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The Delgados

Alun Woodward and Stewart Henderson of The Delgados talk about their new album, Hate, that Mercury Prize nomination and being Scottish.

So your new album, ‘Hate,’ is it a reaction against hippies and the whole all you need is love ethic?

Alun Woodward: The song, or the album in general?

Both, I suppose. Either way, it’s quite a bleak album.

Alun: I think it is. I think you can percieve the record as being quite bleak, because I think it does focus on, things like hate, fear and anxiety, certainly lyrically. But it’s kind of like…you know that situation where, if you look at the people around you, and you think, ‘fuck, this is brilliant, this is a great place, everything’s great’ and you shout it so much, until your fucking eyes bleed, even though it’s a brilliant place? And then the slightest little thing comes along and it totally fucks you and knocks you off balance? To be honest, I find the record positive in that respect. It does focus on a lot of negativity, but I think once you actually listen, there are songs which say, ‘I’m an alright guy, but I’m a bit of a dickhead, right, and I can see that in myself, therefore when I go out on the town with you, and I know that you’re a bit of a dickhead, I can accept it’. I think there’s a lot of humility in the record.

So it’s about accepting that everyone comes with their own flaws?

Alun: Yeah, and I think there’s a real lack of that, in general. There’s a lack of understanding that everybody has flaws, and a lack of acceptance of your own flaws, and I think you have to accept that.

Do you think, then, that people too readily assume that everything’s fine?

Alun: Yes. absolutely. I think if they didn’t they would fucking die.

People tend to have a Panglossian notion that everything will be all right; that this is the best of all possible worlds.

Alun: Yeah. And there are so many situations where, if you actually sat down and thought about what it was you were involved in, and the place that you lived, it would be actually unbearable for most people to deal with.

You said that the smallest thing can knock you off track. Was there something that knocked The Delgados off track?

Alun: I think we’ve always been fairly fatalistic about things. I think it’s just that perhaps we’re more obvious with it now. I’m not saying that we’re always grim or anything, I just think there’s something very Old Kirk about us.

That Scottish cynicism? Or is it maybe pessimism?

Alun: Perhaps, yes, but I don’t know. I still see it as being an optimistic record.

Stewart, what’s your take? Is it an optimistic record?

Stewart Henderson: I agree entirely with what Alun says. You could argue that the thing about our records - all of them, to be honest - is that there seems to be a perverse enjoyment to be gained in exploring the negative aspects, or the darker areas, of life.

One of those happy when you’re sad situations?

Stewart: A bit. But also, the whole ‘joy of life’ path has been well trodden, musically, and I think, from my point of view, the thing that I get most out of the stuff that we do is the combination of the music and the lyrics. I think we’ve got ourselves a good situation where we can explore both of them, without ever becoming too sickening or maudlin. It’s a great luxury, as far as I’m concerned, for Alun, or Emma for that matter, to explore some of the things they do in the lyrics and not have it too overwhelmingly depressing to people, in the sense that you can juxtapose the dark lyrics, which are a purely conscious thing, with the just unadulterated beauty of the music, in places. I think, for me, the contrast between the music and the lyrics on this album sums up the tone of the record, and I think, yes, admittedly, the album’s called ‘Hate’, and there are songs like All You Need Is Hate, and there are obvious references to point you in one particular direction, but I think that once you listen to the record and you hear the lyrics and you get to live with the album a bit, you realise that the whole album is an exploration of…y’know, the force and the dark side. [Henderson laughs] Whether the lighter side of things is expressed through the lyrics or the music is irrelevant; the two of them are explored togther.

That’s something that plenty of bands have: an air of melancholy that somehow manages to be joyous too…

Stewart: I just find it makes for a far more satisfying record, in the sense that I can listen to our record and I can appreciate it on a number of different levels. Ideally, when you get a Delgados album, you should be able to put the headphones on and just lose yourself in the record for however long it lasts. 45 minutes or whatever. It’s great. I just think that this album in particular is the most realised, in my opinion, of all the records we’ve done, in that I think the music is a real, it’s a soundtrack to the stories in the lyrics. I just find it an accomplished piece of work. [laughs] If I’m allowed to say that.

Alun, The Delgados’ lyrics have always seemed quite personal.

Alun: Yeah…[pause]…They’ve always been personal, although I think perhaps in the past they were more disguised; there were very very vague references. I don’t know, it’s not really been a conscious thing, but as time’s gone on, I increasingly can’t be arsed with hiding what I’m trying to say. If I think something’s a certain way then it’s best just to talk about it like that, and make it as straightforward as possible. It’s good for us, and I think it’s better for whoever’s listening to us. The thing is, you’re trying to communicate something by writing songs, and I don’t want other people listening to the records to come away wondering what the fuck it’s all about. I’d like them to be able to listen to it and say ‘Oh, right. What a grim bastard’ That’s fine.

You don’t worry about exopsing too much of yourself?

Alun: No, I don’t. There are things that I would always keep away from, because obviously you’ve got to protect certain parts of you and the people around you. But pretty much, if you’re my friend or you live with me, you’ve got to accept the fact that I’m in a band, and I’m a fairly honest person. And I can’t, y’know…I just write songs about what I want to write about, and I can’t really offer explanations to people about that; they’ve kinda got to accept it.

So is it a case of all art tends towards autobiography?

Alun: For us?

In general, I suppose, but with you as well.

Alun: Well yeah, in that it’s hard to write with any confidence about things you’ve not experienced, or at least I find that. Take a book like ‘Down And Out In Paris And London’. Yeah, that’s a great book, but c’mon, [Orwell] could fuck off home any time he wanted and someone’s gonna give him a job teaching at a school. There’s a degree of insincerity to it, and it’s a good book, but if you read something by, I don’t know, Jean Genet, you realise that he was actually living on the docks, as a prostitute, and the way out for him was prison, that’s the only place he was going. And I think it’s the same with our music; the stuff that we’re writing about is the stuff that we’ve experienced, therefore if someone’s telling you how low you can go, you know that it’s because they’ve been there.

When it came to recording Hate, was it a conscious thing that it, sonically at least, had a lot in common with The Great Eastern?

Stewart: I think that it’s strange, because there’s almost a supposition in some cases that every record, for certain bands, has to incorporate some kind of tangential shift every time they make a record. It’s like ‘Okay, you’ve done The Great Eastern, and so that’s enough of the strings’n’orchestra schtick,’ so we’ll move on to something else. And I believe that there were things with The Great Eastern that I look back on, and though I felt at the time it was the best, and it was the best record we could have made at that time, I did feel that there were things we hadn’t explored or things that we could have done better, or in a more interesting way. I think that The Great Eastern was an enjoyable record to have realised at the end of the day, but I think with this record, we learned a lot from that album, and we took that into this record, and this was a much more confident record to make. I mean, certainly from my point of view, I had no intention when we were making this record to strip it back, to have an acoustic feel, I really do think that the band should be very big sounding, and we would take what we learnt on The Great Eastern and apply it to this record and see how we could take it further. With that in mind, it was a conscious thing; I don’t accept the criticism - and I’m not saying for a second that you’re levelling it at us - that people say, ‘Oh, you had big orchestras in on the last album, why have you got it in this one?’ Well, why the fuck shouldn’t we? we hit our creative stride with The Great Eastern, and we’ve taken it forward with this record, and I think that the songwriting has developed and improved, the use of the instruments and the orchestration and so on are far more accomplished than what was on The Great Eastern, so I would say that this album is a considerable step forward; the fact that we still have strings and brass or whatever doesn’t make it any less of a progression in my opinion.

And was it a fairly easy album to record?

Alun: It was easier than The Great Eastern, but probably a lot of that was to do with confidence; if you’re feeling fairly confident as individuals, as a group, then things do come along easier to you. And I think that The Great Eastern really bolstered our self belief, convinced us what we could achieve, so in that respect it was easier - happier - to record. I think The Great Eastern was one of these things that we probably pushed too hard at, for a certain period of time, and by the end of it, you know, you end up going off in directions and you’re not even sure why you’re doing it, and that’s why, in that respect, someone like Dave coming along to mix this record was a good idea.

Is that why you got Dave Friedmann to mix it? To get someone in who has a bit of distance from the recordings, in the same way you did with The Great Eastern?

Alun: Dave was really important to The Great Eastern, because we had just burned out in a way. I think Dave made an important contribution to Hate, but it was nowhere near the one he made to The Great Eastern. With The Great Eastern the songs came back and a lot of them were so different to how we had tried to envisage them when the songs went away. With Hate, we gave Dave so much more, it was a much easier job and it was a lot clearer for him.

Stewart: I think a lot of that was down to Tony Doogan [the band’s engineer].

You’ve worked with him for quite a while, haven’t you?

Stewart: Yes, since ‘Peloton’. And with this album there was a real sense of purpose, and a really refreshing sense of excitement going into this record. As Alun said, we had much more confidence and belief, after all The Great Eastern stuff and all the stuff that happened with that record. I think the 4 or us, and Tony, the 5 of us as a unit, kind of set about making this record in a much more focused way. Tony was unbelieveable. Because this might have been an easier record to record, but technically, it’s still a difficult record to put together; there’s a lot of stuff on it, but Tony just… You don’t really mind how rough the sea is if you’ve got a good captain, if you see what I mean. You can go to the bar and get drunk whilst he steers the ship through the rocks, and that’s what he did with this record; he was unbelievably composed and skilled. I mean recording choirs for God’s sake, I’d have hid in the toilet rather than do that myself.

Do you think anything’s changed with respect to the fact that this time round, the record’s coming out on Mantra rather than Chemikal Underground ? Also, has running Chemikal Undeground changed the way you worked as a band?

Alun: Well, the Chemikal Underground influence on a record like ‘Peloton’ was huge, because when we should have been in the studio a lot of the time, we would be in the office. But the past three years or so, it’s not to say everybody’s hands off with the label, because that’s not the case, but the reason we pay people to work at Chemikal Underground is not so we can go out on a Saturday night, it’s cause they’re good at their job, that’s the important thing. The important thing with Chemikal Underground with this record was that it wasn’t going to finacially screw the label. And if Chemikal Underground was going to release this we would have had to drop Arab Strap and Aereogramme because we wouldn’t have the money to record this, because it was expensive. Also, The Delgados have always been licensed to Mantra outside the UK anyway, so what happens is, a lot of people will look at it and say we’ve signed to someone else, but the fact is we’ve always been with that label, so we’ve lost one territory. To be frank, it’s fucking great; there’s someone else phoning people up telling them how great my record is because frankly it’s embarrassing, when you’re trying to promote your own record. You’re doing your marketing plan and you’re thinking ‘Am I spending too much on this record ‘cause it’s mine or am I spending not enough on this because it’s mine?” Bugger it, get someone else to do it.

Is it, again, a case of being a bit too close to what you’re doing to be rational about it?

Alun: Yeah. Absolutely. It’s got its positives as well, because when you’re doing your own record you know that everything’s being covered; you’re sitting on top of it all the time. That’s one of the problems I find being on a different label; there’s still that tendency in us to want to know every single detail of what’s happening. There’s a degree of trust, and people will get our trust when the record’s done absolutely perfectly and nothing’s missed, but we’re obsessed by our record, as every band should be.

Stewart: It’s human nature, you know what I mean? It’s like, moving the album to Mantra in the UK, for that read abdicating a lot of the responsibilities that you would normally have yourself. It solves a lot of problems and eases some of your concerns, but it creates a whole different raft of anxieties that you wouldn’t have had normally. There’s a balance, an action and reaction; you give them the record and you need to feel that there is someone on the case and working it, and you’re anxious that everything’s getting done the way that you would like it to be done.

Was there ever a point in the past that The Delgados as a band were suffering because you were spending too much time running the label?

Stewart: I don’t think that we suffered, aside from maybe having slightly more protracted periods of time before we could actually go and record. In that respect, yes, we probably did. We would have been a little bit more prolific if we didn’t have the label to run. But I think, on the whole - we could maybe look at The Great Eastern actually as example - you could say that that was - possibly, you can never tell for sure - but possibly that record might have suffered somewhat because it was on Chemikal Underground. Because there weren’t the financial reserves in place to drive that album harder once we got the Mercury nomination. But you’re all wrapped up in what ifs and maybes and it’s difficult to predict for sure. You could look back and say - it’s a terrible word to use - we could have exploited that album a bit better if we had a little bit more money to drive it through.

What was your reaction when you heard that you’d been nominated for the Mercury?

Stewart: We just went to the pub, to be honest. It was a strange morning. You hear good news in much the same way that you hear bad news, it drips through. It’s like, if something really terrible happens in the news, say when the twin towers were hit, I don’t know if you can remember exactly about the very first hint that you’d heard something had happened, a plane’s crashed in New York or there’s been an accident, you don’t quite know what it is, but it drip feeds to you through a period of ten minutes, that’s what it’s like. One morning I came in, got a phone call from this guy we know who works down in London, and he said “I’ve heard a rumour that you guys might be on the shortlist for the Mercury” and just as he said that every single one of the 4 or 5 phones in the office started ringing simultaneoulsy, which never happens. And that was it for the whole morning, just phones ringing, people saying “Naw, I don’t think you are” and others saying “no, you are”. It was mental, we just closed up the office and went to the pub and got pissed.

Was it frustrating, not having the cash to exploit the Mercury nomination?

Stewart: The Mercury thing’s a strange one; you have to be careful how you talk about something like that. It was a great thing which achieved a lot for us, and in some circles it put us in a context that we hadn’t been in before. It kind of elevated the status of the band in some people’s minds, which was a good thing, but y’know, there were definite things that I found frustrating about the Mercury. Not that we didn’t win it, which was ultimately extremely frustrating, but getting nominated for a Mercury puts things into sharp focus, in that you find out who your supporters are and who they aren’t. I felt that - and this is why I’m nervous about talking about it, because it sounds bitter, and I really don’t want to convey that in this interview, because we’ve moved on since then, and we’ve got better things to talk about - I was frustrated in some respects about the lack of suppport we got in certain areas, particularly up here. I would say, present company excepted, in the sense that all the broadsheets up here unanimously supported us for years, I just found that, as soon as we got nominated, we were immediately ghettosied as some rank indie outsiders. In the sense that we got a pat on the head, and we should just be pleased that we got nominated, and should never have the audacity to expect that we would maybe be in the running to win it. It was almost like “oh, that’s nice” and I found that deeply irritating.

A kind of, “Well done, now toddle back off to the 13th note”?

Stewart: Yeah. I found that deeply, deeply irritating. Erm, but you did ask.

I suppose I did. But I was just thinking, is it a Scottish thing, that somebody gets successful and other people immediately bristle against it, either because they’re pessimistic or they’re not keen on Scottish people actually succeeding? It’s like all those people who complain about their little favourite indie band suddenly becoming successful. And then they say either “I liked them first” or “I never really liked them anyway”

Stewart: There’s a really good example of this, and it’ll probably go down well with the Sunday Herald, because they despise the Daily Record, and why shouldn’t they, but it was shocking to me that after the Mercury nominations, the Daily Record ran a feature on Helicopter Girl, who was some lassie who was apparently born in Dundee. They did a huge feature on Coldplay because the bass player’s granny was Scottish, and they never did a single thing about us. It was like, “Scottish nominee, Helicopter Girl” to be honest, it was like they didn’t even fucking know who we are.

Alun: It’s strange, for a paper that sees itself as being peculiarly Scottish…

Stewart: “Real Scots do read the record,” after all.

Alun: …and they absolutely suckle at the teat of the London media, they’re complete whores.

Stewart: I tell you though, if I found it irritating, that’s nothing compared to the fury my mother felt. A huge double page spread about the bass player from Coldplay - and I have no beef with Coldplay, incidentally - that was more depressing for me than anything. That’s probably why, if we have any regrets about why we never sold more copies of The Great Eastern, or never made the most out of the Mercury nomination, it was because of features like that, and because people chose, for other reasons, to ignore who we were or what were doing.

Last question about this before we move on. Was that period, after the Mercury nomination, your big shot at the mainstream, your chance for far bigger commerical success which didn’t really happen?

Alun: I don’t know, because I don’t know if there’s that much commercial music on the record. It’s difficult; commercial success that we may or may not have is kind of beyond our control. If you listen to commercial radio, or Radio One, that’s where you’re going to sell the records. You’re not really going to sell records by good reviews in magazines. To a certain degree you can, you can get to a certain level, but ultimately you really need radio, and unless there’s a sea change in the kind of records people like and they’re going to start promoting the Delgados instead of…

S Club 7?

Alun: Exactly

I suppose that’s the thing. Even if you did put S Club 7’s promotional budget behind a band, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to succeed.

Alun: You absolutely have to generate support from all different sides of the media. And I think what The Great Eastern did, that period just after the Mercury nomination, I don’t think it’s the case that it was our shot at commercial success; I think it was just another stage in the gradual acceptance of us by other people. We’d always done really well in independent circles, that was always alright, but it’s been a gradual thing for us; as time’s gone on, we’ve been accepted by people in radio, and .

The Delgados have been going since 93/94. How much has the relationship between the 4 band members changed since then?

Alun: There’s probably different relationships that have changed in different ways, from the start until now. But that’s inevitable with any four people who live in each others’ pockets for large periods of time. There are going to be tensions, there are going to be flaws. The other side of that is when you’re standing on stage in front of 20,000 French people, all going fucking mental, because you’re playing songs. That’s something else we share, a totally different relationship. So yes, the relationships aren’t static; they constantly change, they change for the better in some respects and yes, definitely change for the worse in others, of course they have: that’s inevitable.

Do you think that running Chemikal Underground is part of that? I mean, anyone running a business with friends is going to find it quite stressful.

Alun: Yeah, I think so. I mean it’s always going to be the case that anything that you believe in, you believe in a passionate way, and issues are going to arise, there are going to be tensions. And yes, Chemikal Underground has contributed, but if we had been running a restaurant or something it would be the same. There are loads of examples, you read about brothers who set up family run restaurants and they end up trying to stab each other in the kitchen late at night. It’s just human nature.

Stewart, you’re nodding as if you know exactly what he’s talking about.

Stewart: I empathise completely. Alun and I have been friends since primary school, since we were 9. I think there are, without getting too maudlin about it, there are saddening elements of what has happened, when you go through the Chemikal Underground thing or The Delgados thing, it’s not…you lose the kind of reckless cameraderie of just having a mate. I can’t remember, apart from when we were on tour, the last time that say, Alun and I, or Paul and I, or Emma and I, or all of us for that matter, just said to each other “What’re you doing tomorrow night? You fancy going to the pub?” We just don’t do that anymore. We all have other friends that we would rather do that with, and that’s sad in some respects, but it’s balanced by a couple of things. One, that whole thing is rejuvenated when we go on the road, and I think there’s an element with us - and this is where Chemikal Underground comes in - because we’ve got the toil of running a business together, I don’t think that there are many bands who have been going as long as we have that hit the road with such abandon and hilarity as we do. When we go on tour, it is your wee happy bus kind of thing. And the other thing about it is, we have a different type of friendship now. I mean, when we argue we argue more as brother and sister than as friends do. We were doing this interview in New York a couple of years ago and Alun came up with this analogy, and I think it’s perfect: if you’re brother and sister, the vast majority of time might be spent arguing and being at each others’ throats, but every now and then, you know, there’s always a christmas morning where it’s different. And that’s exactly what it’s like for us. Because much as we don’t go out and socialise, we’re probably four of the firmest friends that we could be. And it changes your friendship, but it forges it in a different way. It’s a good thing.

I suppose part of it is getting older as well. Some of you are married, or have kids; regardless of whether you’re in a band or not, your relationships would change anyway.

Stewart: Yeah. I mean in that respect we’ve been lucky, because there really aren’t that many people I was at school with who I would care to know now.

Alun: I’ve actually forgotten. I was having a conversation about people I went to high school with, and it wasn’t that long ago, but I actually can’t remember, there’s only a few.

Stewart: There are a couple of exceptions, in case any of them are reading this feature, but generally, my two closest and firmest friends at school were Paul and Alun. And in that respect, it’s really fortunate. We’re 30 now and we’re still close, and we’re working together. There are maybe other things that will bring an end to The Delgados, but the one thing I don’t believe will end the band is one person turning into a prima donna, and flouncing out of the band or whatever. The four of us are fairly tight as far as that’s concerned. There may be other things that’ll tear us apart, but I don’t think it’ll be that.

So where do you see the Delgados being in a few years time?

Alun: I don’t know. I don’t know and I don’t want to know, and I don’t want to think about it. I think it’s best not to be too contrived about what you’re trying to do; to plan ahead and say that the next record’s going to be this kind of a record, because to be honest with you we’ve got really no idea where we’ll be and I think it’s best just to keep it that way. I’m nervous about thinking about things like that too much, because you end up tying yourself, and you talk yourself into a hole, really. You should just leave it as free as possible.

When you set Chemikal Underground up, your first release was your own first single, but did you definitely want to sign other bands?

Alun: It was established in order to be a label. There were a lot of labels around at the time which were set up [by bands] just to release their own records, maybe get signed by someone else, and that’s a fair enough thing for a band to do. We never wanted that, and that’s why, deliberately, our second single was on someone else’s label; because we had money from our first single to work with another band in Glasgow, and it was always intended to be that way.

Posted at 3pm on 14/01/03 by Leon McDermott to the interviews category.
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