Q&A With Alun Woodward of Chemikal Underground

Man playing vinyl record
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Glasgow's Chemikal Underground Records has not only been surviving but thriving for 14 years and counting. Set up by The Delagados, the label has been the home to indie staples like bis, Arab Strap and Mogwai, and in the course of building their label, also added one of Scotland's fav studios to their stable. Here, Alun Woodward of Chemikal Underground and of the now disbanded Delgados shares how they got it done and the label's plans for the future.

Was Chemikal Underground set up to release The Delgados music?

No, it was always the idea to have a label as well as being in a band together. We made some recordings and thought they were good enough to release - we didn't like the idea of going to another label, so we decided to release it on Chemikal Underground.

Did you always want to go down the DIY route?

Well not really, but in our previous bands, we'd had some dealings with people at labels, A'n'R people and the like, and basically weren't impressed. I know there are lots of good people at labels, but at the time we hadn't met anyone who seemed to 'get' the music and what we were doing, so decided to release our first single ourselves.

How did you go about finding other bands for the label?

Well, there were loads of great bands in Glasgow that we liked. We got in touch with bis – we knew them from their live shows – and basically agreed to put out their records over a pint in the pub.

What kind of contracts do you have with the bands on the label?

It depends. We don't have the money to have the sort of contacts that tie bands down, but we do try and have options for 2 or 3 albums. You often make a loss on the first album, especially because we let things build up slowly for a new band, which many big labels don't.

So we like to be able to do a few albums with a band, and I think bands are willing to keep working with us because we do a good job!

The label's been going for nearly 14 years now – how hard has it been to keep it going?

At the start it was easy! Everything we did was well received, well reviewed and sold well – I think it's been hard maintaining that level of success! Ten years ago we'd sell 10,000 copies of most releases. Now very few things sell that well.

Why do you think that is?

That's a good question! Who knows? I think luck plays a big part in it. Any band needs to get viewed and reviewed in the right way, and that doesn't always happen. There's probably less places to get that exposure, with no John Peel on the radio and there only being one weekly music paper (The NME) (Ed. Note - in the UK). If they don't get into something, it can be hard.

Also, we usually sign bands at an early stage in their career, and we never know how it's going to turn out. Take Mogwai - they were a good live band when we first signed them, and now they're one of the best live bands on the planet, but it doesn't always turn out that way.

What have you learned running the label?

None of us came from a business background, and I think we've probably made some bad business mistakes over the years, so we've certainly learnt about the business side as we've gone along.

How have things changed over the last 14 years?

Obviously, the whole digital downloads thing has changed things, but people still want to listen to music, and we have to adapt to people's listening habits. We started out releasing just vinyl, then began releasing things on CD as well, then just CD and downloads, and now we're back to vinyl as well, so things change. I can't understand people listening to music on their phones - the quality of the sound is awful - but we offer people MP3s and higher quality downloads, so they have the choice.

The format of the media has changed as well - there's less printed media and more online media - but the process is the same. You need to get editors and writers excited about a band whatever they write for.

Was it hard balancing the band and the label?

It was hard at times, especially when we were on tour, but we were in the position to be able to employ staff, so there was always someone in the office to stay on top of things.

I imagine if we were trying to run the label on our own, and keep things going as a band, that would have been very difficult.

You released your second single on Radar Records and the Hate album on Beggars Banquet. How was your experience with other labels?

Well with Radar, they did offer us a deal after we did the single with them, but it wasn't what we wanted at the time. With Beggars we'd licensed our stuff to them for the rest of the world, so we were already working with them, and for the Hate album, they suggested they have a shot at the UK. At the time things were busy with the label so we thought we'd give it a go.

What did they bring that you couldn't do with Chemikal?

In retrospect nothing! That's not to say they did a bad job, they didn't, but I don't think they added much to what we could have done with the release.

Most of the bands on the label are from Glasgow - was that a deliberate decision?

Not really it was more out of necessity. It really helps to be able to actually work with the band - see them live, go to rehearsals, offer what advice we can - so it's a lot easier with bands that are local. Also, we're more likely to hear about bands from Glasgow. If there's a great band in, say, Liverpool, by the time we've heard about them, they've probably already been snapped up by another label.

You famously have a studio as well as a label, Chem19. Has that helped?

Yeah, we do have a studio, but it's a totally separate business, and a studio is a very expensive thing to keep going. Everyone assumes we have a kinda free or cheap studio to use whenever we want for the band, but it doesn't work like that. The studio has to keep upgrading their gear etc., so we have to pay standard rates when the bands record there. It's good to know there's a great studio the bands can use and can work with great engineers like Paul (Savage - founding member of both The ​Delgardos and Chemikal Underground).

You're now recording under the name Lord Cut Glass – how that going?

Really well, we've got an album finished; it's already getting a good response, that'll be coming out in April.

And what else is coming up on the label?

There's the new album from Aidan Moffat (one-half of Arab Strap), which is out 14th February, which I think will lead to people maybe reassessing how they think of him, it's a great album. There's also the De Rosa album in March and The Phantom Band album in January, both look like they're gonna be getting some great reviews, and there's a 8 piece vinyl Aerogramme box set, which we hoped to have out for Christmas but will now be out in the new year because of problems with on one of the pieces of vinyl. It's gonna be a busy 2009 - things seem to be going really well.