I met up with The Delgados at their final show in the states. They recently completed a grueling tour covering major cities and seeing the real and not so real America. I’ll explain later. Guillermo Nanni and I headed for The Knitting Factory in Tribeca, quite excited to talk with the most talked about band from Glasgow, following the great success of their newest release, The Great Eastern. We sat in the café waiting for the big van to show up, drinking way too much coffee. Foreshadowing the chatty state I was to be on for the interview, I had no time to come down when we soon found ourselves upstairs during soundcheck with Stewart Henderson (bass) and Alun Woodward (vocals/guitar), Radiohead blaring in the background.
Both boys were endearing and totally different in every way except for the thick Scottish brogue that made it vital to listen closely. I found myself laughing once or twice, not because I thought the comment was funny, but because the simplest words sounded so foreign that I struggled to keep up. And words like Shite and Arse were from “Trainspotting” and couldn’t believe people really talk that way. I’ve got to get out more.
Alun’s quiet charm was alarming and enigmatic in the way that Jimmy Stewart was. Shy, smart and mysterious. That may be because Stewart’s bombastic lovability really steals the spotlight. His enthusiasm is contagious and ambitious. Despite the personality disparity, we found them finishing each other’s sentences and casting each other’s convictions into clear focus.
The Delgados formed a little over five years ago. They consist of front man and woman, Alun Woodward, Emma Pollock, along with Stewart Henderson and Paul Savage on drums. They debuted their first single, Monica Webster / Brand New Car (Melody Maker Single Of the Week) in 1995. After a few singles, came Under Canvas Under Wraps, which lead to a tour with Elastica. Then came Domestiques, Peloton and the rest is history. Here we are celebrating the wild success of The Great Eastern, nominated for the UK’s Mercury Music Prize, losing out to another Privy fave, Damon Gogh (Badly Drawn Boy).
In addition to their flourishing musical successes, they also own their own hugely successful indie label, Chemical Underground, based in Glasgow. Their label has discovered the likes of Arab Strap, Radar Bros, Magoo, Mogwai just to name a few. They have the golden touch it seems.
Alun and Stewart have known each other since they were nine. Alun explains, “We played in another band when we were younger. They threw us out and we started another band… Emma joined. The thing that fueled us at the start was the pure hatred of these individuals.” (They laugh nostalgically).
We ask what that band is doing now, and Stewart laughs and is quick to say, “Serving quarter pounders.”
I say what a great thing that they were thrown out of that band. They, of course, agree.
The boys popped open a few beers and I lit a cigarette and we really got into it. Stewart immediately bummed a smoke and we laughed a lot in the following hour.
Their North American tour consisted of Toronto, Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. They had really gotten a kick out of the mid-west, comparing the West and East coast “in some respects very European… but the mid-west is a different country.” Citing video games where you shoot deer and being able to buy guns at the local Wallmart.
Stewart thinks it’s getting more and more like the Simpsons. “It’s getting like that.” I agree, after all it’s Bush country, white trash America. When I ask him what he thinks about New York, he’ll take the tourist route. “It’s kind of like stepping inside a television. The first time I came, I thought I could live here, but by the third time, it’s like it’s a nice to visit for fuck’s sake!”
We all agree, it’s a young person’s place. Alun can’t believe the expense of living in New York. “You’re spending a lot to live in a hovel.” He’s right. I’m sitting in one right now writing this article.
There is something I noticed about the show that evening, that Stewart had confirmed for me earlier. They are a quiet band, meaning their audience isn’t exactly moshing, but their fans are devoted to them. The boy’s enthusiasm is fresh and well deserved. They fucking sell out every night and even though their audience are well behaved, as Stewart says, “they’ve been talking about the show for a week before! Toronto was our first show on this tour and I couldn’t believe how great it was!” He seems astounded, but it’s sinking in.
It’s particularly expensive for a small label to tour a band with six extra musicians as well. They brought along a string section, because that’s what they used on The Great Eastern. Alun claims that there’s no point in making a record if it’s not going to sound like that live. Stewart admits it’s a financial drain but well worth it. “You have to be long term-ist about it. If we were on a major label it would be costing us 5 times as much as it has for this tour.”
But they’re entrepreneurs. They own their label and this reality makes them think of the commerce of it all. They have to think this way to survive. And it’s not like they haven’t been invited to sign with the big boys. When asked why torture yourselves this way, they say it’s because it was a time when there weren’t that many good record labels, “we just wanted an idealist thing, to do what we wanted to do.” But then, the truth blurts out… of course, through Stewart, because Alun is now sitting in the corner of the couch quietly contemplating.
“Looking at it retrospectively you have to put it in the context that no one was fucking helping us, we didn’t come from another successful band, no one gave a fuck about us, none of us had done it before but I can remember the scale we started with was very small. It slowly became more of what it is now through the years. We thought at the start we’d try, but if it didn’t work, at least we tried.”
They started finding bands. And the bands became successful. And some have left, but it’s still a credit to them, to have discovered bands that the majors discover through Chemical Underground. It was through the success of their bands that The Delgados came through and vice versa. Stewart is thrilled that they all helped each other in this way. He knows how fortunate they are.
But how can owning a label not interfere with the creative process? How can they not start thinking like a fucking cubicle huddling corporate freak, when there are so many lives and money at stake? They’re humble and modest about this point. “It’s become a lot easier. We’ve been asked about joining a major label… I can’t imagine the necessity of moving to another label. Money and being comfortable and having enough money to live on is nice, but anything beyond that is a bonus. As long as we can live in a manner that we’re comfortable with, which we’re managing to achieve a little bit just now, I’m happy. It was getting hard the last year… We were wondering if we could go on the way that we had, but thankfully The Great Eastern being received the way that it has, it’s great. I couldn’t imagine any reason to leave Chemical Underground,” says Stewart happily.
There are drawbacks. There’s always a price to pay, isn’t there? The cost has been their former tight friendships. After all, they’re business partners. Anyone’s who’s ever worked with friends, relatives or lovers will understand the strain it can put on their relationship. Stewart explains, “Working together, it’s difficult. When we tour it’s like how we used to be, it’s more like a friendship thing, we drink and laugh, but in Glasgow it’s like we’re colleagues, you know, it’s like, I don’t want to go out and have a drink… I just want to go home. Alun, Myself, Paul and Emma don’t go out drinking anymore. In some respects, the success of the band has sacrificed our old friendship. Paul and I used to be very close, but since the business, we’re colleagues. We’ve all got a lot of people we could go out to have a drink with on a Saturday night.”
I catch a hint of sentiment in Stewart’s eye. Alun too, for that matter. “I think at the end of the day, the four of us wouldn’t keep doing this if it wasn’t working for us. Even though we argue, The Great Eastern proved it, and I was the most skeptical about it, about the status of the band on a personal level, whether we wanted to do it, but the fact that we managed to make that record, shows to me really, no matter how much we argue, we can make a good record.”
Alun sums it up. “We’re four thirteen year-olds, brothers and sister. That’s the relationship we have,… sometimes we despise each other, it’s the same as the relationship I had with my family… like the worst Christmas morning sometimes.”
‘Nuf said. I ask about the name. Where the hell did a name like The Delgados come from? It’s not nearly as exciting as you would think. Apparently they all liked cycling quite a lot. And even though Alun says it was a “shite idea” they all thought cycling was a cool sport. “It looked great. Tour-de-France is a brilliant thing to watch. Pedro Delgado was a cyclist we all knew. We called ourselves The Delgados because we thought cycling was a slick sport..” But Chemical Underground was inspired by Alun’s former DJ jobs… sounding quite club like, catchy to the scene, even though they don’t produce dance records.
The Great Eastern as a name is an engaging story. It’s named after an old textile mill that was converted. “We knew the place, and found out it was called The Great Eastern, and at that time we were looking for an album title. There wasn’t a great deal of effort put into it. It was more the sound of it than anything else. The name seems to hold a lot of despair.” He bums another cigarette. I gladly leave the box on the sofa arm and tell him to help himself.
After the years of struggling, both with the band, personally and with working on the label, they’re thrilled finally over the success they’ve finally achieved. It’s been called the record of year in a lot of circles. But Stewart was on the fence about his future before The Great Eastern. Perhaps they all were. “I’m glad that they recognize the record for what it was. If this album had collapsed I don’t think I could have continued. So yeah, it’s great… if people think it’s the album of the year then…fucking great!”
Balancing their family life hasn’t been easy. Alun has a three year old and he had missed his first jump and when he formed his first sentence. Stewart has a six year old step-daughter. But they’re realistic. Fame comes with a price, again. “It’s a dream to me. In some respects, there’s the pain of being away but then I have to put it into perspective. It’s my livelihood, and it seems glamorous, hedonistic, to go off on tour, but if you look at it colder, it’s my job. Touring and promoting the record.”
Alun says the best part is going home. And besides, “You get to miss them. It makes you appreciate them much more.”
What are they listening now? You’d be surprised. In addition to some of the more modern stuff, Alun’s into the new Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. Stewart is listening to Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs. Oh, and Queens Greatest Hits. Who doesn’t own this? He laughs and somehow I can see him rocking out to Bohemian Rhapsody.
Napster came up and it’s always an interesting topic because bands are so passionate about their response. But The Delgados have an interesting take on this. They’re a record label and also the artist. Their response surprised me, but got me thinking. This is where they were not bohemian in any way. And I respected their position.
Woodward clarifies, “I think the internet is great on one level. It’s hugely liberating for people. Your money goes a long way on the internet. People want to get free things from Napster. From my point of view, if you want to get the new Arab Strap album for free from Napster, then please please don’t complain to me when Arab Strap can’t make another album because they don’t have the money and Chemical Underground goes bust because everyone got the records for free. It’s starting something but it’s ending some things too. We invest in one end, and we have to get that back, and if we don’t then…”
Stewart is equally passionate. ” It’s one thing for Chuck D to say how great Napster is, that’s fucking fine. But you’ve made your fucking millions. But if you’re from Glasgow, like struggling hand to mouth and trying save bands and release cds, one cd downloaded is like $6 that we can have in the bank. Not for us to like buy a yacht or go sail in Monaco, but for us to release another record.”
I ask about the artists who feel thwarted and screwed by the major corporate labels, and their plight. Stewart sympathizes but also says, “I understand why they feel oppressed by the corporation, and I can understand that. But if you sign with them then be aware of that.”
“We were offered major deals, but we couldn’t agree on it creatively,” Alun says, “Everyone has a choice to some extent.”
Stewart recalls, “Radiohead was so pro-Napster… ‘fuck the man’ stuff, ‘no corporate sponsorship’, until people started downloading Kid A a week before it was released, then they slap an injunction on them, because they weren’t happy about it anymore. Maybe I’m talking out of my arse, but it’s a difficult thing… the internet has exploded very quickly and it’s taking corporations by surprise.”
I guess I hadn’t thought about it that way. It’s important to keep indie labels afloat because that’s where all the good music is coming from and I’m grateful that they sacrifice so much to keep it going.
Suddenly, the band is called and we had to get to our place for the show. I give Stewart the rest of my Marlboro Lights and get up. He’s grateful for it. We thank them and later see them hanging out on the balcony while the opening band, Interpol, played. They greet friends and industry and watch Interpol closely, especially Alun. I hear they’ve just signed them to Chemical Underground.
Last week’s Time Out/New York said that this particular show was one of the top ten best shows of the year. Another Best of. They get a lot of that. I, myself, am partial to rock out till your guts fling out of your head kind of shows (Guided by Voices for example), but I was immensely touched by Emma’s voice, her raw rocker attitude, and her exquisite guitar prowess. Let’s face it, she’s there to rock. The girl probably doesn’t own a mini-skirt, doesn’t wear make up and clearly couldn’t care less about fashion (she’s a t-shirt kinda’ gal), so we have to surmise that she’s the antithesis of the Courtney Love bull-shit image cliché. Emma’s about the music. I wish more women were.
Somebody in the audience screams, “Limp Bizkit Rules!” The Delgados look confused. They’re naive cocoon has protected them from the MTV crap of late and have no idea what this moron is talking about. “Biscuit? Did you say you want a biscuit?” The audience laughs and our hearts are warmed by the fact that they haven’t fallen prey to the mainstream American mediocrity that has taken over the world.
Alun is sexy as ever. His effervescent voice reaching angelic new heights and even sitting for a song or two, didn’t matter, because their music warrants a composed atmosphere, despite it’s sometimes upbeat moments. They harmonize, creating a beautiful voice. And they drink beer. That’s the only thing they have in common with Guided by Voices.
Stewart is the jester on stage. He is jumping around, making people laugh, clearly the one that keeps it light. It would be too serious a show without him waving to people and chugging the bottle between laughs. He’s the one, obviously, who knows all the dirty jokes. Paul is rocking out, with strings all about him, violins and cellos. Together it worked like a tight orchestra.
And it occurred to me then. Alun was right. For the first time in a long forever of a time, it was a show where the music sounded exactly like the album. Some bands say things that never ring true or really ever happen. “The Great Eastern is a swirling symphonic opus of such glorious, ear-shattering confidence” is a review I read. It’s exactly also what I saw in person. A truly memorable show.
Stewart, I don’t think you’ll be flipping quarter pounders anytime soon. Get ready to become a rock-star.