SPEAKING in the 2019 BBC documentary series Rip It Up Unwrapped, which examined the rise of independent Scottish music, The Delgados guitarist and co-vocalist Emma Pollock tells of meeting with friends at a Glasgow club night run by Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos in 1994.

The 13th Note pub had become a magnet for new musical invention, with Kapranos and others curating nights such as The Kazoo and the 99p Club there that revolved around Glasgow’s indie scene.

Everyone was either in a band or knew someone who was, Emma included. Her boyfriend, drummer Paul Savage, had just been in a group called Bubblegum with a couple of mates, singer and guitarist Alun Woodward and bass player Stewart Henderson.

Conversations riffed on how local bands kept leaving the city for London at the first whiff of success. Maybe, if there was a Glasgow-based record label run by people who genuinely cared about their music, the bands might stay. And, while we’re at it, why don’t we form our own band?

The Delgados and Chemikal Underground Records were born

When The Delgados announced they were to reform last year after disbanding in 2005, the music media went into overdrive. “Glory be!” shouted Clash magazine.

The reception to their sold-out January homecoming gig at Glasgow’s Barrowland was equally breathless. “Glorious”, wrote The Skinny, while local music blog Everything Flows, noted: “The Delgados flew, The Delgados soared.”

There was a Tim Burgess Listening Party for the band’s Mercury Music Prize-nominated 2000 album The Great Eastern in April.

The dates for 2023 festival appearances have been announced. In the meantime, though, the Chemikal Underground label has been ploughing the steady furrow it started in 1994.

Retaining its stated aim of an ownership split between all four Delgados, the imprint began well. Sales of its third release, Bis’s 1995 EP The Secret Vampires Soundtrack, were sufficient to fund signing Arab Strap (on the back of a demo tape) and Mogwai.

The ensuing debut albums – The Week Never Starts Round Here (1996) and Mogwai Young Team (1997) – created a new benchmark in Scottish independence. Here were two local bands signing to an avowedly local record label that would go on define what it means to survive and thrive without relying on London’s music machine.

By the end of 1999, Mogwai Young Team had sold 35,000 units in the UK alone, Guinness used a track from The Week... for a national advertising campaign, and both debuts were topping best albums of the 90s surveys.

The National: Left: The Delgados Right: MogwaiLeft: The Delgados Right: Mogwai (Image: -)

Paul Savage had produced and recorded The Week... and Mogwai Young Team at MCM Studios in Hamilton. When MCM’s owner quit, the label took over the studio, renamed it Chem19, and shifted the whole outfit to Blantyre Industrial Estate, where it remains.

If the key to business success is diversification, then Chemikal Underground got the message early.

Of course, both Mogwai and Arab Strap might well have gone on to achieve success without Chemikal Underground. Mogwai headline international festivals. Their albums top charts. Arab Strap inspire a following that verges on the devotional. Members Malcolm Middleton and Aidan Moffat have had successful careers as solo artists and in offshoot collaborations.

The point is that, in early 90s Glasgow, The Delgados and their label beat the world to the punch. They gave both bands a break – investing their own time, money, faith, and loyalty – and the rest is history.

Both canny signings continue to pay dividends for the label. In February, Chemikal Underground’s re-issue of Mogwai Young Team entered the UK album charts at No 12 (earning a BPI Silver Disc for sales numbers in the process), while the re-issue of their second album, Come On Die Young, (originally released by Chemikal Underground in 1999) went in at No 24.

Middleton and Moffat’s extracurricular projects are often Chemikal Underground releases.

Overseen by Emma, nowadays Chem19 is a full-scale complex providing production facilities and rehearsal spaces. Paul Savage is one of the studio’s engineers. Alun manages the day-to-day running of the Chemikal Underground label, with continuing input from the other Delgados.

Henderson has spent time as chair of the Scottish Music Industry Association and was instrumental in setting up the Scottish Album of the Year award. For the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow the label team put together the East End Social music festival as part of the games-aligned cultural programme, combining community events in schools, care homes, libraries, and local churches with larger concerts.

Chemikal Underground’s umbrella also includes a publishing arm that provides licensing opportunities for their artists.

The National: Mogwai performs live on stage during a concert at the Tempodrom on May 21, 2022 in Berlin, GermanyMogwai performs live on stage during a concert at the Tempodrom on May 21, 2022 in Berlin, Germany (Image: Mogwai)

As far as their roster goes, lo-fi is too lazy a term to describe Chemikal Underground’s catalogue and output. Their artists’ work might often be understated and intelligent but it’s also multi-layered and fearlessly experimental.

In 2020 the label worked with University of Glasgow academic Matt Brennan and environmental sustainability charity, Creative Carbon Scotland, for the Cost of Music project. The initiative illustrated how, while music consumption costs have fallen in recent years, its carbon emissions costs have skyrocketed.

Storing and distributing digital music requires massive data centres that use inordinate amounts of resource and energy.

Previously, Brennan was a member of pop group Zoey Van Goey that released two albums, both on Chemikal Underground.

Then there’s the longevity. While precursing labels such as Postcard and Fast Product cut deep grooves in Scottish music history by releasing some of the nation’s best work – bands such as Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, Fire Engines and more – during the 1980s, financial issues caused them to close after just a few years.

Despite the rise of digital platforms and the inherent shrinking of profit margins, Chemikal Underground’s agility, lateral thinking, and inspired release schedule have stood them in good stead. And the journey continues.

Their latest release, The Next First Thing EP from Kentucky’s King’s Daughters & Sons, is a case in point – it’s spacious, bookish, and eminently absorbing. Typical Chemikal Underground.

The Delgados play Deer Shed (Topcliffe, Yorkshire), Summer Nights at the Bandstand (Glasgow), and Green Man (Brecon Beacons, Wales) festivals this Summer