Slowdive: The Band That Celebrates Itself Again
We spoke to Slowdive about their reunion and where it all went wrong.
The relationship between musicians and their critical counterparts is long, storied, mostly boring, and documented by both sides. In the UK in the early 90's, it was especially explosive when the echo chamber of papers like NME were deafening and reigned supreme. This worked for and against dozens of young bands but the cycle never seemed as vicious or efficient as it was when it went after "The Scene That Celebrates Itself,” an insular, London-based circle of bands like Moose, Lush, and Stereolab, who went from critical darlings to getting spurned by the music press, pretty much overnight. Perhaps no band felt this ignominy to the degree that Slowdive did.
Although shoegaze, the movement they'd been thrust into, was already going strong, the combined influences of the lead songwriters, Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead, made for a sound embedded in pop music as much as it was in spite of it. Signing suddenly to seminal UK label Creation Records while all of its members were still in their teens, Slowdive was suddenly given chapel to their sermon. After adoration from the press for their early collection of EPs and first two LPs (Just for a Day and Souvlaki) the discourse began to shift once bands like Nirvana and Oasis began crafting more appealing stories for writers to tell. Suddenly, the UK music press hated Slowdive.
None of the members seem very clear on what inspired the sudden shift. "We didn't really realize that that world was like that, really," says Halstead. "We got signed, we put the first record out and we thought, 'Oh this is nice. we'll get good reviews, everyone loves us,’ and then it was kind of a turn, and it was a shock for us. Then it was, 'What the fuck just happened?'"
There are a dozen of possibilities as to why British music writers turned their backs on a scene they'd created. It's possible the ego and god complex behind being responsible for a movement's visibility makes tearing it down as fun as it was building it up. It could have been that the genre suffered under the weight of the mystery inherent to the music, making it impossible to live up to the hype live. The one sure thing is that regardless of the reason, it was a game of perception and none of the rules were fair. One of the most ironic moments I came across in the search for the exact moment when the British music press decided to flip their switch on shoegaze was from a June issue of NME in 1991. In an interview with Slowdive, Tim Jarvis wrote, "Their worst fear is that we'll all change our minds and next year they'll be stacking shelves, grilling frogs legs, and Wimpeying their lives away again. I hope not. We shall see."
Halstead recalled in detail, an exchange between guitarist Christian Savill and an unnamed journalist. "Christian was talking to someone when we were playing Reading Festival. I think our first album had just gone out for review and one of the Melody Maker journalists, I'm not gonna say his name, but he came up to Christian and said, 'I heard your new album. We're going to give it an awful review. You'll be back stage help this time next year.' And he just walked off! We were kind of just like 'fuck'."
"Looking back to 20 years ago there was a lot of pressure." Rachel Goswell says. "We got signed at such a young age. We ran the treadmill of release a record, do a tour, get slated by the press, release a record." She pauses before continuing, "Then finance your own tour because your label's dropping you. It was tough going, really."
Given the trend of bad luck and worse reviews it'd be safe to bet on expecting the band to withdrawal from public view but Halstead seemed to find a silver lining. "So yeah, it was weird and it did affect us in a negative way which was a shame, but I suppose it just made me aware that you have to make the records for yourself."
"From that point we kind of just got on with it I think. We toured, we put out Souvlaki. But at that point we began to realize we were never really going to get good reviews so we said 'fuck it' and put the records out."
Unfortunately, that positive mentality would eventually play a big part in the band's unraveling. After delivering Pymalion, their sparse, atmospheric, and misunderstood third record, to their label Creation, owner Alan McGhee was upset by its direction and dropped the band from the label's roster merely three weeks later.
"I genuinely believe McGhee liked the band along with the rest of the label." Halstead says. "But when we gave them Pygmalion they were like, 'We don't know what to do with this'. That wasn't on their radar. Though it wasn't on anyone's at the time. It was a weird record. Sort of Post-Rock before Post-Rock was a term."
"I suppose nowadays it's different but back then you didn't have the connection with your audience like you do now. Facebook and social media and everything else. You didn't have that and we just didn't think there was a lot of love for the band."
There were plenty of bands that experienced the press's bitterness besides Slowdive. The shift in conversation proved to be the death knell for multiple bands. Ride and Lush abruptly tried their hands at Britpop on their final records before both disbanding after still unfavorable reviews. "At the time I think we got more stink because were from a certain part of England." Halstead says. "But it wasn't just us, you know. It was towards a bunch of bands. Bands that we'd grown up with like Chapterhouse, Ride. We were deemed middle class and that wasn't very cool. And you know, I suppose we were but they were still writing about young, middle class American bands. Basically the entire Grunge scene."
While Shoegaze was focused on harmonies and breathy vocals without singularity, Grunge, in comparison, was direct and instantly emotional. The bands were perceived as working class and carried with them an edgier aesthetic resembling punk's more than anything else in the mainstream. The angrier you were, the more rebellious, the larger the audience. This seems like the best possible explanation for the faltering support for Shoegaze, but it still has plenty of holes.
It’s more likely that grunge and shoegaze had been placed in an international dog fight, unwilling opponents pitted against each other by a press corps with something to gain. The heavyweight bought coming when both Nirvana's Nevermind and My Bloody Valentine's Loveless were released in the same year. While both celebrated albums, it's clear who went home wearing the belt. (Hint: it was the band with the naked baby on the cover).
Honestly, maybe shoegaze just fizzled out. The scene that celebrated itself was basically a bunch of teenagers hiding in their bedrooms fucking with guitar pedals because they were too scared to talk to girls. It was introverted, nervous music, and that probably doomed it from the start. “I think for all of us, we'd just felt that we'd done as much as we could at that point. We were all 23 or 24 and it was like, 'Ok it's time to do something else'. We had been doing Slowdive pretty much nonstop for like 6 years. So yeah, I think the breakup allowed us to get on with our lives." Rachel says, "By the time Slowdive fizzled out, we really did fizzle out. We were all pissed off with it."
In the past few years, the majority of band reunions have been desperate cash-grabs by desperate artists hurtling silently towards irrelevance. I.E., they suck. But with renewed interest in the shoegaze scene due to bands such as Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Whirr, and Nothing (not to mention My Bloody Valentine releasing mbv) many of shoegaze’s original guard has found reason to reunite. Halstead's recollection of the bands him and his friends saw as teenagers in Reading almost reads like a playlist of recently-reunited bands who've found far more success in the present than the days when they had to celebrate themselves.
"I would say it's actually been quite an emotional week." Goswell says on the days following their recent announcement. "The passion is definitely still there within the band, and there's a lot of excitement in there as well. Really there's more energy now, and the angst is gone." The most exciting thing about Slowdive finding their way back into the same room after two decades is that the inspiration behind the reformation seems to be interest in writing new music, finishing something left hanging in the breeze over twenty years ago.
"I imagine that people will want to hear Slowdive. Hopefully it will be recognizable but I really don't know." Halstead doesn't offer much in his expectations for what their future output might involve. "I think we've been surprised at the reaction so far, and being billed so high on some of the festivals. So it's made us realize that it's time to up our game a bit. Initially it was just, 'Let's make a record, play a few gigs here and there, and not make a big deal about it' but obviously things have changed a bit in that respect."
It's obvious the band is as excited to see what happens next as the fans. Both Halstead and Goswell talked about it taking multiple rehearsals to remember rig set-ups, song lyrics, and even where they last left their amps. Halstead even claims he had to reference a GuitarGeek page dedicated to his original pedal layout. Though all of the members have been making music since the breakup, none of it could be considered derivative of their formal influences.
The general consensus shared by the band is one of, "Why not?" Unlike many of the recently repackaged acts from their day, all of Slowdive have experienced long and successful careers outside of the band with their own music. While so many are grasping desperately for another shot at success years past their prime, it's fitting that Slowdive just wanted another shot at getting everyone back into the same room.
Lukas Hodge is a writer, photographer, and videographer living in Brooklyn. He's on Twitter - @lukashodge
Like shoegaze? Cool! Us too. Here's an interview with the band Nothing, who will shoegaze your dick off. Or, here's Alcest's new song "Shelter Delivrance," which is sorta shoegaze-y, sorta metal-y. And then we reviewed the new My Bloody Valentine album without actually listening to it.