Irish film-maker Niall McCann has made a documentary on the Scottish label that gave us such indie heroes as Alex Kapranos and Arab Strap, writes Don O’Mahony.
Niall McCann reckons there’s one thing linking the subjects of his documentaries.
“All the people in my films know they can’t win, necessarily, in a happy ending sort of way, but by persevering and recognising the fact that’s the system that they’re stuck in, they might be able to win.”
The Irish film-maker has made three documentaries. The first, Art Will Save the World was a playful portrait of the acerbic Luke Haines, main man of The Auteurs and Black Box Recorder. The second, Exile’s Home on the Bronx, documented the struggles of the Irish in New York and the importance of the GAA to them. His latest, Lost in France, follows various members of Scottish indie rock royalty as they return, almost 20 years later, to the site of a fabled gig in rural Brittany.
The film focuses on acts associated with Chemikal Underground Records, the cult Glasgow label that has been a beacon of independent music since 1994.
It features Stuart Braithwaite of instrumental noiseniks Mogwai, solo artist RM Hubbert, and Emma Pollock and Paul Savage of The Delgados, accompanied by Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos, who made that 1997 trip as a member of The Kerelia.
The voluble McCann is a passionate music fan, but Lost in France is about more than music and touches on themes such as friendship, memory and, as already mentioned, perseverance.
As McCann explains: “Luke Haines is quite aware that he’s not going to be able to win, but he just keeps going. The guys in Chemikal Underground, they know the way the record industry is going; most musicians do, but they don’t stop. They keep going. I think that’s important.”
There are also other elements present that are personal to the filmmaker.
“It’s about sort of rethreading the past and sort of trying to make sense of my own past in a way, but also paying homage and trying to draw a bit of attention to people that I think deserve it. Sort of like payback in a way.
“I wanted to make a film that was about people that had a big effect on me when I was growing up and made it apparent to me that there was maybe different ways of doing things and maybe there was an art world out there of people who made art on their own terms that I wouldn’t have maybe come across if I hadn’t been into their music.
“Like stuff like Mogwai, Delagdos, and Arab Strap had a massive effect on me when I was growing up. Sometimes, when you’re a teenager and all that, it can be quite difficult and you can feel a bit lost or a bit alone; a lot of teenagers do.
“It’s always really important if you can find something that makes you feel less alone. All these guys had the same effect on me.”
It was through Mogwai that McCann developed a respect for their label-mates and the label itself, which he likens to the legendary Manchester label Factory.
One night in 2013, he attended a gig by Aidan Moffat, of arch miserabalists Arab Strap, and Bill Wells. Chatting to the singer, he discovered Moffat had seen Art Will Save the World. McCann suggested they make a film together and, after spending a week in Glasgow discussing the idea, he found his hook for the film when Moffat reminisced fondly about the excursion to the village of Mauron in northern France.
While neither Moffat nor his Arab Strap musical foil, Malcolm Middleton, could make the pilgrimage back to France for the film, McCann was able to focus the story on Delgados member and label boss Stewart Henderson.
“His arc, the change in his understandably quite down mood when he’s contemplating the current state of the music industry, and then his realisation in France that maybe all the things he’s achieved with the label and they’ve all achieved is reward enough in a way,” notes McCann.
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