Published Jun 01, 2000About a year ago, the term political theatre became literal in a goofy way in Scotland. The Scots voted to devolve powers from London to Edinburgh and establish a Scottish parliament. It didn't exactly mean independence from the United Kingdom, but the pomp and pageantry - Braveheart nationalism, as it became known in some derisive quarters - made it seem that a war of independence was being waged by an uprising of the clans, all of them bleeding tartan. Sean Connery, no longer working for Her Majesty's Secret Service, was pressed into duty as a celebrity spokes-model by the Scottish National Party.
This coincided with the healthiest Scottish pop scene since the glorious, spiky pop days of the Pastels. Well, yes, those smug colonialists in England still rule the charts, but the critics' raves the past two or three years have been largely reserved for the Scottish. Belle and Sebastian are as revered as the Smiths once were, albeit in more select circles; the Beta Band currently hold the dual titles of eccentric geniuses and village idiots of British pop; Mogwai and Ganger play slide rule instrumentals that hold the interest of people long since bored senseless by Tortoise; and Primal Scream confound and amaze with every passing album.
A hugely disproportionate share of the most exciting pop music in the world is coming out of Scotland. You'd think the largely symbolic triumph of Scottish nationalism and the burgeoning of Scottish pop would make no one happier than the Delgados - proud Glaswegians, independent label proprietors and a pop band with a superb new album, The Great Eastern. But Delgados bass player Stewart Henderson is not all that impressed by the events of the past year. A tall, strapping fellow who looks more like a clean-cut rugby player than a purveyor of scruffily elegant pop songs, Henderson speaks like a student of political economy.
"I generally find that people's lives have not been impacted in a big way by the election last year," declares Henderson. "But that's the case in most elections. The intricacies of politics are lost on most people - at least that's the case in Scotland. I genuinely believe that most people didn't understand what the election was all about. I heard people talking about how they were happy that we were winning our independence back from England - that could've been lifted straight from the script of Braveheart. But I do think it was important in order for us to progress - it's good for Scotland to be answerable to its own parliament."
That sober definition of independence is also where the Delgados' politics get personal - in the operation of their indie label, Chemikal Underground Records. It also helps to explain why artists of all stripes are so often at the heart of any independence movement: the need to determine one's own destiny.
"You can draw a comparison between the devolution of powers to Scotland and running an independent label," Henderson agrees. "We can make decisions for how we market a band, for example, and we become accountable for whether a record succeeds or fails. I mean, the Delgados couldn't keep going if we were taking directions from above. We have a hard enough time reconciling four opinions among ourselves, let alone having to supplicate ourselves to a label boss."
From about 1990 to 1995 was a golden age of American artist-run labels. Beat Happening's K Records, Unrest's TeenBeat, Fugazi's Dischord, Superchunk's Merge and Tsunami's Simple Machines became so much more than vehicles for releasing records that major labels turned up their noses at. They were extensions of the bands that ran them; they became shorthand for their aesthetic approaches. Their lyrics were surely no more political than any other intelligent pop bands, yet their commitment to releasing affordable, excellent pop records and keeping the entire indie network thriving attracted the punk tag to the lot of the them. The do-it-yourself punk ethic of empowerment - politics at the personal and local levels - was what critics and fans, if not the bands themselves, proclaimed as their abiding principle.
"I don't know if it's a punk ethic," counters Henderson, "so much as a caring ethic. Making an album is an intensely personal, important thing, and we can hold our heads high and say that we've put out our bands' CDs in the way they deserved."
Why the American indie pop scene seems so spent at the moment might be due to any number of factors. Concentration of CD distribution and retailing would be a big one, but it's also draining work to run a label. It's a tough balancing act to stand at a remove from the crass bottom-line dictates of a major label, while having to muster all your own entrepreneurial acumen to keep your label afloat in what amounts to a paradoxical sort of co-operative capitalism. Henderson breaks into a wide, knowing grin at the suggestion.
"How we try to run the label is to be honest with our bands, but not inflict our will on them. They can tell us to fuck ourselves, and sometimes we step aside, sometimes to their detriment. We'll suggest what would be the best single on the record and how to market it, because that's our job, but in recording, we let them make their own decisions. Chemikal Underground is kind of unique in the sense that the people on the label know we're in the same boat. We've slept in the back of vans and played our share of shitholes. That makes for more trust."
The fact that Chemikal Underground bands like the Arab Strap and Mogwai are better known than the Delgados speaks well of that approach, but the Delgados may cop top billing themselves with their third album, The Great Eastern. Based on a warm reception from critics (as usual) and radio (for the first time), The Great Eastern seems poised to become Chemikal Underground's biggest seller yet. It also represents a daring step forward for the Delgados, whose first record, 1997's Domestiques, was highly, but politely, regarded, as befits a winsome, modest-sounding album straining to be heard above the shrill, self-aggrandising bombast of so much Brit pop. But the Delgados pledge no allegiance to lo-fi asceticism. They've always practised an aesthetics of the doable, so as opportunities have arisen to make grander, more sweeping records, the Delgados have eagerly seized them.
"The way we make records is to have the courage of your convictions and find what you think is the best way to make records that people might want to hear, within the restrictions of talent and resources," says Henderson, a man smart enough to get rich and smart enough not to become consumed trying. "Domestiques was the best album we could have made at the time. With [follow-up album] Peloton, we spent more money and brought in a couple of string players. We felt it was the best record we could make - we thought it was a tremendous record. With this one, we just set out with one rule: the make the boldest record we could."
If that was the only measure, The Great Eastern would be a rousing success. More remarkable, though, the Delgados are equal to their lofty ambitions. It's an arrestingly bipolar pop record, full of assurance and naked vulnerability, using gossamer melodies as launching pads for crunchy guitars and Henderson's most aggressive bass work to date. Stunning string arrangements elevate "American Trilogy," "Witness" and "Knowing When To Run" into songs that seem forgotten remnants from a bygone era of bittersweet, sophisticated pop both rapturous and melancholy.
And for all its indelible Scottishness, there's little of the self-loathing, anti-English. sour sort of Scottish nationalism (think the "Scotland is shite" diatribe from Trainspotting) of much Scottish pop, and that, like Braveheart nationalism, the Delgados want little to do with.
"One of the main problems with Scottish music is that it's been too parochial, belligerently pushing its Scottishness forward all the time. You know, Belle and Sebastian are staunchly Glasgow, as are we, but it doesn't figure a lot in what we do. But there are people like Travis who go to England to make it, and we have no intention of doing so. It's easier to be ourselves here."