Scottish Indie-pendents – Meet The Scot DIY Bands And Labels Who Stand Apart

Even to a native, Edinburgh at the height of festival season can feel like a foreign country: the streets are thronged with tourists, shop windows filled with shorthand tartan Scottishness, the air thick with the drone of bagpipes. Meanwhile, onstage at the Queen’s Hall, Kenny Anderson – aka King Creosote – is singing about another foreign country: the past. Anderson’s new album, ‘From Scotland With Love’, is a soundtrack to Virginia Heath’s film of the same name, old footage edited to tell the story of Scotland’s industrial history. Being the descendent of farmers and fishermen, it’s a subject Anderson has some knowledge of, but it’s a more contemporary Scottish industry that I’ve come to talk to him about today.

Back in Fife in the mid ’90s, Anderson founded Fence, a tight-knit folk collective that became an accidental phenomenon. It seems to have been born mostly out of stubbornness. “I hated sending demos, pestering people, travelling hundreds of miles to play a gig nobody would turn up to,” he explains. “I thought, ‘No, I want to stay in Fife, I want to play shows locally, and if anybody likes it, they can come and see me.’ I was happy playing empty gigs in St Andrews, but I wasn’t happy playing empty gigs in Bath.”

Centered around a small community of like-minded musicians spread across disparate farmsteads and cottages, Fence attracted a certain type of artist who Anderson describes as “the types who wouldn’t have made records anyway, who weren’t fussed about getting reviews or playing to big audiences”. But, eventually, the likes of James Yorkston, The Pictish Trail and Anderson himself did exactly that. Until Fence finally came to an end last year, it was all very shambolic, very playful, very Scottish.

Much like its founder, in fact. Anderson still resides in the small fishing village of Crail on Scotland’s east coast, and talks about welling up with pride when, as a child, he would watch his “old man”, the accordionist Billy Anderson, play with his ceilidh band. I mention all this because Anderson is one of the seemingly tiny minority of Scottish musicians who plan to vote against independence, a fact that underlines something important about the whole debate: it’s not about patriotism, but pragmatism. For Scotland, political independence is simply a choice. Musical independence, however, is a way of life.

Any history of independent music in Scotland will inevitably focus on Glasgow, where much of it happens. But Scotland’s first independent success story came from the eastern end of the M8, in the shape of Bob Last’s Fast Product records. “We were probably the people who made it all seem possible in Scotland,” says Last, who started the label in 1977. Inspired by Situationist and anti-consumerist ideologies, Fast Product – and the Edinburgh flat Last ran it from – became a hub for the city’s punk community, which included bands like The Fire Engines and the unjustly forgotten Scars.

“It was all very tribal,” remembers Last. “There was the group of people who hung around our label, like Scars and [The Fire Engines’] Davy Henderson, and on the other side you had Paul Haig and Josef K. We were at war with each other: we were right and they were wrong, we were great and they were shite!” Nevertheless, as Fast Product grew, “there was an immense pride at not being in London”, he says. “We were excited about the fact that we’d built this national – and international – network from a Scottish base. We wanted to prove that you could be part of a global ferment of ideas from Edinburgh. You didn’t have to be in London to count.”

At that time, the idea of a DIY scene in Glasgow – with its strict licensing laws and luddite fear of punk – seemed laughable. “The Glasgow of 1979 was in denial that it was no longer 1959,” says Simon Goddard, whose new book Simply Thrilled: The Preposterous Story Of Postcard Records tells the legend of the label founded by Alan Horne as a vehicle for Edwyn Collins’ band, Orange Juice. Postcard’s brief 18-month existence and slim volume of releases – 10 singles and one Josef K album – belies the huge impact it had, not only on Scottish music, but independent music as a whole. For Goddard, there’s no comparison to be made to Fast Product, who “didn’t affect a change in a city’s cultural climate, and national acceptance. Edinburgh has never had an image problem, not the way Glasgow had in the late ’70s. Postcard had more to prove. They were fighting against clichés of stabbings and shipbuilders with poetry and jodhpurs, as insane as that sounds. Most nights Orange Juice played, it was art heroism in the face of actual bodily harm.”

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The Postcard sound and aesthetic later influenced bands like Belle And Sebastian and Franz Ferdinand and, in Goddard’s words, “turned Glasgow from a cultural tundra into Tin Pan Alley”. Yet the label’s demise left a significant void in Scotland, with many of the big acts of the subsequent decade – like The Jesus And Mary Chain, Primal Scream and Teenage Fanclub – electing to sign with London-based labels like Blanco y Negro and Creation. By the mid ’90s, however, the independent urge was stirring in Glasgow once again: the bands had moved beyond Bellshill jangle-pop, fanzines started appearing and labels like Creeping Bent, Vesuvius and Modern Independent suddenly started popping up. At the centre of it all was the 13th Note, a venue on Glassford Street where a 20-year-old Alex Kapranos had taken over the running of the Kazoo and 99p club nights.

During Kapranos’ tenure, the Note became the place where local bands would take their first faltering steps on the live circuit. “It was all pretty anarchic,” he remembers. “I didn’t know how to run a club, and a lot of the bands who played there were still trying to work out how to be a band. But over the years, you’d see people going from barely being able to play their instruments to becoming something exceptional.” Among those people were Stuart Murdoch and Mogwai, who played their first gig there, but the star of that scene was Willie Rogan, “a total maverick” who fronted a riotous art-punk band called Trout. “I’ll always remember when [American songwriter/producer] Kim Fowley came to play at the Note and Willie heckled him all night,” laughs Kapranos. “Eventually, Fowley goes, ‘Why don’t you get onstage and we’ll see what you can do?’ So Willie did! He got up and totally outshone him!”

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Although John Peel visited the Note and took a shine to bands like The Yummy Fur and Urusei Yatsura, Kapranos says they were adamant about not courting the media. “We felt totally – and wilfully – disconnected from anything going on in London. None of us felt any connection with Britpop at all. Glasgow at that time was like a universe within a universe, because it was ours and nobody down south really knew anything about it.”

Thanks to the endeavours of one hugely important local label, however, that would soon change. Prior to joining The Delgados, vocalist Emma Pollock had worked for a management company whose clients included “a lot of the acts who defined what success in Scotland was in the 1980s: people like Texas, Gun and Hipsway,” she says. “It was that whole thing of ‘Scottish band goes to London, signs big deal, sells lots of records, comes home and plays to thousands.’ We felt really frustrated by that: why should we go to London when Glasgow already had a vibrant culture and an infrastructure that ranged from the best rehearsal rooms to the best venues, the best studios and the best thrift stores? We were overtaken by this belief that all you had to do was pick up the phone to the right people and you could engineer anything you wanted.”

What Pollock and her bandmates engineered was the Chemikal Underground label, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Although The Delgados served as its ‘guinea pigs’, label boss Stewart Henderson insists that “Chemikal was never created specifically as a vehicle for The Delgados: we always had a vision to try and create something with a degree of permanence. The labels we looked to – like 4AD and Factory – were iconic brands who’d created this aura about themselves, and anything they put out had this stamp of credibility to it. That was what we aspired to.”

And that’s arguably what it’s become. Postcard might have given Glasgow its sense of self, but across the Scottish music industry as a whole, Chemikal’s impact has arguably been far more palpable, influencing the artists they’ve worked with and the labels that followed while becoming integral to the running of the Scottish Music Industry Association and its Scottish Album Of The Year award. Artists like Malcolm Middleton, RM Hubbert, The Phantom Band and Holy Mountain currently call the label home, while its hugely impressive back catalog contains some of the most significant records ever produced in Scotland, as Henderson points out. “From Chem001 to Chem033, that’s the first two Arab Strap albums, the first two Mogwai albums, ‘Peloton’ by The Delgados… A lot of really important records in a relatively short spell. It was intoxicatingly exciting.”

While Chemikal established itself as the epicentre of Scottish indie, another favoured haunt of local musicians was busy affecting a different, no less important change. Most art schools have some sort of cultural resonance, but Glasgow’s School Of Art has long been of unusual significance. For Alex Kapranos, “the most important thing was Divine [Andrew Symington’s long-running funk, soul and psychedelia night], which was at the art school, and it was where we’d go to drink and dance and hang out together. Those scenes were running parallel to each other, stimulating and interchanging with each other.”

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“The art school has always been bound to the music scene in Glasgow,” agrees Belle And Sebastian’s Chris Geddes. “As well as some of the students being musicians, the club nights brought non-students into that environment, too. For years, I went to Divine, or the breakbeat night in the late ’90s, then later to Record Players, who did mostly electro stuff. The club scene is as integral to the scene as any band, whether it’s nights like Optimo or Slam or whatever. Dance and indie are pretty well integrated here.”

Over the last couple of decades, in fact, Glasgow’s dance, indie and arts scenes have become so well integrated, it’s almost impossible to separate them. The art school played a big part in that, but so too did Optimo, Keith McIvor and Jonnie Wilkes’ Sunday night residency at the Sub Club, which ran from 1997 to 2010. Optimo was the broadest of churches: Wilkes and McIvor were as likely to drop Johnny Cash as German techno, and their Sunday slot meant that Optimo attracted a large number of musicians, many of whom had eschewed employment in favour of art. “Our policy was to book bands, not DJs,” explains McIvor. “Doing that brought a lot of people who were in bands but perhaps didn’t go clubbing, as well as a lot of clubbers who didn’t go to gigs. As time went on, you noticed that divide disintegrating, and people who’d otherwise never have met started collaborating together.”

By the turn of the millennium, Optimo had become an institution, and the Chateau – established by the recently formed Franz Ferdinand – had introduced ideas and attitudes from the anarchist squat scene in Holland, reclaiming and repurposing disused buildings around Glasgow into vibrant (albeit illegal) arts centres. “It was like landing on a very exciting planet,” says Casual Sex frontman Sam Smith, who had just moved up from Surrey. “People just got on with it here. They’d go and make music without worrying about pleasing an A&R department. It’s not so great for our pockets, but it’s a lot healthier creatively.”

When I meet Smith, he’s just come from recording an Aberdonian death metal band at Green Door, the community studio he co-runs with three fellow engineers. A former alumni of Chemikal – for whom he recorded two albums with his old band, Mother And The Addicts – Smith’s current band formed through the production workshops Green Door runs for young musicians. “It’s a very exciting place to work,” he tells me. “We’re facilitating young people to make music who might not otherwise be able to afford to.”

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If there’s one musical community in Scotland that feels ready to come in from the cultural cold, it’s hip-hop, hot on the heels of Numbers, the LuckyMe collective and the aquacrunk sound pioneered by Rustie and Hudson Mohawke in the late noughties.

Scottish rappers were regarded as a regional joke for a long time, a perception we’ve been guilty of feeding, whether through parody acts like The Wee Man or tragic wannabes like Silibil N’ Brains. Yet Scotland’s major cities have hip-hop traditions stretching back to the 1980s and, as a genre, it feels uniquely placed to address the independence debate head on, without hiding behind metaphor or sentiment. That’s the view of Darren ‘Loki’ McGarvey, one of Scotland’s most prominent and politically aware MCs, who this month will release ‘Government Issue Music Protest’, a concept album set in a dystopian post-No Scotland.

“At a base level, rap is about saying ‘fight the power’ in a very literal way,” explains McGarvey. “Some of the best cultural interventions on this debate have come from hip-hop artists: ‘Marriage Counselling’ by [Edinburgh group] Stanley Odd was way ahead of its time in terms of what it was talking about, and it’s up there with anything that’s been said by any other artist. In the event of an independent Scotland, I’ll be damned if I’m going to be seen as some sort of novelty. I want my art to be judged on the same platform as everyone else’s.”

McGarvey is voting Yes, as is almost every other artist I speak to. Few believe a Yes vote will greatly affect Scotland’s culture of musical independence, though some express hope that it might result in a society that no longer regards art as only being valuable when it’s profitable, with everything up to that point being a drain on the benefits system. The question of why Scottish artists seem so predisposed to doing things on their own, however, is not an easy one to answer. For Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite, “There does seem to be this common attitude, and it’s very much one of… I suppose the word ‘independence’ seems very politically charged right now! But of standing on your own two feet, not waiting for the approval of others; that’s a lot to do with it.”

Braithwaite’s words recall ‘From Scotland With Love’ and the grainy images that accompany King Creosote’s songs, images of a people who knew how to roll up their sleeves, but also to let down their hair. The industries documented in that film are mostly dead or dying, but the same spirit – of selflessness, community, daring and determination – still exists in Scottish music today. Whatever happens this week, that’s unlikely to change.