“It doesn’t seem like that long, being in the middle of it all”. Stephen McRobbie, frontman for The Pastels, is reflecting on the sixteen-year void between their last full-length effort , Illumination, and Slow Summits, the first record they’ve produced independent of collaborative input since.
“We had a lot of false starts and a lot of other things dividing our attention – the film soundtrack for The Last Great Wilderness, some theatre music we did for 12 Stars and then there was a lot of overlap with Two Sunsets, the record we did with Tenniscoats. I think if I’d have known it was going to take this long, I’d have been completely depressed. It’s just not a workable timeframe. We’re delighted with the album, though.”
It’s not really possible to allow a decade and a half to pass by and not experience major developments in your personal life; as they ease themselves back into the lifestyle that professional musicianship demands, McRobbie admits that certain adaptations were essential.”We’re all a bit older now, and we’ve all got our own family situations, so long stretches on the road aren’t really feasible any more. The touring plans we have got in place are far more sporadic; just a handful of shows here and there across the UK and Europe. It’s not that we don’t love playing; we’re definitely conscious that it’s not a good idea to leave long gaps between shows; you don’t want to be in a situation where it feels really strange when you’re back onstage.”
There was certainly no intention to leave such a gaping chasm, time-wise, between full-length releases; as McRobbie relates, that gap effectively amounted to musical procrastination, with yet another project popping up every time they thought about sitting down to make an album. As such, parts of Slow Summits have been around, in some form, for quite some time. “We did a couple of John Peel sessions around the time that Illumination and Illuminati were released back in ’97 or ’98, and ‘Secret Music’ and ‘Slow Summits’ are both from around that time. The major thing that happened in the group is that Annabel wanted to get away and focus on her artwork for a bit, and at that point it had been me, her and Katrina for a while. That sort of forced us to consider what we wanted to do. We knew we still wanted to make music but we weren’t sure how to move forward. When we got the offer to do the film soundtrack, the timing was perfect. We knew it’d mean we’d have to find another way of working, and we managed to put a new group together.”
With the group’s recent history dominated by collaborations and joint projects, you wonder if working with other outfits is the preferred mode of Pastels operation, and if Slow Summits represents something of a one-off in terms of its band-based focus. “I think we’ve got a core group of people who make up that sound – I think any combination of two or three of us could make something and it’d have a strong Pastels identity. It’s not like how sometimes, when you listen to collaborations or remixed, you can’t really hear any trace of the original artist. There’s something strong enough and identifiable enough about us in that respect. I think we mainly like working and writing as just the six of us, but sometimes the opportunities to work with other people come along and you feel like you have to seize them, like on ‘Kicking Leaves’ on the new album, where Craig Armstrong scored some strings for us.”
Indeed, Armstrong – who’s work with Baz Lurhmann on Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! earned him a slew of prestigious awards – offered his services to the band free of charge; it was an act of generosity symptomatic of the deeply-engrained kinship that exists within the Glaswegian music scene. “There’s definitely a strong bond between musicians in Glasgow. It’s traditionally a socialist city, and I think that sense of community has kind of rubbed off on bands here. There’s always been this core of maybe nine or ten bands, who stayed up here, who have this co-operative mentality – the likes of Teenage Fanclub and Mogwai. It took a long time to get there because in the eighties, almost every group from Glasgow ended up moving to London.”
“It wasn’t like in Manchester where the Factory bands were giving the city this really strong musical identity. Postcard Records was only in existence for a very brief time, and those bands like Orange Juice, The Jesus and Mary Chain and Primal Scream all moved down south. We decided to stay, but it wasn’t until younger people gradually started to come through and take over the bars, the clubs and the rehearsal spaces that this new mentality started to develop. All the good places in town were suddenly under the ownership of this new, young community, and there was something there to join in with. By the time Belle and Sebastian got started, and then later on Franz Ferdinand, there was a much stronger bond there. . There’s a mutual respect there, and a good diversity now. There’s no one discernable Glasgow sound, you know?”
If you’re making a return to recording and releasing music in 2013 after a sixteen-year absence, the primary object of your attention should surely be the Internet, which has dramatically transformed the industry in those intervening years. “I feel like the big difference now is that anything that has its own identity will find its audience. Because of the Internet, any band can be international now. You don’t have to have this gradual build up from local to national and then – if you’re lucky – being able to release music overseas. If something’s on Soundcloud, anyone in any country can listen in.
McRobbie’s own experience of music retail means that he’s no stranger to a changing musical climate where consumerism is concerned. “I think it’s led to people having more eclectic tastes than when we were young. I’m a partner in Monorail Music, and people will come in looking for a really dark house track, and then they’ll be back for a Mogwai soundtrack, and then they’re after a Big Star reissue – people are all over the place with what they’re listening to, because you can find anything on YouTube. I think the conception is that people generally aren’t buying as many records now, but I think if you look at Bowie or My Bloody Valentine – they both did great with those surprise releases and I think the power of the Internet in getting the word round had a huge part in that.”
“I don’t think we ever really think of ourselves as influential; we’d only throw words like ‘seminal’ around to poke fun at ourselves, really. We certainly don’t take anything for granted. If you’ve been playing as long as we have you’re bound to have influenced some groups, but I think that C86 tag is something I always felt weighed down by. The new record sounds nothing like anything that could be categorised under that label, really. In fact, a lot of what we were doing in the eighties didn’t really fit with that either. I mean, we were on that tape, and so were the likes of Primal Scream and The Shop Assistants. They were pretty far removed from what we were doing, so I’m not sure how relevant that tag ever was, really. I feel a kinship with those bands, for sure, but past that it’s hard to see the similarities.”
McRobbie’s own imprint, Geographic Records, provides another point of distraction for a band already facing a hectic promotional schedule – not that there’s any plans to be particularly prolific. “The Pastels are signed to Domino, so I guess Geographic exists for us to do other things really. I mean, we’ve been thinking about the possibility of Pastels reissues for a while, so that’s something that could happen through Geographic. We’ve been working with some old friends of ours, Strawberry Switchblade, and trying to licence some of their stuff so we can reissue it. I think that’s how we see the label – just something through which we can put a few odd records out, maybe one or two a year, that otherwise wouldn’t be released. Everything goes through Domino, so anything that came out would be well distributed.”
There’s an indication, too, of where The Pastels plan to go next; a similarly-lengthy gap before their next release doesn’t currently look likely. “There was far too much music for Slow Summits really; there’s quite a bit left over. I think we’d maybe want to put something together with that leftover material. It’d be nice to put an EP together for later in the year, something more autumnal and a little bit darker. There’s that, and then we’d also like to bring out a retrospective soon, something definitive. I think all we’re really aiming for is for people to be able to hear The Pastels again.”
Slow Summits will be released on 27 May through Domino.