Peloton crossing

The Delgados run a successful label and have a strange obsession with cycling. So how did they find time to produce their masterpiece?
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The Independent Culture

The Delgados' name suggests a mean and moody Latino surf instrumental ensemble from the early days of rock'n'roll. In fact, it was coined in honour of Pedro Delgado; the semi-legendary Tour de France-winning cyclist of the late Eighties, who was reinstated as the 1988 victor after initial disqualification on the grounds that the banned substance he had tested for wasn't formally on the register for another three weeks.

"The next year after he won," explains the Delgados' singer and guitarist Alun Woodward, "he missed the beginning of a stage because he was training on a side street, and gave everyone else a three-minute advantage. On paper he'd have won again, if he'd started on time."

"They'd have won if they started on time" was the sort of thing you could imagine people saying about the Delgados, before the advent of their stupendous new album The Great Eastern. For all the spiky charisma they project on stage, the estimable qualities of their first two records Domestiques and Peloton, and their well-earned number one position in John Peel's 1998 Festive Fifty, the Delgados' own endeavours seemed destined to be forever overshadowed by their collective day-job of running the frontline Glasgow indie label, Chemikal Underground. "When we went in to record The Great Eastern," Woodward remembers, "we felt we probably wouldn't have another album in us if this one didn't do as well as we thought it deserved to." Aware that the success of the label they'd started because no one else would release their records - in the process bringing the world such stellar talents as Mogwai and Arab Strap (and Bis, but nobody's perfect) - was getting in the way of their own career, the Delgados approached their third album as if it was their last. The record that resulted would seem to confirm the wisdom of approaching every one that way.

The grandness and ambition The Great Eastern exudes from every pore reflects the Delgados' determination to throw off the cares of office. "What we did," explains the band's ebullient bass player, Stewart Henderson, "was break every single rule we'd usually impose on a band that was going to record an album." Presumably there were wry smiles from fellow Chemikal Underground signings at the self-indulgence of their label bosses - working away for hours adding extra tracks on mellotron and dulcimer? "Information about that was given out very much on a need-to-know basis," says Woodward, with a twinkle. "'What the eye doesn't see, the heart won't grieve over' - I think it was Arthur Daley who said that."

As budgets spiralled, a vague awareness of being in the midst of something special began to compete with rising panic at the daunting mass of raw material they'd assembled. When the time came to put the whole thing together, the Delgados hit a wall. "We'd recorded so many instruments that it was hell trying to mix them," admits singer and guitarist Emma Pollock, the other half, with Woodward, of the band's two-pronged vanguard. "We were ready to kill each other."

In desperation they took it to Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann, whose admiration for the band was such that he broke the habit of a lifetime by agreeing to mix an album he hadn't recorded himself. The results - offsetting the melancholy timbre of Pollock and Lawrence's lyrics with an uplifting folkish swirl - recall no less a previous Fridmann production than Mercury Rev's Deserter's Songs in their grandeur and momentum.

The Delgados are a genial bunch in person, but conversations with them invariably seem to come back to the volatility of their communal interaction. "There's not a day goes by," Woodward admits ruefully, "without at least two or three of us involved in a serious argument." Pollock's engagingly combative onstage demeanour suggests that she might be at the centre of a lot of heated debates. "It would probably be perceived that way by the others," she accepts gracefully, "but I would vehemently disagree."

The path of true democracy never runs smooth. The Delgados' unique creative mechanism (not one singer writing the bulk of the material and the other one guesting, but two contrasting songwriting styles both employing male and female voices) harks back to the distinguished ancestry of Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, or Black Francis and Kim Deal in the Breeders, while being more evenly poised than either. In the futuristic dynamism of their working relationship suggest, Woodward and Pollock's can be most fruitfully characterised as the Busta Rhymes and Janet Jackson of the 21st-century folk underground.

The Delgados are refreshingly free of the inverted snobbery that has made such an unwelcome comeback throughout the indie nation as the Britpop tide has waned and Geri Halliwell and 5ive have waxed. "You can't revile plagiarism on one hand and embrace it on another," says Woodward, pointing to the limited horizons of those willing to ascribe genius to "any monkey with a reverb", so long as they come from Chicago and make records for Thrill Jockey.

"I don't like that old-fashioned indie mentality of 'If it's big then its open season' either," adds Henderson. "Of course there are terrible major labels, but people conveniently forget that there are terrible independent labels as well: it's not 'four legs good, two legs bad' - you can have two good legs just as easily as four."

Still on the subject of soundness of limb, but setting aside the Orwellian metaphors for a moment, would the Delgados mind setting us straight on the exact connotations of the cycling-related titles of their first two albums? (The Great Eastern forsakes this naming scheme to commemorate a grandiose but crumbling Glaswegian architectural landmark).

"A domestique," Woodward explains, "is a team cyclist who's there to help the leader. If the main guy fell of his bike the domestique would give up his bike and wait till the car comes for a ride home." Didn't this indicate rather limited ambitions on the part of its owners? Henderson laughs: "The other one - Peloton - is even worse: if you've got a cyclist at the front of the race, the peloton is the chasing pack."

Did they consider the nature of these titles with wry amusement at the time they allotted them? "No," Woodward admits. "The sad thing is that it's only now that it's struck us really. I suppose we should have called the new one Yellow Jersey, since that's what the leader wears."

'The Great Eastern' is out Monday. The Delgados nine-date tour begins at Roadmenders, Northampton, 4 May, and concludes at the Union Chapel, London, 13 May