Morningrise. It was 3:55am Boston time when my alarm went off, on Friday, January 31, 2014. I switched it off, and pondered for a few seconds whether this was really going to be worth it. What were the chances really? They may not have known it according to interviews, but I did – this show was going to sell out in a matter of seconds. But hey, I made the initial effort, so I have to follow through and give it a go. I got up, went downstairs, fired up the iMac, and went to the club’s ticket site. I decided I wasn’t going to panic or get tense about this on-sale, which I am known to do. Generally my mindset is I have to get the best tickets possible or it’s simply not worth it. I don’t want to just be there, I have to be RIGHT there. Usually my tension is highest during a Björk on-sale, and most of the time it pays off. Front row center in Boston for my friends wedding gift (and a gift to myself!) on the Vespertine tour, and most recently for her Biophilia tour I was so close at the Queens and Reykjavík shows that Ms Guðmundsdóttir was quite literally two inches in front of me at one moment, a proximity that can sometime lead to “the hugest of hugs” (‘Generous Palmstroke’ for you fans reading this). Thank goodness I didn’t attempt it, as breaking that trust would’ve been devastating! But here I am, now at 4am, completely relaxed, because even though this is one of my top five favorite bands who’ve made music that – on top of their brilliant tunes and sounds – have had an important emotional impact on me since the mid-90s, I know this is just NOT going to happen. First gig in 20 years, at London’s 800-capacity Village Underground, it will sell out in seconds. I’ll give it a try, but I’ve already accepted defeat, which is easy to do at 4am on a Friday. So one try. No refreshing, no freaking out, just hit “search” once, get rejected, then go back to sleep knowing I’ve saved a few thousand dollars in airfare, hotels, etc. I do have to hit refresh for about 30 seconds before the on-sale page pops up, and when it finally does I hit “Book tickets”. With a sleepy eye I just stared at the computer, for five minutes. It did that sort of endless hourglass thing, where it’s either meaning you’re shit out of luck, or your connection has basically crashed. For a brief second I thought of refreshing, and then I decided FINE – I will just once. I moved the cursor to the refresh button and hovered above it for a few seconds, and just a split second before I was to hit it, the page refreshed all on its own. And there it was – a miracle. A confirmation, that I was going to see the legendary Slowdive, at their first official reunion show, almost 20 years to the day since their final performance in Toronto. At first I was giddy after I realized I was patient for once, and it had paid off (especially when the show sold out in seconds). Then it set in a few minutes later and I got worried about the additional expenses I just committed myself too. Slowly though I realized I was going to London for the first time in many years, and seeing Slowdive. And as the old cliché goes, life really and truly is short. So screw it. It’s going to be memorable. Even then, little did I know this would turn into a year long project of pure devotion. By years end I will have been back to London for their final two reunion shows, and over the course of the year seen them nine times: London, Iceland (my favorite place in the world, and headquarters to the company I’m lucky enough to work for), Chicago, New York City, Boston, Seattle, Portland, and London again. Crazy to some, making up for lost time to me. I also didn’t know that initial ticket purchase would lead to the chance of striking up a conversation with their bassist, Mr Nick Chaplin, who on top of being an incredibly kind person, was even kinder for setting up this interview. Like my recent interview with Lush, my intentions for this were not born out of journalistic ambitions of any sort. Just a total love and appreciation for the band and their music. A tremendous amount of hugs and thanks to Nick for donating time out of his personal and work schedule to do this (and openness in talking to a complete stranger!), and to Simon Scott (drums) for donating his time and thoughts. Scheduling conflicts prevented speaking with Rachel Goswell (guitars/vocals), Neil Halstead (guitars/vocals), and Christian Savill (guitars), so the rhythm section it is! I’d also like to thank my dear friend Lesley, a fellow ‘Diver if you will, for additional question direction and inspiration. And of course thanks to the entire band, for all the great music over the years.
So here you go, my interview with Slowdive, regarding their past, present and future …
I was lucky enough to snag a ticket for the London Village Underground gig in May – your first official reunion show – and it was quite a fun, yet emotional experience I think for everyone. Nevermind the music – everyone could see it in your faces how moving it was for all of you to receive such a warm welcome after the time away. What was it like as you were about to go onstage, with the memories of how things had ended almost 20 years earlier to the day, and not knowing fully what an embrace you were going to receive?
NICK Well we’d had the warm-up arranged by Nathaniel Cramp of Sonic Cathedral the night before, so it wasn’t like were stepping out into the unknown completely. However the Village Underground was a bigger venue, and we had the added pressure / expectation of selling it out in 4 minutes or something stupid. So as a result, I think we were much more anxious that second night, than we’d been the first. The night before it was almost unreal, it was a tiny stage and most of the people in the audience were our friends! So it just felt like we’d turned up and were playing at a private party for a bit of fun. There was literally not enough room for us all on stage, so I had to go right at the front, in the middle, otherwise I was clashing guitars with Neil the whole time. That ended up being quite a stroke of luck though, as I really enjoyed being up front in the middle, and throwing a few shapes – so that’s where my stage position has been ever since. The sound wasn’t great that night – the PA was pretty small, but we still got a great reception. Mark Gardener from Ride did a solo set before us, and he was really excited at the end of the night, just with the whole vibe and how we just seemed to have slotted back in as if 20 years had never happened.
Then the next night there was definitely a more serious feeling to the whole occasion, this was the show that would be reviewed and written about, people had paid lots of money for tickets and airfares even in some cases. We couldn’t afford to mess it up. But really, although we were probably more nervous as a result, it just felt completely normal walking back on stage and playing those songs again. Sometimes we had to pinch our collective self when we realised that there were 800 people in there who had gone to extraordinary lengths to get tickets, and we could probably have sold it out three times over. The last time we played in London in 1994, I think about 200 people turned up and we couldn’t give tickets away. And then the reaction was amazing – some people were crying. We even had a crowd surfer! I don’t remember leaving the stage and what we did afterwards, I know there was a huge relief that we’d actually done it, not messed it up, and people were happy. It was like “mission accomplished” – at least before we got to Primavera Sound, which was the next mountain looming on the horizon.
What do you think it is about your second album Souvlaki that allowed it to have such a tremendous comeback as the years went on? It went from being made by a band that one musician said would always hate “more than Hitler”, to being an outright classic in many music circles. The passing of time has seemed to be generous and beneficial to the band. Why do you think this is?
NICK That’s a difficult question to answer. I think the core of it is that back when Souvlaki was released, we were already pretty much written off by the UK music press, and had turned into figures of fun even in some quarters. Everyone remembers Richey Edwards’ Hitler comment, I mean it was a good quote – and the Manics were all about good copy at the time. Their records were shit at that point, so it was all about the quotes. We didn’t mind at all, we thought it was pretty funny – but it was just an example of the kind of climate we were operating in. I think Melody Maker had their spoof column about a shoegazer called Tarquin or something as well. So when Souvlaki was released it was just sort of immediately panned. Almost by default – I’m sure the guys in the media listened to it, but they were going to be predisposed to write bad reviews anyway. And in those days, the NME and Melody Maker ruled the roost.
Now, we don’t have any of that climate. There are no NME / Melody Maker powers any more, which is absolutely A Good Thing. So people have been able to listen to what were tremendously unfashionable records like ours, and actually make up their own minds as to whether they like them or not. And of course music is so readily available everywhere now. People can download tracks from iTunes or wherever, they can listen on Spotify, or YouTube, or Soundcloud – they don’t need a journalist obsessed with breaking the next big thing to tell them what it’s ok to listen to.
Plus, I think it’s a good record. Controversially (even within the band!) I also think Just For A Day is a good record, but Souvlaki definitely is the stronger overall. It has fewer weak tracks. We set out to make something with more sparkle, something that felt more like our live shows – and I think we achieved that, mostly. We had a bit of help from Ed Buller, the producer that added the fizz and pop to Suede at the time, and he definitely gave the record a bit more stomp. The remasters should hopefully have brought that out even more.
I’m always impressed by musicians who are quite young but have this ability to show restraint in their music. The XX are a recent example of this, with their first album recorded when they were 18 and 19, which is just about the same ages you all were when Slowdive started. Most kids we all know in our lives over the years in their late teens tend to be into music that’s loud, or punk music, just anything that is more on the upbeat side. Slowdive made music that certainly had volume to it at times, but it was more a slower, hopeful, sonically overwhelming sort of melancholy. What was it about your personalities at those ages to make this quieter, restrained style of music? It showed quite a level of maturity at a young age. Was it your Thames Valley upbringing? Other music you were into?
SIMON We listen well and it is a strength of ours. As people we aren’t all that quiet or restrained…he he…but musically we knew we were generally brewing up subtle storms of sound that didn’t need too many brash dynamics. Less is more a lot of the time! I think a track like ‘Albatross’ (off the Holding Our Breath EP) is a good example of when we flexed our collaborative muscles and gave it a bit of aggression during the chorus but mainly we tried to let the songs breathe. The fact is that the song is king. We were a lot less busy than many of our contemporaries at that time…although live we’ve always beefed the sound up as it feels to us five that Slowdive live should be visceral and sonically engulfing. Eno, Nick Drake, Joy Division, Love, Slint and The Cure – we’d sit around and listen to a lot and the musical spaces in some of those bands songs are where the real power is and we could feel that structurally in their music and we tried to harness it for ourselves. It has nothing to do with all living in Reading at the time to be honest as it’s just a ordinary town in South England like many others.
Many of the original wave of shoegaze bands were, underneath all the effects, straight-forward pop bands with excellent pop tunes. Slowdive had that element to them to a certain degree, but unlike others, there is definitely a sense you are trying to get a certain feeling or mood across, tapping into the emotional potential of the “shoegaze sound” better than any band at the time or since then. I think this is why Slowdive stands out above the rest. My question – am I right about all this? :) Thoughts?
NICK Yes, you are probably right. We were a very straightforward indie band before we accidentally hit upon the song ‘Avalyn’. We had already pulled away from our roots as a jangly C86 style band, into being more influenced by Sonic Youth and Isn’t Anything-era MBV, but when we jammed out ‘Avalyn’ in our old rehearsal space and then recorded it for a demo, we were all like – “Right! This is what we’re good at!” So really there was an element of chance to it. We recorded ‘Slowdive’ during that same session – so right away we had two songs with the same melancholy feel, that were rather different to what bands who would become our contemporaries were doing at the time. It set us apart somewhat.
So since that point we approached things in a similar way. Try and get a mood – but a mood with an edge. We never wanted to be a lacklustre “dreamy” band looking all foppish and embarrassed to be playing. Anyone that knows us knows that underneath the mood and serious looks there’s a heavy metal band desperate to break out. OK so that’s not really accurate, but what I’m trying to say is that we wanted to make peoples’ jaws drop with the sound we were creating. There were lots of groups around at the time that just looked and sounded bored. We didn’t want to be like that.
However what you said in the question about pop tunes was also incredibly important. One of Neil’s great strengths as a songwriter is that he writes great pop tunes. Even on Pygmalion, which is not exactly known as a pop album, there are good pop tunes. Playing a song like ‘Blue Skied an’ Clear’ live makes you realise that! And perhaps this put altogether goes back to your previous question about why Souvlaki is so well thought of nowadays. It combines those two elements of our sound better, than maybe anything else we’ve done.
I am not a musician myself but it seems creating covers of other bands’ songs into your style of music is an interesting task, as more often than not the sound is so drastically different between the original and the eventual cover. Is the process challenging as it is exciting? Your cover choices were quite interesting (Syd Barrett’s ‘Golden Hair’) and I wonder what the inspiration behind the cover of Lee Hazelwood’s ‘Some Velvet Morning’ was specifically. Are you pondering a cover for the upcoming album?
NICK ‘Some Velvet Morning’ came about as we always loved the duet vocal style where Lee would sing a line and then Nancy would sing a line back. I’m sure there’s a technical musical term for this, but I don’t know what it is! We thought that would work well for Neil and Rachel, as a bit of a laugh to start with. But then we started learning this particular song and we all fell in love with it. It’s so dark! And the timing is weird too – where it goes to a waltz in the female part, and back to 4/4 in the male part. I think everyone loves Lee and Nancy don’t they? It just seemed a really fun thing to do at the time.
And with Syd’s version of ‘Golden Hair’ – Christian especially loved Syd at that time, and Simon was always on the lookout for him in Cambridge when he went back home. Obviously we changed that one quite a bit, we stayed more or less with the James Joyce words, but added a whole new musical section on the end. This has really evolved during the course of this year and has become our regular set-closer. It’s really great to play – people seem to be moved by it, and it allows us to really go a bit mad at the end, if we feel like it at the time.
It’s a spectacular time to be a 90s shoegaze fan, with reunions abound and a sub-genre of sorts (nu-gaze, etc.) with bands like The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, Ringo Deathstarr, and M83, etc. What gave you the itch to work around your personal and professional lives to tour again after all these years? We know how it came about with the Primavera offer, but more specifically what was that final catalyst – emotionally – that just did it for you all? Seeing old friends? Redemption of some sorts? Or just simply wanting to get out there and play music again?
NICK You’re correct, it was the conversation with Primavera Sound that started it seriously. I think that was back in July 2013. They spoke indirectly with Neil, who called Rachel (they live not too far from each other in south west England). They both agreed that perhaps this time – we’d consider it. Previously it had just never been the right time for the two of them, and so any discussions had stalled immediately. Neil used to get asked a lot – which was probably quite frustrating for him when he was trying to get on with being Neil Halstead. So Rachel got in touch with Christian and I, who were still back in Reading – and we agreed to meet up with them in London to talk about it. To be honest I don’t think even at that point did we seriously think it would happen. Also – we needed to sit round a table in a pub and see if we still liked each other. So that happened – luckily we did appear to all still get on, in fact it’s a cliché, but it really did seem like we had been playing music together the week before. The only difference was Neil’s beard, and the fact that he appeared to have gained a laugh that sounded like Muttley from Wacky Races. It was then a question of getting in touch with Simon – he had left the band before it actually broke up, and although we never really fell out, the atmosphere with the five of us at the time was a bit strained. So that could have been tricky, but luckily Simon was super excited to be part of it all, and jumped at the chance to come back into the fold. No disrespect to Ian McCutcheon (who replaced Simon originally), but we felt the “classic” lineup included Simon, and so that should be the lineup that reformed.
But back to your actual question. It wasn’t so much one particular emotional catalyst. Nobody wanted to prove a point to the doubters! It was just the right time. And by that I mean the right time in our personal lives. People have said “oh you did it before Ride could do it”, or “you’re just riding on MBV’s coat tails again”, but really neither were true. We did see that Chapterhouse didn’t have the best time when they played shows a few years before, and yes we were mindful of that. So of course we looked around at what others were doing – Loop for example were putting shows together at that very moment. But we realised straightaway that we did all still have fun together, all the old piss-takes and little dynamics came straight back out again. It was then just a question of whether we could still play the songs, and if we could make it work financially. And that final part IS important – we took some stick around our decision to play festivals, some people accused us just being in it for the $$. But in reality we simply couldn’t afford to sit in the back of a van and traipse around the UK or the USA playing tiny shows and coming back with a loss. We’re all in our 40s! We have young families. That wasn’t an option. So that definitely played a part – Primavera kicked us back into the spotlight, and we are extremely grateful to them for taking the risk!
Shoegaze left an indelible mark and impression on rock & roll which is seen in every facet of music today, but looking back it was a relatively brief moment that disappeared as quickly as it had arrived, from the late 80s into the early 90s. Based on your experiences of those highs & lows, now that most of you have children of your own, would you encourage them strongly one way or another if they became interested and wanted to pursue music as a career?
SIMON Yeah it’s incredible to think that this ‘shoegaze’ genre has continued to be name-checked. At the time we suddenly found ourselves lumped in with a few other groups who’d all bought Cocteau Twins and Loop records but we never knew that over time we’d leave a mark on people’s musical tastes. It’s odd as the music press decided very quickly that it was a derisory musical genre. I don’t think those experiences should be taken too seriously as you should follow your own creative path, be it music or film or whatever, and didn’t and don’t pay too much attention to other people’s views. If our children formed bands I doubt we’d preach to them that they should follow or what listeners, either friends or a label or the music press, tell them to do. Those that follow that advice find the train falls off the track very quickly.
What are your hopes going into the process of recording a new album? Not just musically, but perhaps in how it helps you connect with new fans and reconnect with old fans. I ask as I get the impression a large part of what is driving this reunion is the enthusiasm you’ve been receiving – quite literally all over the world – so does that factor into the feeling going into the studio? Any chance of recording a few of the old unreleased songs such as ‘Hide Yer Eyes’, ‘Silver Screen’, ‘I Saw the Sun’, ‘Colours in Spin’, etc.? That would be kind of a holy grail for the long-time Slowdive fans.
SIMON We want to make a brilliant new record that we are proud to release. The old songs that were unreleased won’t be rehashed for a new record as we want it to be fresh and full of the vitality that is inspiring each of us right now. We’ve not started recording yet but it will have to be damn fine to get released and that is where we are at (on the eve of our 2014 North American tour). It would be great to reach out to old fans, to get their reward for waiting patiently for over two decades for a new record, but to also connect with a new audience of course. But we won’t know what the future holds apart from the fact that we want to make a great record again. The enthusiasm for our reformation is overwhelming and inspiring but to be honest we can only focus on writing and recording something brilliant, brand new and very special now.
One last question, about the current North American tour. A close friend of mine had a child just before the reunion began, but if the timing was different, being as big a fan as I am (having multiple songs from ‘Souvlaki’ right there in her delivery labor mix sorta big), she would have been there right along with me in London, Iceland, and Chicago. So, my friend and I waited with baited breath for the announcement of the North American tour and low and behold Seattle was in the mix, allowing her to go to at least one show. So, what made you pick the cities you did, and surprisingly, as many as you did? Was it our collective psychic energy?
NICK Yes, that’s exactly what it was. Collective psychic shoegaze energy. :) No, I’m afraid it was a lot duller than that. We are restricted to the amount of time we can actually spend on tour, as we all have young families, some of us are single parents – and childcare and family responsibilities dictate that even if we wanted to, we couldn’t spend 6 months playing every town and city in the USA and Canada that expressed an interest in the band. So we had to keep it very much to the “big” cities – and places that we’d had good reactions in previously. Yes, we missed some places we really should have visited – I’m thinking places like Austin TX, Atlanta GA – we did try to play at least a couple of shows in the south but it just didn’t come off. So really we just had to cherry pick – and we are overwhelmed with the response, to be honest. Having a band like Low on the bill obviously helps enormously, but even so – selling out places like Terminal 5 in New York, The Warfield in San Francisco and TWO nights at the Ace Theatre in LA … we’d never have expected that. Hopefully we can return and fill the gaps that we missed next time. We certainly don’t intend this to be the last time Slowdive play on the North American continent.
Autumn 2014 tour dates:
10.22 | Washington DC 9:30 Club
10.23 | Philadelphia Union Transfer
10.25 | New York City Terminal 5
10.26 | Boston Royale
10.27 | Montreal Le National
10.28 | Toronto The Danforth Music Hall
10.29 | Detroit The Majestic Theatre
10.30 | Chicago The Vic
10.31 | Minneapolis Fine Line Music Cafe
11.03 | Vancouver Commodore Ballroom
11.04 | Seattle The Neptune Theatre
11.05 | Portland Crystal Ballroom
11.07 | San Francisco The Warfield
11.08 | Los Angeles The Theatre at Ace Hotel
11.09 | Los Angeles The Theatre at Ace Hotel
12.19 | London The Forum
12.20 | London The Forum
Top portrait courtesy of Tom Spray. Live photos by me in Keflavík, Iceland and London, UK.