“The important thing is always what hits you first — the vibe or the atmosphere of a song.”
It’s always nice to see true groundbreakers get their due.
Take Slowdive, one of the pioneers of Britain’s shoegazing movement of the late-’80s and early-’90s — an exciting time when young bands were hell-bent on turning up the distortion, blaring the feedback, and distorting their vocals beyond recognition. Slowdive burned bright (and damn loud) for a few good years during that movement before succumbing to an extended hiatus.
But rather than fading away into a permanent state of Footnoteville, their influence only grew, as EDM artists and innovative post-rock bands like Beach House, Mogwai, Sigur Rós, Dive, and Beach Fossils (to name but a few) all embraced Slowdive’s shoegazing ideals. They did so by incorporating them into their own mixtures of ambient, dream-pop, post-rock sounds that are so prevalent on the scene today.
“It was a bit like getting back on a bike, and it was really enjoyable.”
“It does seem like the shoegaze sound of our music has found a place in the expression in other bands 20 years later,” Slowdive mastermind, guitarist/vocalist Neil Halstead, concurred to Digital Trends. “There’s this constant re-evaluation and reinvention of it, I suppose — and that keeps it fresh in a way for a younger audience.”
In the midst of all this, well, gazing at shoegazing anew, Slowdive recently re-emerged intact with the eight-track dreamscape template simply self-titled Slowdive (available now in multiple formats via Dead Oceans), and have turned in one of the best albums of 2017 in the process.
“When we were talking about putting the band back together, it was fun figuring out how we were going to make these sounds again — whether to go with the old equipment, upgrade, or do some mixing and matching,” Halstead continued. “I wound up using a lot more newer pedals than I thought I would originally. I guess it was a bit like getting back on a bike, and it was really enjoyable. I just plugged in the effects, turned the volume level loud, and went, ‘OK, this is how I remember it.’”
Digital Trends called Halstead at his homestead in the UK before the band got back out on the road (they’re off to Japan for two big shows next week, followed by a string of European and Australian dates in early 2018) to discuss their newfound appeal to teenage audiences, why you have to curb your digital options during the recording process, and why shoegazing is no longer a four-letter word.
Digital Trends: I have to imagine you must be very pleased at the reception you’ve gotten for the Slowdive record. It seems to have really caught on with people, considering the many millions of listens it’s already garnered in the digital and streaming arenas.
Neil Halstead: You’re always worried about how a new record is going to be received, especially how it’s going to be compared to records you’ve put out in the past. We’re all sort of pleasantly surprised that people have liked it. And it’s also been good doing the shows and seeing people responding to the new songs.
Are you seeing a cross-section of generations in your audiences?
There’s definitely been a younger audience there, which is great, and there are definitely a few people there from when we started back in the day. We did a show in London earlier this year, and I met a 16-year-old kid who introduced me to his mom. She said, “I actually saw you back in the ’90s, and I always was a fan.” But it was her son who said to her, “You absolutely have to come with me to the show!”
Why do 16-year-olds like Slowdive? What’s the secret?
Umm, I don’t know! We haven’t really figured it out, but even back in the day, it was always about atmosphere. What we’ve also noticed is we did seem to have an influence outside of the world of guitars. In 2002, Morr Music [a German IDM label] put out a compilation of electronic artists doing covers of Slowdive songs [called Blue Skied an’ Clear]. It’s so interesting to me the way that world appreciated the way we and other bands from that time used sounds.
You were pioneers in using loops, for one thing. And I see you have a credit on the new record as being in charge of “editing.”
Yeah, a lot of editing! (laughs) I did a lot of work on looping and that sort of stuff. It’s nice to be able to combine the band thing with all of those electronic elements, using tools like computers and laptops.
Back in ’94, on Pygmalion, we were using samplers, which was the first time for us. It was interesting working with that technology. It’s pretty much the same now, only it’s more powerful when you’re using it on the laptop, and you can do more with it. It doesn’t feel different from the stuff we were using then.
It’s all part of the natural evolution of your sound.
As a band, what is conscious for us is we always want things to evolve and move on. But it’s done in an almost unconscious way (laughs), because we try to keep it as organic as we can — if we can, that is, because it’s not always easy to do.
Chris Coady, who’s worked with the likes of Beach House, Grizzly Bear, and TV on the Radio, mixed the record with you. Good choice there.
Yeah, Chris was on our radar mostly because of the Beach House records [2015’s Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars]. What we did was send the track Star Roving out to a few different mixers, producers, and engineers, because we knew we needed to have someone else mix it since our skill set had been exceeded at that point, and we felt we needed someone to help us finish it.
My only problem with digital recording is the lack of limitation.
We had figured Star Roving would be the most difficult to mix, and that’s why it was the one we sent out. We figured if we could find someone to do a good job with that one, they’d be able to deal with the rest of the record. And when Chris’s mix came back, we all agreed as a band it felt like it was in the right world in terms of the sound.
We ended up going out to where Chris mixes and works in L.A. at Sunset Sound Studios, and it was great. We sorted the whole record in about two weeks. He really added a lot to the whole project.
We can all record in our basements if we want to these days, of course, but there’s still something to be said for recording in a real studio.
Obviously, we were really lucky to go there since that’s where Chris works out of, but I do firmly believe you can mix in bedrooms and basements, using headphones. It just depends where you feel the record needs to be made.
It also comes down to budgets and other limitations too — and sometimes, that’s what makes records more interesting. My only problem with digital recording is the lack of limitation.
I suppose you could still be editing this record digitally, even as we speak.
(laughs) Yeah, you can. But sometimes, you have to be quite disciplined in some ways and say, “Right — we’re not going to overdub all this here.” You’ve got to have certain rules, like we do.
You’ve said you feel recording is a document, so I like listening to these eight songs in the order you’ve presented them.
I look at it like sometimes, songs need homes along with another set of songs. Maybe we’re old-fashioned, but we all still listen to records in that way. We follow that ceremony of putting vinyl on and listening to it while you have a drink, a cup of tea, a bottle of wine, or whatever it is — and sharing it with your friends. I still like that.
I think that ritual has come back in a way, don’t you think? You have those 16-year-olds coming to your shows, and they’re the ones now getting into vinyl and hearing things they never have before. And they’re sharing them, too.
I think so. It’s all valid, isn’t it? It is encouraging that more vinyl is being sold. I think that’s great, because I do think it is a really nice medium for music.
And the whole difference between analog and digital — that’s something you really notice when you’re mixing records, and the way your ears get when you’re dealing with lots of digital information. You don’t get that kind of fatigue if you’re working off tape. Your ears aren’t dealing with the same volume of information you get digitally, with more highs and more lows — there’s just more of everything with digital.
True. On a song like Don’t Know Why, where you have that really cool snare drum sound, that level of impact is just missing on a low-grade MP3.
What is it they say — you only hear 30 percent of a record on an MP3? I’ve probably misquoted it, but you are missing a whole percentage of what’s been recorded.
Bands who don’t sell that many physical products can be absolutely massive on Spotify.
This is the kind of record where you have to put the headphones on to get all of the nuances. The track that got me was Sugar for the Pill, which I first heard playing in a record store in New Jersey, and I went and bought it right on the spot. I’ve since had it on repeat an endless number of times.
Well, that’s brilliant, and I think it’s really nice if you can get into records in that way. The important thing is always what hits you first — it’s the vibe or the atmosphere in some ways when you’re hearing it for the first time, isn’t it?
I agree. It’s also good to see Slowdive be successful in the streaming world, with many millions of listens to this record alone. Why do you think you’ve hit it so big there?
I think that’s a young audience thing, something you really see on Spotify. Bands who don’t sell that many physical products can be absolutely massive on Spotify. And the younger the audience is, the more that trend will be.
In places where you wouldn’t normally sell records, you now actually have an idea of what your audience is there, something you wouldn’t have had in the past. That’s interesting to me, because we knew there were people listening to our music in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, but we wouldn’t have known that from record sales in the past.
Now that you have access to that kind of information, would it factor into your touring schedule at all?
It might. I guess all that stuff is super-scientific now (both laugh), but that means there are fewer unknowns.
It’s nice to know the term “shoegazing” is not looked upon as a four-letter word anymore, as it kinda was a while back. It’s a positive thing people have embraced in the modern, 2017 universe.
I think it was reclaimed at some point by the people who loved that kind of music. It’s nice to see its return and see that it’s survived and come full circle, as you say. And, dare I say it, it’s a serious musical term.
Oh, I’ll agree with that, especially when you see bands like Beach House and Mogwai embracing it. But in this day and age, do you guys do an EP next, do you just put a new single out there, or what? It’s all different now.
The nice thing is, there are no rules. You can just do what you want, you know? You can literally record something and put it out that night.
It’s an interesting time. The immediacy of all that is brilliant. It’s nice to have that feeling of, yeah, you can be spontaneous. All that technology allows you to do that. I suppose it’s just figuring out what you want to do, and what works for you as a band or as an artist.