Emma Pollock: In Search of the 13th Note

One of our favourite Glasgow singers, Emma Pollock, is poised to release her latest solo album, In Search Of Harperfield, on Chemikal Underground Records, the fine, fine indie label which she set up with her bandmates in The Delgados way back in 1995 and which paved the way for so many other DIY labels and projects in the city.

CHEM211-Cover

The 13th Note scene from which the band and label emerged is featured in our regular Merchant City Music Past and Present tour and is so celebrated that there is even a documentary film, Lost In France, currently in production about a fateful French festival trip undertaken in the late 90s by artists on the label.

Emma Pollock launches In Search of Harperfield with a gig at Oran Mor, Glasgow on 29 Jan as part of Celtic Connections

Glasgow Music City Tours guide and Scotsman music writer Fiona Shepherd spoke to Emma recently about Glasgow’s DIY indie culture and the glory days of Chemikal Underground.

EP1

What are your memories of the scene in Glasgow when The Delgados were starting out?

I don’t think there is any doubt that if I’d gone to university anywhere else, certainly in Scotland, I wouldn’t be in a band just now. I just don’t think there would have been the riches that were all around us at the time to dip into. Glasgow at that time – and I would argue still – was absolutely teeming with new bands and nights at the 13th Note – the 99p club, the Kazoo Club, Club Mouth. And there was just gig after gig after gig in King Tut’s.

What were the roots of The Delgados?

Paul [Savage, Delgados’ drummer and Pollock’s partner] and I met at university on the same course and soon realised we shared a passion for music. I used to write songs on an acoustic guitar. And then he asked me to join a band. This was as a result of Bubblegum splitting up, which was the six-strong band Alun [Woodward], Stewart [Henderson] and Paul were unceremoniously booted out of. The three of them were absolutely devastated but they wanted to immediately form a band and thought they would get the drummer’s girlfriend in.

Hey, just like New Order!

I was really lucky – I was in the right place at the right time with the right people. Before we knew it we were playing gigs. It wasn’t difficult to set up Chemikal Underground at that time. We were able to put together a record and make our money back – with a single [Delgados’ debut Monica Webster] – and then decide to invest in a new band, which was Bis.

Why did you decide to go DIY?

We didn’t want to go to London to find a record deal because we had the feeling that they were just going to tell us to change what we did, so we decided to steer clear. I think we just had this ridiculous idea that we knew better than anybody else which is how everybody feels when they are that age and they want to do something.

Emma Pollock

Emma Pollock

Seems like your instincts were spot on.

We thought it was the easiest job in the world for the first two or three years because everything we touched turned to gold. We had Bis on Top of the Pops, first unsigned band on the show, although we didn’t like that bit. They were a signed band! When they got the phone call from Top of the Pops, they thought it was a joke and had to be phoned back.

Then Arab Strap were signed from a demo cassette, and Mogwai came along and sold three times the amount of debut albums that we had originally thought. That just set everything up, and there was a period when Chemikal Underground wasn’t really keeping too much track of its expenses. We enjoyed our equivalent of five years of utter excess without having to worry too much about whether we could pay because sales were so buoyant…this isn’t Factory and the Happy Mondays, but we’re talking album budgets in the tens of thousands. Now album budgets are in the low thousands.

So what changed?

Between 2000 and 2005, which was the latter half of the Delgados being together, there was a tail-off in record sales and it wasn’t just for us. You can only be new for a while and then that fades and you have to try to sustain yourself and that’s very hard. But what we had on our side was a lot of wonderful bands.

Why did you decide to split Delgados but keep the label going?

Because what would all these artists have done without Chemikal Underground? And what about the fact there were people who had jobs and this was something we had built and this was something that we were and are incredibly proud of? The longer it continues the more precious it becomes. It’s a hellishly difficult thing to turn your back on even if it means sacrifices being made on a personal level. I’m hoping that the next ten years could see a resurgence in the buying of music because, without small labels like Chemikal Underground, the small records that are more of a risk won’t get made.

Emma Pollock launches In Search of Harperfield with a gig at Oran Mor, Glasgow on 29 Jan as part of Celtic Connections