How a festival in Brittany turned Glasgow's 90s music scene into an indie powerhouse
Rise of Glasgow's DIY music scene captured in a new doc, Lost in France, which revisits a defining trip to the French countryside by some of its key players
'To be honest, both as a label and as a band, we never really saw Brittany as being this great, seminal coalescing of the Glasgow music scene,' says Stewart Henderson, one of the heads of Glasgow's long-serving and much-loved Chemikal Underground label, together with his fellow ex-members of the Delgados. Yet the label, the band and a swathe of their contemporaries from Glasgow's fertile mid to late-90s music scene have found their existence celebrated not with a concert documentary film set in their home city, but one which returns the core group of performers to the rural French countryside, and the village of Mauron which they chartered a coach to back in 1997 for a very different music festival.
'It was Niall McCann who saw the potential of looking back to that trip and using it as a reference point for where we are now,' says Henderson, referring to the Irish director of Lost in France, which arrives at Glasgow Film Festival a week ahead of general release. Previously known for 2012's Art Will Save the World, a documentary on the life of pop auteur Luke Haines, McCann has fused new footage from a contemporary concert in Brittany with archive material and interviews to tell the story of a period which birthed Mogwai, Arab Strap, the Delgados and Bis, as well as creating founding experiences for artists like Alex Kapranos, later of Franz Ferdinand.
Henderson claims to have no knowledge of how an en masse migration of Glasgow DIY music – including many of the above and less-remembered groups like Magoo, the Blisters and Kapranos' own the Karelia – ended up in France, and he doesn't put the memory loss entirely down to the amount of alcohol consumed. As he recalls, it may have had something to do with fellow Delgados Emma Pollock and Paul Savage's friendship with the festival organiser, David Sosson, who studied in Glasgow for a time, working as a chef at Pierre Victoire and regularly attended gigs at the old 13th Note.
'I'm really not comfortable with the idea of a hagiography of Chemikal,' Henderson continues. 'The last 20 years have been great, but we've fucked up along the way too, we've made mistakes and things haven't always been great. So the film works out quite well, it gives an idea of where we were and where we've all come to. There's a bittersweet element, it's realistic – it's fair to say I'm a bit downcast in it at times. We're all presented by the challenge of what new technology means for the work we do now, and I think the film is better for acknowledging that.'
RM Hubbert, the Chemikal-released solo artist and guitarist with the recently-reformed El Hombre Trajeado, stood out in the group who returned to France as a musician who hadn't been on the original trip, although he was actively involved in Glasgow's scene in the late 90s through the Kazoo Club, which he ran at the 13th Note with Kapranos. 'It was fun,' he says. 'The mayor held a reception for us, I'm pretty sure he thought I was Aidan Moffat … ' There followed a show in a tiny pub with solo sets from Hubbert, Pollock, Kapranos and Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai, and an electric show from Holy Mountain.
'As well as going back to that place, it was like going back in time,' says Hubbert. 'Alex and I played together for the first time in about 18 years, we drank a lot and remembered a lot. I like the version of the film I've seen, and I didn't expect to – nobody thinks their own story is interesting, do they? But at the time we all thought we were inventing this shit, that we'd invented a new way to do music that only we understood. We felt like revolutionaries, but that's what happens with every generation of music or art – it's powered by kids who think the establishment won't listen to them, so they do it themselves. Entirely powered by piss and bravado, of course.'
As pragmatic as Henderson is about the landscape of the music industry right now, he seemed to also enjoy the process of looking back. 'The danger is that you try to retrofit feelings or understanding that you never had at the time,' he says. 'But the perspective on it is interesting – it was the first time Arab Strap had played outside the UK, it was around the time Mogwai made Young Team, and the Delgados came back from France and changed radically, adding strings to our music. It was a crossroads where we came to realise that something pretty impressive was happening in those last few years of the 1990s in Glasgow. There was the feeling that things were falling into place and this would be quite the caper.'
Lost in France is screening at GFT as part of Glasgow Film Festival on Tue 21 & Wed 22 Feb, with a post-film concert featuring Alex Kapranos, Stuart Braithwaite, RM Hubbert, Emma Pollock and Paul Savage after the film on Tue 21.