IN APRIL 1997, Scottish rock groups Mogwai, The Delgados, Arab Strap and Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos bundled into a coach, then onto a ferry, and travelled to a music festival in France. According to legend, their trip to Mauron, Brittany, was characterised by cider excess, customs wrangles, brawls with journalists, a casual disdain for passports, pornography journals and a possible man overboard. And that, until recently, was that.
There was little documentation of their fateful Gallic rock 'n' roll jaunt, which starred the aforementioned artists among myriad other Glasgow pop characters – not least because the internet was yet to dominate, archive, and remember, everything. But their adventure caught the imagination of an Irish film director, Niall McCann, who convinced several of its key protagonists to retrace their steps to Mauron, almost 20 years on. And then he made a film.
Lost in France is a lovely, funny, poignant, unflinching exploration of memory, friendship, distance, resilience, youth, and the bonds that are forged through music. It's also a love letter to Glasgow's mid-late 90s grassroots music scene, which gave rise to the Chemikal Underground label and the 13th Note's Kazoo Club (helmed by Kapranos and RM Hubbert), among countless colourful DIY pursuits.
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For Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos, who made the original trip to Mauron with his then-band The Karelia, returning to France took him back in time. “My memories had been pretty murky, until they were stirred up by Niall and his joyously preposterous idea to make this film and the [return] trip over there,” he says. “When we stepped off the minibus in Mauron, it all cleared. Not just memories of the original trip, but everything that surrounded it back in Glasgow at the time. The anarchic behaviour, reckless optimism and shocking talent of some of my friends. I'm appalled by nostalgia, but Niall deftly avoided any mawkishness. And it was good to reflect. To understand what happened. To appreciate those who made it happen. To have a good laugh at what a wee p**** you could be back then.”
Chemikal Underground was launched by The Delgados in 1995, and has revolutionised Scottish independent music, releasing groundbreaking records by Mogwai, Arab Strap, Bis and RM Hubbert, among many others. But its bosses were far from convinced that their tale was worthy of a film. “Our first reaction was, 'What a stupid idea,'” Chemikal co-founder Emma Pollock says with a laugh. “There's no record of that time, there's no documentation, there's nothing but anecdote and hazy memories that are very difficult to put across on screen. We thought – 'How on earth can you tell the story of a label? How can you turn the mechanics of putting out records into a documentary?' But, of course, that's doing the whole process of film-making a complete disservice, because the point of a brilliant director is to take what would seem to be the banal and turn it into the crucial, vital, story of something. Thankfully Paul [Savage, Chemikal co-founder, who also stars] saw the bigger picture and convinced us. Niall's done a wonderful job.
“It could have been a music documentary with talking heads – there's plenty of them about,” continues Pollock. “But the great thing about Lost in France is that there's actually some proper filming going on.
There's a narrative created for the film, which reveals the characters involved, albeit almost 18 years later. You still get to know the people a little bit, and you get to understand the past through their talking about it in the present. The audience, and us, are all discovering what we did back then, at the same time. There's a really lovely parallel going on. We're all looking back together.”
McCann's formative years in Ireland also played to the tune of Chemikal Underground. “When I was growing up, Britpop was all the rage, but in Scotland, especially in Glasgow, there seemed to be this completely different thing going on – all this great music which seemed to be more influenced by American hardcore, and bands like Smog that I really liked. Mogwai and Arab Strap were a massive thing to me.”
The director's initial contact with the label came via Arab Strap's Aidan Moffat. “I introduced myself to Aidan after a gig in Dublin, and we kept in touch,” McCann recalls. “Initially, it looked like he was going to be the main character, but Aidan was making a film with Paul Fegan [Where You're Meant To Be], so logistically, it couldn't work.
That was interesting, though, because it forced me to refocus, and in refocusing I realised that [Chemikal co-founder] Stewart Henderson was actually the main person in the story. In many ways, the narrative arc that he goes through in the film is what I was banking on.
“The first time I met Stewart, he was with Stuart Braithwaite from Mogwai and RM Hubbert [who also both feature in the film] – he was very self-deprecating, and not too positive about what Chemikal has achieved,” McCann explains. “And that's obviously been brought about by what's happening in the wider music industry. But the whole idea I suppose, in a way, was based on my hope, and my belief, that if I brought Stewart and his friends over to Mauron – gave him some distance between himself and Glasgow, and allowed him time to reflect on what they'd all achieved – then maybe he'd be a bit more proud of what they've done,” he says. “And I think you can see that at the end of the film. I mean, Stewart's never going to [launch into] Singin' In The Rain. It's not a Hollywood happy ending. But it's an ending where people keep going, and can maybe look back and go – 'Well, we did a lot of great things.'”
And they had adventures. The film, says Pollock, underscores how much the music industry has changed in the past 20 years, and how it much has diminished such freewheeling opportunities for artists. “The industry was much more buoyant, and music travelled physically as well as digitally back then,” she says. “One of the greatest losses with the arrival of the internet is the lack of physical transit of bands and their music, from country to country. The idea that all these fledgling bands jumped on this bus and ferry to another country, in an absolute state of complete abandonment – it's amazing. I've always said that touring is like a frontal lobotomy,” she laughs. “It's just the most welcome abandonment and giving of yourself to an experience, and that's what that trip was for everybody. It was a magical mystery tour of our own.”
The aftershocks resonate to this day. The 13th Note evolved into Glasgow counter-cultural hubs Stereo and Mono (and record shop Monorail), bands like Sacred Paws (signed to Mogwai's Rock Action label) fly the flag for inventive, outward-looking sounds. Kapranos cites Glasgow's mid-late 90s DIY uprising as being “essential” to setting the scene for Franz Ferdinand, too, and for attracting his fellow band members to the city.
More than anything, Kapranos says, Lost in France is a celebration of camaraderie. “I love how human it all is,” he reflects. “The people are the story. That scene was totally about hanging out with your friends. And the music of course. There are many cities around the world that produce great music, but there's nowhere quite like Glasgow.
"I would say that though, wouldn't I?”
Lost in France screens at Glasgow Film Festival on February 21. As part of the event (which is being simulcast live to cinemas across the UK), The Maurons – aka Alex Kapranos, Emma Pollock, Stuart Braithwaite, Paul Savage and RM Hubbert – will perform live together in a one-off concert. The film opens nationally on February 24.