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005 Portraits Slowdive Art School Glasgow Gaelle Beri

Redemption Songs

02 May 2017, 11:00
Words by Ed Nash
Original Photography by Gaëlle Beri

Twenty-two years on from the last record, Slowdive have made a brilliant return to a musical world that’s finally embraced them for who they are. Ed Nash speaks to the shoegaze stalwarts about their road less travelled.

Love might not always happen at first sight where music is concerned, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t happy endings as well brilliantly unexpected new chapters in musical stories. Slowdive’s story is a perfect case in point.

Musical history is strewn with artists that didn’t get their deserved plaudits until long after splitting up. One just has to look at Big Star and The Velvet Underground, neither of whom reaped the fruits of fame in their heyday. But they became key influences for countless bands that discovered the delights and inventiveness of records like Radio City and White Light/White Heat years after they were released.

Slowdive - singers and guitarists Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead, drummer Simon Scott, guitarist Christian Savill, and bassist Nick Chaplin - have a similarly redemptive story. It’s a tale that isn’t steeped in the rock and roll star cool of a Lou Reed or an Alex Chilton, rather it’s a different kind of strut, one where the music is the star.

Instead of calling it a day in their early years, Slowdive’s story sees them artistically revitalised over the two decades since their last album, the underrated Pygmalion. Slowdive are making music again, brilliantly so in fact.

Time spent in their company reveals them to be both unfailingly polite and significantly, in the way they talk about their new music, on anything but a nostalgia trip.

Over the eight songs of their fourth record Slowdive there’s a vibrancy and an urgency that makes it sound like a fully-formed debut album rather than a comeback. This isn’t how the script for reforming bands is meant to be played out, who typically either play their back catalogues live or release records that confirm the law of diminishing returns.

So warmly has Slowdive’s return been received it’s ironic that the first time around, after initially gushing reviews, the music press moved from praise to scorn in the bat of an eyelid.

“The first [demo] was really derivative, there was a My Bloody Valentine track, a Sonic Youth track, and a Primitives track. That summed us up at that point."

The backlash against them, and by default, the shoegaze movement they were part of - dubbed “the scene that celebrates itself” because of the friendships between the bands - was one that proves that as fickle as critical tides can be, they can also be reversed. The antipathy wasn’t just aimed at the music but also at the assumption that shoegaze bands were perceived to embody a manifesto of - to quote The Beatles “Good Morning, Good Morning”: “I've got nothing to say / but it's OK”.

The music press at the time would go on to fawn over artists who provided quotable soundbites - the print equivalent of clickbait - for their front covers and forgot the reason they were so excited about Slowdive in the first place, which were songs like “She Calls” and “Morningrise” from their initial clutch of EPs.

The backlash started before Slowdive’s first album Just for a Day was released. Chaplin shrugs about the first seeds of criticism that were sown in the press. “I remember our manager phoned me and said ‘Nick, we’ve had our first bad review…’ He read it to me and it wasn’t that bad, but it wasn’t great. It was one of NME or Melody Maker; it said ‘the vocals were out of tune.’” Savill jokes: “there was definitely worse to come wasn’t there?” Chaplin smiles: “oh absolutely, it was a sign of things to come.”

Slowdive signed to Creation Records when they were teenagers. For all the ups and downs that ensued they look back on that time with genuine fondness. The dream labels for guitar bands to sign with in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s were 4AD, home to Pixies and Cocteau Twins, or Creation, who had the likes of My Bloody Valentine and The House of Love on their roster.

Halstead recalls: 4AD and Creation were the really big labels when we were kids and getting into music, so getting that call from Alan McGee out of the blue was nuts for us as a young band. We loved being on Creation, they were really supportive and really good at just letting us do our thing.”

"We accept that we’re a band with a history, we’re never going to say ‘we’re not talking about it’ but that’s not what we’re trying to achieve".

Creation found itself on an upward commercial curve at end of the ‘80s. Having overseen the rise of The House of Love, who on the back of the success of their debut album for Creation signed to the major label Fontana for an eye-watering sum of money, suddenly commercial success didn’t seem like a pipedream.

However, Halstead remembers: “there just wasn’t the outlets for Slowdive, there wasn’t the issue of ‘what song are you going to do for the radio?’ because there wasn’t any radio stations that would play us other than John Peel. So you didn’t even worry about it, it was ‘let’s make great music and if people like it, they like it’. We were lucky because we signed to Creation and immediately there was this audience that was hip to what we were doing right off the bat.”

Halstead describes it as a halcyon time, recalling the balance that the co-owners, Dick Green and Alan McGee brought to the label. ”Dick Green was the one at the rudder and Alan McGee was the creative maestro. McGee’s a brilliant A&R man, just a genius and he was really good at guiding us a little bit and giving us feedback. Basically if he thought it was good he’d tell us and if he thought it was bad he’d say so.”

Not all of McGee’s advice was totally on the money. Halstead adds: “he’d come up with weird things, like the time he phoned me up and asked me to wear leather trousers. I was like ‘alright, I know there’s a Creation heritage where you have to wear leather trousers but…’”

Slowdive released their first three EPs between the end of 1990 and mid-1991 to growing acclaim but timing can be crucial in music, as they discovered with their debut album. Just for a Day hit the shelves in September 1991 at the point that Creation had three other records on the release schedule that would see Slowdive’s debut to drop under the radar.

Primal Scream’s Screamadelica was released to ecstatic acclaim three weeks after Just for a Day and went on to win the inaugural Mercury Music prize. In November two more landmark records were to follow for Creation. Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque, both a loving homage to Big Star and ‘70s rock saw them championed by Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, but in shoegaze terms, My Bloody Valentine stole the plaudits with Loveless. The cost of making their seminal record reputedly nearly bankrupted Creation, released a week before Bandwagonesque and praised as the holy grail of the genre.

Rather than begrudge Creation indulging their former label mates, Slowdive remain huge fans of My Bloody Valentine and talk about their influence on their nascent steps into songwriting.

“We all loved My Bloody Valentine,” Halstead says. “I suppose in the very early days of the band, before we signed to Creation, we were very similar to the Valentines, just not anywhere near as good. We’d have loved to have sounded exactly like them at that point. In some ways you always fall short of what you aim for, so you end up being different.”

Chaplin cites two early demos that saw Slowdive make the leap from music aficionados to discovering their own voice. “The first one was really derivative, there was a My Bloody Valentine track, a Sonic Youth track, and a Primitives track. That summed us up at that point.

“With the second one we chanced upon ‘Slowdive’ and ‘Avalyn.’Avalyn’ was like a jam, it wasn’t a sound that we’d really explored before. It was that second session where it just seemed to fall into place, where we found the Slowdive sound. It evolved from the very obvious, derivative band that we were quite naturally. We slowed it down and stopped trying to sound like the bands that we liked.”

"Grunge and Britpop just changed the whole landscape and suddenly all these bands were massive and selling shitloads and there was real money involved.”

Despite landing upon their own form of musical expression, each of the three albums they released on Creation came with a caveat. Halstead looks back on Just for a Day with a mixture of regret and resignation. “We literally went in the studio, wrote the record, recorded it and mixed it in six weeks and I think it probably shows, it’s a bit weak in terms of songwriting. It didn’t sound good. I don’t know if the record sounds good, I haven’t listened to it.”

When did he last listen to it?

“God knows, a long time ago to be honest. There’s some good songs on there but it was a weird record. We’d just put out three EPs which I think were really good but initially we didn’t put any of those tracks on it.”

When Slowdive presented Creation with the finished album they were told “to put ‘Catch the Breeze’ on it at least”. “We put that on,” Chaplin says, “but it’s not our strongest material.” Halstead adds that Blue Day, a compilation of their initial EPs released a few months later should have been the band’s first album.

Their initial set of songs for their second record, Souvlaki, which was released in May 1993, were rejected by Creation. The band went back to the drawing board to create what is now generally considered their best work.

“With Souvlaki,” Halstead explains, “we did the record and brought it in and McGee said ‘that’s a bit shit.’ Savill thinks that their first take on it was incoherent. Halstead feels the incoherence was due to his obsession with Joy Division at the time. “I think it was definitely headed in a slight goth direction, so it’s probably good that we didn’t release it.”

By the time of Pygmalion, their final release for Creation in February 1995, Slowdive experimented with ambient music despite their label asking them to write a poppier album. They were dropped by Creation a week after its release and promptly split up. Creation was in the mainstream; Oasis’s Definitely Maybe, released in August 1994, sold at a staggering rate. Two months after Slowdive had split up, Definitely Maybe gave the label its first UK number one single with "Some Might Say." Slowdive were ploughing what was at the time an unfashionable, uncommercial furrow and it was seemingly game over.

Today, however, shoegaze is no longer a derogatory term. It has aged rather wonderfully and its major players have found themselves reaching bigger audiences and writing new music.

Slowdive reformed in 2014 to play their first live shows in over 20 years, prompted by an invitation from the organisers of Primavera. They all marvel at the fact their music has endured and reached a new generation.

Goswell describes their renaissance as being both amazing and lucky. “We always wanted longevity with our music and always said that back in the day when we were asked what we wanted to happen as a band.

“To have achieved it is thanks to many people spreading the knowledge of the band, with particular nods to Morr Music for their Slowdive tribute album (Blue Skied an' Clear), Nat Cramp at Sonic Cathedral and, of course, the internet. It’s a very lovely thing for us.”

"The internet has obviously opened things up massively. I think we have a much larger audience now than we did back then, which spans generations."

They attribute their resurgence in part due to the emergence of online music platforms rather than the dominance of the printed music press. Scott says: “today listeners can decide for themselves via an online streaming site or music service if a track or an album is good or not. The UK music press isn't dominated by the NME and Melody Maker anymore.”

Goswell adds: “a lot has changed over the last two decades. Bands are no longer reliant in this country solely on press reviews for people to come out to shows and buy records. The internet has obviously opened things up massively. I think we have a much larger audience now than we did back then, which spans generations. So many young people at the shows is a wonderful thing to see, far more people are aware of Slowdive now”. She adds a point that seems to be on all of their minds: “it will be interesting to see how the new record is received generally.”

The context that Slowdive find themselves in 2017 is decidedly different to their first time around. In the early ‘90s there were three significant movements that defined the aesthetic of guitar music: grunge, Britpop and shoegaze, all of which had terrible sounding nom de plumes. Grunge was the sound of American slacker rock, built on the sonic template of Pixies and Husker Du and taken into the mainstream by Nirvana.

Its antithesis Britpop saw UK guitar bands writing crossover hits, influenced by classic artists from the Beatles to Bowie to The Smiths and created the possibility for British bands with a pop sensibility to get into the charts. Shoegaze was markedly different from the two movements that eclipsed it in commercial terms.

Halstead shrugs “we did get a lot of support from Melody Maker, NME and Sounds really early on, they gave us our career essentially but then obviously they got bored of it very quickly. Grunge and Britpop just changed the whole landscape and suddenly all these bands were massive and selling shitloads and there was real money involved.”

The aesthetic of shoegaze was mood music rather than catchy choruses. As a genre it wasn’t based on an ambition for record sales but a form of musical expression that encompassed My Bloody Valentine’s experiments in pulverising sound, Ride’s marriage of noise and beat-pop, the ethereal chimes of Lush, and of course Slowdive.

Accordingly, Halstead sees shoegaze as a very different beast to grunge and Britpop. “I think what was nice about shoegaze was that all the bands, like Chapterhouse, who we were friends with, Ride and Revolver, the bands that we were playing shows with, were all quite ambitious in terms of the music. But I don’t think they were particularly ambitious in terms of wanting to be massive bands. Or possibly they were more than we were, but everybody was interested in making interesting sounding records. It was a different period in indie music, or alternative music, you weren’t expected to sell shit loads of records.”

We talk about why shoegaze has endured despite the brickbats thrown at it previously. When we spoke to Ride amid their comeback, Andy Bell said: “if you sat me down and tried to get me to define what shoegaze is I couldn’t tell you”. But Halstead says that he loves the word now. “I think it’s brilliant, it’s this term that was obviously somewhat insulting and it’s been reclaimed by people who love the music, so I think it’s fantastic.”

He returns to the theme that its longevity and endurance is down to the fact that the genre was “ambitious music”. He says: “I think all the bands were genuinely trying to make different sounding records.” Goswell adds: “I agree with Neil, I don’t mind the word. Clearly it’s now its own genre of music, which has spawned splinter genres such as dream pop and nu gaze. I kinda get confused by what the differences are; I think someone needs to explain it to me…”

"[Shoegaze has been] reclaimed by the kids as a positive genre. It's something that has inspired young musicians to form bands over the years."

For Scott, the beauty of shoegaze is that it’s been “reclaimed by the kids as a positive genre. It's something that has inspired young musicians to form bands over the years. That's funny and amazing, as it was so derisory in the UK in the days of Britpop and grunge. The shoegaze seed has led to a lot of exciting music being released since the ’90s and has inspired some wonderful offshoots of electronic, rock, and experimental music.”

Chaplin deadpans that shoegaze “is like prog rock for people with limited musical ability.” He continues: “Rather than just bashing out a traditional song in a very traditional way [...] you want to make it sound interesting and you want to make records that sound as good as possible.” Halstead counters his bandmate: “not even as good as possible or even as just as bad as possible, we just wanted them to make them sound different.”

So how do they feel about writing new music again?

“It’s a bit weird but exciting, says Halstead. “When we did the reunion in 2014 that was really nice. It was fun and we really enjoyed being back together as a band and spending time together” but then quips “obviously we’re over that now! We were hoping to do a record a bit earlier to be honest. When we originally talked about getting back together it was ‘well let’s do a record and do some shows to get us back into the whole thing first’ but it took us from 2014 until now to get it out.

“We finished it in November but it’s taken a while for the wheels of the record label and everything. It feels exciting and slightly daunting, for me anyway”. He returns to Goswell’s earlier point: “depending on how it’s received, you want to feel relevant; you don’t want people to feel ‘oh, they’re just a heritage band, doing that shoegaze thing.’”

Slowdive isn’t the sound of a heritage band. “Don’t Know Why” is a frenetic mix of harmonies with Scott’s pulsating drums (all of the best shoegaze bands had a brilliant drummer; Ride have the mighty Loz Colbert and My Bloody Valentine have the force of nature that is Colm Ó Cíosóig), pummelling bass, and a wondrous, endlessly delayed guitar figure.

“Go Get It”, which features Halstead and Goswell alternating the lines “I want to see it / I want to feel it”, is one the most urgent compositions they’ve written, creating an almost space rock version of dub in the process.

The closing, eight minute “Falling Ashes” is the clearest break with their past and perhaps the biggest clue of where they’re headed next. It’s a sparse, piano led composition, co-written by Halsted and Scott. Scott describes it as the type of song they can write now due to the advances in technology. “Music technology has thrown out some really interesting software in recent years. We can realise our creative ideas now. It helps our workflow in the studio, something all of the band gets involved in. I loved looping and manipulating Neil's piano and voice on my laptop and processing it for ‘Falling Ashes’”.

Chaplin explains that Slowdive was recorded in fits and starts. “Neil was doing some of it down at his studio in Cornwall and then we all got together in our favourite studio The Courtyard, where we recorded pretty much all of the other albums and brought it all together.”

For Scott, being back on familiar ground carried on the momentum from their initial reunion shows. “Once we hit our stride, probably about early 2016, we got a lot done quite quickly. Going back to Courtyard was the turning point. It's important in the band’s history.”

Halstead describes it as the right choice to go back and reconnect with their younger selves. “It was instantly familiar; we all had such fond memories of that place.”

The Oxfordshire studio is owned by Radiohead’s manager Chris Hufford, who worked on Just for a Day and Pygmalion. Chaplin and Halstead speak of Hufford’s part in their story with a genuine regard, with Halstead citing him as “always a big part of the records; he’s such a nice, reassuring presence. We’d always end up going back to his studio, so it was really nice towards the end of this process, we just went back there and did two weeks and that really brought the record together.”

They mixed it with Chris Coady, who also produced Beach House, another exemplary dream pop band in whom one can find traces of shoegaze and Slowdive’s legacy. The difference this time was that they didn’t have a label breathing down their neck, which Goswell says was good for Slowdive. “We didn’t put pressure on ourselves - we had no label and no deadline, so things happened slowly and pretty naturally.”

Halstead explains that with Slowdive - as opposed to Just for a Day and Souvlaki - they spent less time in the rehearsal studio. “With the first two albums we were a touring band and you’d be writing a lot in rehearsals.” But with Slowdive the process was closer to their approach for Pygmalion.

Pygmalion was the first record where we used a computer and a lot of sampling and looping, but the first two records had pretty standard live approaches. We’d put stuff down and then take it away and play with it and rearrange things. You can work in that way now, which we couldn’t really do on the first two records. This one is a mix of both, there’s a lot of live stuff but there’s also the ability to edit stuff in the digital realm.”

We come back to the idea of being a heritage band Halstead says they want no part of it. “Well no, but obviously we’re aware that we fall into that category a little bit, but that’s not what we want to be. I just feel there are a lot of bands reforming these days and it feels like an industry unto itself.”

Chaplin has no problem with bands reforming, but sees Slowdive as doing something different. “You can’t get away from it, every week that goes by there’s somebody else, it’s across all music. We accept that we’re a band with a history, we’re never going to say ‘we’re not talking about it’ but that’s not what we’re trying to achieve, just a run on a festival circuit with a load of other old bands? We want to do something new and fresh.”

What about the argument that bands can just play their old songs, as the money a band makes now is predominantly through live shows rather than releasing new music? Chaplin says: “well if that works for them fine, but when a new song comes up in the set it’s the most exciting part, it’s something new and I like that. I want to mix things up and have new challenges. It’s lovely playing the old songs and seeing the response, but you want something new.”

“It's flattering of course and a huge surprise, after two decades away that so many people are interested in us and are now coming to our gigs.”

When Slowdive played a series of warm-up shows this April the set included a handful of new songs. But they’re now waiting until Slowdive is released to play more.

Of the current setlist Halstead explains: “there’s songs from the early EPs, not much off the first album. It’s interesting when you have a back catalogue how some songs are the ones you want to play and others you just sort of forget about.” Chaplin adds that they looked at which songs they thought stood the test of time “and obviously we had an ear on what people were saying, because that’s the other thing now, which is different to twenty-five years ago, you get a lot of opinions that you’re not necessarily asking for! You hear a lot of ‘play this, play this and play this…’ and the same songs came up time and time again, which included the likes of ‘Alison’ and ‘Catch The Breeze.’”

When asked what makes them decide to play a song from their back catalogue and whether it’s stood the test of time Chaplin says it comes down to “whether it still sounds good now and you still like how it sounds” but Savill introduces the phrase ‘the cringe test’, to much hilarity. Halstead says they attempted songs from Just for a Day “and they definitely didn’t pass ‘the cringe test’”.

Slowdive definitely passes ‘the cringe test’. Halstead sees it as a “bit like a chocolate box of Slowdive. It’s familiar and we hope it’s looking towards the future as well. There’s bits that might remind you of Pygmalion, there’s bits that might remind you more of Souvlaki I suppose, it’s hard to describe it.

“What’s interesting for me is that I’m really excited about the next step and doing another record. I think parts of this record opened up avenues for us to explore. It almost feels like the record is us getting back into our stride and being Slowdive, it has to be familiar but the next record is where organic paths will emerge.”

Self-titling the record, rather than hubris, closes a narrative arc - their first EP was called Slowdive and was named after its title track. Halstead says: “it just felt like a new start. As a Mark II, it felt as good a title as we were going to have, ‘this is us, this is where we’re at.’”

"It’s nice to be back, we never expected this.”

So where does that put Slowdive in their story? “I think it’s the same story,” Halstead says, “but I’m really excited about doing another record and just trying to push the boundaries a bit and just see where it goes, where it takes the sound next. We just feel lucky that we’re able to go and do it and do another record.”

Looking at the future and the past, one thing that was overlooked about Slowdive was that as much as they made wonderful guitar sounds, the songwriting was equally strong; a song like Souvlaki’s “Alison” was almost like a dream-pop version of The Byrds. Halstead agrees that Slowdive have always been into tunes as well as expansive arrangements.

“I think there’s two parts to Slowdive,” he says, “There’s the more soundtracky ‘Avalyn’ side and there’s the side where we just like pop music, in the sense that I thought that the Valentines were a brilliant pop band. They had brilliant songs and great harmonies. For me, as a kid, The Valentines were just brilliant, because they were like a cross between The Byrds and Sonic Youth. It was a brilliant mix of noise and melody and I think that’s what we aspired to as well and chuck in Cocteau Twins and Rachel’s more gothic tendencies. That was the mix, but we always liked good tunes.”

Scott describes their approach to the music they’re making today in the same framework. “The song is king and Neil is talented at writing melodies that are very strong. That combined with the fact we live in a world where you can access anything and everything online means people can instantly discover our music.

“It's flattering of course and a huge surprise, after two decades away that so many people are interested in us and are now coming to our gigs” after which he adds “we've been very careful not to casually put out any new music we didn't 100% believe in.”

Will it be 22 years until the next record?

Chaplin laughs: “maybe we’ll still be making them in 22 years but I’d hope there’d be some new stuff before then!” To which Savill cracks “we’ll be 70!”

We end on why Slowdive’s music has endured, that despite all the ups and downs, they’ve finally found their deserved recognition. Halstead appears moved: “it’s really lovely and that was a nice thing about putting the band back together, doing those shows and seeing those kids, a lot of them are a different generation, they’re 17, 18 years old and the same age that we were when we were writing the tunes. You’re like ‘fuck, that’s amazing.’”

Scott feels the same way, but what’s important is that the music still delivers. “It’s very exciting being back but if the album was rubbish we wouldn’t have put it out. We’re really pleased with what we’ve come up with. People have been really enjoying the new songs and that’s been the test, we don’t just want to play the old songs, we want to move on. It’s nice to be back, we never expected this.”

Slowdive is released this Friday, 5 May. Get it on iTunes, Amazon, or Spotify. They headline Field Day on 3 June and play End of The Road (31 August - 3 September). Full tour dates available on their website.

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