first two Arab Strap albums with a whole load of bonus material in a box set called Scenes of a Sexual Nature. Beyond that, there’ll be another Phantom Band album later in the year, there’s a few other things we’re looking at but I’d have to torture you if I told you.