The first go-around for Reading, U.K.’s Slowdive exists in the annals of music history as a cautionary tale about how powerful the press once was at both deifying, and vilifying, young artists.
Though Slowdive ascended to praise in the ranks of rags like NME with the release of their self-titled EP in 1990, the next five years would be riddled with derision and often outright hatred as the genre “shoegaze,” which the British press themselves coined to describe bands who didn’t move about too much on stage, didn’t interact with their audience and looked introspective, was weaponized against them. But time is a funny thing.
While the “britpop” genre soon found the press typecast the “shoegazers” as boring, ineffectual and isolationist, Slowdive’s music has since transcended generations, reaching new ears and becoming something of a “band’s band” among countless chillwave and dream-pop acts, from Beach House to The xx.
Records like 1991’s Just For a Day and 1993’s Souvlaki are now considered classics of mood and form, while even 1995’s Pygmalion, largely conceived in waves of ambience and experimentation by frontman Neil Halstead with little input from the rest of the band, is a treasured entry in the canon.
One week after Pygmalion‘s release, the band broke up.
Drummer Simon Scott had already quit the band, but new drummer Ian McCutcheon, singer/guitarist Halstead and singer/guitarist Rachel Goswell started Mojave 3.
Scott went in a more ambient, electronic direction, evolving the shoegaze sounds of Slowdive with Televise, while Slowdive guitarist Christian Savill started Monster Movie. Goswell stopped touring with Mojave 3 after a viral infection called labyrinthitis left her partially deaf in 2006, with chronic tinnitus in one ear.
Slowdive got back together in 2014, teasing their reunion with the line “…here she comes” on Twitter, a nod to the Souvlaki song of the same name on a social media platform that gave them an opportunity to reach their fans directly in a way that was never possible on the first go around.
Since officially reuniting at Primavera Sound music festival in 2014, Slowdive have taken three years making sure any new music felt right, ultimately deciding to work with audio engineer Chris Coady, best known for his work with Beach House, to make Slowdive sparkle with the care and attention that these fantastic songs deserve. This was no reunion for reunion’s sake, and with Coady on deck, the sounds Slowdive taught to a younger generation have come full circle.
Next week the band release their first album in 22 years, Slowdive—eight songs that don’t live in nostalgia, but nod to the past while moving forward.
When Neil Halstead sings, “Can’t hold on to mine/Every black and white/Secret’s seeking light/In a flash of time” on first single “Star Roving,” autobiography is implied but never unpacked, or dwelled upon.
Moments like the breathless, sparse “Sugar For The Pill,” “No Longer Making Time” and the stunning ambient piano closer “Falling Ashes” reflect the intentions of composition and forethought that only flower when a band takes their time to do things right, feeding what they’ve learned from their time away back into the group. Slowdive never really got the chance to control their own narrative the first time; now that they’re back, the work on their new album is unmistakably a Slowdive creation, honoring their past glories while moving forward on their own terms.
“There wasn’t necessarily a theme, and we didn’t wanna make a clever play on words about us coming back or anything,” bassist Nick Chaplin told the Observer in our revealing conversation below. “We didn’t want a title like some bad movie sequel. We all said, why not make it eponymous? It’s a bit of a statement in of itself—we’re back, but it’s a new start. And we’re comfortable with that.”
Our conversation touched upon the making of Slowdive, what’s changed in the music economy since the ’90s, and the confidence that comes with age.
When you all first made these records, you were kids. And now you’re all parents with kids of your own. That’s got to be a bit surreal.
I know, it’s pretty crazy. We were just driving back from Reading and the kids were like, “Can we hear ‘Catch The Breeze’ on the radio?” I didn’t have it!
Neil’s said that his kids aren’t super into it.
It’s funny, in company my kids are into it. When there’s company around they’ll say, “My dad plays in a band.” But when we’re at home and there’s no one else around, they just wanna watch Paw Patrol, you know?
How did it feel going back to White House in Somerset to play together again?
It was weird. We kept in touch with Martin, the engineer down there, because Christian has another band, Monster Movie, who actually have a new record out right now. And he’s recorded the Monster Movie stuff over at the White House over the last 15 years, so we kept in touch with Martin. We didn’t even have any songs at that point, just thought it would be fun to go down there and relive the early days of the band, see if anything came of that.
It was good. There’s no creature comforts down there, and nowhere to stay. You basically just stay on the floor. So we got a cheap hotel in Weston-super-Mare, a very old seaside town in the Southwest of England. It’s kind of faded, like a lot of seaside towns, and there’s a lot of poverty there. It was kind of miserable hanging out there for a week, but it was a good experience. [Laughs]
From what I’ve read, playing these old songs again was like riding a bike or wearing an old glove—not as forced of an exercise as some reunions can be.
Yeah, getting back together and playing the old songs again was really, really easy. We surprised ourselves, I think. I spent maybe six weeks or a month before our first rehearsal just listening to the songs again on the old records, trying to remember the parts I played, so I was most prepared when we got back into the rehearsal room.
Well your bass work is the glue of the band, keeping the pulse for the ambience or shapes that form around your rhythms.
That’s it. And Simon’s a very reliable, solid drummer as well. He worked on it a little bit, because he hadn’t done rock drumming for quite a while. The music he’s done over the last 10 to 15 years is very different—electronic and samples, field recordings and stuff—so he had to dust off the old drum kit. But the two of us were pretty solid right from the start, and I think that helped everybody else work out what the hell they were supposed to be doing.
What considerations did you all have to make around modern recording technology this time around? And how did Chris Coady help with that once you all got out to California?
Well, I read somewhere this morning that we all went to Sunset Sound for the mix, but actually only Neil did. [Laughs] I would have loved to go out to Sunset Sound, but we couldn’t justify the cost of flying the five of us out. It’s a lot of money to fly out to the States nowadays. So Neil went out, and I think what we were looking for from Chris was a similar input to what we got from Ed Buller on Souvlaki.
Souvlaki was pretty much a finished record, but it didn’t have a uniform sound. It didn’t sound like an album, really—it sounded like a collection of tracks, randomly thrown together. What we wanted from Chris was some direction on the overall sound.
We knew we wanted things to sparkle a little bit more, and we didn’t wanna be lost in that shoegaze murk that you get, when you can’t distinguish one instrument from another. It became obvious it was gonna be more of a poppy record than an experimental [one], I suppose, and we just wanted something that was gonna brighten that up and give it that kind of direction. We sent “Star Roving” out to a number of different engineers, and when we got Chris’ mix back, we knew that he was the guy.
That’s a good approach for bands who aren’t sure where to go. Sort of a mixing audition?
Yeah. A lot of these guys will do what they call a “spec mix,” which they won’t necessarily charge for. We sent “Star Roving” to maybe four or five different engineers, and Chris’ was the only one that we felt really added something creative. [In addition] to using his professional skills to make it sound better, he also added some creative touches as well. Neil got on really well with it, and it was over the time of the U.S. presidential election, so it was really surreal. [Laughs]
Speaking of Souvlaki, I’d read somewhere that you and Christian fought really hard to get “When The Sun Hits” on the record, that it almost didn’t make the cut. And it’s kind of funny because it’s become one of your signature songs, but it’s also a song about something fizzling out too fast, and rushing into something. Then I think about this reunion, and how it was three years before this record came out. You guys really took your time, and that song almost sounds like an early prophecy or cautionary tale.
I’m having to think back now, and it must be true that was the case because you read it. [Laughs] We always kind of used to argue a lot about what were the stronger songs, what should go on and what should come off. Even right back to the first album, Just For A Day… we don’t really revisit that record much in our live shows right now. We play “Catch The Breeze” because that was the single, but we don’t play anything else off it.
There’s a bit of a split in the band as to whether the record had some good quality songs on it, and I always fought for the likes of “Spanish Air” and “Primal” as being good songs that we should consider playing live, but people have different tastes in the band.
The thing with “When The Sun Hits” is, I remember recording it down at Weston, down at the White House, and for the longest time it sounded like a Pixies cover. Thinking back, I think that was people’s hesitancy. We didn’t wanna have something this derivative on the record, but again, like with Chris Coady, we took all those songs to Ed Buller, who’d worked with Suede and was in The Psychedelic Furs at one point [as a teenager].
I think he’d just worked with Suede, made them this great, big, sparkly britpop band, and we wanted that sheen. He really liked that track and said, “I think we can do something with this.” He turned that around, along with “Allison” as well. “Allison” was a mess when we brought it in, and he turned it around, made it one of the stronger songs on the record. But we’re always arguing about what’s good and what isn’t.
How did you all make room for new space and new sounds you’re exploring on this record? I’m thinking of “Sugar For The Pill,” the verse on “No Longer Making Time”…
It’s funny because when we started this record we had no idea what it was gonna sound like. I think we all expected that it would be a logical progression from Pygmalion, in a way, so we weren’t expecting to go make a record that ended up with more Souvlaki touches on it.
Some of it is recording technology now, different guitar effects available now, and the fact that everyone can record different parts in their houses and send them off to each other, then get together in a studio and do it all digitally. Maybe we were thinking about individual parts a little bit more.
“We didn’t want a title like some bad movie sequel. We all said, why not make it eponymous? It’s a bit of a statement in of itself—we’re back, but it’s a new start. And we’re comfortable with that.”
Yeah, and going back to Ed Buller again, he had nothing to do with this record, but I keep talking about him [laughs]. It’s a cliche, but he’s the one who kind of showed us that less is more, and you don’t really need 20 guitar tracks on a song when you can probably get away with two or three. That’s the first thing we did when we made Souvlaki—he kind of pulled the faders down and said, “You don’t need any of those.”
We were like, “What? No, you can’t!”
Maybe we’re not so scared anymore [that we want] to hide behind those layers. Neil’s always written good songs. As well as being good with technical things, textures and stuff, his songs are always strong. And with this record we felt that the songs should come first, so the sparseness of it is kind of deliberate. Maybe it’s a reflection of our ages as well, let’s be honest. We’re all in our 40s now. Our hearing’s all shot.
Well Rachel’s is for sure. What do you think everyone brought back from the group in the down time? What did Rachel and Neil bring back from Mojave 3, what did she bring back from Minor Victories? Do you hear any of that time on this new record?
Yeah, Rachel’s singing gained a lot of confidence from Minor Victories. Rachel has a really good voice, but sometimes she hides it a way.
In Minor Victories she was very much the central point of that band, and she wrote a lot of the lyrics and the melodies for the vocals. So she wrote them to suit her range and her voice. Going out and doing those shows, making that record, made her realize she was a good singer. That’s translated, especially live now. We’re gonna be starting the North American bit in a few weeks, but it’s noticeable this year that she’s got much more confidence and projection.
But the big one has got to be Simon, to be honest. Simon’s been out doing all this ambient, field-recording stuff for the last decade.
His drumming is really spectacular on this record, just the fills and how much space he can put into a phrase.
Yeah, he’s a great natural drummer, but he’s also really interested in electronics. I always joke with him and throw in references to Steve Morris all the time.
Steve Morris, for me and a lot of people, is a benchmark for that kind of drummer. He started off playing a novel kit, but if you listen to the drumming that he’s done from Joy Division to New Order, he’s kind of a machine, really. We joke with Simon about that.
But it’s not so much the drumming he’s brought to this record, it’s more his work with samples and loops. He uses this software to process musical symbols and spit it back out the other end, it kind of sounds like garbage to me, but once it’s incorporated into the track it sounds really good. It’s this signal-processing software he uses that’s way above my head.
So he’s brought a lot of that in the group, Christina’s had his other stuff going on, and Neil’s been kind a folk singer for 20 years. You can kind of hear it when you listen to the vocal melodies and lyrics in “Slomo,” for example. It’s a song I think Neil’s been kicking around for a while that he would have written as a solo folk song. There’s a lot of imagery about Cornwall, where he lives by the sea, typical Southwestern English kind of folk topics, and it’s ended up as a Slowdive song.
There’s something to be said for having that time to let sketches of songs take new shapes. We’re in an accelerated age, and we’re more inundated with art than ever but we forget about it quicker, too. So asking people to slow down is important. It’s funny you called this record Slowdive, too, as that was also the first song on your first EP, and now we’re back again.
It’s easy for us to say that we couldn’t think of anything better, but nothing came up that really seemed appropriate. There wasn’t necessarily a theme, and we didn’t wanna make a clever play on words about us coming back or anything. We didn’t want a title like some bad movie sequel. We all said, why not make it eponymous? It’s a bit of a statement in of itself—we’re back, but it’s a new start. And we’re comfortable with that.
And you guys have outlasted the omnipresent British press machine, too. Shoegaze got dethroned by britpop as the “cool” genre, though of course we now know that you guys are way cooler than Oasis. But back then nobody considered that, and just believed what they read. I think about that too when it comes to how you guys were kind of marked for death on the first go around. Neil had this line in The Quietus about how you’re playing all the festivals that denied you spots 20 years ago.
That’s right. The experience we’ve had with the media this time around has been 99 percent completely different. Obviously, I’m far too professional to name names, but there’s been one, which was just a throwback to the ’90s. We decided not to even get involved in that particular feature, because it was stupid. It was just something we weren’t very comfortable with doing, and we were very nice about it. But there were veiled threats thrown back about how our record’s gonna get panned, and this is from a professional sort of magazine.
“We used to tour to promote a record, now we make a record to tour.”
Yeah. [Laughs] We don’t need to deal with this, we’re not scared by it, we’re not teenagers anymore. It’s obviously a totally different landscape out there in terms of media coverage right now, and it’s still obviously incredibly important, which is why we’re talking. But there are so many more outlets for people to discover music now, right? Back in the ’90s people read Melody Maker or NME in the U.K., and that was it. If they didn’t read those magazines, they didn’t know what was going on, so there was a lot more power among a very small amount of people.
The economy around music has changed a lot, too. Different channels for exposure, sure, but different hustles for bands, too, different considerations. What was the most jarring thing about the grind of touring and playing out this go around that you couldn’t have possibly prepared for?
Probably one of the most surprising things for us was, we turned up for these shows not really knowing who would turn out, and were told there’d be plenty of people out to see us. But when we did get out there we saw the mix, the age range, people wearing old shirts they must have got off Ebay or something, because they weren’t old enough to have bought them at the time. Some of them weren’t even born!
That was a real shock for us, because it showed us it went far beyond kids playing their parent’s records. There was so much footage out there on YouTube, and the Facebook page had been kept up for years and years even though it wasn’t controlled by us at the time.
We actually hijacked our Facebook page off a fan, he’d kept it going for years, and when we actually realized what we could do with the page we contacted him, and he said we could have it. All these ways for people to discover new music…it’s kind of a boring answer, but that was really surprising to see.
The fact that you guys are so excited about it makes it not boring. There’s a Rip Van Winkle thing happening, where you fall asleep under a bridge for 20 years and wake up to find the whole industry is completely different. That’s got to be exciting.
It is, and there are far more positive things about it than negative. The way that you can instantly interact with the people interacting with your music? We were totally divorced from our audience in the ’90s—the only way we’d see them was at shows, when people would come and talk to us. We used to tour to promote a record, now we make a record to tour. [Laughs]
Obviously, it’s not like that for all new bands. Bands don’t get advances anymore. When we were signed, we were given money by Creation and EMI Publishing, and it wasn’t tons, but it was enough to go out, buy some instruments, and take six months off jobs to go out and play gigs. You can’t even get that now. So it’s difficult for different levels of bands, I suppose. But for us, at our age, coming back, it’s a whole lot easier and more pleasurable now.
Will fans ever get to hear studio versions of “Silver Screen” and “Joy”?
[Laughs] I don’t like to ever say never, but we made a conscious decision to look forward and not back. For whatever reason, we didn’t think those songs were good enough or relevant enough at the time to include on records back in the ’90s, so we kind of felt that if we were to go back now and decide they’re suddenly good enough to go on the record, we were maybe cheating people a little bit.
We wanted to have a go at putting totally new material together. And we still have those tracks lying around. I do think there’s some kind of issue where we could re-record them, but not put out the versions we have knocking about, because they’re owned by Sony. Sony could quite happily put out a record of those songs without asking our permission, and maybe that’ll happen. [Laughs]