A Chemikal Solution
“Sugar sure, kandy pop, just don’t let the music stop.” Never underestimate a good pop song, and Kandy Pop by Scottish disco-rockers Bis certainly is a good pop song. Perhaps more pertinently though, it allowed the trio of hyper teenagers to become the first unsigned band to perform on Top of the Pops. At the same time, fledgling record label Chemikal Underground, formed by Glasgow quartet The Delgados in 1994, were looking on. Both parties came together in 1996 to release The Secret Vampire Soundtrack EP, the label’s, and indeed Bis’s, biggest commercial success to-date.
Alun Woodward, co-founder of Chemikal and erstwhile Delgado, lays down the impact of Kandy Pop in no uncertain terms. “Bis at that time were one of the most lauded bands in the UK, and everything from radio, press to TV wanted to support them, so it came to us without a great deal of effort. To then have that money pretty much set us up for the next five years. It enabled us to record albums by Mogwai, Arab Strap and The Delgados, so it was crucial to our early development.”
Video: The Delgados - Coming in From the Cold
There’s no doubt that the Scottish indie scene would be a very different place were it not for such acts. In fact, their reverberations are still being felt today. From quietly pressing a few of their own singles to suddenly finding their signings soundtracking a Guinness advert (Arab Strap), or fronting a ‘No Sell Out’ NME cover feature (Mogwai), it was certainly a meteoric rise, yet one which Woodward seemed oblivious to at the time. “We assumed that if a label released nothing but great music, then enough people at magazines, ad agencies and radio stations would agree and play and support them,” he reasons. “The world of the naive is a wonderful one.”
Among their fervent supporters was the late John Peel. The legendary DJ’s ‘Festive Fifties’ regularly featured Chemikal acts and he even hosted their fifth birthday party. “Like most people into music I spent my nights listening to, and falling asleep to, John Peel,” says Woodward. “So to have him like my band and label so much was obviously an important pat on the back.”
Video: Aereogramme - Barriers
It would be fair to say that Mogwai and Arab Strap have been the label's biggest successes, at least critically, but the well doesn’t dry up there. Aereogramme, for one, are cult favourites who simply never made the impact many hoped. Tellingly, their farewell message-board post in 2007 summed up a lot: “The never-ending financial struggle coupled with an almost superhuman ability to dodge the zeitgeist has taken its toll.” Woodward agrees and concedes that the worst part of running the label is “dodging financial raindrops, it's always tiresome at best”.
The Chemikal net has also been thrown a little farther afield in recent years, catching the likes of Los Angeles-based Radar Bros for their first few albums as well as off-shoot Mount Wilson Repeater. The globe-spanning Cha Cha Cohen were an earlier, unfortunately short-lived, signing. However, there’s no denying that the bulk of Chemikal’s roster is home-grown. “We [meaning he and fellow ex-Delgado Stewart Henderson] sign bands on recommendations from friends," reveals Woodward, "from demos, from buying their records or from seeing bands live.”
Video: Radar Bros. - Brother Rabbit
Admirably, he doesn’t look back on the early years with misplaced nostalgia. “I appreciate that we had great UK success around this time, but it would be depressing beyond all belief to think that it was cultural bread and water from now ‘til our dotage,” he says. And there appears no better time than now for such words to be uttered. The first quarter of 2009 sees Chemikal releasing three new albums. “I have thought for some time that we should be more productive,” says Woodward.
They are albums that say a lot about the label too. After Ten Years of Tears with Arab Strap, Aidan Moffat – a man described as having “contributed to more headaches in and around Chemikal Underground than alcohol” – releases the debut with his latest group, The Best-Ofs, on Valentine's Day. At the other end of the spectrum are The Phantom Band, relatively unknown (for now), but proving that Chemikal are still releasing terrific music from local acts simply because they like it. Finally, in the middle, De Rosa follow their 2006 debut with Prevention in March.
Here we have the old-hand who is practically part of the furniture, the plucky young upstarts and everything in between. Understandably, Woodward flags them all up as talents to take note of. “They have all made great albums. Hopefully the rest of the world will agree in the coming months.” We can hope, but if not, after 15 years it seems certain that Chemikal Underground aren’t going to let the music stop now.